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The History Of England

by Peter Williams Ph.D

 

Chapter Five: An English Political Unity

 

By the end of the 6th Century, there were separate kingdoms in England, settled by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes: Northumbria into the north; Mercia westwards to the River Severn; and Wessex into Devon and Cornwall. In the southeast, the kingdoms of Sussex and Kent had achieved early prominence. Around 446 A.D. Hengist and Horsa had arrrived in Kent. They had been invited by Vortigern to fight the northern barbarians in return for pay and supplies, but more importantly, in exchange for land. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates Hengist's assumption of the kingdom of Kent to A.D. 455; and though it also records the flight of the Britons from that kingdom to London, it probably refers to an army, not a whole people.
The invaders named the capital of their new kingdom Canterbury, the borough of the people of the Cantii. Only nine years after their arrival, they were in revolt against Vortigern, who awarded them the whole kingdom of the Cantii with Hengist as king, to be succeeded by his son Oisc. The dynasty founded by Hengist lasted for three centuries. With the death of joint kings Aethelbert and Eadberht, however, it was time for other kingdoms to rise to prominence. Only thirty years after the arrival of Hengist to Britain, another chieftain named Aelle came to settle.

 

As leader of the South Saxons, Aella ruled the kingdom that became Sussex. At the same time, other kingdoms emerging were those of the East Saxons (Essex); the Middle Saxons (Middlesex); and that of the West Saxons, (Wessex). The latter kingdom was destined to become the most powerful of all, the kingdom that eventually brought together all the diverse peoples of England (named for the Angles) into one single nation.

 

When Bede was writing his History, he was residing in what had been for over a century the most powerful kingdom in England, for rulers such as Edwin, Oswald and Oswy had made Northumbria politically stable as well as a Christian province. There had been some setbacks: Edwin, the first Christian king of Northumbria, had been defeated by Cadwallon, the only native British King to overthrow a Saxon dynasty, who had allied himself to Penda of Mercia, the Middle Kingdom. Oswald had restored the Saxon monarchy in 633, and during his reign, missionaries under Aidan from the Celtic Church at Iona, founded Lindisfarne, and completed the conversion of Northumbria. During the reign of Oswy (from 645 to 670), Northumbria began to show signs of order and the growth of permanent institutions, so that the continuation of royal government did not depend upon the outcome of a single battle or the death of a king. Oswy died in bed, seen by many historians as a remarkable feat for a king of any Saxon kingdom at the time.

 

Oswy also defeated pagan king Penda and brought Mercia under his own control, opening up the whole middle kingdom to Celtic missionaries. In 663 under his chairmanship, the great Synod of Whitby took place, at which the Roman Church was accepted as the official branch of the faith in England. Oswy's forceful backing secured the decision for Rome.

 

Northumbria's dominance began to wane at the beginning of the 8th century. The kingdom had been threatened by the growing power of Mercia, whose king Penda had led the fiercest resistance to the imposition of Christianity. After Penda's defeat, his successor Wulfhere turned south to concentrate his efforts in fighting against Wessex, where strong rulers prevented any Mercian domination. The situation began to change in the early 8th century, with the accession of two strong rulers, Aethelbold and Offa.

 

Aethelbold (7l6-757) called himself "King of Britain." Bede tells us that "all these provinces [in the South of England] with their kings, are in subjection to Aethelbald, king of Mercia, even to [the river] Humber." Whatever his claims to sovereignty, however, it was his successor Offa (757-796) who could legitimately call himself "King of all the English," for though Wessex was growing powerful, Offa seems to have been the senior partner and overlord of Southern Britain.

 

King Offa's many letters to Charles the Great (Charlemagne) show that the Mercian king regarded himself as an equal to the Carolingian ruler (his son Ecfrith was the very first king in England to have an official coronation). Offa's correspondence with the Pope also shows roughly the same attitude, and it was Offa who inaugurated what later became known as Peter's Pence (the financial contributions that became a bane to later rulers who wished to have more control over their sources of revenue).

 

Offa was the first English ruler to draw a definite frontier with Wales. Much of the earthen rampart and ditch created in the middle of the 8th century, (Offa¹s Dyke) still exists. Under his reign an effective administration was created (and a good quality distinctive coinage). The little kingdom of Mercia found itself a member of the community of European states, but though Offa's descendants tried to maintain the splendors (and the delusions) of his reign, Mercia's domination ended at the battle of Ellendun in 825 when Egbert of Wessex defeated Beornwulf.

 

It was now the turn of Wessex to recover the greatness that had begun in the 6th Century under Ceawlin, when its borders had expanded greatly, and he had been recognized as supreme ruler in Southern England. A series of insignificant kings followed Ceawlin, all subject to Mercian influence. The second period of Wessex dominance then began under kings Cadwalla and Ine. Cadwalla (685-688) was noted for his successful wars against Kent and his conquest of Sussex. His kingdom also expanded westward into the Celtic strongholds of Devon and Cornwall. Both Cadwalla and Ine abdicated to go on religious pilgrimages, but their work was well done and they left behind a strong state able to withstand the might of Mercia.

 

A new phase began in 802 with the accession of Egbert and the establishment of his authority throughout Wessex. The dominance of Mercia was finally broken, the other kingdoms defeated in battle or voluntary submitted to Egbert's overlordship, and he was recognized as Bretwalda, Lord of Britain, the first to give reality to the dream of a single government from the borders of Scotland to the English Channel.

 

Next Chapter : Chap 6 >>


England History
Chap1 - Chap2 - Chap3 - Chap4 - Chap5 - Chap6

 

This History of England was written by Peter Williams Ph.D. Peter is the author of some fantastic history books which we will soon be recommending on the site. Peter also has a website which is well worth a visit - CelticInfo.com

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