597. Roman missionaries, led by Augustine, arrive in Kent
597?601. Æthelberht of Kent converted to Christianity

The legendary beginning of the Roman mission to England is described in chapter nine of the Life of Gregory the Great (written at Whitby probably 704?714) and in Bede (HE, ii.1). Gregory, before he became Pope, was at the slave market in Rome and discovered some Northumbrians. He asked about their background and made three bilingual puns to show that they were ripe for conversion. (His comment that the Angles were like angels is well-known; the other two are that the kingdom's name Deira showed that they should be saved "from the wrath" (de ira) of the Lord, and that the king's name Ælle showed that Alleluia should be sung in those parts.) The Whitby Life and Bede differ in particulars, and it is likely that the full-grown tale had more to do with English love of wordplay (seen most vividly in Aldhelm, the brilliant contemporary Anglo-Latin poet) than with events in Rome over a century earlier.

One root of the tale may have been a letter of September 595 from Gregory to the priest Candidus who was setting out for Gaul, telling him to use papal revenues to buy English youths in the slave markets and put them into monasteries (see Wood, p.2, and Colgrave, p.145). Gregory may have intended to use these converted natives as missionaries to England. Another root was perhaps Gregory's comment in his Moralia in Iob, also circulating around 595, that the once-barbarous language of Britain was now beginning to sing the Hebrew Alleluia. These are the only contemporary Continental references, and if the similarity between Alleluia and the Deiran king's name was a pun waiting to happen, it probably only happened on English soil.

Bede provides the only early narrative account of Augustine's mission (HE, i.23-33, ii.2-3), though this should be supplemented with Wood's review of the Continental evidence.

In 596, Pope Gregory sent Augustine with almost forty companions to convert the English. The missionaries were sore afraid of a barbarian and heathen country and stopped partway, sending Augustine back to Gregory to ask that they be excused the mission. Gregory instead sent them an encouraging letter, dated 23 July 596, and they continued on their way (HE, i.23). Bede records a letter from Gregory to the Etherius, the bishop of Lyons, wrongly called of Arles (HE, i.24); Wood demonstrates from the register of Gregory's correspondence that this is only one of a thicket of papal letters asking support for Augustine, to bishops of Marseilles, Aix, Arles, Vienne, Autun, Tours -- which would all be on a relatively straight route from Provence to Kent (Wood, p. 5). Although Bede states that Augustine returned to the Continent to be consecrated bishop of the English after the coversion of Æthelberht (HE, i.27), a letter of Pope Gregory to Eulogius of Alexandria makes clear Augustine was consecrated on the way over (Colgrave/Mynors, p. 78 n. 1).

In 597, Augustine arrived at Thanet, where he was received by Æthelberht, and granted a dwelling-place in Canterbury and permission to preach (HE, i.25; date from HE, v.24). As Wood points out, the litany Bede records for this occasion is probably an anachronism (Wood, pp. 3-4). The Roman missionaries began to imitate the life of the apostles in Canterbury, and preached at the church of St Martin's, which was already in use for the Christian observances of the queen, Bertha, and her bishop Liudhard. Some of the people, marvelling at the simplicity of the missionaries and their faith, believed and were baptised, until at last Æthelberht himself was baptised (HE, i.26). In the letter to Eulogius already mentioned, Gregory states that at Christmas 597 over ten thousand people were baptised (Wood, p. 12). The precise date of Æthelberht's own conversion is unknown, but the outer limits seem to be the arrival of the missionaries in 597 and a letter from the Pope to the newly-converted king in 601.

Bede's account leaves out almost all mention of Frankish involvement in Augustine's mission, except for his inclusion of a letter of introduction for Augustine to bishop Etherius of Lyons (HE, i.24) and his comment that when the missionaries arrived at Thanet they had acquired some Frankish interpreters (HE, i.25). In fact, in other letters of Gregory, perhaps not known to Bede but reviewed by Wood, the Pope reports that he has heard good reports of the involvement of several Frankish kings, and especially of the queen-regent Brunhild. Further, Syagrius, bishop of Autun, received a pallium in 599 for his support of the mission. We have no details of this "involvement" and "support" outside of the record of the letters of Gregory, so we cannot say what form it took on the ground. From letters Gregory wrote to Frankish kings in 596, it seems that the English wished to become Christian, but the priests of the neighbourhood (given the context, presumably Frankish priests) had not responded. In a letter to Brunhild of 596, Gregory again makes this complaint, and notes that he wants Augustine to take some priests from the neighbourhood with him. Perhaps the Frankish rulers were thanked later by Gregory for encouraging their clergy to support or participate in Augustine's mission, though they would doubtless also be pursuing their own political aims in doing so (see Wood, p. 9).

N. Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (Leicester: 1984)

B. Colgrave, The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great (Kansas: 1968)

B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford: 1969)

I. Wood, "The Mission of Augustine to Canterbury to the English", Speculum 69 (1994), 1-17

c.600-75. English gold coinage

There is no evidence of coin production in England before the end of the 6th century, in contrast with the Continent where the barbarian invaders were soon issuing imitation Roman coins of their own. Some of these Continental coins from before c.600 are found in England, but since most of these are pierced or have loops attached, they may have been worn as ornaments rather than circulated as money. Most of the imported coins are from Merovingian Francia, with a scattering of other types.

From the end of the 6th century, imported gold coins tend to be unmounted, and were more probably used as money, perhaps the scillingas (shillings) of the early law codes. The earliest surviving English gold coins also date from about this time; one of them, probably struck by a visiting moneyer of the Frankish king Theudebert II (595-612), names the moneyer and the mint-place (Eusebius of Canterbury). Coins tended to follow Merovingian or earlier Roman models, with frequently a bust on one side and a cross on the other. Sometimes the legends are legible, but they seem most often to be a blundered or other incomprehensible assemblage of letters and runes. Some coins name the mint-place as London, others name the moneyer (e.g. Witmen, Pada), and one exceptional issue is made in the name of King Eadbald of Kent.

English minting of gold coin seems to have been mostly limited to Kent and the upper Thames valley, though one issue is associated with York and another seems to be East Anglian. Minting of coin in the first quarter of the 7th century seems to have been a sporadic affair. There was a more sustatined coinage in the 630s and 640s, but the fact that most of the surviving coins seem to be little worn and to have been struck from a small group of dies suggests again a small coinage with a limited circulation. The largest output of gold coin came in the third quarter of the century. The gold content of the coins dropped progressively throughout the century, and in about 675 the gold standard was abandoned altogether in favour of silver. Occasional gold coins were produced until the end of the Anglo-Saxon period (King Eadred's will in the 10th century calls for the minting of 2,000 of them), but they were very much the exception to the standard silver penny.

P. Grierson and M. Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, 1: The Early Middle Ages (5th-10th centuries) (Cambridge: 1986)

601. Augustine sends Laurence and Peter to report to the pope
Pope Gregory sends more helpers and a pallium to Augustine

Bede notes that Augustine sent the priest Laurence (later Archbishop of Canterbury) and the monk Peter (later abbot of St Augustine's) to report on progress and ask a detailed series of questions (HE, i.27); this visit is not dated, but can probably be assigned to 601 since the papal reply, made "without delay", was dated July 601 (Colgrave/Mynors, p. 79 n. 1).

In addition to his detailed replies, Gregory sent more helpers to Augustine, foremost among them Mellitus (later bishop of London), Justus (later bishop of Rochester), Paulinus (later bishop of York), and Rufinianus, as well as many needful goods for the worship and ministry of the church, a pallium for Augustine, and a letter directing how the bishops of Britain should be organized (HE, i.29). The pope also sent letters to Frankish bishops through whose territory the missionaries would travel, of Vienne, Arles, Lyons, Toulon, Marseilles, Chalon-sur-Saóne, Metz, Paris, Rouen, Angers, and Gap, and to the three Merovingian royal courts. These were by no means all in a straightforward route back to England, and the party was probably meant to travel around the Frankish territories to gather additional support (see Wood, p. 6, and entry on 597).

With the pallium, a white woollen band worn over the shoulders and signifying papal authority, Gregory enabled Augustine to consecrate other bishops, and in his letter Gregory outlined a plan for the English church. He determined that Augustine, as bishop of London, should ordain twelve bishops in places subject to his jurisdiction, and should also select a bishop for York who should receive his own pallium and also consecrate twelve subordinate bishops. Gregory also noted that Augustine should have under his authority not only all the bishops under York and London, but also the British bishops; it seems quite likely that this would lead to a confrontation between Augustine and the British bishops such as Bede described at "Augustine's Oak" (see entry on c.602).

It is unclear why Gregory, presumably after being briefed by Laurence and Peter on the state of Augustine's mission at Canterbury, stated that Augustine should be established instead at London. London and York were the centres of late Roman administration in Britain, and the scheme may have been a deliberate echo of old Britannia as a compliment to the breadth of rule of Æthelberht, the first converted English king. (In the 10th century, English kings would with much greater justification evoke memories of the rule of all Britannia: see entries on 927 and 973). This may have sounded well in Rome, but the ambit of Æthelberht's rule was much more limited (see entry on c.575) and the plan could not be implemented on the ground. Augustine is only known to have ordained bishops to two other sees (of London and Rochester, in 604), the Northumbrian mission had to wait until 625, and Augustine's see remained at Canterbury.

There were also papal letters in 601 to King Æthelberht (reproduced at HE, i.32) and to Queen Bertha (noted by Wood, p. 10), comparing them in their faith to the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena; Bertha was thanked for her support of Augustine and encouraged to strengthen Æthelberht's faith, while Æthelberht was encouraged to take every opportunity to extend the Christian faith over his subjects. In his letter to Æthelberht Gregory also urged that idols should be suppressed and the shrines overthrown. In another letter, written to Mellitus a month later (HE, i.30), Gregory notes that after long deliberation he prefers a more moderate approach: the idols should still be overthrown, but the shrines and some of the ceremonies should be converted for Christian use, so that the English can feel more familiar with their new religion. The most enduring result of this is that the English name for Easter remains that of a pagan goddess who had earlier given her name to the month of April (Eosturmonath; see Hines, p.379).

After his account of the correspondence of 601, Bede records that Augustine restored a Roman church within Canterbury (on the site of the present cathedral), and also founded a monastery to the east of the city (HE, i.33; the monastery was at first dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, and later to St Augustine). Plummer, following a very late Canterbury tradition, suggests that the cathedral may have been dedicated on 9 June 603 (see Plummer, II.63).

N. Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (Leicester: 1984)

B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford: 1969)

J. Hines, "Religion: The Limits of Knowledge", The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (Woodbridge: 1997), pp.375-410

C. Plummer, Venerabilis Baedae Historiam Ecclesiasticam Gentis Anglorum [...] (Oxford: 1896)

I. Wood, "The Mission of Augustine to Canterbury to the English", Speculum 69 (1994), 1-17

c.602. Augustine meets the British bishops (?)

Two meetings between Augustine and the British bishops are described by Bede (HE, ii.2). The meetings are not dated, but since one of the things to which the British object is accepting Augustine as their archbishop, they would probably have taken place shortly after the Pope gave Augustine that authority in a letter of 601.

The first meeting, arranged with King Æthelberht's help, took place at "Augustine's Oak" (unidentified, but said to be on the borders of the Hwicce and the West Saxons). Augustine argued that the British bishops and teachers should conform more closely to catholic doctrine and help to evangelise the English. When argument proved unavailing, the two sides went on to "trial by miracle": a blind Englishman was brought, and where British prayers proved unavailing, Augustine's prayers restored the man's sight. The Britons then confessed that Augustine was right, but that they could not abandon their former beliefs without the consent of their people. A second and larger meeting was arranged.

Before the second meeting, the British sought the advice of a holy hermit, as to whether they should forsake their traditions and follow Augustine. The hermit replied that if Augustine showed himself to be meek and lowly of heart, then he was a man of God and deserved to be followed: if, on the contrary, he was harsh and proud, he was not from God. The hermit further suggested that if, when the British came to meet Augustine, he rose at their approach, that would demonstrate his humility. Most unfortunately, Augustine remained seated when the British arrived, and so no agreement was reached. According to Bede, Augustine then threatened the British that if they refused to accept peace from their brethren, they would suffer war from their enemies, and if they would not preach the way of life to the English, they would be killed by them. Bede saw the fulfillment of this prophecy in the battle of Chester of c.613, in which the prayers of British monks proved ineffective against the wrath of Æthelfrith of Northumbria.

So far the story. With its allegorical miracle (for healing the blind Englishman, read converting him) and soon-fulfilled prophecy (easy enough in hindsight), it reads more like Bede's ideal of how Augustine might have confounded the British than an accurate account of historical events c.602. That there were meetings between Augustine and the British bishops is very likely. That these did not result in a joint plan to convert the English is plausible, and would explain Bede's hostility to the British church a hundred years later.

It should be emphasized though that Bede's information is incomplete, and such evidence as we can gather suggests that while the British church may not have played a top-heavy institutional role, the British were probably much more involved in the conversion of the English than Bede was prepared to admit. Sims-Williams (at pp.75-9) has plausibly suggested that the Hwicce and Magonsætan, English groups on the Welsh borders who are already Christian when Bede first mentions them, were converted unobtrusively by their British neighbours. This fits with Meens's recent demonstration that Augustine's eighth question to the Pope in 601 (reported by Bede at HE, i.27) closely reflects concerns of the contemporary British church, which implies that Augustine sometimes had to deal with English who had already been exposed to (and perhaps converted by) the doctrines of the British Christians.

J. Campbell, "Observations on the Conversion of England", reprinted in his Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London, 1986), pp.69-84, at pp.71-3

R. Meens, "A background to Augustine's mission to Anglo-Saxon England", in Anglo-Saxon England, 23 (1994), pp.5-17

P. Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England, 600-800 (Cambridge: 1990)

603. Battle at Degsastan: between the Northumbrians and the Scots

Bede records that in 603 Æthelfrith defeated Aedan, king of the Irish living in Britain (HE, i.34; Aedan was king of the Dal Riada in Scotland). Aedan had marched against Æthelfrith with a very strong army, but the British king was defeated and his army cut to pieces at "Degsa's Stone" (perhaps Dawston Rigg in Liddesdale?). Bede notes further that Æthelfrith's brother Theobald was killed along with the whole of his army (presumably Theobald led part of the Northumbrian army). One manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle adds the detail that Hering, son of Hussa, led the army. No more is known of Hering, but Hussa (588-92?) seems to have been Æthelfrith's predecessor as king of Bernicia (see entry on c.450 to 651).

604. Augustine consecrates bishops Mellitus and Justus
Mellitus converts the East Saxons, receives see of London
Justus receives see of Rochester

Bede records that in 604 Augustine consecrated two bishops, Mellitus and Justus, and assigned Mellitus to preach in the district of the East Saxons, and Justus to the see of Rochester (HE, ii.3). King Æthelberht built the churches of St Andrew's in Rochester and St Paul's in London.

Bede notes also that while Sæberht ruled the East Saxons, he was the son of Æthelberht's sister Ricule, and under Æthelberht's overlordship.

607. Ceolwulf of Wessex fights the South Saxons

This battle is not mentioned by Bede, but is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

611. Ceolwulf of Wessex dies (?)
Cynegils succeeds to Wessex

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not mention Ceolwulf's death, it simply states that in 611 Cynegils succeeded to Wessex, and notes that he was the son of Ceola, the son of Cutha, the son of Cynric. "Cutha" is presumably short for Cuthwulf, Ceawlin's brother.

Little is known of Cynegils's reign. He and Cwichelm (his son) defeated the British at Beandun (unidentified) in 614, and were defeated by Penda of Mercia at Cirencester in 628. Bede records that Cwichelm sent an assassin to kill Edwin of Northumbria, and in revenge Edwin sent an army into Wessex (see entry on c.626), but later Edwin's successor Oswald became Cynegils's godparent, and also married Cynegils's daughter Cyneburh (see entry on 635). Cwichelm (who may have shared rule with his father) was baptised and died in 636, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In 642, presumably on his death, Cynegils was succeeded by another son, Cenwealh.

c.613. Battle of Chester: Æthelfrith of Northumbria defeats Selyf of Powys

The battle of Chester is noted by Bede (HE, ii.2) as the fulfilment of a prophecy of Augustine's that the British, if they would not convert the English, would be killed by them instead (see entry on 602). Bede states that Æthelfrith (of Northumbria) raised a great army against Chester and there made a great slaughter of the Britons, including over 2000 monks of Bangor who had come to pray for a British victory.

One manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the battle after a note of the death of Pope Gregory, and dates both events to 605. The Chronicle is here following Bede quite closely, and since Bede records Gregory's death in 605 in the chapter before his account of the battle (HE, ii.1), the date was probably originally nothing to do with the battle.

The Annales Cambriae date the battle instead to 613, and this date (or some point between this date and Æthelfrith's death in 616) is generally accepted. The Annales add that Æthelfrith's opponent was Selyf (Solomon) son of Cynan (Cynan was the king of Powys). It has been suggested from contemporary Welsh verse that the kingdom of Powys at this time extended northwards into Lancashire, which might make more sense of the Northumbrian king's attack (Dumville, p.221, notes both the possibility and the lack of real evidence).

D. Dumville, "The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background", in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.213-22

614. Cynegils and Cwichelm of Wessex defeat the Britons at Beandun

This battle is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which further notes that over 2000 Britons were killed.

c.615-54. Early history of the East Angles

Sources for East Anglian narrative history really begin in the first half of the 7th century with King Rædwald, though reign-dates remain vague until the middle of the century. There is a surviving royal genealogy which extends behind Rædwald: Bede notes that the East Anglian kings are called "Wuffings" after Rædwald's grandfather Wuffa (HE, ii.15), and the later Historia Brittonum suggests that Wuffa's father Wehha was the first of the line to rule the East Angles (?59), but this could just be copied from the Kentish origin model (an initial ruler, Hengest, followed by a son, Æsc, from whom the ruling dynasty is named; see entry on c.450 to 512).

It is uncertain when Rædwald came to power, but he was king by 616 when he raised a large army and fought the battle of the river Idle (see entry on 616) which put Edwin on the Northumbrian throne. Since this campaign not only demonstrated Rædwald acting beyond the East Anglian borders, but also showed him helping to his throne the king under whom the Northumbrians would be converted, it is small wonder that Bede puts Rædwald in his list of kings with wide powers over the southern English kingdoms (HE, ii.5). Rædwald had accepted Christianity in Kent (probably at Æthelberht's court), but was seduced back to his old pagan faith by his wife and some of his counsellors, so that he had in the same temple an altar to Christ and also an altar for offering victims to devils (Bede, HE, ii.15). The date of Rædwald's death is as uncertain as the date of his accession: his son Eorpwald had succeeded him as king when he was converted by Edwin (HE, ii.15), so Rædwald must have died between the battle of the river Idle in 616 and Edwin's death in 633. The 12th-century Liber Eliensis pushes the closing date back to 627 (see Keynes, p.104), but this may be simply based on an assumption from the order of events in Bede that Edwin converted Eorpwald immediately after his own conversion in 627.

Eorpwald succeeded Rædwald then some time 616?633, and received the faith from Edwin some time 627?633. Shortly after becoming Christian, Eorpwald was killed by a heathen called Ricbert (HE, ii.15). Bede notes that the kingdom stayed in error for three years, which may imply that it was under Ricbert's pagan rule.

Then Eorpwald's brother Sigeberht came to the throne (early in the 630s?); Sigeberht had been in exile in Gaul for fear of Rædwald's enmity, and had become a Christian there. (On Sigeberht's reign, see HE, ii.15 and iii.18.) He established a school in East Anglia to teach letters with the help of the Burgundian bishop Felix, whom he gave a bishopric at Dommoc (Dunwich?) . Sigeberht eventually resigned and entrusted the rule of the whole kingdom to his kinsman Ecgric, who had previously ruled part of the kingdom. Bede gives no indication of the line of the division, but it might have followed the river Waveney, which was the dividing line between the two sees of East Anglia when a second see was established by Theodore (at North Elmham) and remains today the dividing line between Norfolk and Suffolk (see Yorke, p.69). Some time later, the East Angles were under attack from the Mercian king Penda, a battle which can be roughly dated as between c.635 and 645, and in which both Sigeberht and Ecgric were killed (see entry on c.635?645).

The next known king of East Anglia was Anna, son of Rædwald's brother Eni (HE, iii.18 and genealogy). He was king by 645, when he sheltered the exiled Cenwealh of Wessex (see entry on 645). Like his cousin Sigeberht, he was killed by Penda of Mercia, and this event is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 654. Anna had three daughters. The eldest, Seaxburh, married King Eorcenberht of Kent (640-64), while another, Æthelburh, became abbess of the Continental monastery of Brie (HE, iii.8). Anna's most famous daughter, Æthelthryth, was married to Tondberht of the South Gyrwe and later to Ecgfrith of Northumbria, maintained her virginity through both marriages (in spite of Ecgfrith's entreaties and promises of rich gifts to Bishop Wilfrid if he could convince her to consummate the marriage), and went on to found the abbey of Ely (HE, iv.19).

No entry on the early history of the East Angles would be complete without mentioning the burial ground of Sutton Hoo, a few miles from what was in Bede's day the East Anglian royal centre of Rendlesham (HE, iii.22). There are several mounds over burials, two of which included large ships among their grave goods. The richest collection of goods, that in the ship buried beneath Mound 1, contained treasures from the Scandinavian, Merovingian, and Mediterannean worlds, as well as from farther afield -- a silver dish from Byzantium and a yellow cloak from Syria. Other items, such as an iron "standard" and whetstone "sceptre", have been interpreted as royal regalia, and the temptation to see this as the burial of a great king leads to the assumption that this is a commemoration to King Rædwald, the only great East Anglian king we know much about. However, a recent study has suggested the site should rather be identified as East Saxon, and has suggested the East Saxon Sæberht as the most likely candidate for Mound 1 (see Pearson, van de Noort, and Woolf), and the latest word of the most recent excavator of the site, Martin Carver, is that such attributions should be seen as possible but unproven (see Carver's article on Sutton Hoo in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England).

M. Carver (ed.), The Age of Sutton Hoo: The Seventh Century in North-Western Europe (Woodbridge: 1992)

D. Dumville, "The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists", Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976), pp.23-50

S. Keynes, "Rædwald the Bretwalda", Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo (Minneapolis: 1992), pp.103-23

M. Parker Pearson, R. van de Noort and A. Woolf, "Three men and a boat: Sutton Hoo and the East Saxon kingdom", Anglo-Saxon England 22 (1993), pp.27-50

B. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: 1990)

February 24, 616. Æthelberht of Kent dies
Eadbald succeeds to Kent; restores paganism
Archbishop Laurence persuades Eadbald to the faith

Bede records Æthelberht's death on 24 February, in 616, 21 years after the missionaries arrived and he accepted the faith (HE, ii.5).

The "21 years" is a problem, since it would place the arrival of the missionaries in 595, which contradicts the date of 597 Bede gives elsewhere (HE, v.24, and see the papal letters at HE, i.23-4). On the other hand, shifting Æthelberht's death to 618 (21 years after 597) runs into problems with the chronology of events after the death of Sæberht of the East Saxons (see entry on 616/7): Sæberht died after Æthelberht, and then there must be room for a pagan backlash and for Mellitus to spend a year in exile and then return some time before taking up the archbishopric of Canterbury in February 619. This would be almost impossible if Æthelberht died in February 618, so it seems best to regard "21 years" as an error and leave Æthelberht's death in February 616.

Æthelberht was succeeded by his son Eadbald, who had never received Christianity and compounded his fault in Bede's eyes by marrying his father's wife, presumably his stepmother (HE, ii.5; see entry on 858 for another example of a king's son marrying his stepmother). On the death of Sæberht (616/7) the East Saxons also reverted to paganism, and bishops Mellitus and Justus went back to the continent to await the outcome. According to Bede, Laurence would have followed, but St Peter appeared to him in a dream and scourged him for deserting his post. The next morning Laurence showed Eadbald the marks and Eadbald, sore afraid, quickly gave up his unlawful wife, accepted the Christian faith, and outlawed paganism once more, though he was not strong enough to reimpose Christianity (or bishop Mellitus) on the East Saxons (HE, ii.6).

616. Battle at the river Idle: Rædwald of the East Angles kills Æthelfrith of Northumbria
Edwin succeeds to Northumbria

The story of Rædwald's alliance with Edwin is told by Bede as part of the long account of Edwin's conversion (HE, ii.12). Edwin of Deira was in exile from Æthelfrith of Bernicia, and had been wandering for long years through all the kingdoms of Britain when he sought protection from Rædwald of the East Angles. Rædwald took Edwin in and promised to protect him. When Æthelfrith learnt that Edwin was in East Anglia, he sent messengers to Rædwald promising large amounts of money if he would put Edwin to death. Rædwald refused, and so Æthelfrith sent a second and a third time, promising even larger gifts and threatening war if Rædwald refused. Finally, either corrupted by the bribes or cowed by the threats, Rædwald agreed and promised either to kill Edwin or give him up to the Bernician messengers. Edwin learned this and went to sit outside the hall, where a heavenly messenger came to give him hope; shortly after that, a faithful friend sought him out, to tell him that Rædwald's wife had convinced him that going against his initial promise to Edwin would have been entirely unbecoming and a sacrifice of his honour. Rædwald sent away Æthelfrith's messengers, and shortly afterwards gathered together a large army to restore Edwin to the Northumbrian throne. Rædwald's army met Æthelfrith's without giving the Northumbrian king time to prepare, and Æthelfrith was slain in the battle on the Mercian border on the east bank of the river Idle, as was Rædwald's own son Regenhere. It was this battle that enabled Edwin to succeed to the Northumbrian throne.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the battle under 617, but since Bede says that Edwin had ruled the Northumbrians for 17 years at the time of the Battle of Hatfield of October 12, 633 (HE, ii.20), the correct date for the battle and for Edwin's accession is presumably 616.

c.616. Edwin of Northumbria occupies Elmet and expels King Cerdic

The Historia Brittonum records this conquest as taking place in Edwin's reign (?63). The Annales Cambriae record the death of a Cerdic in 616, just before they record Edwin's accession: this may be Cerdic of Elmet, although it need not be, and if it is someone else then the defeat of Cerdic of Elmet could be redated to 616?633. Bede does not mention the conquest of Elmet, though he does note that Edwin's nephew Hereric was poisoned while living in exile under the British king Cerdic, and this might have given Edwin an excuse for the war (HE, iv.23).

Elmet (Elfed in Welsh) was near modern-day Leeds in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and sent some warriors to the battle at Catraeth commemorated in the Gododdin (see entry on 570). The fact that a British kingdom survived into the 7th century, though probably surrounded by English Northumbria, suggests that there may have been other British kingdoms among the early English kingdoms, and that the English conquest was not as wholesale as our fragmentary and later sources lead us to believe. The name Elmet survives Edwin's conquest, as the Elmedsæte (dwellers in Elmet) are the most northerly people listed in the Tribal Hidage (a document of uncertain date between the later 7th and 9th centuries).

D. Dumville, "The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background", in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.213-22, at pp.220-1

616/7. Sæberht of East Saxons dies
Sæberht's three sons succeed to East Saxons; restore paganism

Sæberht's death in mentioned in Bede (HE, ii.5), but not in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As Plummer has shown (II.88), the date is very likely either 616 or 617: Bede's wording implies it is after Æthelberht's death (February 616), and the expulsion of Christian clerics which followed Sæberht's death must be in January 618 or earlier (because Mellitus spent one year in exile in Gaul (HE, ii.6), and he was made archbishop of Canterbury in February 619, some indeterminate time after his return (HE, ii.7)).

After Sæberht's death, his three sons succeeded, Sæward, Seaxred, and probably Seaxbald (see Yorke, p.52). They had restrained their heathen practices during their Christian father's reign, but now went back to openly worshipping idols and allowing their subjects to do the same. Bede records the story that the three sons of Sæberht saw the bishop celebrating mass (Mellitus, in London), and they asked him why he would not give them the Eucharistic bread just as he had given it to their father. The bishop replied that they could not partake of the bread unless they were baptised, and after much argument they threw him out of the kingdom (HE, ii.5).

C. Plummer, Venerabilis Baedae Historiam Ecclesiasticam Gentis Anglorum [...] (Oxford: 1896)

B. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: 1990)

c.616. West Saxons defeat East Saxons; Sæberht's three sons killed

This battle is mentioned in Bede (HE, ii.5), who implies that it was the East Saxons' due punishment for having expelled their Christian bishop. It cannot be dated precisely: Bede says that it took place not long after the East Saxons had exiled Mellitus, which was at some point between 616 and January 618 (see entry on 616/7, so it could have happened as early as 616 or as late as a few years after 618. The next recorded king of the East Saxons was Sigiberht the Small, of whom almost nothing is known, save that he was succeeded by Sigiberht the Good, who was converted back to Christianity in about 653.

625-7. Conversion of Northumbria

Bede tells a long story of the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria at HE, ii.9-14. It begins with Edwin of Northumbria sending ambassadors to Kent, to ask for the hand of Æthelberht's daughter (Eadbald's sister) Æthelburh. Eadbald objected that Edwin was a pagan, and Edwin responded that he would not prevent Æthelburh from practising her religion, and indeed might convert himself. At this, Æthelburh was betrothed to Edwin, and Paulinus was consecrated bishop (on 21 July 625) and went in Æthelburh's train to the Northumbrian court. (HE, ii.9. This all bears close comparison with the Frankish princess Bertha coming to pagan Kent and bringing bishop Liudhard with her: see entry on c.575.) We are told that Paulinus worked long and hard to convert the Northumbrians, but to no avail.

The following year, Cwichelm of the West Saxons sent an assassin to kill Edwin (see entry on 626), and Edwin promised Paulinus that if God would grant him life and victory over his enemies, he would renounce idols and serve Christ. As earnest of this, he gave his infant daughter (Eanflæd, later abbess of Whitby) to be baptised. His campaign against the West Saxons was successful, and though he did not accept the Christian faith immediately and without consideration, he did listen to Paulinus and consult with his counsellors (HE, ii.9).

Pope Boniface wrote letters of encouragement to Edwin and Æthelburh (HE, ii.10-11, compare the letters Pope Gregory had written to Æthelberht and Bertha in 601). Bede also recounts a moment in Edwin's exile with Rædwald (see entry on 616), in which a heavenly messenger appeared to give him hope, and in return Edwin promised to follow such a messenger in every particular. Paulinus came one day and spoke in the voice Edwin seemed to remember from the vision, and bade him remember his promise. Edwin then agreed that he would accept Paulinus's faith, but would confer with his counsellors first that they might all be converted together (HE, ii.12-13; note the echo of Bede's description of the first meeting of Augustine and the British bishops in c.602).

Bede goes on to describe Edwin's council (HE, ii.13), in which Coifi, the heathen high priest, claims that the heathen religion is worthless because it has not brought him better advancement, and another counsellor makes the famous comparison between life on earth and the flight of a sparrow through a hall. After the council Coifi rushes forth to profane the heathen shrines which he had consecrated, and Edwin with all his nobles and many others is baptised on Easter day of 627 (HE, ii.14).

One might be forgiven for thinking there is enough here to convert a normal person several times over. It is possible that Edwin was very cautious or very reluctant, but another possibility is that legends grew up quickly around Edwin's conversion, and that Bede, unable or untroubled to select the original, has presented them all. Support for this second possibility comes from the earliest Life of Gregory, composed at Whitby in the early 8th century (704?714). Chapter 16 tells the tale of the heavenly messenger at Rædwald's court, prefaced by the warning that this was not the tale as told by those who were closest to Edwin (his daughter and grand-daughter were abbesses of Whitby), but that it was included since it was related sincerely by faithful witnesses. This may suggest that the heavenly messenger glimpsed at Rædwald's court was a later and legendary addition.

The 9th-century Historia Brittonum (at ?63) and the Annales Cambriae make the counter-claim that Edwin was baptised by Rhun son of Urien (king of Rheged). This claim is probably rightly dismissed as a much later invention, though it is true that Bede's prejudice against the British church might keep him from mentioning British influence in the Northumbrian conversion (see further Campbell, p.24).

J. Campbell, "Bede I", reprinted in his Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London, 1986), pp.1-27

c.626. Penda becomes king of the Mercians

Sources for the early history of Mercia are few and far between, with almost no detail before we reach Penda in the early 7th century. The earlier material can be dealt with briefly here. The royal line is said to go back, son to father, from Penda to Pypba to Crida to Cynewald to Cnebba to Icel. Icel is probably the one who came to Britain, since the 8th-century Life of St Guthlac notes that the line begins with him. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC 626) takes the line farther back, through Eomer and Angeltheow and Offa (three legendary heroes noted in Beowulf), and eventually to Woden. This neat structure ignores the Mercian king Cearl and his daughter Cyneburh, who took in the Northumbrian Edwin in his exile according to Bede (HE, ii.14), and so presumably ruled at some point between the end of the 6th century and 616. Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century assumed Cearl was a kinsman of Pypba and reigned between Pypba and Penda, but this may be no more than a guess (see Sims-Williams, p.25).

Penda probably started to rule in about 626. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes under 626 that he ruled the kingdom for 30 years, and was 50 when he gained the throne. This would make him of Lear-like proportions at his final battle in 655, and it is more likely that the Chronicle is mangling a source which said that he ruled the kingdom for 30 years and was 50 when he died (see Brooks, p.166). Bede notes that Penda held the kingdom of the Mercians for 22 years after the battle of Hatfield in 633, "with varying success" (HE, ii.20); this might be taken to imply that Penda came to power in 633, but it might only mean that he first came to Bede's Northumbrian attention in the year of his major battle with the Northumbrians. (The West Saxons would remember Penda from their first battle with him in 628, recorded in the Chronicle.) The Historia Brittonum is more difficult to reconcile, since it gives Penda a reign of ten years, starting from the battle of Maserfelth (in 642), at which his brother Eowa, king of the Mercians, was killed, and by means of which he freed the kingdom of the Mercians from the Northumbrians. This starting date of 642, at odds with the other two sources, suggests that Bede's brief comment that Penda ruled "with varying success" may conceal a period when Penda had lost control of Mercia to the Northumbrians (see entry on 634-42).

Penda's relations with the Northumbrians, then, are a tale of four battles: first, the battle of Hatfield in 633, in which he and Cadwallon of Gwynedd killed Edwin of Northumbria, and second, in the following year, the battle at Denisesburn (see entries on 634 and 634-42), in which Cadwallon at least was soundly defeated by Oswald of Northumbria, and Penda may have had his brother imposed on him as king of the Mercians under the overlordship of the Mercians. Penda would defeat the Northumbrians a second time in 642 at the battle of Maserfelth, when he would kill Oswald of Northumbria, and Penda would himself be killed in the Northumbrians' second victory, at the battle of Winwæd of 655.

Penda's relations with other southern kingdoms were scarcely more peaceful. He defeated Cynegils and Cwichelm of Wessex in 628 at Cirencester, probably establishing his overlordship over the Hwicce at that point, and possibly forcing Cynegils's son Cenwealh to marry his sister. When Cenwealh repudiated Penda's sister in about 645, Penda forced him into exile, and he fled to the court of Anna of the East Angles. The East Angles were likely to harbour Penda's enemies because he had killed two of their kings, Sigeberht and Ecgberht, in a battle of c.635?645; he would go on to kill Anna of the East Angles in 654. It may be that one of the things that Penda was disputing with the East Angles was jurisdiction over the territory of the Middle Angles which lay between them, over which Penda put his son Peada in 653. It may also be that Penda was systematically reducing the power of a kingdom which had flexed its muscles and shown that it might be a threat back in 616 when it had sent an army up to the Northumbrian border (presumably through eastern Mercia) and toppled the Northumbrian king (see Dumville, p.132).

N. Brooks, "The formation of the Mercian kingdom", The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.159-70

D. Dumville, "Essex, Middle Anglia and the expansion of Mercia", The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.123-40

P. Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England, 600-800 (Cambridge: 1990)

626. West Saxon Cwichelm tries to assassinate Edwin of Northumbria
Northumbrians launch a revenge attack on the West Saxons

Bede tells this story as part of the tale of the conversion of Northumbria (HE, ii.9; see entry on 625-7). Cwichelm, whom Bede calls king of the West Saxons (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle usually presents him as acting with his father king Cynegils), sent Eomer, an assassin, to Edwin's court. In the midst of delivering his pretend message from his lord, Eomer leapt up, drew his poisoned sword, and rushed at the king. A thegn called Lilla quickly got in the way, and Eomer killed him outright and wounded the king behind him. Eomer was surrounded and slain.

When Edwin recovered from his wound, he gathered his army and marched against the West Saxons, and had a victorious campaign in which he slew or forced to surrender all those he discovered to have plotted his death. (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Edwin took an army into Wessex and destroyed there five kings, and killed many other people. We cannot say who these five kings were: Cynegils and Cwichelm certainly survived.)

c.627-731. Early history of Lindsey

The kingdom of Lindsey (probably the same as the Parts of Lindsey in modern Lincolnshire) was known to Bede, and though it fell alternately under Northumbrian and Mercian control in the 7th century, a surviving regnal list shows that it did at one time boast its own kings. It was once thought that the last of these, Aldfrith, witnessed a single charter confirmed by Offa of Mercia (S 1183), but this is now thought to be more probably a mangled attestation of Offa's son Ecgfrith (see Kelly, Selsey, p. 54).

Most of the references to Lindsey in the 7th century come from Bede. In the earliest, Paulinus goes to Lindsey after converting Edwin and converts the nobleman (praefectus) Blæcca and his household in Lincoln (HE, ii.16). Bede goes on to report a story that mass baptisms took place in the river Trent near Littleborough in the presence of King Edwin, which suggests that Lindsey was already under Northumbrian influence at this point. Lindsey next emerges after the death of Oswald of Northumbria in 642, when the Lindsey monastery of Bardney was unwilling to receive the bones of St Oswald, "because he belonged to another kingdom and had once conquered them" (HE, iii.11); it took a miracle for them to change their minds, so, as one would expect in Bede's History, a miracle duly took place. In the time of Wulfhere of Mercia (658-75), Lindsey was part of the diocese of Mercia (HE, iv.3), but Wulfhere lost it to Northumbria when he fought Ecgfrith in around 670?675. In 678, Lindsey gained a bishop (HE, iv.12), and it was probably at the Battle of the Trent in the following year (see entry on 679) that Wulfhere's successor Æthelred regained Lindsey from Ecgfrith (HE, iv.12).

The return to Mercian control in 679 was the final change: from then on, Lindsey was under Mercian control, though it seems to have retained its kings at least until 731, when Bede mentions the kingdom of Lindsey as being part of Æthelbald of Mercia's Southumbrian dominions (HE, v.23).

D. Dumville, "The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists", Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976), pp.23-50 (for Lindsey, see p. 37)

B. Eagles, "Lindsey", in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.202-12

S. Kelly, Charters of Selsey (Oxford: 1998)

F. Stenton, "Lindsey and its Kings", Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: 1970), pp.127-35