If we accept Cerdic as founder, the English monarchy dates back to about 519. The Scottish monarchy may be dated from c.843, when Kenneth MacAlpin of Dalriada united Picts and Scots to form the kingdom of Alba. The role of the monarch was essentially that of battle‐leader. As a consequence, strict primogeniture was slow to establish itself, since it could result in a child or a simpleton on the throne. Few monarchs lasted long enough for old age to be a problem. With expectation of life short, it was unlikely that the eldest son would be old enough for the task. Edgar's eldest son Edward was only 13 when chosen in 975 but the innovation was hardly encouraging since he was murdered within three years.
Apart from waging war—admittedly at times a demanding business—early kings had little to do. They attempted very few of the activities of the modern state. Justice was dispensed by landowners themselves; the king did not make law, though he might declare what it was; there was little revenue to collect, though he was entitled to support and hospitality. There was no economic or education policy to supervise.
But the great effort needed to push back the Danes in the 9th and 10th cents. produced important developments in the institutions of Wessex. Burhs, erected as strong points, had to be built and garrisoned, naval vessels commissioned and manned, and all had to be paid for. By the reign of Athelstan a much more complex governmental structure is apparent and the kingdom of England has emerged. Indeed, by the reign of Edgar, one can see the outlines of a claim to British sovereignty, with the monarch rowed on the Dee in 973 by kings from Scotland, from Wales, and of the British.
With the Conquest in 1066 the kingdom was once more in alien hands. The first three Norman rulers were powerful. Their significance is seen more in relations with the other rulers in the British Isles than in domestic reform. Scotland felt the change quickly. William I paralleled the expedition by Cnut in 1031 with his own march to the Tay in 1072, which brought about the submission of Malcolm Canmore. His son William Rufus reoccupied Cumberland in 1092. Into Wales, the incursion of Norman lords began, particularly in the south, as early as one year after Hastings. The Norman attack upon Ireland was postponed until the 12th cent. and the reign of Henry II.
Since medieval government centred on the king, its efficacy varied greatly. Under strong rulers, the monarchy advanced, royal justice was extended, revenue increased, local government reorganized. Under weak rulers, control became slack and important concessions were made to subjects—*Magna Carta in 1215, even if the immediate beneficiaries were the barons. Monarchs were frequently in danger since they were still expected to lead in battle: Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI were deposed and killed, Edward V murdered, Richard III killed on the battlefield. Success in war, on the other hand, gave the king a strong, if not impregnable, position—William I, Edward I, Edward III, Henry V.
Subjects: British History.