Asking who was the first king of England and who was the first ruler of England really depends on how ‘king’ is defined and also how ‘England’ is defined.
Most of the Anglo-Saxon kings ruled their own kingdoms – Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria, Kent, Essex, Sussex and East Anglia – but it was two of the early Anglo-Saxon rulers whose leadership extended beyond their own lands.
The Men Who Would Be King
One possible claimant as the first ruler of England was Egbert, King of Wessex between 802 and 839. After a number of important conquests he was described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a bretwalda, or a ‘wide ruler’ of Anglo-Saxon lands.
Offa, King of Mercia, is another, albeit less qualified, contender for the title of first monarch of England. He controlled much of the south and southwest of England. As well as using the title rex Merciorium, or king of the Mercians, he is also believed to have used rex Anglorum, or king of the English. However this was just bluster, there is no evidence to suggest he ruled the entire country.
Perhaps the man who has the strongest claim as the first ruler of England is Alfred the Great. The most powerful of all the Anglo-Saxon kings, he was the de facto – and self-styled – king of England although unlike those that followed, he was never officially crowned as such.
The man who was the first ever king of England was in fact Æthelstan. Here is his story.
Æthelstan - England’s First King
The grandson of Alfred the Great, Æthelstan may not be the most famous king of England, but according to contemporary accounts and later historians he was one of the greatest and most accomplished rulers England has ever had.
Indeed he was described in a contemporary report as ‘the most excellent and illustrious among the earthly kings of our own day’ and elsewhere as ‘the father of medieval and modern England’. In his twelfth century chronicles, William Of Malmesbury wrote that ‘no one more just or more learned ever governed the kingdom.’
Praise indeed, but who was Æthelstan and what did he do to warrant such adulation?
Æthelstan - The Early Years
When his father Edward died in 924, Æthelstan’s brother Ælfweard was set for the throne, but he died just sixteen days after their father. Æthelstan was originally crowned king of Wessex and Mercia, and immediately he faced resistance to his rule.
At this time, Æthelstan ruled both Wessex and Mercia, however the kingdom of Northumbria – and its capital York – was still under Viking control. To further his political ambitions, Æthelstan’s sister married the Viking ruler Sihtric in 926, and the two men agreed not to attack each other. However, this all changed when Sihtric died within a year of the agreement, and Æthelstan saw his opportunity to invade. York, and Northumbria, was his. He was England’s first king.
Having secured this military victory, in 927 King Constantine of Alba, King Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Ealdred of Bamburgh, and King Owain of Strathclyde accepted Æthelstan as overlord. Next stop Wales and at a meeting in Hereford, the Welsh kings begrudgingly accepted him as mechteyrn, or the ‘greater king.’
Although his rule over the northern parts of the country wasn’t as strong as that in the south, east and west, the Kingdom of England was increasingly established, and the question of who was the first king of England can arguably be said to be Æthelstan, as the first person to rule all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England.
The First King of England
With great power comes great responsibility and Æthelstan certainly didn’t shirk his kingly duties. It’s true to say that much of his reign was dedicated to establishing a unified England, but he also paid close attention to the needs of the people.
He laid the foundations for a centralised government and monastic reform, he was committed to the patronage of education, he was a dedicated lawmaker, a first-class diplomat both at home and abroad and, when required, a brutal warrior.
Literally and metaphorically, the first ever king of England was a towering figure in the early mediaeval age.
Æthelstan’s Crowning Glory - The Battle of Brunanburh
Even though Æthelstan was the king of the entire country, he still had enemies. Yet such was the nature of his military power that the only viable way he could be defeated was if those who opposed him formed an alliance.
Having secured control of the whole country, the first king of England next invaded Scotland in 934. Because of the incursion, revenge was sought. An alliance now formed against Æthelstan, made up of King of Dublin Olaf Guthfrithson, King Constantine II of Alba and Owain, King of Strathclyde.
Now largely forgotten in the generally known history of England, the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 was one of the bloodiest and most brutal battles in the nation’s history, and arguably its most important. The exact location of the battle has been lost to time, but it was described as ‘the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before Hastings’ and while both sides lost countless men, Æthelstan’s army was decisive in victory.
Modern historians have argued that the battle forged a political map of England and the British Isles that remains to this day.
The End of the First Monarch of England
Having secured this crucial victory, Æthelstan would only live a few more years. One of England’s most successful rulers died on 27 October 939 at Gloucester, and was buried at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. Arguably as crucial a figure to English history as his grandfather Alfred, and possibly more fundamental to the nation than many kings and queens who came after, Æthelstan nevertheless remains a largely obscure figure, whose achievements are barely recognised in the annals of the nation he fought so stridently to create.