One alliance against Rhun, two at Arfderydd, two at Catraeth, and the only Germanic chieftains that actually do anything up until the last decade or the sixth century are the ally of Gododdin, the two Northumbrians that Urien and his allies fought against, and the Ælle whose people the future pope Gregory came across. Part of the reason why they are so rare is because the Germanic people themselves did not have the ability to write throughout the middle part of the sixth century.Another reason is propaganda; we should know more about Iurminric than we do, but because the people of Kent needed a clear history of superiority over the British his activities did not measure up. Northumbria put all of its known chieftains into a single king-list, but we know now that several of the people on that list were contemporary rulers.

Finally, that until the last century or so of this period the Germanic people did not have real kings. At the beginning of the century they operated in clans, and during the time of the British alliances during the middle sixth century, they transitioned into local kingships themselves.

There is archeological evidence of this transition; high status sites only emerge around mid-century and become fewer and wealthier as they approach the end of the century, telling us in the physical record the same thing we can guess from the historical record.

The question is how did the Germanic kingships go from nonexistence before around 550 to relative obscurity and then regional and island-wide dominance by the early seventh century? In the distant past it was assumed that the Historia Brittonum, Historia Ecclesiastica, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and De Excidio Britanniae were not only consistent with each other but provided an accurate account of the Germanic kingships; they had begun with Hengest receiving Kent and the landings of the future kings of Wessex, Sussex, and so on. In that model, there was no great transition apart from the dynasties finishing up the conquest of their respective kingdoms from the British at around that time.

More recently, Professor Arnold and others have proposed that the unstable nature of early kingship and the need for each dynasty to prove its worth would have resulted in conflict and the rapid assimilation of kingdoms into progressively larger and more powerful kingdoms. This sounds very much like the model the author has suggested for British kingships. There is one significant difference, though. We know that kingships in the Romanized areas began around 470 or so, when the first known bards appear. By perhaps 530 (60 years later), powerful regional kingships like Rhun and Gwrtheyrn had emerged. Even through the early kingship of Urien, though, bards still spoke of cattle raiding and no British leader from this period ever assimilated as much land as Kent or Northumbria into a single kingdom. On the other hand we hear of no dateable and historical Germanic leaders until no earlier than 550, and already by 600 or earlier (50 years) we see the first full size kingdoms.

What is more interesting is that, though we know from the physical evidence that there was cattle raiding among the early Germanic kingdoms there are no skop poems that speak of them. Though there are a couple figures we could equate with the vague British gwledig of the past like Dewrarth and Coel in Soemil and maybe Ida, the Germanic people in Britain never generated an heroic cycle like Arthur, Conchobar of Ireland, or Hrolf Kraki in Denmark. We could guess that by the time the Germanic people had the ability to record they were no longer living in an heroic culture, but it is hard to believe that no memory of the recent past would have been preserved somewhere.

So, with a long history of kingship on the continent, the Germanic people took around eight decades longer than the Romanized Britons to develop kingship, but once they did they took less time to build larger and stronger kingdoms. How could the Germanic people have formed stable political units so smoothly, and just in time to take advantage of the failing British strength?

It has been hypothesized above that Gwrtheyrn controlled Kent at the peak of his power. The Historia Brittonum claims that Urien had conquered much of Northumbria during his ascendancy but likely Morcant and Gwallog, who ruled kingdoms adjacent to Northumbria, had territories in the region too. For Y Gododdin to be so interested in Deira, at least some the kingdoms involved must have taken tribute from villages in the area as well.

It has also been seen that the taxation system collapsed throughout Britain when the Roman government was decapitated at the provincial level. When they developed the local British kingships used a new kind of taxation system; one where villages as a whole were responsible for collecting a predetermined amount of food and goods and passing it along to the local king. As local kingships were absorbed by the more successful dynasties, the villages continued to give their taxes to the original dynasty or to a man installed by the new king, who then passed it along to his king. The system was not equally fair to all villagers or villages, but it did mean that the time an over-king spent collecting tribute did not grow too much as his kingdom expanded.

That worked well when British kings were adding British territories to their kingdoms. However, if the archeology has not mislead us and the Anglo-Saxons of the early to middle sixth century had no kings or kingdoms, it would have made taking tribute from them time consuming. As each village had its own ruling clan, every settlement in an area would need to be passed through. An over-king like Urien might theoretically spend the entire summer collecting tribute from a large enough territory.

It seems to this writer that the simplest way to overcome that problem would have been to appoint an Anglo-Saxon to do the job. A local man, or better yet an Anglo-Saxon from the king’s war-band, would be ideal. Either choice would be aware of the culture and personally know the language; both attributes would help to avoid many problems involved in ruling a different culture. And as with all the king’s tributaries, this hypothetical tax collector would be allowed to erect a hall and gather his own band of warriors to enforce collection of the tribute and protect the territory.

Under the powerful kings who dominated the middle of the sixth century, these hypothetical puppet tax collectors would have been very useful, saving the British kings time and effort and giving them money, livestock, and supplies. However, the last of the dominant British kings faded in the last third of the sixth century.

As British power declined, their former tax collectors would have been in a perfect position to assume independent authority themselves; they had been collecting tribute already and had a group of warriors at their command. The author has no direct evidence for this suggestion, only the fact that it fits the evidence and the curious detail that Northumbria, Wessex, Sussex, and Kent, the same regions that were most likely controlled by British over-kings during the middle or late sixth century, were the first regions to develop regional kingships.

Once the Germanic kingdoms had emerged as regional powerhouses the British days were numbered. England, then as now, is far more fertile in the south and east than in the north and west, and much more fertile than either Wales or Scotland. Greater fertility meant they could grow more food with less labor. Greater amounts of food meant the Germanic kingdoms could support a larger population. A larger population in turn guaranteed more warriors for the battlefield. Once the Germanic people had the chance to take full advantage of their numbers, the British people would find it impossible to match the English armies.

1 Bassett, “In Search of the Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms”, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Steven Bassett, (Leicester, 1989), 23; Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and consent”, Early Medieval Kingship, eds. Peter H. Sawyer and Ian N. Wood, (Leeds, 1977), 18-20; Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists”, Early Medieval Kingship, eds. Peter H. Sawyer and Ian N. Wood, (Leeds, 1977b), 91-92; Yorke, “The Kingdom of the East Saxons”, ASE 14 (London, 1985), 1-30; Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (New York, 1988), 197-199.

2 Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (New York, 1988), 211-29; Arnold, “Social evolution in post-Roman western Europe”, European Social Evolution, ed. John L. Bintliff, (Bradford, 1984), 277-94; Scull, “Archaeology, early Anglo-Saxon society and the origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms”, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 6 (Oxford, 1993), 65-82; Hodges, Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade A.D. 600-1000, (London, 1982); Arnold, “Stress as a factor in social and economic change”, Ranking, Resource and Exchange, eds. A.Collin Renfrew and Stephen Shennan, (Cambridge, 1982), 124-31; Arnold, “Wealth and social structure: a matter of life and death”, Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries 1979, ed. Philip A. Rahtz, Tania M. Dickinson, and Loma Watts, (Oxford, 1980), 81-142; Hodges, “State formation and the role of trade in Middle Saxon England”, Social Organisation and Settlement, eds. David R. Green, Colin Haselgrove, and Matthew Spriggs, (Oxford, 1978), 439-54; Sawyer, From Roman Britain to Norman England, (London, 1978); Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and king-lists”, Early Medieval Kingship, eds. Philip H. Sawyer and Ian N. Woods, (Leeds, 1977b), 72-104; Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent, (Oxford, 1971). 

3 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xxxv-xli.