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
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.
Chapter : Chap 6 >>
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