Set apart from the preceding period of multiple Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the unification of Anglo-Saxon England ushered in a new era in the nation’s history which lasted until the Norman conquest of 1066. For clarity, this list of Anglo-Saxon kings of England starts with Æthelstan, the first king of a unified England in 927, and ends with King Harold II and the Norman Conquest in 1066.
For other lists of Anglo-Saxon kings of the preceding sub-kingdoms, take a look at our list of the kings of Mercia, kings of Wessex, kings of Northumbria and kings of East Anglia.
The History of Anglo-Saxon England
The Anglo-Saxons – largely comprising the tribes of the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes – migrated to Britain from northern Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries.
At first, they were made up of small groups divided into seven main kingdoms – Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Kent, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria – each with their own Anglo-Saxon kings and often engaged in bloody power struggles.
In the ninth century, England was invaded by the Vikings and this fundamentally altered the fate of Anglo-Saxon England. With some kingdoms – such as Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia – falling to Viking conquest, it was Wessex which managed to survive the initial onslaught and slowly gather the forces necessary to turn the tide. The most powerful Anglo-Saxon king of all was Alfred the Great of Wessex, who defeated the Viking forces and proclaimed himself the King of the Anglo-Saxons in the late 880s.
However, the first man to control the entire area that would become known as the Kingdom of England was Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan in 927. It is with him where we start on our list of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England.
Born: c.894 | Died: 939 | Reign: 927 – 939
Æthelstan was king of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 until 927 when he became the first king of a unified England. He is regarded as one of the great rulers of Anglo-Saxon England and one of the finest statesmen in mediaeval Europe. In fact twelfth century writer William of Malmesbury said of Æthelstan, ‘no-one more just or more learned ever governed the kingdom.’
Not only did he develop relationships with the rulers of Scotland and Wales, he was also active in European politics, corresponding with Western Europe’s great rulers and growing long-term associations.
At home, he was responsible for further centralising government while trying to restore and develop the social order across England. He died in 939 and was buried at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire.
Born: c.920 | Died: 946 | Reign: 939 – 946
Edmund succeeded his half-brother Æthelstan in the Anglo-Saxon monarchy and was immediately plunged headfirst into a turf war. When his half-brother died, there was a short power vacuum and the Vikings saw an opportunity to take back control of York and northeast Mercia. It took three years to regain control of Mercia and by 944 he was in full control of England.
During Edmund’s reign as one of the great Anglo-Saxon kings, he started the Benedictine Reform. This was a program of changes to the church, which included the restoration of a traditional monastic life as well as caring for the poor and encouraging artistic endeavours.
Edmund’s death in the Gloucestershire town of Pucklechurch is somewhat of a mystery. He may have been stabbed by an opportunistic thief or murdered in a political assassination. He was buried in Glastonbury Abbey.
Born: c.923 | Died: 955 | Reign: 946 – 955
Eadred was the younger brother of Edmund. Eadred was deeply religious and a vociferous supporter of the Benedictine Reforms. He also followed in the family tradition of reunifying the country after Northumbria fell under the control of legendary Viking ruler Eric the Bloodaxe. Eadred expelled him in 954.
In this list of Anglo-Saxon kings, Eadred was one of the lesser known. He never married so rule passed to his nephew after he died. He was buried in the New Minster in Winchester.
Born: c.940 | Died: 959 | Reign: 955 – 959
Eadwig, also known as Eadwig All-Fair, was the eldest son of Edmund I and was one of the youngest of all Saxon kings. He was only fifteen when he was crowned.
Because he was so young, his reign was seen as unstable and in 957, the kingdom was split between Eadwig, who ruled over the land south of the River Thames and his brother Edgar who ruled land to the north. Many of the details of Eadwig’s reign remain lost and he died mysteriously before his twentieth birthday. Like Eadred, he was also buried in the New Minster in Winchester.
Born: c.943 | Died: 975 | Reign: 959 – 975
Eadwig’s younger brother is one of the more elusive members of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy because the chroniclers of the time were more focused on writing about the church than the royal house.
Known as Edgar the Peaceful, he supported the successful Benedictine Reform and he introduced a standardised system of coinage in the 970s. He was also heavily involved in the improvement of the way the law was enforced.
Edgar’s reign was during a period of sustained peace across the country and his coronation, organised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, is believed to have been the template for all modern coronation ceremonies. After he died he was buried at Glastonbury Abbey.
Edward the Martyr
Born: c.962 | Died: 978 | Reign: 975 – 978
The eldest son of Edgar, Edward was possibly as young as twelve when he became king after a bitterly contested leadership contest with his half-brother Æthelred. This brought England to the brink of civil war.
Edward, seen as one of the weaker rulers of Anglo-Saxon England, was murdered in the grounds of where Corfe Castle now stands and, although it isn’t certain, it is possible his rival Æthelred was somehow involved. He was buried at Wareham with no royal honours but was disinterred and reburied at Shaftesbury Abbey.
Æthelred the Unready
Born: c.966 | Died: 1016 | Reign: 978 – 1013 and 1014 – 1016
Perhaps the most famous ruler in this list of Anglo-Saxon kings of England, his name is the subject of much debate. It seems that in Old English, Æthelred means ‘noble counsel’ and Unræd means ‘badly advised’ which is somewhat of an oxymoron.
Another young king – he was about twelve when he took the throne – his reign was punctuated with war with the Danes. They took advantage of his supposed weakness, as well as his policy of paying huge sums to convince the invaders to leave. Perhaps this was the reason for his nickname.
In retaliation for these Danish incursions, Æthelred ordered the mass killing of Danish settlers in 1002. Seeking revenge for this act, Danish king Swein Forkbeard invaded, forcing the Saxon king to flee to France. Forkbeard, who had installed himself as the King of England, died in 1014, this allowed Æthelred to briefly return to the throne. The remainder of his reign was marred by constant challenges from Forkbeard’s son. Æthelred died in 1016 and was buried in the old St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Born: c.990 | Died: 1016 | Reign: April – November 1016
Known as Edmond Ironside due to his ability with a sword, his seven-month reign was the shortest of the Anglo-Saxon kings and was marred by battles against the armies of Forkbeard’s son, Canute.
England was divided into those against the Danes and those supporting the Danes. Edmund was finally beaten at the Battle of Assandun, and the country was split between the two kings. However, Edmond’s death at a relatively young age allowed Canute to take the whole kingdom.
There are a number of versions of Edmond’s death, including being shot with an arrow, stabbed while on the loo, dying from wounds sustained in battle or from disease. He was buried alongside his grandfather Edgar at Glastonbury Abbey.
Born: c.990 | Died: 1035 | Reign: 1016 – 1035
Known variably as Cnut and Canute the Great, the son of Swein Forkbeard was a Danish prince and therefore not strictly an Anglo-Saxon king of England, but rather a Danish king of England.
Despite the fact he took the English throne by force, he was considered to be a successful and popular king. He gave money to the church and he was a highly regarded diplomat. He was simultaneously King of Denmark from 1018 to 1035 and King of Norway from 1028. Aside from the Holy Roman Emperor, Canute was believed to be the most powerful man in western Europe.
He died in Dorset and was buried at the New Minster in Winchester.
Born: ? | Died: 1040 | Reign: 1035 – 1040
Another Danish king of England, Harold was the illegitimate son of Canute and was nicknamed Harefoot (Harefoh or Harefah) perhaps because he was ‘fleet of foot’ as a hunter. In reality, he shouldn’t have been one of the rulers of Anglo-Saxon England. His half-brother, Harthacnut, was the rightful heir but he was occupied in Denmark fighting a Norwegian rebellion.
His reign was blighted by familial strife, most notably from his step-brothers Alfred and Edward. Harold died in 1040 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. In a particularly brutal act of revenge (though possibly apocryphal), it was said that Harthacnut had his body exhumed and chopped his head off before dumping it near the Thames. His body was eventually recovered and reburied at the church of St. Clement Danes in London.
Born: c.1018 | Died: 1042 | Reign: 1040 – 1042
Known variably as Hardicanute or Canute III, he was King of England for two years after the death of his half-brother. Another Danish son of Canure, he lost control of Norway and travelled to England accompanied by his mother and sixty-two warships. Despite the fact that he had been invited to reign, he took no chances and came with an invasion force.
He found it hard to adapt to the English way of ruling, in council with a number of senior earls, and his reign lasted a little over two years.
The circumstances surrounding his death are contradictory, One story suggests he keeled over at a wedding ‘brought about by an excessive intake of alcohol’. Another suggests he was accidentally poisoned after taking a drink intended for the new King of Norway, Magnus I. He was buried at Winchester Cathedral.
Edward the Confessor
Born: c.1003 | Died: 1066 | Reign: 1042 – 1066
One of the last rulers of Anglo-Saxon England, Edward was a deeply religious man who oversaw the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. He reigned for twenty-four years and was believed to have been a skilled diplomat, managing often difficult relationships with Scotland and Wales as well as keeping his feuding barons under control.
Unusually for the time, his wife Edith was crowned queen. He died in January 1066 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Born: c.1022 | Died: 1066 | Reign: January – October 1066
Despite having no royal bloodline – he was elected by a council of noblemen and religious leaders – Harold Godwinson was the last king of the Anglo-Saxons and, it is believed, the first to be crowned at Westminster Abbey.
After Edward’s death, a power struggle ensued between Harold and Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway. The former defeated the latter at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066. However, despite this victory news soon arrived of a second invading army led by William, Duke of Normandy which had landed in Sussex. Harold immediately made his way south.
William defeated Harold at the famous Battle of Hastings. Despite the popular notion he was shot in the eye with an arrow, it seems this is largely apocryphal. An account written soon after the battle by the Bishop of Amiens suggested Harold was killed by four knights, one of whom may have been William himself, and then his body dismembered. William became the first Norman king of England.
Harold’s burial place remains disputed, It could be at either Waltham Abbey in Essex or in Bosham in Sussex. It may of course be neither of these places. And here endeth the tale of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England.