There is an argument to be made that historians shouldn’t talk about the Anglo Saxon period as though it was one “lump” of political cohesiveness given that the number of kingdoms and sub-kingdoms evolved throughout the period.
Basically there were initially seven kingdoms in England – Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Kent, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. There was also Wales with its own kingdoms. Cumbria was initially part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. Sometimes it was in Scottish hands, sometimes English – depending on the power and the politics of the period. Then there was Dumnonia – which we know as Devon and Cornwall. In 838 the men of Cornwall allied themselves with the Vikings against the kingdom of Wessex and lost. By the end of the ninth century it is apparent that King Alfred held estates in the region. Gradually the boundaries were pushed back to the River Tamar and the area we know as Cornwall today before it also became part of the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. Historians debate how the independent kingdom may have become a sub-kingdom before being coalesced.
So, in terms of Saxon kingdoms start off by thinking of seven for the seventh century and the so called Heptarchy of kingdoms listed above. These were first identified in the twelfth century by Henry of Huntingdon when he wrote his history. The seven kingdoms rapidly dwindled to five – Wessex, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia and Northumbria. Kent also becomes less independent over time. By 829 the Kingdom of Wessex was dominant and the royal family of Wessex held the hereditary right to rule – the Witan, or council, could choose from anyone who could prove their bloodline.
The Vikings also need to be added into the mix. By 900 AD (Anno Domini) or CE (Common Era), depending on your preference, there’s a line demarcating the boundary between Saxon rule and Danelaw which runs at an approximate diagonal from Chester to Kent.
By the beginning of the tenth century there was something that looked more like a country as we might recognise it today with regions and a more centralised administration – regions being governed by powerful families. Even so it was only at the start of the eleventh century with the Danes in charge that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle refers to “all the kingdom of the English.” Or put another way King Cnut was able to dominate all the factions and make them do what he wanted. Even Cnut stuck to the geographical boundaries of the four dominant earldoms of England as the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle explains.
A.D. 1017. This year King Knute took to the whole government of England, and divided it into four parts: Wessex for himself, East-Anglia for Thurkyll, Mercia for Edric, Northumbria for Eric. This year also was Alderman Edric slain at London, and Norman, son of Alderman Leofwin, and Ethelward, son of Ethelmar the Great, and Britric, son of Elfege of Devonshire. King Knute also banished Edwy etheling, whom he afterwards ordered to be slain, and Edwy, king of the churls; and before the calends of August the king gave an order to fetch him the widow of the other king, Ethelred, the daughter of Richard, to wife.
The chronicle repeats the information that Cnut was the king of all England in 1035 when he died at Shaftesbury (he was buried in Winchester.) He is pictured below giving Winchester Abbey a large gold cross along with his wife Emma of Normandy who had previously been married to Aethelred the Unready.
For more on Cnut open a new window https://www.bl.uk/people/cnut
Dr Nicole Marafioti, review of Formation of the English kingdom in the 10th century, (review no. 1890)
Date accessed: 2 May, 2019