England as Heptarchy
England as an Heptarchy, Henry of Huntingdon alludes for the first time in English written history to the concept of the Heptarchy. There were 7 kingdoms, that loosely existed with fluid borders and the gain and loss of territory and counter conquest meant the kingdoms changed leadership and dominance quite frequently. But it was the 7 kingdoms that would set the imprint for what would follow in the next 1300+ years.
The 7 Kingdoms and the Melding of the English People into One
The Kingdoms align with modern counties but they were much more than a county at the time and ruled by feudal families that fought within themselves as well as with the neighbouring kingdoms over control and succession.
The 7 emerging kingdoms were;
- Wessex: from the ‘West Saxon’ kings this was ultimately the most successful of the Kingdoms from the 10th century building on Alfred, the only British King to be called ‘The Great’ defying the Vikings and Danes who would stake their claim and enable the Unification of England out of that conflict and the establishment of the meld that would become the English people. More to follow with Maps and specifics of how Wessex develops will follow in subsequent and linked articles…
- Kent: the name is pre-Roman and it seems most likely although somewhat historically obscured that Hengist and Horsa invaded a pre-existing region. It was ruled by Angles, Saxons and Jutes, was 2 kingdoms, that became amalgamated under Ethelbert of Kent. In the early period Kent was a force and perhaps the most powerful kingdom but in the 7th and 8th centuries Mercia dominated and subjugated Kent within it’s own borders. It was eventually subsumed into Wessex during the reign of Egbert.
- Sussex: the kingdom originated in the 5th Century and is associated with King Aelle It roughly equated to the modern county sometimes divided between several Kings. It was during the time of Offa of Mercia that Sussex was most suppressed, Eventually becoming part of England and Wessex under unification by the 10th Century.
- Essex : There is no clear evidence of a King of the East Saxons before the late 6th century (550-599) but it is believed to be one of the earlier areas of what would become English settlement. Essex was always a lesser kingdom and hence so were it’s Anglo Saxon kings. The Kingdom, was incorporated into Mercia in 825, following King Egberts Victory at the Battle of Ellenden.
- East Anglia: the kingdom of the East Angles was essentially made-up of modern Norfolk and Suffolk, with it’s origins dating to the 6th century. In the period circa 599-625 it was the most powerful kingdom in southern England and King Redwald was it’s leader. It is Redwald that is included in Bede’s list of the Bretwaldas, the early leaders of the English. east Anglia sites the fantastic finds of Sutton Hoo and it is debated whether the tomb at Sutton Hoo was the burial place of Redwald himself. again Mercia did dominate East Anglia until it was conquered by the Danish Viking invasions. Following conquest there was a short succession of Danish Kings which led to the uniting of the English and the absorption of East Anglia into the single unified Kingdom of England during the reign of Edward the Elder.
- Mercia and Northumbria: These were 2 kingdoms it emerged in the early 7th century as one of the 3 most powerful alongside Wessex and Northumbria, prior to Unification. In the 8th and early 9th centuries it was in supremacy above Northumbria and Wessex but it’s fortunes would change.
- Mercia was located in the North Midlands under the kingship of Penda’s kin-group whcih was commonly known as the Icingas, this was one of a number of families that fought for control. During the time of Ethelbald, Offa and Cenwulf they managed to dominate the other major kingdoms and the Welsh provinces (Aka Offa’s Dyke etc) The Mercians were sophisticated in their organisation establishing a system of military obligation that would persist for several centuries ‘Commons Burdens,’ producing the first Coinage, vast public works such as Offa’s Dykes and the political sophistication to be on equal terms Charlemagne. It was at Ellenden again that Egbert imposed the eventual supremacy of Wessex in 825. The Great Army of Scandinavia conquered Mercia by the 860’s-870’s and it needed the support of Alfred and the Peace of Wedmore so that it could be ruled by ealdorman Ethelred to bring it back into the development of the English people. In the 11th Century Cnut granted a Mercian Earldom to Leofric which lasted until just after the Norman conquest, as did most of the rule of the ‘English families’ and nominees.
- Northumbria: was created in the early 7th century by Ethelfrith from the earlier kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira and at it’s height stretched from the Humber to the Firth of the Forth. IT was most powerful in the 7th century with Edwin, Oswald and Oswy as it’s rulers. IT’s power waned with the rise of Ethelbald and Offa under Merica. It is crucial in English and British culture in a way often not realised by many of us, it was a key meeting place for Christianity in england featuring Iona ,Lindisfarne and Whitby as meeting places for Roman, Irish and British Christianity. It was also the home of Bede at St Peter’s in Monkwearmouth, Jarrow. Like Merica it was conquered by the Norsemen and subsequently fought over by the English and Scots, only resolved finally by wessex when they voercame the Viking Kings that had made their capital in York. It then became ruled on behalf of the English King by earls and represents one of the most historically important earldoms. Again this continued until just after the Norman conquest when the Normans asserted and usured all of England’s ruling families.
These relatively large territories are thought to have evolved from competitive struggles among much smaller units. Whilst the Kingdoms started to take shape during the 7th century (600-699) it would take a further 200 years more for the unification of the 10th Century to take shape.
Did the Viking Invasions Invoke the unification of England?
Only Alfred had succeeded with the power of Wessex in keeping the Vikings at bay. By the 10th century this meant that only Wessex had survived the Danish incursions and dominance. All of England except for Wessex was under Danish rule the Heptarchy had become just 1 kingdom that resisted. Under the Mercian Kings and the work of Bede the possibility of unification had become a possibility but it had not been achieved.
It was in the 880s when Alfred proclaimed himself King of all the English not under Danish dominion, this status became the cover under which his successors would similarly stake their claim. Unity was far from certain, conditions remained very insecure it wasn’t 1st properly achieved under King Athelstan from 927. The resurgence of the Scandinavians of York temporarily overthrew English unification but it was subsequently reasserted. It was shared between Eadwig and Edgar for two years 957-959 and for a short time between Cnut and Ironside in 1016. Even by the time of Edward the Confessor the King of the Angles and Saxons was used. whilst ENglish unification was evolving the border and boundary with the Kingdom of Scotland was not defined until the 13th Century.
Alfred used the oppression of the Vikings to justify politically the unification, from which Wessex and the House of Cerdic would benefit for some generations, to some extent the Vikings can be said to have at least created the circumstances that enabled a united front against them to be forged.
For a Colour Map and downloadable version of the Heptarchy and the foundations for unification click here