The Story of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Anglo-Saxon England. While today Britain may be made up of three neighbouring countries, and England may be one united land, this was not always the case.

After the departure of Rome and before the unification of England, the early Middle Ages saw the rise of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms operated with their own independent, albeit often somewhat interconnected or comparable, governments, rulers, laws and customs. These kingdoms fought bloody battles against one another and formed successful and strong alliances.

The kingdoms of Anglo-Saxons contended with Viking invaders, hostile neighbours, and political upheavals.

The unification of these realms took generations of rulers, at times tenuous political alliances, and the winning of bloody battles. While today England may be one land, taking a journey back in time to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms shows a very different place. 


Who Were the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms?

While ancient England was made up of a diverse range of sub-kingdoms and territories, Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria were the heavyweights of the Anglo-Saxon world. These four kingdoms stretched across much of England, incorporating major towns and cities.

Map of saxon england
England, 878

They were responsible for creating many of the laws and customs of early England and engaged in battles that helped to shape the very future of the England that would come to be.  Prior to the rise of the four main kingdoms, however, early Anglo-Saxon Britain consisted of what was known as the Seven Petty Kingdoms.

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These seven small kingdoms included Wessex, Essex, Kent, Northumbria, Mercia, Sussex, and East Anglia.

Later known as the Heptarchy, these seven kingdoms persisted until the eighth century when Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria consolidated many of the smaller kingdoms, and rose to power in the 8th century. 

500 AD

The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms engaged in conflicts over land and power and various kingdoms rose to greater influence at a constantly shifting rate. In the late 500s, the King of Kent was particularly powerful in the south of England, while by the 7th century, Northumbria and Wessex had increased in power and influence.

The Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in a field in Hammerwich, near Lichfield in July 2009, is perhaps the most important collection of Anglo-Saxon objects found in England

Borders of the kingdoms were almost constantly moving, and even within them there were divisions between smaller sub-kingdoms and groups. In the first half of the ninth century, Wessex came to exert particular influence.

Read More: Danelaw and the Rise and Fall of England’s Viking Kingdom

Many of the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon Britain came under the overlordship of King Egbert of Wessex in 829. Egbert’s grandson, Alfred the Great, was styled as not only the king of Wessex, but the King of the Anglo-Saxons. 

Beyond the Borders of the Kingdoms 

Not all of modern Britain fell under the banner of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Much of Scotland, for example, was not part of it.

Ancient Scotland consisted of the kingdoms of the Picts, the Gaels of Dál Riata, the Britons of Strathclyde, and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia, which was later absorbed by Northumbria. In the 800s, the kingdoms of ancient Scotland joined to create the overarching Kingdom of Alba under the house of Alpin.

The Devil’s Dyke is one of the best preserved Anglo-Saxon earthworks of its kind in the country dating from the 5th or 6th century AD. It consists of a 7.5 miles (12.1 km) long bank and ditch running in a south-east direction from the village of Reach to Woodditton. The dyke crossed three important Roman roads, including the ancient Icknield Way, and may thus have served as a way of controlling trade and movement in and out of the area.

Alba, at times, was both friend and foe to its southern neighbours, engaging in both effective alliances with, and fighting brutal battles against, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

Read More: Anglo-Saxon Perambulations, What are They?


Wales was also an area independent of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Wales, instead, was divided into its own set of territories, the largest of which were the realms of Powys and Gwynedd in the east and northwest. Much like Alba, the kingdoms of Wales were often in conflict with the Anglo-Saxons, particularly neighbouring Mercia and Wessex. 

saxon Offa's Dyke
Offa’s Dyke, also known as Clawdd Offa in Welsh, is a notable linear earthwork that meanders along the border between England and Wales. Its name pays homage to Offa, who reigned as the Anglo-Saxon king of Mercia from AD 757 to 796. This impressive structure holds historical significance, serving as a boundary marker between the two lands.

The other area of Britain to resist Anglo-Saxon rule was Cornwall. Areas of Devon and Cornwall remained the last remnants of the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia. The leaders of ancient Cornwall often engaged in conflict with Wessex, vying for power over these western territories. 

The Enemy of my Enemy 

There are few things that can unite rival kingdoms as surely as a common enemy, and at the end of the eighth century that common enemy would arrive on Britain’s shores.

Read More: Horses in Early Anglo-Saxon England

Vikings first landed on the island of Lindisfarne in 793, and from 835 raids became a more common occurrence that plagued the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon Britain. As Scandinavian raiders plundered, pillaged and conquered their way across the countryside, the squabbles of the Anglo-Saxons were quickly put aside in the face of this new threat. 

Viking encampment,
Viking encampment, part of the ‘Hever in History’ event. Credit: Peter Trimming

Seventy-two years after Vikings first made their presence known, the raids that had come to be a constant nuisance to the Anglo-Saxons turned into a full scale fighting force with the arrival of the Great Heathen Army.

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Ragnar Lodbrok

A combined force of Scandinavian warriors supposedly led by the semi-legendary sons of Viking king Ragnar Lodbrok, made up this impressive fighting force. Historians estimate the size of the army to have numbered into the thousands.

In just a decade, this formidable Viking army had taken almost every Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Within just two years of the arrival of the army, Northumbria had largely come under Viking control.

viking helmets

By 869, East Anglia had fallen to the Vikings, and by 877 large portions of Mercia had fallen to the invading army. However, the Kingdom of Wessex proved to be a difficult place for the Vikings to conquer.

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In 878, nearly fifteen years after the initial arrival of the Great Heathen Army, Alfred the Great, then king of Wessex, combined the fighting forces of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire to create an army that engaged the Danes at the Battle of Edington, where Alfred gained a historic victory for the Anglo-Saxon forces. 

Following the Battle of Edington, a peace treaty was created between Alfred and Guthrum, the leader of the Viking forces. This treaty included an outline of which areas were to remain under control of the Danes (areas that were known as Danelaw), and which areas were to be under Anglo-Saxon control. 

A Unified Force

As early as 886, the idea of Alfred the Great as king of the Anglo-Saxons was beginning to take hold, and it is indicated that Alfred began to put in place strategies to create one unified England. In 899, Alfred died before he could see this unified country come to be, however his plans for one country, united under the control of Wessex continued to be enacted.

King Alfred The Great Statue, Winchester
King Alfred The Great Statue, Winchester

Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, inherited control of Wessex and by the early 900s, Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflead, was the leader of the Kingdom of Mercia, gaining the title ‘The Lady of Mercia’ at the death of her husband. 

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Combining the forces of the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, Aethelflead and Edward launched successful campaigns to retake East Anglia and the east of Mercia from the Danes.

924 AD

In 918, after the death of Aethelflead, Edward took control of Mercia, bringing the two kingdoms under one ruler.  Both Edward and Aethelflead proved to be highly adept tacticians, and by the time of Edward’s own death in 924, he was the ruler of all of England to the south of the Humber.

This sword was found in a grave alongside a Saxon warrior and his spear and shield. Interestingly, buried nearby was an important woman. 3 children were also laid to rest close by. Could they have been a family group? This sword can be seen in the Wiltshire Museum.

However, despite their accomplishments in unifying many of the kingdoms, neither Edward nor Aethelflead would be granted the title of the first ruler of England. Instead, that honour would go to Edward’s son, Aethelstan.

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Crowned as King of the Anglo-Saxons, Aethelstan likely faced a contested crown, with his younger half brother, Aelfweard, thought to have been the preferred choice for king in Wessex at the death of Edward. However, as Aelfweard survived his father by just sixteen days, Aethelstan quickly inherited the reign of all of his father’s land. 

The First King of England 

While, much like his grandfather, Aethelstan was styled King of the Anglo-Saxons early in his reign, it wasn’t until 927 that he would come to be known as the first King of the English. While Edward and Aethelflead had retaken much of England from the Danes, York was still under Viking rule. However, after the death of the Danish king Sihrtic in 927, Aethelstan invaded and captured York.

England danelaw
England and Wales (878 AD)

Continuing to the north, in July 927, Aethelstan was accepted as overlord by  King Constantine II of Alba, King Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Ealdred of Bamburgh, and King Owain of Strathclyde.

With these victories in the North, Aethelstan effectively became the first ruler of a unified England. In 934, Aethelstan even set his sights on Scotland. After invading this northern frontier, Aethelstan’s forces reached as far north as Dunnottar, in modern day Aberdeenshire.

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While it is somewhat unclear as to why Aethelstan marched on Scotland, the theory has been raised that it was due to Constantine II of Alba breaking his earlier treaty with Aethelstan.

Whatever the motivation for the invasion, by September of the same year, the King of Alba, Constantine II, recognised him as overlord and Aethelstan had returned to England. However, any tentative peace that may have been created did not last long for Constantine invaded England in 937. 

The Founding of England 

The England we know today was shaped by generations of different rulers, the rise and fall of kingdoms, waves of invasions and migration, brutal conflicts, and strong alliances.

saxon church
St Martin’s-on-the-walls, is an Anglo-Saxon church in the town of Wareham, Dorset. The church is reputed to have been founded by Saint Aldhelm in the 7th century.

The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms form a core part of the history of Britain and were early foundations of many of the customs and systems that shaped Britain into the place it is in modern times.

These historic polities fought Viking invaders, formed and broke treaties, saw the rise of powerful rulers and eventually unified to form one country which would come to be the England known today. While these kingdoms may have long since faded into the past, there is no doubt that the impact they had on England still lingers.