The existence of England is one that is often taken for granted and looked at far too scarcely. This may be due to the overshadowing history of the development of Great Britain and the United Kingdom, but nonetheless, in order for these unions to be formed, England had to already exist – and it actually has since 927 AD. So, how was England created, who claimed the land before the English, and how did it become the nation that we know today?
As the Roman Empire began to fade from the British Isles, the area of modern-day England started to see a wave of migration from Anglo-Saxon Germanic tribes. According to some historians, after the Romans left, the native Britons came under attack from the nearby Picts and Scots and subsequently welcomed some of these Anglo-Saxons in hopes that they would push out the other invaders.
The Germanic peoples were successful in expelling both the Scots and Picts, but they then turned on the native Britons and established their own authority by the start of the 7th century. The new Anglo-Saxon rulers then installed the kingdoms of Essex, Kent, Sussex, Mercia, East Anglia, North-Umbria, and Wessex on the British mainland.
There are minimal records of what happened over the next few centuries throughout these kingdoms, but we do know that it wouldn’t be long before the Anglo-Saxons would face invaders of their own… In 793, a Viking army landed at the Lindisfarne Monastery and raided the sacred building. Their violence and disrespect stunned the Anglo-Saxons, who were unprepared for what these Vikings had in store… By the end of 870, East Anglia fell to the Danish invaders, and Mercia was lost only 4 years later.
As the Vikings seized Northumbria next in 875, Wessex was the only remaining major kingdom under Anglo-Saxon authority. When the current king of Wessex, Æthelred , died, his younger brother Alfred was left to protect his kingdom’s independence. At first, he did so by paying off the Viking aggressors, until he was eventually prepared to lead an army against them.
This culminated in the Battle of Edington, which left the Danes utterly routed and ended their attempts to capture Wessex. A power vacuum in Mercia around the same time resulted in King Alfred also gaining control of the kingdom and instead of establishing a new monarch, he placed an ealdorman in charge. This nobleman would answer to King Alfred himself and kept the King of Wessex as the ultimate authority throughout both regions now, although a part of Mercia would be ceded to the Vikings.
After the death of the King of Wessex and the contemporary leader of Mercia in 911, Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd each became the respective successors. Together, these new rulers began to increase the pressure that had already been put on the neighboring Danelaw, and they both worked to further increase their territories. In 917, Æthelflæd expanded her lands to the north and Edward was able to incorporate all of East Anglia into his kingdom.
As Æthelflæd pushed forward with the expansion, she managed to extend Mercian territory all the way up to York, where the locals decided it would be best to simply pledge loyalty to her as opposed to fighting. Although Æthelflæd shortly died, her daughter, Ælfwynn , was supposed to take her place and continue on the current course.
Unexpectedly, though, the Mercian people quickly ousted their new leader and accidentally created the perfect opportunity for King Edward from Wessex to seize all of Mercia not long after. In 918, the Anglo-Saxons continued farther into Danelaw territory and slowly gained more and more land for themselves. By the time of Edward’s death in 924, the newly acquired neighbors of the Anglo-Saxons had all pledged allegiance to the king.
This put the Anglo-Saxons in a confident position as Edward’s son, Æthelstan, took over the kingdom. Around this time, Æthelstan’s sister would marry the local Viking ruler, Sihtric, who still controlled Northumbria. Æthelstan marched on and was finally able to bring the Kingdom of York under his crown as his sister’s husband passed away.
This left Northumbria up for grabs and the king swiftly consolidated it as a part of his kingdom. This is generally the time that most historians view the Kingdom of England as having been created… But, the situation was not exactly so simple. Æthelstan was not done trying to expand his kingdom however he could, and although he did term himself.
the “King of the English” at this point, it was still not quite what we know as England today. In 937, Æthelstan decided to give an invasion of Scotland a chance to see if he could reach his authority even further. The Kingdom of Scotland, or as it was known at the time, Alba, was at a disadvantage against the English and therefore appealed to the other remaining sovereign states for assistance.
This prompted an alliance between Constantine II, King of Alba, Olaf Guth-frith-son, King of Dublin, and Owain, King of Strath-clyde. With King Olaf at the helm, the alliance faced the English at the spectacular Battle of Brunan-burh. Though it is unknown exactly where this battle took place, it is certain that the alliance was severely crushed by the English invaders.
The casualties on both sides were disastrously high, but Æthelstan and the English were without a doubt the victors. It’s believed by many that this clash may have truly solidified the unity of England and stirred up a new sense of nationalism and pride amongst the English people. Nonetheless, it didn’t result in the incorporation of Alba nor Strathclyde into the Kingdom of England, as both stayed independent.
England, on the other hand, would have to prove its ability to do so, The Vikings, though temporarily defeated, would return to the young kingdom at the end of the 10th century. After Æthelstan’s death in 939, the previously defeated King of Dublin, who was a Viking ruler, took immediate advantage of England’s temporary instability.
While King Æthelstan’s half-brother, Edmund, took over the English realm, King Olaf swooped in to reconquer some of the lands that had once been in Viking hands. York was quickly captured and a large chunk of what used to be Northumbria and Mercia was also taken as he strongarmed the English into accepting this annexation. Ironically, when Olaf died in 941 and his cousin, who shared the same name, was transitioning to the throne.
as his successor, Edmund of England jumped on the chance to pay the Vikings back for the invasion. The following year, the middle chunk of annexed land was retaken by the English and in only 2 more years the Vikings were entirely pushed out of Northumbria. This essentially reunited England since the territory was now all under Edmund’s control.
As ambitious as his ancestors, Edmund next invaded Strathclyde, but only took some of its southern territories by the end of the incursion. The rest was given to King Malcolm I of Scotland as opposed to joining England. It once again appeared as though the Kingdom of England had established some stability, but this was once more short-lived.
Edmund was mysteriously murdered in 946, which left his younger brother, Eadred, as King of England. The next year, Eric Bloodaxe from Norway attacked and seized the recently re-incorporated Northumbria, which prompted almost a decade of conflicts over who throughout the Isles would lead Northumbria.
Eventually, the English king was able to once again, and permanently, reclaim the territory on behalf of England. His death soon ended his reign after this victory, and his young nephew, Eadwig, temporarily succeeded him but was quickly deposed in favor of his brother, Edgar. However, this was only a partial deposition, which meant that Eadwig would still hold a small section of the kingdom as a co-ruler. When Eadwig died only 2 years after this decision, Edgar simply took over the whole of England.
Under the reign of King Edgar, known as Edgar the Peaceful, the true foundations of the English kingdom could finally be established. Many reforms were passed and a vast number of the systems and laws that had existed in the Danelaw were actually upheld, in hopes of avoiding any displeasure from the Danish portion of the population.
Peace, unity, and order were the pillars of Edgar’s nearly 2-decade long reign, and his work helped to fully solidify the unity of the young Kingdom of England… The ultimate formation of England was a long and shaky process. From the initial immigration of the Anglo-Saxons into the region to the establishment of their first kingdoms, extending into the invasion and rule of the Vikings, it wasn’t until the Anglo-Saxons began to seize territory from the Danelaw that an inkling of modern-day England could be seen.
After a series of conquering, being conquered, reconquering, and so on, the Anglo-Saxons eventually united the existing kingdoms throughout England. From there, it was merely a matter of establishing solid borders, maintaining their captured territory in order to keep their kingdom physically solid, and eventually, under the rule of Edgar the peaceful, building the foundational laws and structures of what we now know as the Kingdom, or nation, of England.
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