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A map showing the general locations of the Anglo-Saxon peoples around the year 600
Britain around the year 800

Heptarchy (Greek: ἑπτά + ἀρχή seven + realm) is a collective name applied to the supposed seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of south, east, and central Great Britain during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages which eventually unified into the Kingdom of England. During the same period, what is now Scotland and Wales were also divided into comparable petty kingdoms. The term has been in use since the 16th century but the initial idea that there were seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is attributed to the English historian Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century and was first used in his Historia Anglorum.[1]


Use of the term

By convention the label is considered to cover the period from AD 500 to AD 850, often referred to as the Dark Ages, which approximately represents the period following the departure of Roman legions from Britain until the unification of the kingdoms under Egbert of Wessex.

The word heptarchy refers to the existence (as was thought) of seven kingdoms, which eventually merged to become the basis for the Kingdom of England; these were Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The period supposedly lasted until the seven kingdoms began to consolidate into larger units, but the actual events marking this transition are debatable. At various times within the conventional period, certain rulers of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex (such as Penda of Mercia) claimed hegemony over larger areas of England; yet as late as the reigns of Eadwig and Edgar (955–75), it was still possible to speak of separate kingdoms within the English population.

In reality the end of the Heptarchy was a gradual process. The 9th century Viking raids that led to the establishment of a Danish-controlled enclave at York, and ultimately to the Danelaw, gained considerable advantage from the petty rivalries between the old kingdoms. The need to unite against the common enemy was recognised, so that by the time Alfred of Wessex resisted the Danes in the late 9th century, he did so essentially as the leader of an Anglo-Saxon nation. Successive kings of Wessex (and especially Athelstan) progressively reinforced the English unitary state, until the old constituent kingdoms in effect became irrelevant.

Recent research has revealed that some of the Heptarchy kingdoms (notably Essex and Sussex) did not achieve the same status as the others. Conversely, there also existed alongside the seven kingdoms a number of other political divisions which played a more significant role than previously thought. Such were the kingdoms (or sub-kingdoms) of: Bernicia and Deira within Northumbria; Lindsey in present-day Lincolnshire; the Hwicce in the southwest Midlands; the Magonsæte or Magonset, a sub-kingdom of Mercia in what is now Herefordshire; the Wihtwara, a Jutish kingdom on the Isle of Wight, originally as important as the Cantwara of Kent; the Middle Angles, a group of tribes based around modern Leicestershire, later conquered by the Mercians; the Hæstingas (around the town of Hastings in Sussex); and the Gewisse, a Saxon tribe in what is now southern Hampshire later developing into the kingdom of Wessex.

Certainly the term Heptarchy has been considered unsatisfactory since the early 20th century, and many professional historians no longer use it, feeling that it does not accurately describe the period to which it refers. However, it is still sometimes used as a label of convenience for a phase in the development of England.

Anglo-Saxon England heptarchy

The four main kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England were:

The other main kingdoms which were conquered by others entirely at some point in their history are:


Other minor kingdoms and territories

See also


Further reading

  • Stenton, F. M. (1971) Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edition. Oxford U. P.
  • Campbell, J. et al. (1991) The Anglo-Saxons. Harmondsworth: Penguin

External links

Preceded by
Sub-Roman Britain
The Heptarchy
circa 550–927
Succeeded by
Kingdom of England

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
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From LoveToKnow 1911

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