Heptarchy

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A map of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy

The Heptarchy (Greek: ἑπτά + ἀρχή seven + realm) is a collective name applied to seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. These were: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms eventually became the Kingdom of England. The term has been in use since the 16th century. It is used to apply both to the seven kingdoms and to the time period in which they existed.

Origins of the Heptarchy[change | change source]

The idea of a heptarchy, a group of seven independent kingdoms, is thought to have come from the English historian Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century. He listed the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in his Historia Anglorum (History of the English People).[1] Bede, however, set up the idea that several kingdoms were more dominant than others (at different times). He created a list of kings who dominated the other kingdoms as bretwaldas. The dividing line between these kingdoms was the River Humber. Northumbria (Deira and Bernicia) was the northern kingdom while the remaining kingdoms were those of the southern English.[2] The actual term 'heptarchy' was first used in the 16th century by William Lambarde. His 1568 woodcut map is the earliest known use of the term.[3]

The term heptarchy is sometimes used to imply a confederacy between the kingdoms that did not exist.[4] From the 6th century to the 9th century these were simply seven kingdoms set up by the Germanic invaders and their descendants. There was little equality between them. Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex were the most powerful of the seven and often dominated the others.[4] The kingdoms were gradually reduced in number. The Heptarchy basically ended with the coming of the Vikings.[4] The term heptarchy was popular among scholars from the 16th to the 19th centuries but is only occasionally used today.[4]

Bretwaldas[change | change source]

Originally Bede listed seven kings who held authority (imperium) over the other kingdoms in England at the time.[a] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists the eighth bretwalda:[5]

  1. Aelle King of the South Saxons (Sussex)
  2. Ceawlin King of the West Saxons (Wessex)
  3. Aethelbert King of Kent
  4. Raedwald King of East Anglia
  5. Edwin King of Northumbria
  6. Oswald King of Northumbria
  7. Oswiu King of Northumbria
  8. Egbert King of the West Saxons (Wessex)

Two Mercian kings of the 8th century can be considered bretwaldas also:

Kingdoms of the Heptarchy[change | change source]

The seven kingdoms were:[4]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. This did not directly identify the seven kingdoms, but set up the idea of a list of dominant kingdoms. Henry of Huntingdon, William of Malmesbury (Gesta regnum) and Matthew of Paris (Chronica Majora) all promoted the idea of the same seven kingdoms (later called the Heptarchy).[1]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Walter Goffart, 'The First Venture into 'Medieval Geography': Lambarde's Map of the Saxon Heptarchy (1568)', Alfred the Wise, eds. Jane Roberts; Janet L. Nelson; Malcolm Godden (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewster Inc., 1997), p. 55 & note 10
  2. Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 32
  3. Walter Goffart, 'The First Venture into 'Medieval Geography': Lambarde's Map of the Saxon Heptarchy (1568)', Alfred the Wise, eds. Jane Roberts; Janet L. Nelson; Malcolm Godden (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewster Inc., 1997), pp. 53, 56
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Michael Frassetto, The Early Medieval World (Santa Barbara,CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013), p. 308
  5. Peter Hunter Blair, Roman Britain and Early England; 55 B.C.–A.D. 871 (New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966), p. 274

Other websites[change | change source]