Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Old English, A Historical Background: Consolidation And Heptarchy

When we last left the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, they had effectively succeeded in pushing back the then native Romano British Celtic peoples towards the West and the North of Britain.  The Green below represents the conquests of the invaders, the blue and bluish the remaining Romano Celts.

Map of Britain 600 - 650 A.D. (Source)

As this period continued, the Anglo-Saxons made war not only on the Romano British but also on each other.  The history of this period (through the 9th Century) became known as the The Heptarchy, a reference to what emerged as the seven most powerful kingdoms in Anglo Saxon England.
Their names, though changed have come down to us regionally:

West Seaxe (Wessex)
East Seaxe (Essex)
East Engle (East Anglia)
Northumbria (Literally "North of the Humber")
Cantware (Kent)
Suth Seaxe (Sussex)
Mierce (Mercia, or "The March")

Even as these seven kingdoms battle for supremacy (leaving Wessex, Essex, Mercia, and Northumbria), there were a slew of smaller kingdoms and regions that thrived and were conquered - Anglo-Saxon and Roman-Celtic - that have only left us with geographic names.  We know little of the kingdoms of Elmet or The Hwicce now, but these existed and individual territorial units.

Map of Britain 650 - 700 A.D. (Source)

Wessex pushed into Dumonia, the kingdom of the Cornovii, or Cornwall.  Mercia continued to push into the west as well, reaching what was eventually become the modern border between Wales (Old English wealh/wealas, or foreigner) and England; the Mercian King Offa constructed Offa's Dyke either as a defensive work or a potential border in the late 700's.
Map of Britain 700 A.D. (Source)

By 700, the conquest of Britain was largely considered complete - even if not unified, the German peoples had conquered and pushed the Romano-Celts to the fringe of what we now call England.

Map of Britain 700-750 A.D. (Source)

During this period, we begin to see the start of documentation. The monk The Venerable Bede wrote his work The Ecclesiastical History of The English People in the mid-700's.  For the first time, history was recorded about the "English" within a generation or two of being enacted.  Other works - religious, law codes - were also starting to be written down in Anglo-Saxon dialects.

Map of Britain 800 A.D. (Source)

But trouble beyond their internecine warfare was soon to arrive. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 793, we find the following:

Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, ⁊ þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas ⁊ ligrescas, ⁊ fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. Þam tacnum sona fyligde mycel hunger, ⁊ litel æfter þam, þæs ilcan geares on .vi. Idus Ianuarii, earmlice hæþenra manna hergunc adilegode Godes cyrican in Lindisfarnaee þurh hreaflac ⁊ mansliht.

("In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne.")  

The Vikings were coming.

Works Cited:

Blair, Peter Hunter:  Roman Britain and Early England 55 B.C. - A.D. 871.  WW Norton and Company:  London, 1991.

Nicolle, David:  Arthur And The Anglo-Saxon Wars.  Osprey Publishing:  Hong Kong, 1984


  1. Nylon125:49 AM

    The stage is set for another Act........"From the wrath of the Northmen, O Lord, deliver us". Russia and the Arab world started trembling also.

    1. Nylon12, The Norse are endlessly fascinating to me (would that I had more lifetimes for more study): in approximately 275 years or so (793 - 1066 A.D., more or less the "end" of the Viking Age), they had traveled from Russia to North America to North Africa and had an impact on so many societies. One can only imagine how different Anglo-Saxon history would have been if not for the impact of them (as was true of many other societies).

  2. TB, thank you, once again, for all of your research and care in writing about it. I appreciate the mention of the resources. And thank you for the maps! They are extremely fascinating.

    1. Leigh, one of the things I really loved about my undergraduate map in Political Geography was the maps - they always fascinated me, the appearance and disappearance of countries and borders and how people moved.

      You are quite welcome. It is a good way to enforce discipline in writing on myself and in some way, lets me write about history, which I love (also, reacquaints me with a period of history that - as I read it - seems to have more and more relevance for the modern world).


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