I was interested to read that most English shires took a form that we would recognise today by the end of the tenth century – excepting those northern counties permanently unable to decide whether they were Scottish or not, oh and Rutland.
Kent, Sussex and Essex were once been kingdoms in their own right rather than counties. Sussex was established in the fifth century by Ælle who founded the South Saxon kingdom. Meanwhile the “South folk” and the “North folk” found themselves being ruled by Rædwald who joined the people of Suffolk and Norfolk in to the kingdom of the East Angles – and so, at a stroke, we have a modern region identified. In fact Brooke describes the county, regional and town names of England as being like a palimpsest leaving bits and pieces of history littering the landscape.
For the purpose of this post it also demonstrates that history does not happen in a vacuum. Things evolve gradually over time. Thus the starting date of 1066 for the History Jar is somewhat arbitrary as Duke William of Normandy, Edward the Confessor and Earl Harold did not spring fully formed from thin air on the 1st January that year.
Our story begins, if family is important, with Cerdic who was an Earldorman and war leader. In 495 he conquered, if the Anglo Saxon Chronicle is to be believed, parts of the south coast and the Isle of Wight. Just for context this is the time that the historical King Arthur was supposed to be doing battle on behalf of the Romano-British against the raping, looting, pillaging Saxons and Angles.
Cerdic’s family, which were in all probability Celtic in origin (hence the name), hung on to the land that Cerdic took and by the time of his grandson the Gewissæ as Cerdic’s people had became known dominated their little portion of land. They didn’t do quite so well in the seventh century when the kingdom of Mercia spread down into the top end of the Thames Valley but that was okay because the Gewissæ relocated into the southwest as well as holding their original southern territories. The most important “petty” king of the Gewissæ of this period was Cædwalla. Under his rule the Gewissæ became known as the West Saxons – Wessex.
Cædwalla ruled from 685-688 and was succeeded by Ine who ruled until 726. Wessex was basically Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. Cædwalla justified his right to rule not from the fact that he was handy in a fight but because he claimed descent from Cerdic – Brooke notes that its impossible to prove that particular fact. More important even than that so far as posterity was concerned Cædwalla took himself off to Rome got himself baptised by the pope and then promptly died – ensuring that he got into Bede’s history as a shining example of a Christian life. Poor Ine ruled for thirty-seven years and created a written code that establish clear laws- the earliest one to survive (probably thanks to King Alfred) but Bede spent more time writing about Cædwalla.
Neither of the two Cerdic leaders identified in the previous paragraph were counted as great kings. There were plenty of little kingdoms. A single kingdom could even be ruled by several warlords. However from time to time a great warrior would arise who would be acknowledged as a sort of senior king amongst the others – the title given to such a man would be Bretwalda.
In 1066 when Edward the Confessor died anyone claiming a descent from Cerdic could apply to become king. Today some historians aren’t even sure that Cerdic existed – even though the Anglo Saxon Chronicle traces his descent back to Woden.
Whilst William Duke of Normandy wasn’t a Cerdic descendant all kings since Henry II have been. Henry II’s grandmother, the wife of Henry I (Edith, Normanised to Matilda) was the daughter of Margaret of Wessex – better known as St Margaret.
The next couple of posts will explore how Cerdic’s descendants came to dominate the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England…or whether they ever did. There will also be a family tree at some point.
Brooke, Christopher. The Saxon and Norman Kings.