Events Before King Egbert-The 7 Kingdoms & the Church

Events Before King Egbert's Time

The Seven Kingdoms

By the sixth century there were seven major kingdoms, Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, Essex, East Anglia, Sussex and Kent. The “sex” part of these names is simply a shortened form for ‘Saxon,’ so that Essex means East Saxons, Sussex means South Saxons, and Wessex is West Saxons.  From then on, there was a struggle between the kingdoms and warfare with the Britons who were left the area of Wales and the southwestern portion of Scotland.

In the eighth century, the main institutions of government were unstable, but heading toward some form of political confederation. Strong kings or Bretwaldas had effectively claimed overlordship from time to time. Gradually there developed three dominant kingdoms–first Northumbria in the north during the seventh century, then Mercia in the midlands during the eighth, and finally Wessex in the south during the ninth.

The power of a king depended mostly on his personality and the size of his following. The noblemen who surrounded a king, his “comitatus,” gave advice and put decisions into practice. They got their authority not only from legal powers, but mainly from their own wealth and personal strength. Each kingdom dealt with some confusion and was troubled by the wars and politics. Each of the monarchies was different, some being more aggressive than others. From time to time, among the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, one king would assert some superiority over other kingdoms. The other kings would then promise to respect the dominant king’s frontiers and make war on his enemies. These agreements were often upset by changes in the kingdoms, and during the eighth century the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex successively became the most important.

Kent is considered to have been the first Saxon kingdom, founded shortly after Vortigern’s invitation to the Hengist and Horsa to come to his aid. The settlers in this region were mostly Jutes, which explains why the Kentish dialect had marked peculiarities, different from those of the Saxons to the west and the Angles to the north. Thereafter, a line of seventeen Kentish kings ruled this part of England until it acknowledged King Egbert in 825.

North of the East Saxons and the West Saxons were the Angles, all along the east coast of Britain. The southernmost of their kingdoms was East Anglia. The only East Anglian king who ever attained importance during the early history was Raedwald in the early seventh century. East Anglia had a series of sixteen kings, called ‘Wuffings,’ after their first king, Wuffa.

Essex was to the north of the Thames, and had a line of fifteen kings before acknowledging Egbert in 825.The first king of the East Saxons was Aescwin, who was the grandfather of Saebert, the king when St. Augustine landed in Britain in 597. Whether Middlesex was ever a separate state is unknown. It was under the reign of the East Saxon Saebert in 604.

Sussex had a line of nine kings. It was a small state on the narrow seacoast along the Channel. This was inhabited by a group of Saxons who could trace their origin to the war-band of Aella. 

Northumbria had a line of twenty-five kings until it came under the rule of Egbert in 827. Northumbria was the first of the kingdoms to have any power over its neighbors. The defeat of the fifth of the Bretwaldas, King Edwin of Northumbria, by Welsh and Mercians at the battle of Hatfield Chase in 632 brought a time of Mercian supremacy.

The successful kings of Mercia were Penda (632-654), his son Wulfhere (657-674), Aethelbald (716-757), and Offa (757-796). Mercia was a central kingdom and its rulers were tough men who were feared by the rest of England for quite some time. The succession of kings was open to tough competition, leading to murder and feud. The way in which Offa and later Cenwulf came to power shows the instability in Mercia. Offa succeeded the murdered Aethelbald only after fighting a civil war with Beornred. When he died in 796, his son and successor, Egfrith, survived him for only five months.  Cenwulf’s brother, Ceolwulf, was deposed in a palace coup, in favor of Beornwulf (823-6).

Offa was not merely a conquering soldier; he was also a statesman. He battled with the weak and negotiated with the strong. He defeated Kent, Sussex, Essex, and East Anglia one by one, while he arranged marriages of convenience with the royal families of Northumbria and Wessex.  Offa was on friendly terms with both Pope Hadrian I and the Frankish emperor Charlemagne.  From the Pope King Offa was granted the creation of a new midland archbishopric at Lichfield, and from Charlemagne he gained the first commercial treaty in English history.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has seven entries on Offa’s reign, and four on Cenwulf’s. What the Chronicle does include is not openly hostile, but focuses on the bare facts of violence, like Offa’s execution of an East Anglian king in 794, or Cenwulf’s suppression of the Kentish rebellion in 798. The Chronicle’s account of Egbert’s conquests after 825 is much more sympathetic. A story in Asser’s “Life of Alfred,” describing how Offa’s daughter lived tyrannically “in her father’s manner” and poisoned her husband, King Beorhtric, gives some idea of the feelings of Egbert’s dynasty about Offa.

The coastland of eastern Wessex was Jutish soil in the sixth century, and the people were called the Jute-folk. So what was the origin of the people of the Wessex? The original group was formed from those parts of the earliest Saxon people from war-bands west of Middlesex, in Berkshire and north Hampshire, and some small settlement north of Thames. The West Saxons had a tribal name, Gewissae, which meant the “allies” or “confederates,” joined together originally for some temporary need. The term implies a mixed group, which may have included other people besides the purely Saxon.

When the first “bishop-stool,” or see, was created in Wessex it was placed at Dorchester-on-Thames. In most cases, the bishop was established close to the court of the king. The king of Wessex probably had his favorite residence on the Thames, not in the South. Winchester took the place of Dorchester only when South Hampshire and the Isle of Wight became part of Wessex. The name “West Saxons” suited a people seated on the Middle Thames just as well as a people in Hampshire. It gives better meaning to Middlesex, which would actually have been between the East and the West Saxons.

The eighth century in England was the most miserable period of the Dark Ages. The warrior mentality was not lost, and Christianity brought a higher moral standard and broader aims. The Chronicles of the seventh and eighth centuries, though full of battle, murder and sudden death, is not all bad. The English Church, for its first hundred years, was the most creditable branch of the seventh century Christian church. At beginning of the eighth century the English had several men of vigor and piety, but even then there were signs of deterioration.

Except for Offa of Mercia, and the great missionary Winfrith (Boniface), the rest of the eighth century is a period of dullness and gloom. Boniface writing, around 745, to censure a contemporary monarch, said the evil began with two young kings, Osed of Northumbria and Ceolred of Mercia. Both were tyrants, murderers of their noblest subjects, ravishers of nuns, and plunderers of monasteries. Both died violent and terrible deaths.

In the eighth century there was a blurring of the tribal groups. Some of the kingdoms lost their royalty in wars, and the desire to stay in separate tribes waned. Gradually the people learned to accept other rulers more as brethren and countrymen, rather than as strangers to be hated. The stronger royal families had intermarried which made them more tolerable as rulers, if they conquered or inherited a crown. This was the way in which Kent was united to Wessex—the father of King Egbert of Wessex had been a sub-king in Kent.

The Church

The Church was the most powerful unifying force in England. At the frequent synods kings, ealdormen, and bishops from all the realms met, to debate on equal terms for the common benefit of all England. In the year 597, when Aethelbert of Kent had been king for some time, and Aethelfrith was ruler of the Northumbria, the growth of Christianity began in Anglo-Saxon history.

In 597 the mission of some forty persons headed by the priest Augustine landed at the Isle of Thanet. The story of Augustine’s mission shows that he was zealous, persuasive, untiring and ascetic, but he and his party actually stopped on their way to Britain, “seized with a sudden fear at the idea of proceeding to a barbarous, fierce and unbelieving nation.” He returned to Rome, but was sent back by Pope Gregory with orders to proceed at all risks. Very early in the following year Augustine’s group crossed the Channel. In the following decades missionaries came and worked among the pagan Anglo-Saxons. In the late seventh century the English church had a firm base and Theodore of Tarsus was sent by the pope to be archbishop of Canterbury. Most of the English kingdoms were Christian, at least in name, by then.

There was a great deal of tolerance displayed toward missionaries, even by the rulers who remained heathens. In the history of the English missions there is not any record of martyrdom. The missionaries were sometimes harassed, but never put to death. Aethelbert of Kent knew about Christianity, and the missionaries received a friendly welcome from him. He was married for many years to a Christian spouse, Bertha, the daughter of the King of Paris. In the eighth century, in the days of the Venerable Bede, who wrote ‘Ecclesiastical History’ about 730, the English Church was one of the centers of western civilization.

What was the state of the Church in England during King Egbert’s time? Bede wrote in 734 to Bishop Egbert, who was shortly to become archbishop of York (and possibly King Egbert’s uncle). Bede commented on the issues requiring urgent attention. He wrote that there were not enough priests or teachers and it was wrong to demand material support for the Church when nothing was done for the spiritual salvation of the people. The monastic ideals were being abused by those who were set up in questionable monasteries, not devoting themselves to a religious life, but seeking an escape from obligations in the secular world.  There had been great changes, yet the Church continued throughout the eighth century to be inspired by the high ideals of the age of Bede. This was the age of the Anglo-Saxon mission to the heathen Germanic peoples of Western Europe, which took many Anglo-Saxons away from England to lives of difficulty and danger. It deprived the Church in England of many who would have been its natural leaders.

By the time of King Alfred (reigning 871-899), King Egbert’s grandson, there was thought to be a decay of learning in England. Men had once come to England for knowledge, but during this period men had to travel to the continent for an education.  A comparison of these times, the age of Bede and the reign of Alfred, shows something about the state of the English Church during King Egbert’s time, the first half of the ninth century. King Egbert was a Christian who founded monasteries. His children and grandchildren were educated by Swithin, who became the bishop of Winchester, and later a saint. The monasteries along the east coast of England were the first victims of the Vikings; therefore they were still worth attacking.  The monks of Lindisfarne clung to what had become a dangerously exposed position for almost a hundred years after the first assault.

The Seven Kingdoms
The Seven Kingdoms

While this medieval graphic does not name the king,  the cross fleury was said to have been used by King Egbert.

St. Boniface

For more information about Boniface see:
The Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Boniface
and Crediton, UK National Shrine to St. Boniface

monks and nuns wore this type of clothes
though it could vary by sect and region

Lindesfarne Ruins
Lindisfarne Ruins

woodcut of a teacher with students
Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References