sixth century there were seven major kingdoms, Wessex,
The “sex” part of these names is simply a shortened form for ‘Saxon,’
so that Essex
means East Saxons, Sussex
means South Saxons, and Wessex
is West Saxons. From
then on, there was a struggle between the
kingdoms and warfare with the Britons who were left the area of Wales
and the southwestern portion of Scotland.
eighth century, the main institutions of government were unstable, but
toward some form of political confederation. Strong kings or Bretwaldas
effectively claimed overlordship from time to time. Gradually there
three dominant kingdoms–first Northumbria
in the north during the seventh century, then Mercia
in the midlands during the eighth, and finally Wessex
in the south during the ninth.
of a king depended mostly on his personality and the size of his
noblemen who surrounded a king, his “comitatus,” gave advice and put
into practice. They got their authority not only from legal powers, but
from their own wealth and personal strength. Each kingdom dealt with
confusion and was troubled by the wars and politics. Each of the
different, some being more aggressive than others. From time to time,
seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, one king would assert some superiority over
kingdoms. The other kings would then promise to respect the dominant
frontiers and make war on his enemies. These agreements were often
changes in the kingdoms, and during the eighth century the kingdoms of Northumbria,
successively became the most important.
is considered to have been the first Saxon kingdom, founded shortly
Vortigern’s invitation to the Hengist and Horsa to come to his aid. The
settlers in this region were mostly Jutes, which explains why the
dialect had marked peculiarities, different from those of the Saxons to
and the Angles to the north. Thereafter, a line of seventeen Kentish
ruled this part of England
until it acknowledged King Egbert in 825.
the East Saxons and the West Saxons
were the Angles, all along the east coast of Britain.
The southernmost of their kingdoms was East
Anglia. The only East Anglian king who
attained importance during the early history was Raedwald in the early
century. East Anglia
had a series of sixteen kings, called ‘Wuffings,’ after their first
was to the north of the Thames, and had a line
fifteen kings before acknowledging Egbert in 825.The first king of the East
Saxons was Aescwin, who was the grandfather of Saebert, the
when St. Augustine landed
in 597. Whether Middlesex was ever a separate state is unknown. It was
the reign of the East Saxon Saebert in 604.
had a line of nine kings. It was a small state on the narrow seacoast
Channel. This was inhabited by a group of Saxons who could trace their
to the war-band of Aella.
had a line of twenty-five kings until it came under the rule of Egbert
in 827. Northumbria
was the first of the kingdoms to have any power over its neighbors. The
of the fifth of the Bretwaldas, King Edwin of Northumbria,
by Welsh and Mercians at the battle of Hatfield Chase in 632 brought a
successful kings of Mercia
were Penda (632-654), his son Wulfhere (657-674), Aethelbald (716-757),
Offa (757-796). Mercia
was a central kingdom and its rulers were tough men who were feared by
quite some time. The succession of kings was open to tough competition,
to murder and feud. The way in which Offa and later Cenwulf came to
the instability in Mercia.
Offa succeeded the murdered Aethelbald only after fighting a civil war
Beornred. When he died in 796, his son and successor, Egfrith, survived
only five months. Cenwulf’s brother,
Ceolwulf, was deposed in a palace coup, in favor of Beornwulf (823-6).
not merely a conquering soldier; he was also a statesman. He battled
weak and negotiated with the strong. He defeated Kent,
and East Anglia
one by one, while he arranged marriages of convenience with the royal
and Wessex. Offa was on friendly terms with both Pope
Hadrian I and the Frankish emperor Charlemagne. From
the Pope King Offa was granted the creation of a new
archbishopric at Lichfield, and from
gained the first commercial treaty in English history.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has seven
entries on Offa’s reign, and four on Cenwulf’s. What the Chronicle does
is not openly hostile, but focuses on the bare facts of violence, like
execution of an East Anglian king in 794, or Cenwulf’s suppression of
Kentish rebellion in 798. The Chronicle’s account of Egbert’s conquests
825 is much more sympathetic. A story in Asser’s “Life
of Alfred,” describing how Offa’s daughter lived
tyrannically “in her father’s manner” and poisoned her husband, King
gives some idea of the feelings of Egbert’s dynasty about Offa.
coastland of eastern Wessex
was Jutish soil in the sixth century, and the people were called the
So what was the origin of the people of the Wessex?
The original group was formed from those parts of the earliest Saxon
from war-bands west of Middlesex, in Berkshire
Hampshire, and some small settlement north of Thames.
The West Saxons had a tribal name, Gewissae,
the “allies” or “confederates,” joined together originally for some
need. The term implies a mixed group, which may have included other
besides the purely Saxon.
first “bishop-stool,” or see, was created in Wessex
it was placed at Dorchester-on-Thames. In most
the bishop was established close to the court of the king. The king of Wessex
probably had his favorite residence on the Thames,
in the South. Winchester
took the place
of Dorchester only when South Hampshire and the
Isle of Wight became part of Wessex.
The name “West Saxons” suited a people seated on
Middle Thames just as well as a people in Hampshire. It gives better
Middlesex, which would actually have been between the East and the West
eighth century in England
was the most miserable period of the Dark Ages. The warrior mentality
lost, and Christianity brought a higher moral standard and broader
Chronicles of the seventh and eighth centuries, though full of battle,
and sudden death, is not all bad. The English
Church, for its first
years, was the most creditable branch of the seventh century Christian
beginning of the eighth century the English had several men of vigor
but even then there were signs of deterioration.
Except for Offa of Mercia, and
missionary Winfrith (Boniface), the rest of the eighth century is a
dullness and gloom. Boniface writing, around 745, to censure a
monarch, said the evil began with two young kings, Osed of Northumbria
Ceolred of Mercia. Both were tyrants, murderers of their noblest
ravishers of nuns, and plunderers of monasteries. Both died violent and
In the eighth century there
blurring of the tribal groups. Some of the kingdoms lost their royalty
and the desire to stay in separate tribes waned. Gradually the people
to accept other rulers more as brethren and countrymen, rather than as
strangers to be hated. The stronger royal families had intermarried
them more tolerable as rulers, if they conquered or inherited a crown.
the way in which Kent was united to Wessex—the father of King Egbert of Wessex had been a sub-king in Kent.
The Church was
the most powerful
unifying force in England.
At the frequent synods kings, ealdormen, and bishops from all the
to debate on equal terms for the common benefit of all England.
In the year 597, when Aethelbert of Kent had been king for some time,
Aethelfrith was ruler of the Northumbria,
the growth of Christianity began in Anglo-Saxon history.
the mission of some forty persons headed by the priest Augustine landed
at the Isle of Thanet. The story of Augustine’s
mission shows that he was
zealous, persuasive, untiring and ascetic, but he and his party
stopped on their way to Britain,
“seized with a sudden fear at the idea of proceeding to a barbarous,
unbelieving nation.” He returned to Rome,
but was sent back by Pope Gregory with orders to proceed at all risks.
early in the following year Augustine’s group crossed the Channel. In
following decades missionaries came and worked among the pagan
the late seventh century the English church had a firm base and
Tarsus was sent by the pope to be archbishop of Canterbury.
Most of the English kingdoms were Christian, at least in name, by then.
a great deal of tolerance displayed toward missionaries, even by the
remained heathens. In the history of the English missions there is not
record of martyrdom. The missionaries were sometimes harassed, but
never put to
death. Aethelbert of Kent knew about Christianity, and the missionaries
received a friendly welcome from him. He was married for many years to
Christian spouse, Bertha, the daughter of the King of Paris. In the
century, in the days of the Venerable Bede, who wrote ‘Ecclesiastical
History’ about 730, the English
was one of the centers of western civilization.
the state of the Church in England
during King Egbert’s time? Bede wrote in 734 to Bishop Egbert, who was
to become archbishop of York
possibly King Egbert’s uncle). Bede commented on the issues requiring
attention. He wrote that there were not enough priests or teachers and
wrong to demand material support for the Church when nothing was done
spiritual salvation of the people. The monastic ideals were being
those who were set up in questionable monasteries, not devoting
themselves to a
religious life, but seeking an escape from obligations in the secular
world. There had been great changes, yet
the Church continued throughout the eighth century to be inspired by
ideals of the age of Bede. This was the age of the Anglo-Saxon mission
heathen Germanic peoples of Western Europe,
many Anglo-Saxons away from England
to lives of difficulty and danger. It deprived the Church in England
of many who would have been its natural leaders.
time of King Alfred (reigning 871-899), King Egbert’s grandson, there
thought to be a decay of learning in England.
Men had once come to England
for knowledge, but during this period men had to travel to the
continent for an
education. A comparison of these times,
the age of Bede and the reign of Alfred, shows something about the
state of the English Church
during King Egbert’s time, the first half of the ninth century. King
a Christian who founded monasteries. His children and grandchildren
educated by Swithin, who became the bishop of Winchester,
and later a saint. The monasteries along the east coast of England
were the first victims of the Vikings; therefore they were still worth
attacking. The monks of Lindisfarne
clung to what had become a dangerously exposed position for almost a
years after the first assault.
The Seven Kingdoms
woodcut of a teacher with students