The Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy

Part 3: East Anglia, Northumbria, and Essex

The only kingdom named after the Angles was settled in the 5th Century and declared a kingdom in 571, after the melding of the North Angles and South Angles (a division that exists today in the areas of Norfolk and Suffolk). Wehha and Wuffa are listed as the first kings of East Anglia.

This kingdom had its zenith under the powerful Redwald, whom many historians think was buried or was the subject of the burial at Sutton Hoo. More often than not, however, other kingdoms ruled East Anglia, which was also hit particularly hard by the Danish invasions of the 9th Century.

Important settlements in East Anglia included Cambridge, Norwich, and Peterborough.


Another prime spot for Anglian settlement was north of the Humber River. The kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira merged in the early 600s; taking the name from the geographic description, these settlers named their kingdom Northumbria. The merger had come about because Æthelfrith, King of Bernicia, had conquered Deira. When Æthelfrith was killed in battle, his son Edwin came to the throne and proved an able commander, conquering the powerful Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. The Welsh returned the favor, with help from Mercia's King Penda, in 633; Edwin's death created a power vacuum, and Northumbria split once again into Bernicia and Deira. The ruler Oswiu, at the head of a powerful army, defeated Penda in 655, and Northumbria reigned supreme.

Christianity did not have just one form, and Celtic missionaries from Ireland eventually came into conflict with missionaries from Rome on customs and practices. The result was a major gathering of Church personnel called the Synod of Whitby, in 664. King Oswiu presided over the synod and sided with the Christians from Rome.

Northumbria was one of the kingdoms most affected by the Danish invasions of the 9th Century. In fact, the Danes eventually conquered all of Northumbria and made their capital the city of York.

It was in Northumbria as well that the massacre at Lindisfarne took place. One of early England's most famous writers, the Venerable Bede, lived in Jarrow. Manchester was another important settlement in Northumbria.

Aethelfrith ruled Bernicia, one of Northumbria's two major subkingdoms, for many years and eventually conquered the other subkingdom, Deira, in 604, and became the first King of Northumbria. He ruled for 12 years, until meeting defeat at the hands of Redwald of East Anglia at the Battle of the River Idle in 616. This battle resulted in Aethelfrith's death. The resulting chaos resulted in a usurper, Edwin, taking the Northumbrian throne; as a result, Aethelfrith's young sons Oswald and Oswiu fled to Scotland.

Oswald grew up in the Scottish kingdom of Dal Riata and, when Edwin was killed by Gwynedd's King Cadwallon, returned to reclaim his birthright. Oswald had help from northern tribes, historians think, in his victory over Cadwallon, at a place called Heavenfield. Oswald was then able to assume control of both Bernicia and Deira and rule as King of Northumbria. He ruled for nine years and was also named bretwalda.

Oswald eventually was at odds with the aggressive Penda of Mercia, and the two armies met at the Battle of Maserfield. Mercia was victorious, and Oswald was killed. A strong proponent of Christianity throughout Northumbria, Oswald was later proclaimed a saint.

Oswald's brother Oswiu was King of Bernicia for 28 years. For much of his reign, Oswiu struggled to control Deira. He also struggled mightily against Penda. Oswiu got his revenge, killing Penda at the Battle of Winwaed in 655, giving him control of Mercia and then finally succeeded in subjugating Deira. At that time, Oswiu was one of the most powerful men in Anglo-Saxon England. In fact, he was named bretwalda.

A devoted Christian, Oswiu established several monasteries, including Gilling Abbey and Whitby Abbey. It was at the latter that Oswiu presided over a major religious meeting, the Synod of Whitby; at this meeting, Oswiu, who had grown up a Celtic Christian, decreed that the Kingdom of Northumbria would follow the lead of the Roman Christians. (The Synod had been called to solve a dispute between Rome and the Celtic Christians.)

Founded in the 6th Century, this kingdom contained two former Roman capitals, Colchester and Londinium. The first recorded King of Essex was Escwine.

Some historians think that the Saxons gained control of this territory after a perhaps legendary event of treachery in which, stories say, Saxon leaders attending a peace conference with the British leader Vortigern hid knives in their cloaks and killed most of the Britons in attendance.

Essex controlled neighboring Kent for a time in the 8th Century but, as was East Anglia, largely a client kingdom. The last recorded king of an independent Essex was Sigered, who abdicated to King Egbert of Wessex in 825.

A few important religious events occurred in Essex. In London, St. Paul's was built, and the bishops of London were well regarded for many years. One of the most famous of these was Mellitus, the very first Bishop of London, who arrived in Essex after accompanying Augustine to Canterbury, Kent, in 597.

Eventually, though, London and then the rest of Essex fell to Mercia and then to Wessex.

Part 4: Sussex and Wessex

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David White