The Seven Kingdoms of England


George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has left a powerful cultural imprint across the world. Millions have read his voluminous saga with many more gripped by the television adaptation. Martin drew inspiration from many strands of history, from England’s War of the Roses to the Icelandic sagas and tales of Viking conquest. One shadowy chapter of English history receives a prominent nod. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros find an historical analogy in the Heptarchy of England.

Once united and peaceful, the island is ripped apart by noble rivalries and divided allegiances. A single crown has been divided into seven kingdoms, locked into a spiral of fierce conflict and bitter intrigues. And as much as they fear each other, the kings fear one thing more than all else – something terrible is stirring in the north. The chronicles report the sack of monasteries and the massacre of their holy guardians. Dragons plough the waves and the skies fill with terrible portents of doom.

Photo of the Sutton Hoo helmet temporarily located in room 1 of the British Museum By geni (Photo by user:geni) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who has read George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones or seen the HBO TV adaptation will recognise the synopsis. Winter is coming, and with it bloody strife descends on the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. A terrible threat lurks in the north, semi-mythical beings who are set to descend with savage ferocity on those who survive.

Lasting from roughly 500 to 800 CE, the Heptarchy covers the period of history lasting from the departure of the Roman legions to the union of England under the House of Wessex. During the intervening three centuries, England would be divided with up to seven kingdoms vying for power and control. The Heptarchy was never a stable collection of states but instead represented the waxing and waning of dynastic power and local allegiances.

Towards the end of the period, the threat from the north would be every bit as real and menacing as that promised in A Game of Thrones – the first Viking raids in the 8th century brought the ferocious assault of the Danes to English shores.

 A map of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy - note that the Heptarchy was never as neat or stable as this map would suggest By Bartholomew, J. G. (John George), 1860-1920 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Seven Kingdoms imprinted a powerful folk memory on the people and survive to this day as counties or regions of England. The principal four kingdoms were Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex (land of the West Saxons), and East Anglia. Minor kingdoms were found in Essex (the East Saxons), Sussex (the South Saxons) and Kent.

The kingdoms were the gradual and ultimate product of waves of immigrants who had filled the power vacuum created by the departure of the Roman legions in 410 CE. Angles had arrived from Friesland and Schleswig, Saxons had come from eastern Holland and northern Germany and Jutes from Jutland in modern day Denmark.

The Alfred Jewel -  a piece of ninth-century Anglo-Saxon jewellery in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford By Richard M Buck http://www.flickr.com/tortipede/ (Tortipede (talk)) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

This period sees some of the most important and lasting moments of English history – it is the time of Offa and his Dyke, Alfred the Great of Wessex, the Danish invasion and the creation of the Danelaw in north and eastern England. It is the time when the native population is pushed to the fringes of the island – to Cornwall, the Lake District (Cumbria), and Wales (Cymru).

Modern historical research suggests that the period was far more complicated that the neat label suggested by seven kingdoms. The major kingdoms would rise in influence and power and almost inevitably fall again. Within large kingdoms such as Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, some areas achieved a semi-autonomous status akin to that enjoyed by the minor kingdoms.

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