Portrait of English monk, historian and theologian Saint Bede (673 – 735 AD).
The Venerable Bede, wrote the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ which is our major source for the history of Britain from the late sixth to the early eighth century.
Bede tells how Gregory the Great (Pope from 590 to 604 AD) decided to send a missionary called Augustine to England to found major churches in London and York.
When Augustine arrived in the south east of England in 597 AD, he found that Æthelberht, king of Kent, was the most powerful king in the south east.
Thanks to Bede’s work, the new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms come into the light of history.
Æthelberht gave him land in Canterbury to build a church, and thus by accident Canterbury, rather than London, became the main centre for English Christianity.
Æthelberht and his court converted, and several neighbouring kings as well. The last surviving member of Gregory’s mission was Paulinus, who baptised Edwin, king of Northumbria, in York in 627 AD.
Thanks to Bede’s work, the new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms come into the light of history at the beginning of the seventh century.
In the south there were the kingdoms of Kent, of the South Saxons (Sussex), and the West Saxons (Wessex); to the east were the kingdoms of the East Angles (East Anglia) and the East Saxons (Essex); in the Midlands was the kingdom of the Mercians, which (like some others) was an amalgamation of several smaller kingdoms; and north of the Humber were Deira (Yorkshire) and Bernicia (north of the Tees).
These last two kingdoms were joined together as Northumbria in the early seventh century.
Northumbria swallowed up a number of other kingdoms in the early seventh century, such as Elmet (West Yorkshire) and Rheged (Lancashire and Cumbria). Wessex and Mercia (whose name means ‘the frontier kingdom’) also benefited from their ability to expand westwards.
Some British kingdoms remained independent, including Cornwall and Devon in the south west, Gwynedd and Powys in modern Wales, and Strathclyde, in what is now the region of Glasgow.