Geography Pages

Map of Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain


All boundaries and borders are approximate

The territory controlled by a king or people was highly variable, and was often disputed by other peoples. The Kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex in particular would be extended by a powerful king, but then shrink if a succeeding king was less capable. This period covers several centuries of pillaging and invasion by various groups. An approximation to the modern coast-line is generally used in the maps.


Britain - AD 500-700
map of britain


Ireland Ireland was never conquered by the Romans. There are no clear records of how Christianity first came to Ireland, but it is probable that contact with Christians from Britain resulted in small Christian communities starting in Ireland sometime in the fourth century.
Pope Celestine I (422-432) sent Palladius as Bishop to the "Irish believing in Christ".
In 433 Patrick landed in Ireland to begin his mission of evangelization.
Patrick was a young boy in Britain when he was captured by pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland. After about six years of captivity he escaped and made his way back to Britain, where he dedicated himself to training in order to return to Ireland as a Christian missionary.
The church which developed in Ireland was not organized on the same lines as the church in continental Europe. There were bishops, but they were often not as powerful as the Abbots of monasteries. There was no consolidated secular ruler in the land, but a number of local chieftains at war with one another; their main occupation seems to have been raiding each other's cattle. So there was not the support of a powerful Christian ruler as in the Roman Empire after Constantine.
Monasteries were organized along the lines of the earlier Egyptian monasticism rather than the Benedictine system which developed in Europe. Monks were freer to come and go, and often lived as hermits or as loosely associated small groups rather than as closed communities.
Amongst those who set out on missions from Irish monasteries were Columba (521-597) who went to Iona on the West coast of Scotland; Columbanus (543-615) who traveled to Gaul and then Italy; Finnian (495-579) who traveled to Rome to bring back a copy of the Vulgate.
Brigid, Bridget, or Bride (d. 523) founded the first nunnery in Ireland, at Kildare. Her prayers and support for the Irish missionaries caused her to be venerated as a saint.
Colman (d.676) went from Ireland to Iona, then in 661 he was sent to be Bishop of Lindisfarne to help King Oswy. After the Synod of Whitby in 664 when Oswy adopted Roman traditions, Colman went to live in a monastery in Ireland.
In later centuries the Vikings invaded Ireland and then crossed the Irish Sea to invade the west coast of England, particularly Mercia.
Wales Wales traces its Christian roots to the Celtic Christians of Roman Britain, who retreated to the mountainous West under the pressure of the Saxon invasions.
Organization of the Church was similar to that in Ireland, with no powerful secular rulers. The main ecclesiastical authority was in the hands of the abbot/bishops of local monasteries, monks were active as missionaries to other regions, and clergy were allowed to marry.
Welsh saints include Illtyd (454-535 founder of at least one monastery, missionary to Wales), Dubricius (6th century, reputed to have crowned King Arthur), Samson of Dol (490-565, traveled to Cornwall and Brittany), Asaph (ca.570, abbot), Teilo (6th century bishop of Llandaff), Deiniol (d. 584, probable founder of the monastery of Bangor Iscoed), David (d. ca.601, founder of many monasteries, patron saint of Wales).
Cornwall Cornwall was one of the regions where the Celtic Christians managed to hold out against the invading Saxons. Little is known of their history, but a number of Celtic saints from this period are commemorated locally. Petrock (6th century) had ties with Wales and Ireland, and founded monasteries in Cornwall.
Boniface (680-754) from Devon became the "Apostle of Germany" with missionary visits to Bavaria, Hesse, Thuringia, and Frisia, where he demonstrated the superiority of God by felling the Oak of Thor at Geismar. He was encouraged in his work by Willibrord (from Northumbria) - the two may have worked together on some missions. He was martyred in 754
The Kings of Wessex eventually grew strong enough to push the boundary further and further west until they took all of the Cornish peninsular.
Scotland Scotland resisted invasion by the Romans, and was largely untouched by Roman culture. The population of Scots, Picts, and other tribes were a loose confederation which fought amongst themselves and had no strong central organization. Christian missions to Scotland came mainly from Britain and Ireland, had an authority structure based on Abbots and monks rather than Bishops, and traced their traditions to the Eastern Church at Ephesus rather than to the Western Church of Rome.
The first known missionary to Scotland was Ninian, who built the first stone Church in Scotland in 397 and headed a mission to the Picts.
Columba (521-597) came from Ireland to start a mission at the island of Iona.
Aidan (d. 651) traveled from Iona to found a mission on the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island). Oswald, King of Northumbria, called Aidan to rebuild the mission to Northumbria. He trained a group of English boys to be future leaders of the Church in the north of England - one of these was Chad of Lichfield
Kentigern (d. 603) traveled around southern Scotland, Wales, and northern Britain, preaching and founding monasteries.
Kent Kent had been invaded and settled by Jutes led by Hengist and Horsa in 449.
Ethelbert became King of Kent in 560, and claimed power over all of southern England up to the Humber (the southern kingdoms and Mercia). His wife, Bertha, was the daughter of Charibert King of the Franks, a Christian princess who was instrumental in bringing Augustine of Canterbury from Rome to Kent in 597. Ethelbert became the first Christian English King and gave his support to the spread of the English Church. His daughter Ethelburger married Edwin, King of Northumbria, and helped to bring Christianity to that kingdom. However, succeeding kings of Kent were not always Christian, and the Church underwent a series of persecutions and revivals for several centuries.
Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury 668-690, was a Greek monk who was sent by Pope Vitalian to reorganize and revitalize the chaotic state of the Church in England. He succeeded in his mission, forming a centralized Church with a system of accountability, organized into Dioceses under Bishops, and local parishes cared for by Priests. This system of Church government has remained until today and is the basic structure of the world-wide Anglican Communion.
Dunstan (909-988) became Archbishop of Canterbury in 960. He worked together with King Edgar (of Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex) to rebuild and reform the monasteries and church life in England after the devastation caused by the Danes.
Northumbria Northumbria, "the Land North of the Humber", had been invaded and settled by Angles. The region was split into at least two kingdoms (North and South), ruled by pagan kings until the time of Edwin (585-633). Edwin had been driven out of his southern kingdom by a northern king, but eventually fought his way back to the kingdom.
In 625 Edwin married Ethelburga, daughter of the Christian King Ethelbert of Kent, who brought Paulinus with her as a Christian missionary. Paulinus had been sent to England in 601 by Pope Gregory to help Augustine of Canterbury.
Edwin was baptized in 627, and appointed Paulinus as Bishop of York, but he was killed by the pagan king Penda of Mercia in 633. Paulinus took Ethelburga back to safety in Kent, and the Christian mission to Northumbria lost its impetus
Another member of the royal family of Northumbria, Hilda (d. 680), was also baptized by Paulinus in 627. Hilda intended to travel to the continent of Europe to join her sister in a convent, but was called to help Aidan's mission to the north. In 657 she founded a monastery for both men and women at Whitby, and it was there that she discovered Caedmon (d.680), an illiterate herdsman with a gift for poetry and song. She arranged for his education, and he became the first Christian English poet of whom we know.
Hilda attended the Synod of Whitby in 664, and accepted the change from Celtic to Roman traditions.
Oswald (605-642) was the son of one of the kings of Northumbria, but fled to Scotland when his father died and the kingdom was taken by Edwin. While in exile, Oswald met the monks of Iona and became a Christian. He returned to fight for his kingdom, told his soldiers to pray for victory, and when he became king he sent to Iona for monks to come as missionaries. Aidan was sent from Iona, and established a center at Lindisfarne. Oswald was killed in battle against the pagan Penda of Mercia in 642.
On the death of Oswald the kingdom was split between his brother Oswy, and one of his kinsmen, Oswin (also a Christian). Oswy killed Oswin in 651. In 654 Penda attacked Oswy with a large army, but was defeated and killed by Oswy.
Oswy (ruled 642-670) married a Kentish princess who kept the Roman traditions and calendar. One year, Oswy was ready to celebrate Easter, when his wife was still fasting for Lent. Oswy determined that the kingdom would have one set of rules and one calendar, so he called a Church Council (Synod) to be held at Hilda's monastery at Whitby in 664. Colman and Cedd presented the case for continuing to keep the Celtic traditions, but Wilfred told the King that St. Peter was in charge of the gates of heaven and St. Peter had started the Roman traditions, so the King said he'd rather not risk making St. Peter angry, and decided that from then on England would follow the Roman calendar and customs.
Cedd (d. 664), brother of Chad, grew up at Lindisfarne under the direction of Aidan. Oswy sent him on missions to the Angles and the East Saxons. He died of the plague shortly after the Synod of Whitby
Chad (d. 672), brother of Cedd, was sent as missionary Bishop to the Mercians in 669, where he founded the Cathedral of Lichfield
Colman (d.676) was originally from Ireland. In 661 he was sent to be Bishop of Lindisfarne to help King Oswy. After the Synod of Whitby in 664, when Oswy adopted Roman traditions, Colman returned to Ireland to live in a monastery.
Cuthbert (d. 687) was a monk and bishop at Lindisfarne who was brought up in the traditions of the Celtic Church, but accepted the decisions of the Council of Whitby (664) and adopted the Roman traditions and calendar. He was active in promoting missions to the surrounding peoples.
Wilfrid (634-709) was educated at Lindisfarne, but traveled to Canterbury and then to Rome in 653 to study the Roman traditions. He was instrumental in guiding the Synod of Whitby to decide in favor of following the Roman traditions and calendar. In later years he spent some time as a missionary to the pagan Saxons of Sussex (681-686), but then returned to Mercia and Northumbria where he retired to a monastery at Ripon
Benedict Biscop (628-690) was brought up in the court of King Oswy. He traveled to Rome, became a monk, and returned to England with Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus in 669. He brought musicians from Rome to teach Roman chant, and started to build churches of stone rather than wood. He founded monasteries at Wearmouth (674) and at Jarrow (682). Bede joined the monastery at Jarrow as a seven-year-old boy and grew up under his care.
Bede (673-735) grew up in the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow and spent his life in study, teaching, prayer, and writing. He wrote commentaries on the Scriptures, scientific treatises, and histories, of which one of the most important is "Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum" (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People). Bede was given the title of Venerable rather than Saint because he was not martyred for his faith. His name is often pronounced "beed" but is more properly "BAY-duh"
Egbert (d. 729) was a monk from Lindisfarne who traveled through Ireland and settled in Iona. He encouraged and organized missions to Germany, including the mission of Willibrord in 690
Willibrord (658-739) "Apostle of Frisia", trained with Wilfrid and also in Ireland before he set out on his mission to Friesland (N. Germany) in 690. He traveled throughout what is now northern Germany and Denmark as a missionary, and probably worked together with Boniface.
Willehad (d. 789) was educated at York, and set out on a mission to Frisia in 765. In 780 Charlemagne sent him to the Saxons in north Germany where he eventually became bishop.
Alcuin (735-804) was brought up in the Cathedral School at York, and was made Master of the School in 766. Charlemagne met Alcuin in 781 and invited him to come to France as his advisor for education and religion. Alcuin was appointed royal tutor, organized libraries and schools, and brought new scholarship to the Carolingian Empire.
In 793 the Vikings sacked Lindisfarne, and in 802 they sacked Iona. In 865 the main invasions of Vikings and Danes began, Christianity and scholarchip were extinguished, and the north of England came under Danish control and was called the Danelaw. The division lasted until 954, when Eric Bloodaxe, last king of York, was killed in battle by the Saxon King Edred.
Mercia Mercia, originally called Southumbria, the Land South of the Humber, was settled by Angles and remained pagan until the death of King Penda in 654. Penda had attacked Oswy of Northumbria, but was defeated and killed by Oswy.
Oswy of Northumbria held Mercia for three years until a revolt restored Penda's son Wulfhere to Mercia. At some point in his life Wulfhere became Christian, because towards the end of his reign he retired and entered a monastery.
Chad (d. 672), brother of Cedd, was sent as missionary Bishop to the Mercians in 669, where he founded the Cathedral of Lichfield
Offa King of the Mercians (ruled 757-796) was one of the most powerful kings of the time. He encouraged the building of monasteries and abbeys, including those of St. Albans and Bath. He was a contemporary of Charlemagne, and regarded himself as his equal - at one time there was a suggestion that Offa's daughter should marry Charlemagne's son, and one of Charlemagne's daughters should marry Offa's son, but the kings had a disagreement and the deal fell through.
Wessex Wessex the Land of the West Saxons, was invaded and settlement began in 494, with leaders who claimed kingship ca. 500
The region remained pagan until 635 when the leader, Cynegils, accepted Christianity and allowed the building of a cathedral and churches.
Penda and Wulfhere of Mercia invaded and gained control of most of Wessex, and a period of fighting and confusion amongst rival leaders ensued.
King Alfred the Great (ruled 871-899) held out against the Danes. His capital was at Winchester. In 878 Alfred won the Battle of Edington, and was able to enforce a treaty with the Danes. While negotiating the treaty, Guthrun, the leader of the Danes stayed with Alfred, became a Christian, and was baptized. Guthrum and his men settled in East Anglia.
Edward the Elder (ruled 899-924) King of Wessex, and his sister Ethelflaed "Lady of the Mercians", Alfred's children, continued the work of pacifying the Danes.
Ethelwold (908-984), Bishop of Winchester, led a movement to rebuild the Church after the destruction caused by the Danes.
Edgar (ruled 959-975), extended his authority over most of the other kingdoms, but kept their kings as "under-kings" who paid him homage. Under the leadership of Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, Edgar rebuilt the monastic system and encouraged a renewal of scholarship and the start of literature in English rather than Latin.
Edward the Martyr, the eldest surviving son of Edgar, was murdered by supporters of his brother Ethelred in 978
Ethelred the Unready (ruled 978-1016) was incompetent and unable to organize his kingdom to meet the challenges of conntinued hostile attacks. His policy of bribing the Danes to go away, by paying "Danegeld" only encouraged them to attack again. His wife, Emma, sister of Richard, Duke of Normandy, returned to Normandy with their sons.
Canute or Knut (ruled 1016-1035) was the Danish leader who invaded England in 1015. For a few months he was held off by Ethelred's son Edmund Ironside, but he managed to force a treaty by which Edmund retained Wessex, and Canute got the rest of England.
Edmund Ironside died in 1016, and Canute added the Kingdom of Wessex to his holdings, to become King of all England. Canute further consolidated his position by marrying Ethelred's widow, Emma. Their son Hardicanute (d. 1042) became king after Canute. Emma's sons by Ethelred stayed in Normandy until the death of Hardicanute in 1041.
Edward the Confessor (ruled 1041-1066) was the son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy. Edward was extrememly pious, and founded Westminster Abbey in London. He was childless, and William, Duke of Normany claimed that Edward had promised him the throne when he was in Normandy.
However, on Edward's death, a powerful Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinsson, who also happened to be Edward the Confessor's brother-in-law, claimed the throne, was elected by the Saxon nobility and crowned in Westminster.
The end of Harold's reign came suddenly. Harold's brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, had been exiled in 1065 and had entered into a pact with Harald of Norway. Tostig and Harald of Norway sailed up the River Humber, defeated an English army, and were preparing to capture the city of York, when Harold of England attacked and defeated them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
At the same time as Tostig and Harald of Norway were preparing their invasion, William of Normany was preparing his. The winds for crossing the Enlgish Channel were favorable, and William landed in Pevensey just three days after the Battle of Stamford Bridge. William did not move his troops further inland than a few miles from Hastings, where they rested, prepared the ground, and waited for Harold to arrive. News of the invasion came to Harold, who turned his tired army around and marched them south immediately. They attacked William at the place now known as Battle, and after a long day's fighting Harold was killed by an arrow in his eye. The Saxon defence crumbled, and William led his army to London, where he was crowned King of England. The Saxon rule of England was over and the Norman Conquest began.
Sussex Sussex, the Land of the South Saxons, was the center of a British tribal kingdom pre-dating the Roman occupation, which collaborated with the Romans and was allowed to remain as an administrative power. Chichester, Silchester, and Winchester are towns which grew up around Roman camps (Latin castrum, "camp" became the English -caster or -chester in place names)
In 477 the Saxons invaded, drove out the Roman-British inhabitants, and settled in the land.
Sussex soon came under the domination of Wessex, with the Kings of Sussex serving as under-kings to the Kings of Wessex.
Ethelwalh King of Sussex, welcomed Wilfrid, gave him lands for monasteries, and ordered the people to become Christian.
Wilfrid (634-709), who had guided the Synod of Whitby to decide in favor of following the Roman traditions and calendar, spent some time as a missionary to the Saxons of Sussex (681-686) before returning to Mercia and Northumbria.
Essex Essex, the Land of the East Saxons, had been a center of Roman occupation. It was one of the first regions of Britain to be invaded by the Saxons. Little is known of how Christianity first came to Essex, but because of its proximity to Kent, and the ties between the royal families it is likely that it was soon after the evangelization of Kent.
Cedd (d. 664), brother of Chad, grew up at Lindisfarne under the direction of Aidan. Oswy of Northumberland sent him on missions to the Angles and the East Saxons. He died of the plague shortly after the Synod of Whitby
East Anglia East Anglia was settled by the Angles who invaded from northern Germany. It was also subject to repeated invasion and pillaging by the Danes.
Ethelbert of Kent was overlord of the King of East Anglia, so when Ethelbert became Christian in 597 his under-kings followed suit at least superficially
Eorpwald (d. 628), King of East Anglia was probably the first Christian King of East Anglia, but he was killed by a heathen leader who became the next king.
The country was not evangelized until the reign of Eorpwald's half-brother Siegebehrt (ruled 631-634). Siegebehrt had been in exile in Burgundy, where he met Felix (later Bishop of Dunwich, d. 648) and became a Christian. Siegebehrt fell in battle against the heathen Penda of Mercia in 634
When Siegebehrt became King, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Honorius, sent Felix to evangelize the East Angles, and he worked there for the rest of his life.
Cedd (d. 664), grew up at Lindisfarne under the direction of Aidan, and was sent by Oswy on Northumbria on missions to the Angles and the East Saxons.
Edmund the Martyr (840-869) was a son of a Saxon king who was adopted as King by the East Angles. He was captured by marauding Danes in 869. The Danes offered to let him live if he would share the kingdom with their leader, but he refused to allow a heathen ruler so they killed him.
There was also a region called Middlesex - Land of the Middle Saxons, around London. This was quite small, and has been engulfed by the City of London.

The prefix Ethel-, Aethel-, Edel-, or Aedel- in Saxon names means "noble"

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