The historical background to King of Kings: ‘England’ in the 10th Century

My latest release, King of Kings, is a tale of five kings, and one enemy. But what was the background in what we would now know as England?

The tenth-century sees the creation of what we would recognise as ‘England’ – the combining of Wessex with Mercia, with the additions of Kent, the kingdom of the East Angles, the Danish Five Boroughs, and the kingdom of York, and also the independent kingdom of Bamburgh. But telling this story is complex. When people think of England, they might not know all these smaller kingdoms. They might not know, particularly, what the Danish Five Boroughs (Leicester, Nottingham, Lincoln, Stamford and Derby), were because if you google the Five Boroughs, you’ll be told about New York (this has happened to me). 

Everybody knows about King Alfred of Wessex holding back the tide of the advancing Viking raiders throughout his reign from 874-899. And if everybody didn’t know before, then Uhtred, Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon warrior, has done much to ensure we know about it now. 

But again, it’s not quite so simple. The Saxon kingdoms of the seventh century onwards numbered seven, alongside Wessex, there was also Kent, Mercia, the kingdom of the East Angles, Northumbria, Essex and Sussex. These kingdoms eventually merged to give us just Wessex, Mercia, Kent, the kingdom of the East Angles and Northumbria (which itself comprised of two kingdoms, Deira centred on York, and Bernicia, centred on Bamburgh). So, all seems clear there? But no.

When the Viking raiders began their concerted attacks on Britain in the late ninth century, Alfred of Wessex promulgated a treaty with one of their leaders, Guthrum, forging an independent kingdom of the Viking raiders, which stretched along something known as the Alfred-Guthrum line. Loosely, this meant that land to the east was in the control of the Viking raiders. All that survived of those kingdoms south of the Humber was Wessex and the western part of Mercia. The Viking raiders had already overrun Northumbria. The kingdom of Jorvik, centred on York, was part of a Dublin/York kingship, where the kings of York/Jorvik had often already been the king of Dublin, and this kingship was firmly in the hands of a family claiming descent from Ivarr (the Boneless), one of the men who’d led the concerted Viking raider attacks of the 860s and 870s which we might find termed The Great Heathen Army. 

Map designed by Flintlock Covers

This, then, reimagined what we think of as England and these Saxon kingdoms weren’t the only ones to face attack from the Viking raiders. The many Welsh kingdoms shared sea borders with the Dublin Norse, and the small kingdom of Manx (the Isle of Man) became incredibly important, as did all of the islands that surround western and northern Scotland. Orkney, at this time, was settled by the Norse. 

When Alfred died in 899, he was king of Wessex. His son, Edward, would become king of the Anglo-Saxons, ruling over Wessex and Kent, and then after the death of his sister, Æthelflæd, the Lady of Mercia, staking his claim to western Mercia as well as those parts of the Five Boroughs, essentially Norse held lands, known as the Danelaw, which Æthelflæd had ‘won’ back for Mercia.

‘Here in the early part of this year, with God’s help, she [Æthelflæd] peaceably got in her control the stronghold at Leicester and the most part of the raiding-armies that belonged to it were subjected. And also the York-folk had promised her – and some of them granted so by pledge, some confirmed with oaths – that they would be at her disposition.’[i]  

This was a time of intense unease, almost constant warfare. And not everyone was happy about the advances the surviving Wessex royal family made. Edward died at Farndon, in Mercia, perhaps putting down a Mercian rebellion or, a Welsh one. Farndon wasn’t far from the border with the Welsh kingdoms. 

But Edward’s death, and the subsequent death of his son Ælfweard only sixteen days later, brought about a sea change. Ælfweard wasn’t Edward’s oldest son; that was Athelstan, a youth seemingly banished to live with his aunt in Mercia when Edward remarried (if the later pseudo-historian, William of Malmesbury is to be believed who makes the claim that it was Alfred’s wish that Athelstan be brought up in ‘the court of his daughter Æthelflæd and Æthelred his son in law.’[ii]

Athelstan was immediately recognised as the king of Mercia. Not long afterwards, he also became king of Wessex. And his ambitions didn’t stop there.

‘Here King Edward died at Farndon in Mercia; and very soon, 16 days after, his son Ælfweard died at Oxford; and their bodies lie at Winchester. And Athelstan was chosen as king by the Mercians and consecrated at Kingston.’[iii]

It’s difficult to imagine that Athelstan wasn’t a warrior of fierce renown. His aunt and uncle, the lord and lady of Mercia, had spent much of their rule, both together, and then after Æthelred’s death, Æthelflæd had continued alone, driving back the incursion of the Viking raiders, or the Norse as it might be easier to term them. Athelstan must surely have taken his place in these battles. And yet, while he was eager to hold tightly to the kingdoms of Mercia, Kent and Wessex, he was also prepared to unite people through peace, and this is where the story, King of Kings, begins. With Athelstan, the first crowned king of the English. 

[i] Swanton, M. trans and edit The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, (Orion Publishing Group, 2000), p.105

[ii] Mynors, R.A.B. ed and trans, completed by Thomson, R.M. and Winterbottom, M. Gesta Regvm AnglorvmThe History of the English Kings, William of Malmesbury, (Clarendon Press, 1998), p.211

[iii] Swanton, M. trans and edit The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, (Orion Publishing Group, 2000), D text p.105

I’ve also written about the kings (and an almost queen) of these kingdoms in Britain at the time.

Meet Athelstan, king of the English

Meet Constantin, king of the Scots

Meet Hywel, king of the West Welsh

Meet Ealdred, king of Bamburgh

Meet Owain, king of Strathclyde

Meet Eadgifu, the lady of Wessex

Author: M J Porter, author

I'm a writer of historical fiction (Early England/Viking and the British Isles as a whole before 1066, as well as two 20th century mysteries).

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