The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Northumbria

The realm of heroes and saints

The clue is in the name. Northumbria was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom north of the Humber. At its peak it was the largest and most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Through being home to Bede for all his long life, it is the best recorded kingdom up to the eighth century.

Northumbria demonstrates how smaller kingdoms consolidated into larger polities, for it came about through the forced union of Bernicia, with its royal stronghold at Bamburgh, and Deira, centred on the old Roman city of York.

According to the surviving king lists, Bernicia was founded in 547 by Ida – hence the kings of Bernicia were called the Idings – when he captured Bamburgh. For half a century, the Idings fought desperately to retain their precarious hold on the coast, until an alliance of Brittonic kings drove them from Bamburgh on to Lindisfarne. On the point of extinction, the Idings were saved when one of the besieging kings took the opportunity to assassinate his rival. The siege dissolved into recrimination, the Idings escaped and re-established themselves on Bamburgh and, soon, the neighbouring Brittonic kingdoms would rue this lost opportunity.

Around 593, Æthelfrith took the throne and he proved to be one of the most successful warrior kings of the time, dealing a number of devastating defeats to the Britons and forcibly amalgamating the kingdom of Deira to Bernicia to create Northumbria. Under his leadership, Northumbria became the most powerful kingdom in Britain and, though Æthelfrith was killed in battle in 616, Edwin, the man who succeeded Æthelfrith, consolidated the kingdom’s power and expanded its territory.

Edwin also became the first northern Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity, but before he could cement the new religion’s place in his kingdom, Edwin too was killed in battle. After a chaotic interregnum, Æthelfrith’s son, Oswald, returned from exile to claim the throne. A devout Christian, Oswald brought monks from Iona to preach the new religion. The monks founded the monastery on Lindisfarne.

Northumbrian power continued to expand under Oswald’s brother and successor, Oswiu, and also during the reign of Oswiu’s son, Ecgfrith. But, in 685, the Northumbrians suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Picts. Ecgfrith was killed and much of the Northumbrian army destroyed. The battle stopped further northward expansion by the Northumbrians: the eventual birth of Scotland can be traced back to this Pictish victory.

While Northumbria declined militarily after the Battle of Nechtansmere, the eighth century saw a cultural flowering that produced, among many wonders, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Viking invasion of the ninth century divided Northumbria again, with a Viking kingdom established at York but an English earldom retaining Bamburgh and Bernicia, cut off from the rest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until the unification of the country by Æthelstan the Glorious in the tenth century.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Mercia

The Mercians took their place in the heart of the country and fought to keep it.

For nearly three hundred years, Mercia was the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. When Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians, was killed in 685, Mercia filled the power vacuum, coming to dominate all the land south of the Humber, with only the kingdom of Wessex holding out against Mercian hegemony.

But of the three major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – Northumbria, Wessex and Mercia – the history of Mercia is by far the worse attested, with most of what we know of its history coming from the pens of its enemies. Most notable among these is Bede, a proud Northumbrian, who despite the otherwise broad sweep of his History treats the Mercians pretty well only as antagonists.

The name Mercia derives from Mierce, an Old English word meaning the ‘marches’ or ‘border people’ and that is what it was when first settled: the border kingdom between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the south and east and the Britonnic kingdoms of the west and north. These people settled in the Midlands, following the river valleys into the heart of the country.

The king lists of the Mercians traced their lineage back to Icel, an Anglian prince who settled in Britain, giving the ruling family the name Iclingas. However, the first king to be reliably recorded is Penda, the great enemy of the kings of Northumbria, who killed two of them (Edwin and Oswald), as well as three kings of East Anglia. Penda was the last great pagan king of the Anglo-Saxons and when he fell in battle with Oswiu, Oswald’s brother and successor as king of Northumbria, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity was assured.

Mercia and Northumbria continued to struggle for dominance until, with the death of King Ecgfrith in 685, Mercian supremacy was assured. It reached its height during the reign of King Offa (757 – 796), when Mercian power encompassed the whole country and Offa could deal, almost as an equal, with no less a king than Charlemagne. The power Offa wielded is given earthen form in the vast labour required to build Offa’s Dyke.

However, Mercian power declined after Offa’s death, and was then dealt a terminal blow with the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in 868. The Vikings deposed Burgred, king of the Mercians, in 874 and installed a puppet king in his place. Following the victory of Alfred of Wessex over the Vikings, Mercia was divided, its north eastern half becoming part of the Danelaw, its south western portion being ruled by an alderman owing fealty to Alfred. Even following the reconquest of the Danelaw by Alfred’s children and grandson, Mercia remained part of the expanding kingdom of the men who had come to see themselves as not just the kings of the West Saxons but the kings of the English.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: The Kingdom of the East Angles

On 14 June 1939, light broke into the darkness that had shrouded the so-called Dark Ages for centuries. For on that day, as storm clouds were gathering in Europe, archaeologist Basil Brown opened the burial chamber of the great ship burial at Sutton Hoo.

Over the next few weeks, archaeologists discovered the extraordinary riches that a Dark Age king could command. That king was probably Rædwald, and he is the first king of the East Angles of whom we know anything more than a name. The people who settled in the land almost cut off from the rest of country by the Fens were Angles, split into the North Folk and the South Folk (names that continue to this day as Norfolk and Suffolk). The kings of the Angles traced their lineage back to one Wuffa, making them Wuffingas (‘sons of the Wolf’).

Rædwald became king of the East Angles in the early seventh century as the power of Æthelfrith of Northumbria was steadily growing. However, the two kingdoms were separated by the Fens and the kingdom of Lindsey (another Anglo-Saxon kingdom roughly corresponding to Lincolnshire that is not numbered among the Heptarchy although it probably should have been), so Rædwald was happy to give sanctuary to a fugitive Northumbrian prince, Edwin.

But when Æthelfrith learned that Edwin had taken shelter with Rædwald he sent a series of messengers, bearing increasingly explicit threats, demanding Edwin’s head. Rædwald vacillated, then decided to fight. With Edwin, he defeated and killed Æthelfrith, installing Edwin on the throne of Northumbria and becoming himself Bretwalda, the pre-eminent king in Britain, until his death around 626.

His successors fought a series of unsuccessful campaigns to retain their independence from the rising power of Mercia, campaigns that usually ended with the East Anglians having to find a new king. The East Anglians continued to kick against Mercian supremacy throughout the eighth century and they managed to regain their independence in the ninth century, only to be conquered by the Great Heathen Army in 869. The last independent king of the East Angles was Edmund the Martyr, who was venerated after his death by the newly Christian children of the Vikings who had killed him. These Christian Vikings, who had settled in East Anglia, created the shrine of Bury St Edmunds to commemorate an Anglo-Saxon king.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Essex

The seven ancient kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England: the Heptarchy

The history of the kingdom of the East Saxons is as obscure as that of the South Saxons. Its origins probably lie in the 6th century, when groups of Saxons settled in the flat lands north of the Thames. However, even the king lists for the East Saxons are late, dating from the ninth century, with some disagreement about the dynasty’s founder. Kings Æscwine and Sledd are separately credited as the first king in different genealogies, although the one listing Æscwine as the first king works in Sledd as his son and successor.

The kingdom grew by aggregating small tribal groups, eventually encompassing the modern county of Essex as well as parts of Hertfordshire and the now lost county of Middlesex. London was under the control of the kings of the East Saxons in the seventh century, when the first attested king is recorded. His name was Sæberht and in 604 he was baptised, with King Æthelberht of Kent standing as his godfather.

Pope Gregory’s initial plan had been that Britain should have two metropolitan sees, in London and York, corresponding to the administrative centres of the old Roman province. However, having established his bishopric in Canterbury under the protection and sponsorship of Æthelberht of Kent, Augustine could not move to London. He did, however, send Mellitus to London as its bishop, where he founded the first St Paul’s on the site of the present cathedral. However, when Sæberht died, his three sons, who had remained pagan, expelled Mellitus, apparently over his refusal to give them communion without their first being baptised, and the bishopric lapsed.

The conversion of the kings of the East Saxons continued back and forth over the next generation, with another pagan succeeding the three brothers after their death in battle, only to be followed by King Sigeberht II, who converted to Christianity under the influence of King Oswiu of Northumbria, only to be murdered by two brothers who disapproved of the novel approach King Sigeberht was taking to rule: he was forgiving his enemies rather than killing them.

In the eighth century, Essex fell under the control of Mercia, then was subsumed into the kingdom of Wessex in 825, only to become part of the Danelaw as part of the treaty signed between Alfred and Guthrum. Essex was conquered by Edward the Elder, Alfred the Great’s son, in 917, becoming part of Wessex as it expanded towards becoming a newly unified country: England.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Sussex

The kingdoms of Britain around AD800.

Sandwiched between Kent and Wessex, with Mercia bearing down from the north, Sussex struggled to survive.

Although included among the Heptarchy, the history of the Kingdom of the South Saxons is obscure and its status more a product of being included in the list of main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms produced by the 12th-century historian, Henry of Huntingdon, than any real claim to eminence among the many kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons. However, despite its perilous position, sandwiched between the kingdoms of Kent and Wessex, with Mercia bearing down from the north, the kingdom of Sussex retained its independence longer than other, similarly sized kingdoms, such as Lindsey, only finally submitting to the rule of the kings of Wessex in 827.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the kingdom was founded by Ælle in 477 when he landed with his three sons and three boatloads of warriors near Selsey. The kingdom followed the pattern of gradual expansion against Britonnic resistance, although the archaeology of the area suggests that Saxons had settled in Sussex before Ælle’s arrival, possibly originally coming as paid mercenaries in the service of the Roman Empire to man the forts of the Saxon Shore. This was a series of strongholds and ports that the Romans established to guard against barbarian raiders.

The kingdom comes briefly into the light of history in the second half of the seventh century, when the baptism of its king, Æthelwealh, is recorded. Æthelwealh’s sponsor and godfather was Wulfhere, the king of Mercia, and as a baptismal gift Wulfhere gave Æthelwealh the Isle of Wight and the Meon Valley. Standing as godfather to another king was both an act of spiritual brotherhood and political mastery, a mastery emphasised by Wulfhere’s giving of land as gift: Æthelwealh was very much the junior of the two monarchs.

However, although Æthelwealh had become a Christian, his people had not. Their conversion, the last of the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, waited upon the rain. Wilfrid, the most tumultuous of Northumbrian bishops, had been deposed from his throne by King Ecgfrith and exiled to Sussex. Arriving in the midst of a severe drought, Wilfrid brought the rain. The South Saxons, abandoned by their gods, accepted Wilfrid’s offer of a new god, an offer Wilfrid sweetened by throwing in lessons on new methods of fishing that helped alleviate the effects of the famine the drought had brought. Sussex became a client kingdom to Mercia in the 8th century when Offa was supreme, but by 825 it had been subsumed into the kingdom of Wessex.

Adventures with Words: Brazen Chariots by Major Robert Crisp

Brazen Chariots by Robert Crisp

Some men are bigger than their books. Brazen Chariots is an undoubted classic of tank warfare in the desert during the Second World War but, for Bob Crisp, it was a memoir of just a couple of years in a life of extraordinary adventure.

First, the book: it conveys the heat, the dust, the confusion and, tellingly, the exhiliration that some men feel during combat. Crisp was one such man: extreme situations plugged him into the mains current of life and he revelled in them as much as it’s possible to revel in a battle where death and injury is a constant companion. Brazen Chariots is a brilliant account of fighting in tanks in the desert. But it is only a small part of Crisp’s story.

Not a family man, Crisp nevertheless fathered two sons, who learned of their father’s exploits during the Second World War by reading about them in a comic: Crisp’s adventures were featured as true-life story of heroism. By that time, Crisp had left their mother. There were many, many women in Crisp’s life. His portrait gives a picture of the man.

Robert Crisp

It’s the sort of half smile to break many a girl’s heart. But generally Crisp left his women happy. Towards the end of his life, when he lived in Greece, one of Crisp’s sons flew out to meet his father again. Walking into a taverna, he found his father surrounded by ten adoring women, ranging from 20 to 50. Crisp was living in Greece because, aged 60, he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Faced with death (again) Crisp decided to walk around Crete with a donkey. Rather than dying, he thrived, attracting legions of besotted women.

This was par for his wayward course. Crisp was also a cricketer, good enough to play for South Africa in test matches and the only man to have taken four wickets in four balls twice. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice, the second time having to carry his climbing partner, who had broken his leg on the ascent, back down the mountain.

A South African, Crisp was also one of the founders of Drum newspaper, a radical paper for the black townships of his country. As was the pattern of his life, Crisp later fell out with his partners and went off to try something new: running a mink farm, writing for newspapers, gambling.

Nothing else ever really had the intensity of warfare: Crisp had six tanks shot or burned out under him during the war; he was mentioned in dispatches four times, awarded the Military Cross and would have received the Victoria Cross if General Montgomery had not personally stopped the award on account of Crisp’s lack of respect for senior officers and ill-discipline.

Some men are bigger than their books. Crisp towered over his.

Adventures with Words: The Long War for Britannia 367-644 by Edwin Pace

The Long War for Britannia by Edwin Pace

History is difficult without sources. For the two centuries between the Romans leaving in 410 and the mission of St Augustine, who arrived in Kent in 597, we have the barest handful of contemporary documents. It might not matter, if not for the fact that these centuries were the foundation of everything that happened afterwards in Britain: the Romano-Celtic Britannia that slipped out of history at the start of the 5th century reappeared in the 7th century as a country divided, with Anglo-Saxon kingdoms controlling what would become England, Welsh-speaking princedoms in Wales, and Scotland split between Pictish and Irish kingdoms.

Later historians, starting with Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and going on to medieval writers, told the history of these missing centuries, recounting how the pagan Anglo-Saxons had arrived in Britain and displaced the native Britons. But these were histories written centuries after the events they described, and over the last half century historians and archaeologists have grown increasingly sceptical about the value of these accounts. In particular, the findings of archaeologists have served to cast doubt on the one-off departure of the Romans and the ethnic cleansing narrative of the Anglo-Saxon conquest.

However, on its own, archaeology provides snapshots: it struggles to construct a narrative. Abandoning the ancient sources has left us in an ahistorical darkness, with almost no named actors. In The Long War for Britannia, Edwin Pace has stepped bravely into the dark, mounting a thoroughgoing examination and defence of the ancient sources.

His argument is based in large part upon systematising the differences between the various accounts of the time. Pace argues that many of the discrepancies that have caused historians to discredit writers such as the 9th-century Nennius were caused by mistakes the medieval authors made in trying to fit dates originally calculated by the Roman consular calendar and insular regnal dating into the Anno Domini system adopted by the Venerable Bede. Pace also argues that the key contemporary writer, Gildas, who wrote his On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain around AD 530 by Pace’s reckoning, can be understood by placing his work into the theological framework of the monk. Working off these arguments, Pace concludes that there really was a King Arthur and that he can be identified as the Proud Tyrant of Gildas’ polemic – an unusual but fascinating conclusion.

Pace goes on to identify other people from legend as real historical characters, most notably arguing the Uther Pendragon was actually the 7th-century Mercian King Penda, the last great pagan Anglo-Saxon king. With his mastery of the written and archaeological sources, Edwin Pace has mounted a thoroughgoing and compelling argument for elements from the ancient authors as being worthy of the attention of serious historians. Many historians and archaeologists will disagree with Pace’s conclusions but, together with Miles Russell’s recent book Arthur and the Kings of Britain, there is now a serious, if not necessarily convincing, argument for looking at the ancient chroniclers afresh. Highly recommended for anyone with a deep interest in the roots of England.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Kent

King Vortigern asking Hengist for the hand of his daughter, Rowena, in marriage.

Kent was where, according to tradition, the first kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons was established. Only, the kings of Kent were not Angles or Saxons. They were Jutes, from the north of the Jutland Peninsula. The social organization of Kent was significantly different from those of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with only one class of noble as opposed to the two in other kingdoms, while Kentish peasants (ceorls) were also more important than those in the other kingdoms.

According to legend, the first kings of Kent were the brothers, Hengist and Horsa. They were mercenaries for hire who were invited to Britain by Vortigern to fight against the Picts who were raiding down the east coast following the collapse of Roman power. In the declining years of the western Roman Empire it was not at all unusual for barbarian mercenaries to be hired to fight barbarian raiders, so there’s nothing intrinsically unlikely about the tale. It was, however, later embroidered to include details such as Vortigern becoming infatuated with Hengist’s daughter Rowena and signing over Kent to her father in return for the daughter.

It’s only with the long reign of King Æthelberht that historical evidence for the kingdom emerges. The kings of Kent maintained close relations with the Merovingian kings across the Channel, trading widely with them and, as a result, having greater wealth at their disposal than other kings in Britain. It was this wealth that gave Æthelberht the political clout to be regarded as Bretwalda and it enabled his marriage to a Frankish princess, Bertha. Bertha was Christian, however, and the marriage was contracted on the basis that she would remain so. In 599, Æthelberht received a mission of Italians, come all the way from Rome, that was led by a monk called Augustine who had been dispatched by the pope to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Æthelberht accepted the new religion, and installed Augustine at Canterbury, making the church there the mother church of the country.

Kentish dominance did not survive Æthelberht and, while the kingdom remained rich, there was savage internecine strife in the ruling family. Thus weakened, in the latter part of the seventh century Kent came under the domination of Mercia, which continued off and on until the rise of the West Saxons in the early ninth century, when the kingdom became part of Wessex. As such, Kent played a key part in Alfred’s struggle against the Vikings, coming to the fore in the Viking attacks during the 890s, the last decade of Alfred’s reign, when the threat of the Northmen was broken for a century.

Æthelstan the Glorious


The first portrait of a king of England was made of Æthelstan (894-939).

In 934, on his way north, Æthelstan stopped at Chester-le-Street to visit St Cuthbert. Admittedly, Cuthbert had been dead for two and a half centuries, but his power as a saint and intercessor continue. This power was made all the more potent for when the king arrived, the monks reverently opened the sarcophagus containing the saint’s body to reveal it as incorrupt.

In token of his appreciation for the intercession of the saint, Æthelstan commissioned a splendid Gospel Book and presented it to the monks at Chester-le-Street (they would later move Cuthbert to Durham, where his body still resides in the cathedral). On the back of the first folio is a picture of a king presenting a book to a saint. Although neither are named, they are clearly Æthelstan and Cuthbert: the king is crowned yet still he bows before the great sanctity of the saint. For his part, Cuthbert has his right hand raised in blessing to the humble king before him. By his gift, and his honour, Æthelstan won the blessing of the most renowned saint of Northumbria, a force in heaven and a blessing among his people on earth, and he left us his portrait, the first direct depiction of a king in English history.

Edward the Elder – Alfred’s forgotten son

Edward the Elder (874-924)

Edward was old enough to remember the night when his father, Alfred, had had to flee for his life, taking his family to the marshy refuge of Athelney. He had had to wait, a child, for word as to whether his father had prevailed at the Battle of Edington or whether he would have to run again. He had been raised to fight the Viking invaders, taking his place as his father’s chief lieutenant when still a teenager, and proving worthy of that trust.

Such an upbringing inculcated a savage certainty of purpose. Through no fault or oversight of his would Edward give advantage to those pagans who would ravage his realm. To that end, he approached his marriages as the business of a king, making and breaking queens – three of them in the end – to serve his political purposes.

But there was one woman Edward did not put aside, for she had his full confidence as the other hand of the strategy he had inherited from his father: Æthelflæd, Edward’s sister, reigned as lord of Mercia, first securing her kingdom and then joining Edward in his assault on the Danelaw. Edward’s trust, however, did not extend to Æthelflæd’s daughter. When his sister died, some in Mercia would have installed Ælfwynn as a new ‘Lady of the Mercians’ but Edward removed her to a convent and brought the kingdom under his rule, the first king of a combined Wessex and Mercia.