The Rise and Fall of the Kentish Empire

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This is the second article on the Anglo-Saxon period of English history for role-players. It should be noted that the term “Kentish Empire” was never used by the Anglo-Saxons or by modern historians; however, since King Aethelbert did persue what can only be called an expansionist policy and did earn the title “Bretwalda” for himself, I feel it appropriate to use the term “empire” to describe the Kent of his reign.

After the succession of Hengest’s son Aesc, Kent is not mentioned again in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle until 560 when Aethelbert’s succession, probably from his father Ermenric, is recorded. Elsewhere the date of succession is given as 565. He is recorded as having been born in 552 and being baptised in the thirty second year of his reign. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has St. Augustine arriving in Britain in 597, as does Bede. Bede is also quite clear that Aethelbert was baptised in 597 which puts his accession to the throne as being in 565. Even then, he would have been only thirteen years old on becoming king. It is surprising that a warrior culture would accept a teenager as king but totally unbelievable that an eight year old boy would have been accepted so I am taking the date of 565 as being correct. We can only speculate about the political horse-trading that led to Ethelbert’s kingship at such a young age.

In 568, according to the Chronicle, the young King was at war with the West Saxons – and lost. Two of his eoldomen were were killed. In some translations, this term is rendered as “aldermen” which is unfortunate as an alderman in nineteenth and twentieth century English local government was a council official. In Anglo-Saxon times, eoldoman was a rank of nobility below that of king.

Bede also records that Augustine and the monks who accompanied him were fearful of the “barbarous, fierce and unbelieving” English. They need not have worried. Ethelbert’s wife Bertha was a member of the Frankish royal family and one of the conditions of the marriage was that she be allowed to practice her faith unmolested. Christianity was thus not totally unfamiliar to him. He allowed Augustine to address him – after having taken precautions against the monks casting spells on him. After hearing them out he allowed them to preach and make use of an old Roman church in his capital, Canterbury. Later that year he was baptised. The sources do not say but it is possible that he came under pressure from his in-laws to convert to Christianity. He may also have seen the advantages of strengthening his alliance with the powerful Frankish Kingdom.

He certainly became one of the most powerful and influential of the Kentish kings. His sister Ricula had married the East Saxon Sledd. Their son Seabert was put on the East Saxon throne by Ethelbert. Bede records that Redwald, King of the East Angles, was subservient to him.

Augustine died in 604 and was succeeded as Archbishop of Canterbury by Laurentius who was to face a crisis on the death of Ethelbert in 616. He was succeeded as King by his son Eadbald who renounced Christianity, restored the worsip of the old gods and “took to wife the relict of his father”. Seabert of Essex, who had also converted to Christianity, died later in the year, leaving Essex in the hands of his three pagan sons. Laurentius was all set to flee across the Channel but a dream about being confronted and flogged by St. Peter stiffened his resolve. It would also appear to have produced psychosomatic welts on his body. These phenomena sufficiently impressed Eadbald that he reconverted to Christianity.

The damage to Ethelbert’s empire had been done, however. Bede notes that the English in London continued to worship their traditional deities. Wessex took advantage of the crisis to invade and occupy Surrey (literally, the southern district. It is generally believed that Surrey was initially a province of a short-lived Middle Saxon Kingdom). Seabert’s sons attempted to prevent this but they were killed and their army destroyed. The East Saxons continued to worship their old gods – suggesting that Eadbald had lost his father’s influence over them. Redwald of East Anglia began to assert himself and establish his own Bretwaldship, replacing Kent as the dominant English power in Britain. He himself was replaced as Bretwalda by Edwin of Northumbria. The dreams of empire were over, Kent was now fighting for its very survival as an independant kingdom against its larger and more powerful neighbours.

Eadbald’s son Erkenbert married Sexburga, the daughter of Aenna the King of East Anglia, suggesting that Eadbald was following his father’s policy of using dynastic marriages to forge alliances. Eadbald died in 640 and was succeeded by his son Erkenbert. The Chronicle records that he had a younger son named Ermenred whose two unnamed sons were martyred by Thunnor. It is possible that it was this incident that led to the new king’s decision to abolish the worship of the old gods and for good measure introduce the Lenten fast.

 

 

SOURCES USED
 

 

 

(1) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Avalon Project translation. The entry for 449 notes that the “men of Kent” are descended from Jutes. From the website http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/angsax/ang05.htm
(2) Nennius, Historia Brittonum.Translation used from the site http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk

(3) Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation Books I & II, Internet Medieval Sourcebook version, prepared for the internet by Alexander Pyle of the Colorado State University

(4) Gildas. He refers to the “proud tryrant Gurthrigern (Vortigern)” making the original treaty with the Saxons. Hengest and Horsa are not mentioned by name but no other Saxon leaders’ names are given either. From the website http://www.webmesh.co.uk/gildas4.htm1

 
 

 

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