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kings of the East Saxonslocked

(act. late 6th cent.–c. 820)
  • Barbara Yorke

kings of the East Saxons (act. late 6th cent.–c. 820), rulers in the area of modern Essex and London, traced their descent from Sledd, who must have flourished in the late sixth century. He was married to Ricula, sister of King Æthelberht of Kent, and their son Sæberht (d. 616/17) recognized the overlordship of his uncle. At the instigation of Æthelberht, Sæberht was converted to Christianity in 604, and Mellitus, one of the second wave of Italian missionaries dispatched by Pope Gregory to Kent, was appointed the first bishop of the East Saxons. It was Æthelberht, not Sæberht, who was remembered as the founder of St Paul's in London for Mellitus's episcopal seat, although London was apparently regarded as part of East Saxon territory. When Sæberht died in or soon after 616, he was succeeded by his three sons, two of whom (as is known from the East Saxon genealogies) were called Seaxred (d. in or after 617) and Sæward (d. in or after 617). The sons had not been converted to Christianity, and expelled Mellitus when, according to Bede, he would not allow them to have some of his communion bread. Mellitus was obliged to return to Kent. The brothers were killed not long after in battle with the Gewisse, which Bede saw as just punishment for their rejection of the true faith. Little is known of their successor Sigeberht I [called Sigeberht Parvus] (fl. 626), though he too seems to have been a pagan. However, the next king, Sigeberht II [called Sigeberht Sanctus] (fl. c. 653), who was probably the son of King Sæward, was converted through the influence of his overlord, King Oswiu of Northumbria, and was baptized c.653 by Bishop Finan on a Northumbrian royal estate near Hadrian's Wall. As a result of Oswiu's intervention, Cedd (who had been trained at Lindisfarne) was dispatched to become the second bishop of the East Saxons. However, Sigeberht's change in religion was not approved by all his court, and he was murdered by two brothers (who were also his kinsmen) on the grounds that by being too willing to spread Christian forgiveness to his enemies, he was not sufficiently honouring his supporters. His successor Swithhelm (d. 663) was the son of Seaxbald, who is otherwise unknown. He too came to the throne a pagan, but was baptized by Cedd in the East Anglian royal palace at Rendlesham with King Æthelwold of the East Angles as his sponsor.

On Swithhelm's death in 663, two kings succeeded jointly to the throne—Sigehere (fl. 663–664), who was probably the son of Sigeberht Sanctus, and Sæbbi (d. 693/4), the son of King Seaxred. They seem to have divided the kingdom between them. Sigehere and his portion of the East Saxon people reverted to paganism after the outbreak of the great plague of 664, and incurred the wrath of their overlord King Wulfhere of the Mercians, who seems to have interpreted rejection of Christianity as rejection of his own authority. Jaruman, bishop of the Mercians, was dispatched to restore the true religion. Sæbbi, in contrast, appears to have been an enthusiastic convert who considered renouncing his throne to become a monk, earning the comment from Bede 'that a man of his disposition ought to have been a bishop rather than a king' (Bede, Hist. eccl., 4.11). In the end Sæbbi became a monk only when he fell ill shortly before his death in 693 or 694. He was buried in St Paul's, in a stone sarcophagus which apparently miraculously lengthened in order to accommodate the king's body. He was subsequently regarded as a saint.

Although Sigehere does not seem to have had the same inclinations as his co-ruler, a cult did develop around his wife, Osgyth (Osyth), the founder of a nunnery at Chich, Essex. Charters surviving from the time of Sigehere and Sæbbi reveal that there were other sub-kings of the East Saxons during their reigns who may have had charge of dependent territories. The area that is now Surrey was sporadically under East Saxon control in the late seventh century, and Sigehere's wife was reputedly the daughter of Frithuwald, who had been a Mercian under-king of the province. The East Saxons also attempted to extend their control into west Kent. Sigehere may have ruled there briefly, perhaps in collaboration with Cædwalla of Wessex (r. 685–8). Sæbbi's son Swæfheard was more successful and ruled as king of part of Kent for a number of years (687/8–692×4), until Wihtred, who had shared rule with him, gained complete control. However, in spite of these successes charter attestations suggest that Sigehere and Sæbbi generally recognized Mercian overlordship, apart possibly from a brief interlude of West Saxon authority during the reign of Cædwalla. Sigehere probably predeceased Sæbbi and when the latter died he was succeeded by his two sons Sigeheard (fl. 693/4) and Swæfred (fl. 693/4). Not much is known of these two kings, though Sigeheard was a patron of St Paul's and Swæfred founder of a double monastery at Nazeing, Essex. They became embroiled in serious, but unspecified, conflicts with Ine of Wessex in the early eighth century, which the bishops of the two kingdoms attempted to resolve through mediation. The dispute is the subject of the earliest surviving original letter in Europe, from Waldhere, bishop of the East Saxons, to Berhtwald, archbishop of Canterbury. Also exercising some kind of royal authority during their reign was Offa (fl. 709), the son of Sigehere and Osgyth, whose name marks a departure from the use of names beginning with ‘S’ which otherwise seems to have been rigidly adhered to by male members of the royal house. Offa abdicated and left for Rome in 709 with Cenred who had formerly been king of the Mercians and overlord of Sigeheard and Swæfred.

It is not known when Sigeheard and Swæfred ceased to rule, and their eighth-century successors are shadowy figures. Attested rulers include: Swæfbert (d. 738); Selered (d. 746), a descendant of a brother of Sæberht; Swithred (fl. c. 746), grandson of King Sigeheard; and Sigeric (d. in or after 798), son of Selered, who abdicated in 798. Mercian overlordship continued, and Æthelbald and Offa detached London and the surrounding Middle Saxon province from East Saxon control. However, the East Saxon rulers seem to have retained their regalian rights in Essex and issued their own sceatta coinage. The last independent East Saxon ruler was probably Sigered (fl. 811), son of Sigeric, who was ruling in 811, though recognizing Mercian supremacy. Sigered may have been expelled in 825 when the East Saxons surrendered to Ecgberht of Wessex and became a West Saxon dependency. Even after the West Saxon take-over, there is a surviving reference to a Sigeric styled king of the East Saxons in the entourage of King Wiglaf of the Mercians.

Sources

  • AS chart., esp. S 10–14, 64–5, 165, 168, 170, 1246, 1783–91
  • C. R. Hart, The early charters of eastern England (1966)
  • S. E. Kelly, ed., Charters of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, and Minster-in-Thanet, Anglo-Saxon Charters, 4 (1995), nos. 40–43, pp. 139–53, 195–203
  • L. Webster and J. Backhouse, eds., The making of England: Anglo-Saxon art and culture, ad 600–900 (1991), 30
  • B. A. E. Yorke, ‘The kingdom of the East Saxons’, Anglo-Saxon England, 14 (1985), 1–36
  • K. Bascombe, ‘Two charters of King Suebred of Essex’, An Essex tribute: essays presented to Frederick G. Emmison, ed. K. Neale (1987), 85–96
  • B. A. E. Yorke, Kings and kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England (1990)
  • English historical documents, 1, ed. D. Whitelock (1955), 729–30
  • ASC, s.a. 798 [text F]
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)
T. Arnold, ed., , 2 vols., RS, 75 (1882–5); repr. (1965)
P. H. Sawyer, , Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks (1968)