Bede’s history identifies the most important kings of England’s Saxon world along with plenty of skulduggery, murder and back stabbing. Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex began to emerge from the melee as the dominant kingdoms. Unfortunately for the first two kingdoms on the list the Danes turned up. In 865 a major invasion occurred upsetting the see-saw of power between Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex.
Asser listed King Alfred’s ancestors back to Adam demonstrating that if you wanted to be a king of England you needed to be good in a fight (or know someone who was); have a genetic claim to the Crown and be able to demonstrate a link to a) mythical heroes, b) Biblical personages and saints or c) a god of some description. It’s interesting to note that the Cerdic line had moved its claim from Woden to the Garden of Eden. It’s also interesting to note that Henry Tudor used exactly the same techniques to assert his right to rule.
685-688 Caedwalla – ruled for three years, went to Rome was baptised and died. Written about extensively in Bede’s History.
688 – 726 Ine wrote the first surviving English legal code. Like his predecessor he went to Rome.
726-740 Æthelheard is supposed to have been Ine’s brother-in-law but there isn’t much in the way of evidence. His Cerdic claim was not something that ought to be examined too closely. His crown may have come about because of the support of the kingdom of Mercia reflecting that Wessex was still a little kingdom whilst Mercia had become much more politically significant.
740-756 Cuthred might have been Æthelheard’s brother but again history isn’t absolutely sure. Certainly the kingdom of Mercia was dominant during this period as Cuthred joined the Mercians fighting against the Welsh. In 745 Cuthred’s son attempted to depose him and there was a rebellion against him. In between all of that Cuthred fought off Mercian overlordship that had compelled him to go to war against the Welsh.
756-757 Sigeberht became king of an independent Wessex but was promptly deposed by Cynewulf who ruled until 786 when Sigeberht’s brother murdered Cynewulf in his turn.
786-802 Beorhtric ruled Wessex.
786-802 Egbert became king. His father was king of Kent, a descendant of Ine’s brother so the Cerdic claim was back on the cv. The power struggle with Mercia continued, ultimately resulting in the defeat of Mercia followed by the king of Northumbria who submitted to Egbert at Dore (just outside Sheffield). Egbert had become Bretwalda. This was only temporary.
839-858 Æthelwulf was Egbert’s son. Æthelwulf had six children including a daughter Æthelswith who was married into Mercia as part of a political agreement between the two kingdoms. By this time the Danes were making their presence felt but he still felt able to go on pilgrimage to Rome. He was succeeded in turn by three of his sons; Æthelbald, Æthelbert and Æthelred (pictured at the start of the post.) The eldest of Æthelwulf’s sons died before his father.
Æthelred died in 871 and was succeeded by his brother Alfred who ruled until 899. Æthelred had sons but they were too young to rule which was an important factor at this time as the war between the Saxons of Wessex and various Vikings had not been settled by a Saxon victory at Ashdown. Alfred who had seen various battles was far more experienced in the art of warfare. The results of the warfare were inconclusive but gradually Alfred found himself losing territory to the Danes. He must have wondered whether he would eventually be driven into exile like his brother-in-law of Mercia. After all, he had started his campaign against the Vikings helping to defend Mercia and was now watching Wessex gradually shrinking.
In 878 the Viking army made a surprise attack in the middle of winter and if you believe such things Alfred found himself in Somerset contemplating his future and burning cakes. It looked as though Wessex had gone the way of Mercia and Northumbria. However disaster was averted and his descendants continued to rule in succession until 1016. Alfred, is of curse, the only English monarch to be afforded the title – The Great.
Brooke, Christopher. The Saxon and Norman Kings.