Part II

Early Rulers

In this part . . .

The early years of the monarchy, from the centuries after the Roman empire until the Normans invaded England in 1066, saw more kings and queens than ever before or since - because often several were ruling at once. The country was divided into a number of different regions, each with its own ruler. But gradually the more powerful kingdoms conquered their neighbours until England was united.

The rulers of this period were mostly Anglo-Saxons, people who originally came from northern Europe. But these foreign rulers played a huge part in defining many aspects of Englishness - from English literature to the English church.

Chapter 3


In This Chapter

● Discovering the Romans

● Unravelling a new group of invaders, the Anglo-Saxons

● Finding out how Wessex emerged as the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

Historians know very little about who ruled Britain before the island became part of the Roman empire in the first century A.D. To begin with, the Romans allowed some of the local English kings and queens to keep certain powers, but this situation did not last long. However, after the Romans left Britain in the early fifth century, royal rulers reappeared in the form of the Anglo-Saxons.

When the Anglo-Saxons arrived, they established a number of small kingdoms across England. Some kingdoms were tiny - one corresponded roughly to the modern county of Kent in the far southeast of England. But some Anglo-Saxon kings controlled quite large parts of the country and were ambitious to extend their power. So the early Anglo-Saxon period, from the fifth to the ninth century, saw these rulers fighting each other to gain more territory, until, by the beginning of the ninth century, they claimed to rule all of England.

The Romans in Britain

Between the first and fourth centuries, Britain was part of the vast Roman empire. The Romans conquered the country in A.D. 43, largely because they wanted to get hold of its valuable resources. They had already been trading with Britain, buying commodities such as grain and tin, and ruling the country would give them even easier access to what it had to offer.

During their time in Britain, the Romans built roads to enable their soldiers, and later their merchants, to travel, and founded many towns that acted as centres of trade and administration. They also brought with them many new ideas - from houses with under-floor heating to their famous baths, from theatre-going to gladiatorial combat. These inventions transformed life for some Britons, although for most working people, life went on very much as it had before.

Rule Britannia!

The part of Britain ruled by the Romans included nearly all of England and sizeable parts of Wales. The Romans called this area the province of Britannia. Its overall ruler was the Roman Emperor, based in Italy, so the provincial government took care of the day-to-day running of the area.

To run Britain, the Romans relied partly on the native British rulers who were already there when they arrived. The Romans softened up these local rulers by giving them access to all the most luxurious trappings of Roman life. Historians don’t know much about these British rulers, known as client-kings, but archaeologists have excavated some of their probable homes. One example is the vast Roman palace at Fishbourne in Sussex, which was probably the residence of the client-king Cogidubnus.

Cogidubnus seems to have been king of a tribe called the Atrebates, who lived in central southern England. Judging by the enormous size of his palace and its lavish mosaic decorations, Cogidubnus must have been fabulously rich, and the Romans probably let him have a lot of power locally. But if he ever stepped out of line, the Roman army would have turned up on his doorstep and deposed him. It was kingship, but not as you know it.


The process of Romanization was the way the Romans made the benefits of Roman life available to the people they conquered. To get the British upper classes on their side, they encouraged them to adopt a Roman lifestyle, helping them to build lavish houses with all the best Roman features - under-floor heating, colourful mosaic floors, suites of bathrooms, painted walls, and so on. The Romans gave the British tribal leaders access to all sorts of products from the empire, such as different foods, and encouraged them to wear Roman clothes. Innovations in livestock breeding and crop growing made their farms more efficient, which benefited both the Romans and the British. So the British bigwigs were more comfortable, lived a more lavish lifestyle, and were richer than they were before. The Romans hoped that this improved lifestyle would make them more likely to accept Roman rule. Judging by the length of time the Romans ruled Britain, the tactic of Romanization seems to have worked.

Royal rebellion

The client-kingdom system worked well for the Romans when locals and Romans lived in harmony, but sometimes things went wrong. This is what happened with the kingdom of the Iceni, a people who lived in eastern England, in the area of the modern counties of Norfolk and northern Suffolk.

Soon after the Romans arrived, they gave the Iceni’s ruler, Prasutagus, the status of client-king. But in the year A.D. 60, Prasutagus died leaving a widow, Boudicca (also known as Boadicea) and their daughters, who were brutally treated by the Romans. The Romans expected to take over Prasutagus’s kingdom, whereas Boudicca believed that her daughters should inherit at least part of their father’s power.

The Romans took away the lands of Boudicca’s family, assaulted some of the women, and imprisoned others. But they didn’t reckon on the spirit of Boudicca herself. By A.D. 61, the queen of the Iceni was leading a rebellion against Roman rule. The Iceni were joined by their neighbours the Trinovantes, who resented the fact that the Romans had taken over their area (southern Suffolk and Essex). The combined rebel forces travelled south, taking the important city of Colchester.

Then the rebels swept across southern England, destroying major centres such as St Albans and doing major damage to London. The Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was away trying to conquer the Welsh at the time, which accounted for the rebels’ early success. But eventually news reached Suetonius of what was happening, and he turned away from his campaign in Wales and ruthlessly put down the rebellion.

Much bloodshed occurred, and Boudicca herself died soon afterwards - unable to accept having her queenly power removed by the Romans, she probably committed suicide by poisoning herself. In spite of her dramatic revolt, the Romans had triumphed by sheer military power and what had happened was a dire warning to any others who felt like rebelling.

Eventually, as a result of episodes such as Boudicca’s revolt, the Romans phased out the system of client-kingdoms. Direct rule by a Roman governor, backed up by the might of the Roman army, was the best way for them to keep control. So from the second to the fourth centuries, local tribal leaders had little power. The Romans called all the shots.

Enter the Saxons

By the early fifth century, the Roman empire had become so big that it was difficult to hold together and it began to break apart. Whole books have been written about why this collapse happened, with answers ranging from barbarian invasions to economic pressures. But one immediate effect was that the Romans began to pull out of some of their conquered lands.

The Romans left Britain in 410 when the emperor Honorius decreed that the Britons should henceforth govern themselves. But Britain’s people weren’t left alone for long. Between the fifth and seventh centuries, people from the mainland of northern Europe launched a series of invasions.

The new invaders were actually three different peoples - the Saxons from northern Germany, the Angles from the southern part of the Danish peninsula and the nearby islands, and the Jutes from Jutland, the main part of the Danish peninsula. For convenience, these people are now known collectively as the Anglo-Saxons (or sometimes simply as the Saxons).

The Anglo-Saxons set up a number of kingdoms in England. Each Saxon kingdom was made up of one region, so there were a number of monarchs in England at any one time. From the fifth to the end of the eighth century, these mini-kingdoms fought against one another for dominance, and eventually one of these kingdoms, Wessex, became so strong that its rulers claimed kingship of the entire country.

Vanishing Celts

Historians know very little about what happened to the native British people when the Anglo-Saxons invaded; they used to say that these Celtic people were pushed back into Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall by the waves of invaders. But it’s also possible that the locals lived alongside the invaders, under their rule, just as they had with the Romans. Historians simply don’t know for sure because there aren’t many surviving records.

Putting up a fight

It’s likely that the Britons put up a fight when the invaders first arrived.

But historians know about this struggle only because of the writings of some early historians, who aren’t very precise about things. One of these historians was a sixth-century writer called Gildas, who tells of a Roman leader called Ambrosius Aurelianus who stayed on and helped the Britons fight the invaders.

Early historians also mention another resistance leader, named by some writers as Vortigern, a Celtic ruler living in the west of England, who defended his country against invaders in several battles in the fifth or early sixth century. For a while, probably in the first half of the sixth century, the Saxons seem to have been thwarted in their invasion plans as a result of these shadowy resistance leaders.

Archaeologists investigating the hill fort at South Cadbury, Somerset, have found that it was refortified in the sixth century and was the site of a large hall, the equivalent of a royal palace or at least a nobleman’s seat. Such a site was likely the home of one of the local leaders who was involved in fighting off the first waves of Saxon invasions. But historians have no way of knowing who actually lived there.

Once and future myth

Much later, by the 12th century, writers were naming the man who led the struggle against the invaders as King Arthur. Stories abounded about Arthur. He was said to have fought many bloody battles against the invaders. Famous tales described his kingly court, where his chosen elite group of knights sat in state around a famous round table. There were even stories about him becoming a European conqueror.

Arthur was also said to be ‘the once and future king’ - in other words, he would return one day, when Britain was in its hour of deepest need. So any king of England would be proud to have Arthur as his ancestor, and it’s no wonder that stories of this superhero were popular for hundreds of years. There’s no evidence that an early king called Arthur really existed. There were Saxon invasions, some of which were repulsed by a ruler in western England. But as to the character of the ‘real’ King Arthur, evidence of his personality has vanished like so much of the evidence about the people who lived in Britain in the sixth century.

Seven kings for seven kingdoms

By the seventh century, the Saxon invaders had returned, fought off any remaining resistance, and settled down. They established a number of kingdoms stretching from Northumbria in the far north to Kent in the south. How many kingdoms? Well, if you read about Saxon England, different books give different numbers, because the numbers changed over time. This fluctuation in numbers tells historians something about how Saxon kings saw their job.

Conquering kings

Part of the job of a Saxon king was warfare. The Saxons were warriors who continuously fought to extend their territories. Extra territory brought extra power, respect, and wealth, because the spoils of war can be of huge value. And if you had an army, you needed to keep them fed, and helping yourself to your enemy’s food was one way of doing it.

Warfare also helped the Saxons show off. From the surviving remains, it’s obvious that Saxon kings liked luxury. They had fine swords, elaborate jewellery such as belt buckles, and clasps for their cloaks made of precious metals and coloured jewels. And they liked to give such items as rewards for heroism or loyalty.

The kingdoms

The Saxon warriors carved out seven main kingdoms in England. Here’s a list, with a note about the location of each one, starting in the north and working southward:

Northumbria: Most of northern England from the Scottish border to the River Humber. Northumbria eventually incorporated the smaller kingdoms of Bernicia (in the far north) and Deira (Yorkshire).

Mercia: The Midlands, sometimes incorporating the kingdom of Hwicce, in the area of the River Severn.

East Anglia: The modern counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.

Essex: To the south of East Anglia.

Kent: In the far southeast, covering roughly the same area as the modern county of Kent.

Sussex: Again, based in an area similar to the modern southeastern county.

Wessex: In the southwest of England, but excluding Cornwall, which, like Wales, remained a stronghold of the Britons.

So there were a lot of kingdoms, and a lot of kings to go with them. What’s more, even when one king gained supremacy over a neighbouring kingdom, it didn’t necessarily mean that he deposed his neighbour. In the Saxon period, when communications were difficult and government was still developing, it wasn’t always easy for one king to rule over a large area. So it was sometimes easier to let a conquered neighbour go on ruling, as a sort of dependent, or subking.

Struggles for Supremacy

With seven main kingdoms and a number of smaller subkingdoms, it is no surprise that some of the more powerful ones became dominant. Eventually three kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex, ended up with the most power. But before this dominance happened, a lot of fighting took place.

Sutton who?

Of the seven main Saxon kingdoms, East Anglia was one of the smaller ones. But even a small kingdom can be seriously rich. And the riches of the rulers of East Anglia were brought stunningly to light in 1939 when buried treasure was discovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The awesome treasure - jewelled buckles and clasps, plates and vessels made of precious metals - turned out to have been buried inside a complete wooden ship, recalling the Viking ship burials of Scandinavia. But no body was discovered with the lavish finds.

Whose treasure was inside the Sutton Hoo ship? The most likely candidate is an East Anglian king called Raedwald, who died around A.D. 625. Raedwald was a powerful warrior who won a notable battle against the king of Bernicia. The battle came about because the Bernicians had asked Raedwald to hand over a man called Eadwine, a prince from Deira who had been exiled and was serving as a warrior at Raedwald’s court.

Raedwald, apparently on the advice of his wife, refused to hand over Eadwine and instead waged a war against the Bernicians and won. After the battle, Raedwald saw to it that his friend Eadwine was placed on the throne of Deira. This move effectively extended Raedwald’s power into northern England. A king of little East Anglia held power over a huge tract of England.

No wonder Raedwald was able to amass such a rich collection of treasure. But the power of East Anglia didn’t last long after his death. His son, Eorpwald, was a Christian who was killed by his non-Christian subjects, and later East Anglian kings were slaughtered in battles with an ambitious king from the Midlands, Penda of Mercia. Further north, the kings of Northumbria were also becoming more powerful.

Northumbria versus Mercia

Up north, there were two kingdoms, Bernicia (by the Scottish border) and Deira (based in and around modern Yorkshire). The Bernicians were generally the more powerful of the two, and a strong early king, Aethelfrith (A.D. 593-617) carved out a big kingdom that included a large chunk of southern Scotland. There was an interlude in Bernician power when Eadwine ruled the north with the backing of the East Anglians (see preceding section), but in A.D. 634, one of the most powerful northern kings, Oswald, came to the throne.

Oswald was an interesting ruler because he combined success on the battlefield with a commitment to the up-and-coming religion of Europe, Christianity. Having beaten his Welsh enemy Cadwallon of Gwynedd in battle, he turned to quieter pursuits and invited the monk Aidan to build a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne and begin a mission to convert the north to Christianity.

The first monasteries were immensely important for England and its rulers. Today, people think of monasteries as places where very religious people go to devote their lives to God. But in the Anglo-Saxon period, they were far more than just places of worship because they made an enormous contribution to culture. The monasteries taught their monks and nuns to read and write, and they produced beautiful illuminated manuscripts, which are still among the treasures of western art. The literate monks and nuns who produced these books also developed links with monasteries in other parts of Europe, creating connections with other countries. Some monks travelled widely, and their royal benefactors used them to carry messages and to find out what was going on in other parts of England or Europe.

Oswald did not devote himself entirely to Christian good works. The king had a long-running dispute with the powerful Mercian king, Penda, who was an ally of Cadwallon. Less than ten years after coming to the throne, Oswald was killed in a battle with Penda, and the northern kingdom passed to his brother, Oswiu. King Oswiu was an important figure in both political and religious terms.

Oswiu and Penda

King Penda of Mercia wanted either to conquer the north or at least increase his influence there. In 654-5, Penda and Oswiu came to blows when Penda marched northwards and besieged Oswui’s castle at Giudi, probably an early name for Stirling in Scotland. Penda had a formidable army, and it was said that he managed to assemble 30 kings to lead it - an indication of the number of kingdoms that were around if you roped in the various divisions of Wales and England.

Oswiu was forced to give in and persuaded Penda to withdraw by buying him off with most of the royal treasury. A huge redistribution of royal wealth took place when Penda shared out much of the booty to his kingly followers before retreating back towards the Midlands. But he didn’t bank on Oswiu, who, peeved at his lost fortune, was soon pursuing Penda. Oswiu caught up with his foe near a river called the Winwaed, somewhere in south Yorkshire, and a battle ensued. The tables were turned, Penda’s army was annihilated, and Mercian power was curtailed. For the moment.

Which way for the church?

The other dispute in Oswiu’s reign was more peaceful. It was a disagreement between the two branches of the English church, one influenced by Celtic missionaries from Iona, the other under the sway of Roman churchmen from the south. Although their core beliefs were the same, they had different ways of working out the date of Easter and were organised differently.

The two churches

The English church was split in two during the early Anglo-Saxon period because of the way the country had converted to Christianity. Southern England had been converted by missionaries, such as St Augustine of Canterbury, who had the direct backing of the pope and so followed the Roman Catholic faith. But the missionaries who worked in northern England were influenced heavily by the Irish church, which at that time had grown apart from Rome on some issues. Irish monks set up a monastery on the Scottish island of Iona and another at Lindisfarne in Northumbria. From here, men like St Aidan preached in northern England and converted people to the Celtic branch of Christianity.

In 664, things came to a head. The two dates for Easter were especially far apart that year and as a result Lent, the period of fasting and austerity, was nearly twice as long as it usually was. Bad news all round. So a church meeting or synod was called at Whitby, where there was an important monastery, to sort out the controversy. After a big debate, Oswiu threw his weight behind the Roman church. As a result, the entire English church now looked to Rome for its leadership, and England would remain Catholic for nearly 900 years.

Keep Offa the Dyke

Mercia had been dealt a heavy blow when northern king Oswiu defeated rampaging Mercian ruler Penda. (See the preceding section on Oswiu and Penda.) But the Mercians were far from finished. Penda’s son Wulfhere (658-c. 675) was an aggressive king, but after Penda’s drubbing in the north, Wulfhere expanded southwards, scoring victories in the southeast and getting the South Saxons - the people of Sussex - under his thumb. The kings who ruled Mercia in the decades after Wulfhere - men such as Wulfhere’s brother Aethelred (674-704) and Penda’s descendant Aethelbald (716-57) - ruled in a similar way, dominating various subkingdoms such as the region of the Hwicce (Gloucestershire and Worcestershire) and even penetrating into distant areas such as Kent.

By the time of the Mercian ruler Offa (757-96), the Midland kings were claiming to be rulers of all England. Offa went further than most, dramatically reducing the power of his subkings so that his own power was concentrated and centralised.

Warring with Wales

Offa’s greatest enemies were the Welsh, especially the king of Powys, Eliseg, who tried to move into the western parts of Mercia, along what is now the border between England and Wales. Offa’s response was to build an enormous fortification, the earth rampart and ditch now known as Offa’s Dyke.

Offa’s Dyke is an amazing structure. Its bank is up to 20 ft (6 m) in height, and it runs for miles from Sedbury, near the River Severn, northwards along the border between England and Wales. Gaps occur in the dyke, sometimes where natural barriers (such as the gorge of the River Wye) make an artificial fortification unnecessary. Offa’s Dyke was essentially a political boundary, its course agreed after discussions between Offa and his Welsh counterparts during the second half of Offa’s reign, which was fairly peaceful.

The dyke was a big symbol of Offa’s power. No other Saxon king had built such an enormous structure. And Offa’s influence was not just military. In 794, he made an agreement with the great Frankish emperor Charlemagne, the most powerful man in Europe, to encourage trade between England and the European mainland.

But even Offa’s power and influence could not guarantee peace between Mercia and Wales. In 796, the Mercian king was fighting the Welsh again. Offa died in battle, after a long and successful reign.

More Mercians

When the great Mercian king Offa died in 796, some regions over which he had reigned, such as East Anglia and Kent, broke free of Mercian rule and set up their own independent kings. The next few Mercian kings had to work and fight hard to re-establish their power. Some of them also tried to push westward and conquer parts of Wales.

Several of these later Mercian kings were shadowy figures who only reigned for a few years each. Among the more long-lived and successful were:

Coenwulf (796-821) took Kent and East Anglia back from their local leaders and invaded North Wales.

Coelwulf (821-3) made further conquests in Wales.

Burgred (852-74) made an alliance with the king of Wessex and again attacked the Welsh. But he was attacked in turn by invading Vikings. In the end, he gave up his crown to go on a pilgrimage to Rome.

● Aethelred (879-911) suffered several defeats in Wales. He married Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred, king of Wessex, and after his death his kingdom passed into the hands of the rulers of Wessex.

So Aethelred was the last of the independent kings of Mercia. Continuous wars, and the increasing strength of Wessex, had brought an end to Mercia’s power.

Wessex Rules

The southwestern part of England was known as the kingdom of the West Saxons, or Wessex. Its heartland stretched along the valley of the River Thames and eventually included all the counties along the south coast of England from Devon in the south west to Hampshire. This area was quite large, but nowhere near the size of the Midland kingdom of Mercia or the vast realm of Northumbria in the north of England.

Compared with these larger kingdoms, Wessex didn’t seem a likely bet to take over the whole of England, especially when Mercia was so powerful, but that is what happened. By a combination of conquest, alliances, and judicious use of family ties to place people in positions of power, the kings of Wessex gradually increased their influence until they became rulers of England.

Small beginnings

To begin with, Wessex wasn’t a unified kingdom. It was more like a federation of tiny states, each with its own king. This was the situation in the seventh century, when the people of the Thames valley took a pounding from the powerful Mercian king Penda and his son Wulfhere. In around 660, the important town of Dorchester on Thames fell to the Mercians, and the former rulers of the Thames valley moved their headquarters, including their bishopric (the headquarters of their bishop), southward to Winchester.

From this base in the south of England, the West Saxon rulers began to take over the small kingdoms of their neighbours and to expand into territory in the far west (such as Devon) that had not previously been conquered by the Saxons. By the end of the seventh century, it made sense to talk about a unified Wessex. Here are some of the kings, mostly rather shadowy characters, who made this unification a reality:

Caedwalla (685-8) killed off most of his rivals for power in Wessex and also took control of the Isle of Wight.

Ine (688-726) brought Devon under Wessex rule, supported the Christian church, and issued the first law code in Wessex.

Cynewulf (757-86) made peace with the powerful Mercian king, Offa.

Beorhtric (786-802) strengthened the alliance between Wessex and Mercia by marrying Offa’s daughter, Eadburh.

Poor Beorhtric was one of the first English kings to become the victim of a royal scandal. He died in 802, as the result of poisoning. The rumour was that the deadly dose had been administered by his wife, Eadburh. So much for royal alliances. It was said that the poison was actually intended for someone else, but the cruel mistake sent Eadburh on the run. She ran off to mainland Europe and threw herself on the mercy of the Frankish emperor, Charlemagne, who used his influence to make her an abbess. But Eadburh couldn’t stay out of trouble. She broke her vow of chastity, was found out, and ended her life in obscurity in Italy.

When Beorhtric met his untimely end, the kingdom of Wessex was strong but still confined to the south of England. But in the next 30 years or so, it expanded to become the most influential of all the Saxon kingdoms, with its rulers claiming power over the whole of England.

Ecgbert, king of England

The next king of Wessex was Ecgbert (802-39). Ecgbert was a Saxon prince, but as with many rulers in this period, historians know little about his background. He may have been the son of one Ealhmund, who had ruled Kent for a short while. What we do know is that Ecgbert had had his eye on the throne of Wessex for a while. The previous king, Beorhtric, had fought him off, and Ecgbert had been forced to live in mainland Europe, at the court of the Franks.

When Beorhtric died, Ecgbert returned to claim the crown of Wessex. Ecgbert was a warrior, but he also had some good ideas about government, which he may have picked up during his time in exile with the Franks.

Ecgbert probably divided his kingdom up into small units called shires, the origin of modern British counties that still form part of the country’s local government system today. Each of these convenient administrative units was headed up by a man who was appointed by the king and who was usually based in the most important town in the shire. It was a simple way of spreading royal power throughout the kingdom.

In 825, Ecgbert’s power was challenged when an army of the Mercian king Beornwulf pushed south into Wessex territory in Wiltshire. Warrior Ecgbert rose to the challenge and fought the invaders at a place called Ellandun, probably near the modern village of Wroughton near Swindon.

The result was a resounding victory for Ecgbert and Wessex. The Mercian forces were scattered, and Ecgbert took over Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Essex. These areas had been under Mercian lordship, but Ecgbert appointed his son Aethelwulf to rule them as subking.

In 829, Ecgbert continued his assault against Mercia, evicting the new king, Wiglaf, from his throne. In the same year, the Northumbrians submitted to Ecgbert’s lordship, and the ruler of Wessex became king of all England.

This all-embracing power didn’t last, though. Wiglaf got his throne back only a year after Ecgbert’s victory. But Wessex was still strong in the south, and Ecgbert consolidated this strength by conquering a combined force of Cornish and Vikings at the Battle of Hingston Down in 838. The following year, 839, Ecgbert died.

So Ecgbert’s grip on the kingdom of England was loose. But that wasn’t what really mattered. Ecgbert was successful because he strengthened Wessex and built the foundations for a powerful future. But first, the kingdom had to face up to further troubles both inside and outside the royal family.

Aethel-this, Aethel-that

After the death of Ecgbert, Ecgbert’s son Aethelwulf took over the throne of Wessex. For just more than 30 years, the crowns of Wessex and its subkingdoms passed through the hands of Ecgbert’s various descendents, nearly all of whom had weird-sounding names beginning with Aethel-. Sorting out all these Aethel-kings is all very confusing for the modern reader, and the upshot was that Wessex remained a strong southern-English kingdom throughout the period. But just to allay the confusion, here’s a brief low-down on the most important Aethels:

Aethelwulf: Aethelwulf (839-58) was Ecgbert’s son. He was threatened by the Vikings, whom his father had defeated just before he died, and made a treaty with the kings of Mercia for mutual protection against marauding Norsemen. Aethelwulf then went on a pilgrimage to Rome, handing out his lands to two of his sons. Aethelbald became ruler of the South West. Aethelbert became king of the South East. When Aethelwulf returned from his pilgrimage, a dispute broke out because one of his sons, Aethelbald, would not hand back his crown to his father. Aethelwulf wouldn’t fight his son, so he let Aethelbald rule on in Wessex while he took control of the rest of southeast England. But by 860, both Aethelwulf and Aethelbald were dead.

Aethelbert: Eventually, after the crown-swaps of the previous decade, Aethelbert (860-5) became king of a reunited Wessex. Like his father, he had to face Viking attacks, notably when a big Viking host attacked Winchester and killed many of the inhabitants before Aethelbert fought them off.

Aethelred: Another brother of Aethelbert, Aethelred (865-71), also had to contend with Viking invaders. This time they came from the north, and it was serious. The Norsemen had formed a great army and meant business. First, in 866, they landed in East Anglia. By sheer force of numbers, they were quickly able to persuade the king of East Anglia to make peace. They then took all his horses and rode north, taking over York and slaughtering any Northumbrians who tried to defend the area.

Then the Viking host rode south to Mercia, taking Nottingham. The West Saxons marched northwards to help their allies in Mercia put up a resistance. But they were unable to defeat the Vikings who then returned to York. In 870, they were back in the east, charging through East Anglia, defeating its defenders, and putting the local ruler to death.

By 870, the Vikings controlled Northumbria and East Anglia - the whole of the north and east of England. Mercia was hanging on by a thread, and Wessex had so far been left relatively unscathed. But 870 was the year the Vikings went for Wessex. This move was a pivotal moment in English history, because the invaders were attacking the strongest of the English kingdoms. Wessex was the key to power in England - especially in the southern part of the country.

When the Vikings began their assault on Wessex, Aethelred was joined in the field of battle by his surviving brother, Alfred. The pair had to face a formidable assault and fought several battles including, in the year 871:

Englefield: A force from Berkshire scored another blow against the invaders, killing one of their commanders.

Reading: The Wessex force attacked Reading, a Viking stronghold, but were defeated.

Ashdown: Wessex counterattacked. A Wessex defeat was narrowly avoided because Aethelred was attending Mass and would not leave until the priest had finished, but Alfred fought fiercely and his men sent the Vikings running.

In 871, Aethelred died, leaving the war against the Vikings still in the balance and leaving his brother Alfred with the crown. It was a decisive moment for Wessex, with the kingdom’s future poised on a knife-edge and a young, fairly inexperienced man about to take over as king. The forces of Wessex had kept the invaders at bay, but the Vikings had not been decisively defeated. It could have gone either way.

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