Hep meaning seven. The heptarchy was the seven English kingdoms that existed between the sixth and ninth centuries consisting of Kent, Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia, Sussex, Essex and East Anglia.
It is strange that kings were ever appointed in England as none existed in the Germanic areas that the Saxon tribes originated from. In England, they were elected more out of necessity. Kings were made from leaders who considered they were the descendants of their gods or had built a reputation on the battlefield or were the largest landowners. There must have been many kings controlling settlements all over the country. Being a king, however, was a precarious position.
He was subject to the same Saxon law as everybody else and as such was more vulnerable to wergild and usurpers. To protect his interests, he employed his most loyal warriors or those he had fought with. The only thing that he could give was land. The land usually came with a title of some description As most Saxon settlements were separated from each other by impenetrable forest, The call on the available land became great. The need to protect what you had became paramount. From the seventh century onwards, a landed aristocracy began to develop, with everybody owing all that they had, directly or indirectly to their king. It would take two hundred and fifty years and many generations with many battles fought and much land cultivated before England was ruled by one king.
England in 8th Century may have had one common religion but it had many kings all vying for supreme power.
Northumbria was in a vulnerable area. It had the Picts in Scotland, the British in Strathclyde and the jealous and outraged Mercians in the Midlands who were still upset about the fate of their leader Penda. In fact there were seven kingdoms or Heptarchies competing against one another. Perpetual battles reigned for the next hundred years. In 829 A.D Mercia emerged the strongest, and for the next eighty years, two kings, Aethelbald and Offa, ruled unchallenged. Most of the historical facts that are quoted here are from the writings of one man. A monk who quietly chronicled events. His name was Bede. He is now famously known as the Venerable Bede. Without his writings we would know little of the events that took place in that era. He was also responsible for the way we count years now, i.e. from the birth of Christ.
The Christian church by 730 A.D had become very powerful. It was not afraid to comment and lost all fear of retribution from the Heptarchies kings. The morals laid down by the church concerning sex, behaviour and sin put the fear of god into people. Which was probably the idea. You are less likely to commit a sin if there is a divine presence with a long memory watching your every move.
Aethelbald became a victim of the churches moral crusade when he was unable to restrain himself in nunneries. He used his position for the wrong reasons. In 733 A.D he raided Wessex and 740 A.D invaded Northumbria whilst their king was dealing with the Picts. He was eventually murdered by his guards. Offa became the next king of Mercia. As Mercia was by far the strongest of the seven regions he was unofficially the king of the whole of England. His standing can be assessed by the fact that Charlemagne requested that one of Offa’s daughters should marry one of his sons.
As Charlemagne was the most powerful person in Europe at the time, to refuse would be considered to be the ultimate snub. Offa replied that he would only allow this if one of Charlemagne’s sons would marry one of his daughters. Charlemagne refused so Offa introduced a trade embargo. Charlemagne changed his mind and the marriages took place. He was not afraid to fight and spent considerable time subjugating the under kings of England. He captured Kent and mint had coins struck in his name and was on very good terms with the Pope who addressed him as Rex Anglorum.
His most astounding work, which survives today, is that of Offa’s Dyke. A trench and Hill which stretches from the Severn River almost to Liverpool, built to keep the British in what is Wales today. This construction must have been a total labour of love. Offa’s links with Europe introduced new ideas and culture that had been missing since the Romans departed. The trade had returned. England was a respected country once again with one religion.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Heptarchy" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/heptarchy/, February 7, 2022