ETHELRED II «THE UNREADY» (979-1013 AND 1014-1016)
Ethelred, the younger son of Edgar, became king at the age of seven following the murder of his half-brother Edward II in 978 at Corfe Castle, Dorset, by Edward's own supporters.
For the rest of Ethelred's rule (reigned 978-1016), his brother became a posthumous rallying point for political unrest; a hostile Church transformed Edward into a royal martyr. Known as the Un-raed or 'Unready' (meaning 'no counsel', or that he was unwise), Ethelred failed to win or retain the allegiance of many of his subjects. In 1002, he ordered the massacre of all Danes in England to eliminate potential treachery.
Not being an able soldier, Ethelred defended the country against increasingly rapacious Viking raids from the 980s onwards by diplomatic alliance with the duke of Normandy in 991 (he later married the duke's daughter Emma) and by buying off renewed attacks by the Danes with money levied through a tax called the Danegeld. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1006 was dismissive: 'in spite of it all, the Danish army went about as it pleased'. By 1012, 48,000 pounds of silver was being paid in Danegeld to Danes camped in London.
In 1013, Ethelred fled to Normandy when the powerful Viking Sweyn of Denmark dispossessed him. Ethelred returned to rule after Sweyn's death in 1014, but died himself in 1016.
The son of a Danish king, Sweyn 'Forkbeard' began conquering territory in England in 1003, effectively devastating much of southern and midland England. The English nobility became so disillusioned with their existing king, Ethelred 'The Unready', that they acknowledged Sweyn as king in 1013. Sweyn's reign was short, as he died in 1014, but his son Canute the Great soon returned and reclaimed control of England.
EDMUND II, IRONSIDE (1016)
Edmund was King of England for only a few months. After the death of his father, Æthelred II, in April 1016, Edmund led the defense of the city of London against the invading Knut Sveinsson (Canute), and was proclaimed king by the Londoners. Meanwhile, the Witan (Council), meeting at Southampton, chose Canute as King. After a series of inconclusive military engagements, in which Edmund performed brilliantly and earned the nickname "Ironside", he defeated the Danish forces at Oxford, Kent, but was routed by Canute's forces at Ashingdon, Essex. A subsequent peace agreement was made, with Edmund controlling Wessex and Canute controlling Mercia and Northumbria. It was also agreed that whoever survived the other would take control of the whole realm. Unfortunately for Edmund, he died in November, 1016, transferring the Kingship of All England completely to Canute.
CANUTE «THE GREAT» (1016-1035)
Son of Sweyn, Canute became undisputed King of England in 1016, and his rivals (Ethelred's surviving sons and Edmund's son) fled abroad. In 1018, the last Danegeld of 82,500 pounds was paid to Canute. Ruthless but capable, Canute consolidated his position by marrying Ethelred's widow Emma (Canute's first English partner - the Church did not recognise her as his wife - was set aside, later appointed regent of Norway). During his reign, Canute also became King of Denmark and Norway; his inheritance and formidable personality combined to make him overlord of a huge northern empire.
During his inevitable absences in Scandinavia, Canute used powerful English and Danish earls to assist in England's government - English law and methods of government remained unchanged.
A second-generation Christian for reasons of politics as well as faith, Canute went on pilgrimage to Rome in 1027-8. (It was allegedly Christian humility which made him reject his courtiers' flattery by demonstrating that even he could not stop the waves; later hostile chroniclers were to claim it showed madness.)
Canute was buried at Winchester. Given that there was no political or governmental unity within his empire, it failed to survive owing to discord between his sons by two different queens - Harold Harefoot (reigned 1035-40) and Harthacnut (reigned 1040-42) - and the factions led by the semi-independent Earls of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex.
HAROLD HAREFOOT (1035-1040)
Harold Harefoot was the son of Canute and his first wife, Elfgifu. The brothers began by sharing the kingdom of England after their father's death - Harold Harefoot becoming king in Mercia and Northumbria, and Harthacanute king of Wessex. During the absence of Hardicanute in Denmark, his other kingdom, Harold Harefoot became effective sole ruler. On his death in 1040, the kingdom of England fell to Hardicanute alone.
Harthacnut was the son of Canute and his second wife, Emma, the widow of Ethelred II. His father intended Hardicanute to become king of the English in preference to his elder brother Harold Harefoot, but he nearly lost his chance of this when he became preoccupied with affairs in Denmark, of which he was also king. Instead, Canute's eldest son, Harold Harefoot, became king of England as a whole. In 1039 Hardicanute eventually set sail for England, arriving to find his brother dead and himself king.
EDWARD III, THE CONFESSOR (1042-66 AD)
The penultimate Anglo-Saxon king, Edward was the oldest son of Æthelred II and Emma. He had gone to Normandy in 1013, when his father and mother had fled from England. He stayed there during the reign of Canute and, at his death in 1035, led an abortive attempt to capture the crown for himself. He was recalled, for some reason, to the court of Hardicanute, his half-brother.
Canute had placed the local control of the shires into the hands of several powerful earls: Leofric of Mercia (Lady Godiva's husband), Siward of Northumbria and Godwin of Wessex, the most formidable of all. Through Godwin's influence, Edward took the throne at the untimely death of Hardicanute in 1042. In 1045, he married Godwin's only daughter, Edith.
Resulting from the connections made during Edward's years in Normandy, he surrounded himself with his Norman favorites and was unduly influenced by them. This Norman "affinity" produced great displeasure among the Saxon nobles. The anti-Norman faction was led by (who else?) Godwin of Wessex and his son, Harold Godwinsson, took every available opportunity to undermine the kings favorites. Edward sought to revenge himself on Godwin by insulting his own wife and Godwin's daughter, Edith, and confining her to the monastery of Wherwell. Disputes also arose over the issue of royal patronage and Edward's inclination to reward his Norman friends.
A Norman, Robert Champart, who had been Bishop of London, was made Archbishop of Canterbury by Edward in 1051, a promotion that displeased Godwin immensely. The Godwins were banished from the kingdom after staging an unsuccessful rebellion against the king but returned, landing an invasionary force in the south of England in 1052. They received great popular support, and in the face of this, the king was forced to restore the Godwins to favor in 1053.
Edward's greatest achievement was the construction of a new cathedral, where virtually all English monarchs from William the Conqueror onward would be crowned. It was determined that the minster should not be built in London, and so a place was found to the west of the city (hence "Westminster"). The new church was consecrated at Christmas, 1065, but Edward could not attend due to illness.
On his deathbed, Edward named Harold as his successor, instead of the legitimate heir, his grandson, Edgar the Ætheling. The question of succession had been an issue for some years and remained unsettled at Edward's death in January, 1066. It was neatly resolved, however, by William the Conqueror, just nine months later.
There is some question as to what kind of person Edward was. After his death, he was the object of a religious cult and was canonized in 1161, but that could be viewed as a strictly political move. Some say, probably correctly, that he was a weak, but violent man and that his reputation for saintliness was overstated, possibly a sham perpetrated by the monks of Westminster in the twelfth century. Others seem to think that he was deeply religious man and a patient and peaceable ruler.
HAROLD II (1066)
On Edward's death, the King's Council (the Witenagemot) confirmed Edward's brother-in-law Harold, Earl of Wessex, as King. With no royal blood, and fearing rival claims from William Duke of Normandy and the King of Norway, Harold had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey on 6 January 1066, the day after Edward's death. During his brief reign, Harold showed he was an outstanding commander.
In September, Harald Hardrada of Norway (aided by Harold's alienated brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria) invaded England and was defeated by Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York. Hardrada's army had invaded using over 300 ships; so many were killed that only 25 ships were needed to transport the survivors home.
Meanwhile, William, Duke of Normandy (who claimed that Harold had acknowledge