Saxon Kings

Statue of King Alfred, on the High Steet in WinchesterFollowing their arrival in Britain, the Anglo-Saxon family groups dominated their newly won land and rapidly settled down to a farming lifestyle. As befits their "warrior" ancestry, things were far from peaceful though. While today we view the Saxons as a single group, in reality they were collections of groups. This was fine in the early stages of the conquest, when there was a defined enemy (the indigenous Britons) with each group of Saxons fighting for the land.

As time went on, when the Britons were largely isolated into the regions now called Cornwall, Wales and Scotland., the Saxon groupings had less and less external enemies and conflict between farmsteads began. With this background the Saxon warrior chieftains took a greater role, in the provision of protection and as an organising force.

The land the Saxons had conquered was dotted with Roman towns although most of these held little interest for the Saxons as there was none of the Roman bureaucratic infrastructure to support them. The Saxon community revolved around the farmstead and the village, in the centre of which was often the hall of the local lord (Saxon word hlaford, meaning "bread guardian"). Within these halls, feasts were held and bards told tales of the Germanic - Norse Gods and Heroes. This lifestyle is often the centrepeice of sagas such as Beowulf and was common to the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and scandinavians.

The Venerable Bede, Public Domain image from WikiSourceThese small village tribal groups often vied with others for dominance and started forming small "kingdoms," with the dominant cheiftain becoming a King. Amongst these, the most dominant King appears to be refered to as Bretwaldas (sometimes Brytenwaldas) meaning "Britain King". It is not possible to know how widely used this term was at the time, but certainly by the time Bede was writing his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) sometime in the Eighth century the term was used. It is likely that the Bretwaldas were cheiftains who by force of personality or arms managed to gain a dominant position over the other kingdoms, and it seems that this dominance was not passed on automatically. Bede is reported as listing seven Bretwaldas:

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms in approx AD 600Bede's list can be interpreted as meaning that a Bretwaldas reign was different to modern understanding of Kings (based mainly on Feudal Europe post AD 1066), in that they were not permanent fixtures and a King became "Britain King" only in unusual circumstances. It is also possible that Bede is singling out special ones which he thought were important in some way, the last three all coming from Northumbria may support this idea.

Whatever the case, it is notable that within two hundred years, the illiterate, pillaging warriors (described by Gildas as "a race hateful both to God and men" (The Ruin of Britain)) had reformed into a social structure not totally dissimilar to the Celts they replaced. The Saxon Kings were rich and often generous, by the 7th Century AD, Anglo-Saxon England was perhaps the most civilised country in Northern Europe, with extensive trade links and a well established clerical regime.

During this time, the "common laws" which form the basis for many modern legal codes were formalised (most of this was during the reign of Ethelbert of Kent) and as a result of diplomacy and royal marriages the Saxon Kings of England were a dominant force in European politics.

References and Further Reading