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East Saxon Kings

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An East Saxon King

The Kingdom of Essex was never an important kingdom1; it never produced any of the Bretwaldas2 and it hardly figured in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles3. Yet strangely it managed to survive into the mid-9th Century unlike many of the other small kingdoms. In the Tribal Hidage4, it is assessed at 7000 hides - the same as the South Saxons (Sussex), the Wocensætna (or Wreocensæte), the Westerna (or Magonsæte) and the Hwinca (or the Hwicce). The Kings of Essex did not always acknowledge an overlord, and when they did it seems that the overlord had no direct authority in Essex proper as the surviving charters are not witnessed by that overlord. Although never an important kingdom, at various times in its independent history Essex had control over Middlesex, Surrey, West Kent and parts of Hertfordshire. The East Saxon kings had an alliance, although sometimes an uneasy one, with the kings of Mercia from at least around 664 and perhaps before up to the mid-9th Century, perhaps extending beyond the independent history of Essex.

Most of the information about the East Saxon royal house comes to us from Bede5. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles only mention six kings, and only a few East Saxon charters survive. The pedigrees of three kings exist in a West Saxon manuscript. The East Saxon royal genealogy is unique of all Anglo-Saxon royal pedigrees because the Kings of Essex claimed descent from the god Seaxnet and not Woden6 as is more usual. Christianity took a while to be established in Essex; Sæberht was the first king to be baptised in around 604 but on his death the kingdom lapsed back into paganism and remained so until circa 653. It lapsed back into paganism again in around 664 for a short while.

Most of the dates for the East Saxon kings are unknown or are estimates.

The Kings

  • Æscwine - also known as Eorcenwine. He was reputedly the founder of the kingdom in 527 and apparently reigned until 587. If he was a historical figure rather than a mythical figure, then his name would imply a Jutish (Kentish) origin. His length of reign is, however, suspiciously long.

  • Sledd - son of Æscwine. He is said to have begun his reign in 587 and is usually considered to be the true founder of the kingdom. He married Ricula who was the sister of King Æthelberht I of Kent7. London may well have been his capital. The date of his death is unknown but it was probably before 604. He had at least two sons: Sæberht and Seaxa.

  • Sæberht - son of Sledd. He was reigning at some time before 604 and died in 616. He was the first East Saxon king to embrace Christianity, probably at the behest of his uncle Æthelbert of Kent. Æthelberht is said to have established him on the throne which implies that there may have been a dynastic dispute, perhaps against Seaxa. Sæberht's palace may have been in Cripplegate, London, where a royal residence has been located. It was in his reign that Mellitus became the first Bishop of London. He is attributed with the foundation of Westminster Abbey in 616 and is buried there; his 'tomb' can still be seen. Also in Westminster Abbey there is a 15th Century statue of him in the Henry V Chapel. He had at least three sons: Sæweard, Seaxred and possibly Seaxbald.

  • Sæweard - son of Sæberht. Ruled from 616 to about 623 jointly with his brothers. On accession he was a pagan and reacted not only against Christianity but also against Kentish overlordship. Eadbald, the new king of Kent, could not secure overlordship of Essex. Sæweard, with his brothers, expelled Mellitus from London. He was killed in battle against the West Saxons, possibly over a border dispute in Surrey. He had one known son: Sigeberht.

  • Seaxred - son of Sæberht. Ruled jointly with his brothers. The fact that he and his brothers agreed to expel Mellitus implies a committee rule rather than each brother ruling in different parts of the kingdom, although the latter cannot be ruled out. He was killed alongside his brothers in around 623. He had one son: Sæbbi.

  • Seaxbald - he was the possible third son of Sæberht. He ruled jointly with Sæweard and Seaxred. Killed with his brothers against the West Saxons. He is believed to have had two sons: Swithhelm and Swithfrith.

  • Sigeberht I - known as 'Parvus' (the Little or Small). His father is unknown but he may have been descended from Seaxa, brother of Sæberht, or he may have been the son of Sæweard. His reign may have started in 623 and he died around 653. Like his predecessors, he was a pagan. It was during his reign that Penda, King of Mercia8, was dominating the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, although there is no evidence of Penda having any influence in Essex. He may have had one son: Sigehere.

  • Sigeberht II - known as 'Sanctus' (the Good). This Sigeberht may have been the son of Sæweard, but there is no written evidence for this. He was reigning from around 653 to circa 660. He was the first Christian king for at least 37 years. He was baptised in 653 by Bishop Finán at King Oswiu of Northumbria's court (at Ad Murum). It was in his reign that St Cedd arrived and founded Ythancæstir (Bradwell-on-Sea) amongst other churches. Sigeberht II was murdered, possibly by Swithhelm and Swithfrith because, according to Bede, 'he was too ready to pardon his enemies'9. He may have had one son: Sigehere.

  • Swithhelm - son of Seaxbald. He reigned from 660 to around 664. A pagan when he became king he was baptised at Rendlesham (Suffolk)10 by St Cedd with King Æthelwald of East Anglia acting as his Godfather. This may imply that the East Angles exercised some degree of overlordship over the East Saxons. He died around the time of the great plague of 664. He may have been buried at Rendlesham - the royal residence of the Kings of East Anglia.

  • Swithfrith - possible son of Seaxbald. He may have been responsibly, along with his co-ruler Swithhelm, for the murder of Sigeberht II. He is attributed with the foundation of Barking monastery in 660. Bede implies that he died before Swithhelm but the date is unknown.

  • Sigehere - son of Sigeberht (either I or II). He reigned from 664 to around 688. During the plague of 664 he and his people apostatised. King Wulfhere of Mercia sent Bishop Jaruman to 'Correct their error and recall the province to the true faith' as Bede reports. Jaruman was successful. Sigehere married St Osyth, who founded the monastery at Cicc (now called St Osyth) after she fled from the king when he was hunting. Osyth may have been of the Hwiccan11 royal house or Sigehere may have married a princess from the Kingdom of the Hwicce earlier or later as his son was a sub-king of the Hwicce. In 686 he invaded West Kent, with the aid the King Cædwalla of Wessex12, and until his death in around 688 was King of West Kent. He is known to have ruled Essex proper. He had at least one son: Offa.

  • Sæbbi - son of Seaxred. Saint. He ruled from 664 to 694. He is known to have ruled the Middlesex area. He was renowned for his piety and it is said that he should have been a bishop or abbot rather than a king. It was in his reign that the Strood causeway to Mersea Island was built. Unlike his co-ruler Sigehere, he remained true to the faith during the plague of 664. He abdicated to become a monk but died shortly afterwards. Bede devoted an entire chapter to Sæbbi (Book IV chapter II of his Ecclesiastical History). Many wonders and miracles are associated with his death. He had at least three sons: Swæfheard, Sigeheard and Swæfred.

  • Swæfheard - son of Sæbbi. He wasn't King of Essex but was King of West Kent under the overlordship of his father. Some sources say he was joint king with Sigehere in 686 whilst others say he became King of West Kent in 688. He ruled jointly with two natives of Kent - Oswine and then Wihtred. He signed his last charter in 692 but may have been king up to 694. His fate is unknown.

  • Sigeheard - son of Sæbbi. He reigned from 694 to and unknown date. He may have been associated with kingship before his father's death as he attested a charter in 690 with the title of King. In 704 or 705 there was a state of estrangement between Sigeheard and Swæfred (his co-ruler) and King Ine of Wessex. A council in Brentford in 705 resolved this, the outcome of which is unknown. In the period 700-710 he is known to have been ruling in Middlesex without reference to his brother Swæfred. He had one son: Sigemund.

  • Swæfred - son of Sæbbi. Ruled jointly with Sigeheard from 694 to an unknown date. Like his brother he may have been associated with kingship before his father's death. He is found in the period 700-710 ruling Essex without any reference to Sigeheard.

  • Offa - son of Sigehere. Saint. Ruled from an unknown date until 709 jointly with Sigeheard and Swæfred. Although he signed some charters with the title of King he should probably be seen as a sub-king. He granted land in Hemel Hempstead as King and also gave land as sub-king in the Kingdom of the Hwicce. He abdicated (or he may have been deposed) in 709 and journeyed to Rome in the company of King Coenred of Mercia, who may also have been deposed. He is the last East Saxon king to be mentioned by Bede. His name is only one of three which doesn't begin with an 'S'. His pedigree is preserved in a West Saxon manuscript. He is nothing to do with the Offa who built the Dyke on the Welsh border - that was Offa of Mercia who died in 796.

  • Oethelred - described as a 'kinsman' of Sæbbi. His exact position is unknown but he should probably be considered a sub-king (possibly of Surrey) since he was able to grant land. His rule seems to be from the late 680s to the period 700x710 as he witnesses Swæfred's charters along with Offa. It is in one of his charters that the East Saxons are first mentioned by name.

  • Saba - His exact status, like Oethelred, is unknown but should probably be seen as a sub-king. He witnessed charters of Swæfred (700x710). His area of rule is unknown.

  • Swæfberht - of unknown parentage but may have been a son of either Swæfheard of Swæfred. He began his reign at an unknown date although he may have replaced Offa in 709. He was probably subject to Mercian overlordship. He died in 738.

  • Selered - son of Sigeberht who was descended from Seaxa, Sæberht's brother. He may have reigned jointly with Swæfberht. The Laud and Parker Chronicles state that he was slain in 746, although the actual circumstances are unknown. He had at least one son: Sigeric I.

  • Swithred - son of Sigemund and grandson of Sigeheard. He reigned from 746 to and unknown date, although 762 as been put forward. His pedigree survives in a West Saxon manuscript.

  • Sigeric I - son of Selered. He reigned from around 762 to 798. He witnessed a charter of King Ecgfrith of Mercia. He abdicated to go to Rome. He is the last East Saxon king mentioned by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. He had at least one son: Sigered.

  • Sigerid - He reigned from 798 to about 829. He is often considered the last native king of Essex. He appears in two charters of King Coenwulf of Mercia in 811. The Mercians seem to have reduced his status from King to 'Dux' (sub-king) thereafter. He was deposed by King Ecgberht of Wessex in around 82913. He possibly had one son: Sigeric II.

  • Sigeric II - possible son of Sigered. He reigned from around 829 to possibly 855. He appears as 'minister' of King Wiglaf of Mercia between 829 and 837. He marks an end to an independent Essex. How he managed to reign when the West Saxon kings allowed no sub-kings in the territory is unknown.

1The East Saxons were never big political players in the British Isles - their influence upon other kingdoms was small, unlike the West Saxons (Wessex) or the Mercians who dominated Britain (the kings of Wessex were to become the first Kings of England in the 10th Century).2An overlord or High King who had political influence over other kingdoms - all charters issued by lesser kings would have to have his signature and agreement, for example. He could also call on military aid from subservient kingdoms and also interfere directly in religious or political matters. Originally it may have only signified a king who was given military leadership over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the time of war.3These were various chronicles written in monastic establishments charting the history of the English people from when they arrived in Britain up to the 11th Century, although some chronicles carry on until the 12th Century. They have been collected together and usually appear in print together now. Each chronicle has a different perspective, and political motive, depending on where they were written, on the same events.4The Tribal Hidage was probably a Mercian list showing the kingdoms, principalities and tribal groups of Anglo-Saxon England. Each kingdom was assessed in hides which was a land measurement but there is much speculation about how large an actual hide was as this seemed to vary from kingdom to kingdom.5The Venerable Bede (died 735 AD). A monk at Jarrow, he wrote several books (some now lost) the most famous of which was his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a history of the English from their settlement of Britain up to his time with a bias towards church matters and miracles.6Woden is the English equivalent (or version) of the more familiar Odin. Seaxnet was the continental Saxon tribal god. Other Saxon deities include Thunor (Thor), Frigga (Freya), Tiw (who can be found in German and Scandinavian mythology and may have been the original Father of the Gods before Woden/Odin), Eostre (goddess of fertility). Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are named after these deities. The festival of Easter is named after Eostre.7Æthelberht I of Kent reigned from around 590 to 616. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles state that his reign began in 560 but this is suspiciously long for those times and may have been when he was born. He was considered Bretwalda over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. He was the first English king to be converted to Christianity when St Augustine arrived in Britain in 597 AD.8Penda, king of mercia, was the strongest king in his time. He defeated the Northumbrians, the West Saxons, the Welsh, the East Angles (East Anglia) and subdued many minor principalities and incorporated them into his expanding kingdom in the Midlands. He was killed in battle in 633 against the East Angles.9Although an admirable trait for a Christian, this would have been seen as a weakness in a king. A certain (unknown) amount the the East Saxon nobility would have been pagan at this point and from their point of view this would have been a foolhardy and dangerous policy to hold; forgiven and very much alive enemies can raise dissention and revolt.10Rendlesham was the seat of the East Anglian royalty. It is very near Sutton Hoo where the ship burial was found, possible for King Rædwald (King of the East Angles who died in the 620s, possibly.)11The Hwicce - a minor kingdom which was located on the Welsh border in modern Herefordshire and Worcestershire.12Cædwalla of Wessex was a pagan and abdicated in 688 to journey to Rome where he became a king. His name is British (or Celtic) and may imply that his family was British and not English in origin.13West Saxon power was in the ascendancy at this point. They had already conquered Kent, Devon (partially), Middlesex, and were making gains in Mercia and Essex. The first hints of the future Kingdom of England were beginning to be seen. It would be another 100 years until Æthelstan would be declared King of all England in around 930 AD.

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