Kingdoms in Competition
For domination of Anglo-Saxon England I believe there are certain commonalities which run through the achievement of top-dog status amongst the various kingdoms - like warring, political marriages, strategy and military superiority. There have also been fresh ideas introduced - such as trading centres, coinage, literacy, and religion (for political gain). All have combined to slowly shape the earlier separate factions of England into a cohesive and more efficient system.
The king's helmet, discovered at Sutton Hoo, 1939.
Although there was continuous warring which changed boundaries and dominance within Anglo-Saxon England I would like to start off in the early seventh century, during the reign of Rædwald of East Anglia (c. 599 - c. 627), who was regarded by the Venerable Bede (at least) as Regis Anglorum (King of the Angles) and by many as a bretwalda (over-lord or ‘widely ruling’). Rædwald achieved this status though the normal channels of warring with an enemy – in this case it was against the Northumbrian usurper and leader of the united kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, Æthelfrith, (who had tried to bribe Rædwald to kill his guest, the political refugee and rightful leader of the southern Northumbrian kingdom of Deira, Edwin (616-33), who was hiding from Æthelfrith). Rædwald was victorious and proceeded to make sure that he would hold direct influence over the newly-reinstated leader of the northern kingdom, thereby securing himself a large tract of England to be bretwalda of.
depiction of Edwin in stained glass at St. Mary's church, Yorkshire
When Rædwald died Edwin decided to expand his reign and invaded the islands of Man, Puffin and Anglesey using a fleet of ships to achieve this. He also decided to ‘put aside’ his first wife (a Mercian) in order to marry, for political reasons, the sister of the ruler of Kent. The Mercians retaliated by sending an assassin to kill Edwin, but the attempt failed and Edwin made a bargain with the Church that he would allow himself to be baptised if he could defeat the enemy. Edwin was victorious and may have then been acknowledged as overlord of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (except Kent). Bede records him as holding imperium south of the Humber. He was duly baptised and persuaded all his nobles and sub-kings to follow suit, enabling unity throughout the country. This also gained him an administration of clergy who had skills of literacy, allowing him to correspond with the Pope in Rome, and he could also keep records of tributes due from the people on his lands. Edwin also set up administrative centres and enforced law and order throughout his lands.
St. Oswald relic receptacle, 12th century
After Edwin’s death in battle Oswald (634-42), son of Edwin’s nemesis Æthelfrith reclaimed Northumberland areas of Bernicia and Deira. He then conquered Lindsey, and exercised overlordship in Wessex, Sussex and Kent. In Wessex he’d made a diplomatic alliance by marriage, and acted as godfather to the Wessex king when he was baptised. This is an example of using religious affiliation in diplomatic alignments. He became actively engaged in promoting Christianity throughout his kingdom. According to Bede he held imperium during his relatively short rule.
Oswiu - stained glass depiction.
Oswiu (655-70) came to power after the death of his brother Oswald, and seems to have done little of noteworthy interest until a surprising victory against his enemy Penda, king of Mercia. His unchallenged domination lasted only a few years but during his rule he placed family as sub-kings of Deira and southern Mercia, and possibly in the Pict area. There was a revolt at one stage but Oswiu remained a dominant force, and political settlement rather than open warfare seems to have resolved it. One writer describes Oswiu as “very just, with equitable laws, unconquered in battle but trustworthy in peace, generous in gifts to the wretched, pious, equitable to all.”1
A depiction of Æthelbald carved into the Repton Stone.
We then slip into the eighth century and start to see a definite shift in power-base from Northumbria to Mercia (after an invasion of the former by the Picts), with the emergence of Æthelbald (716-57), who ruthlessly suppressed several of the smaller nearby kingdoms, and even had the King of Wessex acknowledge his superiority. He ruled for around 40 years, which was quite an achievement, considering the expendability of a leader from either external or internal conflict. It is quoted in the charter of 736, the Ismere Diploma, that Æthelbald was “king not only of the Mercians but also of all the provinces which are called by the general name South English”
"A coin depicting Offa with the inscription Offa Rex Mercior[um] (Offa King of Mercia)"
After Æthelbald was killed in battle, his cousin Offa (757-96) was the lucky inheritor of power, once he’d defeated Beornred, who’d been next in line. By 771 he’d taken control of Sussex, also becoming overlord of Kent and East Anglia. Like others before him, he also ruthlessly suppressed opposition to his rule. Part of Offa’s strategy was to fortify his boundary against the Welsh, and he did this by building the structure known as Offa’s Dyke, which was intended to run right along the western boundary of Mercia, to keep the Welsh away. Offa also made political marriages with his daughters to the kings of Northumbria and Wessex, giving him great influence in those kingdoms. He reformed the Mercian coinage in the 760’s to bring it into line with the new-style Carolingian penny.2 This would certainly have encouraged an expansion in trading, perhaps more so internationally, as Offa had formed links with the Frankish king – Charlemagne - and visited Rome to strengthen church links. His desire for equal status with Charlemagne led to his traders being cut off, for a time, from Frankish ports, as Charlemagne was clearly unimpressed. Indeed, one leading historian has even argued that "No other Anglo-Saxon king ever regarded the world at large with so secular a mind or so acute a political sense." 3 Offa, too, managed to rule for around 40 years.
A statue representation of Egbert, in the west facade of Lichfield Cathedral.
Then, in the ninth century Egbert (802-39), was another ruler given the title of bretwalda, in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He was able to return from exile and rule Wessex, also controlling Kent, Sussex and Surrey. He won a decisive victory in 825, at Ellendun, against the Mercians. This led to the East Anglians asking for his protection against the problematic Mercians that same year. Again, he was victorious and this confirmed the extent of his power. Egbert terminated the currency of the Archbishop of Canterbury and began to mint his own, and in a later battle invaded Mercia and took control of the London mint, issuing coins with himself as King of Mercia, thus enforcing his dominance to others. Because of Egbert’s dominance, the kingdoms of Kent and Sussex ceased to exist as independent entities. Egbert’s son Æthewulf had become a sub-king - under his father - of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex. One writer has said that Egbert was “inspired by Frankish military and imperial ideas.”4 Once the East Anglians rebelled against their Mercian ruler and asked for protection from Egbert (and who won the ensuing conflict), he then moved swiftly in Mercia and claimed that area before moving into Northumbria and gained control there also. He was now able to truly be called bretwalda of England.
Statue of Alfred the Great, in Winchester, created by Hamo Thornycroft.
Lastly, we have Alfred of Wessex (871-99), who ruled his land with a mixture of strategy, diplomacy, literacy, law, fortification, and war. During his time he saw to the building of fortresses around his kingdom, called burhs, organised via a formula to work out how many men would be needed for maintenance and defence, and where to be placed. In order to regain control of his kingdom, he used strategy and cunning – likened to guerilla warfare- as he’d been forced into hiding by the Danes – previous attempts to keep them at bay by paying tributes to them had stopped working. Alfred also put high importance on literacy in his kingdom, “calling to his court men of learning and wisdom”5, founded monasteries and organised (and participated in) translation of texts from Latin into English. There are now a number of educational establishments in England named in his honour – surely a testament to how high an importance he placed on learning.
He was a very religious man, and used this to help bring peace between his kingdom and that of the Danes – getting their leader Guthrum to accept the Church - even becoming godfather to Guthrum at his baptism - then was able to negotiate a partition treaty, therefore helping create the area in England once known as ‘Danelaw’ for Guthrum’s people to live in, while Alfred ruled the rest. Alfred also established a legal code, with parts taken from previous rulers while adding his own regulations. He appears to have enforced these fairly and justly. I think the impact of his reign can be summed up by the following: “It is for his valiant defense of his kingdom against a stronger enemy, for securing peace with the Vikings and for his farsighted reforms in the reconstruction of Wessex and beyond, that Alfred … is known as ‘the Great’.” 6
We can see that over time there have been some common factors and some fresh ones in the establishment of various kingdoms as dominant forces and rulers. Together they have made for a mix-and-match system in the ever-changing landscape for the much sought-after supreme domination of the United Kingdom of England.
This essay was one I wrote as an assignment, while obtaining my University degree. I have included the reference list and bibliography - reference materials I used while writing - just as I’d had to for its submission. It has never before been published anywhere public, though. Images have been added for visual interest.
1 Oswiu of Northumbria retrieved 10 March 2009, from
2 Anglo Saxon Coins retrieved 13 March 2009, from
3 Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (The Oxford History of England, 2), 3rd edition, U.S.A: Oxford University Press, 1971
4 Egbert 827-839 retrieved 10 March 2009, from
5 Edward James, Britain in the First Millennium, London: Hodder Arnold, 2001, p. 229
6 Alfred the Great retrieved 6 March 2009, from http://www.royal.gov.uk/HistoryoftheMonarchy/KingsandQueensofEngland/TheAnglo-Saxonkings/AlfredtheGreat.aspx
George Holmes (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe, Somerset: Oxford University Press, 1988
Edward James, Britain in the First Millennium, London: Hodder Arnold, 2001, p. 229
Charles Phillips, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Kings & Queens of Britain, London: Hermes House, 2007
Anne Savage (trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, London: Heinemann, 1982
Simon Schama, A History of Britain at the Edge of the World? 3000BC – AD1603, London: BBC Worldwide Ltd, 2000
Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (The Oxford History of England, 2), 3rd edition, U.S.A: Oxford University Press, 1971
Roy Strong, The Story of Britain, London: Oman Productions Ltd, 1996
Michael Wood, In Search of the Dark Ages, London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1981