Anglo-Saxon England was an era marked by vicious bloodshed, religious fervour, and warring kingdoms. Yet it also saw the development of great art, poetry, and institutions from which emerged the unified kingdom of England, belying the popular characterisation as a “dark age”. Indeed, the name “England” derives from the “land of the Angles”.
The Anglo-Saxons are conventionally understood as Germanic tribes that immigrated to England, either via invitation, hired as mercenaries by the Romano-British, or through invasion and conquest. Originally worshipping pagan gods, it was this period that saw the spread of Christianity throughout England.
Prior to the emergence of a single unified kingdom under Æthelstan of Wessex, the land was dominated by various warring tribes and kingdoms, which eventually coalesced into the heptarchy — 7 kingdoms that controlled England.
Here are those 7 powerful kingdoms.
Settled by the Jutes, one of the three tribes that colonised England in the 5th century (the other two being the Angles and the Saxons), the legendary founders of Kent were the brothers Hengest and Horsa.
Traditionally considered the leaders of the first wave of Anglo-Saxons, legend has them invited by the British warlord Vortigern to defend his people, and were granted a portion of his land — Kent. Whilst the veracity of this myth is difficult to ascertain, there may be some truth to the kingdom originally being colonised as part of a negotiated treaty rather than simple invasion.
A prosperous kingdom based around Canterbury and positioned on the trade route between London and the continent, we can see evidence of their wealth in the lavish grave-goods of the 6th century. They certainly had links with the continent — Æthelberht, during his time the most powerful king in southern England, married Bertha, a Frankish princess.
And it was Æthelberht whom Saint Augustine converted; Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
Their 6th century prowess would not last, and Kent fell under the control of Mercia, a rival kingdom. Kent remained under Mercian control until Mercia too fell, with both kingdoms conquered by Wessex.
Home of the East Saxons, the royal house of Essex claimed descent from the old tribal god of the Saxons, Seaxnet. They seem to have had a fondness of the letter “S”. Sledd, Sæbert, Sigebert, all but one of their kings bore names beginning with the letter.
They often had joint kingships within the ruling family. No single branch of the family was able to dominate for more than two consecutive reigns.
Their territory contained two old Roman provincial capitals — Colchester, and notably London. However, the kingdom was often under the sway of a more powerful one. This complicated their relationship with Christianity, which was generally intertwined with the hegemony of a different kingdom.
Essex suffered a similar fate to Kent, coming under Mercian dominance, and then the control of Wessex.
Legend attributes the founding of the kingdom to Ælle, a brave invader who fought with his sons against the Romano-British and viciously sacked a Roman fort. The story’s veracity is highly-dubious, however. Whilst Ælle may have been a real person, archaeological evidence suggests that Germanic settlers arrived early in the 5th century, before growing to dominate the region.
Due to a great forest that covered large swathes of its north-east, Sussex was more culturally distinct to the other kingdoms. Indeed they were the last kingdom to convert to Christianity.
A weaker kingdom, it recognised Mercian dominance before being conquered by Wessex in the 680s. 50 years later it once again recognised Mercian supremacy. Eventually it, like the other southern kingdoms, came under the control of Wessex when Mercia was defeated.
Dominating the North, during its height Northumbria stretched from the Humber and Mersey rivers in the South, to the Firth of Forth in Scotland. It was formed due to the union of two kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira in c.604; it would go on to be the most powerful kingdom during that century.
Bede, the most famous of Anglo-Saxon authors and one of our major sources, was from Northumbria during this time. Several great works of art were produced, including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiantinus.
The next century didn’t go quite so well.
Being king seemed a particularly perilous job. Of the 14 kings during the 8th century, 4 were murdered, 6 overthrown, and 2 chose to abdicate and become monks.
Their great rivals were the Mercians, however it was the Picts who ended their 7th century hegemony, and the Vikings who ended their kingdom. Beginning with the sack of Lindisfarne, by 867 the Vikings had taken York. Vikings retained control of the province of Deira until the 10th century.
5. East Anglia
Sutton Hoo is one of the most significant finds of Anglo-Saxon England. Filled with gold treasures and intricate metal-work, these burial mounds grant us insight into Anglo-Saxon culture and society. Burial mound 1, with its great 90ft ghost ship, is thought to be the grave of an East Anglian king.
The common theory is that it was Rædwald, a contemporary of Æthelberht of Kent. Rædwald is known for hedging his bets when it came to the new religion, supposedly placing both Christian and pagan altars in the same temple. This seems to have worked out for him, as he became the most powerful king in England after Æthelberht’s death.
The wealth found in the Sutton Hoo burials demonstrates just how powerful he was. As with most of the other kingdoms, East Anglia too declined, and soon came under Mercian influence.
They managed to overthrow the Mercians, before being conquered by first Wessex, and then the Vikings, under whose control it remained until it was absorbed into a unified England.
Mierce in Old English translates to “border”, and so the Mercians were literally border people. Which border this was however, is a matter of debate. Regardless, they soon expanded past any border, and became the most powerful kingdom during the 8th century.
Whilst having a strong monarchy, the kingdom doesn’t seem to have been a single, homogeneous unit, and instead more of a confederation of various peoples. The ealdormen (nobles) were not appointed by the king but instead seemed to be the leaders of their own people within the kingdom.
There were two standout Mercian kings. The first was under Penda, during the mid 7th century. Penda is known as the last great pagan king and was supposedly a fierce warrior. However, his death weakened Mercia, which temporarily fell under the rule of Northumbria.
The second was under Offa. It was he who in the 8th century conquered most of the other kingdoms. Indeed Asser, King Alfred’s biographer described him as a “vigorous king … who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him”. Yet 30 years after his death, Mercia was controlled by the Vikings, before being conquered by Wessex under Alfred the Great.
Kingdom of the West Saxons, Wessex is the only kingdom whose regnal lists contain a female ruler — Seaxburh, widow of the king. Throughout the 8th century it was threatened by its more powerful neighbour Mercia, however during the 9th it quickly gained power.
Alfred the Great ended his reign in the 10th century as “King of the Anglo-Saxons”, controlling all but the Vikings, though they acknowledged his power. His grandson Æthelstan became the “King of the English”, the first ruler to reign over a unified England.
Title Image Credit Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla / Commons.