By the early 7th century the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms had merged and grown to form seven areas: Northumbria; Mercia; East Anglia; Essex; Kent; Sussex; and Wessex. The idea of the Heptarchy first appears in the writings of Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century. The kingdoms themselves date back to an earlier foundation but were identified as the ones which gradually absorbed neighbouring kingdoms during the middle of the Anglo-Saxon period and prior to the final emergence of England as a single kingdom in the late 10th century.
However, the idea of the Heptarchy was not one recognised by the people of those kingdoms at the time, and may even obscure the differences and complexities of relationship if taken too literally.
However, we will take a very brief look at the history if each of the kingdoms below.
The kingdom of Northumbria formed out of two separate kingdoms: Deira (at the centre and east of modern Yorkshire) centred on York; and Bernicia (from the Tees up to Edinburgh) centred on Bamburgh.
While there is archaeological evidence the Anglo-Saxons had reached Eboracum (Eoforwīc) by 500 CE and Ripon some time in 5th century, their expansion to the west delayed by the British kingdom of Elmet. Burial places suggest that during earliest period they settled mostly around the Yorkshire Wolds.
With two kingdoms and two dynasties much of early Northumbrian history is a story of rivalry and internal conflict. However, the Bernician house was almost always more powerful, except for the period 616-632 CE when Edwin of Deira was king of Northumbria and Bretwalda (overlord) of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
This was the beginning of the time when Northumbria was at its peak in the 7th century. Its “Golden Age” was the kingdom’s major contribution to Anglo-Saxon history and culture religious, with a flowering of artistic and intellectual achievements including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the works of Bede.
Edwin’s father Aelle is Deira’s first recorded king but according to tradition, following his death around 588 CE, Athelric of Bernicia took Deira and Athelfrith (Athelric’s son) united Northumbria into a single kingdom 592-616 CE and married Aelle’s daughter Acha. Meanwhile, Edwin went into exile.
Traditionally Ida was the first Bernician king and began his reign in 547 CE and it was his grandson Athelfrith who united Northumbria.
At the Battle of Chester (c. 613/616 CE) Athelfrith attacked and defeated the Britons under the leadership of the king of Powys. Before the battle Athelfrith’s men, by his orders, slaughtered a group of monks from Bangor, who had come to pray for the British victory. The battle brought the English to the Irish Sea and separated Britons in Wales from those to the north.
However, Edwin was still seeking a return to power and with the support of Raedwald of East Anglia he defeated Athelfrith and became king of Northumbria and, after Raedwald’s death, the first northern Bretwalda. He expanded Northumbrian power significantly as well as converting with his kingdom to Christianity.
Edwin was defeated in battle in 632 CE and succeeded eventually by his nephew, Oswald, who was the son of Athelfrith and Edwin’s sister Acha. Oswald in turn was succeeded by his brother Oswiu, and both of them were also Bretwaldas.
After Oswiu died in 670 CE there was an extended period of chaos and conflict. In fact, 14 different kings reigned between 705-806 CE. There is reference to Ecgbert of Wessex accepting the submission of Northumbria at Dore in Derbyshire in 829 CE but the extent of this “submission” is not entirely clear.
The Viking raid in Lindisfarne in 793 CE saw the beginning of extended Viking attacks during the 9th century culminating in the establishment of the Viking Kingdom of York in 866 CE. Deira remained under Scandinavian control but Bernicia separated and continued to be ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings until 927 CE when it submitted to King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred.
The Kingdom of York changed hands back and forth until it was finally overthrown in 954 CE by King Eadred.
Founded by the Iclingas people along the Trent valley, Mercia lay between other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the east and the British kingdoms of modern day Wales to the west. The name of “Mercia” means “Kingdom of the Boundary (or Mark)” and it originally covered the modern day Midlands counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire. It came to dominance after the fall of Northumbria until the early 9th century following the death of its great king, Offa. At its greatest extent it expanded to include Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire, Hertfordshire and Worcestershire, Cheshire, Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Middlesex and Lincolnshire.
The centre of the kingdom was originally at Lichfield, while the king had an important royal site at Tamworth.
Cearl, a king of unknown ancestry, gave his daughter in marriage to Edwin of Deira (part of Northumbria) around 615 CE. He seems to have been succeeded by Penda (d. 655 CE); Penda was the king responsible for considerable Mercian expansion and a fantastically successful warlord. He killed Kings Edwin and Oswald of Northumbria, as well as Kings Anna, Ecgric and Sigeric of East Anglia. Mercian expansion continued under Wulfhere and Athelred. Later Athelbald (r. 716-757) gained control of London. Following his assassination by his own bodyguard, his cousin Offa eventually took control of the kingdom (r. 757-796 CE), and under his rule the kingdom reached its zenith.
Offa is remembered today for the earthworks known as Offa’s Dyke, separating Mercia from Wales. The construction of this earthwork alone demonstrates significant power and control of resources were available to the king. However, Offa is also known for corresponding with Charlemagne over trade and minting a robust coinage. His relationship with the Church was somewhat difficult as he attempted to exercise wider control and he was even able to establish a third Archbishopric at Lichfield towards the end of his reign. After Offa’s death Mercia suffered internal conflict between competing dynasties and was eventually overcome by Ecgbert of Wessex in the early 9th century.
Under the rule of Alfred the Great in Wessex, his daughter Athelflaed married Athelred who was the Ealdormann of Mercia, its ruler under the power of the Wessex king. Following the death of Athelred, Athelflaed took over the kingdom under the title “Lady of the Mercians”. She worked alongside her brother Edward the Elder of Wessex to push back the Viking control in the Danelaw. When she died in 918 CE she was succeeded by her daughter, Alfwynn, the only female ruler to succeed her mother in English history. King Edward then annexed Mercia fully under Wessex and sent his royal niece to a convent.
The Staffordshire Hoard, a huge hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork, primarily military in nature, was unearthed in a field near Lichfield, in Staffordshire on 5th July 2009. The artefacts were discovered in what was the heartland of Mercia and have been dated to the 7th century during the early Mercian expansion.
The Anglo-Saxons settled firstly in the north of East Anglia, where the earliest evidence of their arrival has been unearthed dating to the 5th century, succeeding the Roman civitas of Venta Icenorum. East Anglia primarily covered the counties of Norfolk, occupied by the North Angle Folk and Suffolk, the territory of the South Angle Folk.
Wuffa founded the kingdom of the East Anglia circa 575 CE as a result of the uniting of the North and South Folk. Bede tells us that his descendants were known as the Wuffingas (‘wolf-people’ or ‘wolflings’) and that there was a royal palace at Rendlesham, which is about 4 miles from Sutton Hoo at the estuary of the River Deben, near Woodbridge, where the famous ship burial was discovered in 1939.
Wuffa was the grandfather of Radwald, who was the 4th overlord of the southern English around 616-624 CE. It is commonly suggested that the Sutton Hoo ship burial, was for him. Raedwald achieved military success against Athelfrith of Northumbria in support of Edwin, although his eldest son was killed in the battle. Edwin maintained contact with the kingdom and supported its conversion to Christianity which had been ambivalent under Raedwald.
The rise of Mercia under Penda ended East Anglia’s independence by the end of the 7th century although its dynasty did continue to issue coins during the 8th century. The East Anglians were able to overthrown the Mercian control in the early 9th century with the help of Ecgbert of Wessex, but at the price of accepting Wessex overlordship instead.
Viking raids impacted the area dramatically, although there are relatively few place names if Scandinavian origin. In 865 CE the Great Army of the Vikings wintered at Thetford where King Edmund of East Anglia attacked them and was defeated and killed. Eventually Guthrum became the ruler there under agreement with Alfred of Wessex until it was finally taken back under Wessex by Edward the Elder in his campaigns of the early 10th century.
The region of the East Saxons was settled from around 500 CE, north and east of London. It comprised the modern counties of Essex, Hertfordshire and Middlesex, which included London. However, a Saxon population existed in the area from the late 4th century being the descendants of Roman foederati (mercenaries). Unusually for Anglo-Saxon dynasties, the kings traced their descent from the god Seaxnet rather than Woden, via a king names Sledd, who was father of Saebert.
The Anglo-Saxon burial at Prittlewell is considered to be of a member of the ruling East Saxon royal family, although agreement on which is the most likely candidate remains elusive.
The East Saxon bishopric of St Pauls was founded in London in 604 CE during Saebert’s rule, following conversion under the dominance of Athelbert of Kent. His son and successor rebelled against both Kent and Christianity but the kingdom was converted again under Sigebert with pressure this time from King Oswiu of Northumbria in 653 CE. A final brief lapse followed in 663/4 but this time Mercia ensured the conversion became permanent.
From the beginning of the 7th century London was the main town of the kingdom and it had also extended its boundaries further south of the Thames where they came into conflict with Wessex for the control of Surrey. Mercia also sought control of London, wanting its trading links, and managed to detach it form Essex in the early 8th century. In 825 CE King Ecgbert of Wessex defeated the Mercians at the Battle of Ellandun and took London and at around this time Essex also became a dependency of Wessex.
Sussex is another kingdom about which very little is known until 675 CE when Athelwalh converted to Christianity. It was centred on the Forest of Andred and Bede says that its King Aelle was the first Bretwalda in Anglo-Saxon history (c. 500 CE). The foundation legend for the kingdom says that in 477 CE Aelle arrived at Cymenshore in three ships with his three sons: Cissa, Cymen and Wlencing. He then slew the local defenders and engaged in numerous battels with the British. However, there is no archaeological evidence for the foundation of Sussex. In fact there is evidence for Germanic settlement earlier in the 5th century and may even represent territory which was granted to the Saxons by the local Romano-British. Certainly the Saxons there became the dominant culture, although relatively isolated by the geography of the Sussex Weald from neighbouring kingdoms. Little is known of their kings, and it appears that there were multiple rulers, who may have represented fragmented smaller kingdoms. The South Saxons were the last to convert to Christianity in the latter part of the 7th century.
Sussex was ruled at interchangeably by Mercia under Wulfhere (d. 674 CE), Athelbald (720s/730s CE) and Offa (d. 796 CE), and by Wessex under Cadwalla and Ine in the late 7th and early 8th centuries, then Ecgbert in 827 CE, who took it back from Mercia and permanently absorbed it into Wessex.
There is evidence of Germanic settlement in the Romano-British period in the late 4th century
Their foundation legend tells the story of brothers Hengest (“Stallion”) and Horsa (“Horse”) who were the ancestors of the Oiscingas through Hengest’s son Oisc. They were invited to Britain by Vortigern, a British ruler, and may be a memory of a negotiated settlement of mercenaries rather than invasion especially as the name Cantware, which they took, was derived from a British name. They are also traditionally described as Jutes in origin, rather than Angles or Saxons, and in general the kingdom demonstrates a number of differences from other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in terms of art, material culture and inheritance traditions and land measurements.
Late 6th century artefacts from Kent are more accomplished than other English kingdom and the material culture is closely related to the Frankish Rhineland, and its geography provided it with excellent trading links to the Continent. Athelberht of Kent (d. 616 CE) married Bertha, a Christian princess from Paris. Bede tells us that Athelberht, one of the Bretwaldas, ‘extended the boundaries of his dominion as far as the great river Humber by which the southern and northern peoples of the English are separated’.
In 597 CE Augustine’s mission from the Pope in Rome arrived in Kent and Bertha persuaded him to allow Augustine to set up a base in Kent at Canterbury, the kingdom’s centre. The arrival of Christian clergy introduced written record-keeping along with attempting to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons (the British were often already Christians dating back to the Roman period). Athelberht was able to record his Law Code in writing, and this document represents not only the first recorded Germanic law code but also the earliest document in a vernacular language, as it was written in Old English rather than Latin.
The kingdom was at its height under Athelberht but retained its own kings until the early 9th century, although recognising Mercian overlordship of Athelbald in the first half of the 8th century and subordinate to Offa at the end of the 8th century. Along with other Mercian dominions Kent fell under the control of Ecgbert of Wessex in the 9th century.
Bede tells us that originally the West Saxons were known as the Gewisse, based in the Upper Thames Valley. Their foundation legend tells the story of Cerdic
The early period if the kingdom is very obscure. In the 7th century they took over the Jutish kingdoms in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight under the leadership of King Cadwalla. He was succeeded by Ine (r. 688-726 CE) under whom the situation stabilised. However, the succession after him was confused and stability was really only regained under Ecgbert (r. 802-839 CE). It was Ecgbert who expanded the territory of the kingdom, and took Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Essex from Mercian control.
Conversion to Christianity took place under Cynegils (c. 640 CE) as a requirement of King Oswald of Northumbria who was the Bretwalda. The kingdom’s first bishopric was at Dorchester-on-Thames but later moved to Winchester, which was also the kingdom’s capital.
Ecgbert was succeeded by his son Athelwulf, then his son Alfred, Alfred’s son Edward and grandson Athelstan, who was the first King of all the English.
England eventually emerged as a single nation at the coronation of King Edgar, the first king to be crowned as King of England in 973 CE, and whose Coronation Oath is the basis for the one in use today.