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The End of the Anglo-Saxons


In AD 924 Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, became king. In 937 he fought against an army of Irish Vikings, Scots and Strathclyde Britons at Brunanburh, and won. The north was now firmly under Saxon control. Athelstan was the first Saxon king to command loyalty from the whole of Britain.

Athelstan was concerned with good government and he also declared that one coinage was to be used. The burghs set up around the country were now to become the centres of local government with ealdormen ruling in the king's name. This means that places such as Hereford would have become the administrative centres for the areas surrounding them.

After Athelstan died in 939, his successors Edmund and Eadred had to fight new Viking raiders. England was not at peace again until Edgar became king of Wessex in 959. One of the important effects of Edgar's reign was his setting up of courts to keep law and order. The Church was also subject to changes at this time. By this point the monks running the monasteries had started to disregard the discipline of their orders, and so a new set of strict rules was drawn up by which all the monks had to live.

Edgar died in 975 and England was once again thrown into turmoil. Edgar's son, Edward, became king and a comet was seen (considered to be a symbol of bad luck); then followed a period of famine. In 978 Edgar was murdered, some say by his step-brother Æthelred and his thegns. Æthelred (nicknamed the "Unready") was proclaimed king and Edgar was declared a martyr. Just two years later the Viking raids began again and Æthelred tried to buy them off. First he paid them Danegeld (money raised by taxes for this purpose), and then he gave the Danish soldiers land on the condition that they now fight for him and not against him. However, the soldiers wanted more and in retaliation Æthelred ordered a massacre of Danes living in England. This severely angered the Danish King, Sweyn Forkbeard.

In 1013 Sweyn's army ravaged England and Æthelred was forced to flee to Normandy in France. The English nobles asked Sweyn to be their king and he accepted, only to die in 1014 before being crowned. Æthelred returned but died two years later.

Sweyn's son Cnut (or Canute) now led the Danish army in England, and he came up against Æthelred's son Edmund Ironside. Edmund fought the Danes so bravely that Cnut agreed to share the kingdom with him to put an end to all the fighting. Unfortunately, Edmund died within months of being made ruler and Cnut was free to rule England on his own. By this time Cnut had also married Æthelred's widow.

England was now part of a North Sea empire, together with Denmark and Norway, and Cnut's power was recognised by the Welsh, Scots and Irish. Cnut brought peace to England but through his rule also weakened royal power. As he was ruler of such a large area he was often away visiting his other lands, and he left the government of England in the hands of his trusted earls.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]