Tracking down the first royal rulers: Who was the original King of England?

It feels like the English monarchy has been around forever, but has it? Let's try to pinpoint where it all began.

Their Majesties King Charles III And Queen Camilla - Coronation Day
Their Majesties King Charles III And Queen Camilla - Coronation Day / Samir Hussein/GettyImages

The United Kingdom is one of only 43 current nations with a monarchy, and it was founded earlier than almost all of the others. But how long ago was the British monarchy established? Which ruler can rightfully call themselves the first King of England?

You might assume that this would be an easy question to answer, but it's actually quite difficult. After all, many rulers claimed to be the "King of England" or "King of Britain" in some form or fashion, and while the British Isles have pretty obvious geographic borders, England has changed political boundaries on multiple occasions.

The earliest written records of Britain come from the Romans, who referred to it as "Britannia" in the 1st century BC. Since that point, there have been hundreds of kings who ruled over small regions. However, these local kings are rarely considered important when discussing kings of the island as a whole.

Instead, we'll be focusing on three kings who are frequently understood as the first "King of England" or "King of Britain." Of course, none of these Kings held dominion over all of the current United Kingdom, and Scotland and Northern Ireland may well see some as irrelevant. However, each had a pivotal part to play in uniting the various populations of Britain under one monarch.

Roman busts inside the museum.
Edinburgh is a city with a...
Roman busts inside the museum. Edinburgh is a city with a... / SOPA Images/GettyImages

Cunobelinus (~10-42)

If you want to get into semantics, Cunobelinus was historically acknowledged as the first "King of the Britons" (Britannorum rex) in Suetonius's The Life of Caligula. He is also the namesake for William Shakespeare's play, Cymbeline, although that story is far more fiction than history.

Cunobelinus was born into the Catuvellauni tribe, which controlled the region of Britain around the Thames. He ascended the throne around 10 AD, around the same time that he expanded the tribe's territory to include modern-day Essex.

We don't know much about Cunobelinus, except where it concerns his connections with Rome. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, he was raised at the court of the Roman Emperor Augustus and "had contracted so great a friendship with the Romans, that he freely paid them tribute when he might have very well refused it."

However, that friendship didn't last all his life. After banishing his son, Cunobelinus had to prepare for the possibility of war with Rome. While it did not come in his lifetime, Rome did eventually dominate the island.

He was succeeded by his sons Caratacus and Togodumnus. The former became a captive of the Romans, while the latter died in battle.

King Athelstan, King Edward the Elder, Leofrid the Dane
King Athelstan Saving The Life Of His Father / Print Collector/GettyImages

Aethelstan (924-939)

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the southern half of Britain was overrun by Anglo-Saxons, Germanic immigrants from Saxony and Anglia. Many powerful leaders sprung up from this group, but none had enough widespread dominance to be considered King of England until Aethelstan the Glorious.

Aethelstan was a member of the House of Wessex, a dynasty that controlled much of Southern England. His father, Edward the Elder, had managed to conquer all of the island south of the River Humber. He would go on to control much more by the time he was done.

The first new territory to claim was York. Thanks to a marriage alliance between King Sihtric and one of Aethelstan's sisters, he had a tenuous claim to the land. While Sihtric died soon after the agreement was made, there was enough claim to legitimacy that, when he defeated Sihtric's cousin in battle, Aethelstan could control the region.

He went on to claim a few more territories before making a bold move. Aethelstan told the other regional kings to submit to him peacefully or face war. The kings of Wales, along with King Constantine of Scotland, agreed. While they technically remained in control of the governing of their regions, they were responsible for paying tribute to Aethelstan and obeying his commands.

Beginning in 927, Aethelstan was acknowledged as the first King of England. At this point, he also defined the borders with Wales and Scotland and established marriages between his sisters and other rulers. While he was not the only King in Britain, he was the supreme ruler.

According to his own coinage, Aethelstan was Rex totius Britanniae — King of all of Britain.

King William I Pays Court To The English Leaders circa 1066 (1864)
King William I Pays Court To The English Leaders circa 1066 (1864) / Heritage Images/GettyImages

William the Conqueror (1066-1087)

While there were clearly many kings prior to 1066, many people believe this to be the transition point from which the British monarchy fully emerged. While there was not one consistent dynasty after this point, there was a largely consistent political structure in place that we can see reflected in the modern monarchy.

Unlike Cunobelinus and Aethelstan, both of whom came from British royal lineages, William I was an illegitimate child born in France. His father, Robert I, was Duke of Normandy, and his mother was Robert's concubine.

Despite being illegitimate, William inherited his father's position after his death in 1035. He was only seven years old. When he was old enough to take on an active role in his duchy, William had to stop many uprisings and assassination attempts to keep his position and earn back the land that had been lost in his youth.

In the early 1050s, William was theoretically named as the Heir to the English throne by his childless cousin, Edward the Confessor. However, Edward's brother-in-law took the throne after his death, claiming it was Edward's deathbed wish, which led William to invade.

Instead of having to fight a lengthy war, the "Norman Conquest" was predominantly decided by one event: the Battle of Hastings. Here, William's forces went up against King Harold directly, and by the end of the day, the King was dead and his forces subdued.

Following the lead of Charlemagne, William held his coronation on Christmas Day, 1066. He took the title of "Rex Anglorum," or King of England. His reign is noted for the introduction of French culture and language to the aristocracy, as well as cementing the Norman understanding of the Catholic Church in England.

After his death, two of William's sons became King of England. This triggered a societal change in England and a new era for the English monarchy. All British monarchs after this point can trace their lineage back to William the Conqueror, and while the extent of the country's borders was contested throughout history, the monarchy has remained a relatively stable governing system ever since.

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