Anglo-Saxon England (10th-11th century)

Athelstan “the Glorious” fought a great battle at Brunanburh in 937 CE. It was such an important battle that the writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary annal, was moved to compose a poem rather than just a simple record of events. It begins:

“Her Aethelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,

beorna beag-giefa, and his brothor eac,

Eadmund aetheling, ealdor-langetir

geslogon aet saecce sweorda ecgum

ymbe Brunanburh.”

“In this year, King Athelstan, lord of earls,
ring-giver of warriors, and his brother as well,
Eadmund atheling [prince] achieved everlasting glory
in battle, with the edges of swords
near Brunanburh.”

(Trans. Copyright © 2021 Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey)

The poem describes the battle between an army of Wessex and Mercia against the Vikings of the Kingdom of York with their allies from Dublin, Strathclyde, the Scots and the Welsh, and took an historic victory. Afterwards, he styled himself as “King of All Britain” on his coinage and.

York and Bernicia did not accept their fate entirely quietly and it wasn’t until 954 CE that Eadwig (r. 955-959 CE) was able to take York back under English control.

Edgar “Pacificus” (or Peacemaker) was king of Northumbria and Mercia during his brother Eadwig’s reign (957-959 CE) and then succeeded to the full kingdom of England on Eadwig’s death, ruling until 975 CE. Rather unusually Edgar had a spectacular consecration of his kingship in 973 CE, when he was crowned as “King of England” – the first time the title was used. Before then Athelstan and his successors had been called (among other titles) simply King of the English.

Edgar’s coronation was significant for a number of reasons. He used a new Coronation Oath, which is still broadly the one used by Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 at her coronation; he also was crowned alongside his wife, who was the first anointed Queen of England. The event took place at the Roman city of Bath, rather than the more traditional Kingston-on-Thames. The Edgar went to Chester where a number of client kings rowed him along the river Dee while he sat and guided the boat from the tiller.

Even at this stage, the nation of England was not inevitable. Edgar’s son Athelred “Unrede” (the Ill-advised) was the longest serving of English monarchs, reigning from 1078-1013 and again from 1014-1016 after a period of exile caused by the invasion of Swein Forkbeard. When Swein died a few weeks after his victory, Athelred was asked back by his counsellors. Swein’s son Cnut continued to fight for the throne, and eventually in 1016 after Athelred’s death and a number of battles between his son, Edmund “Ironside”, and Cnut the country was again split into two territories.  Edmund died in November 1016 and Cnut then merged England back into a single nation, which it remained.

After Cnut’s two sons both died without heirs, the throne reverted to Wessex in the person of Edward the Confessor, who ruled 1042-5th January 1066. Again, there followed a succession crisis, and although the Witan (Counsellors) chose Harold Godwinson as King, his reign was tragically short-lived. He was crowned on 6th January 1066, the day after Edward’s death, and died on 14th October in the same year at Senlac Hill fighting William of Normandy. He had already defeated Harald Hardrada of Norway at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire on 25th September.