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Birth of England: The Wessex Kings

By Michael Wood
The Wessex dynasty

Map of Anglo-Saxon England
The kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England 
Edward died in the summer of 924. It appears that his son, Athelstan, was not intended to be king - although he was the first born of Edward's many children, he seems to have been viewed as illegitimate.

Athelstan was brought up in the Midlands and not as a member of the Wessex establishment. But in 925 he did become king, and he turned out to be one of the greatest of all the Anglo-Saxon rulers.

He embarked on a whirlwind campaign taking in the whole of England. He enforced the submission of the kings of the Scots, the Strathclyde Welsh, the Cumbrians, the north Welsh and even the Cornish - all within one year.

'By the mid-century, the existence of England as a unitary kingdom was no longer in doubt.'

By 928, a King of Wessex had not only become king of all the English people, but also 'Emperor of the World of Britain'. The rulers of continental Europe now queued up to marry their sons to women of the English royal family. England was suddenly sitting at the high table of Europe's political and intellectual elite.

Continental writers talked of England's bravery in driving out 'the pirates' (the Vikings) and praised their efforts to restore learning, 'making Britannia famous through the world of the liberal arts'. It is no exaggeration to say that a new phase in British history had been inaugurated.

Athelstan's half brothers followed his lead. By the mid-century, the existence of England as a unitary kingdom was no longer in doubt. Edgar, the son of Athelstan's brother Edmund (hence the great-grandson of Alfred), became king of all England in 959.

He enjoyed a balmy time in which tremendous wealth was ploughed into the monasteries, and a Golden Age of English art and culture ensued. The products of English manuscript painters in particular are among the great glories of insular art.

Edgar was known as Pacificus, the Peaceable - or perhaps one should translate this as 'one who could impose his peace without having to fight'. There is very little known about his reign apart from its efficient administration - and perhaps that's a sign of how powerful he was.

In 973, Edgar was able to have a great imperial coronation in Bath, in the presence of his subject kings. Bath was probably chosen because of its imperial overtones: an ancient Roman city with still-standing Roman walls and monuments, including the Roman baths.

The English kings were now the rulers of Britannia. They were the most powerful rulers of the land since the Romans, and they were aware of it. In less than a century, Alfred's dynasty had broken out from a few square miles of marshland to become Emperors of Britain.

Published: 2004-11-12



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