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By the term heptarchy is understood that complexus of seven kingdoms, into which, roughly speaking, Anglo-Saxon Britain was divided for nearly three centuries, until at last the supremacy, about the year 829, fell definitely and finally into the hands of Wessex.
The use of the term is as old as the sixteenth century, and it is employed in Camden's "Britannia", but its propriety has been much questioned. One objection made against it is that, upon the analogy of other similar compounds, heptarchy ought strictly to mean a ruling body composed of seven persons. Another set of critics urge that during the period referred to there were often more than seven independent kingdoms in England, and still more frequently fewer. However, the retention of this loose term has been sanctioned by Stubbs and other modern historians on the ground of its obvious convenience; and, as Stubbs remarks, during the greater part of the early Saxon period "there were actually seven kingdoms of Germanic origin in the island".
The kingdoms in question were Wessex, Sussex, Kent, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria; though in this last Deira and Bernicia were constantly regarded as separate kingdoms. Between these nominally independent states war, and as a consequence some measure of subjugation, was continually occurring. Moreover, it has to be admitted that in the early chronicles and charters persons who must have ruled over much smaller tracts of territory than are presupposed in this heptarchic division are also styled cyning (king) or rex. Edwin, King of Deira, a part of Northumbria, who was converted by St. Paulinus (c. 627), slew five "kings" when fighting against the Saxons. Again four kings were reigning at one and the same time in Sussex and three in Essex. There were also kings of the Hwiccas (Worcestershire and Warwickshire), as well as a separate Kingdom of the Middle Angles and of Lindsey.
As regards the reception of Christianity, the heptarchic kingdoms seem in a measure to have formed the earliest units of ecclesiastical organization, Kent of course being the first to accept the Gospel. But even here we find St. Augustine, before his death, consecrating St. Justin to be Bishop of Rochester, a second see within the Kingdom of Kent, at the same time that he consecrated St. Laurence to be his own successor at Canterbury, and St. Mellitus to be Bishop of London, which was included in the Kingdom of Essex.
There is of course a large literature dealing with the divisions of Anglo-Saxon England from the sixth to the ninth century. The subject of this article, so far as regards the nature of early kingship, is specially discussed in CHADWICK, Anglo-Saxon Institutions (London, 1905), 269-307. But see also LINGARD, Anglo-Saxon Church (London, 1845); GREEN, The Making of England (London, 1883); and for an exaggeratedly Anglican standpoint consult G. F. BROWNE, The Conversion of the Heptarchy.