Anglo Saxon Kingdoms - the Saxon Heptarchy Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms - the Saxon Heptarchy

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The shield of the history, philosophy and spirituality faculty of the h2g2 University. The Saxon Heptarchy - Overview
Kingdom of Mercia (Mittel Angeln) | Kingdom of Wessex | Kingdom of East Anglia (Ost Angeln) | Kingdom of Northumbria (Nord Angeln)
Kingdom of Sussex | Kingdom of Kent | Kingdom of Essex (East Seaxe)

When the Romans left Britain in 410 AD they left a power vacuum. This was filled by a series of migrations, often violent, by three war-like and militarily superior tribes. The main settlement came about as a result of the consolidation of established Roman mercenary forces that were already resident in Britain and the migration of settlers and invaders from Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe. The peoples that migrated to Britain came mainly from one of three tribes:

  • The Angles - Latin Angulus: from a tribe known as the Anglii from Friesland or the Sanderjylland (Schleswig) area of Germany. Other European Angle tribes included the Kiel, Angeln, Hirri, Venedi and Cimbri.

  • The Jutes - Latin Iutum: originally occupying the land to the north of the Angles and named after their Danish homeland, Jutland. Other European Jute tribes included the Danish Geatas, Swedish Geatas and Eotas.

  • The Saxons: bearers of the seax1, a dangerously aggressive tribe originally occupying land in eastern Holland and northern Germany known as Saxony. Other European Saxon tribes included the Lower Saxons, Anhalt Saxons and Westphalians.

Gods and Goddesses of the Invaders

  • Chief god - Woden (Saxon), Odin (Norse)
  • Fertility god - Ingui (Saxon), Freyr (Norse)
  • War or sky god - Tiw (Saxon), Tyr (Norse)
  • Thunder god - Thunor (Saxon), Thor (Norse)
  • Chief goddess and marriage goddess - Helith (Saxon), Frigg (Norse)
  • Midwinter goddess - Mothers (Saxon), Skadi (Norse)
  • Love goddess - Freo (Saxon), Freya (Norse)
  • Harvest goddess - Frige (Saxon), Siffa (Norse)


By 600 AD, Britain was mostly a collection of Christian kingdoms, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic; the last pagan kingdom being the Isle of Wight. The only problem was that British, or Celtic, Christianity evolved in isolation, and many of the practices and festivals were out of step with continental Christianity. The date of Easter was one of the many problems. It became such an issue that the Synod of Whitby was held in 664 to help resolve the problem and bring Saxon Britain back into step with the rest of Europe.

The only evidence of the effectiveness of the migration of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons is the lack of surviving original Celtic language and placenames in the areas that these tribes occupied. Local tribal leaders started to organise themselves into small petty kingdoms. After about 400 years, these merged to form the seven main Saxon kingdoms of Britain, referred to as the Saxon Heptarchy. It must be remembered that, due to the politics of the period, raids and open warfare between kingdoms were common, and the borders changeable. The Heptarchy was established in this form in 802 AD. But raids by Norse invaders that eventually led to its break-up started as early as 790 AD.

Kingdoms of the Saxon Heptarchy in Britain, 802

Kingdom of Mercia (Mittel Angeln)

The kingdom of the Iclingas developed into the kingdom of Mercia. The English counties that initially formed the renamed kingdom were:

  • Derbyshire
  • Leicestershire
  • Nottinghamshire
  • Rutland - home of the Middle Angles, a tribal group living around Leicestershire and conquered by the Mercians
  • Staffordshire - sub-kingdom of the Wrocencet
  • Warwickshire - home of the Magonset

Starting in the 6th Century and ending in the 9th, Mercia expanded so that at the height of its power it had grown to include the following counties:

  • Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire - home of the Middle Angles
  • Hertfordshire and Worcestershire - sub-kingdom of the Magonsaites or Magonsets, original rulers of the area and conquered by the Mercians
  • Cheshire - home of the Pecset
  • Shropshire - home of the Wrocenset
  • Gloucestershire - home of the Chiltern Saetans
  • Oxfordshire - home of the Thames Valley Saxons
  • Buckinghamshire - home of the Rodingas and Gegingas
  • Bedfordshire - home of the Herstingas
  • Cambridgeshire - home of the Elge
  • Middlesex - home of the Middle Seaxe
  • Lincolnshire - sub-kingdom of the Lindsey or Lindisware peoples

Other Anglo-Saxon tribes that were part of the Mercian kingdom include the Hwiccas, Gainas, Lindisfaras, Middle Angles, South Angles and Mercians.

Offa's Dyke

Mercia had some serious cross-border wars with its neighbours: the princes of Powys in Wales. This caused King Offa to construct a defensive work in 785. Offa had a dyke built between Mercia and Wales which stretched 82 miles from Wrexham to the Wye valley2. It was 20 metres wide and consisted of a bank and ditch, two to three metres deep, on the Welsh side. (The dyke was not built in areas where there was a natural barrier.)

Kingdom of Wessex

The Gewissai, a Saxon tribe located in southern Hampshire, were the foundation of the kingdom of Wessex. The English counties that formed the kingdom of Wessex at its height in the 9th Century were:

  • Hampshire - home of the Meonwara
  • Berkshire - home of the peoples of the Andredes Leag
  • Cornwall - Kernow, occasionally referred to as Dumnonia
  • Devon - home of the Defnas peoples
  • Somerset - home of the Somersaetas
  • Dorset - home of the Dorsaetas
  • Wiltshire - home of the Wilsaetas
  • Surrey - home of peoples called the Surrymen or Suther-ge

The British peoples that were part of the kingdom included the West Saxons, South Saxons, Thames Valley Saxons and Andredes Leag. The kingdom of Wessex also included the population of Kent - made up of Germanic Jutes, Saxon peoples and the Meonwara from Hampshire.

Kingdom of East Anglia (Ost Angeln)

The English counties that formed the smaller kingdom of East Anglia at its height in the 9th Century were:

  • Norfolk - home of the North Angle Folk
  • Suffolk - home of the South Angles Folk

The Saxon peoples who formed part of the East Anglian kingdom included the East Angles.

Kingdom of Northumbria (Nord Angeln)

The kingdom of Northumbria (Nord Angeln) included the sub-kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, and consisted of:

  • Yorkshire - home of the Elmetsaete peoples
  • Northumberland - home of the Northumbrians
  • Durham and Lancashire - home of the Brnician peoples
  • Berwickshire
  • Eastern parts of the following counties that were all the territory of the Al Clunt peoples, namely Selkirkshire, West Lothian, East Lothian, Mid Lothian and Roxboroughshire

The Saxon peoples that were part of the Northumbrian kingdom included the Deirans.

Separate Smaller Kingdoms

Kingdom of Sussex

Sussex was the home of the South or South Saxon Folk. This kingdom was established in the area of the forest of Andred - the former territory of the Atrebates at the time of the Roman invasion. It was established by the Romans as a client kingdom, and was one of the oldest kingdoms to make up the Heptarchy.

The first king was the legendary Atlle, who led a Saxon invasion of the area in 477 AD and established his base in Pevensey Castle (Anderitum). Atlle established his rule by the sword. It is recorded that he killed many of the Welsh (or British) and drove the rest into the Andersage forest.

The last independent kings of Sussex, who established joint rule, were Atlfwald, Ealdwulf and Oslac, although there is evidence that there may have been two more Osmunds and Oswalds. These were succeeded by Eadwine, who held the kingdom as an Ealdorman under Ethelred the Unready.

The Saxon peoples that were part of the kingdom of Sussex were the South Saxons and Haistingas.

Kingdom of Kent

Kent was established as the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom in 449. The first king of Kent was Hengist from 449 - 488.

The last independent king of Kent was Baldred (807 - 825). His death was the signal for an invasion by Aethelwulf of Wessex. It could be speculated that Kent would have become part of Mercia had the invasion not taken place. It remained a subordinate kingdom to Wessex until 860, when it finally became part of it.

The original population of Kent was made up of Germanic Jutes and Celtic Britons in equal proportions. The Saxon peoples were the Cantwara, Canti or Kentish.

Kingdom of Essex

The Essex kingdom of the East Seaxe or East Saxons was established as an independent Saxon kingdom in 527. The first king of Essex was Aescwine from 527 - 587. Essex remained a kingdom until 812, when it became subordinate to Wessex.

The original population of Essex also consisted of Germanic Jutes and Celtic Britons in equal proportions. The Saxon people there were the Middle Saxons.

Notes on other territories

The Isle of Wight contained Jutish people known as the Wihtwara. Osburh Oslacsdotter was their leader from 810 - 845. The kingdom was related to Wessex by the marriage of Elesadotter of Wessex and King Wihtgar of the Isle of Wight in 469.

The Meonwara people: the Meon valley and villages of East Meon, West Meon and Meonstoke in Hampshire still bear their name.

The Haistingas people: the town of Hastings in Sussex was the centre of their homeland.

The Hwiccein were a people from the south-west Midlands.

Kingdoms Outside the Saxon Heptarchy

The Kingdom of Strathclyde

  • Westmorland
  • Cumberland
  • Wigtonshire
  • Kirkudbrightshire
  • Dumfriesshire
  • Lanarkshire
  • Ayreshire
  • Renfrewshire

And the western parts of the counties of:

  • Selkirkshire
  • West Lothian
  • East Lothian
  • Mid Lothian
  • Roxboroughshire

England after the Heptarchy, 872 - 1066

Norse raids, starting in 790, broke up the Heptarchy. By 872, Wessex was the only surviving kingdom. A kingdom united under one king (871 - 899) was not achieved until Alfred the Great. After a series of victories over the Danes and their leader, Guthrum, Alfred introduced the Treaty of Wedmore in 878. This established Danelaw and forced the Danes into the lands north of Watling Street.

Alfred's son, Edward the Elder, took the throne in 899 and built on the strong foundations he inherited from his father. Edward was succeeded by Atlfweard, who died before his coronation. The throne went to his half-brother Athelstan, and he was in turn followed by Edmund, Eadred and Edwy.

Athelstan could be considered the first English king, after he established military dominance at the Battle of Brunanburh. in 937. This was the largest battle since the Battle of Watling Street when the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and a force of 10,000 men defeated Boudicca and her army of 80,000 in 60 AD.

The birth of England can be traced back to this day (Brunanburh), as can the end of Norse and Viking conquest and the colonisation of Britain.

Alfred's kingdom was dismantled and rebuilt many times, until Edgar I of England managed to establish a kingdom in 960 that held much the same territory as Athelstan's. In 975, he was followed by his son Edward the Martyr, who was murdered after a reign of only three years. His brother Ethelred the Unready became king in 978. Ethelred died in 1016.

There followed a bitter struggle for power. First came Sweyn in 1013. Then Edmund Ironside took the throne in 1016. Next was Canute the Great3, who took his opportunity in 1016 when he invaded and took the throne of England.

Canute died in 1035 and was followed by Harold Harefoot, who was succeeded five years later by Harthacanute, in 1040. The next king, in 1043, was Edward the Confessor, or Eadweard III. He died in 1066. Harold Godwinson took possession of a throne that was disputed with William, Duke of Normandy and Harald Hardrada of Norway. William was the ultimate winner of this contest. He ruled from 1066 until his death in 1087.

1A distinctive single-edged knife.2Another theory has it that the dyke ran 150 miles from the River Dee estuary to the River Wye.3Remembered as the king who commanded the waves to go back. This supposedly took place on the south coast between Hamble and Bosham.

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