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18 September 2014
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Birth of England: The Wessex Kings

By Michael Wood
A ruler of kingdoms

Image of stained-glass window featuring Bede
Bede as depicted in a 14th-century window ©
Bede shows us there was an early idea of the unity of the English people, even though 'England' consisted of many small regional kingdoms and numerous tribes.

There also seems to have been a tradition, even before Bede's day, to have one ruler of the English people. Bede tells us that prior to his time there had been seven kings who held some kind of overlordship over the people of what we now call England - and, even more, an overlordship of mainland Britain.

To express this he uses the Latin word imperium, which means overlordship. When this is translated in the ninth century in the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle', the writer or writers use a different Old English word, bretwalda or brytenwalda. This originally meant 'wide ruler', and was an ancient poetic title for a king, but it came to mean the ruler who was overlord of lowland Britain.

'The Viking invasions changed everything. '

Bede's theme was the English Church and people, as we have seen, but he also revealed an early tradition of some kind of political overlordship.

The Anglo-Saxon kings seized on this in the tenth century when they fulfilled Bede's 'blueprint' - to unite politically and religiously under one church the peoples who lived in England. But the reason this happened when it did was due more than anything else to the Vikings.

The Viking invasions changed everything. They destroyed several of the ancient English kingdoms, the Northumbrians and the East Angles. This forced the defending English kingdoms to define very clearly what they were fighting for.

One dynasty - that of Wessex - emerged as the winner in that military, political and ideological struggle. The people of Wessex were those able to defeat the Vikings and eventually, during the tenth century, to incorporate all the other areas into a kingdom of England under a king of all the English.

Published: 2004-11-12

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