Early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

How many Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were there? There is no simple answer to this question. At first, the Anglo-Saxon peoples were divided into many small kingdoms. Gradually, larger kingdoms started to emerge.

The larger kingdoms grew through a process that some historians have compared to the ‘knock-out’ round of a football tournament. The balance of power was always shifting until the 10th century, when Æthelstan, king of Wessex (reigned 924–939), gained control of the area we now know as the kingdom of England.

Map c. 700

The early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, c. 700 

Kent

The process by which some Anglo-Saxon kingdoms developed can be seen in the case of Kent. The kingdom of Kent was probably formed in the 6th century by the coming together of at least two smaller kingdoms. By the 590s, King Æthelberht (died 616?) was the most powerful ruler in southern Britain, and Kent was one of the wealthiest kingdoms.

Christian missionaries gave the Anglo-Saxons access to new writing technologies, such as the Latin language and the Roman alphabet that we still use today. During Æthelberht’s reign, the laws of Kent were written down for the first time and administrative documents such as charters began to be used.

Law-code of King Æthelberht of Kent

Rochester, Cathedral Library, MS A. 3. 5

The opening of King Æthelberht’s law code (Rochester, Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5, f. 1r)

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St Augustine established Canterbury as the base for a new archbishopric, and it became a major intellectual centre. An important school was established there by Archbishop Theodore (reigned 668–690), who came from Tarsus in Asia Minor, and Hadrian (died 709), an abbot from North Africa. Among the subjects taught at this school were poetry, astronomy, mathematics and Greek.

St Augustine Gospels

This page contains a portrait of St Luke, flanked by scenes from his Gospel (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, f. 129v)

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Canterbury remained an important intellectual centre for many centuries. Among the manuscripts made in Kent was the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated copy of the Book of the Psalms. The presence of gold and coloured pigments in this manuscript indicates the wealth and resources available in Kent in the 8th century; the script and decoration draws upon Roman models, demonstrating how Kentish culture was shaped by links to the wider world.

Vespasian Psalter

The manuscript includes a full-page illustration of King David composing the Psalms (British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

In the 9th century, a word-for-word English translation was added above the Latin text. This is the earliest surviving translation of a book of the Bible into English.

East Anglia

In the 6th and 7th centuries, other kingdoms went through a similar process of development. Another powerful kingdom was that of the East Angles, which gave its name to the region now known as East Anglia. The wealth of this kingdom is attested by the remarkable finds that were buried with a warrior in a ship at Sutton Hoo, in modern-day Suffolk.

Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle

This gold belt buckle from Sutton Hoo is one of the greatest achievements of Anglo-Saxon metalwork (British Museum, BEP 1939,1010.10)

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The Sutton Hoo treasures include items influenced by Scandinavian and Frankish culture. They were even some items from as far as the Byzantine empire in the eastern Mediterranean.

Some commentators have suggested that a king must have been buried at Sutton Hoo. But such was the wealth of East Anglia at this period that we cannot be sure whether this was the burial place of a king or a nobleman.

The kings and nobles of East Anglia converted to Christianity, apparently under the influence of King Æthelberht of Kent. Important monasteries in that region included Medeshamstede (modern Peterborough) and Ely.

Northumbria

While Kent, East Anglia and Mercia dominated southern England, in the North, the powerful kingdom of Northumbria emerged. Like Kent, Northumbria was formed from smaller kingdoms, particularly the rival kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.

By 660, Northumbria was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. It had strong cultural connections with Ireland and Rome, and its kings had welcomed Christian missionaries from the influential monastery of Iona.

In 635, King Oswald (reigned 634–642) had given the island of Lindisfarne to Aidan, a monk from Iona. Aidan founded a monastery on Lindisfarne, which became a highly influential cultural and political centre. It was there that the Lindisfarne Gospels – one of the greatest works of early medieval art – was made.

Lindisfarne Gospels

Lindisfarne Gospels f.211

Written and illustrated probably by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721, the Lindisfarne Gospels is amongst the British Library's greatest artistic, linguistic and religious treasures.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The period around 700 is known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Northumbria. One of the most influential monasteries in Northumbria was Wearmouth-Jarrow, which was founded in the late 7th century by Benedict Biscop, who gave up his life as a warrior in order to become a monk.

Codex Amiatinus

Dedication page of Codex Amiatinus, recording that it was taken to Rome as a gift from Abbot Ceolfrith (f. Iv); Full-page illumination of a scribe at work, identified as the Old Testament prophet, Ezra (f. Vr) (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1)

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Benedict Biscop and his successor, Abbot Ceolfrith, travelled to Rome on several occasions, returning home with manuscripts made in northern Europe, Italy and Ireland. Wearmouth-Jarrow became a centre of scholarship. It was here that Bede lived, and three giant Bibles were made, one of which survives intact: Codex Amiatinus.

The earliest intact western European book was also made at Wearmouth-Jarrow. This hand-sized manuscript, containing the Gospel of St John, is today known as the St Cuthbert Gospel. It was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert (died 687), bishop of Lindisfarne, when his tomb was opened in 1104.

St Cuthbert Gospel

The front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library, Additional MS 89000)

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Mercia

Northumbria’s dominance began to wane in the 700s, with Mercia emerging as the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Mercia had been formed from smaller groups, such as the Magonsætan, Hwicce and Wreocensætan (near Wroxeter).

Already in the 7th century, Mercian kings such as Penda (died 655), wielded considerable power. Penda defeated and killed two Northumbrian kings; he also refused to convert to Christianity and is remembered as the last powerful pagan ruler in England.

Some sense of Mercia’s wealth and military power at this time can be glimpsed from the Staffordshire Hoard, a large collection of gold and military equipment that was buried during the reign of Penda or that of his Christian son and successor, Wulfhere (died 675).

Staffordshire Hoard

The pectoral cross is a personal ornament that might have belonged to a high-ranking cleric or noble convert.

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By the time of King Æthelbald (reigned 716–757), Mercia was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. One charter issued in the name of that king in 736 styles Æthelbald as ‘king of the South English’ and ‘king of Britain’.

Æthelbald’s successor, King Offa (reigned 757–796), was even more powerful. Offa seized control of London, a major trading centre, and he extended his power into East Anglia and over the kingdom of Kent. He even attempted to curb the power of the archbishop of Canterbury by establishing a new archbishopric at Lichfield.

Under Æthelbald and Offa, Mercia was a major cultural centre, which traded with distant places. This can be seen in books such as the St Chad Gospels, which was heavily influenced by Irish art. It can even be seen in the Mercian coinage: one of Offa’s coins was copied directly from that of the Caliph al-Mansur (136–158 AH / AD 754–775), from the area around modern-day Iraq.

Writing around a century after Offa’s death, Asser remembered Offa as ‘a certain vigorous king who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea’ (Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 14, translated by M. Lapidge and S. Keynes, Alfred the Great, p. 71). Offa’s Dyke exists to this day.

MAP Mercia

Mercia and it's neighbours, c. 800

Asser's Life of King Alfred

Asser's Life of King Alfred

The earliest known source about an Anglo-Saxon king, a king often known today as ‘Alfred the Great’ (r. 871–899 CE) (British Library, Cotton MS Otho A XII, f. 1r)

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After Offa’s death, his son was deposed and the Pope was persuaded to abolish the archbishopric of Lichfield. By the early 800s, the kings of East Anglia had freed themselves from Mercian control.

Wessex

As rival families were vying for control of Mercia, the kings of Wessex, based in South-West England, seized the opportunity to grasp power. In 825, King Ecgberht of the West Saxons (reigned 802–839) defeated Beornwulf, king of the Mercians, in battle at Ellendun (identifiable as Wroughton, Wiltshire). This resulted in the transfer of Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Essex into West Saxon overlordship.

These territorial gains were consolidated under Ecgberht’s son, King Æthelwulf (reigned 839–858). Æthelwulf secured a marriage alliance with Judith, a Frankish princess and great-granddaughter of Charlemagne (died 814). He faced challenges from within his own kingdom and even his own family: Æthelwulf’s son Æthelbald rebelled while his father was abroad in 855 or 856.

What was the impact of the Vikings on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms?

The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms also faced external threats, as much of Britain was affected by violent attacks by pagan raiders from Scandinavia. Coastal raids were first documented in the 790s. As the 9th century progressed, these attacks became more frequent, and larger Viking armies began to spend the winter in England in order to extend the fighting season.

The kings of Northumbria and East Anglia were defeated and replaced by Scandinavian leaders, and Viking forces came to control a substantial portion of Mercia. In particular, the death of King Edmund of East Anglia at Viking hands became the subject of many gruesome legends.

The kings of Northumbria and East Anglia were defeated and replaced by Scandinavian leaders, and Viking forces came to control a substantial portion of Mercia. In particular, the death of King Edmund of East Anglia at Viking hands became the subject of many gruesome legends.

The West Saxon kingdom managed to survive the Viking attacks, despite suffering many defeats. In 871, Æthelwulf’s youngest son, named Alfred, became king during a period of fierce fighting with the Vikings. He was eventually able to establish a peace treaty with Guthrum, the leader of Scandinavians in East Anglia, around 880. This recognised the legal and territorial rights of the Danes and the English on either side of a line that ran ‘up the Thames, then up the River Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up the Ouse to Watling Street’.

Treaty between Alfred and Guthrum

The opening lines of the treaty (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 383, f. 57r).

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This treaty ushered in a period of peace. King Alfred’s court became a centre of learning and literature, where many Latin works were translated into English and new ones (such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) were created.

Alfred Jewel

The Alfred Jewel (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, AN1836 p.135.371)

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King Alfred’s Translation of the Pastoral Care

The opening page of the Pastoral Care (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f. 1r)

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Some Anglo-Saxon sources imply that Alfred of Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon king to successfully resist the Vikings. These claims can be challenged by other evidence. For instance, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle depicted the Mercian king, Ceolwulf II, as a puppet of the invading Viking forces; but London moneyers struck coins for both Ceolwulf and Alfred in the 870s, suggesting that they were working together.

Eventually, the West Saxon ruling dynasty came to dominate the whole of what is now England. Alfred’s son and daughter expanded their power to the North and East. In the late 920s, Alfred’s grandson, Æthelstan, became the first king of the English, in the process laying the foundations of the kingdom of England.

  • Alison Hudson
  • Alison Hudson is Project Curator of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts at the British Library, working on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Her doctoral research at the University of Oxford focused on the English Benedictine reform movement in the 10th century.