The Early Anglo-Saxons

The Early Anglo-Saxons


The following article is intended to provide a summary account and bibliography of the latest academic research into the Anglo-Saxon with a particular focus on the question of historicity. Aside from the various articles and books cited, much of what is below has been the subject of many hours of reading and translation of what ancient documents are available in the public domain.


Many different theories are available as to the accuracy of the Saxon history as we think it happened the Gallic Chronicles of c 452 Gildas sixth century work Bede's Chonica Maiora and Ecclesiastical History c 725 and the 9th century Anglo Saxon Chronicles also some methodological legends will be examined here regarding the making of such identifications with individual names fact or fiction. While these theories are interesting, they fail to address fully some important questions dates people for instance was there historically two people called Hengest and Horsa simply making the assumption that there has to be these historical figures behind the legend is not good enough. Such an assumption is totally unjustified. As anyone at all familiar with ancient literature in general will know, the historicisation of non historical mythical personages often through association with some important past event battle or the like is not in any way an unusual occurrence. Hengest and Horsa, who were Kentish totemic horse-gods recorded by Bede and others historicised by the 8th-century given an important role in the 5th-century Anglo-Saxon conquest of eastern Britain and later identified in genealogical pedigrees may be entirely fiction.


Given this, no judgements can be made as to whether a figure is, in origin, historical, mythical or fictional each individual case must (and can only) be decided by a close examination of all the relevant material.






What do we really know about the early Anglo-Saxon? The tribal leaders and Kings, the early recorded genealogy, what is history fact what is fiction.


Who were the Anglo-Saxons, and what was Old English?


"The Anglo-Saxons" is the general name given to the Germanic peoples who inhabited Britain between the fifth and the eleventh centuries, between the Romans and the Normans . The name isn't a modern invention: it was first used in England at the court of Alfred the Great (871-899), who came to the throne as King of the West Saxons, but redefined his title as King of the Anglo-Saxons (rex Angolsaxonum) in the 890s, to mark his ruler ship over all free English people. It was used abroad even earlier, in the time of Charlemagne (768-814), but there it seems to have been to distinguish the "English" Saxons from those who stayed behind on the Continent. (Later on, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sometimes makes the same distinction, using "Old Saxons" to refer to the people of Germany .)


"Old English" is the name modern scholars give to the language of the Anglo-Saxons, though some scholars use "Anglo-Saxon" to refer to the language as well as the people. The Saxons themselves called their language Englisc (Old English -sc is pronounced like modern -sh, so they would have pronounced it "English"), and a lot of the low-level structure and vocabulary of our modern English goes back to their Englisc. The main effect of the Norman conquest in the long run was to add an extra layer of vocabulary.


Where did they come from?


The simple answer is probably all up and down the North Sea coast, from Denmark and from the northern coasts (in modern terms) of Germany , the Netherlands , and France .


The more famous answer is that of the eighth-century Northumbrian monk Bede, who wrote an Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731, and put it like this (Ecclesiastical History, i.15):


They came from three most powerful Germanic tribes, the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. Of Jutish origin are the people of Kent and of the Isle of Wight, and the part of the kingdom of Wessex opposite the Isle of Wight , still called the nation of the Jutes. From the Saxon land, that is the place which is now called Old Saxony, came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons . From the Anglian land, that is the place between the realms of the Jutes and the Saxons which is called Angulus, and remains deserted to this day, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercian's, and all the Northumbrian peoples, that is, those who dwell north of the river Humber, as well as other Anglian peoples.


This looks very neat and tidy, but towards the end of his History (v.9), Bede gives another and a more inclusive list:


He knew that there were many nations in Germania from whom the Angles and Saxons, who now live in Britain, get their origin ... There are the Frisians, Rugians, Danes, Huns, Old Saxons, and Boructuari.


"Germania" here means not just modern Germany , but (from a Roman point of view) all of northern Europe , settled by barbarian Germanic tribes. The Boructuari were Franks, and we have other evidence for earlier Frankish interest in Anglo-Saxon affairs; the Byzantine historian Procopius writing in the sixth century had heard that Britain was divided between Angles, Frisians, and Britons.


To sum up, the Saxons (from Saxony) and the Angles (from between Saxony and Denmark ) were probably the main force behind the invasion -- at any rate, they ended up in charge in Britain . The Jutes, Frisians and Franks were also clearly involved, and there were probably lots of other tribes long since lost to history.


Did they really arrive in AD 449?


In fact they arrived much earlier. The late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus records the Saxons among the barbarians (along with Picts and Scots) who were harassing the Britons in about AD 365, and the mid-fifth-century Gallic Chronicle mentions another severe raid in 410, and the fall of Britain to the Saxons "after many troubles" in 441. The date "449" comes at the end of a long history of confusion.


The confusion starts with Gildas in the sixth century, who wrote the first British account of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, without including a single date. He did however mention that just before the British invited the Anglo-Saxons, they sent an appeal to one Agitius, who was three times appointed a Roman consul. This is probably Aetius, whose third consulship began in AD 446.


We move on to Bede in the eighth century, who mentions the Saxon invasion in a couple of places, in his Chronica Maiora of 725 and in the Ecclesiastical History of 731. Bede was one of the early adopters of A.D. dating, but in his Chronica, he was using the then-common method of assigning events not to years but to the reigns of the contemporary Roman emperors. He seems to have decided from the fact that Aetius became thrice-consul in 446 to put the Saxon invasion in the following reign, the joint reign of Martianus and Valentinianus (Valentinian III ruled the Roman Empire in the west from 425 to 455, and Marcian ruled in the east from 450 to 457). When Bede came to include the Saxon invasion in his History, he added an (incorrect) A.D. date, and wrote "In the year of our Lord 449, Martianus, forty-sixth [emperor] from Augustus, took the kingdom with Valentinian, and ruled for seven years. At that time the race of the Angles or Saxons..."


The earlier sections of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were composed in the late ninth century, and they simply repeat Bede's words against the year 449. Later writers saw the invasion listed against the year 449, ignored the context, and invented a legend.


Set against these contradictory written records, archaeology promises more impartial results. Unfortunately, none of the remains can be dated with the precision that historians are used to: a recent survey refuses to be any more precise than the half-century. But in these general terms, one can see a few sites with identifiably Anglo-Saxon remains in the first half of the fifth century, but a great increase in the number and density of Anglo-Saxon sites over the second half of the fifth century and the first half of the sixth.


So although 449 was not the date of the first arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, it is perhaps fair to say that by then it was clear that they were here to stay.


[For the archaeology, see J. Hines, "Philology, Archaeology and the adventus Saxonum vel Anglorum", in Britain 400-600: Language and History, edd. A. Bammesberger and A. Wollmann ( Heidelberg , 1990), pp.17-36]


What sort of money did they use, and how much was it worth?


From the middle of the eighth century, Anglo-Saxon coinage standardized on the silver penny, which was about the size of (though much thinner than) a modern 10p piece or quarter. For designs, the coins tended to have the king's head (with his name around the rim) on the front ("heads", or obverse) side, and a pattern (often a cross) with the moneyer's name around the rim on the back ("tails", or reverse) side. The Northumbrians didn't switch to the new standard and continued to issue base silver coins (eventually base copper coins) until the independent kingdom of Northumbria was snuffed out by Vikings in 867. Everyone else, however, used silver pennies to the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. There are references to "shillings" and "pounds", but both seem to be set amounts of money, made up in pence, rather than separate coin denominations. A further unit, which hasn't survived into modern times, the "mancus", was worth thirty pennies, and it has been suggested that a handful of later gold coins, with the same designs as silver pennies but three times the weight, are actual mancus coins. Since only four survive from the whole period, it's hard to say what role they played. As for ha'pennies or halfpennies and farthings, these were made informally in the tenth and eleventh centuries by cutting an existing penny into halves or quarters.


So what could you buy with a handful of silver pennies? The short answer is that we don't know, but from a handful of clues a penny seems to have been a substantial sum of money, more equivalent to a ten or twenty pound note (US$20-40) today. An eleventh-century law of Cnut (II Cnut 24) notes that witnesses are to be present for any monetary transaction involving four or more pennies (this was an anti-theft provision so that there would be witnesses as to who owned what later: if the threshold for the law to take notice is set at "four pennies", a penny is clearly a tidy sum). A tenth-century law (VI Æthelstan 6) notes that a horse could be valued at up to half a pound (120 pence), an ox at a mancus (30 pence), a cow at 20 pence, a pig at 10 pence, and a sheep at a shilling (here perhaps 4 pence). Another code (Dunsæte) gives quite similar numbers, adding that you could get a goat for two pennies. While other codes list fines for offences and injuries, and other documents note monetary payments for estates, they bring us no closer to answering what a penny could buy in our own modern-day terms.


c.450. Traditional date for the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain


This date, and the whole idea of a sudden onslaught of "Anglo-Saxons" on post-Roman Britain in the mid-5th century, is a vast oversimplification. Saxon pirates may have been raiding the shores of Britain already by 365; in 367 there was a Roman military officer in charge of a series of fortresses along the south-eastern coast, and by the end of the century the coast itself was called the Saxon Shore . There may also have been Saxons among the defenders of late 4th-century Britain : the German names of two of the Roman commanders (Fullofaudes and Fraomar) make it clear that members of some Germanic tribes were on the Romano-British side.


Information from the 5th century is scarce. Constantius's Life of St Germanus notes that the saint helped the British to win a victory against a combined force of Picts and Saxons, in a visit which Prosper of Aquitaine's Chronicle dates to 429. The Gallic Chronicle, written probably shortly after 452, notes a severe Saxon raid on Britain in about 410, and the fall of Britain to the Saxons, after many troubles, in 441. It would be fascinating to learn what tidings reached the near-contemporary chronicler in the south of France to make him believe that Britain had fallen: the tales of refugees, perhaps, fleeing for their lives, or the sudden cessation of contact or trade with Britain which might result if the Saxons took the coastal settlements and blockaded the Channel. Without more details, though, this source is too far away from events to be more than an index of how widely-known and serious were the Saxon troubles in Britain .


For more discursive accounts of the Anglo-Saxon arrival we must turn to later British and English sources. The earliest source is Gildas, who wrote in the 6th century the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, "Of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain"; this is primarily a lament for the sins of contemporary British rulers, but it includes some historical background. Gildas says that some time after an unsuccessful appeal for help to the Roman consul "Agitius", the Britons, fearing a return of their old enemies, the Irish and the Picts, agreed to give land to the Saxons on condition that they beat back the raiders. The Saxons came first in three ships, landing on the east side of the island, and later a second and larger group arrived. For a long time they received their wages and did their work, but eventually they demanded greater rewards, and plundered "the whole island" when they were refused. Gildas pictures the Saxon conquest as divine vengeance for earlier sins of the Britons, and is manifestly uninterested in names or dates or historical precision. It is true that the Irish and the Picts, as well as the Saxons, did raid late Roman (and presumably sub-Roman) Britain; it is also plausible that some Saxons may have been employed as defenders of Roman Britain, as we know some other Germanic peoples were. But elsewhere Gildas is clearly rearranging material to suit his polemical ends (we know the Saxons were already raiding Britain in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, but Gildas omits all mention of this to introduce them as agents of divine vengeance in the mid-5th century), or straying into legend (the arrival of the Saxon invaders in three ships parallels origin stories told of the Picts, the Irish, the Goths and the Continental Saxons). His account, though influential as narrative, cannot be trusted as history.


In the 8th century, the English writer Bede added dates to Gildas's account. In his Chronica Maiora of 725 he tried to put Gildas's events into a sequence of Roman imperial reigns, and since Gildas notes that "Agitius" was thrice consul and there was a Roman military leader, Aetius, who received a third consulship in 446, Bede dates the coming of the Anglo-Saxons to the following reign, of Marcian and Valentinian (450-57). Bede was using A.D. dating in his Historia Ecclesiastica of 731, but instead of giving a specific year, he repeats his statement that the coming of the Saxons happened in the seven-year reign of Marcian and Valentinian, which he states (erroneously) began in 449. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at the end of the 9th century repeats Bede's statement under its annal for 449, and it is a simplification of that which has given us the supposed date "449" for the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. But it seems that Bede was only trying to make sense of Gildas, and since the result contradicts a nearly-contemporary source (by which the Saxons had conquered Britain by 441, nearly ten years before they were first "invited"), the date c.450 for the "Coming of the Anglo-Saxons" has no real historical authority. Nonetheless, from the 8th century to the 20th, c.450 was the approximate received date for the invasion. Bede himself is not consistent: elsewhere in his History, he dates events with the phrase "about [x] years after the English came to Britain ", and in three cases he seems to be calculating from a date of 446/47 rather than 449-56. The later Historia Brittonum, on uncertain authority, notes that an Irish abbot who visited Ripon in 753 discovered that there they dated the arrival to 453.


A recent and sceptical review of the archaeological evidence (Hines, "Philology, Archaeology and the adventus Saxonum vel Anglorum") notes that while the overall sequence of the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England is clear, it cannot be dated with the precision historians would desire. It seems that there were only a handful of sites containing "Anglo-Saxon" artefacts datable to before the middle of the 5th century. There was then a considerable expansion in the area covered by Anglo-Saxon sites and in the density of such sites over the second half of the 5th century and the first half of the 6th. In other words, Anglo-Saxon influence became much more visible on the ground in the second half of the 5th century, and if the "Coming of the Anglo-Saxons" is defined as the point where they achieve significant influence rather than their first arrival, c.450 may be as good a date as any. It is still an oversimplification, however, and "the second half of the 5th century" more accurately reflects our current knowledge.


"Saxons", "Anglo-Saxons", and "English" have been used interchangeably for the Germanic invaders of England . In a famous passage towards the beginning of his History (I.xv), Bede states that the people of the Angles or Saxons came from three strong Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. There were doubtless many other peoples involved: Bede himself gives a longer list towards the end of his History (V.ix), naming the Frisians, the Rugini, the Danes, the Huns, the Old Saxons and the Boructari (probably Franks); a 6th-century Byzantine historian, Procopius, thought that Britain was inhabited by Britons, Angles, and Frisians. But the fact that contemporaries tended to refer to them indiscriminately as "the Angles" or "the Saxons" suggests that these two groups were predominant. The compound "Anglo-Saxon" appears in some Continental sources as a vague synonym of "Angles" or "Saxons", or as a term to differentiate the Saxons in Britain from those on the Continent (Pohl pp.21-2), but it is introduced in England as a term meaning "all of the English" at King Alfred's court at the end of the 9th century.


R. Burgess, "The Dark Ages Return to Fifth-Century Britain: The 'Restored' Gallic Chronicle Exploded", Britannia 21 (1990), pp.185-95


J. Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons ( London : 1982)


J. Cotterill, "Saxon Raiding and the Role of the Late Roman Coastal Forts of Britain", Britannia 24 (1993), pp.227-39


S. Frere, Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, 3rd edn ( London : 1987)


N. Higham, The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century ( Manchester : 1994)


J. Hines, "Philology, Archaeology and the adventus Saxonum vel Anglorum", Britain 400-600: Language and History, edd. A. Bammesberger and A. Wollmann ( Heidelberg , 1990), pp.17-36


W. Pohl, "Ethnic Names and Identities in the British Isles: A Comparative Perspective", in J. Hines (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective ( Woodbridge : 1997), pp.7-32


P. Sims-Williams, "Gildas and the Anglo-Saxons", Cambridge Medieval Celtic Society 6 (1983), pp.1-30


P. Sims-Williams, "The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle", Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983), pp.1-41


F. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edn ( Oxford : 1971), pp.1-18


c.450 to c.550. Prehistory of Anglo-Saxon England


While it seems clear that there was a strong Anglo-Saxon presence in Britain starting in the second half of the 5th century, for the first hundred years or so it is impossible to put together a detailed and reliable account of what was going on.


Gildas, writing in the mid-6th century, provides a near-contemporary account, but few details. He notes that after the initial Saxon revolt, which rampaged unchecked over the whole island, some of the Britons surrendered, some fled overseas or into the deep forests, and some eventually got together under the leadership of the Roman commander Ambrosius Aurelianus. After this, victories went sometimes to the Saxons, sometimes to the Britons, until the battle of mons Badonicus. This was pretty much the last British victory, and Gildas seems to tell us it took place in the year of his birth, 44 years before he wrote. Elsewhere Gildas tells us that access to many of the shrines of British saints had been cut off by the "partition with the barbarians", so it seems likely that large parts of what would become England were already in Anglo-Saxon hands in his day.


This account is plausible, but it must be remembered that at least in its earlier sections Gildas's history is sometimes wildly inaccurate or deliberately changed to make his polemical points more clearly (see entry on c.450). We have no independent evidence of the existence or nationality of Ambrosius Aurelianus, though he may well be the historical model for the legendary King Arthur. Since we do not know when Gildas was born or when he wrote his De Excidio, we cannot date the battle of Mount Badon , nor can we locate it. Archaeological evidence does however show that Anglo-Saxon artefacts were found over much of England by the early 6th century, and in much greater concentrations by the mid-6th century, which corroborates Gildas's statement that several parts of Britain were inaccessible because of the barbarians. Gildas's statement that some Britons fled overseas is also supported by evidence of British settlers from Holland to Spain , though the densest area of settlement was the peninsula of Armorica , which became Brittany .


Bede, from his vantage point in the 8th century, repeats Gildas's account but otherwise adds very little between the coming of the Anglo-Saxons in the mid-5th century and the coming of the Roman missionaries to convert them at the end of the 6th. We can only imagine what Bede might have told us about the pagan past if he had wished: his focus in his Ecclesiastical History is almost exclusively on the English Church and on Christian English kingdoms.


The 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives more dates, mostly of the arrivals of Saxon war-parties, their fights with the British, and the succession to the new-founded Saxon kingdoms of Kent, the West Saxons, and the South Saxons . While there are details here, they cannot be accepted as reliable: since the Saxons would have been illiterate from the invasions in the 5th century until their conversion in the 7th century, the dates and details are at best a matter of traditions and later guesswork. Very close parallels between the West Saxon and Kentish stories (not only following the same framework, but allowing the same number of years between events) strongly suggest that one was copied from the model of the other, which would mean that almost half of this part of the Chronicle could be dismissed outright. Further problems with the chronology of the West Saxon entries (which suggest that a set of annals originally starting in the mid-6th century was rewritten to begin in the late 5th) and the cast of characters of the Kentish entries (many of whom seem to be semi-divine figures of myth rather than real people) will be dealt with in separate entries on the legendary foundations of these kingdoms (see c.450 to 512 and 495 to 594)..


Some other Chronicle entries, by which arriving Saxons give their names to local settlements, look suspicious for another reason. While it is possible that a chieftain called Port arrived in 501 and landed at Portsmouth which was named after him, it is more likely that the name Portsmouth derives from Latin portus, "harbour", especially since no other Englishman was ever called Port. While there were other people called Wihtgar, the Wihtgar who is said to have arrived in 514 and was eventually buried at Wihtgaraburg on the Isle of Wight is most probably a later invention or misunderstanding, since Wihtgaraburg does not in fact mean "Wihtgar's fortress" but "the fortress of the inhabitants of Wight". A more prosaic explanation probably also lies behind the name of the Netley Marshes, which are said to be called after a British king Natanleod who was killed there in 508: since "Natanleod" bears no relation to any known British personal name, the marshes are probably so named because they are wet (OE næt, "wet" + leah, "meadow"). Such invention of past heroes based on misunderstood place-names is not limited to the Chronicle: Bede claims that Rochester was named for one of its chieftains called Hrof (HE, ii.3), whereas in fact we can see that the English form of the name is derived from the earlier British form which means not "Hrof's settlement" but "the bridges of the stronghold". Not all of the characters in early Chronicle entries can be dismissed as mistaken explanations of place-names, but it is likely that Port and Natanleod and Wihtgar, at least, are figments of later fiction rather than of 6th-century fact.


This leads inevitably to the question of that much more famous shadowy 6th-century character, King Arthur, who is supposed to have led the Britons successfully against the Saxons. His existence also seems to be confirmed by chronicles: the Annales Cambriae state that he fought at Mount Badon in 516 and died with Medraut (Mordred) at Camlann in 537. Further, the 9th-century Historia Brittonum lists twelve of his battles, leading up to his victory at Mount Badon . However, it seems that at least for the 6th century the Annales Cambriae are no more contemporary than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the two Arthurian entries were probably added in the 9th or 10th centuries. The Mount Badon annal seems to be based on the Historia Brittonum, and both are undermined by the fact that Gildas in the 6th century attributes this victory to Ambrosius Aurelianus rather than to Arthur. Gildas could have been mistaken, but a closer examination of "Arthur's" twelve battles shows good reason to re-attribute another seven to other people or situations, which suggests that famous battles came to be attributed to Arthur regardless of who originally fought them. Two of the remaining four "Arthurian" battles appear from other early sources to be entirely mythical, one a fight against werewolves and one a battle in which trees are magically animated to fight. It may then be that Arthur was originally a legendary hero of folklore who fought supernatural battles, and came to be seen as the greatest of heroes (a reference to a hero who strove valiantly "but was not Arthur" in a poem about a 6th-century battle would make sense in this context), and eventually had various "historical" battles attached to him. The Irish folk-hero Fionn underwent a similar transformation, from a mythical beginning to association with the defence against the Viking invasions of Ireland . [A thorough investigation of the historicity of Arthur, with detailed bibliography up to 1997, appears at]


J. Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons ( London : 1982), pp.23-7


O. Padel, "The Nature of Arthur", Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (1994), pp.1-31 [more comments and bibliography up to 1997 appear on Thomas Green's web page at]


P. Sims-Williams, "The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle", Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983), pp.1-41


B. Yorke, "The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the origins of Wessex ", The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms ( London : 1989), pp.84-96


c.450 to 512. Legendary foundation of Kent


Bede names the British ruler who "first" invited the English, Vortigern, and reports that the leaders of the Angles, or Saxons, were called Hengist and Horsa. Bede adds that a monument to Horsa still exists in eastern Kent , and that the kings of Kent were descended from Hengist's son Æsc, from which it is normally deduced that Hengest and Horsa landed in Kent . In fact, Bede does not say what land they held, and if they were imported to deal with Irish and Pictish incursions as Gildas suggests, they might more plausibly have been settled in the north of Britain . But later tradition claimed them as Kentish, and saw them landing at Ebbsfleet in Thanet (so the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum).


The Ravenna Cosmographer, writing perhaps at the same time as Bede, says that the Saxons arrived in Britain led by their prince Ansehis. This name looks like a blundered Continental form of Æsc and suggests that in one version of the story it was Æsc, not Hengist and Horsa, who led the Saxons to Britain . This raises the possibility that Hengist and Horsa were mythical founding figures, divine twins like Romulus and Remus, rather than real people. (Pairs of brothers with alliterating names also led migrations in accounts of the Lombards and Vandals; see Turville-Petre, p.274.) The Old English poem Beowulf includes cryptic references to a character called Hengist, perhaps a Jute, who played a key role in a dispute in Frisia between the Danes and the Frisians. This Hengist might afterwards have led his band of followers across the sea to Britain, but the existence of an alternate tradition that the Saxons were led to Britain by Æsc, and the fact that the kings of Kent trace their descent to Æsc, not to his more famous father Hengist, suggests that Hengist and his brother Horsa (who is not named in the Frisian conflict) were added on to the Kentish royal genealogy to give the later Kentish kings a link with the legendary Germanic past. This process of improving the king's pedigree can be seen at work in the West Saxon royal genealogy, which in the 7th century probably went back to Woden (Bede, HE, i.15); but by the 9th century had been extended back from Woden through several other Germanic heroes and then into Biblical figures and finally to Adam (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 855; see further Sisam).


On closer inspection, Æsc seems no more secure as a historical figure than Hengist and Horsa. Jordanes, writing a history of the Goths, notes that the people at the head of the Gothic genealogies are called demigods, that is Ansis, because of their victories. Ansis is another Continental variant of Æsc, and if as seems likely "Æsc" is a word meaning "divine hero" rather than the name of a real person, we are faced with the embarrassing possibility that Æsc might himself have been a later addition to the royal genealogy, and that the first sixty years of Kentish history, from the landing in about 449 to Æsc's death in 512, carefully recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, are completely fictitious.


According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hengist and Horsa landed in or shortly after 449, at the invitation of Vortigern. In 455 they fought against Vortigern at Aylesford, and Horsa was killed and Hengist and Æsc succeeded to the kingdom. In 456 Hengest and Æsc fought the Britons at Crayford, and after a great slaughter the Britons deserted Kent and fled to London . In 465 Hengest and Æsc defeated the Britons at Wippedesfleot (unidentified), and in 473 again at an unnamed place. In 488 Æsc succeeded to the kingdom (and presumably therefore Hengist died), and he was king of the people of Kent for 24 years.


It should be noted that Æsc succeeds to the kingdom twice, once in 455 and once in 488: this rouses further suspicions that the account is an attempt to graft together different origin legends. It is also unfortunate that the same pattern, a landing (449) followed six years later by the establishment of a kingdom (455) and almost forty years later by the death of the father and the passing of the kingdom to his son (488), is repeated exactly in the account of the foundation of the West Saxon kingdom (494/5, 500, and 534; for West Saxon complications see entry on 495 to 594). It seems unlikely that the two kingdoms developed at so precisely the same rate, and one or both accounts should probably be dismissed as origin legend instead of sober history. It is worth noting that a similar sequence of four battles (three of them named, and one of these leading to Horsa's death) appears in the account of the foundation of Kent in the Historia Brittonum, but in that case the battles end not with the flight of the Britons but with the defeat and flight of the English. The tradition that there were four battles in the early history of Kent is thus well established, but already in the 9th century it has been taken out of whatever historical context it may have had and used to support opposing pro-English and pro-British views of the past. Eleven hundred years later, we have no means of saying which interpretation is correct, if indeed the four battles were ever part of history and not just part of origin folklore like the arrival in three ships.


The history of Kent that we can actually recover begins not with Hengist and his son Æsc in the mid-5th century, but with Irminric and his son Æthelberht in the mid-6th (see entry on c.575).


N. Brooks, "The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent ", The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms ( London : 1989), pp.55-74


P. Sims-Williams, "The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle", Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983), pp.1-41


K. Sisam, "Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies", Proceedings of the British Academy 39 (1953), pp.287-348


J.R.R. Tolkien, Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode ( London : 1982)


J.E. Turville-Petre, "Hengest and Horsa", Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14 (1953-7), pp.273-90


B. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England ( London : 1990), pp.25-27


c.450 to735. Who was Bede?AD 673 735 and Foundation of Northumbria.




                                       Who was Bede?


Anglo-Saxon Northumbria as Bede saw it. Bede began his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the days of Roman Britain,   when Christianity first arrived in this island, and traced the thread of Christianity through the departure of the Romans, the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes and the development and eventual conversion of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and completed his work in 731.


The Venerable Bede Was a real man and his story fact.


"Servant of Christ and Priest of the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul which is at Wearmouth and Jarrow." These are the words which Bede used to describe himself. Today, we probably know him best as the author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People which he completed in AD 731. This work is our primary source for understanding the beginnings of the English people and the coming of Christianity. This is the first work of history in which the AD dating system is used.


Bede was born in AD 673 on the lands of the monastery. Of his family background we know nothing, save that he was entrusted at the age of 7 to the care of Benedict Biscop, the founder of the monastery, and then to Ceolfrith who in AD 681 was appointed Abbot of the new foundation at Jarrow. Bede spent the rest of his life in the monastery. He was ordained deacon at the age of 19 and priest at 30. He observed the Rule of the monastery and was punctilious in his attendance in choir at the daily offices. Outside of his time in choir, he worked as scholar and teacher; he records that "It has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write". And he explains that "I have made it my business, for my own benefit and that of my brothers, to make brief extracts from the works of the venerable fathers on the holy scriptures, or to add notes of my own to clarify their sense and interpretation".


The range of Bede's scholarship was astonishing, going far beyond the" History". Bishop Boniface, who led a mission to Germany, wrote of Bede that he "shone forth as a lantern in the church by his scriptural commentary"; and his commentaries on books of the Bible were widely sought and widely circulated. He wrote also of nature. He knew that the earth was a sphere. He had a sense of latitude and the annual movement of the sun into the north and south hemispheres from the evidence of varying lengths of shadows. He knew that the moon influenced the cycle of the tides. He wrote on calculating time and his exposition of the Great Cycle of 532 years was of fundamental value to the church in the task of calculating the date of Easter. He wrote a textbook for his students on poetic metres.






                                               Bede's tomb in Durham Cathedral.


Bede died in his cell at the monastery in the year 735. Cuthbert, a young monk who was with him later wrote an account of his death. He describes how Bede finished dictating a chapter of a book which he was composing. Then he said "I have a few treasures in my box, some pepper and napking and incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of our monastery, and I will share among them such little presents as God has given me."(For more information about Bede, the book by Sister Benedict Ward is highly recommended.see the end notes)


Bede notes that Northumbria was originally two separate kingdoms (HE, iii.1), Deira (north of the river Humber but south of the Tyne) and Bernicia (north of the Tyne ). Genealogies survive for both Deira and Bernicia , taking both royal lines back to Woden. In the first half of the 7th century the two kingdoms became one, ruled by descendents of Ida of Bernicia until the second half of the 8th century (see entry on 759).


In the earliest dated reference to a member of either royal family, Bede notes that Ida took power in 547 and ruled for twelve years (HE, v.24). However, comments attached to earlier members of the genealogies of both Bernicia and Deira suggest at least legendary beginnings back in the 5th century. For the Bernicians, a 9th-century manuscript adds to a report of Ida of Bernicia's accession in 547 that Ida's grandfather Oessa was the first to arrive in Britain (Dumville, "Chronicle-fragment", p.314). A rough guess at two generations back from 547 would put Oessa's arrival towards the end of the 5th century. The Deirans claimed an even earlier beginning: the Historia Brittonum's version of the genealogy of the Deirans (?61) states that Soemel, the great-great-great-grandfather of Ælle of Deira (who was king in 597) separated Deira from Bernicia . Five generations from Soemel to Ælle would probably put this division in the mid-5th century, before the arrival of the English Bernicians, which would mean that Soemel separated Deira from British control (Dumville, "Origins", p.218). Though the exploits of Oessa and Soemel are not recorded before the 9th century and may well be fictitious, archaeological evidence does confirm that there were already Anglo-Saxons in Northumbria by the third quarter of the 5th century, long before Ida began to rule (Hines, pp. 26-7).


Whatever the arrangements were before Ida, he remains the first known Northumbrian king. There is a Bernician regnal list copied into an early manuscript of Bede's History, which lists the kings from Ida to Ceolwulf (729-37), and gives the number of years each reigned (see Hunter Blair). From this list we can deduce the following reigns for the kings from Ida to Æthelfrith, and these reign-dates are almost all that is known of the earliest Bernician kings:


Ida, 547-59
Glappa, 559-60
Adda, 560-8
Æthelric, 568-72
Theodric, 572-9
Frithuwald, 579-85
Hussa, 585-92
Æthelfrith, 592-616


There was probably a similar list for Deira, but since the Deiran line came to an end in the 7th century there would be less cause to preserve it, and all that remains is three entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: that in 560 Ælle succeeded to Northumbria and ruled for 30 years, that in 588 (not 590, as one might expect) Ælle died and Æthelric reigned for 5 years, and that in 593 Æthelfrith succeeded to Northumbria. This is clearly muddled, not only because Ælle should have died in 590 if he ruled for 30 years from 560, but also because Bede states that Ælle and Æthelfrith were both reigning north of the Humber when Æthelberht of Kent greeted the Roman missionaries in 597 (Bede, Chronica Maiora, entry 531, extracted at Miller, p.41). Bede's authority that Ælle was in power in 597 should be preferred over the Chronicle's assertion that Ælle died in 588 (and, implicitly, also in 590). The Chronicle entries are probably based on a regnal list which stated that Ælle reigned for 30 years, and then Æthelric reigned for 5 years, and then Æthelfrith took over Deira, but without knowing the date of Æthelfrith's conquest it is impossible to say when Ælle's reign should begin. (For a likely explanation of how the Chronicle arrived at Æthelfrith's accession in 593, and so put Æthelric's accession in 588 without recognizing the inconsistency with Ælle's accession in 560, see Miller, pp.46-7.) All we can say for certain about the Deiran kings before Edwin is that Ælle (Edwin's father) was ruling c.597.


The political situation in Northumbria was extremely fluid in the first half of the 7th century, with sometimes two separate countries, sometimes a united Northumbria under a Bernician ruler, and once a united Northumbria under a Deiran ruler. Æthelfrith of Bernicia (592-616; q.v.) was the first known ruler of all Northumbria , and Edwin of Deira succeeded him to the whole kingdom (616-33; q.v.). Shortly after the division of the kingdom on Edwin's death (see entry on 633) both kingdoms were reunited under Oswald of Bernicia (634-42); after Oswald's death in 642 there were again separate rulers until Oswiu of Bernicia ordered the killing of Oswine of Deira in 651. While there may have been sub-kings of Deira for the next thirty years or so, Oswine was probably the last independent king of a separate Deira, and so with hindsight we can say that Northumbria became a single kingdom under Bernician control in 651.


Though Northumbria may have been a single country from the mid-7th century, political fluidity remained something of a Northumbrian characteristic, as can be seen in the rapid changes of ruler (and dynasty) in the second half of the 8th century (see entry on 758), and the freedom with which the Northumbrians seemed to choose between English and Viking kings in the mid-10th century (see entry on 947-54).


J. Hines, "Philology, Archaeology and the adventus Saxonum vel Anglorum", Britain 400-600: Language and History, edd. A. Bammesberger and A. Wollmann ( Heidelberg , 1990), pp.17-36


P. Hunter Blair, "The Moore Memoranda on Northumbrian History", in C. Fox and B. Dickins (edd.), The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (Cambridge: 1950), pp.245-57


D. Dumville, "A new chronicle-fragment of early British history", English Historical Review 88 (1973), pp.312-4


D. Dumville, "The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists", Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976), pp.23-50


D. Dumville, "The origins of Northumbria : some aspects of the British background", in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms ( London : 1989), pp.213-22


M. Miller, "The dates of Deira", Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979), pp.35-61


Sister Benedicta Ward 1998. The Venerable Bede Geoffrey Chapman, London.
ISBN 0-225-66859-9





Kent, kings of (act. c.450–c.590), rulers in Kent, held power in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom almost as the modern county of Kent is today, from its foundation to the accession of King Æthelberht I (d. about 616). The traditional founders of the Kentish royal house are the two brothers Hengist (d. about 488) and Horsa (d. about 455). Bede identified them as the leaders of the Germanic forces (Now known as Saxons) invited to Britain by Vortigern, as described by Gildas, (also in the beginning of this work) Bede calculated that they had arrived in about 449. By the ninth century an elaborate saga existed describing the history or story of the relations between Hengist, Horsa, and Vortigern which appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in rather more detail the ninth-century Welsh compilation, known as the Historia Brittonum, where the defeat of the British is attributed in part to Vortigern's love for Hengist's daughter. It appears from the chronicle narrative to be particularly convincing, with named battles and protagonists. But even without the heros of the day personalities and places, the idea of the originally peaceful settlement of Germanic tribes in a military sence is supported by the archaeological evidence. In Kent, infact East Anglia, apparently peculiarly Germanic inhumation burials can be dated to the first half of the fifth century, and the goods found in them include clothing and belt furniture of a kind worn by Germans in the service of the Roman military. The fact that these mercenaries turnd on their erstwhile employers is highly plausible. The chronicle says that first of all Hengist and Horsa fought forVortigern against the Celtic tribes and then against Vortigan himself at ‘Ægelesthrep’ in 455, with  Hengist became king, while  Horsa was killed in the battle, Bede reports that a monument bearing his name could be seen in the eastern part of Kent this being about 200 years after the event.

Despite this detailed account it seems more likely that Hengist and Horsa were mythical founders God like heros rather than real people. Their names mean ‘stallion’ and ‘horse’, and the possibility that they were in origin equine Gods deities receives some support from accounts that in nineteenth-century Saxony protective roof-finials in the shape of horse-heads were known by their names. The Hengist who appears in Old English poetry as a Jutish leader is no doubt intended to be the same person as the founder of the Kentish royal house, for Bede says that the Germanic settlers in Kent were of Jutish stock. However, the literary references cannot be seen as independent confirmation of Hengist's existence as a real person, as they may have been influenced by the development of his legend within England. My thoughts are that it is all a legond made from some fact some fiction some exaggeration in the telling of the tail, possible the two men were acual people but after the battles the heros took on the names of the horse Gods, Hengist the stallion and Horsa the white horse God. The White horse being the present Kentish simble. A small digrestion then back to Hengist.
The white horse returns


The so called White Horse of Hanover more correctly named in German heraldry as ‘das Sachsenross’, the Saxon Charger (since Hanover shared this emblem with others) is one of Europe’s oldest symbols and long pre-dates heraldry. It was the totem of the original Saxon tribe occupying the area between the Weser and the Elbe in Roman times.


From here came the invaders of Britain in the fifth century A.D. led by chiefs with the titles ‘Hengist’ and ‘Horsa’ (they were not names) both meaning “the stallion”or “the horse” in old German. They celebrated their con­quests by carving their totem in the chalk Downlands along Southern England, and Kent has long borne the Saxon horse as its emblem.


The great Saxon leader Witikind, a contemporary of Charlemagne, flew a red banner bearing the white stallion; and in the twelfth century when Henry the Lion was ruling the area, then called Westfalen, he used the same banner. During the middle Ages the name ‘Saxony’ was transferred to the present province in South Germany and the old territory of Lower Saxony was divided, mainly between the Prince ­Archbishopric of Cologne and the Askanier family. In time the latter gave place to the Welf dukes of Brunswick, and both the Archbishops and the dukes bore the white horse on a red field in their arms for these lands they now ruled. Incidentally, a small part of Old Saxony passed to the Prince-bishops of Utrecht and they dealt with this armorially in a different way; they gave the white horse to their episcopal city, who placed it on a red banner and mounted their patron saint, Martin of Tours, upon it to protect them.


In course of time, dynastic marriages carried the quarter gules with the Weisses Rossl over much of Europe, and eventually the dukes of Bruns­wick became Electors of Hanover and, on succeeding to the crown of Great Britain, they introduced the White Horse and their motto— Quo fas et gloria ducunt—into Britain. As a royal emblem, four English regiments subsequently adopted the White Horse as their badge Third  Hussars, The King’s Regiment, the West Yorkshire Regiment and the Northamptonshire Yeomanry. In March 1945 the British army crossed the Rhine and advanced into Old Saxony. The White Horse there remains the local symbol, and farms and older houses in towns have ‘barge-boards’ on the gables, each terminating in the forepart of a white horse.


By chance, only one of the four regiments above took part in this advance the Northants Yeomanry and with the capitulation of the Third Reich, the Regi­ment was posted to garrison duty in the Blekede district of Brunswick. The local inhabitants were surprised that all the troops bore the same horse on caps and battledress-collars as decorated their own houses! The N.Y. had brought back the White Horse to its birthplace, the banks of the river Elbe.


Closer to home at the Lakenheath RAF base Suffolk the more resent discovery in 1998 of the Saxon worrier buried with his weapons and his horse complete with bridle confirmed the Saxon fascination and love of his horse. It is also believed that the tumuli at Bodney near Watton Norfolk some of which cover 1.5 acres contain the Saxon remains of chieftains or even Saxon kings also contain the buried remains of the man and his beloved horse.


                   White Horse                             
Hengist is said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have succeeded to the kingdom in 455 with his son Æsc (d. about 512,) and successful battles against the British are recorded at ‘Creacanford’ in 456, at ‘Wippedesfleot’ in 465, and in an unrecorded location in 473.


Æsc, or OISC [ASH] (d about 512), the son of Hengist, ealdorman of the Jutes, landed with his father at Ebbsfleet in 449. War broke out between the new settlers and the natives in 455. The Jutes met the Britons at Aylesford. Horsa, the brother of Hengist, fell in the fight, but the Jutes gained the day. The consequence of this victory was that Hengist and Æsc were made kings of their people. In this change of title from ealdorman to king is contained the first institution of the English kingship. Hereditary succession was secured by the association of Æsc with his father in the new dignity. Æsc took part with Hengist in the battle of Crayford in 457, and the two kings inflicted so decisive a defeat upon the Britons that they ‘forsook Kentland, and with much fear fled to London.’ After this, however, the energy of Aurelius Ambrosianus infused new spirit into the natives, and the tide of Jutish conquest received a sharp check. By 465 the fortune of the war had again changed, and Hengist and Æsc won a great battle at Wippedsfleet, where twelve of the Welsh leaders were slain. The conquest of Kent was secured by another victory of the Jutish kings in 473, and ‘the Welsh fled from the Angles like fire.’ During the lifetime of his father, Æsc probably reigned as under-king over a division of the Kentish men, and his kingship may perhaps indicate the existence of a tribal division, which is said to be marked by the later kingdoms of the East and West Kentings of the eighth century, and to be preserved in the ecclesiastical arrangement which fixed the two sees of Canterbury and Rochester in the two divisions of the shire. In 488 Hengist died. Æsc succeeded to the kingdom, and reigned for twenty-four years. Henry of Huntingdon says that his reign was glorious, and the assertion is confirmed by the fact that Æsc's successors, the kings of the Kentish men, took the patronymic of Oiscingas or Æscingas.  


 In 488 Æsc became king in his own right, presumably Hengist is supposed to have died at this point and is said to have reigned for twenty-four years. Bede believed that Hengist's son was in fact called Oeric, but that his cognomen was Oisc (cognate with Æsc) and that the kings of Kent were known from him as the Oiscingas. The name Æsc or Oisc seems to mean ‘god’ and the possibility must therefore be allowed that he too is a thinly disguised deity. Possibly Oeric is a genuine progenitor with whom the name of Oisc (Æsc) came to be associated, but in view of the dubious company he keeps it becomes very difficult to accept the battles cited for him and his equally problematical ‘father’ in the chronicle as reliable accounts of the early history of the kingdom of Kent. Oeric's son is said by Bede to be Octa (about512), although in another version of the Kentish royal pedigree, in the so-called ‘Anglian collection’ of genealogies, it is Octa (Ocga) who is the son of Hengist and Oisc (Oese) who is the grandson. There is little or no activities recorded for Octa, though his reign would have begun in 512, according to the chronicle reckoning for the length of Æsc's reign.

I find from the third generation from Hengist that there appears an individual who can with some certainty be identified as the king of Kent. The son of Octa (Bede) or Oese (Anglian collection) was Eormenric who was the father of Æthelberht, the first king of Kent whom Bede discusses in some detail. Æthelberht I (d.about 616), king of Kent, and a member of the Kentish royal dynasty, the Oiscingas, belived to have been founded by Æsc son of Hengist.


Chronology of the reign


It has generally been assumed that Æthelberht became king in 560 or 561, on the basis of Bede's information that he ruled for fifty-six years and died on 24 February 616. This would have been a reign of quite exceptional length (no other Anglo-Saxon king is known to have ruled for so long), and there has been some suspicion that Bede's figures may not be entirely reliable; for instance, it has been suggested that fifty-six years properly applied to Æthelberht's age at death, and not the length of his reign. Some reliance has been placed on two brief comments by Gregory of Tours in relation to the marriage between Æthelberht and Bertha (b. c.565, d. in or after 601), daughter of the Merovingian Frankish king Charibert, which is unlikely to have taken place before the mid-570s. In the first instance (which occurs in a part of Gregory's Libri historiarum probably written in 581 or before) Gregory says simply that Bertha married a certain Kentishman; in the second (composed c.589) he states that her husband was ‘the son of a certain king in Kent’ (History of the Franks, 9.26). The implication would seem to be that Æthelberht was not yet king when he married Bertha (apparently between the mid-570s and 581) and that he may not have succeeded his father until after 589.

It is difficult to know how much weight to give to Gregory's comments. He was a contemporary, and he was a close associate of Bertha's mother; on the other hand, he clearly had little or no interest in Anglo-Saxon matters and may have been mistaken about Æthelberht's status. The English sources (which may not be entirely independent of Bede) agree in giving Æthelberht a very long reign. One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions Æthelberht's accession under the year 565 and states that he ruled for fifty-three years (liii is conceivably a scribal error for lvi). The annal for 568 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions an incident in which the West Saxon rulers Ceawlin and Cutha fought against Æthelberht and drove him into Kent. This may have been another man, perhaps a recalcitrant West Saxon princeling; but if it was the more celebrated Æthelberht, then it would appear that already in 568 he was in a position to lead an army into a neighbouring kingdom. A possible explanation for the discrepancy between Gregory and the English sources is that Æthelberht was appointed co-ruler or sub-king during his father's lifetime, but did not have full power until Eormenric's death; but this seems incapable of proof.


Conversion to Christianity


The most important episode in Æthelberht's reign was the arrival in Kent in 597 (or possibly late 596) of a party of missionaries sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great had already been exposed to Christianity for some years; his marriage to Bertha had been approved only on condition that she was permitted freely to practise her faith, and she had brought with her from her homeland a bishop named Liudhard (and presumably also a Christian retinue). Bede's account of the meeting between Æthelberht and the missionaries stresses the king's suspicion of the new arrivals and indicates that he was still a committed pagan; but it is difficult to believe that the mission would have gone ahead without some kind of prior consent or request from Æthelberht. He may have been bowing to pressure from his Frankish connections; certain letters of Pope Gregory hint at some Merovingian involvement in the decision to attempt the conversion of Kent (and the fact that the Franks had sent a bishop to Kent as Bertha's chaplain rather than a simple priest may indicate that they had already made some plans to evangelize the area). Certainly Æthelberht received Augustine and his companions most graciously and very quickly agreed to be baptized. The exact date of his conversion remains uncertain; Bede at one stage says that it took place twenty-one years before Æthelberht died (which would seem to be before Augustine's arrival in Kent). Certainly there is good reason to suppose that Æthelberht was Christian by the end of 597, for in a letter of July 598 Pope Gregory boasts that up to Christmas of the previous year Augustine had made ten thousand English converts; such mass conversions are unlikely to have taken place until after the king had accepted Christianity.




Already at the time of Augustine's arrival Æthelberht seems to have been to some degree acknowledged as overlord of all the English kingdoms south of the Humber. According to Bede, he was the third Anglo-Saxon ruler to enjoy such recognition; his predecessors had been Ælle of the South Saxons, who probably lived in the fifth century, and Ceawlin of the West Saxons, who died about 593. The exact nature of Æthelberht's overlordship is very unclear (it was probably in the main a question of military leadership), but certain episodes in Bede's narrative do indicate that he had some authority outside the boundaries of Kent. It was apparently with Æthelberht's help that Augustine summoned the bishops of the Britons for a conference at ‘Augustine's Oak’, which appears to have been located somewhere on the border between the modern counties of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire or Somerset (possibly Æthelberht did no more than provide a safe conduct or an escort). Æthelberht appears to have dominated the kingdom of the East Saxons, ruled in the early seventh century by his nephew Sæberht (d. about 616), son of his sister Ricule; he superintended the conversion of the East Saxons and built the church of St Paul's in London as an episcopal seat for Mellitus. Æthelberht's relations with Rædwald of East Anglia are more difficult to define. Bede identifies Rædwald as the fourth of the Southumbrian overlords, and adds an obscure comment which has been translated as indicating that Rædwald began to enjoy this position before Æthelberht died; a preferable interpretation may be that during Æthelberht's lifetime Rædwald retained the military leadership of the East Angles, which would normally have devolved upon the Southumbrian overlord. It seems probable that Rædwald was first introduced to Christianity while in attendance at Æthelberht's court.


Kingship on the Frankish model


In Kent itself Æthelberht was responsible for a number of important innovations. Perhaps as early as 602–3 he compiled with his advisers a written law-code, which gave the fledgeling Kentish church a secure position within the kingdom but which was also concerned with a wide range of secular issues. As far as is known, the use of writing was effectively introduced into England by the Roman missionaries in 597; and so it is interesting that Æthelberht's code was in English rather than Latin, since it implies that an almost immediate effort had been made to transform the native language from an oral to a written form. Presumably the vernacular was chosen for reasons of practicality and in order to stress continuity; Æthelberht's written code was probably an extension of oral pronouncements previously made in assembly by himself and his predecessors. Bede says that Æthelberht was here influenced by Roman example, but the real parallels for his legislation lie in the law-codes issued by the Germanic kings on the continent, including the Franks.

Another possible innovation on the part of Æthelberht was the creation of a royal capital city at Canterbury. When Augustine arrived in 597 Æthelberht gave him a dwelling-place in the city, which Bede describes as the metropolis or chief city of his realm and elsewhere as a ‘royal city’. To grasp the unusual nature of this statement it must be realized that in sixth-century England there is almost no evidence of any continuing urban life in the old Roman cities; virtually the whole population lived on the land, and the kings followed suit, making an itinerant progress from one royal estate to another. Canterbury itself would appear to have been essentially deserted for a long period during the fifth century, and population levels during the sixth are likely to have been very low. The idea that a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon kingdom might have a royal ‘capital’ is certainly remarkable say the leased.

A third area where Æthelberht seems to have made an important change which reflected on the nature of kingship in Kent is in the establishment of a royal burial church on the outskirts of Canterbury, St Peter and St Paul (which was to develop into St Augustine's Abbey); this was intended to provide a dynastic burial place for the kings of Kent, who were interred in a chapel dedicated to St Martin, and also to cater for the archbishops of Canterbury. This innovation marked a very significant break with the past, and underlined Æthelberht's commitment to the new religion; it also seems to reflect an imitation of the burial practices of the Frankish royal dynasty (the connection is emphasized by the dedication of the royal burial chapel, for the cult of St Martin was closely associated with the Merovingians). It seems likely that in this instance Æthelberht was influenced by the wishes and expectations of his Frankish queen, but there may well be a deeper level of aspiration involved. In accepting Christianity, perhaps establishing a capital, issuing a law-code, and creating a dynastic burial church, Æthelberht was following in the footsteps of the Frankish king Clovis, who had effectively founded the fortunes of the Merovingians. Whether Æthelberht saw himself as the English Clovis it is impossible to say, but it does seem likely that he was very influenced by Frankish ideas of kingship. His marriage to Bertha was not an isolated episode of cross-channel contact. Kent was an important Frankish trading partner, and the sixth-century Kentish cemeteries have yielded a profusion of Frankish and Frankish-style luxury grave-goods. And Æthelberht's marriage may not have been the first alliance between the Merovingians and the Oiscingas; his father Eormenric had a name of distinctively Frankish type. There is a controversial hypothesis that Kent and other kingdoms of southern England were in fact under Merovingian overlordship during parts of the sixth and seventh centuries. Certainly there are hints that the Frankish kings did like to think that they should enjoy some kind of hegemony over their neighbours, but it is debatable whether this was ever translated into reality in southern England. It is particularly hard to credit in the case of Æthelberht, whose power over his own neighbours seems incompatible with subordination to the Merovingians.


Death, burial, and succession


Bede's date for Æthelberht's death (24 February 616) is probably correct, although it has been pointed out that some early annals give an obit in 618 (presumably this is to be connected with the information behind the later annal in text E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which gives an accession date in 565 and a reign length of fifty-six years). Æthelberht was buried in the new royal mausoleum at Canterbury; an unofficial cult seems to have developed and from the thirteenth century his name appears in calendars. According to later sources at St Augustine's, Bertha (who appears to have taken the Anglo-Saxon name Æthelburh after her arrival in England) died before her husband, and before the new burial church was consecrated; she was buried outside and later transferred into the royal burial chapel. Æthelberht appears to have married again (at a very venerable age, if the traditional date for his accession is correct) or to have had a concubine, for after his death his son Eadbald (d. 640) married his father's widow (that is, his stepmother), to the consternation of the Roman missionaries. Æthelberht's known offspring are Eadbald, who succeeded him, and a daughter, Æthelburh (also known as Tate), who married King Eadwine of the Northumbrians in 625. Some Kentish sources also credit him with another daughter named Eadburh, said to have been buried in the minster at Lyminge (but there may be confusion here with a later Abbess Eadburh of Minster in Thanet).

There are five surviving charters in Æthelberht's name, three from St Augustine's and one each from the episcopal archives at St Paul's in London and Rochester. I would add that none is authentic, or has any genuine basis.


 Back to Frankish princess, Gregory of Tours, writing of the marriage of the Frankish princess Bertha, daughter of King Charibert, to Æthelberht, describes him as ‘the son of a certain king in Kent’ and that is the only reference which definitely implies that Eormenric ruled as king (Gregory of Tours, 4.26). The marriage is not the only evidence for strong Frankish influence in Kent during the sixth century. As prevesly stated Grave-goods from Kentish cemeteries show not only the acquisition of luxury goods made or acquired through Francia, but also the adoption of Frankish fashions of dress and other ways of displaying status. The first element of Eormenric's name is uncommon among Anglo-Saxon personal names, but relatively common in Francia, and so may be further evidence for Frankish influence in the time of his parents, perhaps aided by the fact that people from Kent seem to have settled within Francia in the vicinity of Boulogne.

Eormenric's reign cannot be dated precisely. Bede believed that Æthelberht succeeded to the throne in 560, which by implication would be the date of Eormenric's death. But as previously stated Gregory of Tours's says that Æthelberht was not yet king of Kent when he married Bertha implies that the 560 date cannot be correct, for Bertha was not born until some time between 561 and 568 and Gregory seems to have believed that Æthelberht was still a filius regis (‘son of the king’) at the time he was writing in 589. Even if it is allowed that Gregory may not have been fully informed on the Kentish succession, Eormenric's reign must be placed in the second half of the sixth century.



ASC, s.a. 449, 455, 456, 465, 473, 477, 568 · Bede, Hist. eccl., 1.15; 2.5 · D. N. Dumville, ‘The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists’, Anglo-Saxon England, 5 (1976), 23–50 · N. Brooks, ‘The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent’, The origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, ed. S. Bassett (1989), 55–74 · Gregory of Tours, The history of the Franks, ed. and trans. L. Thorpe (1974), bk 4. p.26; bk 9 p. 26 · I. N. Wood, The Merovingian North Sea (1983) · B. A. E. Yorke, ‘Gregory of Tours and sixth-century Anglo-Saxon England’, The world of Gregory of Tours, ed. K. Mitchell and I. Wood (Leiden, 2002) · B. A. E. Yorke, Kings and kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England (1990) · L. Oliver, The beginnings of English law (2002)


Foot Notes 


Hengist (d 488), joint-founder with his brother Horsa (d 455) of the English kingdom of Kent, belonged to a leading family of the Jutes, settled in the peninsula of Jutland, where they held land as far south as the river Sley, which runs into the sea near Schleswig. In early traditions their ancestry is traced back to the gods. Witta, who is described as their grandfather, and, according to Beowulf, ‘ruled Sueves,’ is supposed by Sir James Simpson to be the Vetta, son of Victi, whose burial is commemorated by the inscription on the Catstane at Kirkliston, between six and seven miles from Edinburgh. The suggestion is ingenious, and it is clear from Ammianus Marcellinus that Saxons, a name that might fairly be taken to include Jutes or Angles, were in Scotland, leagued with the Picts and Scots, about 364, a date at which it is quite possible for the grandfather of Hengist to have been alive. Kemble suggested, on the other hand, that not only their ancestors, who are traced back to Teutonic divinities, but Hengist and Horsa themselves, were mythical. The word ‘Hengist’ means a horse, and in the names of the hero's family ‘names of horses’ form a distinguishing part of the royal appellatives. Thus the whole story, it is suggested, may spring out of some prehistoric worship of horses. But there is sufficient contemporary evidence of the existence of Hengist and Horsa as human beings to make this theory untenable. The absence, however, of any contemporary accounts of their careers in Britain makes their biography largely matter of conjecture.

According to the best authority, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,’ Hengist and Horsa arrived in 449 at Ebbsfleet in the parish of Minster in the Isle of Thanet ‘in aid of the Britons,’ with a few followers in three ships. Bede, who wrote nearly three centuries after the event, following a vague hint of Gildas, asserts that they came by invitation of Vortigern, king of South Britain, to aid in repelling the invasion of the Picts and Scots. Like the ‘Chronicle,’ Bede gives the year of their coming as 449. Nennius, the reputed author of the ‘Historia Britonum,’ who collected the legends on the subject current among the Welsh in the latter part of the eighth century, would seem with less probability to fix the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in 428, and says that they and their followers were exiles from their own country. Vortigern, according to all the early accounts, received the strangers hospitably, and assigned to them the Isle of Thanet for a habitation. Bede and Nennius agree in stating that when the news of their reception reached their original home very many others came to join them, until the whole of Kent was occupied. The story, as elaborated from Welsh sources in the ‘Historia Britonum,’ and by Geoffrey of Monmouth, represents that Hengist sent for his daughter and gave her to Vortigern in marriage in exchange for the whole of Kent, and that Hengist's son Aesc or Oisc, and Horsa's son Abisa, afterwards arrived with a fleet of forty galleys. But it is probable that the whole legend of Vortigern's relations with Hengist, even including the original invitation, is a myth concocted and kept alive by the Welsh to account with least discredit to themselves for the beginnings of their extermination at the hands of the Teutonic invaders. It is almost certain that there were settlements of Jutes, or of tribes nearly akin, in Kent before 449, but it is possible that on Hengist's arrival about that date Vortigern recognised their settlement, and gave it something like formal sanction (cf. FREEMAN, Historical Essays, 1st ser. 36 sq., and his Norman Conquest, i. 9 sq.).

That in 455 a vigorous attempt was made to expel them by Vortigern, which was partially successful, is confirmed by the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.’ One victory was certainly gained by the natives at Aylesford, where Horsa was killed, but the victors (according to Nennius) lost one of their leaders, Catigern, a son of Vortigern, to whose memory it is supposed that Kits Coty House was erected, while Horsa is said to have been buried about four miles further north at Horsted, where there are still a number of large stones which may have once formed part of the ‘monumentum insigne’ spoken of by Bede. Some antiquaries, influenced by Bede's statement that the monument was in the eastern part of Kent, locate it at Stonor, but Bede was a north-country man, and not likely to be accurately informed in the matter.

Two other victories by the Britons, viz. on the river Darenth and at Folkestone, or more probably Stonor in Thanet, are reported in the Welsh legends, with the result that Hengist returned home and founded (according to Frisian legend) the town of Leyden. Shortly after (the Welsh legends continue) Vortemir, Vortigern's eldest son and Hengist's chief foe, died; whereupon Hengist, trusting to his influence over Vortigern, came back, and succeeded in making a permanent settlement, which was rendered more secure by the treacherous murder of three hundred British at a meeting to discuss terms of peace, and by the capture of Vortigern at the same time, for whose ransom Essex, Sussex, and Middlesex were surrendered. But these events are not mentioned in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,’ and are doubtless legendary fabrications. All that seems positively known of Hengist after the battle of Aylesford is that he gained three decisive victories, with the aid of his son Aesc or Oisc, over the Britons, namely: at Crayford in 457, when the Britons forsook Kent; at ‘Wippedesfleote,’ so called from the death of one of the Jutish thanes, Wipped, in 465; and at another unnamed place, probably in south-east Kent, in 473, when ‘the Welsh fled from the English as from fire.’

In 488 Hengist died, and was succeeded by his son Aesc or Oisc, but little is known of the kingdom of Kent or its rulers till the arrival in 597 of Augustine, who found Ethelbert [q.v.] king. Ethelbert is said to have been son of Eormenric, grandson of Oisc, and great-grandson of Hengist.




Gildas, Anglo-Saxon Chron.; Bede; Henry of Huntingdon in Monumenta Historica Britannica, in which work see also the Historia Britonum ascribed to Nennius and T. D. Hardy's general introduction. Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Britonum largely follows Nennius. The modern authorities are: Turner's Anglo-Saxons, i. 234; Lappenberg's England under the Anglo-Saxon Kings, i. 67; Palgrave's History of the Anglo-Saxons, p. 28; Elton's Origins of English History (1890), pp. 344–69; Skene's Celtic Scotland, i. 146, 149, 189; Guest's Origines Celticæ, ii. 147; Green's Making of England, p. 270; Kemble's Saxons in England, i. cap. i.; Grimm's Teutonic Mythology, iv. 1711–13. See also Hasted's Kent, ii. 69; Archæologia Cantiana, viii. 18; Mallet's Northern Antiquities, p. 79.


Foot Notes


Æsc, or OISC [ASH] (d 512?), the son of Hengist, ealdorman of the Jutes, landed with his father at Ebbsfleet in 449. War broke out between the new settlers and the natives in 455. The Jutes met the Britons at Aylesford. Horsa, the brother of Hengist, fell in the fight, but the Jutes gained the day. The consequence of this victory was that Hengist and Æsc were made kings of their people. In this change of title from ealdorman to king is contained the first institution of the English kingship. Hereditary succession was secured by the association of Æsc with his father in the new dignity. Æsc took part with Hengist in the battle of Crayford in 457, and the two kings inflicted so decisive a defeat upon the Britons that they ‘forsook Kentland, and with much fear fled to London.’ After this, however, the energy of Aurelius Ambrosianus infused new spirit into the natives, and the tide of Jutish conquest received a sharp check. By 465 the fortune of the war had again changed, and Hengist and Æsc won a great battle at Wippedsfleet, where twelve of the Welsh leaders were slain. The conquest of Kent was secured by another victory of the Jutish kings in 473, and ‘the Welsh fled from the Angles like fire.’ During the lifetime of his father, Æsc probably reigned as under-king over a division of the Kentish men, and his kingship may perhaps indicate the existence of a tribal division, which is said to be marked by the later kingdoms of the East and West Kentings of the eighth century, and to be preserved in the ecclesiastical arrangement which fixed the two sees of Canterbury and Rochester in the two divisions of the shire. In 488 Hengist died. Æsc succeeded to the kingdom, and reigned for twenty-four years. Henry of Huntingdon says that his reign was glorious, and the assertion is confirmed by the fact that Æsc's successors, the kings of the Kentish men, took the patronymic of Oiscingas or Æscingas.




Anglo-Saxon Chron.; Bede, Hist. Ecc. lib. ii. cap. 5; Guest, Early English Settlements; Green, Making of England, c. 1.