who was the greatest of the saxon kings

Debating Royalty: Who Was the Greatest of the Saxon Kings?

The Anglo-Saxon period of England’s history was a time of great change and cultural evolution. The Saxon kings who ruled during this era were instrumental in shaping the country’s identity and laying the foundation for modern-day England.

But amidst the many monarchs who reigned over the Saxon dynasty, a debate rages on: who was the greatest of them all? Was it King Alfred the Great, who defended England against Viking invasions and spearheaded cultural and educational reforms? Or was it King Athelstan, who united the Saxon kingdoms and expanded England’s influence across Europe? The answer is far from clear, and historians continue to offer differing opinions.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Saxon kings played a major role in shaping England’s identity during the Anglo-Saxon period
  • The debate over the greatest Saxon king continues to this day
  • King Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, King Edgar the Peaceful, and King Ethelred the Unready are among the top contenders for the title

Understanding the Saxon Dynasty

The Saxon dynasty is one of the most important periods in English history, spanning from the 5th century to the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Saxons were a Germanic people who migrated to Britain from present-day Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. They established several kingdoms, including Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria, which were later united under the rule of the Saxon kings.

The Saxon dynasty marked a significant transition from the Roman era to the Middle Ages. During this time, England underwent major cultural and political changes, including the spread of Christianity, the development of the English language, and the establishment of a feudal system. The Saxons also faced numerous challenges, such as Viking invasions, internal power struggles, and territorial disputes with neighboring kingdoms.

The historical significance of the Saxons cannot be overstated. Their legacy can be seen in many aspects of modern English culture, from the Anglo-Saxon literature of Beowulf and the epic poem of the same name, to the names of towns and cities across the country. The Saxon dynasty laid the foundation for modern England, and its influence can still be felt today.

Examining the Reign of King Alfred the Great

King Alfred the Great is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in English history. His reign from 871 to 899 marked a turning point in the Saxon dynasty, with a series of military victories, cultural reforms, and lasting legacies.

One of King Alfred’s greatest achievements was his success in defending England against Viking invasions. He reorganized the army, built a network of fortified towns, and established a navy to protect the coastline. His most celebrated victory came at the Battle of Edington in 878, which led to the establishment of Danelaw, a treaty between the Saxons and the Danes.

King Alfred’s cultural reforms were equally significant. He recognized the importance of education and established a court school for his own children. He also commissioned translations of important texts into English, including Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. This helped to solidify the English language and identity.

Finally, King Alfred’s legacy can be seen in the enduring institutions of the English legal system. He created a set of laws to establish a more unified and just society, known as the Doom Book or Book of Laws. This laid the groundwork for the development of the common law system, which is still in use today.

In conclusion, King Alfred the Great left an indelible mark on English history. His military victories, cultural reforms, and legal innovations shaped the Saxon dynasty and set the stage for England’s future growth and development.

Uncovering the Legacy of King Athelstan

King Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, is often considered one of the greatest Saxon kings. He inherited a fragile kingdom, but his reign saw the unification of all the Saxon kingdoms, making him the first King of England.

Athelstan’s accomplishments were many. He established a legal system and issued a set of laws that united the kingdom and brought peace and stability to his subjects. He also reformed the coinage system, making it easier to trade and establish England as an economic power.

Athelstan’s Achievements Impact on England
Unification of Saxon kingdoms Establishment of England as a unified country
Establishment of a legal system Improved governance and stability
Coinage reform Increased economic power

Additionally, Athelstan played a significant role in expanding England’s influence abroad. He was victorious in several battles against the Vikings and established friendly relations with neighboring kingdoms.

King Athelstan’s legacy has endured through the centuries. His reign marked a turning point in English history, laying the foundation for the country’s eventual rise to power.

Exploring the Reign of King Edgar the Peaceful

King Edgar, also known as Edgar the Peaceful, was the king of the West Saxons and Mercians from 959 until his death in 975. He is often hailed as a model monarch due to his efforts in maintaining peace and stability within the Saxon kingdom.

During his reign, King Edgar consolidated his power by defeating rebellious factions and expanding his territories. He brought together the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, creating a unified and powerful Saxon state.

Furthermore, King Edgar was known for his religious reforms, which helped to establish a sense of unity and identity among the Anglo-Saxon people. He supported the growth of monasteries and the spread of Christianity, earning him the title of “peaceful” for his efforts to unite his subjects through a shared faith.

Overall, King Edgar’s reign represented a period of relative peace and prosperity for the Saxon people. His achievements in consolidating power and promoting religious unity have solidified his place as one of the greatest Saxon kings in history.

Evaluating the Impact of King Ethelred the Unready

King Ethelred the Unready, also known as King Ethelred II, ruled England from 978 to 1016. His reign was marked by political instability and frequent Viking invasions; as a result, he is often viewed as one of the weakest Saxon kings.

During Ethelred’s reign, England faced a series of devastating attacks from Danish Vikings. In an attempt to appease them, Ethelred paid large sums of money, known as Danegeld, as tribute. However, this strategy proved ineffective, and Viking raids continued to ravage England. Ethelred’s inability to effectively defend his kingdom earned him the reputation of being unprepared, hence the name “Unready.”

As a result of these frequent invasions, Ethelred ordered the massacre of all Danes living in England in 1002, a decision that has been criticized for its brutality. This event is known as the St. Brice’s Day Massacre and it led to an increase in Danish attacks on England.

Despite these shortcomings, Ethelred did have some achievements during his reign. He reformed the coinage system to improve the economy and established a legal code, known as the Laws of Ethelred. These laws formed the basis of English common law for many years to come.

However, the lasting legacy of Ethelred’s reign was the weakened state of the Saxon kingdom. His inability to defend England and unite the different regions allowed the Danish Vikings to gain a foothold in England, leading to the eventual conquest of the country by the Danish king, Sweyn Forkbeard, and his son, Cnut.

Evaluating the Impact of King Ethelred the Unready

In evaluating the impact of King Ethelred the Unready, it is important to consider the challenges he faced during his reign. While he did make some contributions to English society, his inability to defend his kingdom against Viking invasions ultimately led to the downfall of the Saxon dynasty. As such, while he may not be viewed as the greatest of the Saxon kings, his reign was certainly a significant one in English history.

Comparing the Contributions of Other Saxon Kings

While King Alfred, King Athelstan, King Edgar, and King Ethelred are often considered the most notable Saxon kings, there were many other significant rulers who contributed to the dynasty.

King Notable Accomplishments
King Offa Expanded Mercia’s territory, established trade relations with the Byzantine Empire, and created a legal code.
King Cnut the Great Conquered England and established a powerful North Sea Empire, maintained peace and stability through his reign.
King Edward the Confessor Reign was marked by peace and prosperity, commissioned the construction of Westminster Abbey.
King Harold Godwinson Defeated the Welsh and the Norwegians, famously died in the Battle of Hastings against William the Conqueror in 1066.

Each of these kings left their own unique mark on Saxon history, contributing to the dynasty’s legacy in their own way. However, when compared to the notable accomplishments of the four most widely debated Saxon kings, their legacies may not be as prominent.

Weighing the Arguments: Who Was the Greatest?

It’s a question that historians and enthusiasts alike have been debating for centuries: who was the greatest Saxon king? Each of the contenders, from Alfred the Great to Ethelred the Unready, had their own unique accomplishments and challenges.

Advocates for King Alfred argue that he was the driving force behind England’s cultural and military success, while those in King Athelstan’s corner point to his unification of the Saxon kingdoms and expansion of the English empire.

Others argue that King Edgar the Peaceful’s peaceful reign and religious reforms were unparalleled, or that King Ethelred’s reign, despite its failures, ultimately laid the groundwork for future success.

So, who truly deserves the title of greatest Saxon king? The answer may never be clear-cut, as each ruler left behind a distinct legacy that shaped the course of English history.

However, by examining the accomplishments of each candidate and weighing them against the challenges they faced, we can gain a greater appreciation for the complexity and richness of the Saxon era.

Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to decide which Saxon king they believe was the greatest, based on their own interpretation of history and the evidence at hand.


After examining the legacies of the greatest Saxon kings, it’s clear that each ruler made significant contributions to English history. King Alfred the Great’s military victories and cultural reforms helped shape English identity, while King Athelstan’s unification of the Saxon kingdoms and establishment of a legal system laid the groundwork for future monarchs. King Edgar the Peaceful’s peaceful reign and religious reforms set a standard for model monarchs, even as King Ethelred the Unready’s failure to protect England from Viking invasions left a lasting impact. While there are compelling arguments for each candidate, the debate over the greatest Saxon king ultimately comes down to individual interpretation and perspective. Some might value military victories over cultural reforms, or prioritize peace and stability over conquest. The important thing is that we continue to explore the rich history of the Saxon era and learn from the successes and failures of these remarkable rulers. In conclusion, the Saxon dynasty and its kings played a crucial role in shaping English history and identity. Whether debating their achievements or studying their legacies, there is much to learn from these inspiring figures.


Q: What is the significance of the Saxon kings?

A: The Saxon kings played a crucial role in shaping English history. They established a dynasty that lasted for several centuries and laid the foundations for the English monarchy and culture.

Q: Who were the most famous Saxon kings?

A: Some of the most famous Saxon kings include King Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, King Edgar the Peaceful, and King Ethelred the Unready.

Q: What were the achievements of King Alfred the Great?

A: King Alfred the Great is known for his military victories against Viking invasions, his cultural and educational reforms, and his efforts to unify the Saxon kingdoms.

Q: What were the accomplishments of King Athelstan?

A: King Athelstan is celebrated for unifying the Saxon kingdoms, establishing a legal system, and expanding England’s influence through military conquests.

Q: What made King Edgar the Peaceful a notable ruler?

A: King Edgar the Peaceful is renowned for his peaceful reign, during which he maintained stability within the Saxon kingdom and implemented significant religious reforms.

Q: What challenges did King Ethelred the Unready face?

A: King Ethelred the Unready faced numerous Viking invasions and struggled to defend England. His reign resulted in significant political and social unrest.

Q: Who were the other significant Saxon kings?

A: Other significant Saxon kings include King Offa, King Egbert, and King Canute. Each of them made contributions to the Saxon dynasty in their own unique ways.

Q: What are the arguments for the greatest Saxon king?

A: The arguments for the greatest Saxon king vary, with supporters of each candidate highlighting their military prowess, cultural achievements, or political impact.

Q: What is the conclusion of the debate?

A: The debate over the greatest Saxon king is subjective and continues to spark discussion among historians and enthusiasts. It is ultimately up to individuals to weigh the evidence and form their own conclusions.