By the middle of the seventh century Britain was a patchwork of native and invading communities led by powerful chieftains or kings, struggling to gain ascendancy over each other. During this period a small number of kingdoms became dominant, such as Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Sussex East Anglia and Kent.
The stronger ones would ever seek to impose their rule and expand territory by force or alliance or by dynastic marriages. By now much of the country was in the hands of the newcomers with the native Britons consigned to the margins.
Raedwald’s was the only surviving Christian kingdom in Briton, both Kent and Essex having reverted to paganism on the deaths of Aethelbert of Kent and Saebert of Essex in 616AD. Both were succeeded by their sons, Eadbald in Kent and Saebert’s two sons, Sexred and Saeweard in Essex, who lost no time in repressing the Christian religion and banished the Bishop of London, Mellitus, who had refused them sacrificial bread after they had taunted him at its supposedly miraculous powers.
The two brothers were killed in 617AD during the incessant border fighting against the Kingdom of Wessex and were succeeded by Saeward’s son Sigiberht, known as “the Little” who ruled until 653AD and was followed by his relative, Sigiberht II known as “the Good”. During his reign the missionary St Cedd was sent to reconvert the East Saxons to Christianity in which he had some success establishing monasteries at Tilbury and Bradwell on Sea.
This evidently did not suit Sigiberht’s brothers Swithelm and Swifrith who accused him of being too friendly with the Christians and murdered him in 660AD. These conversions and reversions were as much about a struggle for a certain lifestyle as they were about beliefs, with some leaders arguing for the old ways and others for the new. Christianity and Paganism did provide two powerful alternative standards to unite under.
Meanwhile in Kent, the death of Aethelbert had also caused much change. Kent was a powerful kingdom during his reign and he was known as a Bretwalda or Overking, giving him authority over other neighbouring lesser kingdoms and to exact dues and taxes from them. He was also the first king to publish written laws. On his death on the 20th January 616AD, his son Eadbald renounced Christianity and reverted to paganism and married his stepmother, a move expressly forbidden by the Church. He seems to have been reconverted some eight years later by Justus of Canterbury and, at the insistence of the Church, separated from his wife and married Ymme, the daughter of a Frankish king. She bore him two sons, Eormenred and Eorcenberht, and a daughter, Eanswith.
Kent under Eadbald’s rule was not as powerful as it was in his father’s time. Nevertheless it was strong enough to be omitted from the list of kingdoms dominated by Edwin of Northumbria, who, with the backing of Raedwald of East Anglia, claimed over lordship of much of the country. In 620AD, Edwin married Eadbald’s sister Aethelberg. The marriage, together with the dynastic connections to the Franks was thought by Eadbald to be sufficient to ensure that his kingdom was free from attack from his neighbours.
Nothing lasts forever and on Edwin’s death in 633AD, Aetherberg returned to Kent, but sent her children to safety among her relations in Francia, apparently fearing the intrigues of both her brother and her husband’s successor Oswald. Eadbald continued with his dynastic ambitions by marrying his son Eorcenberht to Seaxberh, daughter of the King Anna of East Anglia.
Eadbald died in 640AD and was succeeded by his son Eorcenberht, deliberately bypassing Eormenred the elder son who, it seems ruled as a sub king under his brother.
Eorcenberht was the first king in Britain to order the destruction of pagan idols and that Lent be observed, indicating just how strong the grip of Christianity was becoming. He is also remembered for appointing Deusdedit, the first Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, following the death of Honorus in 655AD.
Eorcenberht and Seaxburh had two sons, both who, in their time, became Kings of Kent. Their two daughters became nuns and both were later canonised, again illustrating the ever growing the importance of the Church.
On the 14th July 664AD, Eorcenberht died and was succeeded by his son Ecgberht who ruled for the next nine years with his mother acting as regent during his minority.
The Mildrith Legend records that he was instrumental in the death of his two cousins, Aethelred and Aethelberht in a dynastic struggle for the kingdom. These two, being the sons of the eldest son of the old king had a superior claim to the throne, but perished in their attempt to retake it.
Ecgberht died on 4th July 673AD and, despite having a two year old son called Eadric, was succeeded by his brother Hlothere. Matters worsened when in 676AD the kingdom was invaded by Aethelred of Mercia, another son of Penda and, in the words of Bede, “caused great destruction with not even the churches or monasteries spared”. Rochester was also razed to the ground at this time. Eadric remained in exile for some years before returning with an army of South Saxons to challenge Hlothere’s rule. Hlothere was badly wounded during the fighting and agreed to joint rule with Eadric and, interestingly, a code of laws still exist that were issued in both their names. Hlothere died of his wounds soon after and Eadric succeeded to the crown.
Hlothere is remembered as the first king for whom genuine records of charters survive. One is precisely dated 1st April 675AD which conflicts with Bede’s recorded dates of accession and illustrates the difficulty of reconciling some of these early records.
Eadric became sole ruler, but it was not be long however before Kent faced an overwhelming invasion from the West Saxons under their leader Caedwalla who installed his brother Mul as ruler. The chronicle records that the brothers “ravaged Kent and Wight”. It goes on to report that in 687, “Mul and twelve others were burned in Kent and Caedwalla again ravaged the land”.
Meanwhile, the other mini kingdoms in the country were having their own share of troubles. In East Anglia, land of the East Angles, around 628AD, Eorpwald, son of King Raedwald was attacked by the heathen Ricbert who killed Eorpwald and took over the kingdom, driving out all vestiges of Christianity and its priests. His rule lasted three years until he in turn was defeated by Sigibert, Raedwald’s other son who retook the crown for his dynasty and reinstated Christianity. He ruled until 634AD when he was killed in battle because he had taken the vows of a monk and refused to carry a weapon. One can only wonder at the mindset of a man who leads his host into battle unarmed. He was succeeded for a short time by Egric, grandson of Raedwald, but gave way to Anna, Raedwald’s nephew, who ruled for the next 19 years.
In 651, he was defeated in battle by Penda of Mercia and went into exile. Two years later he returned to reclaim his throne but Penda again invaded and at the Battle of Bulcamp, killed Anna and his son Jermin. The kingdom then became eclipsed by Mercia.
In Essex, land of the East Saxons, King Sigiberht “The Good” had been ruling since 653AD and under his benign rule the land had prospered until he was murdered in 660AD by two of his kinsmen. Bede records that when they where asked why they killed him, they replied “that they where angry with the king and hated him because he was too ready to pardon his enemies, calmly forgiving them for the wrongs they had done him as soon as they asked his pardon”.
Life was not much easier in Northumbria where in 685AD, Ecgfrith, son of Oswiu was fighting to save his kingdom from the increasing raids from the Picts. He had led a hectic and perilous life, being held hostage in the court of Mercia’s Queen Cynwise, wife of the warlike Penda in 655AD during Penda’s invasion of Northumbria.
Penda was eventually defeated and killed by Ecgfrith’s father Oswiu at the Battle of Wynwaed, a victory that greatly added to the power of Northumbria and Penda’s son Peada was installed as a puppet king of Mercia under Oswiu’s rule. Peada died within a year and Penda’s second son, Wulfhere organised a rebellion against Northumbrian rule, drove out Oswiu’s governors and took the throne himself.