A term, literally meaning seven kingdoms, used in Anglo-Saxon history to describe the political structure of early medieval England. The term is derived from remarks made by Bede concerning the nature of the political organization of England in the eighth century. It came into more general use among scholars in the sixteenth century. Although it became popular among scholars in the nineteenth century and still occasionally appears, it is generally not used by contemporary scholars.
   The term heptarchy was used to describe a hypothetical confederacy of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of early medieval England, especially for the period from the sixth to the ninth centuries. It refers to the seven kingdoms that had been established by the Anglo-Saxon invaders and their descendants: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex. Although in some ways a useful designation because it reveals the basic structure of early English political organization, the term fails to convey the variety in political institutions, size, and importance of the various kingdoms. It implies an equality of status among the kingdoms that seldom if ever existed. The kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex were certainly more powerful than the other kingdoms and at times exercised dominion over them. Essex often lost power in political struggles with the other kingdoms and may have disappeared before the coming of the Vikings, the time traditionally considered the end of the heptarchy. There were also subkingdoms, such as Deira (the region made famous by Pope Gregory the Great's encounter with Anglo-Saxon slaves in the Roman market), that were as powerful as some of the seven kingdoms of the heptarchy. The term also suggests a static relationship between the various kingdoms that fails to take into account the disappearance of some of the seven or the ebb and flow of political power among the various kingdoms. Although heptarchy is a convenient term to describe the political make-up of Anglo-Saxon England, it is a term that conveys a false impression of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and is best relegated to history's trash heap.
   See also
 ♦ Bede, A History of the English Church and People. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.
 ♦ Bassett, Steven, ed. The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1989.
 ♦ Sawyer, Peter H. From Roman Britain to Norman England, 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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  • heptarchy — [hep′tär kē, hep′tär΄kē] n. pl. heptarchies [ HEPT(A) + ARCHY] government by seven rulers the Heptarchy a term used by historians for: 1. Obs. the supposed confederacy of seven Anglo Saxon kingdoms 2. the kingdoms of Anglo Saxon England before… …   English World dictionary

  • Heptarchy — Hep tarch*y, n. [Hepta + archy: cf. F. heptarchie.] A government by seven persons; also, a country under seven rulers. [1913 Webster] Note: The word is most commonly applied to England, when it was divided into seven kingdoms; as, the Saxon… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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  • heptarchy — heptarch, heptarchist, n. heptarchic, heptarchical, heptarchal, adj. /hep tahr kee/, n., pl. heptarchies. 1. (often cap.) the seven principal concurrent Anglo Saxon kingdoms supposed to have existed in the 7th and 8th centuries. 2. government by… …   Universalium

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  • Heptarchy — The seven kingdoms of England (7 8c) before the *Viking invasions, i.e. Wessex, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Northumbria, of which Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria vied for supremacy. [< Gr. hepta = seven + arkhia = government] …   Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases

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