The Anglo-Saxon Tribal Kingdoms

The Heptarchy

Germanic tribes migrated to Britain after the departure of the Roman legions, which was then occupied by Brythonic Celtic peoples. Many of the Celts were killed, others were taken prisoner and forced into slavery. The remaining Celts were forced to take refuge in the extreme western areas of Great Britain, Cornwall, Wales and Cumberland, now Cumbria. Some of the Celts fled to northwest France and settled in the area known as Brittany today. The Saxons referred to these people as Wealas, meaning foreigners.

In the Celtic languages, the word used for English is derived from the word Saxon. The Scots Gaelic word Sassenach means Saxon. The Irish Celtic Sasanach, has the same derivation, as do the Welsh words Saeson, Sais used to describe the English people. The Ancient Cornish language or Kernewek refers to English as Sawsnek.

These Germanic peoples consisted mainly of three tribes:-

Germanic migration into EnglandGermanic migration into England

The Saxons - the bearers of the seax, who originally came from an area of eastern Holland and northern Germany known as Lower Saxony or Niedersachsen. The Saxons were Ingvaeonic tribes, whose earliest known area of settlement is Northern Albingia, an area approximately that of modern Holstein. Ingvaeones ("people of Yngvi") are described in the Roman history book the Tacitus Germania, written circa 98 CE, were a West Germanic group of peoples living along the North Sea coast in the areas of Jutland, Holstein, Frisia and the Danish islands. The Beowulf epic refers to the `Ingwine` or `friends of Ing`. Hrothgar, the lord of Heorot is referred to as `Lord of the Ingwine`.

The Angles - came from a tribe known as the Anglii, who formerly occupied Friesland and an area located on the Baltic shore the Sanderjylland (modern Schleswig) area of Germany. They are first recorded in the Germania of Tacitus, in which the Anglii are mentioned in passing in a list of Germanic tribes.

The Jutes - originated in an area to to the north of the traditional homeland of the Angle tribes, from the forests and moors of Juland. They acquired their name from their Danish homeland. They are first mentioned by Tacitus in his Germania, where they are referred to as the Eudoses. They are also know as Eote, Ytene, Yte, or Iutae.

Four major dialects of English were spoken in the heptarchy, Kentish, spoken by the Jutes, West Saxon, the Saxon dialect, and Northumbrian and Mercian, subdivisions of the dialect spoken by the Angles. By the 9th century, partly through the influence of Alfred the Great, the West Saxon dialect became prevalent in literature and became the first "standardised" written English.

Kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy

By the beginning of the seventh century the boundaries of the Anglo-Saxon Tribal kingdoms, known as the Heptarchy, had formed. They continued until in around 829, when the kingdom of Wessex reigned supreme.

The Anglo-saxon tribal kingdomsThe Anglo-saxon tribal kingdoms

Kingdom of Wessex (West Saxons)

The Kingdom of Wessex grew from two settlements, one of which was founded, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by Cerdic and his son or grandson Cynric, who landed in Hampshire in 494 or 495 and became kings in 500 or 519; the other kingdom which is known only from archaeological evidence, was situated on the upper Thames and was probably settled from the northeast.

At its height, in the ninth century, Wessex covered the modern counties of Hampshire the home of the Meonwara peoples, Berkshire occupied by the peoples of the Andredes Leag, Devon home to the Defnas peoples, Somerset - an area occupied by the Somersaetas, Dorset - home of the Dorsaetas people, Wiltshire occupied by the Wilsaetas and Surrey an area occupied by a tribe known as the Suther-ge and Cornwall or Kernow, an enclave of the Brythonic Celtic people, occasionally known as Dumnonia.

The Isle of Wight contained the Jutish people known as the Wihtwara, who were led by Osburh Oslacsdotter from 810 - 845. The kingdom was connected to Wessex by the marriage of Elesadotter of Wessex and King Wihtgar of the Isle of Wight in 469.

King Egbert of Wessex (769 or 771 - 839) defeated the rival king Beornwulf of Mercia in battle at Ellandune, near Swindon and marched an army into Kent, at that time under Mercian rule. Baldred, the Mercian under-king of Kent fled and the Kentish men declared for Egbert. Surrey, Sussex and Essex followed suit. Egbert's elder son, Ethelwulf was made sub-king of these regions. The East Anglians, who were also subjects of the Mercian king, rebelled. Beornwulf, King of Mercia was intent on reasserting his authority in the province. The East Anglians placed themselves under the protection of Egbert of Wessex, who came to their aid and Beornwulf himself was killed in the ensuing conflict. Wiglaf was elected to succeed him in 829. Allowing Wiglaf no time for preparation, Egbert hastily advanced into Mercia and expelled him from the kingdom, making himself ruler of all of England south of the Humber. Egbert then turned his attention to the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, which also fell to him, resulting in his gaining control of all of England, becoming known by the title Bretwalda or Bretenanwealda.

As Devon progressively ceded to dominance by Wessex, the area west of the River Tamar, Kernow, gradually became a dependant entity, retaining a separate Celtic language and degree of autonomy. In 875, the Annales Cambriae record that king Dungarth of Cerniu drowned and by the 880s Wessex had gained control of at least part of Cornwall. King Athelstan (924-39) reduced Cornwall and effectively ended local independence there. Cornwall showed a very different type of settlement pattern to that of Saxon Wessex and places continued to be named in the Celtic Cornish language. Modern DNA evidence reveals Cornwall has far more genetic input from the Brythonic Celts than the North and East of England where Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Viking genetic markers abound.

The Sandbach Saxon CrossesThe Sandbach Saxon Crosses

Kingdom of Mercia (People of the Marches)

The kingdom of the Iclingas, settled by Angles in circa 500, probably first along the Trent valley, developed into the kingdom of Mercia. Mercia or Mittlere Angelnen lay between the districts of Anglo-Saxon settlement and the Celts or Wealas (meaning foreigners), as the Welsh were known to the Anglo-Saxons and originally covered the modern English counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland which was occupied by the Middle Angles, a tribe living around Leicestershire and conquered by the Mercians, Staffordshire, originally a sub-kingdom of the Wrocencet and Warwickshire home of the Magonset.

One of the most powerful kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, Mercia held a position of dominance for much of the period from the mid-seventh to the early ninth century despite struggles for power within the ruling dynasty. Between the sixth and ninth centuries Mercia expanded and at the height of its power until it also covered the counties of counties of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire, originally occupied by the Middle Angles, Hertfordshire and Worcestershire, the sub-kingdom of the Magonsaites or Magonsets, the original rulers of the area who were conquered by the Mercians, Cheshire, originally occupied by the Pecset tribe, Shropshire, once home of the Wrocenset tribe, Gloucestershire, which was the home of the Chiltern Saetans, Oxfordshire occupied by the Thames Valley Saxons, Buckinghamshire - home of the Rodingas and Geginga, Bedfordshire home of the Herstingas, Cambridgeshire home of the Elge, Middlesex, occupied by the Middle Seaxe and Lincolnshire the sub-kingdom of the Lindsey or Lindisware peoples. Other Anglo-Saxon tribes that formed part of the kingdom of Mercia included the Hwiccas, Gainas, Lindisfaras, Middle Angles, South Angles and Mercians.

The first King of Mercia about whom anything is known was Penda (died 655), who held a position of dominance throughout southern England. Aethelbald (reigned 716-757), gained control of London, and under his cousin King Offa (reigned 757-796), the kingdom reached its zenith.

The Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found to date, was unearthed in a field near Lichfield, in Staffordshire on 5th July 2009, The artefacts were discovered in what was the heartland of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia was militarily aggressive and expansionist during the seventh century under kings Penda, Wulfhere and Ethelred.

The historic Sandbach Saxon crosses, which are scheduled ancient monuments, are said to date from the seventh, eighth or ninth centuries. A plaque located on the crosses states they were completed in the ninth century, It reads as follows:-

'Saxon crosses completed in the 9th century to commemorate the advent of Christianity in this Kingdom of Mercia about AD 653 in the reign of the Saxon king Penda They were restored in 1816 by Sir John Egerton after destruction by iconoclasts.'

There remains doubt as to when the crosses were erected. There are claims that it was during the lifetime of Paeda, although others argue it was later. The crosses are lavishly carved with animals, vine scrolls and Biblical scenes which include the Nativity of Christ and the Crucifixion. They were originally painted as well as carved, they are among the finest surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon high crosses.

Following the death of its last ruler, Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia, a daughter of Alfred the Great and widow of Ethelred, Ealdorman of Mercia, her daughter, Aelfwynn, born before 903, submitted to her uncle, King Edward the Elder, who took her captive, after which Mercia was annexed to Wessex and thus Edward solidified his control over most of England.

Richly decorated clasp from the Staffordshire HoardRichly decorated clasp from the Staffordshire Hoard

Kingdom of East Anglia (East Angles)

East Anglia at its height in the ninth century covered the counties of Norfolk, occupied by the North Angle Folk and Suffolk, the territory of the South Angles Folk.

The Angle tribes settled firstly in the north of East Anglia, where the earliest evidence of their arrival has been unearthed , the Angles in the area probably gained ascendancy between 475-495 from the Celtic British territory of Caer Went, formerly occupied by the Iceni tribe. Wuffa founded the kingdom of the East Engle circa 575 as a result of the uniting of the North and South Folk. His descendants were known as the Wuffingas ('wolf-people' or 'wolflings').

The most powerful of the Wuffingas kings was Redwald, the grandson of Wuffa. For a brief period in the early seventh century, whilst Rædwald ruled, East Anglia was amongst the most powerful kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England.

It was in East Anglia that the epic poem, Beowulf was developed, which harks back less than a century to a pre-migration homeland in Angeln (modern Denmark).

In the seventh century, a King of East Anglia received a magnificent burial at Sutton Hoo. Buried deep beneath a huge grassy mound lay the ghost of a twenty-seven-metre longship. At its centre was a ruined burial chamber, constructed with a pitched roof and hung with textiles in which weapons, armour, a warrior's helmet, gold coins and gold and garnet fittings, silver vessels and silver-mounted drinking horns and cups, symbols of power and authority, and clothes, piled in heaps, ranging from fine linen overshirts to shaggy woollen cloaks and caps trimmed with fur.

The burial also contained a leather purse with a jewelled lid. The burial was excavated by archaeologists just before the Second World War in 1939. The absence of bones at first led archaeologists to identify the monument as a cenotaph, or memorial, however, it is now thought that the body has not survived as the soil was too acid. Scholars have long pointed to the parallels between the Sutton Hoo Ship burial and the descriptions of funerary practices in the poem Beowulf.

The Kings of East Anglia are believed to have lived at Rendlesham, a short distance from Sutton Hoo (4 miles). Some of the coins in the ship burial were minted in AD 625, revealing the king in question must have died post that date. Redwald, King of East Anglia died between 617 and 631, it has been argued that Redwald was most probably the man buried at Sutton Hoo.

Kingdom of Northumbria (North Angles)

Northumbria, lying north of the River Humber, was one of the most important kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England.

Northumbria (Nord Angeln) was formed from the coalition of two originally independent states, Bernicia, which was a settlement at Bamburgh on the Northumberland coast, and Deira, lying to the south of it. Northumbria came into being when Aethelfrith, ruler of Bernicia (593-616), won control of Deira.

The Kingdom of Northumbria covered the counties of Yorkshire, occupied by the Elmetsaete peoples, Northumberland territory of the Northumbrians, Durham and Lancashire, occupied by the Bernician peoples Berwickshire and Eastern sections of the counties of Selkirkshire, West Lothian, East Lothian, Mid Lothian and Roxboroughshire, occupied by the Al Clunt peoples.

Northumbria was at its peak in the seventh century, when the supremacy of three of its rulers, Edwin (616-632), Oswald (633-641), and Oswiu (641-670), was recognized by the southern English kingdoms. Northumbria's religious, artistic, and intellectual achievements in what has been termed its golden age in the late seventh and eighth centuries, were the kingdom's major contribution to Anglo-Saxon history and culture. The twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, founded in 674 by Benedict Biscop, achieved preeminence in the intellectual life of England. The Venerable Bede (died 735), a theologian and historian was a monk at Jarrow. Known as the Father of English History, he is regarded as the greatest of all Anglo-Saxon scholars, his best-known work is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The golden age of Wearmouth and Jarrow began to draw to a close in the late eighth century when Northumbrian monasteries became the target of Viking raids, Wearmouth-Jarrow was attacked in 794, after raids on Lindisfarne in 793. They were finally destroyed by the Danes about 860, and appear to have been abandoned in the late ninth century.

The kingdom of Northumbria passed between English, Norse and Norse-Gaelic kings until it was finally absorbed by King Edred of Wessex following the death of the last independent Northumbrian King, Erik Bloodaxe, in 954.

Reconstructed Saxon villageReconstructed Saxon village

The Kingdom of Sussex (South Saxons)

Sussex, the territory of the South Saxons, was established in the area of the Forest of Andred, which was occupied by the Celtic Atrebates tribe at the time of the Roman invasion.

A large part of the Kingdom of Sussex territory was covered by the Forest of Andred. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle the forest was 120 miles wide and 30 miles deep It was inhabited by wolves, boars and possibly even bears. It was so dense that even the Domesday Book did not record some of its settlements.

Sussex was one of the oldest kingdoms which formed the Heptarchy, its first ruler was Aelle, who led an invasion of the area in 477 AD and established his base at Pevensey. He is said to have killed many of the Brythonic Celts and drove the rest into the Andersage forest.

The last independent kings of Sussex, who ruled jointly were Atlfwald, Ealdwulf and Oslac. They were succeeded by Eadwine, who held the kingdom as an Ealdorman under Ethelred the Redeless

The Kingdom of Kent (The Canti)

Kent, founded in 449, was the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom to be established. Its first ruler was Hengist, possibly a prince of Angeln, who reigned in Kent 449 - 488. Hengist and his brother Horsa, the sons of a Jutish chief named Wihtgils, were invited from Angeln to Britain as mercenaries by the Celtic King, Vortigern and landed at Ypwines fleot (Ebbsfleet). Hengest and Horsa conducted a successful campaign against the Picts on Vortigern's behalf before abandoning their erstwhile employer. They then began to take land from the Celts in southeastern England. Horsa was killed in battle and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hengist and his son Oisc then took control of the kingdom.

The original population of Kent was composed of Germanic Jutes and Celtic Britons. The Saxon peoples were the Cantwara or Canti. Jutish influences in Kent include the practice of partible inheritance known as gavelkind. A custom that survived until 1925.

Kent achieved its greatest level of power under King Ethelbert at the beginning of the seventh century, Æthelbert was accepted as Bretwalda until his death in 616, he was the first of the Anglo-Saxon kings to accept Christianity, his queen Bertha was a Christian Frankish princess. After Ethelbert's reign the power of Kent began to decline, the last independent king of Kent was Baldred (807 - 825). His death was followed by the invasion by Ethelwulf of Wessex. It remained a subordinate kingdom to Wessex until 860 when it finally became part of it.

The Kingdom of Essex- (East Saxons)

The region of the East Seaxe was settled by Saxons from circa AD 500, it occupied the former Brythonic Celtic territory of Caer Colun, previously the home of the Trinovantes tribe, north and east of London.

The kingdom consisted of the modern counties of Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex. It consisted of the territories of the Rodings - the people of Hrotha, the Haemele, (Hemel Hempstead), Vange - marsh district (which possibly stretched to the Mardyke, Denge, Ginges, Berecingas - Barking, in the south-west of the kingdom, Haeferingas in Havering and Uppingas - Epping. The original population of Essex consisted of Germanic Jutes and Celtic Britons. A Saxon population existed in the area from the late fourth century, the descendants of Roman foederati.

Its first king was Aescwine who reigned 527 - 587. In 825 King Egbert of Wessex defeated the Mercians at the Battle of Ellandun. The sub-kingdoms of Sussex and Surrey submitted and become dependencies of Wessex, ruled by his son Ethulwulf as king of Kent. Egbert took London and Essex remained a dependency of Wessex, with its own sub-king. In 829 Egbert deposed Sigered, a 'minister' of King Wiglaf of Mercia. His rule marked the end of an independent Essex, Mercia regained temporary control over the kingdom before Wessex integrated Essex into its territory.