William Sterling

England’s Earliest Kings 1: The Sutton Hoo King and the Bretwaldas

This course was run as the first part in a series of five short courses on the Anglo-Saxon Kings.  It was an online course for the City Lit on 9 and 16 October 2021.

After the Romans left in the C5th AD Britain was slowly conquered by Germanic tribes dividing the country up into about a dozen small kingdoms.  The strongest king was known as the Bretwalda or Britain Ruler.  Was the man buried at Sutton Hoo one of them?

We examined what happened after the Romans left and which tribes settled where. The Jutes founded the kingdoms of Kent and Wight first but the Saxons then dominated setting up Sussex, Wessex and Essex and some minor kingdoms followed by the Angles in the Midlands and North with Bernicia, Deira, Lindsey, East Anglia, Mercia and others.

We looked at the sources of this early history including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the History of Britain by the Venerable Bede as well as archaeological evidence. The first Germans to come to Britain to stay were the brothers Hengist and Horsa of the Jutes, invited by the British king Vortigern but he got more than he bargained for when they decided to set up a new kingdom in Kent.  The most famous king of Kent was the third Bretwalda, Ethelbert who became the first English king to accept Christianity after St Augustine came to his kingdom in 597.

Sussex provided the first Bretwalda in the form of King Aelle but it was one of the last to accept Christianity and much of its history is lost.

The kingdom of Wessex was founded by King Cerdic who is a direct ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II.  His grandson Ceawlin was the second Bretwalda and a powerful ruler by the standards of the time.

East Anglia provided the fourth Bretwalda, Raedwald, and the most likely candidate for the Sutton Hoo king.

Like Raedwald the fifth to seventh Bretwaldas were Angles, Edwin of Deira and the brothers Oswald and Oswiu of Bernicia. They had powerful rivals in Mercia especially Penda but as a pagan he was exclude from the list by the Christian chroniclers.

Below are my versions of the family trees of these kings trying to reconcile the conflicting evidence from the time.

Kent full and short versions

Kent tree

Kent genealogy landscape

Wessex full and short trees

Wessex tree

WESSEX genealogy 1

East Anglia

East Anglia tree

East Anglia genealogies


Deira tree

Yffings of Deira


Bernicia treeBernicia genealogy comb

The slides used in the course are below

Earliest Kings 1 Week 1 PDF

Earliest Kings lecture 2 2021 PDF