Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Saxon Kingdoms of England

The following posts aim to summarise the Kingdoms and factions that existed within Britain from the 5th to the 10th century, and of which many would unify into the collective countries of the British Isles. From Saxon to British, Viking to Scots, I have attempted to list all the major Kingdoms. This is not to say that this list is exhaustive, there are dozens of Kingdoms that rose and fell during this period and that may be covered in a later post.

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: These Kingdoms were formed in the 5th and 6th centuries by Anglo-Saxon settlers. In this blog, the principal Kingdoms will be referred to as the ‘Heptarchy’, or the Seven Kingdoms.

Kingdom: East Anglia, (Ēast Engla Rīce)
Dates: 6th Century – 869AD
Location: The modern counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.  
Capital: Rendelsham, Suffolk.
Principal figures: Ælfwald, King, ruled from 713 – 749 and Saint Edmund the Martyr, reigned from 855 – 869.
East Anglia was the earliest area settled by the Anglo Saxons, as early as 450. In its early stages, it was a Pagan Kingdom, but Christianised in the 7th century. Throughout its history, the Kingdom of East Anglia was marred by wars from both Mercia and the Danish Kingdoms.

Kingdom:  Essex, (Ēast Seaxna Rīce)
Dates:  527 – 825AD
Location: The modern counties of Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Kent.
Capital: London
Principal figures: Sigered of Essex, King, reigned 798 – 825, Bishop Mellitus.
Essex was a Kingdom that frequently bore the brunt of its rival’s endeavours and designs on power. Its history is poorly documented and its only mention in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle concerns its Bishop, Mellitus. It frequently fell under the yolk of Kentish Kings, and eventually was ceded by Sigered to become a part of Wessex.

Kingdom:  The Kingdom of the Kentish (Cantaware Rīce)
Dates:  5th Century - 871
Location:  The Modern Counties of Kent and the surrounding areas of South East England.
Capital: Unknown
Principal figures: Æthelred I.
Kent was a kingdom that evolved from the Roman occupations and most used to invasions and attacks. It suffered greatly from the departure of the Romans in the 5th century. Once the Saxons arrived, Kent changed dramatically. It became a principal power up to its decline in the seventh century, where it fell under Mercia and Northumbria. Eventually it would become part of Wessex, unified under Alfred in 825.

Kingdom:  Mercia, (Miercna rīce) 
Dates:  527 – 918AD
Location:  The modern counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire.
Capital: Tamworth
Principal figures: King Offa, reigned 757 – 796, and Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia, reigned 911 – 918,
Mercia was one of the largest and most longstanding Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. It enjoyed a substantial period of supremacy and hegemony in England, however, following the Viking invasions, it then declined and would eventually become a part of England. Even to this day, however, the area is still known as Mercia, and its influence within English history is not to be discounted.  

Kingdom:  Northumbria, (Norþanhymbra Rīce)
Dates:  653 – 954AD
Location:  The Northern counties of England and southern counties of Scotland.
Capital: Bamburgh, and later, York.
Principal figures: Oswiu and Eric Blood Axe.
Northumbria may have been the largest Saxon Kingdom by sheer landmass, but it existed only loosely as an Anglo-Saxon Kingdom. The Viking invasions of 865 led to much of the land being settled and invaded by the Norse invaders, who used the division of the Kingdom to establish themselves of rulers of this much beleaguered Kingdom. It would eventually become part of the Danelaw until finally being part of England in 954.

Kingdom:  Sussex (Sūþseaxna rīce)
Dates:  477 – 860AD
Location: The modern county of Sussex.
Capital: Chichester
Principal figures: Ælle, King, reigned 477 – 514.
Sussex was colonised by the Saxons in the 6th century and eventually formed into the Kingdom of the South Saxons, or Sussex. One of its earliest Kings, Ælle, considered himself the first King of England and it was a substantial power in England until it lost its independence to Wessex in 827AD.

Kingdom:  Wessex (Westseaxna rīce)
Dates:  519 -10th Century.
Location:  The modern counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Somerset and Wiltshire
Capital: Winchester
Principal figures: Alfred the Great, King, 871 – 899, Æthelstan, King, 899 – 925AD.
Wessex was not the largest of the Kingdoms within the Heptarchy, but it was the most prominent for the greatest period. Owing to the fertile land of the area, it was rich and its wealth gave its Kings great power and influence. Alfred and later, Æthelstan, would use this to ensure Wessex became the driving force behind the creation of England.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Timeline of Dark Age Britain

449: Bede's (6th Century Historian) estimation of when the Anglo Saxons arrived in South East England.

500: Saxons settle in Southern England.

516: Potential date for the Battle of Mount Badon, possibly part of Arthurian legend.

550 - 650: Angles, Saxons and Jutes conquer lowland England. Multiple Kingdoms are created and the original 'British' culture is eradicated from most of England.

602: Ethelbert of Kent donates a site in Canterbury for a new Cathedral.

627: Edwin of Northumbria, the first Northern Christian King, takes the throne.

633: Lindisfarne is established as a monastery by St Aiden.

650: Towards the end of the 7th Century there are seven main Anglo Saxon Kingdoms in what is now modern day England: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. To the south west are several British Kingdoms such as Dumnonia in Devon and Kernow in Cornwall.

Outside of England, the Kingdoms of Gwent, Gwynedd, Rheged, Powys and Strathcylde remain.

685: Battle of Dun Nechtain (Or Dunnichen). King Bridei of the Picts stops the Northern expansion of Northumbria.

731: Bede completes his 'History of the English Church and People'.

757: Offa becomes King of Mercia and builds a dyke between Mercia and Powys, now known as Offa's Dyke. It still almost defines the border between England and Wales.

789: Vikings raid Dorset in their first recorded attack.

793: Vikings attack Lindisfarne. Raids will follow over the next few centuries.

829: Egbert, King of Wessex, conquers Mercia.

843: Kenneth MacAlpine units Picts and Scots to form a single Kingdom, Alba.

867: York, or Jórvík is captured by Danes.

869: Edmund, King of East Anglia, is killed and martyred by the Danes.

870: Dumbarton, stronghold of Strathclyde, is destroyed by Danes.

871: Alfred the Great assumes the throne of Wessex.

877: Danes attack Chippenham at Christmas, forcing Alfred into hiding in Athelney within Somerset.

878: The Danes are defeated by Alfred at Edington in Wiltshire.

886: Alfred signs a treaty with the Danes that secures Wessex and Mercia, along with establishing the Danelaw north of the Thames and south of the Tees.

900: Alfred the Great dies.

925: Aethelstan is crowned King of Wessex. He is generally accepted as the first King of the entire of England.

927: Having defeated the Danes, Aethelstan accepts the submission of Scots, Strathclyde Welsh, Cumbria and the Earl of Northumbria at Eamont Bridge.

937: A combined invasion of Vikings, Welsh and Scots is defeated by Aethelstan and Brunanburh (the exact location is unknown to this day)

978: Edward, King of England is martyred at Corfe in Dorset.

991:  An English army is defeated at the Battle of Maldon in Essex. King Ethelred pays Danegeld (literally protection money) to buy peace.

1002: St Brice's Day massacre: King Ethelred orders the massacre of all Danes in England.

1013: In retaliation, Swein Forkbeard invades and the Danes rule all of England.

1016: Cnut of Denmark becomes King of England. He then marries Emma of Normandy, the widow of Ethelred. England is divided into four earldoms - East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex.

1018: Battle of Carham. Malcolm II, King of Alba, defeats Uhtred of Northumbria and becomes the first King of a united Scotland.

1040: Macbeth defeats Duncan and becomes King of Scotland.

1042: Edward the Confessor becomes King of England.

1066. Edward the Confessor dies. Harold becomes King of England. England is invaded by Vikings from the North, resulting in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Before Harold can count his successes, a Norman Army led by William, Duke of Normandy arrives in England. Harold is thus defeated at the Battle of Hastings. William becomes King of England on the 25th December 1066.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Useful Sources for the Dark Ages

Before we delve into the British Dark Ages, I felt it prudent to identify a number of key sources! Throughout this blog I will be drawing upon a wide band of extensive primary sources, from manuscripts, sagas to texts. Where possible I will be keeping to analysing these sources themselves, this is not to be considered an academic blog in the historiographical sense. All of these texts, however, have been translated into English (where possible I will be returning to their original forms to assess the linguistic structure, though my Old English/Icelandic are both works in progress!).

Thankfully, there is a whole vestige of primary sources available from the comfort of your own home, allowing us wannabee scholars to draw upon the wealth of material ourselves without spending time in a dusty archive or library (though there is a joy in that anyway).

In short, here are some useful links:




All of these links contain a vestige of useful primary sources for us to draw upon. Furthermore, here is a couple of books/reviews I have been looking for. I will be publishing a living bibliography as my research continues!

Campbell, A. (1967). AEthelwulf: De Abbatibus (Vol. 1). Oxford, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature.

Sturlson, S. (2005). The Prose Edda. (J. Byock, Trans.) London, Strand, United Kingdom: Penguin 

Friday, 8 March 2019

Five Questions

Why was it called the Dark Ages?

The phrase ‘The Dark Ages’ is a periodisation traditionally referring to the era of time immediately following the decline and collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Its name has been attributed to come from the Tuscan Scholar Petrarch, who attributed it to a literal battle against darkness. It was a comparison between Classical Antiquity, seen as the highpoint of cultural achievement, and the deterioration of civilisation that followed. This view, shepherded by Christian scholars would be echoed throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods, seeing the period through the lenses of religious academia. At the divide between historical scholarship and religious scholarship broadened and we entered the period known as the Age of Reason (17/18th Century) we see notable historians such as Edward Gibbon in his seminal text The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire expressing contempt for the name of the Dark Ages. Many of these scholars would attribute the name to a lack of secular achievement, ironically the opposite to what Petrarch’s original naming was about, depicting a period dominated by Christianity and the Papacy.
In modern scholarship, the ‘Dark Ages’ is barely used, referring to the period as the Early Middle Ages. But here in this blog, I have chosen to use the Dark Ages as the name for the period of British history between the 4th and 11th Centuries. I have used this not in part because I view it as a particularly barbaric period in British history, but because of how the name contrasts with the reality.

Was it all about Vikings and barbarians?

t is all too easy to dismiss this period as one of just invasions, barbarisms and brutal battles. But the reality of this period is completely different to that we see today. It is important to note that many of those scholars writing at the times would be writing of what they found important, and many monks for instance would be depicting Viking threats and raids on their wealth and churches more so than land reform or legal disputes! A lot of the evidence we have of the period is varied in scope and the popular perception of ceaseless Viking raids, of Great Heathen Armies is far more nuanced than we have often believed. This blog will feature Vikings, and British tribespeople, but it will also feature the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the Anglo-Danish kingdoms and much more. Each of these civilisations has an impression that we still see today, an impression that simplifies the reality. Remember the term ‘barbarian’ used to mean someone who did not belong to a great civilisation such as Greece or Rome!

Did Ragnar Lothbrok really exist?

One of the most famous figures from the Dark Ages, Ragnar was a warrior, explorer and King who existed between the 8th and 9th centuries. He is depicted in the tv show Vikings and mentioned in nearly every film, tv series or documentary that depicts the Viking invasions. He is the subject of a saga known as The Tale of Ragnar Lothbrok (the subject of a future analysis on Saga-days). Yet…there is no evidence he even existed. No burial mound has been found, and no hard, physical evidence. All we have are the sagas written about him and tentative links between him and the Great Heathen Army, supposedly led by his sons. The truth, as with much of the period, is that we simply do not know. That there was a Viking figure known as Ragnar alive at this time may be true, we certainly have accounts of him, but did he achieve all the things his saga said he did? What is more important, is not whether he was real, but what do the tales of his life tell us about Viking life and culture?

Why is the period so focused on the Anglo Saxons and Vikings?

This is one of the great tragedies of historiography and comes from a simple fact – we have more evidence of them than we do of the other great Kingdoms around in this period, and it has been often seen as more ‘exciting’ to study those Kingdoms. Yet we look beyond the Anglo-centric viewpoint that has dominated British history in the Dark Ages and we see a rich history of Kingdoms beyond the veil of Anglo-Centrism, of drama, heroism and intrigue that I can only begin to mention in a short blog post.

So what is the purpose of this blog?

This blog is an attempt to assess and digest primary evidence from across the Dark Ages and bring the period into the light. To see that it was far more nuanced than dramas such as Vikings or Last Kingdom depict it to be. I will be looking at sagas, at chronicles, manuscripts, prose, physical evidence and providing analysis to highlight just how the period is so different to how we view it today. I am not attempting to be a mighty academic scholar to be cited in a dissertation, but to provide a stepping stone into the history of the period.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Stumbling across a text about the Dark Ages is often like falling into an epic fantasy novel. You have your epic heroes and great characters, some of whom defy belief. They are ferocious warriors like Ivar the Boneless, or pious and righteous Kings like Alfred the Great. Even the map looks as if it was pulled straight of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones (And indeed, Tolkien's greatest works were inspired and crafted from his rich knowledge of Anglo-Saxon Britain).

 But herein lies the point. The Dark Ages of Great Britain are a period that is rich in drama, excitement and intrigue beyond the pale of sagas, illuminations and tales spun by sycophantic lords. We sift through the evidence and see a period full of invasion, war, conflict and the birth of nations like England. Yet that is not the true legacy of this period.  A popular view of the Dark Ages across Europe is that once Rome fell, Europe regressed into a barbaric state again. We have been told that we lost language, public works, law and order. That the West was ravaged by fierce Northern men and Eastern warriors.

The legacy of the Dark Ages lies not in the tales we have been told, or the TV dramas we enjoy watching. Within Britain, it is a rich history that saw the language we speak today crafted from numerous dialects spoken by hundreds of peoples from all the corners of Europe. It saw many of the largest towns and cities in the country develop into metropolitan lands, the creation of the Common Law we base our entire legal and political system in England upon, to the foundation of divisions and traumas that still haunt us today.

The Dark Ages were not a simple period full of simple people. And within the pages of this blog, I will be dissecting evidence, Kingdoms and the legacies of British history to present a period that is far more than just Vikings and Saxons.

Saxon Kingdoms of England

The following posts aim to summarise the Kingdoms and factions that existed within Britain from the 5th to the 10th century, and of ...