In English history writing it’s traditional to use the term “Heptarchy” to describe the seven main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Essex, Kent and Sussex.
Historians today say that this term is inadequate because it suggests seven realms co-existing in stability. In reality some kingdoms dominated others. There were also smaller kingdoms such as Hwicce, Lindsey, and Wihtwara.
Kingdom of Wessex
After defeating the Danes, Wessex’s royal dynasty united England into one country. The “great army” of the Danes arrived in 865 and defeated all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms except for Wessex. It took until 927 to reconquer Danish-held territory.
Kings of the reconquest
Aethelred I (reigned 865 – 871)
Alfred the Great (reigned 871 – 899) 886 accepted as overlord of all the English not under the Danes.
Edward the Elder (reigned 899 – 924)
Athelstan (reigned 924 – 927) King of the English (927 – 939)
Kingdom of East Anglia
In the late 5th century East Anglia was one of the first areas of England to be settled by Germanic peoples. It may also be the first place in the world where Old English was spoken.
Its royal dynasty, the Wuffingas, claimed that they were descended from the pagan god Woden. Their royal burial ground was Sutton Hoo, described today as England’s Valley of the Kings.
King Rædwald, the first East Anglian king to be baptised Christian, is probably the ruler buried in the most famous ship burial at Sutton Hoo.
Kingdom of Mercia
Mercia dominated Anglo-Saxon England from the mid-7th century until the early 9th century.
King Penda (reigned c. 626 – 655) refused to convert to Christianity and was England’s last powerful pagan ruler.
King Offa (reigned 757–796) ruled from the Humber to the English Channel. He had diplomatic relations with foreign rulers, including Charlemagne.
Mercia’s power gradually declined after Offa’s death and Wessex became the leading Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Kingdom of Northumbria
Northumbria had strong connections with Ireland and Rome. Its kings were happy to welcome missionaries from Iona. In 635 King Oswald (reigned 634 – 642) gave Lindisfarne to St Aidan, who founded the monastery there.
The monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow were famous as centres of learning throughout western Europe. The Venerable Bede (died 735) was based at Jarrow.
Kingdom of Essex
From 664 Essex was subject to Mercia. In 825 King Sigered handed over control to Wessex.
Essex was said to be slow to accept Christianity.
Kingdom of Kent
In the 590s Kent was one of the wealthiest kingdoms in England.
Kingdom of Sussex
Sussex’s capital was Chichester. Sussex remained independent until Offa of Mercia became its overlord. In the 9th century Sussex was ruled by Wessex.
A note on social diversity
The Anglo-Saxon era comes not long after the four centuries (43 AD to 410 AD) in which England was part of the Roman Empire.
At the end of the Roman period the population spoke a Celtic language called Brittonic and in elite circles Latin. Roman society was cosmopolitan because the Empire stretched from Britain to the Middle East and North Africa. Some Britons certainly had ancestors from Africa and other parts of the Empire.
Historians used to think that the Anglo-Saxon settlers pushed all the Celtic Britons out of England into Wales and Cornwall. Genetic studies show that this is not true. Germanic settlers had children with local Britons. The Anglo-Saxons certainly pushed British culture and language to the West, but not the entire population.
The Anglo-Saxons traded goods with other countries and also had cultural links. Christianity was introduced into northern England by monks from Ireland. In southern England the Christian mission came from Rome.