Toggle

The Dark Ages (450 - 1066) - Introduction & Summary

Dark Ages

Early England 450-870
The post Roman to pre unified English period
The Darkest of the Dark Ages.

Introduction

Alfred the Great of Saxon descent, from Wessex who ruled between 871-899, many historians consider the first king of all England but this was 450 years after the Romans left. Before this the country had been divided into 7 self ruled kingdoms, Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, East Anglia, West Anglia or Mercia and Northumbria.

The first “Anglo Saxon King” who came to power almost 50 years after the Romans left was in fact a Jute duo (from Jutland modern Denmark), messers Hengist and Horsa, and they only ruled in Kent. The first Saxon king ruled in Wessex (around Winchester) was called Cerdic. This was some 90 years after the Romans left. The ancestry of all the Kings and Queens of England can be traced to Cerdic including the present queen, Elizabeth 2nd.

Others early regional Kings who were powerful and ruled or influenced part but not all England were:

  • Cerdic a Saxon ruled in Wessex from 495
  • Ethelburt a Jute 580, ruled from Kent.
  • Ethelfrith an Angle 670 who ruled from Northumbria.
  • Penda an Angle 735 who ruled from Mercia.
  • Offa an Angle 757 who ruled from Mercia.
  • Egbert a Saxon 802 who ruled all England except Northumbria, from Wessex.
  • Alfred a Saxon 871 who ruled all England

The Romans leave Britain

After 400 years in Britain the Romans leave

410    Honorius, the Roman Emperor in Britain says he must return to Rome to defend his home    land from attacks by Germanic tribes and the British must take over the responsibility of defending themselves from Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Picts and Scots.

A Kingdom in Kent is formed
449    40 years after the Romans have left, Vortigen a local ruler in Kent, invites Jutes from Jutland Denmark, as mercenaries to fight against the invading Picts and Scots. Having beaten the Picts and Scots they turn on Vortigen and settle in Kent and choose the Jute war lords, Hengist and Horsa as their rulers (455).
Some put Hengist and Horsa as the first post Roman Germanic Kings of England.

The Kingdom of Sussex
477    Ella, a southern Saxon lands in Pevensey Bay and after a bloody war lasting some months, he kills most of the local Britains and forms Sussex. (South Saxons)

The Kingdom of Wessex
495    More Saxons arrive and land in the Southampton area, capture the old Roman town of Winchester and the land of the West Saxons in born, ruled by Cedric. All subsequent Kings and Queens of all England are related to Cedric.

516    Battle of Badon Hill. A West Saxon expansion westwards is halted for some years by perhaps a King Arthur one of the last Romanised Britians in England.

The Kingdom of Essex
527    The 3rd and last Saxon tribe arrives this time landing probably via the Thames just east of London and they settle in the land from the Thames to St Albans. Essex, the land of the East Saxons. Including the site being prepared for the 2012 Olympics

The Kingdom of Northumberland
547    Now it’s the turn of the Angles who avoid the Saxons and settle north of the river Humber (North- Humbria)

The Kingdom of East Anglia
575    Two further tribes of Angles land in what is now called East Anglia. They settle in two groups forming Norfolk and Suffolk. (North Folk and South Folk)

The Kingdom of Mercia
586    This area now called the East Midlands, was also overrun by Angles as they colonised the last remaining part of Romanised Britain.

585    England is thus divided into 7 separate Kingdoms all ruled by separate Germanic Kings. Some 200,000 Angles, Saxons and Jutes (from Jutland) are now living in England and the majority of British males have been killed or have fled to Wales, Scotland or Cornwall. The new Germanic tribes spend much of their time fighting between themselves.

The commencement of dominant Kings, 613

613-731.
Northumbria Kings rule over the whole of England except Kent. The three great Northumbrian Kings were:

  • Ethelfrith. 607. Noted for a decisive victory against the Welsh at Chester
  • Edwin 617. Noted for being persuaded to become a Christian by his wife Ethelburga who was the daughter of the Christian King of Kent. Edwin was defeated by the Mercian overlord Penda at a battle near Doncaster.
  • Egfrith 685. The last dominant King of Northumbria and England, defeated by a joint raiding party of Picts and Scots.

The Kings of Mercia rule England
679    The Mercians now become the most powerful Kingdom and by 757 rule all of Wessex. Mercia is populated by Angles. Their first notable King is Penda 735-55.
757    Offa 757-96 becomes King of Mercia, and overlord of all England below Northumbria. Noted for having a good trading and religious relationship with Charlemagne, introducing a new currency, the Penny with the same silver content as a French coin thus being interchangeable for trade. Noted also for building a formidable, 26 foot high, 120 mile long earth dyke to defend England from the “Britains” in Wales. Some say the first King of all England.

Saxon Kings rule all England

Egbert 802-839
820    England’s southern Kingdom, Wessex (Saxon) under King Egbert (802-839) breaks the military supremacy of Mercia (Angles) creating the powerbase to unify England. The only remaining Roman British stronghold (Cornwall) is also brought under Wessex control. Egbert is considered the first king of all England. Egbert married a French princess, none other than Redburga, sister of Charlemagne and with her he sired the future king Ethelwulf.

Ethelwulf 839-858
839    The son of Egbert, Ethelwulf rules 839-858 all of England but in 855 he is forced to allow the first permanent settlement of Vikings on the Island of Sheppey off the north coast of Kent. Ethelwulf travels to Rome in 856 to see the Pope he is so worried about the Vikings from Denmark. On the return journey he marries princess Judith, daughter of Charles the Bold, king of the Franks. 
Ethelwulf, previously in 830 married an English girl Osburga and they had four sons all becoming kings of England; (Osburga died c. 850)
Ethelbald, Ethelburt, Ethelred 1st and Alfred (The Great)

865 England is completely over run by the “Great Army” of Danish Vikings

Alfred the Great saves England

King Alfred 849-899 (22 when crowned)
For 100 years from 787 to 878 the Vikings attacked the Shores of England. In 870 a huge force landed in East Anglia with the mission to take over the whole of England. They turned north and sacked Northumbria and then marched south eventually meeting the stronger and better organised Wessex royal family, Ethelred the King and his younger brother Alfred. There were many battles against the Viking Danes led by a determined Guthrum who eventually won and temporally ruled the whole of England. King Ethelred was killed and brother Alfred went into hiding near Athelney in the Somerset marshes. 7 weeks later he returned and with some of his faithful warriors won a decisive victory against Guthrum at Edington Wiltshire-879. Guthrum was forced to give back half of his recently conquered England to Alfred (now the King) and even recognise Alfred as King of all England. The country was divided North East/South West along the old Roman Road called Watling Street running from Dover through London to the Roman town of Chester. (Modern roads A2 and A5) The Saxons ruled directly in the south and the Vikings in the north.

Edward 1st 901-925 (29 when crowned)

Edward, son of Alfred the Great, was determined to win back the Danish ruled land (Danelaw) north east of Watling street and with the help of his equally determined sister Ethelfleda (Lady of Mercia) did so between 921 and 924. So terrified were the remaining Danes in Northumbria together with the Scots and the Welsh that they all paid homage to him to avoid further bloodshed.
Edward (the Elder) is remembered for siring more legitimate children 18, than any other English King before or since. He needed three successive wives for this feat.

Athelstan 934-939 (29 when crowned)

Athelstan continued where his father Edward had left off when a mighty army formed against him in the north of England at Brunanburg consisting of Vikings, from Northumberland and Ireland together with the Scots. Like his father he annihilated his enemies in what historians consider the most important English Saxon victory yet as he thus became overlord of all Britain including Scotland and Wales and was recognised as the most powerful King in Europe. Unfortunately he had no wife and hence no children to expand further. He was succeeded by one of his many half brothers, Edmund

Edmund 1st 939-946 (18 when crowned)

Half Brother of Athelstan called Edmund the Elder and the “Magnificent” who was unfortunately assassinated by a notorious outlaw Liofa, during a feast in his castle at Pucklechurch Dorset when only 26. However he had two wives, the first when he was 18, St Elgiva who produced two sons and a daughter, then she died. Secondly Ethelflleda who when widowed became a nun which was quite usual for widows and unmarried sisters of Kings.
Militarily he followed in the strong family tradition by suppressing Viking uprisings in Northumberland and Mercia and a Welsh threat in Cumbria. He needed to secure friendship with the King of Scotland Malcolm by giving him Cumbria.

Eadred (or Edred) 946-955 (22 when crowned)

Succeeded his half brother Edmund, no record of a marriage or children.
Militarily he quelled the last uprising of Vikings in Northumbria and then removed or ethnically cleansed all the Vikings from England who were causing the English royal family so much trouble. He divided the troublesome Northumbria into three giving the northern section to the Scottish King and dividing the remaining part into two, self governed, by two English Earls.

Eadwig (or Edwy) 955-959 (15 when crowned)

A disastrous reign of 4 years

Sometimes called Edwy the Fair. Fortunately murdered when he was 19. Promiscuous from the start he famously left his coronation banquet at Kingston on Thames, to have sex with two women simultaneously, his mistress Elgifu and her mother. In those days the Archbishop of Canterbury would not only perform the coronation ceremony but also attempt to look after the morals and sometimes the education of the King. In Edwy case he was advised by the famous (Saint) Dunstan whose job it was to pull Edwy from his love bed and return him to the coronation. Not surprisingly Edwy soon exiled Dunstan who fled to Normandy. Later the church punished Elgifu by branding her with a red hot iron and sent her to Ireland.
Note; at this time when St Dunstan went to Normandy it was already in Viking hands as Rollo was given the land round the mouth of the Seine in 911 by the French king Charles 3rd “The Simple”.
In his short reign of 4 years Edwy lost control of Northumbria who with the aid of the Church set up Edwy’s younger brother Edgar as their King (initially of Northumbria).

Edgar 959-975 (16 when crowned)

Edgar “the peaceful” brother of Edwy, was a much better bet who made sure he was well advised by the educated elders of the Church. He brought St Dunstan back from exile and made him Archbishop of Canterbury. He had a sufficient presence to suppress the potential trouble makers of the land and to also rule both the Welsh and the Scots without any major military intervention. His authority was demonstrated by a remarkable publicity stunt on the river Dee when he was rowed up and down in a ceremonial barge by the five kings of Wales and two of Scotland plus the king of the Isle of Man.
Edgar strengthened the Church creating 40 religious centres to foster culture and learning.
Edgar had two wives Ethelfleda and then Elfrida and a number of mistresses, notably a nun called Wulfryth who produced him a daughter who became St Edith of Wilton. Edgar’s first wife Ethelfleda produced King Edward who was also Sainted. 
St Dunstan should be noted for trying to reform Church morals by insisting on the poverty, chastity and obedience of monks and the celibacy of parish priests. 
Edgar and St Dunstan brought together the Danish and Saxon races in England by introducing Danes into the Witan and creating some Danish Bishops and Earls.

Edward 975-979 (12 when crowned)

Edward the Martyr, son of Edgar and his first wife Ethelfleda
Edward was too young to follow in his fathers good footsteps and even though supported by St Dunstan could not control the Earls. After 4 years as King he was brutally murdered at Corfe Castle (still standing just!) probably at the instigation of his stepmother Elfrida who lived at Corfe to open the way for her son Ethelred to be crowned King even though he was only 10. 
He was buried unceremoniously at Wareham but soon after miracles apparently occurred in the area so he was reburied with full royal honours in Shaftsbury Abbey. The procession from Wareham to Shaftsbury a distance of only 25 miles took 7 days. Although Edward was unimportant in the history of England pilgrims still travel to his grave now a modern shrine in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking in Surrey.

Leadership Chaos 

Ethelred 979-1016 (10 when crowned)

Ethelred the Unready. Step brother of Edward the Martyr. Father King Edgar, mother Elfrida.
Ethelred had two wives, first Elfled of Northumbria and then Emma of Normandy. His son by Elfled became Edmund Ironside and his son via Emma, Edward the Confessor.
The word “Unready” actually was the Saxon word “unraed” which means he was uncouncilled or would not listen to his advisors. His long 37 year reign was an unmitigated disaster. 
The Danish Vikings recommenced their interest in England with a landing in the south east, (Essex) in 980. Ethelred’s response was to buy them off with cash by imposing a tax called Danegelt which raised £10,000.

Now in 980 AD in Ethelred’s reign 

  • Many people thought 1000 years after Jesus heralded the end of the world.
  • England had had two pathetic kings who had lost the confidence of his powerful earls who were his source of fighting men.
  • The Danes and Norwegian Vikings attacked simultaneously
  • King Ethelred married Emma the daughter of the Norman ruler Richard, in the vain hope that the Normans would provide an army to see off this latest wave of Vikings.
  • Ethelred paid handsomely to persuade the Vikings to leave.
  • Some Vikings did go and those who didn’t Ethelred sought out and massacred. Unfortunately for him this included Gunhild the sister of the Danish ruler Sweyn who in 1003 returned to avenge the brutal killing of his sister. After 10 years of intermittent but brutal fighting Ethelred fled to Normandy and the Danish Viking leader Sweyn Forkbbeard was appointed king of England by the Witan.

This was not the end of the leadership chaos because within the year, Sweyn not yet crowned, fell from his horse and died. This created the opportunity to recall Ethelred who ruled in competition with Canute the son of Sweyn Forkbeard. Ethelred died soon after his return and his son Edmund Ironside reigned as the Witan appointed King for 8 months in 1016. Like his father Edmund he did not have the support of the whole country in his fight against the now resident Danes and was murdered (probably) in November 1016. Canute was crowned king of England to the relief of all, almost immediately.

The Danish Kings of England 1016-1042 

Canute 1016-1035 (24 when crowned)

This Danish Viking was rapidly accepted by the native English population and England remained at peace and increased trade and prosperity during his 19years as ruler.

  • Canute was King of three countries simultaneously. Denmark, Norway and England but he claimed England as his home.
  • He was considered a God by many English and he had to demonstrate he wasn’t by showing he couldn’t stop the tide rolling in. (Yes true).
  • He sent his Danish fleet and armies home but kept a 2000 strong bodyguard of able Danes never far away.
  • He reinforced the laws created by the English Saxon King Edgar.
  • He divided England into 4 Earldoms. Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria.
  • He travelled to Scotland and with a show of force compelled the Scottish King Malcolm to accept him as overlord.
  • He married twice and indeed had the two wives at the same time. Not unusual for Danes at the time. Elgiva from Northampton and Emma, the Norman Princess and widow of Ethelred the Unready. Via Elgiva he sired Sweyn who became King of Norway and Harold who became King Harold 1st of England. Via the princess Emma from Normandy he sired Harthacanute who also became a King of England. 

Canute died on 12 Nov 1035 and his extensive empire was split between three of his sons, Sweyn received Norway, Hardicanute got Denmark and England south of the Thames. England north of the Thames went to Harold (Harefoot)

None of his sons were the man their father had been.

Harold 1st(Harefoot) 1035-1040 (19 when crowned) Son of Canute and Elgiva.

Harold was a spiteful man. He exiled his mother Emma to Normandy and when her sons and his half brothers Alfred and Edward returned to England he blinded Alfred by gouging out his eyes (so cruelly he almost immediately died) and Edward sensibly escaped back to Normandy. 
(Blinding by the gouging out of eyes was a common treatment metered out to potential royal competitors at this time and was regularly practiced in Byzantium for hundreds of years)
Fortunately Harold died only 24 years of age and was succeeded by his half brother, son of Emma, Hardicanute who already ruled England north of the Thames but from Denmark.

Hardicanute 1040-1042. (22 when crowned)

Hardicanute (means “Deadly Canute) was another vicious man. To ensure he would be ruler of all England (and Denmark) he landed in the north of England with a large army, murdered the Earl of Northumbria and burnt the town of Worcester to the ground. On arrival in the south he dug up the body of his brother and threw it into a bog. 
Fortunately Hardicanute died of a fit after a reign of only 2 years.

SAXON line restored 1042

Edward the Confessor 1042-1066 (38 when crowned)

Son of Saxon King Ethelred the Unready and Princess Emma of Normandy. His mother Emma had sensibly kept well away from the Canute and sons by bringing him up her country of birth Normandy. So in spite of being a Saxon King, he was by virtue of his 40 years or so in Normandy, essentially a Norman who spoke French better than English. Inevitably all his friends were Normans and he quickly populated the top jobs with his loyal Norman friends and almost certainly offered the English Crown to his friend and great nephew William Duke of Normandy who became William the Conqueror, King of England.

Edward was not a natural leader of men but preferred to live along side monks. The word Confessor implies that he was seen as more of a monk than a King. He left the running of the country to the powerful Anglo-Danish Earl of Wessex Godwin. Godwin had risen to power during the rule of Canute. Edward married Godwin’s daughter but having taken the monks vows of chastity had no children and indeed was said not to have consummated the marriage.
Edward is best remembered for two reasons.

  • He built both the Palace of Westminster which has grown into the present Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. He would have employed Norman stone masons for this task as they were the leading stone Church builders in Europe, indeed the only craftsmen who at that time could have built it. (Save for Byzantine architects who had built St Sophia 400 years previously).
  • He was sainted in recognition of the above and his piety.

Harold 2nd (Harold Godwinson) 1066 for 10 months

Harold son of Godwin, had no inherited claim to the English throne but as the Earl of Wessex after his father’s death in 1053, he became the effective ruler of England during the remaining years of the reign of Edward and was rapidly voted King by the Witan on Edwards death. Unfortunately Edward had almost certainly previously offered the English throne to his friend and great nephew William Duke of Normandy. Remember Edward spent the first 40 years of his life living in Normandy in the household of his Norman mother, the Princess Emma. 
Further Harold had earlier been stupid enough to become shipwrecked on the Normandy coast and had been “entertained” in William’s castle where in front of half a dozen key witnesses had vowed on oath not to stand in the way of William’s passage to the English throne. (Well illustrated on the Bayeux Tapestry). 
On hearing that Harold had taken the English throne for himself he sent his ambassadors to England to state his prior claim but they were rapidly sent back to Normandy. Not surprisingly William set to gather an army to physically claim his “rightful” inheritance.

Harold’s father Earl Godwin had placed his numerous sons around England as regional earls so Harold could easily muscle up a powerful army for himself. Unfortunately he had previously fallen out with one of his brothers, Tostig the Earl of Northumbria, Northampton and Nottingham and Tostig, fuming, was living in Viking Denmark. Tostig like William wanted his inheritance which in Tostig’s case was Northumbria. While William was gathering his Norman army Tostig, with the support of the King of Norway attacked the north of England. Harold marched north with two of his other brothers and eventually they defeated and killed Tostig and Harold Hardrada, King of Norway at Stamford Bridge in Northumberland.

Harold then received the news that William of Normandy had landed with an invading army at Pevensey Bay in Kent so Harold together with his loyal brothers Gyrth Earl of East Anglia and Leofwine Earl of Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire forced marched his tired army the 300 miles south to meet William at Hastings on the Sussex coast.
Not surprisingly William won, killing Harold, Gyrth and Loefwine in the process. The road was now clear for William, the Norman of Viking descent, to rule in place of Harold also of Viking descent.