Sunday, June 06, 2021

Some Olde Englishe history, just because

We have been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix, because that's what you do during a pandemic: you watch all sorts of odd series that you would probably not have bothered with in the Before Times. Like many another series we have watched over the last year-and-a-half, it is incredibly dark and violent, but it has set off all sorts of quite fond memories of learning this history during my early school years.

The series is set in England before it was actually England, in the 9th century, when the island was composed of several independent kingdoms (Wessex, Essex, Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria), all of which were buckling under the onslaught of the Viking "Great Heathen Army" from across the North Sea in Demark (yes, little Denmark! which at that time was a force to be reckoned with). Specifically, it is set in the reign of King Æthelred I of Wessex (not Æthelred the Unready, as we will see later), Wessex being The Last Kingdom, which had as yet not been subsumed by Danish might.

While watching, I have been trying to piece together the history of the period using Wikipedia, realizing that I know very little of it pre-Æthelred, and much less than I thought post-Æthelred. I think our school syllabus probably started at around the time the series is set, and it was probably thought that learning all those weird Saxon names was not worth our while, especially as England per se was not even invented at this point.

Working backwards from Æthelred I, who ruled Wessex from 865-871, previous kings were:

  • Æthelberht (or Ethelbert as it was back in the 1960s): Æthelred's older brother, who ruled from 860-865.
  • Æthelbald: Æthelred's even older brother, who ruled from 855-860, the first three years of which he was ruling in his father's place while the latter was on a pilgrimage to Rome.
  • Æthelwulf: father of Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred, who ruled from 839-858, and who ended a long Mercian dominance of Anglo-Saxon England.

Before Æthelwulf, came a whole host of even more forgettable names, like Ecgberht (or Egbert, 802-839), Beorhtric (786-802), Cynewulf (757-786), Sigeberht (756-757), Cuthred (740-756), Æthelheard (726-740), Ine (689-726), Caedwalla (685-688), Centwine (676-686), etc. Great names all, but none that mean anything to me.

Working forward from Æthelred, most (but by no means all) of the names are a bit more familiar:

  • Alfred the Great: Æthelred's younger brother, who ruled from 886-899, and who spent most of his reign fighting off the Vikings/Danes (reasonably successfully), and who probably didn't really burn any cakes while in hiding.
  • Edward the Elder: Alfred's son, who reigned from 899-924, and who succeeded in bringing Wessex, Mercia, and most of the rest of England outside of Northumbria, under one rule.
  • Æthelstan: Edward the Elder's son, who ruled from 924-939, and who finally wrested Northumbria from the Vikings in 927, making him the first king of all England (although the Vikings did regain York and much of Northumbria just after his death, and remained there for 15 more years).
  • Edmund I: Edward the Elder's son and Æthelstan's half-brother, who reigned from 939-946, a time of constant internal warfare.
  • Eadred (or Edred): Edmund I's younger brother, who reigned from 946-955.
  • Eadwig: son of Edmund I, who reigned from 955-959.
  • Edgar the Peaceful: younger brother of Eadred, who reigned from 959-975.
  • Edward the Martyr: son of Edgar, who reigned from 975-978.
  • Æthelred the Unready: who reigned from 978-1013, and then again from 1014-1016, with a brief interregnum by the Dane Sweyn Forkbeard (I kid you not!), and who was not so much "unready" as "poorly advised" (from the Anglo-Saxon unræd).
  • Edmund Ironside (or Edmund II): son of Æthelred the Unready, who reigned for just a few turbulent months in 1016.
  • Cnut I (Cnut the Great, or Canute, as I learned it): invading king of Denmark and Norway, who reigned in England from 1016-1034, and who almost certainly did not sit on a beach trying to turn back the tide.
  • Harold I (aka Harold Harefoot): Cnut's son, who reigned from 1035-1040.
  • Harthacnut (or Hardicanute, or Cnut III): another son of Cnut, who reigned from 1040-1042.
  • Edward the Confessor: son of Æthelred the Unready, and half-brother of Harthacnut, who ruled from 1042 to 1066, restoring the rule of the Anglo-Saxon house of Wessex after years of Danish power in England.
  • Harold Godwinson (Harold II): appointed king after Edward the Confessor died without an heir, and who reigned for just 9 months in 1066, possibly ending with an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (also contested by historians, sorry!).

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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