The Saxon King Alfred was the only English king to get the honorific ‘the Great’ after his name, putting him in the same league as honoured figures of ancient times, such as Alexander the Great.

The First Kings
Egbert, king of Wessex (r.802–39), is recognized as the first king of England because he put an end to the dominance of Mercia and Northumbria. He would go on to make Wessex so powerful that it would unify England under a dynasty that would be in existence for over 200 years.

Born in around 770, Egbert was the son of Ealhmund, king of Kent (r.784), who was a member of the royal family of Wessex. Offa took over the direct rule of Kent in 784 and Egbert was driven into exile on the Continent by Offa’s son-in-law Beorhtric (r.786–802), his rival for the crown of Wessex. During his exile in France, it is thought that Egbert had dealings with Charlemagne – who had turned against Offa – perhaps even marrying one of Charlemagne’s female relatives. When Beorhtric died – poisoned by his ambitious wife, according to legend – Egbert returned to Wessex to seize the crown.

Egbert, king of Wessex in the 9th century, can claim to be the first king of England, founding a dynasty that would unite the country.

On taking the throne, Egbert took Wessex out of the Mercian federation and re-established it as an independent kingdom. Little else is known of Egbert’s actions during the first 20 years of his reign, but in 825 he defeated Beornwulf, king of Mercia (r.823–5) at the Battle of Ellendune (now Wroughton in Wiltshire). Egbert claimed the crowns of Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex and was accepted by the people as their king. East Anglia also threw off the Mercian yoke with the slaying of Beornwulf. Seizing the opportunity, Egbert invaded Mercia and drove the new Mercian king Wiglaf (r.827–9 and 830–9) into exile. By taking control of the London mint he was then able to issue coins as the king of Mercia. Later that year, scribes began calling Egbert the ‘ruler of Britain’ because he now controlled all of the territory south of the Humber – while the Northumbrians, led by Eanred (r.810–40), had accepted his overlordship.

However, in 830 Wiglaf re-established himself as Mercia’s ruler, although he failed to regain control of East Anglia and Egbert managed to hang on to the kingdoms of southeast England. But by this time a new enemy had entered the lists, because all of the kingdoms of England were being harried by the Vikings. Egbert was defeated by the Danes at Carhampton, west Somerset, in 836 but in 838 he won a great victory against the Vikings and their Welsh allies at Hingston Down in Cornwall, thereby ending the independence of the last independent English kingdom, Dumnonia.

Egbert then summoned the Council of Kingston in 838, at which he conferred lands and privileges on the sees of Canterbury and Winchester in return for their recognition of his son Aethelwulf (r.839–58). After that time, the churchmen crowned kings and wrote wills that specified the king’s heir, thereby establishing the rule of the West Saxons. Egbert’s line was now assured of a smooth succession. Winchester was established as the main city of Egbert’s kingdom and after his death in 839 Egbert was buried there, followed by his son Aethelwulf, his grandson Alfred the Great and Alfred’s son Edward the Elder.


The Vikings, also known as Norsemen, were Scandinavian warriors who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the late 9th to the early 11th century. In their oar- and sail-powered longships, they travelled as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland and as far east as Constantinople and the Volga River in Russia. After a few early raids, attacks on England began in earnest in 865. The Vikings conquered the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia and much of Mercia. But they were unable to subdue Alfred the Great, who further strengthened his position by negotiating a peace treaty in around 886, which recognized Danish rule in much of eastern England. However, Alfred’s son Edward the Elder managed to reconquer the Danish-held territory. Viking raids began again in 980 and England became part of the empire of the Danish king Canute (r.1016–35). The Viking threat ended with the invasion of William the Conqueror, himself a Norman – that is, a descendant of the Norsemen who had settled in northern France.

Vikings set out in their longboats to attack Britain. They also settled in Normandy, Sicily and Greenland, and reached North America.

Aethelwulf ’s first act as king was to give half of his kingdom – Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex – to his eldest son Aethelstan (r.839–c.855), keeping the western side of Wessex for himself. Then in 851 Aethelwulf scored a major victory over a large Danish army at a place called Aclea in Surrey. He then united the royal houses of Wessex and Mercia by marrying his daughter Aethelswith to the Mercian king Burgred (r.852–74) in 853, who went on to subdue the Welsh.

In 853, Aethelwulf sent his four-year-old son Alfred to Rome, before following on himself in 855, having left his kingdom in the keeping of his son Aethelstan. On his way back, Aethelwulf, now in his mid-fifties, married Judith, the 12-year-old daughter of Charles the Bald, king of the West Franks (r.843–77) and Holy Roman Emperor (875–7). But while he had been away Aethelstan had died and Aethelwulf ’s second son Aethelbald (r.856–60) had succeeded him. Aethelbald was part of a conspiracy to overthrow Aethelwulf and forced his father to abdicate the throne of Wessex in his favour. However, Aethelwulf remained king of Kent until his death in 858. On taking his father’s throne Aethelbald also took his wife, marrying his 16-year-old stepmother, Judith, although the marriage was later annulled. When Aethelbald died, he was succeeded by his brother Aethelberht (r.860–5) who became king of Wessex and Kent. During his reign, the Danes attacked again, destroying Winchester in 860 and ravaging Kent in 865.

The next brother Aethelred (r.865–71) – sometimes called Aethelred I – succeeded in Wessex, though he does not appear to have been overlord of all of the disparate kingdoms of England. England was once more reeling under the constant onslaught of the Danes and in 865 a large Danish force landed in East Anglia, intent on conquest. Aethelred and his brother Alfred went to the aid of Burgred of Mercia when his kingdom was invaded, but the Mercians adopted the solution of buying the Vikings off.

Aethelred may have been defeated regularly by the Danes, but he handed the kingdom of Wessex intact to his brother Alfred.

After taking York the Danes then headed south, dealing Aethelred and Alfred a crushing defeat at Reading in January 871. They struck back two weeks later, defeating the Viking army at a place called ‘Aescesdun’. However, Aethelred was defeated again at Basing and at ‘Maeretun’ – possibly Merton in Surrey or Marden in Wiltshire. Aethelred died that Easter, perhaps from wounds sustained in battle, and he was succeeded by his brother Alfred the Great (r.871–99).

Alfred the Great
Born at Wantage, Berkshire, in 849, Alfred (r.871–99) was the fifth son of Aethelwulf and thus an unlikely candidate for the throne. Perhaps because of his early years in Rome, he was interested in scholarship. He was also a great admirer of Charlemagne, who had revived learning during his reign. However, there was little time for academic pursuits because England was under attack by the Vikings yet again. By the time Alfred took the throne at the age of 21, Wessex stood alone against the invaders.

The story of Alfred burning the cakes seems to have been entirely apocryphal. The idea behind it was that he was too preoccupied with matters of state to bother with domestic chores.

Although they had been defeated at Wilton, the West Saxons had put up a fierce resistance against the advancing Vikings and Alfred had managed to negotiate a truce. Then in 876 the Danes began their onslaught again, but they were forced back in the following year. Finally, in early 878, the Danes made a lightning strike on Chippenham in Wiltshire, where they achieved their aim of creating a secure base from which to devastate Wessex. The Saxons submitted – with the exception of Alfred, who withdrew to the Somerset tidal marshes where he had probably hunted as a youth.

Alfred was given shelter by a peasant woman when he first fled to the Somerset Levels. Unaware of the king’s identity, the woman asked him to keep an eye on some cakes she had left in the oven. However, the fugitive Alfred was so preoccupied with the defence of his kingdom that he forgot about the cakes. When the woman returned and saw that her cakes had burned she took him severely to task. But that was before she discovered the identity of her visitor. Mortified, she stammered her apologies, but Alfred graciously assured her that he was the one who needed to apologize.


Alfred is the only English king to have had the honorific ‘the Great’ added to his name. He was given the title in the medieval period, when his scholarly works were still being copied. For more than a thousand years he was seen as the ‘great king’ who maintained English independence against the Vikings. Another king of England has been called ‘the Great’ – Canute the Great. But he was a Dane.

Alfred the Great modelled himself on the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and sought to bring literacy and law to his people.

Many other distinguished figures in history have had the title bestowed upon them. For instance, there was Herod, Constantine, Charlemagne, Catherine, Ramesses and Tamberlaine. And there have been two Peters and two Fredericks. It seems to come from the Persian title ‘Great King’, which was first used by Cyrus II, conqueror of Persia in the 6th century BC, although an ancient tablet claims that he was the ‘son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus [I], great king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes…’ All of the Persian kings that followed Cyrus took the title ‘the Great’. That is, until the 4th century, when the Persians were overthrown by Alexander the Great – although a century or so went by before the title was affixed to his name. The Seleucid kings who succeeded Alexander also used ‘the Great’ as part of their personal names, as did the Roman leader Pompey. But other historical figures, such as Ashoka the Great of India and Hanno the Great of Carthage, were given the name posthumously.


The Danelaw – Danelagh or Dena lagu – was the area of Anglo-Saxon England occupied by the invading Danish armies in the late 9th century. Its boundaries were formalized by the treaty between Alfred and the Danish warlord Guthrum in 886. Within those boundaries the Danes ruled the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia and the lands of the five boroughs of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Lincoln. As a result, the laws in eastern England between the Tees and the Thames differed from Mercian law to the west and West Saxon law to the south.

These differences persisted throughout the 11th and the 12th centuries, even when the Danes had been defeated. The Danes also left a large number of Old Norse words behind them, thereby making a great contribution to the growth of modern English.

During his time in the marshes Alfred had been deciding on a plan of action, which was to build a fortified base at Athelney so that he could conduct guerrilla warfare against the Danes. Followers flocked from Wiltshire, Somerset and Hampshire and in May 878 Alfred’s army defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington. He then pursued them to their fortress at Chippenham where, after a two-week siege, they surrendered. Alfred soon realized that he could not possibly drive the Danes out of the rest of England, so he drew up a peace treaty which the Danes accepted. Under its terms the Danish warlord Guthrum converted to Christianity – with Alfred as his godfather – and became king of East Anglia (880–90). Guthrum’s Danish subjects happily settled down as farmers and they even fought alongside Alfred when he faced a new Danish army that landed in Kent in 885.

Alfred then went on the offensive and seized London in 886, hoping that he could use the city as a springboard for the reconquest of the Danish territories. But he was not yet strong enough to do this, so he negotiated a new treaty with Guthrum which established the frontier of ‘Danelaw’ along Watling Street, the Roman road that ran from London to Wroxeter in Shropshire. The lands to the north and the east would belong to the Danes, while Alfred would secure West Mercia and Kent, along with Wessex.

At the same time, Alfred sought to build an alliance against the Danes by marrying his daughter Aethelflaed to the ealdorman – or chief magistrate – of Mercia. Alfred himself had married Eahlswith, a Mercian noblewoman, and another daughter, Aelfthryth, was married to the Count of Flanders, who represented a strong naval power at a time when the Vikings were settling in eastern England.

Alfred then reorganized his army with his thanes, or noble followers, and their men serving on a rota basis. In other words, they could tend their farms in times of peace but they could also be called upon as a rapid-reaction force if there was an attack. Starting from his capital at Winchester, he built a series of well-defended towns along the main river routes across southern England. They were so close together that no part of Wessex was more than 20 miles (32 km) from a fortress. Some towns were constructed on old Roman sites but others were completely new. They were called burhs, the Old English for fortress, from which comes the modern word ‘borough’.


Born in 742, Charlemagne was king of the Franks from 768 until his death in 814. He expanded his kingdom into a Frankish superstate that incorporated all of Western Europe, with the exception of southern Italy, Asturias in northern Spain and the British Isles. This united the continent for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. When Charlemagne arrived in Rome in December 800, he was crowned Imperator Romanorum by Pope Leo III, a move that challenged the power of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople. His reign saw a revival of art, religion and culture through the medium of the Catholic Church. He was regarded as the founder of the French and the German monarchies and he is seen by many as the father of modern Europe.

Charlemagne united Europe and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome. Alfred the Great was sent to study in Rome soon after and tried, on a smaller scale, to emulate his idol.

The loyalty of Alfred’s army was purchased by handing out plots of land in return for manning the defences in times of war. He also maintained friendly relations with the Welsh, who even supplied him with troops in 893. Finally, he built larger and faster ships as a defence against coastal raiders. Although Alfred could make no further advances himself, he repelled another large Danish invasion in 892. The Danes kept on attacking until 896, but without any real success.

With the borders of his kingdom now secure, Alfred organized the country’s finances. He also administered justice by drawing up a single legal code that incorporated the laws of Offa of Mercia, Ine of Wessex and Aethelberht of Kent, thereby creating the definitive body of Anglo-Saxon law. Another thing that made Alfred exceptional was his attitude to learning. He shared the contemporary view that the Vikings were a punishment from God because they had robbed England of many of its monasteries, the great medieval seats of learning. Alfred believed that only through knowledge could the English atone for their sins and live in accordance with the will of God, so he resolved to make up for the loss of the monasteries. One of the things he did was to found a monastery and a nunnery in an attempt to revive monasticism. He was also interested in architecture and art, and many European craftsmen were attracted to his court. Perhaps more importantly, he invited scholars from Mercia, Wales and the Continent to his palace and set about learning Latin himself so that he could translate books into English. He supervised translations of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and Seven Books of Histories Against the Pagans by the 5th-century theologian Paulus Orosius. Then he personally translated Pastoral Care by Saint Gregory, the pope who sent Augustine to England, which became a handbook for priests, and the Soliloquies of Saint Augustine of Hippo. He was also patron of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the greatest sources of information on Anglo-Saxon England. It began circulating soon after 890 and it was copied and supplemented up to 1154.

By the 890s, Alfred’s charters and coinage referred to him as ‘King of the English’. When he died in 899, at the age of 50, he left behind him a unified country that was strong enough to withstand further Danish onslaughts. He was buried in Winchester, the burial place of the West Saxon royal family.

Kings of all England
Alfred was succeeded by his son Edward the Elder (r.899–924), who built on his father’s achievements and set about reconquering the lands held by the Danes. He began in 902 at the Battle of the Holme, where he defeated his cousin Aethelwald, the son of Alfred’s elder brother Aethelred. Aethelwald was a rival claimant to the throne who had allied himself with the Danes, but he died in the battle alongside Eohric, king of the East Anglian Danes (r.890–902). Edward’s next job was to thwart the Northumbrian Danes, and this he did by means of a resounding victory at Tettenhall in Mercia in 909. Following his father’s example, he confined the Danes to the lands north of the Humber by constructing a new series of burhs.

That was still not enough for Edward. In 917 he combined forces with his sister Aethelflaed, ruler of Mercia (r.911–18), and overwhelmed the Danish army in East Anglia. Edward took over Mercia when Aethelflaed died in the following year and used it as a base from which to destroy the Danish armies in the Midlands. By the end of the year all of the Danes south of the Humber had submitted to him and in 920 he pacified Northumbria. By the end of his reign, the Norse, the Scots and the Welsh acknowledged him as ‘father and lord’.

Edward’s son Aethelstan (r.924–39), who had been brought up by his aunt Aethelflaed, achieved the complete political unification of England after 937 when he defeated Constantine II of the Scots (r.900–43), Owen of Strathclyde (r.c.915–37) and Olaf Guthfrithson, Norse king of Dublin (r.934–41) and claimant to the kingdom of York, at the Battle of Brunanburh. Five English or Irish kings and seven earls were said to have been killed on the Celtic side during the battle. Aethelstan also devised a code of laws to suppress theft and corruption, but he tempered justice with mercy, for the code contained provisions to mitigate the punishment of young offenders and bring solace to the destitute.

Edward’s accession was resented by his stepmother Elfrida who wanted the crown for her own son Ethelred. When Edward was murdered while hunting, he was regarded as a martyr.

When Aethelstan died, Olaf Guthfrithson took the opportunity to seize Northumbria and invade the Midlands. However, Aethelstan’s successor, his half-brother Edmund I (r.939–46) – also known as ‘Edmund the Deed-doer’ or ‘Edmundus Magnificus’ – regained the Midlands in 942, after Olaf Guthfrithson died. Then in 944 he retook Northumbria from Olaf Guthfrithson’s successor, Olaf Sihtricson (king of York 941–4 and 949–51; king of Dublin 941–c.980) and Raegnald, king of York (r.919–20 and 939–44).

In 945 Edmund captured Strathclyde and entrusted it all to Malcolm I, king of Scotland (r.943–54), thereby beginning a policy of peaceful relations with the Scots in order to secure England’s northern border. In the following year, Edmund was stabbed to death at the royal villa of Pucklechurch, in Gloucestershire, by an exiled robber named Liofa, who had returned to the court without permission.

The tomb of Alfred’s grandson Athelstan, which can be found at Malmesbury Abbey. He is often regarded as the first king of England, unifying the country.

Edmund I was succeeded by his brother Eadred (r.946–55). It was an unfortunate time because Erik Bloodax, king of Norway (r.c.930–35), was looking around for a new kingdom. He had succeeded to the Norwegian throne after the death of his father Harald I Fairhair (r.863–930) but two of his brothers had been left vassal kingdoms. He killed them both in an attempt to gain sole control of Norway but a third brother managed to eject him. So in 948 Erik seized Northumbria. Eadred managed to drive him out but the people of Northumbria then sided with Olaf Sihtricson. A fickle bunch, they deposed Olaf in 952 in favour of Erik Bloodax but two years later they sent Erik packing. He died in battle later that year and Northumbria once more fell to Eadred.

Eadred was not much more than 30 years old when he died of natural causes in 955. He had not married and so was succeeded by his 15-year-old nephew Eadwig (r.955–9), the eldest son of Edmund I. It is said that Eadwig disgraced himself at his coronation by leaving the banquet to debauch himself with a woman, possibly a close relative, and her daughter, ‘a girl of ripe age’. When the monastic reformer Saint Dunstan sent Archbishop Oda after him, Eadwig was furious with the two men and he drove Dunstan into exile. He then married the woman’s daughter, Aelfgifu, but they were separated by Archbishop Oda on the grounds of consanguinity. Eadwig’s bad behaviour continued unabated when he stripped members of the royal family of their possessions, robbed the exchequer and issued some 90 charters. All of this caused such consternation that his kingdom only extended as far as the Thames when he died.

His brother Edgar (r.959–75) had already been made king of Mercia and Northumbria in 957 in place of Eadwig and at 16 years old Edgar became ‘king of all England’. One of his first acts was to invite Saint Dunstan to return. He went on to found some 40 monasteries and he introduced penalties for the non-payment of tithes and Peter’s pence, the annual contribution made by Roman Catholics to the Holy See. There was an absence of Viking raids during his reign, which earned him the title ‘Edgar the Peaceful’ – but that was a huge misnomer. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he ‘ordered all Thanetland to be plundered’ then took his army to Chester where he humiliated six kings from Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man by making them row him across the River Dee. He also strengthened the navy by employing a form of press-ganging.


Danegeld was the ‘Danish tax’ paid as tribute to Viking raiders in an attempt to save a country from their predations. The first payment of Danegeld was made in 845, when a Viking army threatened to attack Paris. The troops refrained from destroying the city when nearly 6 tons of silver and gold bullion was handed over. The English handed over 10,000 Roman pounds (3,300 kg) of silver in 991, following the Viking victory at the Battle of Maldon in Essex. Aethelred the Unready had been advised to bribe the Vikings rather than continue the armed struggle. In 994 the Danes returned and laid siege to London – the amount of silver they had previously received had simply convinced them that Danegeld was more profitable than plunder. Further payments were made in 1002 and 1007, when Aethelred bought two years’ peace for 36,000 troy pounds (13,400 kg) of silver. In 1012, following the murder of the archbishop of Canterbury and the sack of the city, the Danes were pacified with another 48,000 troy pounds (17,900 kg) of silver. When Canute became king of England in 1016, he continued to levy Danegeld. In 1018, he collected 72,000 troy pounds (26,900 kg) of silver from the whole nation and a further 10,500 pounds (3,900 kg) of silver from London. This was used to decommission his invasion fleet, apart from the 40 ships that were retained as his personal bodyguard.

The Vikings had a reputation for raping and pillaging. However, they quickly settled in England, at first in independent Danish areas, later blending with the general populace.

Although he was ostensibly religious, in reality Edgar was sexually debauched. He married Ethelfleda Eneda, the daughter of his foster mother, when he was only 16 years old. Not content with that, in 961 he imprisoned, seduced and impregnated a nun named Wulfrith. He appeared to see the error of his ways because he did not wear his crown for seven years, a penance suggested by Saint Dunstan. Perhaps the only good aspect of this sordid encounter was the birth of the child who would become Saint Edith, whose mother Wulfrith was also canonized. Wulfrith refused to marry Edgar after the death of Ethelfleda in 963, but the beautiful Elfrida caught his eye. They married in 965 after her first husband had been killed in a hunting ‘accident’, when a javelin thrown by Edgar had hit him in his back.

Edgar was succeeded by his son Edward (r.975–8), who was known as Edward the Martyr after he was murdered at Corfe Castle, probably by his stepmother Ethelfleda who lived there. Her 10-year-old son Aethelred II (r.978–1013 and 1014–16) then became king. Known as Aethelred ‘the Unready’, his epithet was really ‘the Unraed’, which means the ill-counselled. This is also a pun on his name because Aethelred, or Aethel-raed, means ‘noble-counsel’. He was unpopular from the start because he did not seek to avenge his half-brother, or even bury him, and Edward was not interred until 980. However, Aethelred also suffered at his mother’s hands for it is said that she beat him so hard with candles that he became conditioned to fear them.

King Edgar receives the homage of eight princes in Chester. They rowed him down the river to show their loyalty before paying their tribute.

There was a widespread belief that Aethelred might even have had a hand in the murder of Edward. Because of the resulting public unrest there was no unified defence when the Vikings started raiding again in 980. The country was ravaged, but efforts to pay the raiders off with Danegeld only made them more rapacious. When Danish incomers began settling in town, Aethelred had them massacred – which only succeeded in provoking more invasions. Sweyn Forkbeard, the king of Denmark (r.987–1014) and Norway (r.1000–14), led his marauding army in two punitive expeditions in 1003 and 1004, and when he returned in 1013, it was as Sweyn I (r.1013–14) – Aethelred was forced to seek shelter in Normandy. After Sweyn died, Aethelred’s council of advisers invited him to return if he first settled their grievances.

Canute was the king of England, as well as Denmark and Norway, but his heirs could not manage to hold his empire together.

Aethelred was succeeded by his son Edmund II (r.1016), but by that time Sweyn’s son Canute was ransacking the country. Edmund was known as Edmund Ironside for his stout resistance to Canute’s invasion but he defied his father by marrying the widow of a Danish lord in 1015. Edmund had been proclaimed king in London, but his position was seriously undermined by a large body of his nobles, who supported Canute. In a bid to repel the usurper, Edmund laid siege to London and regained Wessex, but he was decisively defeated by Canute at Ashington in Essex. According to the ensuing peace treaty Edmund held Wessex while Canute took possession of all of the lands north of the Thames. Edmund died soon afterwards, leaving Canute as sole ruler of England.

The Danish Kings of England
Canute (r.1016–35) – also known as Canute the Great, Cnut or Knut – had accompanied his father on his conquest of England in 1013, but he was left to guard the fleet at Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. There he met Aelfgifu, the daughter of an ealdorman murdered by Aethelred the Unready, who bore him two sons, Sweyn and Harold. When his father died and Aethelred returned, Canute deserted his allies in England and set sail for Denmark, taking with him a number of hostages given to his father as pledges of allegiance. They were put ashore at Sandwich, horribly mutilated. He returned in 1015 with 200 longships and 10,000 troops, including the duke of Poland and a contingent of Slavs, and began a ruthless campaign against Edmund. When Earl Uhtred of Northumbria submitted to Canute, he was murdered in his hall for breaking his oath of allegiance to Sweyn Forkbeard.

Canute’s first act as conqueror was to reward his Danish followers with estates that had been seized from the English. For instance, Viking chief Thorkell the Tall, who had taught him the arts of war, was given East Anglia and Eric of Hlathir acquired Northumbria. Prominent Englishmen, including Edmund’s brother Eadwig, were either banished or murdered. However, Edmund’s infant sons found refuge in Hungary. Canute then married Aethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, who was the daughter of Richard I of Normandy. This elevated his line above the heirs of England’s overthrown dynasty. With an eye to the future, Canute nominated Harthacanute, his son with Emma, as his heir and sent him to Denmark to be brought up as a Viking. By doing this, Canute made sure that Emma’s two sons by Aethelred, Alfred Aetheling and his younger brother Edward, were out of the running. They remained in exile in Normandy.


Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th-century chronicler, relates that Canute set his throne by the seashore and commanded the tide to halt, so that his feet and robes would not get wet. When the tide failed to stop, Canute leapt back from the waves crying ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix and never wore it again. This story is probably apocryphal because the contemporary Encomium Emmae Reginae, written for Canute’s wife Emma, does not mention it, although other examples of Canute’s Christian devotion are recorded. The Benedictine monk and biographer Goscelin, writing in the 11th century, recorded a different version of the episode. This time Canute placed his crown on a crucifix at Winchester one Easter, while declaring that the king of kings was more worthy of it than he. There is no mention of the sea. However, Henry of Huntingdon’s story was repeated by later historians, who maintained that Canute staged the scene in order to rebuke the flattery of his courtiers. By showing them that the tides would not obey him he was demonstrating that he was a mere mortal. Canute was not the only historical figure to defy the tides. There are Celtic legends referring to the powers of Saint Illtud, Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd and Tuirbe, of Tuirbe’s Strand, in Brittany.

The story of King Canute ordering the tide to stay back is well known. However, it can be interpreted either as an example of regal hubris or humility.

Canute became ever more English. He had an English wife and he began to fill his court with English nobles. In 1018, he paid off his fleet and the Danish contingent of his entourage diminished. At a conference in Oxford, Canute agreed to rule England ‘according to Edgar’s law’.

When his elder brother Harald II of Denmark (r.1014–18) died Canute went off to claim the Danish throne, supported by a bodyguard of English soldiers. Canute left Thorkell the Tall in charge of England but the two men fell out after his return in 1020. Thorkell was then outlawed, but the two men were soon reconciled, to the extent that Thorkell became regent for Canute’s son Harthacanute (r.1035–42) in Denmark.

Although Canute was Danish and spent little time in England, he increased the Baltic trade and strengthened England against the Scots.

In 1020 Canute started laying claim to Norway, but he was faced by a combined force because Sweden had joined Norway in a coalition against Denmark. Although Canute seems to have been defeated at the Battle of the Holy River in 1026, the king of Sweden still made peace by ceding territory. The Norwegians fought on but in 1028 Canute drove Olaf II Haraldsson (r.1015–28) from the throne and placed Haakon, son of Eric Hlathir, in charge of Norway. After Haakon’s death, Canute’s concubine Aelfgifu and her son Sweyn took over, but they proved unpopular and were forced to flee to Denmark in 1035, before Canute’s death. Olaf Haraldsson attempted to return in 1030, but he was killed at the Battle of Stiklestad.

Meanwhile, in 1027 Canute had made a successful expedition to Scotland to secure the fealty of the three Scottish kings. So when he travelled to Rome later in 1027, in order to attend the coronation of the German king, Conrad II (r.1024–39), as Holy Roman Emperor (r.1027–39), he was able to call himself king of Britain, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Conrad’s son Henry, later Henry III, married Canute’s daughter Gundhilda in 1036, although she died soon afterwards. Nevertheless, Britain benefited from the union, because it strengthened Canute’s control of Baltic trade.

Canute was succeeded by Harold I (r.1035–40), also known as Harold Harefoot, his other illegitimate son by Aelfgifu. Alfred Aetheling travelled hotfoot from Normandy in order to pursue his claim to the English throne, but he was captured and brought before Harold, who ordered his eyes to be put out. Unsurprisingly, Alfred died in the process. Harold then stripped Emma of Normandy of the treasures lavished upon her by his father and gave them to his mother Aelfgifu, who had returned to England. Emma was then exiled. The only person who could have helped her was Hardecanute, king of Denmark (r.1035–42), her son by Canute, but he did not feel able to leave his realm at that time. Nevertheless, he succeeded to the English throne (r.1040–2) when Harold died.

Harold was the first king to be buried in the abbey at Westminster, but this had little impact on Hardecanute who ordered his body to be exhumed and thrown into a bog. It is said that the corpse was later recovered and buried in a Danish cemetery in London, perhaps St Clement Danes. Hardecanute continued to make himself unpopular by introducing heavy taxes to pay for his fleet. When two of his tax collectors were killed in Worcester, he gave orders to devastate the county and kill all of its men, so Worcester was burnt and the shire was looted. Although Godwine, earl of Wessex had supported Hardecanute’s claim when Harold had taken the throne, Hardecanute turned on him and had him tried over the death of his half-brother Alfred Aetheling. Godwine, who had been involved in Alfred’s capture, swore that he had acted on Harold’s orders. But he stayed alive by giving Hardecanute ‘for his friendship’ a ship with a gilded prow, crewed by 80 magnificently equipped men. Lyfing, bishop of Worcester, was also accused but he could not come up with such a bribe and so was murdered.

Hardecanute was not a well man and had neither wife nor children. In 1041, apparently fearing the worst, he sent to Normandy for his other half-brother Edward ‘the Confessor’. His intention was to make Edward his official heir. On 8 June 1042 Hardecanute collapsed and died while drinking at a Viking wedding feast. He was just 24 years old.

Edward’s Two Heirs
Edward the Confessor (r.1042–66) resented his mother Emma for having favoured Hardecanute, so when he came to the throne he seized her property. Much of Edward’s long reign was peaceful and prosperous, apart from the odd skirmish with the Scots and the Welsh, but he had been in exile for 25 years and knew little of the country he sought to rule. He had been brought up at the Norman court, so it was natural for him to surround himself with his Norman friends. But this proved to be a source of considerable annoyance to the members of the houses of Wessex and Mercia, who had held considerable power under the Danish kings. Nevertheless, in 1045 Godwine, the earl of Wessex, managed to marry his daughter Edith to Edward and so make himself the power behind the throne. But the two men fell out four years later. In 1051, with the support of Leofric of Mercia, Edward exiled the Godwine family and put aside his wife Edith.

Edward was already unpopular because of his Norman favourites, so when Godwine and his sons returned to England in 1052 they attracted a huge group of supporters. The king was forced to make terms. Godwine’s lands were returned to him and many of Edward’s Norman courtiers went into exile. When Godwine died later in the following year, his son Harold took over as the dominant power in the land. In 1063, he subjugated Wales and two years later he negotiated a settlement with the rebellious Northumbrians. Having dismissed his wife, Edward had no children so on his deathbed he named Harold as his successor. Edward died on 4 January 1066 and was buried in the new abbey he had constructed at Westminster.

Edward might have been a physical and political weakling but he was also seen as pious and unworldly. So much so that a cult grew up around him after the Norman Conquest. Almost a century after Edward’s death the new king, Henry II, petitioned the pope to have Edward canonized, in a bid to gain the support of the English people.

In order to qualify for sainthood, a candidate must have been responsible for miracles. It was said that Edward had been the first monarch to cure people with scrofula, the ‘king’s evil’, by his touch, so in 1161 he was duly canonized.

Despite his sainthood, Edward ‘the Confessor’ had presented Anglo-Saxon England with its greatest catastrophe. He had promised the crown to two people – his protector, William the Bastard, duke of Normandy, and Harold Godwineson (Harold II). A bloody clash was inevitable. There was also another claimant – Harald III Hardraade, king of Norway (r.1045–66), who also disputed the throne of Denmark with King Sweyn II (r.1047–74). Harald’s claim was supported by Harold’s disaffected younger brother Tostig.

Edward the Confessor was buried in the church of St Peter, part of the new Abbey that he had built at Westminster.

In 1055, Harold created Tostig earl of Northumbria, but his stern rule made him so unpopular that the Northumbrians rebelled. When Harold negotiated a peace with the rebels, Tostig headed for Normandy, where he offered his services to William the Bastard, who was related to Tostig’s wife. After harrying the coast of the Isle of Wight, Kent and Lincolnshire – and possibly visiting Scotland and Norway – Tostig threw in his lot with Harald III. They sailed up the Humber and took York, but Harold II (r.1066) quickly marched his army north from London and surprised the Norwegians.

On 25 September Harold achieved a resounding victory at Stamford Bridge, where his army obliterated the Norwegians, killing Harald and Tostig in the process.

But Harold was going to meet a much greater foe on 14 October. The battle would cost him his crown and his life.