The Fight For Territory

Wulfhere became a powerful player in the shifting power struggle for territory and through military action against the West Saxons, took over much of the Thames valley. He conquered the Isle of Wight and the Meon valley and replaced Oswiu as the overlord of the South. In “The Life of Wilfrid” the writer Eddius describes Wulfhere as “a man of proud mind and insatiable will”.

In 664AD Ecgfrith was made king of Deira and, following his father’s death on February 15th 670AD, became King of Northumbria. He had married Aethelthryth the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia in 660AD, but she took the veil on his succession, causing him to quarrel with Wilfrid, Archbishop of York who was banished from the kingdom and whom he blamed for her conversion. She escaped from her seclusion the next year and fled to her estates in Ely where she founded a double monastery, the origin of the great medieval abbey that stands there today.

In his place, Ecgfrith appointed two bishops to rule separate parts of his kingdom. Ecgfrith’s quarrel with Wilfrid is thought to centre on Wilfrid’s insistence on the Roman version of Christianity as against the general northern preference for the Celtic style, plus blaming Wilfrid for persuading Queen Aethelthryth to enter a monastery. He was to know no rest however; the Picts had again risen and created a sub kingdom in the north that they called Lothian. Ecgfrith invaded the territory and reclaimed it for Northumbria.

The Chronicle records that in August 678AD; a comet appeared in the sky and shone every morning for three months “like the beam of the sun”. This was reckoned a bad omen and there was much fear in the land.

A flavour of the shifting tides of attacks, invasions and dynastic plotting of the time can be seen in his battles against the Mercian king Aethelred, during which he seized the island of Lindsey. This is despite the fact that Ecgfrith had married his sister Osthryth to Aethelred. In 679AD he fought another battle with Aethelred by the River Trent. His brother Elfwyne was killed and, following truce talks arranged by Theodore of Canterbury, Lindsey was returned to Mercia.

In Sussex, the land of the South Saxons, (from the Old English Sud Seax), first invaded by King Aelle in 491AD, they were not finding things easy. The incessant wars with Wessex over territory in the west known as “The Meon” an area opposite the Isle of Wight and also over parts of what is now Surrey had weakened the kingdom and resulted in many changes of ruler. We also know that when Bishop Wilfrid was exiled from Northumbria he settled in Sussex in the late seventh century and began converting its inhabitants.

Bede records that Wilfrid somehow relieved a famine that occurred in the area and King Aethelwalh of Sussex granted Wilfrid 87 Hides of land near Selsey as a reward. This land became the seat of the South Saxon bishopric right up to the Norman invasion. Wilfrid was to play an important role in many of the events of the coming years until finally regaining his See of York.

With the seventh century coming to a close, it can be seen that the various territories, kingdoms and borders of the invaders were beginning to harden into something more permanent. The century had seen bitter and prolonged fighting throughout the land with large tracts of territory being won and lost by the various rulers. The strongest of these had by now established their borders and created some form of quid pro quo with their neighbours. The north was dominated by Northumbria, the midlands by Mercia, East Anglia by the Anglians and East Saxons, Wessex by the West Saxons, the south coast by the South Saxons with the Jutes holding Kent, with the original native Britons being consigned to Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the Devon/Cornwall peninsula known as Dumnonia.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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