Saxon England was a divided society. The early English kings had to try and rule a society on terms that satisfied a bewildering ethnic mix of East Anglians, Mercians from the Midlands, Danes, Norsemen, Saxons and Northumbrians. The best modern comparison is probably with the Balkans. King Edmund who ruled for only six years, from October 939 to May 946, encapsulates in his short reign the brokenness of his times, and the hope for something better.
Edmund was the younger brother of King Athelstan who ruled from 924 to 939. Athelstan had tried to keep the country together with an emotive brew of religious fundamentalism, and ethnic cleansing, often directed, for some reason, at Cornishmen! In 936, a few years before Athelstan's death, there was a huge battle at Brunanburh between Athelstan's army, and the Irish Norse and their northern allies. Eighteen year old Edmund had fought in this battle, which possibly took place on the shores of the Mersey. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the great monastic account of the Saxon period describes Brunanburh in apocalyptic terms. And yet within two years the Norse leader Olaf Guthfrithson, defeated at the battle, was back from Ireland ready to fight once again. Learning from the painful experience of Brunanburh, Guthfrithson's army did not wait in Lancashire for allies to join them. Instead they dashed straight to York and took the city before Edmund could react.
In 940 Olaf marched south, crossing the Humber, accompanied by Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Wulfstan believed England would be better off split in two, centred on the great religious centres of York and Canterbury. It was Wulfstan and his counterpart in Canterbury who negotiated a peace which gave a large part of northern England to Olaf and the Norsemen. Religion was one of the few areas of common ground in English society, and yet in this case it was religious leaders who were working for political division. But before the Norse could consolidate their position, Olaf died in late 941. The following year Edmund led his army into the Norse controlled area, the area of the "Five Boroughs" around Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Lincoln. This campaign was a success. Another campaign in 944 drove the Norse out of England. In 945 Edmund raided Strathclyde, and then granted this region to Malcolm of Scotland in return for a promise of alliance.
Edmund seemed to be building towards a reign of great promise, in which warfare and division of England might be controlled. But on 26th May 946 Edmund went to help one of his officers who was being attacked by a thief with a dagger. Edmund was killed in the struggle.
Historians look for the beginnings of England during the reign of the Saxon kings, from Offa, Alfred to Athelstan before Edmund, and to the reigns of King Eadred and Edgar the Peaceable after him. But there is no clear beginning. The rhyme helping school children remember English monarchs starts with William the Conqueror, but he wasn't the first English monarch either. People like beginnings and endings, but history seems to constantly deny them. Edmund's short reign, fittingly, ended before it really began.