Who was the first King of England? This simple question is actually one of the most difficult to answer in British Monarchy studies because, differently from other nations, England did not have a precise foundation date like the USA (1776) or Germany (1871). Whilst those countries had an identifiable first President and first Emperor when founded in the 18th and 19th centuries, England’s origins as a nation go back over 1,000 years to the 9th and 10th centuries. Its unity was achieved incrementally over a period of time under several Anglo-Saxon monarchs, each of whom can claim to have been the first king to have ruled over a united people or a united nation. Who were these royal trailblazers and nation-makers?
First things first: before Kings of England, there were Bretwaldas. This title, used by the Venerable Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was given to particular rulers of local Anglo-Saxon kingdoms who achieved hegemony over other kingdoms in Britain. A Bretwalda had ‘overlordship’ over much of Anglo-Saxon England, usually after achieving military victories against other kingdoms. It was always a fleeting kind of national domination, limited to a ruler’s own lifetime, yet some of these early rulers did succeed in exercising rule over most of the territory that makes up England today. The most famous Bretwaldas were Aethelbert, King of Kent, in the 590s-600s; Oswald, King of Northumbria, in the 630-640s, and most famously King Offa of Mercia in the 780s-790s.
Offa (born before 750, died 796) was the most successful of the Bretwaldas, the first ruler to establish effective domination over the area south of the Humber, including the local kingdoms of Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, and Wessex. Some consider him the first proto-national English ruler: he subjugated and in some cases executed local rulers; he issued coinage which was accepted throughout his domains; and he famously built Offa’s Dyke, a 135-mile ditch-and-rampart fortification marking the western border of his domains against Wales. His rule however was temporary, and geographically limited to south of Manchester. Offa never dominated the Kingdom of Northumbria in the north of England (though he married his daughter to its king), and his empire disintegrated at his death. Shortly after Offa died, another Bretwalda arose, King Egbert of Wessex (born before 780, died 839), who achieved overlordship of southern England for a very brief period in 829-830. His overlordship, like many others, was fleeting, but it was significant because it was a sign of things to come: it would be Egbert’s descendants who would eventually unite Anglo-Saxon England under one crown.
Alfred the Great
Alfred (born 849, died 899), the grandson of King Egbert of Wessex, is the only monarch in English history to have been called ‘the Great’. The sobriquet is justified for it was thanks to Alfred’s leadership that the English began to unite as a single people under one crown. His achievement is all the more impressive because it took place at a time when Anglo-Saxon England was in danger of being annihilated. In the 9th century successive hoards of Vikings invaded England and settled in the east of the country, in the process wiping out local kingdoms like East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. By the 870s Viking England extended over three quarters of modern England, with only Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex in the south standing as the last bastion of Anglo-Saxon resistance—and even this last kingdom was in serious danger of being overrun by the Viking onslaught. Alfred struggled to maintain his people’s independence against the Vikings, to the point that by the beginning of the year 878 he was only conducting guerrilla warfare against the enemy, and getting so discouraged that even an old woman could scold him for burning cakes on a fire (this old story has its origins during this downturn in his life).
It was, however, exactly at this darkest period in Anglo-Saxon history that the first steps were taken towards forming a united England. Alfred understood that one of the reasons the Vikings had been so successful in overrunning the country was because England was fragmented in several weak little kingdoms, which being so divided could easily be conquered. His own kingdom of Wessex had itself been able to resist the Vikings partly because it was the most centralised of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with a strong tradition of rallying around their king. If Wessex could be expanded to include the rest of England the Viking expansion could be stopped, and England could be united and strengthened under one single, effective monarchy. Or at least we assume this is what Alfred must have thought, and passed on to this son and grandsons: his actions bore witness to these ideas.
A Country Is Conceived
If there was a battle that gave birth to England as a country, it was the Battle of Edington, fought in May 878. After re-organising Wessex’s forces in early 878, Alfred launched a new offensive against the Vikings, gaining increasing success. Then at the Battle of Edington, fought in modern Wiltshire, he inflicted a decisive defeat on the forces of the Viking king, Guthrum. Wessex was saved, the Viking domains in England were carefully circumscribed, and shortly after, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, all the English people who were not subject to the Vikings submitted themselves to King Alfred. This was the fateful moment in history when England began to take shape: when all the English people who were not under Viking rule and therefore free—in essence Wessex in Southern England and the Mercian West Midlands which Alfred had liberated—came together, for the first time, under one king.
Alfred’ success as a unifier was not just military. One of the most learned and visionary monarchs Britain ever had, Alfred in essence took steps to mould a new nation: he passed new unifying laws and created a bureaucracy to administer them; he took measures to increase the literacy of the people; he founded an English navy; and crucially he devised a system of well-spaced forts across his new kingdom to prevent the Vikings being able to overrun his domains again. These new forts, called burhs, also served as the nuclei of new settlements across the land, later morphing into boroughs. In other words, Alfred founded a new 'English' state, over the foundations of the kingdom of Wessex. He was the first monarch to be called King of the English (or Anglo-Saxons) and could lay claim to be the first king of England—except that his domains only covered half of the modern English territory. The rest, including East Anglia, the East Midlands and the North, was still under Viking rule, and remained so at his death. It would be left to his son and grandsons to achieve his vision of a united people, living in a united country, under one king.
Alfred’s Remarkable Family
Alfred was succeeded by his son, known to history as King Edward the Elder (born c.874/77, reigned 899-924). A much overlooked king today, Edward was a crucial figure in the creation of a united England because he led its greatest territorial expansion during the unification process. He was a great military leader, and through a series of victories against the Vikings between 910 and 920 he almost doubled his kingdom by annexing East Anglia, the East Midlands, and some parts of the North. At his death, the borders of the new English state had moved up to the River Humber, beyond which lay the Viking kingdoms of York and Northumbria which still claimed independence—though they were willing to acknowledge Edward as unofficial 'Bretwalda' as the most powerful ruler in the island of Britain.
It was one of Edward’s four sons, Athelstan (born 895, reigned 924-939) who finally conquered York and Northumbria in 927 and made England whole, achieving direct control over the entire modern English territory. (He was also the first English king to invade Scotland and attain overlordship over that kingdom, setting a troubled precedent that would be used later by medieval monarchs). During Athelstan's reign the burgeoning English state achieved a degree of centralisation that had never been seen before in England, and was also rare in the rest of Europe at the time. This included more national laws and the introduction of council assemblies made up of representatives from all over the kingdom and social classes, in effect early versions of a national parliament. Because of his landmark achievements, many historians over the last 100 years have promoted Athelstan as the first true king of England. He certainly was the first king to rule over the entire area making up England today. His national dominion, however, died with him.
Soon after Athelstan’s death, during the reign of his brother Edmund the Elder (939-946), the new English nation fragmented again: the Vikings retook Northumbria and later invaded the East Midlands, and Edmund spent most of his reign putting down rebellions and re-conquering territories in the East Midlands. It was not until 952-954 during the reign of his younger brother, Eadred (born c.923, reigned 946-955), the fourth son of Edward the Elder, that the Vikings were permanently defeated and the north of England was definitively incorporated into the new English state. A case could be made that Eadred was therefore the first true king of England, because it was during his reign that England became permanently united. The unity achieved by his last victories was never again broken up by the emergence of local kingdoms. The fact that Eadred is almost completely forgotten today would justify giving him a little glory which he seems to deserve. Given the fragility of the new English state, however, and the recurrent local rebellions taking place in the country, none of Eadred's contemporaries thought he had achieved anything permanent. Indeed a short-lived rebellion took place again in Northumbria in 954 which Eadred put down before dying in 955.
Unity Crowned At Last
Eadred can claim to have bequeathed a united England to his successor, his nephew Eadwig, who however made a mess of it. Merely a teenager at the time of his accession in 955, Eadwig’s immaturity and incompetence threatened to break up the unity achieved by his uncles, and indeed his reign witnessed the first political division in the history of unified England, when half his domains began to give their allegiance to his brother Edgar. Civil war was avoided only by Eadwig’s premature death at the age of 19 in 959, and all England proclaimed loyalty to Edgar.
It was Edgar, later called The Peaceful (born c.943, reigned 959-975), who became the last great unifier in the country’s history. A forceful and wise ruler with a genius for administration—in the mould of his uncle Athelstan and great-grandfather Alfred—Edgar marshalled church and state to strengthen unity and uniformity in his kingdom. He expanded the national bureaucracy inherited from his predecessors; he used the church as a promoter of uniformity across the country, particularly by founding dozens of monasteries under royal patronage; he divided the new country into administrative regions which became our familiar English counties; and he reformed the currency so that it would be cast uniformly across the nation in standard casts supplied by the royal household.
The new reality that a king now reigned over a unified England was confirmed in Bath in 973 when Edgar received a new, spectacular coronation ceremony and was anointed 'King of England'. Previous kings during the unification process had been crowned as kings of cumulative separate kingdoms (i.e. King of Wessex and of Mercia and of East Anglia, etc) or kings of the Anglo-Saxons. This was the first time that someone had been crowned king of England as a united, geographical entity. (it was also the first time that a Queen Consort was crowned). The coronation ceremony, devised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dunstan, so impressed contemporaries in its solemnity and magnificence that it was adopted by all later monarchs in English history. Indeed, in substance and in outline it remains the same coronation ceremony that is used today, and was last witnessed in 1953 at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (a direct descendant of Edgar). Thanks to his reforms and wise rule, by Edgar’s death England had become the most stable and well-governed nation in Europe, united under one king. England would never again be divided into the local kingdoms that existed before Alfred the Great. When the country was once again invaded in the 11th century by the Danes and the Normans the invaders did not come to conquer separate swathes of land separately but a whole consolidated kingdom, which was renowned across Europe for its centralisation and prosperity.
So, who was the first King of England? After having read the account above, you as the reader might have formed your own idea on which of the monarchs described above can claim that title. In my personal opinion the answer is: each and all of them. As mentioned initially in this article, change in England often takes place slowly and incrementally, without the big bang moment that is present in other countries’ histories. It was Alfred who first proposed the idea of a united country and people, and took the first steps to create a state to support this idea. It was his son Edward the Elder, his grandsons Athelstan and Eadred, and his great-grandson Edgar who expanded both the territorial limits and the social boundaries of the state until the work of forging a unified country was completed. In the words of historian David Starkey: “Alfred’s legacy was the permanent unification of the country. The actual work was the task of his sons and grandsons.”1 England was created through the work of Alfred’s remarkable family, the outstanding Royal Family of Wessex. The title of First King of England must be shared among all of them, as firsts among equals.
1 David Starkey. Crown & Country. The Kings and Queens of England: A History. (London: HarperPress, 2010).