In the Dark Ages during the fifth and sixth centuries, communities of peoples in Britain inhabited homelands with ill-defined borders. Such communities were organised and led by chieftains or kings..
The rise of such community kingdoms was shaped by the final withdrawal of the Roman legions from the provinces of Britannia in around 408 AD, which led to the disintegration of Roman rule.
As a result, these small kingdoms were left to preserve their own order and to deal with invaders and irresistible waves of migrant peoples such as the Picts from beyond Hadrian's Wall, the Scots from Ireland and various Germanic tribes from the continent.
Some of the migrant peoples, such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (as well as the Franks and Frisians) from the continent, had started coming to Britain before the Roman legions left, to fight as mercenaries in the armies of the Romans and in those of the British kings and to settle in Britain. As further waves of these migrants settled in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, the invading communities overwhelmed or adapted existing kingdoms as well as creating new ones: for example, the Jutes in Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and the Angles in Mercia and Northumbria. Some British kingdoms initially survived the onslaught, such as Strathclyde which was wedged in the north between Pictland and the new Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
By 650 AD, the British Isles were a patchwork of many kingdoms founded from native or immigrant com- munities and led by powerful chieftains or kings.
In their personal feuds and struggles between communi- ties for control and supre- macy, a small number of kingdoms became dominant: Bernicia and Deira (which merged to form Northumbria
in 651 AD), Lindsey, East Anglia, Mercia, Wessex and Kent. Until the late seventh century, a series of warrior-kings in turn established their own personal authority over other kings, usually won by force or through alliances and often cemented by dynastic marriages.
The most famous of these kings was Ethelberht, king of Kent (reigned c.560-616), who married Bertha, the Christian daughter of the king of Paris, and who became the first English king to be converted to Christianity in 597.
Ethelberht was a lawgiver as well as a warrior-king - his law code was the first to be written in any Germanic language and included 90 laws. Ethelberht's influence extended both north and south of the river Humber: Ethelberht's nephew became king of the East Saxons, and his daughter married king Edwin of Northumbria (died 633) who 'ruled with greater power over all the peoples who inhabit Britain, English and Britons as well, except only the people of Kent' (Bede).
In the eighth century, smaller kingdoms in the British Isles continued to fall to more powerful kingdoms, which claimed rights over whole areas and established temporary primacies: Dalriada in Scotland, Munster and Ulster in Ireland. In England, Mercia and later Wessex came to dominate, giving rise to the start of the monarchy. Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period the succession was frequently contested, by both the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and leaders of the settling Scandinavian communities. The Scandinavian influence was to prove strong in the early years.
From the late eigth century, attacks by Vikings from Scandinavia increased. After a major invasion in 865, the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia were rapidly overrun, and in 871 the Danish army attacked Wessex. The Wessex forces under the command of Alfred (reigned 871-99), then aged 21, defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington in 878. The Danes withdrew to an area north of a frontier running from London to Chester and known as ‘Danelaw’ / ’Danelag’.
Alfred’s son Edward 'the Elder' was a bold soldier who defeated the Danes in Northumbria at Tettenhall in 910 and was acknowledged by the Viking kingdom of York.
By military success and patient planning, Edward spread English influence and control. He was able to establish an administration for the kingdom of England, whilst obtaining the allegiance of Danes, Scots and Britons. Edward died in 924, and he was buried in the New Minster which he had had completed at Winchester.
Edward's heir Athelstan was also a distinguished and audacious soldier who pushed the boundaries of the kingdom to their furthest extent yet. In 927-8, Athelstan took York from the Danes; he forced the submission of king Constantine of Scotland and of the northern kings; all five Welsh kings agreed to pay a huge annual tribute, and Athelstan eliminated opposition in Cornwall. The battle of Brunanburh in 937, in which Athelstan led a force drawn from Britain and defeated an invasion by the king of Scotland in alliance with the Welsh and Danes from Dublin, earned him recognition by lesser kings in Britain.
Buying and selling was mostly confined to the burhs, encouraging town life; areas of settlement in the midlands and Danish towns were consolidated into shires.
During Ethelred’s reign (from the 980s on), Viking raids increased. Ethelred bought off renewed attacks by the Danes with money - called the Danegeld. In 1013, Ethelred fled to Normandy when king Sweyn of Denmark dispossessed himbut he returned after Sweyn's death in 1014. Ethelred's son Edmund set himself up as an independent ruler in the Danelaw.
After Ethelred's death in 1015, Edmund cleared southern England of Danish marauders in a series of fiercely fought and highly mobile fighting, but he lost the battle of Ashingdon of 1016 against Sweyn's son Canute (Knut), and died in the same year. Before his death, Edmund made an agreement with Canute giving Canute territorial concessions, including Wessex.
Canute (reigned 1016-35) became undisputed King of England, and his rivals fled abroad. In 1018, the last Danegeld was paid to Canute. Ruthless but capable, Canute consolidated his position by marrying Ethelred's widow Emma and became a Christian. During his reign, Canute also became King of Denmark and Norway; his inheritance and formidable personality combined to make him overlord of a huge northern empire.
The last Anglo-Saxon Kings
In 1042 Edward 'the Confessor', Ethelred's surviving son, became King. With few rivals, Edward was undisputed King; the threat of usurpation by the King of Norway rallied the English and Danes in allegiance to Edward. Brought up in exile in Normandy, Edward lacked military ability or reputation. His Norman sympathies caused tensions with one of Canute's most powerful earls, Godwin of Wessex, whose daughter, Edith, Edward married in 1045 (the marriage was childless).
These tensions resulted in the crisis of 1050-52, when Godwin assembled an army to defy Edward. With reinforcements from the earls of Mercia and Northumberland, Edward banished Godwin from the country and sent Queen Edith from court. Edward used the opportunity to appoint Normans to places at court, and as sheriffs at local level. William duke of Normandy may have been designated heir. However, the hostile reaction to this increased Norman influence brought Godwin back. Edward subsequently formed a closer alliance with Godwin's son Harold, who led the army as the King's deputy and whom Edward may have named as heir on his deathbed.
On Edward's death, the King's Council (the Witenagemot) confirmed Edward's brother-in-law Harold, Earl of Wessex, as King. With no royal blood, and fearing rival claims from William Duke of Normandy and the King of Norway, Harold had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey on 5 January 1066, the day after Edward's death. During his brief reign, Harold showed he was an outstanding commander ...