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England, kingdom of

England, kingdom of. The kingdom of England was created by its monarchs. Successive rulers, sometimes from ambition, sometimes from fear, strengthened their armed forces, extended their boundaries, imposed law and order on their quarrelling subjects, introduced standardized coinage and administration, and encouraged one religion. Once a nation had been created, the monarchy, its task done, became redundant, save as a symbol of unity and a constitutional device. The afternoon in 1649 when Charles I stood in Westminster Hall and was told that he was indicted by the English people was the moment when Frankenstein's monster destroyed its creator. Though the monarchy was restored, the experience of the Commonwealth suggested that the nation could function without a king: far from falling into anarchy and confusion, Cromwell's England became a powerful force in Europe and the world.

Such an exposition may sound teleological, purposive, and complacent. It is not. There was no predestined goal, no manifest destiny, save perhaps towards a kingdom of the British Isles, which was never quite achieved. It is not a story of steady progress, each ruler improving on the work of his forebears: some rulers were incapable of the task, others lacked interest or had different priorities. There were moments when the kingdom seemed in danger of being washed away or disintegrating—in the 9th cent. when the Vikings overran most of the country, in the 15th cent. when royal authority faltered in the Wars of the Roses, or during the great Civil War when the nation seemed about to destroy itself.

The evolution of the kingdom of England had, therefore, two aspects, its relations with other peoples—Britons, Vikings, French, Scots, Welsh, Irish—and its development as an effective political and military organism. One of the most useful weapons of the monarchy was ideology—respect for kingship, awe at its supernatural origins, belief in its identification with the nation, its past, its triumphs and tribulations. The relationship of monarch and people was symbiotic and changing. The monarch strove to create a nation out of different tribes and peoples: the nation often responded to the monarch, but also advanced claims and demands. If the monarch was, as often asserted, the father of his people, what should be done about a monarch who neglected them, was clearly incompetent, or did not appear to represent their interests?

Many of the characteristics of the English kingdom which emerged derived from the circumstances of the Anglo-Saxon settlements. The settlers came largely from Schleswig-Holstein, where there is a region still called Angeln today. Since the Angles settled mainly in the eastern part of their new land, the Celts were more likely to come into contact with the Saxons, from Holstein. Because of geographical distance, Britain had not been as Romanized as Gaul or Spain. Latin was not widely spoken and English did not have to come to terms with it. Though many Britons remained behind, the fact that much of the north and west of the mainland was mountainous and that the Saxons arrived from the south and east influenced the ultimate division between Saxon and Celt. The mountains of Wales and Scotland provided refuges: they were also less attractive to settlers and less worthwhile to conquer.

Bede's account of an English nation in 731 was as much a programme as a description of the immediate reality. The English settlers were divided into a number of kingdoms, waging constant warfare, the borders vague, the fortunes fluctuating. The enmities between them invited Celtic counter-attack if it could be organized. But the Celts were also divided and, though they were able to inflict sharp defeats on the Saxons, they were not able to drive them out. While the small kingdoms of East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex struggled for supremacy, a kingdom of England remained a long way off. But in the title of ‘bretwalda’—overlord of Britain—may be seen aspiration, even if the substance was shadowy and fleeting. Had Northumbria been able to consolidate its 7th-cent. superiority, a more northerly based English kingdom might have come into existence, perhaps centred on York, and with the border much further to the north along the line of the Forth. But with the decline of Northumbria, the struggle was between Mercia and Wessex and the probability was that any English kingdom would be southern. It retained that character throughout its history, despite the personal union with Scotland in 1603. In 1760, though George III gloried in the name of Britain, he not only failed to visit Ireland, Scotland, or Wales, but never penetrated north or midlands England.

From the incessant warfare of the first three centuries of Saxon settlement emerged the kingdom of Mercia. In the later 8th cent., Offa (d. 796) overran Kent and Essex, including London, pushed back the Welsh, and confined Wessex to south of the Thames. His great dyke remains the rough border between England and Wales. At one stage he took the title Rex Anglorum and Pope Hadrian I recognized him as that. Though Northumbria was not conquered, its king, Æthelred, married one of Offa's daughters. But Mercia's supremacy depended essentially on Offa's personal prestige and his country was in decline before the Viking raids commenced in the 9th cent. By 878, the north and midlands, including Mercia, had fallen to the Danes, and Alfred of Wessex was hanging on precariously in the Somerset marshes.

For some time it looked as if Viking raids and settlement would destroy the possibility of an English kingdom and that the British Isles might become part of a grand Scandinavian empire, based on the North Sea. But, in the event, the Vikings promoted the emergence of a kingdom of England. First, by destroying Northumbria and Mercia, they cleared the way for the supremacy of Wessex. Secondly, the effort required to throw back the invaders gave Wessex a new vitality, perhaps a rare instance of Toynbee's dictum of challenge and response. Alfred's counter-attack was so vigorous that he was able to divide the country between Wessex and the Danelaw, and his successors built upon his achievements. Edward, his son, and Æthelfleda, his daughter, began the reconquest as far as the Humber, and before his death in 924 Edward had received the submission of northern England. Edward's son Athelstan went further, receiving the submission of the princes of Wales, the king of the Scots, and the Cornish Britons. In 937 he confirmed his supremacy with a crushing victory at Brunanburh. Not only had a recognizable kingdom of England been reconstructed from the remnants of Wessex but a vision of a kingdom of Britain began to be entertained. Edgar was said to have been rowed on the Dee at Chester in 973 by British, Welsh, and Scottish kings, though whether this was alliance or homage is not clear.

Compared with the early Saxon kingdoms of the 7th cent., Athelstan's England was capable of sustained military effort. Strong points or burhs were constructed; control of coinage established; a navy created, and the kingdom divided up into shires and hundreds. The taxation required to resist or buy off the Danes became a permanent feature of the royal finances. The church had gradually built up an ecclesiastical network, with the two archbishoprics of Canterbury (597) and York (625), and bishoprics at London (604), Rochester (604), Winchester (660), Lichfield (669), Hereford (676), Worcester (680), Wells (909), and Durham (995). The strength of the monarchy and the identity of the nation were so well established that the succession of a Danish king, Cnut, in 1016 no longer threatened disintegration, any more than did the succession of a Dutchman ( William III, 1688) or a German ( George I, 1714).

It follows therefore that when William and the Normans conquered in 1066 the existence of the kingdom of England was not in jeopardy, though the context in which it was to exist remained doubtful. Though there was an almost total change of top personnel, Norman nobles and bishops replacing Saxon ones, there was no mass settlement and the small number of Normans was bound to be absorbed before long. Some indication of the precariousness of a lone Norman in a largely hostile population can be gauged from William's institution of Englishry—that a murdered man would be presumed to be Norman, and the hundred fined accordingly, unless it could be proved otherwise. But the ruthless rule of the Norman kings meant that the kingdom was less likely to disintegrate than ever. The main effects were twofold. First, Englishmen and the English language were under a cloud for several generations. Secondly, the country found itself in the wider context of western Europe, as part of an empire which included, at times, most of France.

But soon the kingdom recovered its English character. The Conqueror's youngest son, Henry I, was born in England in 1068, possibly at Selby, brought up in the country, and spoke the language. Within three months of succeeding Rufus in 1100 he had married an English princess, the great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside. In just over 100 years from the Conquest, Richard FitzNigel could write that ‘nowadays when English and Norman live close together and marry … it can scarce be decided who is of English birth and who Norman’. The English language, which had given way in court circles and administration to Norman French or Latin, took longer to recover, partly because of the international utility of Latin. But in 1362 Parliament was opened with a speech in English and the law courts were instructed to hear cases in the English tongue. There were of course persistent complaints throughout the period of the influence of foreigners, particularly Provençals and Poitevins under Henry III, but they illustrate dominant Englishness and are paralleled at a much later period by complaints against Scottish, Dutch, and German favourites at court.

Meanwhile the power of the king's government increased. A network of royal castles pinned the country down militarily. One of the greatest of unifying forces was the development in the 13th cent. of Parliament, with representation, usually at Westminster, from most parts of the kingdom. Though in the long run Parliament was to challenge the monarchy, for the first four centuries it was an obedient servant and added greatly to royal power. In the 14th cent., and particularly during the reign of Edward III, came important developments in the legal system—the institution of regular assizes, bringing most of the country under royal justice, and the growing use of justices of the peace to maintain law and order in the localities. In the 16th cent. came further additions—new instruments of government like the prerogative courts and the use of lords-lieutenant for shire administration. Above all, the destruction of papal power by Henry VIII in the 1530s removed a rival source of authority and placed the monarch at the head of the church, with all its resources and powers of persuasion.

The connection with Normandy did not last long and John lost it to Philip Augustus of France in 1204. But the English kings retained Poitou and Aquitaine. The remaining territories were not lost until 1259 and even then the kings of England, from Edward III to Henry VIII, strove, with varying degrees of success, to regain their former territories. Not until the loss of Calais in Mary's reign in 1558 did the dream of a French empire finally vanish.

In succeeding to the Anglo-Saxon state, the Normans succeeded to its neighbours in the British Isles. The north of England had never been fully integrated into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. William I's answer was the fearsome harrying of the north in 1069 and 1070, following the last great intervention of a Danish force in English affairs. Against Scotland, William achieved a temporary supremacy with a campaign in 1072 as far as the Tay, forcing Malcolm Canmore to do homage. Of more lasting consequence were the Norman advances against Wales and Ireland, which Saxon England had not been strong enough to attempt. The foundation for the eventual conquest of Wales was laid by the creation of the marcher earldoms and by the colonization and castling of Pembrokeshire and south Wales. The first Norman kings did not attempt anything against Ireland, though a Norman ecclesiastical organization was introduced under the primacy of Canterbury and an archbishopric founded at Armagh. In 1170 Strongbow took advantage of the feuds between the Irish to intervene and in 1171 Henry II landed at Waterford, received the submission of many of the Irish chiefs, and built a palace at Dublin. A foothold had been established.

The transformation of the small Wessex kingdom into a kingdom of Britain was built on these foundations. The conquest of Wales was completed by Edward I. After Glyndŵr's rising in the early 15th cent., the Welsh were subjected to savage penal laws, but the advent of a Welsh dynasty, the Tudors, in 1485 facilitated an accommodation. The principality was brought into the English political and administrative system in 1536 by the Act of Union, which gave the Welsh representation at Westminster and divided the country up into shires on the English pattern. The conquest of Ireland proceeded by fits and starts, according to English preoccupations elsewhere. The foothold was never quite lost to counter-attacks. Richard II led two expeditions in 1394 and 1399 to secure the Pale and by Poynings's law of 1494 the English established control over the Irish Parliament. Henry VIII declared himself king of Ireland in 1541. Later, the Elizabethan settlements, the influx into Ulster from Scotland, and the Cromwellian land redistributions strengthened the English position.

Scotland was a different matter. For centuries the border in the north fluctuated and in 1092 Rufus seized and fortified Cumberland. There were repeated attempts by the English to unite the two countries, by diplomacy or conquest. Edward I's gains were cancelled by the disaster which overtook his son at Bannockburn in 1314. A plan to marry Edward VI to Mary, queen of Scots, came to nothing when she married the French dauphin instead—potentially a very damaging development for England. But there were already signs that the balance between the two countries was shifting. Between 1329 and 1625 only two of the eleven Scottish rulers succeeded as adults and the repeated minorities were bound to weaken the Scottish monarchy. Three hammer blows in succession—Flodden in 1513 when James IV was killed, Solway Moss in 1542 and Pinkie Cleugh in 1547—suggested that the English had gained the upper hand in warfare. Unification came as a consequence of Elizabeth's preference for virginity: the marriage of Henry VIII's sister Margaret in 1503 paid off 100 years later when her great-grandson, James VI, succeeded as James I of England.

A governmental union of his two kingdoms was top of the agenda for James. A combined flag was designed and the name of Great Britain put forward. To a glum Parliament, James outlined the advantages: ‘do we not yet remember that this kingdom was divided into seven little kingdoms, besides Wales … And hath not the union of Wales to England added a greater strength thereto?’ It was to no avail. ‘We should lose the ancient name of England, so famous and victorious,’ retorted his opponents: ‘let us proceed with a leaden foot.’ The project foundered.

Where James's arguments failed, Cromwell's sword succeeded. After his victories over the Scots at Dunbar and the Irish at Drogheda, the Scottish and Irish parliaments were wound up. The Instrument of Government in 1653 instituted one Commonwealth Parliament, with 30 MPs each from Scotland and Ireland. The arrangement lapsed at the Restoration, for while the case for union remained strong, Charles II was unwilling to build with Cromwell's bricks.

The issue was raised again in 1669–70 but broke down on the size of Scotland's representation. With the great war against Louis XIV from 1688 onwards and the risk of subversion from a Jacobite Scotland, the matter became urgent. William III pushed the question in 1689 and was still pushing it when he died. More negotiations followed in 1702 and when they broke down, relations between the two countries reached their lowest point since the 1540s, with war discussed as a serious possibility. The Union which came about in 1707 was essentially a Whig move to secure the Hanoverian succession. Scotland obtained access to English markets and to the empire, while preserving its own legal, educational, and ecclesiastical system. England gained a greater measure of military security.

The new state was to be known as Great Britain and strenuous efforts were made to persuade all subjects to abandon old animosities and regard themselves as Britons. For many years such appeals fell upon deaf ears. Londoners, who had jeered at the Welsh in Pepys's day, jeered at the Scots in Wilkes's. Parliament was to meet at Westminster and Scotland was given 45 MPs and 16 representative peers. The Union is usually discussed from a Scottish point of view—‘the end of an auld song’. But many of the English, including most of the Tories, looked at it sourly. They objected that Scotland was not paying its fair share and mistrusted its retention of a presbyterian form of church government. Lord Haversham doubted whether a union of ‘so many mismatched pieces, such jarring, incongruous ingredients’ could hold together and deplored the passing of ‘the good old English constitution’.

The push towards British unification continued. True, there was no attempt to bring about a governmental union with Hanover after 1714: indeed, there were soon proposals to divide the two realms and they parted company in 1837. But the next great crisis, when the new British state faced the French Revolution, brought the Union with Ireland in 1801, and yet another change of name to the United Kingdom.

Wessex, having swallowed its neighbours in England, had now swallowed its neighbours in Britain. But Ireland proved hard to digest. Whereas the unions with Wales and Scotland undoubtedly contributed to British power, that with Ireland was a dubious asset. In 1916, when Britain was in the utmost peril, it was not possible to apply conscription to Ireland. It is a strange union which the government cannot call upon its people to defend. The breaking away of the Irish Free State suggested that the process of more than 1,000 years was in reverse. How far it would go remains unanswered.

But even should events push the kingdom of England back whence it came, or, to take the extreme case, Northumbria and Mercia should reappear as more than tourist boards or police authorities, two results of Wessex's supremacy will last for some time. The great imperial expansion of the 17th and 18th cents. produced America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and spread the practice of parliamentary government throughout the world. The second was that for centuries to come the language of international diplomacy and communication will remain that of Hengist and Horsa, Ælle and Cissa.

J. A. Cannon


Cannon, J. A., and and Griffiths, R. , The Oxford Illustrated History of the Monarchy (Oxford, 1988);
Grant, A., and Stringer, K. J. (eds.), Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History (1995);
Kearney, H. F. , The British Isles: A History of Four Nations (Cambridge, 1990).

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