Primitive Anglo-Saxon chieftainships developed during the middle of the sixth century, as we have seen possibly emerging because of a structure the powerful British kings installed there. Once present, they conducted their survival of the fittest contest through battles, marriages, and religion, the seven luckiest and strongest dynasties forming into the Heptarchy in a matter of decades.
How they transitioned from newly created kingdoms into a sort of political stalement has been examined many times. Traditionally, historians have tried a biographical approach, almost going from major leader to major leader in chronological order and with a minimum of background as they survey the period on their way to later periods.1 Occasionally, scholars have taken an isolated method and studied the major kingdoms separately; this has usually been accomplished with regional experts writing on their topics in collaboration.2 More recently, entire books have been written on entire kingdoms or centered around one source.3 All of these approaches have had their benefits for better understanding the period. However, none of them helps a lay reader to see the big picture about the English kingdoms from their origins to their maturity in the seventh century.
In this next section the author will take a slightly different approach. After discussing the rise of the Germanic kingdoms, we will use a staggered chronology in our study of the rest of the period – roughly 575 through 654. It will begin with the Picts up through the reign of Bridei son of Maelchon in the 580s. The next major leader was Áedán of Dal Riata, so we will explore the history of his kingdom from the death of Columba until his demise. In this chapter we will go from major leader to leader, examining the origins of each man’s kingdom from the point where we left off until that leader’s death until we arrive at a natural stopping point, the Synod of Whitby in 664. At that point we will survey what we know of the lesser kingdoms, integrating that information into our overall history. It is hoped that the approach as outlined will better help to make each kingdom’s development and their interactions with each other more understandable than has been possible before.
Before we begin, though, it is best to explore and appreciate the nature of Germanic kingship. In many ways, Post-Roman Celtic kingship was similar.
Celtic kingship assumed a powerful connection between a king and the land he ruled which was symbolized in his marriage to the land in the form of his wife. Germanic kingship did as well.4 The Celtic king was also the highest judge, whose rulings as well as his courage in battle ensured the land remained fertile. The same was true with the Germanic king.
It has been seen in chapter 16 that the British king was at the center of the new politico-economic system. He led the warriors and through them protected the villages which allowed for economic and political stability throughout his kingdom. He hired bards, whose function was threefold; to entertain the king and his warriors through praise poetry which reinforced the relationship between the two groups, to remind the villages of the king’s importance to their well-being, to generate a royal geneology that gave the king famous and respected progenitors, and to associate the king with a supernatural relationship with the land along with superhuman wisdom and battle luck.
The warriors were his personal comrades, who lived in his hall and promised to fight and die in return for his hospitality. Without them there was no protection of the villages and the villages had no reason to pay the tribute that brought the king and his warriors the wealth to buy spears, shields, swords, and armor. At the foundation of the system were the villages, who provided the king with silver to give away and purchase armaments with, livestock, food, and labor to keep his buildings intact.
The Germanic king was part of a similar arrangement, with the skop instead of a bard as the educated poet among his people. However, the Germanic king had one additional mechanism which gave him an even greater control over his people than the British kings enjoyed; descent from a king.
Whereas the British rulers tapped the most ancient traditions for their power and their bards padded that mystique with more tangible heroes of the past, they and the people they ruled were influenced by Christianity which only accepted god, and him remote. Germanic gods were much more hands-on. Their myths involved battles against the Jotuns to protect mankind, and their royal genealogies were often founded by Woden or Deor, better known as Odin and Thor. This connection not only gave the Germanic kings a claim to semi-divinity themselves, but also to the divine mana.5
Now Celtic kings were believed to have a connection with the divine too, which was why a kingdom traditionally chose each ruler (even though in reality the entire clan chose a successor which was then ratified by priests), but descent from a god made the Germanic connection more powerful. And because they practiced this form of kingship during their conversion to Christinity, it and specifically the concept of mana remained an important characteristic of Germanic kingship well beyond the seventh century.
What was mana, roughly translated as divine luck? It was not lucky like we would understand it, having great timing, always getting good cards, winning the lottery, etc. A ruler with powerful mana was successful in battles, led a fertile kingdom, made just decisions, and was loved by his warriors.6 It was believed that the gods themselves were looking out for him and everything he possessed.
Mana was passed along in bloodlines, just like the modern world sees traits like strength, speed, and mathematical abilities as genetically influenced traits. And, as athletic and intellectual abilities are passed along in varying degrees, so it was with mana.7
Because mana was such a valuable commodity in a king, it was important for any potential ruler to prove that he possessed the quality in abundance. For that reason it was common for princes, any descendent of a king from several three generations back, to form their own war-bands and go raiding to prove themselves.
The royal mana largely kept the nobles and warriors from questioning the royal family’s right to rule. However, it did not always keep royals safe from their own relatives. When a king died it was not uncommon for princes to fight for the right of succession if it was not clear who the “luckiest” man was. Even during a king’s reign, he was not above his relatives trying to usurp his throne under the right circumstances; as we have seen in the story of the Northern Memorandum and will see in the next chapter, a debatable policy could bring on a revolt while a major defeat meant almost certain death. There are even several Norse stories and Roman references to kings being sacrificed to Woden/Odin when their kingdom suffered several seasons of bad harvests.8
1 Frank M. Stenton is the classic example of this approach; Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1971). Though much maligned, one positive aspect of John Morris’ contribution was that he surveyed each kingdom from their foundation into the Christian era; Morris, The Age of Arthur, (London, 1976).
2 The best example is still Stephen Bassett (ed.) The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (Leicester, 1989).
3 Over the passed thirty years Professor Higham has been the most active in this respect, with An English empire, (Manchester, 1995) and The Kingdom of Northumbria, A.D. 350-1100, (Stroud, 1993) in particular.
4 Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, (Manchester, 1970), 86-7.
5 Ibid, 12-17, 22, 55-6, 86, 113, 90, 94, 109, and 254.
6 de Vries, Altgermanische Religiongeschichte, (Berlin, 1937), 32-43.
7 Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity (Manchester, 1970), 15-17; Turville-Petre, Myth and religion of the North: the religion of ancient Scandinavia, (London, 1964), 260-1; Kern, trans. Stanley B. Grimes, Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages, (Oxford, 1939), 14; Chadwick, Origins of the English Nation, (Cambridge, 1907), 303.
8 Marcellinus, Res Gestae, trans. John C. Rolfe, (Cambridge, MA, 1971-72), 5.14, Ynglingasaga, and Heimskringla. The Norse saga materials are well beyond the purview of this book.