It has been a convention to describe the political map of England south of the Antonine Wall and east of the Welsh Marches, between the seventh and ninth centuries, as the ‘Kingdoms of the Heptarchy’ (Greek hepta, ‘seven’, and archy, ‘rule’). But historians did not always agree as to which were ‘the Seven’ or just when the ‘Age’ might be said to have begun and when it ended. Some even contested the use of the word ‘kingdom’ at all. In the view of Geoffrey Elton, these ‘kings’ where little better than ‘princelings’ – the Anglo-Saxons themselves distinguished between kings (regi) and sub-kings (reguli), and which term should be applied to any given individual could depend on who was writing the story. South of the Humber, the people of what is now Lincolnshire surely considered their rulers as ‘kings of Lindsey’ and their territory a kingdom; Bede on the other hand considered it a ‘province’ (of Northumbria), co-extensive with a bishopric of the same name.

During those centuries we find many kingdoms, sub-kingdoms and tribal territories and regions south of the Humber. It may be helpful to list the most prominent: Lindsey as mentioned; East Anglia; Essex, which in addition to the modern county of that name also included parts of Hertfordshire and most of Middlesex and Surrey; Kent, comprising virtually the modern county (though early east and west Kent may have been independent, and the later kingdom encroached on the kingdom of Essex); the midland kingdom of Mercia; Wessex; the kingdoms of the Magonsæte and of the Hwicce that lay along the western frontier of the Saxons with the British/Welsh; Middle Anglia, a congeries of once independent tribal peoples; and finally the kingdom of Sussex. Westward lay the British/Welsh kingdoms such as Powys and Gwynedd and to the southwest the British kingdom of Dumnonia, roughly equivalent to the modern counties of Devon and Cornwall. North of the Humber lay the Northumbrian kingdoms Bernicia and Deira and in the northwest the British kingdom of Strathclyde. North again we come to Scotland, at that time divided between the Scoti of Dál Riata and the kingdoms of the Picts, or Pictland.

The pagan regions of northern Britain first received the Christian message from the Irish Scoti, and they had been sent a missionary from Rome by 431. In that year Pope Celestine sent ‘a certain Palladius to the Scots believing in Christ to be their bishop’ (Bede I.13). But it was the mission by St Patrick, a Romano-British nobleman’s son seized by pagan Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, that really began the island’s conversion and particularly the lands of the far west, ‘in the lands controlled by the Connachta’.1

In 563 the Irish saint Columba founded a monastery on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, in the territory of Dál Riata. (The story of how this Irish influence reached the Anglian kingdoms of Northumbria is given in chapter 3.) In 597 Roman Catholic Christianity arrived in the south, with the mission of St Augustine sent by Pope Gregory I to King Æthelberht of Kent and his Christian wife of long standing, Bertha of Paris. For any mission to succeed it would need support in the Frankish territories north of the Alps through which it would have to pass. At this time they were divided between the kingdom of Austrasia (roughly western parts of what is now Germany) and, to the west of that, a number of kingdoms, chief among them Neustria. Rome wrote to various rulers to solicit safe passage for the planned mission.

These rival rulers were all descendants of Clovis of the Merovingian dynasty, the pagan chieftain of a confederacy of barbarian tribes known as the Franks (see chapter 5). Clovis had defeated the last Roman prefect of Gaul in the 480s (about the same time that Aelle of the South Saxons was carving out his kingdom). When he converted to orthodox catholic Christianity, as taught by Rome and Constantinople, it was a turning point in the history of the papacy. At that time the bishops of Rome, the popes, felt in danger of being marginalized in the west by Europe’s dominant barbarian rulers, Theodoric the Ostrogoth in Rome and the Visigothic kings in Spain who held to Arian Christianity, which taught that Christ was not God’s equal and was heretical in Rome’s view. Thus the conversion of Clovis, the rising barbarian star, to their version of orthodox Christianity was an important gain. The marriage of the Roman Catholic Merovingian Princess Bertha, eighty or so years later, into a heathen ruling house across the Channel, opened the way to a further extension of the pope’s influence north of the Alps.

Princess Bertha’s father, the Merovingian King Charibert I of Paris, had died, but a condition of the marriage had been that she should be able to continue to practise her religion – her entourage included her priest, bishop Liuthard – and a dilapidated Roman church dedicated to St Martin had been restored (probably in late sixth-century Merovingian style) for her use.2 Kent lay within the sphere of influence of the Merovingian rulers of northern Francia. The cultural ties were evidently close. Mercantile and political contact between Kent and Francia and the presence of Franks at Æthelberht’s court had familiarized some Franks with the language of the English and some of the Kentish court with Frankish.3 Augustine and his Italian companions were worried about linguistic difficulties. Pope Gregory had arranged for Frankish priests to accompany them to act as interpreters. The queen’s chapel meant that Latin, too, had a toehold. It also seems reasonable to suppose that these Latin clerics helped pioneer the adaptation of the Latin alphabet to the writing of Old English (see below and chapter 9).

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 597 tells us that Pope Gregory I ‘sent Augustine to Britain . . . who preached God’s word to the English nation’. The future founding archbishop of Canterbury landed on the Isle of Thanet (now part of mainland Kent, but then separated from it by a wide channel) with some forty men, monks and presumably support personnel early in 597.

Augustine was prior of a Roman monastery that Pope Gregory had himself founded and many of his companions were from the same house. They were hardly willing recruits. Setting out in early 596, they stopped for some weeks in southern Gaul while Augustine returned to Rome hoping to persuade Gregory to recall the mission. He refused, but gave him letters of authorization and introduction to the secular and church authorities along the route. Rome’s authority was by no means absolute in Europe, even in church matters, at that time. For one thing, as Augustine discovered, churches in Gaul observed a ‘Gallican’ rite different from that of Rome.

We do not know for sure why Gregory, pope since 590, decided to launch the mission. Jesus Christ had of course charged all true disciples to spread his message to all the world. But why to the English? Why now? In terms of church politics a new province owing exclusive allegiance to Rome and following the Roman rite would obviously be an advantage to the papacy. Possibly the famous episode in the Roman slave market triggered Gregory’s decision. But the fact that the pagan English had overrun most of the Roman Empire’s once Christian province of Britain was probably the underlying cause. Eric John has controversially argued that following the death, a few years earlier, of the powerful West Saxon king Ceawlin, who according to Bede was the second to wield the imperium, Æthelberht was already being accorded that status. To continue with John’s analysis, because this status represented real seniority among the English kings, Rome may have considered the time was now opportune to activate its long-standing presence at the court of Canterbury.4

At all events, King Æthelberht formally received the Roman party a few days after their arrival, in an open-air ceremony. Maybe this was because he feared the newcomers could use sorcery against him in an enclosed space, as Bede believed; maybe because Anglo-Saxon pagan sanctuaries were generally in the open air; most probably because it was elementary PR to hold his first encounter with these important strangers in full view of as many of his council and people as possible. Before the end of 597 the king was converted and baptized.

Gregory, who termed Æthelberht ‘king of the English’ (rex Anglorum) now addressed a solemn communication to him and Queen Bertha, in which he reminded them of the example of the first Christian emperor, Constantine. The ceremony was to be understood as his solemn enrolment into the family of Catholic kings, of which the present emperor (that is the east Roman, Byzantine ruler at Constantinople), the most ‘serene prince’, as Gregory called him, was the father.5 To be admitted as a member of this imperial family was probably the chief attraction of the new religion for Æthelberht. By this time, it has been said, it was ‘the aspiration of Germanic leaders all over . . . Europe . . . to emphasize their right to rule by looking like the Byzantines in their use of gold garnet jewellery.’6

But we do not really know why the king took the new faith. Loyalty to his divine ancestors’ religion had served Æthelberht pretty well. He seems to have won recognition as overking without the aid of the new god. The kingdom of the East Saxons, ruled by his nephew Sæberht (d. 616/17), was a client state and further afield Rædwald, king of the East Angles, treated him with respect. Place name evidence indicates Woden cult centres close to Canterbury where Queen Bertha had her chapel. The pagan cult did survive the king’s conversion and in fact his son reverted to it after his death. So why the switch? Possibly the simplest answer is the right one. Had the king, perhaps, experienced a genuine spiritual epiphany?

The mission proceeded apace. A second team from Rome, under the leadership of Augustine’s deputy Laurentius, arrived in England in 601; it brought the letters from Gregory and, for Augustine, the pallium of office as archbishop. He was duly consecrated and established himself – at Canterbury. Pope Gregory surely expected him to choose ‘Londinium’, a chief city of Roman Britain, as his metropolitan see. As surely, Augustine, the ‘man in the field’, must have found it impossible to present such an idea to the king of Kent. It has been argued that in fact, from the start, Christianity and Christian missions were tools of policy used and supported by kings as a means of extending their influence.7 The suggestion that the senior sanctuary of the new religion of the English be set up, not in his dominions, the dominions of the senior king, but in the territory of his neighbour and nephew, Sæberht, king of Essex, would not, one feels, have amused Æthelberht. Sæberht followed his uncle’s lead, being converted in 604, when London received Augustine’s helper Mellitus as bishop. Justus, another of the Roman mission, was already installed as bishop in the Romano-British walled city at Rochester. With three centres established in less than a decade and influence established north of the Thames, Pope Gregory’s plans seemed to be advancing well. In a letter to the pope, Augustine had been able to boast of no fewer than 10,000 converts in one baptism campaign.

On a visit to the court of Kent, Rædwald of the East Angles next became a Christian. It was a celebrity coup for the fledgling Roman Christian settlement in England. As the grave goods unearthed at the Sutton Hoo ship burial demonstrate, the warrior aristocracy of the East Angles and their lord represented a realm of immense wealth. But the conversion may have been no more than a gesture of political deference to his overlord. Returning to his people, Rædwald permitted the practice of the pagan cult to continue, even sanctioning pagan and Christian altars in the same temple. Nevertheless Bede would list him as one of the holders of the imperium. The truth is Rædwald was to play a decisive role in the history of Christianity in Bede’s world when he killed Æthelfrith of Bernicia at the Battle of the River Idle in 616 and so opened the way for Edwin, who would become Northumbria’s first Christian king. The victory on the Idle left Rædwald the most powerful ruler in the England of his day, yet he receives scant treatment in Bede’s history, written a century later. In fact he presented Bede, historian of God’s providential purpose, with various problems. Praiseworthy as the patron of Edwin and as an early convert to Christianity himself, the East Anglian king proved ambivalent towards that religion and, worse still, evidently reverted to paganism. Yet a later kinswoman of his, the saintly Æthelfryth, founder of the abbey at Ely, was for a time the queen of Ecgfrith of Bernicia.

The transition from pagan to Christian made for complicated allegiances and was never smooth. There would be a momentary lapse back to the old ways even in Kent. Canterbury’s first archbishop was dead by the year 610. Thanks to him, Kent was to be the home of the metropolitan see of the church in England. He was succeeded by Laurentius.

Kent: the first English government in action

Kent was unusual in many ways. Alone among the intruder kingdoms, it took its name from the local pre-invasion population, the Cantwara. Local customs here would prove especially tenacious: the longest lasting, ‘gavelkind’, an almost specifically Kentish form of land-tenure, was not abolished until 1926.8 In Kent, local community divisions were different. Elsewhere there were ‘hundreds’ and, later, ‘wapentakes’; Kent was divided into ‘lathes’ apparently centred on royal manors or vills. The principal seat of the king of Kent was in a city, Canterbury (Cantwaraburh); it was in close secular contact with the Continent – archaeology has unearthed a profusion of Frankish luxury articles in Kentish graves of the sixth century; and now Æthelberht was to break entirely new ground for an English ruler: the promulgation of a written law code. It still survives.

He enacted these ‘judgements’ we are told: (a) for his people, (b) following the example of the Romans, (c) with the counsel of his wise men and (d) had them written in the English language. They were still being observed, Bede wrote, in the early 700s. This all seems straightforward enough, but almost every item on Bede’s list presents problems. It is unlikely that ‘the Romans’ referred to are the lawgivers of ancient imperial Rome herself. Perhaps the allusion is to the great code produced a generation earlier at Constantinople by the Emperor Justinian. It seems more likely, however, that Bede has in mind the Germanic successors to Rome in the West. The Byzantines looked down on them as semibarbarians; Bede, a compatriot so to speak, would see in these opulent Germanic courts, with their garish trappings of would-be Latin gravitas, fit heirs to the Caesars, or at least to the Roman state in Gaul.

For us, the most startling element of Æthelberht’s innovation appears if we reverse the order of Bede’s priorities. Though they follow the pattern of the Alaman and Bavarian customary codes on the Continent, it was, so far as we know, the first time a European vernacular was used for a legal code – by a matter of centuries. The other Germanic codes, like the Visigothic, Lombard or Burgundian, were in Latin.

Talking of Æthelberht’s code, the editors of one edition of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History comment ‘These Kentish laws in their original form seem to be the earliest documents written down in the English language.’9 If they are right, it is reasonable to assume that the research and development needed to create a written vehicle for English was initiated by King Æthelberht, and for this purpose. The Italian church scholars now at his court presumably led the project, but they themselves had no need of it in their own work – after all, the language of the Church and of their service books, being in Latin, already used the Latin alphabet.

Why did Æthelberht issue his code? Personal prestige was presumably part of the point. Following the example of other European barbarian kings, he had decided, wrote H.M. Wallace Hadrill, ‘to have his people’s customs written down and attributed to himself’.10 But, since the Continental laws were in Latin, if these Kentish laws were actually the traditional customs of the people, the use of English rather than Latin surely made it harder for the king and his council to claim authorship. Unsatisfactory as it may be to attribute honourable intentions to any executive or legislature, however ancient, one must consider it a possibility that the king of Kent and his council may have been aiming, in however limited a way, at ‘open government’.

The code started with provisions dealing with the theft of ecclesiastical property, because, Bede tells us, the king ‘wished to give protection to those whose persons and teachings he had received’. This is followed by compensation to be made for damage to the king’s property or for injury caused in the king’s presence, for instance where he is drinking; then come compensations owing to the higher and lesser ranks of free society: commoner and noble, in the legal jingle from Alfred’s laws ‘ge ceorl ge eorl’, ‘both husbandman and noble’. Payments due in compensation for injury are itemized, from limbs to teeth. A large number of clauses deal with the law relating to women and remarriage. Although issued in a council including clerics and recorded in a script and orthography that they may have invented, Æthelberht’s code, apart from the compensation clauses at the top, ‘is best seen as the law of the Cantwara’.11 For the killing of a freeman payment is made to the king as ‘lord ring’, ‘obviously an ancient term, belonging to a time when payment was made in rings’.12

A century later Kent’s lawmakers seem to be contemplating a far heavier role for religion, attempting to enforce infant baptism and Sunday observance. Clause 6 of the code of King Wihtred (d. 725) prescribes the penalty due for a priest so drunk that he cannot perform his duties at baptism. One wonders whether such priests were accommodating their practice to popular religion like those Alcuin protested against: ‘conventicles that leave the church and seek out hillsides where they worship not with prayers but with drinking bouts’.13 Or was it just a case of wetting the baby’s head in advance? In more general terms, Patrick Wormald, the great authority on Anglo-Saxon law, proposed that with Wihtred the law code is no longer just a record of custom but ‘is becoming an arena for the making of new law’. Wihtred had come to the throne after a period of anarchy set off by raiding campaigns by Cædwalla of Wessex; Ine of Wessex (688–726) is the earliest non-Kentish legislator. Kentish clauses on the punishment of thieves follow similar wording in the two codes and both speak of laws ‘abounding in godly purpose’.

Structure of society – king, thegns, ealdormen, ceorls, slaves

At this time, warfare was more or less endemic and slave trading was an inevitable by-product; after all, according to Bede, Gregory the Great’s Christian mission to England was conceived in a Roman slave market. About the year 640 an English girl named Balthildis was bought in by the household of Erchinoald, chief minister of the Frankish king, Clovis II. Since the church forbade traffic in Christians, and supposing that the Christian king Clovis observed such niceties, she must have been a pagan and therefore, quite possibly, from Sussex – the conversion of the kingdom was still forty years in the future. Sussex girl or not, Balthildis was, one assumes, beautiful and certainly a woman of spirit and ambition since Clovis married her. When he died a few years later, Queen Balthildis became regent for their son Chlotar III and, incidentally, a campaigner against the slave trade. She was a generous benefactor of the monastic movement and in particular the convent of Chelles, near Paris, which she richly endowed and where she may have retired when ousted from the regency in 665. It became a favourite nunnery with English novices of noble birth.

Such a career was, of course, sensational. Few slaves became queens! And many people, even modest husbandmen, might own slaves. War was not the only route to slavery. It might be imposed as a sentence for a criminal offence: Clause 7 of the Laws of Ine of Wessex provides that if a man’s wife and family connive at his thieving they may all be sent into slavery. In times of famine people might render themselves voluntarily into servitude. But slaves could gain their freedom. And in the laws of Alfred they even had some privileges; they were allowed holidays on four days of the year so that they might sell, if they wished, any gifts they had received as charity. The ceremony of manumission marked the transition by the giving of weapons. Freedom brought obligations as well as privileges; the freeman had the right to take his oath, he was ‘law-worthy’; he might also be called upon to give his oath as an oath helper to support his lord at law. He also had the right to defend himself and his own, as well as the duty to defend his lord when called upon to do so. But if a kinsman or his lord were killed a freeman had not only the legal right, but also the moral obligation, to exact a life in revenge or settle for the blood money, the ‘wergild’, awarded by the law. However, even the ties of kinship and the pursuit of a blood feud took second place to the obligations of lordship.

Slavery was the big divide and wergild (literally ‘man price’) was the big test as to which side of it one stood. On either side there were degrees of social standing but one thing does seem to have been absolute: to whom was a person’s wergild paid in case of injury or death? If you or your kin received the payment you were free. If the money was paid to your lord or master you were a slave (theow). The list of charges found in the laws of Ine for the king’s British subjects (wealhs) has, at the bottom of the heap, the landless man valued at no more than 50 shillings. He was taken to be the equivalent of a slave. Above him the scale rises to a landowner with a value of 600 shillings, the highest British rating. The equivalent figure for his English subjects would be twice that.

The West Saxons were pushing back the frontiers of British Dumnonia, which meant enlarging the British population within their frontiers and subject to their authority. In modern terms, discrimination against these new subjects by wergild values may seem unacceptable; however, insofar as a man without a wergild had no standing at all in law, the Welsh/British population was now in principle within the system.

Wergild was basic to that system in all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Not only was it the blood money due to a victim or his or her family in case of injury or death, it was also the measure of compensation payable by him/her in the case of serious breaches of the law and the value of the oath required to clear him/her of the accusation. In short it was his/her value at law; if charged with some major offence, one had the right to vindicate oneself by finding ‘oath helpers’ of sufficient standing to swear to one’s innocence.

Above the unfree we find a broad swath of social ranks in the loose category of the ‘ordinary free man’ or ceorl. Historians disagree over the exact extent of the freedoms he enjoyed, the degree of his economic and judicial obligations to his lord and his actual economic standing. His standing seems to have varied according to time and place. In early eighth-century Wessex, the ceorl who accepted a cottage from his lord was no longer free to leave his land holding and might find himself facing a heavy fine if he tried to flee. On the other hand, under Alfred a ceorl with a wergild of 200 shillings seems more like a prosperous yeoman farmer. He attended the local meeting of freemen as of right; fought when called for in the royal army and might well be better off than the young landless nobleman, feasting and sleeping at the king’s expense in the king’s hall. Such a man might be a royal companion or gesith, to use the old-fashioned term, but was still awaiting the essential land grant that would enable him to set up his own family establishment.

Canterbury and the organization of the church in England

As Christianity gradually extended across England, the ecclesiastical power centres, the bishoprics, came to exert ever more influence. By 604 there were three bishops in England: Augustine at Canterbury, the archbishop; Justus at Rochester (also in Kent); and Mellitus at London, in the kingdom of the East Saxons, whose cathedral of St Paul’s was already being built under the protection of Æthelberht of Kent. But the archbishop was so uneasy about the future that he consecrated his own successor, Laurentius. This was strictly against church law, but it was a good decision. When Æthelbehrt died in 616 and his son Eadbald followed the pagan practice of marrying his father’s widow, some thought it meant the end of the Roman mission. Both Justus and Mellitus retreated back to Gaul. Laurentius stood his ground and persuaded Eadbald to convert; his two timorous colleagues returned to their duties in England. The archbishop died in 619 but less than a decade later the king agreed the marriage of his sister to the pagan King Edwin of Deira. Rome had reason to be grateful to Laurentius, for with this marriage its presence was to be established north of the Humber (see chapter 3). For five years Canterbury was in the hands of Mellitus, of whom the best Bede could say was that he was sound of mind; after him the ageing Justus headed the province, dying in 627. With the twenty-year archiepiscopate of Honorius (c. 630–53), who had come over with the second wave of the Roman mission, the Christian presence in England was consolidated, though not always at the initiative of Canterbury.

In the 630s a monk named Birinus, of whom almost nothing is known, although he may have been of Italian origin, converted the equally shadowy King Cynegils of Wessex. King Oswald of Northumbria, the sixth in Bede’s list to wield the imperium, stood as his sponsor at his baptism and presided over his donation of the old Roman fort of Dorchester-upon-Thames to Birinus as his see. (The Wessex see was later moved to Winchester.) In the other major zone of paganism in the south, the kingdom of the East Angles, Archbishop Honorius played a major role in the establishment of Christianity.

Around the year 630 there was a stand-off between the old and new religions. Rædwald’s successor adopted Christianity on the persuasion of Edwin of Deira, but he was murdered by his subjects. His brother Sigeberht, who had been baptized while an exile on the Continent, now returned. He was evidently intent on restoring Christianity, but without promoting what one might anachronistically call the ‘religious colonialism’ of the Northumbrian ruler. In fact, he had probably found his man during his exile. Bede tells us that ‘Bishop Felix’, a man born in Burgundy and apparently already consecrated there, ‘came to Archbishop Honorius and expressed his desire’ for missionary work. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he and King Sigeberht had already discussed the project. At any rate, Honorius gave him the job and Sigeberht gave him a place, called Dommoc, for the seat of his diocese. This was probably the then coastal town of Dunwich.

Employing scholars and teachers whom he recruited at Canterbury, Felix built up a cathedral school on the Continental model, with the help of the king. But there is a mystery about Sigeberht. His devotion to his new religion seems obvious – he abdicated the throne in favour of a kinsman to enter a monastery – but among the people at large, it seems equally obvious, he retained something of the aura of a pagan war leader. A few years into his retirement the kingdom came under attack from Penda, the great pagan king of Mercia. Courtiers begged Sigeberht to take command of the battle and, when he refused, dragged him from the monastery to the front line. Even then he refused to fight and, carrying only a staff (virga) in his hand, died on the battlefield if not in battle.14Such is the legend and it will find echoes over two centuries later in the legends of King St Edmund. When Peada, son of Penda and his father’s sub-king in the east Midlands, married a Christian princess and converted to her religion as part of the deal, the days of paganism seemed numbered.

Honorius died in 653. The Roman church’s position in southern England seemed at last well established. In addition, Honorius had consecrated the first native Anglo-Saxon bishop and was succeeded by the first native Anglo-Saxon on the throne of Canterbury, Deusdedit, a West Saxon. In 664, the year of his death, developments of immense importance for the whole church establishment in England were unfolding at the Synod of Whitby, in the kingdom of Deira (see chapter 3). Here we round off the story of seventh-century Canterbury with an improbable appointment and its astonishing consequences.

Theodore of Canterbury: a Greek in charge of the English Church 668–690

Like Pope John Paul II, Theodore of Tarsus was about sixty when appointed to his high office and, also like the late pope, he lived well into his eighties. He was born about 602 in south-eastern Turkey and was appointed to Canterbury almost by chance, dying in office in 690. By bringing the English churches under a single authority, he laid the groundwork for the church in England (for centuries the country’s premier organ of state as well as of religion). He shared a third characteristic with John Paul: Theodore was a considerable scholar. The cathedral school he founded at Canterbury became a major factor in the development of Anglo-Saxon learning, including in its curriculum studies in law and astronomy as well as the composition of Latin metrical verse. In one department, that of hagiography, it was indebted to its founder’s Greek background. A basic text for English hagiographers (saints’ biographers) was the Life of St Antony (d. 356) by the Greek writer Athanasius, a young contemporary of his subject, in a Latin translation of the 380s that Theodore introduced into the school at Canterbury. Among the many books modelled on this was the first life of the northern saint Cuthbert.

Theodore himself had long studied in the libraries and at the university of the imperial city Constantinople, where, in addition to biblical studies, he would have attended lectures on philosophy, medicine and astronomy. Then in 648 we find him working at Rome with others to refute the doctrine of ‘monotheletism’, that Christ had only one (divine) will, proposed by Emperor Heraclius years before and a fiercely contentious issue between empire and papacy.

That same year the eighteen-year-old Emperor Constans II had forbidden debate on the topic with an imperial typos, or edict. He was surely influenced by the advance of Islam. Five years before, in the second year of his reign, the teenage emperor and defender of the Faith had seen the Muslim armies conquer Christian Egypt and threaten Constantinople, capital of the Christian world. Islam’s unswerving monotheism was a direct challenge to the Christian idea of a Three-in-One deity – it would seem even more of a challenge to the concept of a Trinity not united by a single Divine Will. Islam was triumphing.

The bishop of Rome, the pope, condemned the doctrine on theological grounds. In 649, twelve months after the imperial ban on the debate, Pope Martin I presided over the Lateran Council that repudiated the monothelete doctrine. Emperor Constans ordered Martin’s deposition and exile. Theodore of Tarsus had been party to the Lateran deliberations; some twenty years later that fact would shape a decisive moment in his career. Vitalian, the pope at that time, had been ratified in his position by Constans, following his election in 657, only on condition that he swore not to raise the issue of monotheletism. But the pope’s theological objections remained. Then, with tension between pope and emperor still high, Wigheard, the Anglo-Saxon archbishop of Canterbury elect and Deusdedit’s successor, arrived in the Holy City to receive his pallium (the scarf-like vestment of office worn by senior members of the church hierarchy), but died of plague. Theodore was, by chance, also in the city at this time.

Rather than send to England for another candidate to be elected, Vitalian decided to seize the moment and promote his friend and champion of orthodoxy. In March 668 Theodore, having had his hair tonsured in the Roman manner, was consecrated and left for England in the company of the Anglo-Saxon nobleman Biscop Baducing, a frequent visitor to Rome and patron of the church in Northumbria (see chapter 3). For the pope, the moment was opportune. With Theodore at Canterbury, Christendom’s newest province was secure in the faith and Rome’s influence strengthened. That year Emperor Constans died.

Installed at Canterbury in 669, Theodore launched a programme of change and centralization in the English church. A number of bishoprics were vacant; these he filled. He convened the first nationwide synod of the English churches at Hertford in 672 or 673. This provided for regular synods in the future at a place called Clofesho. We do not now know where this was: the case has been put for, among others, Brixworth in Northamptonshire, where there is still what is arguably the finest seventh-century church north of the Alps, and Hitchin, in modern Hertfordshire. Both exhibit the topographical feature indicated by the name, ‘a cleft or cloven hill spur of land’.

The second general synod of the English church, convened by Archbishop Theodore for 17 September 679 at Hatfield, was a great occasion on the international stage. It was a decade since the death of Emperor Constans but the monothelete controversy was still unresolved. No one was better qualified than Theodore to bring matters to a head. Hatfield was convened specifically to endorse the decrees against the heresy. The ceremony was designed to impress. Following the practice of the early Church councils, the proceedings were presided over, so to speak, by a great illuminated Gospel book ‘enthroned’ on a special book stand and displayed to the synod as the assembly affirmed the decrees of five previous oecumenical councils. The following year the Sixth Oecumenical Council of the universal church adopted those acta against monotheletism so solemnly promulgated at Hatfield with full papal approval.

Theodore created new dioceses in the English church, which meant reduction in powers for bishops and brought him into conflict with the brilliant and powerful bishop of Northumbria, Wilfrid of York, whom he deposed and who promptly appealed to Rome. He won his case, retained his see at York and was reconciled with Theodore. Nevertheless Bishop Wilfrild’s see was reduced in size and the first archbishop of York was not consecrated for another sixty years.

Wessex and her first Christian kings

It is obvious that the sequence pagan England–Augustine of Canterbury–Christian England is hardly an approximation to the reality of seventh-century history, even to the events as we know them. But it is easy to forget how unsteady the early decades were. In Kent Queen Bertha had been celebrating mass for the best part of a generation in her chapel at court before her husband followed suit; and when he died their son relapsed to paganism for a time. A similar relapse befell Essex on the death of its king Sæberht, at about the same time. To judge from the grave furniture at Sutton Hoo, Rædwald of East Anglia was planning to keep his options open at his death in the 620s and the Christian cause was to suffer a serious setback in the Northumbrian kingdoms within its first ten years.

But this was the world of the warrior code and of ring-giving lords: for the fighting men on all sides, Christian or pagan, British or Saxon, the struggle was as important as the outcome. The year that Oswald of Northumbria stood sponsor at his baptism, Cynegils of Wessex led a victorious campaign into the recently Christian kingdom of Essex (according to Bede, the East Saxons had relapsed into paganism and this was their punishment).

When Cynegils died in 643, Wessex once again found itself under pagan rule as his son Cenwalh flirted briefly in alliance with Penda of Mercia, taking the pagan king’s sister as his queen and then, for reasons best known to himself, separating from the queen; her furious brother drove him from his throne. Cenwalh found exile with the East Angles where he reconverted to Christianity. When he recovered Wessex in 648 he founded the minster of St Peter’s, Winchester, and, with the installation of the Frankish churchman Agilbert, seemed to have secured the new faith in Wessex.

Cenwalh (d. 672) continued to ply the royal trade of war leader. Success in the 650s against the Christian British/Welsh near Bradford on Avon and the annexation of areas of what is now Wiltshire and Somerset, was followed (661) by humiliation at the hands of Mercia as its new, now Christian, king drove a triumphant campaign south to occupy the Isle of Wight. The West Saxon dynast seemed in eclipse. His widow Seaxburgha, the only queen regnant of the Anglo-Saxon period, held the centre until her own death in the early 670s. In the next decade the throne was seized by a pagan warrior claiming descent from the royal house, despite his apparently Celtic name of Cædwalla. In three ruthless years (685–8) he conquered the kingdoms of Kent, where he installed his brother Mull, later burnt alive in a general uprising, and Sussex, recently converted by the exiled bishop Wilfrid of York. He, it seems directed Cædwalla to Christianity; he certainly received large estates in the Isle of Wight, which the king also conquered. Cædwalla’s origins are obscure, his military success indisputable. It guaranteed him the spoils of war and the kind of fame as lord and ring-giver that in turn guaranteed followers. (We shall meet another such, St Guthlac of Croyland, in chapter 4.) Like Guthlac, Cædwalla adopted the life of faith. He had lived as a pagan warlord but his return to the new religion confirmed it in Wessex beyond further question. In 688 he abdicated the throne he had seized and went, a pilgrim, to Rome; one of the first of the many English kings to do this. There he accepted baptism and, ten days later, died.

Weapons – the honoured tools of war

Thanks to the archaeologist, the early medieval king-warlord and his war band of companions or gesiths stand before us as men of extreme wealth and extravagant display; ostentatious on the battlefield and in the pomp of death. The largest pieces of equipment, helmet and shield, are at the same time the most majestic emblems. (Though even here makers might attempt to cut corners. King Æthelstan’s Grately code (c. 930) warned shield-makers not to use sheepskin, in place of true leather.) Made of wood and covered with tan-toughened leather, the heavy round shield, up to three feet (91 cm) in diameter, mounted with a central boss to deflect blows or be used as a bludgeon at need, could be a weapon of offence as well as defence. It was also a platform for display. Relief ornaments, in copper with applied silver-sheet embellishments, are exquisitely worked in animal forms – birds of prey, for example, or reptilian bodies – reminiscent in shape of the creatures that inhabit the scrolls and tendrils of the monks’ illuminated manuscripts, and mounted seemingly at random for maximum decorative effect, but almost certainly in arrangements that conveyed symbolic meanings to the initiated.

For the fighting man himself the sword was surely the most valued tool of his trade in practical, but also in almost mystical, terms. The Beowulf poet writes of a sword treasured from the days of the giants, the envy of warriors, that only the hero himself could wield. As in the samuraiculture of Japan, such high-status swords might pass through many hands, possibly as a gift from lord to gesith, possibly from father to son, certainly at the highest social level. They might be embellished, sometimes by successive owners, with gold fittings or other rich ornaments.

The sword-smith was highly rated in this warrior world: a craftsman of the highest calibre and respected social status. In the law code of Æthelberht of Kent the killing of the king’s smith commands special compensation. As in many African traditions, the ironworker as such was held to be under divine patronage and, like the Roman god Vulcan, the legendary Weland the Smith of the Anglo-Saxons was lame. But whereas Vulcan was born so, Weland, it was believed, had been crippled deliberately by a king to prevent his escape from the royal smithy.

In the early centuries, the finest swords were produced by ‘pattern welding’. The process, as depicted by Kevin Leahy,15 begins by twisting strips of iron of the required length and then hammering them into flat ribbons. Four such ‘ribbons’ are next fire-welded onto an iron core and hammered out so that the twist marks, flattened into oblique lines, may create a chevron or ‘herringbone’ pattern. A strip of steel is next welded to either side of the core unit to provide the cutting edges. These are now ground and the whole polished to bring out the chevron effect – the blade’s badge of fighting quality and inherent value. By the mid-ninth century, though, furnace improvements and refinements of the smith’s technique made possible the production of quality blades without the need for pattern welding.

Weapons of all kinds, such as spears, light throwing axes or short single-edged dagger-swords (seaxes), which according to one tradition gave the Saxons their name, and, less frequently, swords, are excavated as grave goods and it seems reasonable to assume that the bones with which they are found are those of a warrior whose social status and fighting specialisms can be deduced from their presence. But, by an extensive analysis of some 1,660 male burials in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, concentrating on sword-bearers, Heinrich Härke of Reading University concluded that this does not necessarily follow. For example, some ‘weapon burials’ were those of children aged as young as twelve months, and some of men too severely disabled ever to have seen action. Then there were skeletons presenting combat wounds but not accompanied by weapons of any kind.

Such facts and others have long persuaded scholars that weapon burials had a largely symbolic meaning. But Dr Härke has proposed a further hypothesis. Analysis shows that those adult males buried with weapons tended to be up to two inches taller than those without – more or less the height difference revealed, by other studies, as that between the Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British populations. Härke has argued that the [taller] immigrant Germanic [community] ‘used weapons in the burial rite . . . perhaps . . . to demonstrate that they were ruling [the land] by force; a material culture version of the conquest myth’.16 But it could be that these opulent inhumations, which would have had to be highly public events to make such an aggressive demonstration, were, rather, exclusive family memorials to kinship solidarity. The ceremony attending the baby boy buried with the family sword ‘that any warrior would envy and only a hero could wield in battle’ would, surely, have been one of howling private grief, not of ethnic triumphalism.

Eighth-century Wessex: the first West Saxon law code and the first shires

It was the view of Bishop Stubbs, the great nineteenth-century scholar of medieval studies in England, that when the House of Commons appears it is largely as an assembly of representatives of other, older assemblies. (He was writing at a time when the House of Commons was of some consequence.) He traced this in part back to the shire courts of Anglo-Saxon England. Nearly all were in place by the year 1000 and some, as Professor Campbell has pointed out, were much older: ‘At least three were former kingdoms. Such a shire as Hampshire is much older, as a unit of government and authority, than is France.’17

The eighth century opened promisingly for the kingdom of Wessex. The name was coming into general use for the territory stretching from the lands of the Gewisse people, around the upper Thames, southwards to the coastal lordship established by the semi-legendary Cerdic two centuries earlier. It is not clear how or by whom the two regions were united, but the ruling dynasty held to the title of the Cerdingas. With King Ine (688–726) the historic heartland kingdom of the later Anglo-Saxon period secured its own core territories. The men of Kent were forced to pay compensation for the killing of Mull; Surrey was effectively a frontier province (bordering on Essex); while Sussex, it seems, was generally a biddable ally helping Ine in a campaign against the British king Geraint of Dumnonia.

The reign of Ine remains important for his law code, the first by a Wessex king, which survives as an attachment to the code of Alfred and holds the first references to the shire court presided over by a royal agent or scirman (‘shireman’). It seems that the core West Saxon shires of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset, though based on existing administrative subdivisions, may have been established under this king. By a wide margin the Western world’s oldest organs of local government still functioning, the West Saxon shires were already, in the classic English manner, of different type. The first two take their names from royal residences (vills) at [South] Hampton and Wilton. Dorset and Somerset, on the other hand, were named for the local folk, the settlers (sæte), in the vicinity of the forts of Dorchester and Somerton. Ine’s laws are concerned that a malefactor might escape his lord’s control by getting into a neighbouring shire. Apparently ‘crossing the county line’ has been an option for fugitives from justice for well over a millennium.

The shire with its subdivisions, such as the hundreds, was headed by a royal appointee originally in Wessex known as an ‘ealdorman’, though the term in general came to denote an official of higher status; by the year 1000 most of England had been divided under successive rulers into shires, each with its royal official known as the scir gerefa (the ‘reeve’), an administrative officer of the shire (certain Canadian municipalities still have an official known as ‘reeve’). The modern English sheriff has limited, often ceremonial functions. In the US his equivalent, inherited from the colonial period, remains an important local law enforcement officer. Familiar to all aficionados of the Western film, at the time of the western frontier the sheriff was empowered to recruit a ‘posse’ of the county’s citizenry to help him at need. Like the man, the term derives from medieval England, from the (post-Conquest) Latin posse comitatus, the ‘force of the county’. In some US states the posse may still be deployed as a citizen police force, to patrol shopping malls, for instance.

It is also under Ine that the term ‘ealdorman’first appears in West Saxon documents, the first West Saxon coins were minted and the king first began to interest himself in commerce. In fact, it appears that King Ine, whose laws on the regulation and protection of foreign merchants encouraged the commercial development of Wessex, probably stimulated the kingdom’s economy by the carefully planned development of the port of Hamwic, adjacent to the royal vill of Hampton. Population was resettled from the surrounding countryside; gravel and other building materials were shipped on site at the king’s expense; and a new port was ready to join the international Channel–North Sea network of centres, given the generic name of ‘emporium’ (plural ‘emporia’) by historians of the period.

In the 710s Boniface of Crediton, then a monk at Nursling, en route for his mission to Germany, twice went by road to Lundenwic (London) to make the sea crossing from there. As a Wessex man he may have considered himself to be still on home territory. In the early 700s the law code of King Ine mentions the East Saxon Eorcenwold, bishop of London, as ‘our bishop’, which suggests that the West Saxon king considered he had a controlling interest in the place. Twenty years before that, a reference in the Kentish law code refers to the ‘king’s hall’ and the king’s wic gerefa(‘wic reeve’) – presumably the hall within the Roman city area and the reeve based in the wic (or trading area) to watch over the king’s interests in the emporium’s trade. Given its place on the Thames and at the convergence of many frontiers, and its status as an international emporium, we can assume that all adjacent authorities wanted their fingers in the honeypot and that London’s merchant magnates knew how to restrict access.

Boniface had already made his mark when King Ine and his church councillors chose him to head a deputation to Canterbury. Churchmen had been among the advisers, both lay and clerical, the king had consulted when drawing up his legal code, which, among other things, legislated to enforce both infant baptism and the payment of tithes, levies due to the church. During his reign the kingdom, up to that time a single church province, was divided between two new bishoprics, Winchester and Sherborne, where the devout and scholarly Aldhelm, apparently of the royal kin, was installed. In Alfred’s day it was believed that Ine built the first monastery in the vicinity of the numinous site of Glastonbury Tor and he certainly was a patron to the abbey of Malmesbury where Aldhelm, who had long been a student at Theodore’s Canterbury school, was abbot from the 680s. On the western edge of Anglo-Saxon settlement and conquest, the abbey had a sizeable number of Britons among its dependent population. As Della Hooke explains in The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (p. 40)

Although large numbers of Anglo-Saxon immigrants followed the initial raids . . . [or wars, we might say, such as that of Ine and his Sussex ally against Dumnonia] and settled across England . . . the bulk of the population, especially in the west, must surely have remained Romano-British stock.

The original name of the minster of Malmesbury was Maildubhi Urbs the ‘city’ of Maildubh, in Old English Maeldubh’s burh, and tradition holds that it originated around the hermitage of an Irish monk of that name. Irish monks may also have had a presence at Glastonbury. Certainly non-Roman Christianity was strong in the region. About 700 we find Aldhelm, writing to King Geraint of Dumnonia, spelling out the Roman way of calculating the date for Easter and urging that his British clergy adopt it. The approach to the West Country ‘Celtic’ Christians seems to have had some success. Bede claimed that the British already within the West Saxon borders were convinced of the Roman way. Apparently, however, the British across the Severn, the Welsh, refused to eat with ‘the Roman party’ and imposed a penance of forty days on priests who had anything at all to do with the Romans.

One of the pillars of Anglo-Saxon spirituality in Wessex was to be the new foundation at Wimborne, inaugurated with King Ine’s sister Cuthburg as its first abbess. Married for a time to King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685–705) and later a nun at Barking in Essex, she lived a career typical of the kind of networking that was possible for women between the kingdoms of the Heptarchy. Dynastic rivalry was also part of the royal scene and, though Ine fended off his rivals, such family feuding would return sporadically to disrupt later reigns. Like his predecessor, Ine abdicated to make the pilgrimage to Rome, where he would die. Men said it was he who founded the Schola Saxonum, the English quarter near St Peter’s. In a reign of some forty years he had maintained the prestige and standing of Wessex and opened up the field of royal government beyond the activities of warlord and conqueror.

The Chronicle tell us that Ine was followed peacefully by a kinsman who ruled from 726 to 740. A family member named Cuthred, in turn, succeeded him. There is evidently drama behind the brief entries for these decades. We learn that in 733 Æthelbald, king of Mercia, captured the West Saxon royal vill of Somerton and that in this year the sun looked like ‘a black shield’. Seven years later, Cuthred took the war to Æthelbald. Three years after this the two men were allies against the Welsh. For a time Cuthred was endangered by domestic rivals and no doubt he faced other threats not recorded in the Chronicle’s terse chronology. In fact, between the seventh and the ninth centuries, the rule in Wessex rarely seems to have passed from father to son; perhaps the succession should be rather understood as an almost institutionalized pattern of challenge and counter-challenge among families of the establishment who laid claim to descent from Cerdic. In the year 752 Cuthred went against Æthelbald once more and this time ‘put him to flight’. Four years later, Cuthred died.

There followed twelve months of conspiracy and murder among the ruling establishment, in which the new King Sigeberht was driven from his throne by his successor Cynewulf. Forced to flee, an outlaw, into the forest of the Weald, he was assassinated by a herdsman – on Cynewulf’s orders, it was supposed. The next thirty years belong to Cynewulf who, we are told by the Chronicle, could trace his paternal ancestry in direct line back to Cerdic, and who fought many ‘great battles’ against the Britons. For all that, one of the longer, and it would seem more successful, reigns in English history receives little attention from the Chronicle bar the mention that it ended with the king’s murder by Cyneheard, the brother of Sigeberht, whose own death Cynewulf too had contrived some thirty years previously. Cyneheard too was killed and the succession was secured by Beohrtric, another direct descendant of Cerdic. He may well have owed his throne to Offa of Mercia (see chapter 4); he married his daughter. Beohrtric was opposed by Ecgberht, connected with the West Saxon and Kentish royal lines, and grandfather ‘to be’ of Alfred the Great. Although Wessex won a momentary independence, Ecgberht was driven from ‘the land of the English’ i.e. England by Beohrtric who was assisted by Offa, and Ecghberht was forced to live at the court of Charles the Great, king of the Franks, for several years.

No doubt the overbearing Mercian looked upon Wessex as at best a client kingdom, at worst a subject province. According to King Alfred, who recounted the tradition to his biographer, Asser, many years later, Eadburh’s malevolent period as royal consort explained why the wife of a West Saxon king was never consecrated queen. A true daughter of her father, she ruled the court circle by tyranny and intrigue, but had to flee the country when a plot misfired and she almost poisoned her husband. Whether any of this was true (was she following instructions?) or whether we are dealing here with a simple case of misogynistic gossip, the kings of Wessex did not, after her time, honour their wives with the title of queen and held their ceremonial ‘crown wearings’ in solitary state. It was a change from earlier times. In the seventh century the West Saxons had been briefly ruled by a queen regnant and as late as the 740s a king’s wife was witnessing charters as ‘regina’ (‘queen’).

Beohrtric’s reign (786–802) witnessed an event of terrible omen for the English. ‘In these days’, records the Chronicle, ‘came the first three ships of Northmen’ – it seems they may have been from the region around Hardanger Fjord in western Norway. One report has them landing at Portland. The king’s gerefa rode out to meet them because he did not know what they were, although, presumably they were not traders, since otherwise they would have been heading for Hamwic. Maybe they had steered a wrong course. It was the reeve’s duty to have newcomers report themselves to the king’s town. They killed him.18

It was a portent of things to come. Ecgberht, the next king of Wessex (802–39), who was king of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex from 825, and was awarded the title of ‘bretwalda’ by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as eighth in line of the wielders of the imperiumnamed by Bede, would spend the last years of his reign combating recurring incursions of such ‘northmen’ or ‘Vikings’.

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