East Anglia in the Seventh century

I am currently working on the plot for the second novel, Sacrifice, and my heroine travels to East Anglia for Pentecost (Whitsun), 635. Accordingly, I am trying to put together a picture of East Anglia at that time composed of what information has come down to us (as always for the 7th century, mainly from Bede) and what it is reasonable to guess/speculate/invent.

I begin with the assumption (shared by Nicola Griffith in her marvelous novel Hild) that the man that Hilda’s sister Hereswith married – Ethelric – is the same person as the man who was joint king of the East Angles c. 630-634 and sole king c.634-636, i.e. Ecgric. From about 630, Ecgric shared the rule with Sigeberht, a man much praised by Bede as a good Christian. Scholars are not entirely in agreement about his parentage, but he was probably the step-son of Raedwald, the first East Anglian king about whom we have any substantial information. Sigeberht spent time in Gaul and returned to take the throne, quite possibly by force as he had a later reputation as a warrior, from Ricberht. We have no idea about Ricberht’s parentage, but he apparently killed his predecessor, Eorpwald, who was a son of Raedwald. A violent sort of place, obviously, like most of Britain in the 7th century. So the story about the kings goes like this:

c.599-624: Raedwald, who was rich, powerful, Christian and alled with the kingdoms of Kent and Northumbria (he put Edwin on the throne of Northumbria). He is probably the man buried in a ship big enough to have 40 oarsmen under mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. The treasure surrounding him still constitutes the single most impressive hoard ever unearthed from a grave in Britain. That wondrous institution, Wikipedia, currently offers an especially good article on Sutton Hoo. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sutton_Hoo

The famous helmet reconstructed from fragments in the ship burial under Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo

The famous helmet reconstructed from fragments in the ship burial under Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo

c.624-627: Eorpwald, son of Raedwald. Assassinated.

c.627-630: Ricberht, usually assumed to be the man who killed/arranged the killing of Eorpwald.

c.630-634: Sigberht (possibly Raedwald’s step-son) + as joint king or sub-king of the North Folk, Egric/Ethelric who was possibly the oldest of the sons of Eni. Eni was Raedwald’s brother.

c.634: Sigberht abdicates and enters the monastery that he founded at Beodericsworth. Egric/Ethelric becomes sole king and rules until the battle with Penda of Mercia, probably in about 636. For this battle, Sigberht is forced out of his monastery to help, but refuses to carry any weapon except a staff. He and Egric/Ethelric are both killed.

c.636-653/4: Anna, son of Eni. Killed by Penda at the battle of Bulcamp. Anna fathered a remarkable family of saintly daughters, including Saints Seaxburgh, Aethelthryth, Aethelburgh and possibly also Whitburh.

653/4-655: Aethelhere, son of Eni. Killed at the battle of Winwaed, 15 November, fighting with Penda against Oswiu of Northumbria.

655-663: Aethelwold, son of Eni.

663-713: Ealdwulf, son of Ethelric and Hereswith.

Ealdwulf was probably born around the time that Sigberht abdicated and retired into his monastery and so the scene that I am setting up for Pentecost 635 is that:

Ealdwulf is born late 634; Sigberht announces his abdication Christmas 634; he enters the monastery Easter 635; Ethelric (and Hereswith) celebrates his rise to sole power at Pentecost 635, surrounded by his brothers (the other sons of Eni), his infant son and one or more of his eventually saintly nieces.

If the pagan Penda was not already their sworn enemy, he would be very soon.¬† I postulate a border dispute over control of the lands to the west of the Devil’s Dyke and on the western half of the fens, including the iron-working areas around what is now Peterborough but was then Medeshamstede, near the Roman town of Durobrivae (the modern village of Water Newton). These were the lands of the Gyrwe (north and south) and the Wille (east and west), all of them listed in the Tribal Hidage and members of the group known broadly as the Middle Angles. By the late 7th century, they were all certainly a part of greater Mercia – yes, Penda’s expansionist policies were successful – but in the early 7th century, they were probably still under the control of independent tribal leaders, such as Tondbert. He was the chieftain of the South Gyrwe who married Aethelthryth, daughter of Anna, and gave her the Isle of Ely as her morgengifu/morning gift.


Map of East Anglia in the Seventh Century. Source: Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia.

If anybody has any suggestions/ideas/references about the battle with Penda during which Egric and Sigberht were killed, I would be very grateful.

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4 Responses to East Anglia in the Seventh century

  1. Sally, when is book 1 coming out? It sounds as if you are setting up a series, a la JK Rowling, so we devotees need to get in at the beginning!
    Also – I love the map. If you created it, how? I’ve never found a satisfactory map making app/program, and would be interested in advice.

    • Sally says:

      Hi Marion – no publisher for book 1 yet; I am still looking for an agent, but I thought I would get on with the next one while I am waiting. Three are planned in this series. The overall title is Kith and Kin and the first one in the series is called Cuckold, the second one Sacrifice.
      As to the map, no, that is from Wikimedia commons. I did not make that clear, so a correction will go up tomorrow (new computer, so everything is up in the air at the moment). The attribution should be Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia. I agree about the lack of a satisfactory map program. All the maps I have made myself so far are hand drawn and very amateurish.

  2. For what its worth, I suspect that Aethelhere was with Penda against his brother Anna. Penda is setting up a puppet king to bring East Anglia under its control. I think the youngest brother may have gotten refuge in Northumbria where Anna is recorded in the Durham Liber Vitae. Anna could have been recorded there when his daughter became queen.

  3. Sally says:

    Thanks Michelle. Yes, I suspect that there must have been tensions in this family and that not all the brothers were united all the time. Possibly Aethelhere was only turned against Northumbria/ made a puppet of Penda after Penda killed Anna. But maybe he was with Penda before that. There is also the implication that despite multiple attempts, Penda failed to win control over East Anglia, which only fell under Mercia’s sway after Ealdwulf’s death in 713.

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