Bretwalda, Cerdic of Wessex, East Anglia, Egbert of Wessex, Essex, Heptarchy, Kent, King Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, King John of England, King of Bavaria, King of the Anglo-Saxons, King of the English, Kingdom of Prussia, Kings and Queens of England, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, Wessex, William the Conqueror
Figuring out who was the first King of Prussia or the first King of Bavaria was, is pretty easy given the fact that these kingdoms developed late in European history, early 18th and 19th to be precise. However, there are other kingdoms that stretch way back into history and figuring out who the first king of that nation or kingdom was, is rather difficult and subject to opinion. I am beginning a short series where I will identify the first king of England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. I’m going to do something special with France and also ask who was the last King of the Franks? I may have touched on this before but I will also examine who was the first Holy Roman Emperor?
Alfred the Great: King of the West Saxons & King of the Angles and Saxons.
The reason why it can be hard for historians to determine who was the first king of these nations were because the idea of a unified nation-state came long after these monarchies began to develop. At first the king was more like a tribal chief over a people rather than a nation. All of these nations had many kings ruling over these territories and as time went on these smaller kingdoms either died off or were absorbed or defeated until one singular king remained. There are also other complexities special for each kingdom that I will address separately.
Today I will start with England.
Most books or lists of the Kings and Queens of England begin with William the Conqueror in 1066. Some may briefly mention the Saxon period but all-in-all a wide majority of books on this subject begin with William. However, there was far more royal history before him. After the fall of the Roman Empire there began a rise of small petty kingdoms in the British Isle. These small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were known as the Heptarchy and they consisted of East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex. It was from the gradual unification of these early medieval kingdoms that the kingdom of England emerged. During the 9th century Vikings upset the balance of power between the English kingdoms, and native Anglo-Saxon life in general. One of the effects of the Viking invasions was that it slowed down English unification.
During the period of the Heptarchy, the most powerful king among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms might be acknowledged as Bretwalda, which translates to High King, over the other kings. However, the tendency for one of the kings of the Heptarchy to become the Bretwalda was short lived as the decline of the other Saxon kingdoms allowed Wessex to become more powerful. Wessex soon came to be the most powerful kingdom on English soil as it absorbed the kingdoms of Kent and Sussex in 825. In 827, Northumbria submitted to King Egbert of Wessex (802-839) Thus Egbert briefly became the first king to reign over a united England. Most sources that list Egbert as the first King of England use either 827 or 828 as the starting point of his reign as Bretwalda even though his reign as king of Wessex began in 802.
Was Egbert of Wessex the first King of England? He often is considered as such by some historians for his reign signaled that Wessex had indeed become the most powerful kingdom within England and would eventually subsume the position as the dominant kingdom over all others. Egbert was given the title Bretwalda and instead of viewing him as the first king of England I tend to view him as the last Anglo-Saxon king to hold the title Bretwalda. Incidentally, as mentioned at the start, most books or encyclopedias list William I as the starting point of the Kings and Queens of England, but those that do list or mention the Kingdom of Wessex often start with Egbert of Wessex as its first king, even though Cerdic of Wessex was actually the First King of Wessex in 519.
In 886, King Alfred the Great (871-899) retook London from the Danes and some historians mark this as the point when all of England came under one monarch. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that “all of the English people (all Angelcyn) not subject to the Danes, submitted themselves to King Alfred.” After retaking London he began massive reconstruction of the city and making it habitable once again. Historians cite that it may have been at this point that Alfred assumed the new royal style ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons.’ Alfred’s son, Ædward the Elder (899-924), was also titled King of the Anglo-Saxons, however during his reign the Danes still held York.
It would be a few more years until England was completely united. On July 12, 927 the remaining monarchs of Britain gathered at Eamont in Cumbria to recognize Æthelstan (924-927) as “King of the English.” This has be considered by some historians as England’s ‘foundation date’, although the process of unification had taken almost 100 years. Even after 927 England was not completely united as Northumbria repeatedly changed hands between the English kings and the Danish and Norwegian invaders. Northumbria was definitively brought under English control by King Ædred (945-955) in 954, completing the unification of England. At about this time, Lothian, the northern part of Northumbria (Roman Bernicia), was ceded to the Kingdom of Scotland. England has remained in political unity ever since.
It is interesting to note that from the time of King Æthelstan until the reign of King John (1199-1216) the title which the monarch used was “King of the English,” in Latin, Rex Anglorum . In 1199 King John changed the title to Rex Anglia, “King of England” and this remained in effect until the unification of England and Scotland as the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.
It is difficult to pin down the first king of England. Egbert is often chosen because he was the king that brought Wessex to prominence over the other English Kingdoms. Alfred the Great is often chosen because he brought most of England under his rule but his grandson, Æthelstan as “King of the English,” finalized English unification. Any of these could be considered the first King of England. Personally, I tend to view Alfred the Great as the first King of England because his unifying of the nation was the one that stuck and lasted. What is your choice?