|The Saxons slowly migrated into the West Midlands
from the north along the River Trent and its
tributaries. They were colonising the area by the 6th
century. A late seventh century document for tax
assessment called the “Tribal Hidage” lists the dominant
tribes in the area and suggests that the inhabitants
were from the Pencersaetan tribe that took its name from
the River Penk. The early Anglo-Saxon communities lived
in small villages with timber huts thatched with straw,
reeds, or heather.
The Venerable Bede, a Priest at the Monastery of Saints
Peter and Paul at Wearmouth and Jarrow completed his
“Ecclesiastical History of the English People” in 731.
It is the primary source of information on the early
English people and the coming of Christianity.
|This is what he had to say about the early
immigrants and their territory:
Those who came over were of the three most powerful
nations of Germany - Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. From the
Jutes are descended the people of Kent, and of the Isle
of Wight, including those in the province of the
West-Saxons who are to this day called Jutes, seated
opposite to the Isle of Wight.
From the Saxons, that is,
the country which is now called Old Saxony, came the
East-Saxons, the South-Saxons, and the West Saxons.
the Angles, that is, the country which is called Angulus,
and which is said, from that time, to have remained
desert to this day, between the provinces of the Jutes
and the Saxons, are descended the East-Angles, the
Midland-Angles, the Mercians, all the race of the
Northumbrians, that is, of those nations that dwell on
the north side of the river Humber, and the other
nations of the Angles.
|The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Due to continuous warring the
boundaries changed many times. Anglo-Saxon England was a
turbulent country with a number of competing kingdoms,
always under threat from European invaders. As the
Anglo-Saxons slowly colonised the country, seven kingdoms
were established which later became known as the “Heptarchy”.
They were: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia,
Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex
There were many squabbles between them and the last
three of the kingdoms; Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex
were in a continuous state of war.
Mercia, founded in about 500 A.D. occupied much of
southern England up to the Trent basin. The first
identifiable king was Creoda, who ruled from 586 to 593.
He was succeeded by his son Wybba, who ruled until his
death in 615 and followed by Ceorl and Penda who was one
of the most powerful Mercian kings.
A major influence was the coming of Christianity in the
sixth and seventh centuries. It was brought by Irish
monks to many places such as Iona in 563 and Lindesfarne
King Penda who ruled from 632 to 654 was followed by his
sons, Peada, Wulfhere and Ethelred.
Tradition has it that King Wulfhere founded the Abbey of
St. Mary at Wolverhampton (now St. Peter’s Church) in
659 but there is no proof of this. The diocese of
Lichfield was formed when St. Chad was appointed as
bishop of the Mercians in 669 with a central church at
Ethelred conquered Kent in 676 and founded the monastery
at Worcester in 679. In 685 Mercia became the supreme
power when Northumbria was invaded by the Picts.
Ethelred retired in 704 to a monastic life, to be
succeeded by his nephew Cenred. His successors were
Ceolred followed by Aethelbald.
King Aethelbald came to power in 716. In his early years
a hermit called Guthlac predicted that he would have
great success in the future and he tried to live up to
this by ruthlessly suppressing several of the smaller
adjacent kingdoms. He attacked Northumbria with little
success but Cynewulf, king of Wessex eventually
acknowledged Aethelbald’s superiority. He had control of
most of the country and almost became the king of the
whole of England. He gave grants to many churches,
created a number of monasteries and gave alms to the
poorer members of society. In 757 he was killed in
battle near Burford, Oxfordshire and his cousin Offa
Offa is probably the best known Mercian king and was the
first ruler to be called “King of the English”. To
consolidate his position he formed alliances with
Northumbria and Wessex and his daughters were married to
their kings. Like his predecessor he ruthlessly
suppressed any opposition. Between 784 and 786 he built
Offa’s Dyke, a long earthwork running 149 miles along
the western boundary of Mercia to keep out the Welsh. He
introduced the English penny, which was the forerunner
of modern coins. Most of the coins carried his portrait
and some carried the portrait of his wife, Cynethryth.
The coins were probably minted at Canterbury. He formed
links with the Emperor Charlemagne and visited Rome in
792 to strengthen his links with the papacy.
Offa had a number of royal palaces, his main residence
was at Tamworth. He died in 796. His son Ecgfrith became
king but unfortunately he died a few months after Offa.
An Offa penny coin.
|Cenwulf succeeded Ecgfrith and reined until 821. He died
while preparing an assault on Powys and is buried in
Winchcombe Abbey. He in turn was succeeded by his
brother, Ceolwulf. In 823 Beornwulf forcibly took
control of Mercia but only ruled for two years.
In 789 Offa sent Egbert, the claimant to the Kingdom of
Wessex, into exile in Gaul. After his return in 802 he
became King of Wessex and decided to seek revenge by
destroying the supremacy of Mercia. This he duly did and
defeated the Mercian army at the Battle of Ellandon in
825. He also seized Kent and Sussex which were
previously parts of Mercia. After the defeat Mercia
invaded East Anglia and King Beornwulf was killed in
battle, to be succeeded by Ludecan, who was killed two
years later. Wiglaf became the next to rule, but within
a year Egbert took over the whole of Mercia.
|In the 800s and 900s the Vikings attacked the English
and French coasts. In France they were given an area in
the north of the country that became known as Normandy
(land of the north men).
By the end of 828 Egbert ruled the whole of England and
from now on rulers of Mercia would answer to a national
king. The first such ruler appointed by Egbert in 830
was the deposed Wiglaf, who was in charge until 840.
Egbert ruled until his death in 839 and was succeeded by
his son Ethelwulf who reigned until 856.
In Mercia, Beorhtwulf succeeded Wiglaf and ruled until
852, and he in turn was followed by Burgreda who ruled
until 874 when the Danes overran Mercia.
A coin of Ethelred II, King
of Northumbria, 840 to 844.
|Early Anglo-Saxon kings were military leaders who were
assisted by their lords (thanes). The kings allotted
land to the lords who oversaw their villages. The
villagers were dependant on their lord for food and
labour. The kings were advised by wise men (Witan or
Witenagemot) who formed an assembly of councillors to
advise on administration and judicial matters. The wise
men included bishops and church officials, friends or
relatives of the king and local chieftains. They also
authorised taxes, grants of land and the raising of
The Kings had a number of Royal Manors throughout the
kingdom and visited them with the royal entourage. This
was a little like a modern Himalayan mountaineering
expedition where everything, including the kitchen sink
is carried by porters. There is a description of this in
J. R. Green's "Conquest of England" which is as follows:
|We see the king's forerunners pushing ahead of the
train, arriving in haste at the spot destined for the
next halt, broaching the beer barrels, setting the
board, slaying and cooking the kine, baking the bread;
till the long company come pounding in through the muddy
roads, horsemen and spearmen, theign and noble bishop
and clerk, the string of sumpter horses, the big wagons
with the Royal hoard or the royal wardrobe, and, at
last, the heavy standard borne before the king himself.
Then follows the rough justice-court, the hasty council,
the huge banquet, the fires dying down into the darkness
of the night, till a fresh dawn wakes the forerunners to
seek a fresh encampment.
The area occupied by the Danes in the late 800s.
|King Ethelwulf was succeeded by each of his four sons in
turn. The eldest; Ethelbald ruled until his death in
860. He married Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald,
king of the Franks. King Ethelbert followed his brother
and ruled until 866. He in turn was followed by his
younger brother Ethelred, who ruled until 871 and
followed by his youngest brother Alfred, who ruled until
King Alfred, known as “Alfred the Great”, was born in
849 at Wantage in Berkshire. Since the end of the 8th
century the country had been subjected to Viking raids
which began in northern England and eventually spread
along the eastern and southern coasts.
In 865 a vast Viking army landed on the Isle of Thanet
and began a 12 year invasion. By 867 the Vikings had
captured York and soon invaded East Anglia and Mercia.
The only remaining independent Anglo-Saxon Kingdom,
Wessex, was attacked in 870. The Vikings were initially
defeated at the Battle of Ashdown in 871 by the Wessex
army led by Ethelred and his younger brother Alfred. The
Viking onslaughts continued and Alfred came to power in
871 after Ethelred’s death. The Vikings led by King
Guthrum captured Chippenham in 878 and used it as a base
from which to attack Wessex. Much of the kingdom was
overrun and Alfred and a few of his followers retreated
to the Somerset marshes, which is where the story of the
burned cakes originates from. Alfred re-grouped and
built a fortified base at Athelney and gathered a mobile
army to pursue gorilla tactics against the invaders.
|In 878 his army defeated the Vikings at the Battle of
Edington and besieged Chippenham until they made peace.
Alfred realised that he could not drive the Vikings out
of the rest of England and so he made an uneasy peace
with them in the Treaty of Wedmore. This led to the
establishment of the Danelaw, which gave the Danes more
or less the eastern half of the country.
Alfred didn’t stop there, he organised an efficient
rapid reaction force to deal with any incursions and
ensured that many of the settlements were well-defended.
He had a royal palace at Winchester and had many fast
ships built for the defence of the coastal areas. He was
patron of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was copied
and added to in 1154. This is our main source of
Anglo-Saxon history today. He died in 899 and is buried
at Winchester. He is known as “King of the English” and
“Alfred the Great”. Alfred was followed by his son
Edward (known as “Edward the Elder”) who ruled from 899
From 911 until 918 Queen Aethelflaed ruled Mercia, she
was followed by Queen Elfwynna who ruled for 12 months.
Control then passed to King Edward.
|Queen Aethelflaed became one of the most powerful people
in England. She won many battles against the Vikings and
captured parts of Northumbria and Wales. She
strengthened the defences at Gloucester against the
Vikings and developed the street plan that survives
She captured the bones of St. Oswald from the
Danes and gave them to St. Oswald's priory at
Gloucester. She died at Tamworth and was buried in St.
Peter's Church, Gloucester.
The Saxon church at Bradford-on-Avon. From an old
|Edward continued his father’s military activities and
defeated a Viking army near Tettenhall in 910. In 924
the king of the Strathclydwallians and the king of the
Scots submitted to Edward, who died later in the year at
Farndon. His son Athelstan then became king.
King Athelstan was an accomplished soldier who continued
to oust the Vikings. In 927-8 he captured York. In 937
at the Battle of Brunanburh he led the army that
defeated an invasion by the king of Scotland in alliance
with the Welsh and Danes from Dublin.
He encouraged people to move into towns, formed the
first shires and was an avid collector of works of art
and religious relics. These were often given away to his
followers or the church, in order to gain support.
Athelstan died in 939 and was buried at Malmesbury. His
half-brother Edmund succeeded him.
King Edmund continued to suppress the Danes but only
ruled for seven years. He was murdered during a feast in
946 when he was only 25 years old. Rule passed to his
brother Edred, who reigned until 955 when Edmund’s
eldest son Edwy became king.
King Edwy was crowned by Oda, Archbishop of Canterbury
in 956 at Kingston-on-Thames. At the time he was only 13
years old. During a rebellion, Mercia and Northumbria
broke away and Edwy died in 959 at the age of 16.
Edwy was succeeded in 959 by his brother Edgar, King of
Mercia and the Danelaw. Edgar ruled for 14 years before
being crowned at Bath, along with his queen, Aelfthryth.
He was a good ruler who started a great monastic revival
and introduced universal coinage and laws throughout the
country. He died on the 8th July, 975 at the age of 33 and
was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. His death led to a
dispute between the supporters of his two sons; Edward
and Ethelred. Edward, the eldest son became king in 975.
He was murdered in 979 and replaced by his 7 year old
King Ethelred, known as “The Unready” ruled from 979 to
1013. He was a poor ruler, which led to a great deal of
unrest and hostility in the country. He was called "The
Unready" because of his inability to govern. He was no
soldier and the Vikings took advantage of this with many
raiding parties. The Vikings raided the Welsh coast and
southwest England, they attacked London and raided the
east coast. There were raids from the armies of Norway
and Sweden, but the main onslaught was from the Danes
under King Swein. Ethelred attempted to buy-off the
Danes using the money levied from the Danegeld tax. He
formed a diplomatic alliance with the Duke of Normandy
and later married his daughter Emma.
In 1011 the Danish army continued to do much as it
pleased. They even attacked Canterbury and captured
Archbishop Elfeah, Abbess Leofruna, Bishop Godwin and
Abbot Elfmar. In 1012 the Archbishop was brutally
murdered and King Ethelred handed over £48,000 from the
Danegeld in an attempt to pacify them. In 1013 Swein
became King of Northumbria and resistance from Wessex
failed. Ethelred was dispossessed by Sweyn and fled to
The English lords were so disillusioned with King
Ethelred that they eagerly accepted Sweyn as their new
king. Sweyn died in 1014 and Ethelred’s son Edmund took
over the throne. Edmund died in 1016 and Sweyn’s son
Canute became undisputed king.
A Canute silver coin.
|Canute strengthened his
position by marrying Ethelred’s widow Emma. He also
became king of Denmark and Norway. During his time
abroad, England was governed by a group of English and
Danish earls. Canute went on a pilgrimage to Rome in
1027-8 and his Christian humility led to the story of
him demonstrating that even he could not stop the waves.
He died in 1035 and is buried at Winchester.
Canute had two wives, Elfgifu and Emma. He had a son by
each wife and the two sons became rivals, initially
sharing the country. Harold Harefoot was Canute’s first
son and became King of Mercia and Northumbria.
Hardicanute, the second son was king of Wessex.
|In 1040 Harold Harefoot died and Hardicanute became king of the
whole of England. Hardicanute’s rule was very short. He
died at Lambeth in 1042 and his half-brother Edward “the
Confessor” became king.
|King Edward was no soldier. He grew up in exile in
Normandy and on his return he was accompanied by a
number of influential Normans. At the time England was
dominated by three earls; Godwin of Wessex, Leofric of
Mercia and Siward of Northumbria. Godwin became the most
important of the three when Edward married his daughter
Edith in 1045. Godwin hoped that the couple would have a
child which of course would be heir to the throne. This
was not to be because Edward had taken a vow of
Edward's Norman sympathies were viewed with suspicion by
Godwin and this came to a head when the king ordered
Godwin to punish the people of Dover after a group
Normans had been involved in a brawl there.
Godwin assembled an army against Edward in 1050 but
Leofric and Siward remained loyal to the king. The army
was defeated and Godwin and his family left the country
and went into exile.
A penny from the
time of Edward
|In 1051 Edward received his distant relative, William
Duke of Normandy as a guest. It is believed that during
the visit Edward named William as his successor.
After this defeat, Edward increased the number of his
Norman advisers, giving some of them important posts in
office. There was much hostility towards the Norman
appointments and Edward lost the loyalty of the other
Earls. In 1052 Godwin arrived on the south coast with
his sons Harold and Tostig and a huge army. Edward was
unable to raise an army to oppose them and had to agree
to Godwin's terms.
Godwin was now the most powerful man in England. He
forced Edward to remove his Norman councillors, but died
in 1053 and was replaced by his son Harold, who became
Edward’s chief advisor. Edward founded a new abbey at
Westminster, dedicated to St. Peter. He is said to have
named Harold as his successor on his deathbed, even
though he had earlier promised the throne to William
Duke of Normandy. He may have been manoeuvred into this
by the Saxon lords. Edward died on the 5th January, 1066 and
on the following day Harold was crowned as the new king
in Westminster Abbey.
King Harold would have feared the rival claims to the
throne from William Duke of Normandy and Harald Hardrada
of Norway. In his earlier years Harold had been captured
in France. Whilst still a prisoner he is said to have
sworn, under duress, that he would not accept the
English throne but would support Duke William’s claim.
He awaited the expected Norman invasion but his plans to
defend the country were thrown into disarray when his
estranged brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria and Harald
Hardrada of Norway led an invading army from the
northeast. Harold, an outstanding soldier marched
northwards with a large army and ruthlessly defeated the
invading forces. In the meantime William and his
invading army arrived in Sussex and Harold marched
southwards to defend the country. Harold and his 7,000
strong army were at a great disadvantage because they
were suffering from the exertions of their previous
battle and the 240 mile long march to the south. The
Anglo-Saxon era ended when Harold was defeated near
Hastings and killed during the battle. William became
the first Norman king and was crowned in London on
Christmas day 1066.
Anglo-Saxon influence is still all around us today. Not
only did they give us the name of our country but also
the basis of our language.
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