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The Kings & Queens of England
By W.M. Ormrod
The History PressCopyright © 2012 W.M. Ormrod
All rights reserved.
The Kings of the English from Earliest Times to 1066
In the fifth to seventh centuries AD, substantial parts of Britain were invaded and settled by a series of tribesmen from northern mainland Europe collectively referred to as the Anglo-Saxons. By the end of the seventh century, these tribes had spread out to encompass most of present -day England and much of southern Scotland. By the end of the seventh century, twelve principal Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had emerged: those of the Bernicians, the Deirans, the Lindesfarona, the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, the Hwicce, the Magonsaete, the Gewisse, the South Saxons, the Cantware and the East Saxons. Of these, three were to become especially dominant: the Bernicians in the North, the Mercians in the Midlands and the Gewisse in the South. The spread of Christianity amongst these Germanic-speaking peoples around 600 greatly enhanced the office of king and helped to promote a sense of common cultural and political identity. The Bernician monk Bede, writing c.730, listed seven rulers in the period up to 671 who held imperium (overlordship) over all the 'South Angles' (by which he meant all the Germanic peoples south of the Humber, the boundary between the Deirans and the Lindesfarona). In the ninth century, the West Saxon text known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle added another more recent king to this list and gave these imperium-holders the title of Bretwalda or Brytenwalda (meaning either 'wide-ruler' or 'Britain-ruler'). Under King Alfred and his successors in the tenth century, the kings of the West Saxons asserted the right to rule most of what is now England, and were an influential and sometimes dominating force over the rulers of native British peoples in parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The Kings of the Cantware ('Kent')
The history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms traditionally begins with the history of Kent. The reasons for this are twofold. First, Bede, followed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, claimed that the first leader of the Germanic invaders of Britain was the same man who appears at the head of the list of Kentish kings, Hengest. Secondly, Kent was the first kingdom to receive Christianity, and thus had the oldest archive of historical documents. If we look at the pedigree stretching back from the first Christian king, Æthelbert, who died in 616, however, it is clear that Hengest cannot have lived much earlier than c.500, whereas we can be certain that the coming of the Anglo-Saxons took place at least half a century before that. Two solutions present themselves: either Hengest was not really the ancestor of the Kentish kings, or he was not really the leader of the first invasion. It is hard to choose between these two options. Archaeology, however, does suggest that there was a second Germanic influx in Kent, of a distinct southern Scandinavian tribe called the Jutes, around 500, so it is possible that Hengest was the first Jutish leader in Kent but not the first German in Britain. The dates accorded him in the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle cannot be trusted.
With Æthelbert, the third of the imperium-holders listed by Bede, we are on much firmer ground. He seems to have married a Christian princess, Bertha, from Francia (the region across the Channel in what is now the Low Countries and France) at a time when his father, Eormanric, was still king in Kent. By the mid-590s, however, he himself was king and he wrote to the pope, Gregory the Great, asking that missionaries be sent to convert his people. Gregory's responses survive and it is clear that he believed Æthelbert was rex Anglorum – 'King of the English' – evidence that even at this early date the term Angli had the double meaning of 'Angle' and 'Anglo-Saxon'. Gregory sent the monk Augustine to Kent, having him made a bishop on the way, to convert Æthelbert and his people. Rather curiously it is clear that Bertha, who was already a Christian, had brought with her on her marriage a Frankish bishop, Liudhard. Possibly Æthelbert was wary of Frankish political intentions towards his kingdom and may have felt that getting missionaries from Rome rather than the Frankish kingdoms was one way of preventing a fifth column from entering the country.
After Æthelbert's death his son Eadbald succeeded to the kingdom. Eadbald (616-40) had not grasped the full implications of being a Christian. He married his father's widow (marriage to stepmothers seems to have been quite common, as it prevented disputes over inheritance) and engaged in other activities that were regarded as pagan by the missionaries. Bishop Laurence, now the leader of the mission, managed to bring Eadbald around by convincing him that he himself had been assaulted and beaten by St Peter as a punishment for not keeping the king on the straight and narrow. Anxious for the welfare of his father's friend, King Eadbald set aside his stepmother and returned to the fold of the Church. Eadbald further promoted the cause of the Church by giving his sister Æthelburh in marriage to the Deiran King Eadwine in 625. This helped to spread Christianity into the northern part of England. All subsequent Kentish kings were descended from Eadbald.
Kent seems to have been divided into two provinces at this time: that of the Cantware proper, with its bishop at Canterbury, and, west of the Medway, another province with a bishop at Rochester. Archaeologically, West Kent had more in common with East Saxon territories just across the Thames than it did with the Jutish East Kent. The west sometimes had its own kings as well. At times these were junior members of the Jutish dynasty, but some of them had names like Swæfheard and Sigered, which look suspiciously East Saxon. It is perhaps best to think of the land between the Medway and the Thames as debatable, sometimes looking north and sometimes east.
Of the later kings, the most notable are Hlothere (673-85) and Wihtred (690-725) who both produced law codes, expanding on a practice begun by Æthelbert. The three Kentish codes attached to the names of these kings are the earliest English law. After Wihtred, the importance of the Kentish kings declined. They lost out to the growing power both of the Mercians and of the church at Canterbury, which now housed an archbishop claiming ecclesiastical jurisdiction throughout Britain. The second half of the eighth century saw direct Mercian intervention, including the imposition of Midland princes into the kingship (Cuthred, 798-807, and Baldred, 823-5). In 825 the kingdom was 'liberated' by the West Saxons, who subsequently bestowed it on their heirs apparent. After 860 it became fully absorbed into their kingdom.
The Kings of the East Angles
The kingdom of the East Angles was probably more powerful than the surviving sources would suggest. This is the region of England that was most severely affected by the Viking invasions of the later ninth century, and no native documentation has survived. It contains the richest pagan burial yet recovered from Anglo-Saxon England: the famous ship-burial at Sutton Hoo. This has been claimed as the burial, or at least cenotaph (no body was found), of King Rædwald (d. c.625), the grandson of Wuffa, from whom the royal dynasty was named the Wuffingas. Rædwald is said to have converted to Christianity at the court of Æthelbert of Kent, but to have been persuaded by his wife not to renounce paganism altogether. This, it is argued, explains the presence of Christian paraphernalia in the Sutton Hoo tomb, despite its generally pagan character. Rædwald clearly put a lot of store by his wife's advice, for some years later he received messengers from Æthelfrith of Bernicia offering him great rewards if he would murder or hand over Eadwine, an exiled Deiran prince who was a warrior of his household. When she heard of this, the queen told Rædwald that to do such a thing would dishonour him before all men, so he changed his mind and instead went to war with Æthelfrith. In a battle on the River Idle in Nottinghamshire, he slew the Bernician king and was subsequently able to place Eadwine on the Deiran throne. It is probably this great victory that made him one of Bede's imperium-holders.
Rædwald's son and successor Eorpwald converted to Christianity properly but was slain by his pagan subjects in c.627, and the kingdom remained pagan for a further three years. In c.631 Rædwald's stepson Sigibert returned from exile in the Frankish kingdom, converted, and began to promote Christianity. Within a few years he retired to a monastery but returned to the world when an invasion by the Mercian King Penda took place. He was killed in battle (c.637) and was succeeded by Rædwald's nephew Anna. Anna lasted until about 654, when he too was killed by Penda, who seems to have been supporting a bid for power by Anna's brother, Æthelhere. Æthelhere died the following year, alongside Penda, in battle with the Bernicians at Winwæd.
Of the deeds of later kings we know little. King Ealdwulf (663-713) seems to have been a great patron of the Church even though he could remember that pagan temples remained standing in his own childhood. As in Kent, conflict with the Mercians dominated the later history of the East Angles. One king, Æthelbert (779-94), was invited to the court of the Mercian King Offa and summarily executed. His body was taken to Hereford (near where the execution had taken place) and his grave became the site of a cult. The ninth-century kings are known mostly from their coins and some of them may have been Mercian, or even West Saxon, intruders. In 869 King Edmund, a young warrior, was slain by the Vikings. He too became venerated as a saint and his tomb lay in the monastery of Bedricesworth, now known as Bury St Edmunds. After him there were two shadowy kings, an unknown Æthelred and Edmund's son-in-law Oswald. After that, we know of two Danish kings, Guthrum (880-90) who made peace with Alfred the Great, and Eohric (890-902) who was killed at the Battle of the Holme. It was another fifteen years before the East Anglian territory was absorbed into the new English kingdom; but who its kings were in the intervening period is not known.
The Kings of the Deirans
The province of the Deirans roughly equated with the later county of Yorkshire. Its culture, and perhaps its kings, were closely linked to the East Angles. The first king we know of was Ælle, son of Yffe, who was ruling at about the time Gregory became pope in Rome. He seems to have been succeeded by one Æthelric, who was slain when Æthelfrith of Bernicia conquered Deira in 604. Æthelfrith married Ælle's daughter Acha, probably to legitimise his usurpation, and ruled ably for twelve years. In 617 he was slain on the River Idle by Rædwald of the East Angles who placed Ælle's son Eadwine on the throne. Eadwine seems also to have ruled directly over the Bernicians, though we are not told if he had any family claim to do so. Before finding support from Rædwald, Eadwine had visited many kingdoms in his exile, including Mercia and the British kingdom of Gwynedd. In Mercia he had found a bride in Cwenburh, daughter of King Cearl. They had two sons, Osfrith and Eadfrith. Eadwine led a number of campaigns against the British, perhaps in an attempt to bring Bernicians and Deirans together in a common cause, and probably conquered Lancashire and Westmorland for Deira as well as the British kingdom of Elmet. In c.625 he married for a second time. His new bride was Æthelburh of Kent, and she brought with her the Christian Bishop Paulinus. It was their hope that Eadwine would convert. At first he was cautious, but a year or so later he narrowly escaped being assassinated by the Gewisse. He planned a punitive expedition and swore that if he were successful he would convert. The campaign was a success and he kept his oath, sponsoring mass baptisms throughout the kingdom in c.627. In 632 he invaded and subjugated Gwynedd, but the following year its king, Cadwallon, accompanied by Penda of Mercia, invaded Deira and killed Eadwine and his son Osfrith in battle at Hatfield Chase. After this, Bernicia regained its independence and Eadwine's cousin Osric became King of the Deirans. Within a year, Cadwallon had killed him too. This effectively marked the end of the Deiran kingdom: although Osric's son ruled the territory as a Mercian protectorate between 644 and 651, its future lay with that of the Bernicians. Æthelburh fled back to Kent and sent her son Uscfrea and Osfrith's son Yffe to the King of the Franks for safety. They both died soon afterwards. Eadwine's other son Eadfrith went in exile to the Mercian court, where he was mysteriously killed.
The Kings of the Bernicians and Northumbrians
The Bernicians were a people apart among the Anglo-Saxons. They displayed little of the distinctive material culture or pagan funerary rites of their southern neighbours. Their rulers held court in fortified hilltop citadels, like the kings of the neighbouring Pictish and British peoples (the native tribes existing before the arrival of the Germanic invaders). The Bernicians had even borrowed the practice of tattooing from the neighbouring Picts. Were we reliant wholly upon archaeological evidence, we should probably not recognize them as Anglo-Saxons at all. But they were in no doubt that they were – and neither were their neighbours.
The original core of the Bernician kingdom probably lay along the line of Hadrian's Wall: indeed, they may have originated as a late Roman garrison of Germanic mercenaries. However, in the middle of the sixth century their king, Ida, seized and fortified the promontory of Bamburgh just south of the Tweed, and this became their royal centre. By the time of Ida's grandson Æthelfrith (593-617), the Bernicians controlled all of England north of the Tees together with the Tweed basin and Dumfriesshire. By the middle of the seventh century, they controlled Lothian, Stirlingshire and Lanarkshire as well as much of Ayrshire and Galloway. They also cast covetous eyes over Deira and increasingly exerted control there.
Æthelfrith is said to have conquered more territory from the Britons than any English king before him. He may even have been responsible for some naval raids carried out on Ireland and the Hebrides in the 610s. Bede, the Bernician historian, regarded the conquest of the Britons as the manifest destiny of the English nation and did not bother to chronicle it in detail. The one account of Æthelfrith's British campaigns that he gives us gleefully recounts the massacre of the British monks from Bangor-is-y -coed. The monks' demise demonstrates to Bede's satisfaction that the British Church did not find favour in the eyes of the Lord, and legitimised the relentless ethnic cleansing that the Bernicians practised in the course of their expansion.
After the interlude of Eadwine of Deira's rule over Bernicia (c.617-33), the sons of Æthelfrith returned from exile amongst the Gaels of Dál Riata and the Picts. Eanfrith, with his Pictish bride, lasted less than a year: he was cut down by Cadwallon of Gwynedd, whom he foolishly believed to be his ally. Within months his brother Oswald had avenged him, slaying Cadwallon near Hexham. Oswald (634-42) was the son of Eadwine's sister Acha and was also able to persuade the Deirans to take him as king. He was a Christian, and had spent most of his youth amongst the Gaelic rulers of Argyll and Antrim. Indeed, Domnall Brecc, King of Dál Riata, may even have aided his return to Bernicia. It was even claimed that, before his battle with Cadwallon, Oswald had a vision of St Columba, the founder of the famous monastery at Iona. In any event, following his victory, Oswald invited a mission from Iona, under Bishop Aidan, to Bernicia and gave them part at least of the island of Lindisfarne to found a monastery. Aidan could speak no English and Bede tells us that when the bishop went out preaching, King Oswald himself translated for him. The mission was a great success and churches and monasteries sprang up throughout Bernicia and Deira. Within two years of becoming king, Oswald married Cyneburh, daughter of Cynegils, the Gewisse king. It may have been at the same time that Cynegils converted to Christianity, for Oswald was his godfather as well as his son-in-law.
Oswald's reign lasted less than a decade. He carried his conflict with Cadwallon's ally Penda of Mercia deep into enemy territory and was slain in battle at Maserfield (perhaps Old Oswestry in Shropshire).A third son of Æthelfrith, Oswiu, inherited Oswald's mantle but was not able to hold on to Deira. He was somewhat younger than Oswald and may have had a different, non-Deiran, mother. Instead, the Deirans, with the backing of Penda, took Oswine, son of Osric, to be their king. For the first part of his reign, Oswiu held his peace north of the Tees. He was probably consolidating Bernician rule in areas taken from the Britons by Oswald and may have extend the frontier a little himself. We know he had a British wife, Raegnmeld, during the early part of his reign. Shortly after Oswine's accession, however, Oswiu married Eanflæd, Eadwine's daughter, whom he had fetched from Kent. She bore him two sons, Ecgfrith and Ælfwine, and when it was clear that they would survive infancy he made his move against Oswine. Oswine attempted to raise an army but lost his nerve and went into hiding, where he was murdered by one of his own men. Eanflæd, who was his cousin, persuaded Oswiu to found a monastery in penance for this killing.
Excerpted from The Kings & Queens of England by W.M. Ormrod. Copyright © 2012 W.M. Ormrod. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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