Jan 062017


This is a significant date when it comes to men styled king of England because both Cnut (the Great) and Harold Godwinson (Harold II) were crowned kings on this date – Cnut in 1017 and Harold in 1066 – and both have reasonable claim to being kings of England.  History is a queer duck, and how it is taught is even queerer. In the 1950s and 1960s I was taught bog standard Whig history – that is, the past is only of interest inasmuch as it leads to the present state of affairs.  Sellar and Yeatman lampooned this bad habit mercilessly in 1066 And All That – a volume I enjoyed as a youth for its overall wit, but completely missed their general point about what makes something in English history a “good thing” or a “bad thing.” More and more, also, I am of the opinion that 1066 was a crucial year in English history, but was not the be all and end all of things when it comes to defining the nation of England and its monarchs.

Whig history argues that the Norman kings, starting with William I (aka William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy), were the first REAL kings of England, because William unified England, and made himself king of the land that he unified. This is fair enough – up to a point – if you see England in terms of the present nation-state.  But what is England really?  Were its current borders set in stone from time immemorial? Or is England more of an historical mental abstraction than a permanent geographical reality?  In fact, do historians project back into the past a notion of “England” based on current reality?

There is no question in my mind that the Norman and Angevin kings of England saw England as a province of their territories in continental Europe, and would not have minded much if they had been called Count of England, or Duke of England – which is pretty much what they were. They took the title “king” from their Anglo-Saxon and Danish predecessors. They treated England as part of a much larger whole down to the time of King John, who is arguably the first real king of England in the Norman line – that is, the first king to see England as his predominant realm, rather than as a minor bit of a much larger realm. His brother, Richard I (the Lionheart), clearly had virtually no interest in England other than financial, and spent almost no time there. He was much more concerned with his French holdings and with the Crusades.  His fame as a legendary king of England comes directly from 19th century Romantic literature and 19th century historians, not from historical reality.

So who were the first kings of England? How do we make such an assessment? I’ll begin with Sellar and Yeatman:

Memorable among the Saxon warriors were Hengist and his wife (? or horse), Horsa. Hengist made himself King in the South. Thus Hengist was the first English King and his wife (or horse), Horsa, the first English Queen (or horse).

This is, of course, deliberate nonsense but it points up the historical problem of identifying the first “English” invaders and rulers. In his 8th century Ecclesiastical History, Bede records that the first chieftains among the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in England were said to have been the brothers Hengist and Horsa. He relates that Horsa was killed in battle against the Britons [Celts] and was thereafter buried in East Kent, where, at the time of writing, a monument still stood to him. According to Bede, Hengist and Horsa were the sons of Wictgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden (i.e. the chief Norse god).


Hengist is the Old English for “stallion” and Horsa for “horse.” Whether or not they were