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Seven Main Anglo-Saxon States in the 7th Century
y the 7th century seven distinct states existed in Britain. These were East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex.
Each separate state had a king and council known as a witan which advised the king. The witan was made up from important nobles of the state. Like the Britons before them the Anglo-Saxons fourght amongst themselves. When an Anglo-Saxon king defeated the king of another state, the conquered state was either completely taken over or remained independant but had to pay a fee to remain so.
This picture shows the seven main states that existed in Anglo-Saxon times.
During the hundreds of years of the Early Middle Ages the states were fought over many times. Several times during those many years a king came to power with the strength of conquer the majority of the other states and become the ruler of England. These overlords were known as Bretwalda and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions several Saxon rulers who were powerful enough to control the other states.
These were Aelle of Sussex, Ceawlin of Wessex, Athelbert of Kent, Raedwald of East Anglia, Edwin of Northumbria (616-633), Oswald of Northumbria, Oswiu of Northumbria and Edbert of Wessex.
As the Chronicle was biased towards Northumbria and Wessex it does not mention the Mercian kings who could also have had this title applied. These include Aethelbard, Offa and Cenwulf.
Aelle of Sussex (c.491 - c.516)
The area of South Sussex became the target for a Saxon invasion in 477 when Aella and his three sons Cymen, Wlencing and Cissa landed in Britain. At this time the Weald forest lay to the north of the coast and formed a barrier to the midlands and northern Britain. In 485 Aella defeated the Britons at the Battle of Mearcreades River and in 491 Aella attacked Anderida the largest town in the area, now the location of Pevensey Castle, killing all the Britons there and forcing many Britons to flee from the south east to Devon, Cornwall and into Wales.
The South Saxons then took over the whole of a south east of Britain and possibly more. Aelle is the first-mentioned Bretwalda and it is possible he ruled over the scattered colonies of Saxons that lived in Britain at the time. The Britons managed to fight back and in around the year 516 at the Battle of Mons Badonicus which resulted in a major victory for the Britons and stopped the invaders moving further west. Also known as the Battle of Badon Hill, this event is linked to the mysterious figure King Arthur.
Aelle may have been killed at the the Battle of Badon Hill.
Ceawlin of Wessex (c.560 - c.590)
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Ceawlin became King of Wessex (West Saxons) in 560 and reigned for just over 30 years. He is believed to have took part in restarting attacks against the Britons after the period of peace that resulted from the Battle of Mons Badonicus many years before. Ceawlin is given the title Bretwalda because of his fights not only with the native Britons but also with other Saxon controlled areas. At the Battle of Beranburg (Beran byrg) he fought alongside his father, Cynric, and defeated the Britons to take control of the Wiltshire area.
In 568 Ceawlin joined forces with Cutha (Cuthwulf), a fellow Saxon that may have possibly have been his brother, to defeat Athelbert of Kent who may have been trying to expand his own lands. (There may be some confusion as to the date for this battle as Athelbert did not become the King of Kent until 580). Again, in 577, Ceawlin was victorious in battle this time against the combined forces of three British Kings at Dyrham near Bath. After battle Ceawlin controlled the areas of Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. His fight against the British continued at the Battle of Fethanlea(g) where again he won, but at the price of the death of Cutha. Ceawlin's reign came to an end in 588 possibly due to a revolt by some of his own people. Ceol(ric) became the ruler of the West Saxons.
Athelbert of Kent (c.580 - 616)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Athelbert was born in around 552 and to have become King of Kent in around 580. Early in this reign he may have been defeated in battle by Ceawlin of Wessex but this setback was only temporary. Athelbert was married to Betha, the daughter of the Frankish King Charibert King of Paris, and a Christian. A condition of their marriage was to allow her to continue to practice her religion and her chaplain, Luidhard, was allowed to accompany her. Together they restored St. Martin's in Canterbury an old Roman church. In 597 Athelbert met with Augustine, a Christian missionary sent from Rome. The meeting took place in the open-air as the Saxon king was suspicious of Christian magic, but within the year Athelbert was converted to Christianity and the priest was given permission to stay and worship at St. Martin's in Canterbury.
Raedwald of East Anglia (c.599 - c.624)
Raedwald, or Redwald, was the ruler of East Anglia in the early 7th-century and his eventual power over several other of the Anglo-Saxon states led to his inclusion in the list of Bretwalda. The first part of his reign was overshadowed by that of Athelbert of Kent, during which time Raedwald converted to Christianity at Athelbert's court. But at his own court Raedwald had both Christian and pagan altars. Raedwald's real rise to power occurred after the death of Athelbert of Kent in 616 when he attacked and defeated Athelfrith of Northumbria. Northumbria had comprised of two separate states, Bernicia and Deira. Athelfrith, the ruler of Bernicia had taken control of Deira and sent its young Prince Edwin into exile to the court of Raedwald. After Athelfrith's defeat Edwin was installed as the ruler of Northumbria.
Sutton Hoo, situated of the south east coast of Suffolk, is the location of several burials that date back to the time of Raedwald and uncovered at the site was an undisturbed burial ship that contained a body and many Anglo-Saxon artifacts. It has been suggested that the burial ship belonged to Raedwald due to the age, location and importance of the site. Many of the items and treasures found at Sutton Hoo are now in the British Museum in London including the famous helmet shown here.
Edwin of Northumbria (c.585 - 633)
The area of Northumbria was was originally split into two kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira. Edwin was in his early teens when his father Aelle, the King of Deira died. Athelfrith, the ruler of Bernicia invaded Deira and killed Edwin's elder brother and took control of both areas. Edwin would also have been killed but he managed to escape and fled into Wales to the courts of Iago ap Beli, the king of Gwynedd and Selyf ap Cynan the King of Powys. Edwin remained in Wales until Athelfrith attacked in search of the boy and defeated the combined forces of the Welsh at the battle of Chester. Selyf ap Cynan was killed at the battle but it is not clear if Iago ap Beli was also killed. Edwin managed to evade capture again and fled this time to Mercia where he married Cwenburh, the daughter of Ceorl, Mercia's king. Eventually Edwin travelled to the court of Raedwald of East Anglia and found protection there. Athelfrith attempted to bribe Raedwald into killing Edwin but Raedwald's wife pursuaded him not too. Raedwald's response was to attack Northumbria and Athelfrith was killed in 616 at the battle of the River Idle after which Edwin was restored to the Northumbrian throne.
Once in power, Edwin greatly expanded his empire by attacking his former friend Cadwallon in the north of Wales who had to escape to Ireland. Edwin took control of the Isles of Anglesey and Man and within a few years had control of most of the northern part of England.
Edwin was the first Christian ruler of Northumbria and he promised his second wife Athelburg, the daughter of the Christian ruler Athelbert of Kent, that she and her attendants could continue to practice her religion at court.
Oswald of Northumbria (c.634 - 641)
Oswiu of Bernicia and Northumbria (c.642 - 670)