When history begins, aethelberht, king of Kent, was supreme over all the kings south of the Humber. He was followed by the East Anglian king Raedwald, and the latter again by a series of Northumbrian kings with an even wider supremacy. Before aethelberht a similar position had been held by the West Saxon king Ceawlin, and at a much earlier period, according to tradition, by Ella or aelle, the first king of Sussex. The nature of this supremacy has been much discussed, but the true explanation seems to be furnished by that principle of personal allegiance which formed such an important element in Anglo-Saxon society.
2. Government. - Internally the various states seem to have been organized on very similar lines. In every case we find kingly government from the time of our earliest records, and there is no doubt that the institution goes back to a date anterior to the invasion of Britain (see Offa; Wermund). The royal title, however, was frequently borne by more than one person. Sometimes we find one supreme king together with a number of under-kings (subreguli); sometimes again, especially in the smaller kingdoms, Essex, Sussex and Hwicce, we meet with two or more kings, generally brothers, reigning together apparently on equal terms. During the greater part of the 8th century Kent seems to have been divided into two kingdoms; but as a rule such divisions did not last beyond the lifetime of the kings between whom the arrangement had been made. The kings were, with very rare exceptions, chosen from one particular family in each state, the ancestry of which was traced back not only to the founder of the kingdom but also, in a remoter degree, to a god.
The members of such families were entitled to special wergilds, apparently six times as great as those of the higher class of nobles (see below).
The only other central authority in the state was the king's council or court (þeod, witan, plebs, concilium). This body consisted partly of young warriors in constant attendance on the king, and partly of senior officials whom he called together from time to time. The terms used for the two classes by Bede are milites (ministri) and comites, for which the Anglo-Saxon version has þegnas and gesiðas respectively. Both classes alike consisted in part of members of the royal family. But they were by no means confined to such persons or even to born subjects of the king. Indeed, we are told that popular kings like Oswine attracted young nobles to their service from all quarters. The functions of the council have been much discussed, and it has been claimed that they had the right of electing and deposing kings. This view, however, seems to involve the existence of a greater feeling for constitutionalism than is warranted by the information at our disposal. The incidents which have been brought forward as evidence to this effect may with at least equal probability be interpreted as cases of profession or transference of personal allegiance. In other respects the functions of the council seem to have been of a deliberative character.
It was certainly customary for the king to seek their advice and moral support on important questions, but there is nothing to show that he had to abide by the opinion of the majority.
For administrative purposes each of the various kingdoms was divided into a number of districts under the charge of royal reeves (cyninges gerefa, praefectus, praepositus). These officials seem to have been located in royal villages (cyninges tun, villa regalis) or fortresses (cyninges burg, urbs regis), which served as centres and meeting-places (markets, etc.) for the inhabitants of the district, and to which their dues, both in payments and services had to be rendered. The usual size of such districts in early times seems to have been 300, 600 or 1200 hides. In addition to these districts we find mention also of much larger divisions containing 2000, 3000, 5000 or 7000 hides. To this category belong the shires of Wessex (Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, etc.), each of which had an earl (aldormon, princeps, dux) of its own, at all events from the 8th century onwards. Many, if not all, of these persons were members of the royal family, and it is not unlikely that they originally bore the kingly title.
At all events they are sometimes described as subreguli.
3. Social Organization. - The officials mentioned above, whether of royal birth or not, were probably drawn from the king's personal retinue. In Anglo-Saxon society, as in that of all Teutonic nations in early times, the two most important principles were those of kinship and personal allegiance. If a man suffered injury it was to his relatives and his lord, rather than to any public official, that he applied first for protection and redress. If he was slain, a fixed sum (wergild), varying according to his station, had to be paid to his relatives, while a further but smaller sum (manbot) was due to his lord. These principles applied to all classes of society alike, and though strife within the family was by no means unknown, at all events in royal families, the actual slaying of a kinsman was regarded as the most heinous of all offences. Much the same feeling applied to the slaying of a lord - an offence for which no compensation could be rendered. How far the armed followers of a lord were entitled to compensation when the latter was slain is uncertain, but in the case of a king they received an amount equal to the wergild. Another important development of the principle of allegiance is to be found in the custom of heriots.
In later times this custom amounted practically to a system of death-duties, payable in horses and arms or in money to the lord of the deceased. There can be little doubt, however, that originally it was a restoration to the lord of the military outfit with which he had presented his man when he entered his service. The institution of thegnhood, i.e. membership of the comitatus or retinue of a prince, offered the only opening by which public life could be entered. Hence it was probably adopted almost universally by young men of the highest classes. The thegn was expected to fight for his lord, and generally to place his services at his disposal in both war and peace. The lord, on the other hand, had to keep his thegns and reward them from time to time with arms and treasure. When they were of an age to marry he was expected to provide them with the means of doing so. If the lord was a king this provision took the form of a grant, perhaps normally ten hides, from the royal lands. Such estates were not strictly hereditary, though as a mark of favour they were not unfrequently re-granted to the sons of deceased holders.