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827-1066 - Saxon Kings

In the year 827 of the Christian era, all the seven kingdoms of the Saxon Heptarchy were united into one, under the government of Egbert. He was, therefore, the first king of England. Egbert was a native of England, but had been educated in France, at the court of Charlemagne. He was therefore more polished and enlightened than most of the Saxon kings. During the reign of Egbert, and for many years afterwards* the Danes made incursions into England. They sometimes overran the whole country.

During the years which followed the first Danish settlement in 851 and 855 there were raids on the south made by Vikings from Frankish territory, but the great development took place in 866, when a large Danish army took up its quarters in East Anglia, whence they advanced to York in 867. Northumbria was weakened by dissension and the Danes captured York without much trouble. This city was henceforward the stronghold of Scandinavian power in Northern England, and the Saxon Eoforwic soon became the Norse Jdrvik or York. The Danes set up a puppet king Ecgberht in Northumbria north of the Tyne and reduced Mercia to submission. Thence they marched into East Anglia as far as Thetford, and engaged the forces of Edmund, King of East Anglia, defeating and slaying him, but whether in actual battle or, as popular tradition would have it, in later martyrdom is uncertain. The death of St Edmund soon became an event of European fame, and no event in the Danish invasions was more widely known and no Danish leader more heartily execrated than Ivarr, their commander on this occasion. After their victory in East Anglia the Danes attacked Wessex. Their struggle with Aethelred and his brother Alfred was long and fierce.

Alfred, who ascended the throne in 872, fought fifty-six battles with them by sea and land. On one occasion, he went into the camp of the Danes in the disguise of a harper. He took notice of every tiling, and planned an attack upon the camp. Returning to his own men, he led them against the Danes, whom he completely routed. In the end Danes and English came to terms by the peace of Wedmore (878), and the ensuing "peace of Alfred and Guthrum" (885) defined the boundary between Alfred's kingdom and the Danish realm in East Anglia. England was divided between Wessex in the south and the Danes in the north, the Danelaw. This king was called Alfred the Great; and he had a better right to the epithet of Great than most other kings who have borne it. He made wise laws, and instituted the custom of trial by jury. He likewise founded the university of Oxford.

The last four years of King Alfred the Great's reign (887-900) seem to have been peaceful. The "Great Army" had disbanded, Hasting had retired into France, and the Vikings showed no disposition to renew their attacks on Wessex. When King Alfred died, his son Edward was chosen king by the Witan, but ^Ethelwald, a son of Alfred's elder brother AEthelred, attempted to make good his claim to the throne. He was unable to cope with Edward, but fled to York, where he was hailed as king. This meant a renewal of war between the Danelaw and the king of Wessex. A treaty of peace terminated the war in 903. In 910 hostilities were renewed, and Edward undertook to conquer the whole Danelag. By 919, the chronicle tells us, King Edward was acknowledged as overlord by King Ragnvald of York, by Donald, king of the Welsh in Strathchlyde, by Ealdred of Bamborough, and even by Constantine, king of the Scots. Whether these kings really submitted to Edward may well be doubted, but Mercia was joined permanently to Edward's possessions. Edward died in 924. In the battle of Brunanburh the power of the kingdom of York was broken in 937.

After his defeat at Brunanburh Olav Kvaaran led a roving life, spending some time in Scotland and Cumberland, but he seems to have returned to Northumbria, and to have ruled there as king of York from 949 till 952. His successor as king of Northumbria was Eirik, no doubt Eirik Blood-Ax, son of King Harald Haarfagre. Olav Kvaaran must have been driven away again from Northumbria. In 952 he seized Dublin, where he married an Irish princess, and joined the Irish Church. He extended his sway over a great part of Ireland, and ruled till 980, when he was defeated in the battle of Tara by King Maelsechnaill of Tara, in Meath. Old and gray-haired, he departed from Ireland on a pilgrimage to lona, where he died as monk in 981.

The Danes again broke into England under the weak rule of Ethelred "the Redeless" (or ill-advised). There was now no Alfred to oppose them. They were accordingly victorious, and three Danish kings governed the country in succession. This made no great change, however, since Cnut and his sons governed by English law and as English kings. Sven "Forkbeard," king of Denmark, about the year 1000, invaded England and conquered it; Ethelred took refuge in Normandy with his family. Cnut, son of Sven, Dane, King of became king of England in 1016, and for a generation England was ruled by Danish kings.

Canute the Great appears to have been an old pirate, or, as they were called in those days, a sea-king. One day, when he and his courtiers were walking on the shore, they called him king of the sea, and told him that he had but to command and the waves would obey him. Canute, in order to shame their flattery, desired a chair of state to be brought and placed on the hard smooth sand. Then, seating himself in the chair, he stretched out his, sceptre over the waves with a very commanding aspect. "Roll back thy waves, thou sea" cried Canute. "I am thy king and master! How darest thou foam and thunder in my presence." But the sea, no wise abashed, came roaring and whitening onward, and threw a sheet of spray over Canute and all the courtiers. The giant waves rolled upward on the beach, far beyond the monarch's chair. They would soon have swallowed him up, together with his courtiers, if they had not all scampered to the dry land.

On the death of the last of the Danish, in 1042, the Saxon line of Ethelred was restored in the person of his son Edward, known as Edward the Confessor, or St. Edward. The principal importance of Edward the Confessor's reign was that it served as an introduction to the Norman conquest of England. Edward had been brought up from his childhood in Normandy. When he became king of England, he brought with him a large number of Normans, whom he placed in the chief positions in church and state. This led to a reaction on the part of an English party headed by the chief noble of the land, Godwin, earl of Wessex. After a civil struggle the Normans were expelled and Edward came completely under the control of Godwin's son, Harold. As Edward had no son to succeed him, he recognized Harold as his heir, and the national council, the Witenagemol, confirmed this by electing Harold as king, on Edward,s death in 1066. William, duke of Normandy, had hoped to secure the succession for himself. He now put forward a claim to the throne, alleging that Edward had designated him as his successor. In the fall of 1066 he sailed across the channel with an army of Normans and other French adventurers and landed in England at Pevensey Bay. Harold, who had been Hastings occupied with a revolt in the north, hurried south to meet him. The great English earls, however, jealous perhaps of Harold's new title of king, failed to support him, and in the battle of Hastings, Harold was defeated and slain. The national council, which had been hastily summoned by Harold, now submitted to the victor and recognized him as king. On Christmas day, 1066, William "the Conqueror" was crowned king of England. This ended the Anglo-Saxon period.



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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:44 ZULU