How was the kingdom of England formed?
- Article written by: Alison Hudson
The kingdom of England – with roughly the same borders as exist today – originated in the 10th century. It was created when the West Saxon kings extended their power over southern Britain.
The rise of the West Saxons
The rise of the West Saxons began in the first half of the ninth century. The balance of power within Britain had shifted constantly due to tensions between rival kingdoms, as well as the arrival of hostile forces from Scandinavia.
Viking raids were first documented in the 790s, but in the middle of the ninth century records of their attacks became more frequent, and larger Viking armies began to spend the winter in England to extend the fighting season.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that a ‘great heathen army’ arrived in 865 and conquered East Anglia (in 869–70), Mercia (in 873–74) and Northumbria (in 874–75). The Vikings then started to settle Northumbria (876), part of Mercia (877) and East Anglia (879–80). They also raided deep into Wessex, but in May 878 Viking forces were defeated by King Alfred the Great (reigned 871–899) at the Battle of Edington in Wiltshire. The defeated army eventually settled in East Anglia.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript C
The manuscript breaks off in the middle of the events of 1066, as if a process of composition or copying had been interrupted (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B I f. 154v)View images from this item (2)
King Alfred’s victory at Edington, combined with a political vacuum left in Mercia after the death of King Ceolwulf in 879, gave Alfred his opportunity to establish a new political order. Instead of a king, Mercia now had an ealdorman, or leading nobleman, who acted on Alfred’s behalf.
Part of what had been the kingdom of Mercia was ceded to the Scandinavians. Alfred agreed a treaty with Guthrum, the Viking leader, which recognised the legal and territorial rights of the Danes and English on either side of a line that bisected Mercia. In charters of the 880s and 890s, Alfred began to be described as king ‘of the Angles and Saxons’ and even ‘of the Anglo-Saxons’.
Treaty between Alfred and Guthrum
The opening lines of the treaty (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 383, f. 57r).View images from this item (1)
Asser's Life of King Alfred
In the first line of Asser’s Life of King Alfred, he described Alfred as ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’ (‘Alfred Anglorum Saxonum rex’) (British Library, Cotton MS Otho A XII, f. 1r)View images from this item (6)
King Alfred’s children
Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924), became king of the West Saxons on Alfred’s death. Meanwhile, Alfred’s daughter, Æthelflæd, became the ruler of the Mercians in her own right after the death of her husband, Æthelred, in 911.
Edward and Æthelflæd both fought against the Scandinavian and Welsh rulers and extended their own territories. Æthelflæd expanded her power as far north as York, and she received the allegiance of the people of York shortly before her death, according to one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (manuscript B) that may have been composed at or for her court.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript B
An account of Æthelflaed’s victories from a 10th-century manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30v)View images from this item (5)
The first king of England
It was Edward’s son, Æthelstan, who first controlled the whole area that would form the kingdom of England. Æthelstan’s sister had married Sihtric, the Viking ruler of the Northumbrians. When Sihtric died in 927, Æthelstan succeeded to that kingdom.
Æthelstan’s coins and charters began to describe him as ‘king of the English’. His ambitions did not end there, since his charters also began to describe him as ‘king of Britain’ and ‘emperor.’
Charter of King Æthelstan
Charter of King Æthelstan for Wulfgar, his thegn (British Library, Cotton Ch VIII 16, f. 1r)View images from this item (1)
In 937, Æthelstan and his brother Edmund defeated a combined force of the kings of Dublin, Scots, Strathclyde and others at a place called Brunanburh. His victory was celebrated in a dramatic Old English poem that was copied into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (manuscript C):
King Æthelstan, lord of nobles, dispenser of treasure to men, and his brother also, Prince Edmund, won by the sword’s edge undying glory in battle ’round Brunanburh. [They] clove the shield-wall, hewed the linden-wood shields with hammered swords… the people of the Scots and the pirates fell doomed. The field grew dark with the blood of men…
Never yet in this island before this, by what books tell us and our ancient sages, was a greater slaughter of a host made by the edge of the sword, since the Angles and Saxons came hither form the East, invading Britain over the broad seas, and the proud assailants, warriors eager for glory, overcame the Britons and won a country.
Adapted from 'The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation', translated by D. Whitelock and others (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), pp. 69–70.
Æthelstan secured his power by a combination of military power, gifts and diplomacy. He is notable for his practice of giving books (especially finely decorated gospel-books) to religious houses, including the powerful Community of St Cuthbert in the North. The West Saxon dynasty’s rule could only be maintained if the northerners perceived it to be in their own interest. Æthelstan also exercised authority at assemblies held across his kingdom, at which he issued laws and charters.
Lives of St Cuthbert
This copy of Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert includes the earliest surviving, painted portrait of a king of England – King Æthelstan (reigned 924–939) (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v)View images from this item (1)
An unstable realm
The new kingdom of England was not stable. Olaf Guthfrithsson, king of the Vikings of Dublin (died 941), had been defeated at Brunanburh in 937. Olaf took advantage of Æthelstan’s death in 939 to reclaim much of northern England and even parts of Mercia. The North was eventually re-taken after Olaf’s death by Æthelstan’s brother, King Edmund (reigned 939–946).
Although the West Saxon dynasty had regained control of the North, the new ‘kingdom of the English’ remained insecure in the 940s and 950s, during the reigns of Æthelstan’s brothers, Edmund and Eadred (946–955), and that of Edmund’s son, Eadwig (955–959).
These kings struggled to control the rivalries that developed among their own followers. Edmund was stabbed to death on a royal estate during a brawl, while Eadwig was so unpopular that the Mercians and Northumbrians broke away and declared Edgar, his brother, king instead. Edgar also ruled over Wessex following Eadwig’s death in 959.
New Minster charter
Portrait of King Edgar presenting a charter for one of Bishop Æthelwold’s monasteries to Christ, St Peter and the Virgin Mary (British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v)View images from this item (2)
England under the rule of King Edgar the Peaceful
The new kingdom of England became more organised, and its government more powerful, during the reign of Edgar (959–975), or Edgar the Peaceful, as he became known.
Edgar came to the throne when he was a teenager, but he was advised by older churchmen who were inspired by reforms in the Carolingian Empire.
King Edgar was influenced in particular by his old tutor, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester (963–984), Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (959–988), and Oswald, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York (died 992).
Æthelwold wanted churches and society in general to become more organised and uniform: ‘one [monastic] rule for one country’, he wrote. Æthelwold used his writings to promote the benefits of a strong central government and to praise Edgar’s government.Æthelwold and his associates also came to control many of the bishoprics and richest monasteries in England. Changes to these monasteries and cathedrals had a wide impact, since these were major social and political centres that controlled large territories.
The united kingdom
Under Edgar, the coinage used in England became more standardised. A regular system of shires started to emerge, helping the English kings to administer their territory. The boundaries of the shires that were established in the late 10th century lasted a thousand years, until the Local Government Act 1972. The early government of England depended on noblemen passing information between the court, the royal assemblies, and the shire and borough assemblies.
Edgar’s reign was prosperous and peaceful, but on his death in 975, the kingdom of England was thrown back into turmoil. The succession was disputed between supporters of Edgar’s two sons, the half-brothers Edward and Æthelred – with Æthelred (reigned 978-1016) ultimately gaining the throne after Edward was murdered at Corfe Castle (perhaps at his step-mother’s instigation) in 978.
Despite this, England was never divided again, save for one brief month in 1016 when Edmund Ironside and the Scandinavian leader, Cnut, ruled jointly. It was swiftly reunited after Edmund died in November 1016 and Cnut became king of all England. A new kingdom had emerged.