History of the British Monarchy, Part 1: House Wessex, Cnut the Great, and Pre-Norman Britain

A thousand years of British history.

I began this project some years back and worked on it sporadically, only completing about half of it. It then fell to the wayside as life, as they say, got in the way. But after recently watching the Netflix movie “The King,” about Henry V and the Battles of both Shrewsbury and Agincourt, I was re-inspired to take up this project once again.

My goal is to summarize, in my own words, the history of the British monarchy dating back to the Norman Conquest in 1066. To do so, I have read countless Wikipedia pages, watched dozens of documentaries, and read biographies of various kings and eras of British history.

This began as an entirely personal side-project purely for my own enjoyment and enrichment. I find it easier to truly learn the things I have read by explaining them in my own words–a sort of reverse-engineering, in a way. I felt readers of the site who are interested in history might find it enjoyable. I plan on eventually doing a series on the French monarchy, and then a series on the Roman Empire.

House Wessex

Before we can get to the Normans, we must first orient ourselves with how modern Britain came to be. The Romans, under the Emperor Claudius, conquered the British Isles in 43 AD. In 2017, archaeological evidence was, for the first time, uncovered proving Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BC.

Claudius (reign 41–54 AD)

As the Roman Empire weakened, by the late 4th century, Rome had lost its grip on the island, then called Britannia, which is how Britain got its name, as you can obviously tell.

The native British tribes were eventually able to throw out their Roman masters by 410. Germanic migrants called Anglo-Saxons then began moving to the island in droves (the name “England” means “land of the Angles”) and established kingdoms and settlements all over. This “sub-Roman Britain” era of the 5th and 6th centuries is the period where the legendary King Arthur is said to have lived and fought against the Anglo-Saxon invaders, but evidence that such a figure actually existed is scant, and most historians consider King Arthur nothing more than a myth. (Though not all of them.)

At any rate, Anglo-Saxons came from what is now Denmark and northwest Germany. There emerged seven major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain.

One of the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms established in Britain was Wessex, or “Kingdom of West Saxons.” It was founded in 519 and, was one of seven major kingdoms to carve up the island:

The other six: Northumbria, Kent, Essex, Sussex, East Anglia and Mercia. Along with Wessex, these kingdoms made up the “Heptarchy.”

Due to constant invasions by Danish Vikings beginning in the 9th century, several of these kingdoms eventually united under the leadership of a Wessex king named Egbert, and then Alfred the Great, who took over in 871. Alfred’s early reign was a period of struggle against constant Viking invasions, but he emerged victorious and his successors were able to conquer the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and Essex, consolidating Britain under Wessex rule. Upon this point, Wessex became the Kingdom of England. Alfred the Great is known as the king who first united Britain.

Alfred the Great

Alfred’s ancestors ruled Britain for over a century, and still fought periodically with the invading Danes. On Christmas Day, 1013, the Danish Vikings, led by Sweyn Forkbeard, invaded the island and forced Æthelred the Unready, the Wessex king at the time, to abandon the throne. He fled in exile to Normandy, a region of northwest France.

King Æthelred quickly returned, however, five weeks after Forkbeard assumed the throne. Forkbeard died after falling from his horse in early February 1014, and the Wessex monarchy was restored.

(If you were curious about the “Æ” character, it was part of the Old English alphabet, originally derived from Latin. It’s pronounced like the “a” in the word “cat”. It’s still used in some languages around the world including Norwegian and Icelandic. Æthelred’s name is pronounced “ath-uhl-red”.)

The Danes again invaded England, this time under Cnut, the son of Sweyn Forkbeard. Æthelred died on April 23, 1016, and his son, Edmund, took over the war effort to expel the Danes. Edmund, as is suggested by his nickname “Ironsides,” was a valiant fighter, but nevertheless was decisively defeated in battle by Cnut and his army at the Battle of Assandun on October 18, 1016.

Cnut spared Edmund and allowed him to rule over the kingdom of Wessex, however Edmund died barely a month after Assandun, giving Cnut rule over nearly all of England.

This time, the Danes would remain in control of England for longer than five weeks.

Cnut the Great

Cnut the Great and his descendants ruled England from 1016–1042

Importantly, Cnut the Great and the Danes did not rule England from England. Cnut and his sons ruled what was known as the North Sea Empire, which contained England, but also Denmark and Norway. Cnut did not sit on the throne in London. England was simply part of Cnut’s larger empire.

The North Sea Empire under the rule of Cnut the Great

In 1042, House Wessex would be restored to power in England.

Cnut the Great had two sons — Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut — with Emma of Normandy, the widow of Æthelred the Unready.

After Æthelred’s death in 1016, the year Cnut conquered England, Emma married Cnut in hopes that doing so would spare her sons, whom Cnut was planning to kill off in order to avoid any competition for the throne. Cnut spared Edward, who would eventually take the throne in 1042 following the death of Harthacnut, his half brother.

Edward, the son of Æthelred, was Wessex by blood, and was the last truly “English” king of England, given that the Normans, who would conquer the island in 1066, are French in origin and, thus, so are all of William’s ancestors to this day.

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