There have been a many Saxon kings of England and at times there were seven kingdoms in England know as the Heptarchy. The Dark Ages as they once were but have been renamed the Early Medieval Period. I have listed all the kings of the Cerdic line but realistically the kings of Wessex only had a claim to being the kings of all of England from 924 onwards. The tenth century also saw an assortment of Danish kings who I have listed as part of this post.
This was a tricky challenge as there are many Saxon kings who have not achieved much notice by popular history.
The kingdom of Wessex was founded in A.D. 519 by Cerdic. Chroniclers helpfully tracked his family tree back to Noah – leaving that aside, Queen Elizabeth I is a direct descendent of Cerdic as are all monarchs from Henry II onwards. Henry’s paternal grandmother was Edith or Matilda of Scotland who was St Margaret’s daughter. Margaret and her brother, Edgar, were the last surviving representatives of the royal house of Wessex in 1066.
The golden wyvern that can be seen in the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry is the chosen symbol of the royal house of Wessex.
The family tree from Cerdic is based on a 9th century chronicle. Cerdic was followed by his son Cynric and his grandson Ceawlin. History isn’t quite sure what happened to Ceawlin but he was succeeded by his nephew (we think) Ceol circa 591. The throne went to Ceol’s brother Ceolwulf after he died in 597. This was because Ceol’s son, Cynegils, was too young to rule at the time. Little is known about Ceolwulf aside from the fact he spent a lot of time fighting the Welsh, the Picts and the Scots.
In 611 Ceolwulf died by which time Cynegils was old enough to rule – which he did. Cynegils gave the northern bit of his kingdom to his son Cwichelm. Cynegils also recognised the power of the kingdom of Mercia and married off his younger son into the royal house of Mercia. For those of you with a Derbyshire connection it was during this period that the Northumbrians clashed with the house of Wessex in Derbyshire near modern day Castleton and Win Hill and Lose Hill got their names. Wessex didn’t win. They were weakened politically and in terms of man power. It wasn’t long before Mercia was much bigger and Wessex was much smaller.
Cynegils died and was succeeded by his son Cenwahl who had been married to Penda of Mercia’s sister in a bid to maintain some sort of peace. Cenwahl now discarded his wife which was not an astute move. Penda took a dim view of the situation and was soon king of Wessex as well as Mercia.
Cenwahl eventually got his throne back but the succession was a bit messy. Æscwine, who was Cenwahl’s son ruled for two years before Centwine, uncle of Æscwine, took the throne in 676. Cyngils had converted to Christianity whilst in exile when Penda was king of Wessex and Centwine was also a Christian – so much so that it’s centrally believed that in 685 he washed his hands of the world in order to become a monk.
His successor was Cædwalla who had been forced out of Wessex when he was a young man along with other members of the extended Cerdic family by Cenwahl. History isn’t quite sure how he fits into the Cerdic line but the chroniclers are clear that he does and clearly Cenwahl regarded him as a potential nuisance. In 688 having built a more stable kingdom he became a Christian and abdicated having been injured. He died a short time afterwards.
Wessex became a somewhat chaotic for a time after that. Cædwalla had been a strong king who had subdued various sub-kings but now they were able to make their own bids for power and for land. King Ine emerged as the dominant figure. He would rule for 37 years.
Æthelheard became king in 726. He was Inge’s brother-in-law and became king because of the influence of Mercia. Wessex now found itself on the back foot. Mercia became increasingly powerful.
Cuthred of Wessex, who was Æthelheard’s brother ruled from 740 to 756. At this time the king of Mercia was the overlord of the king of Wessex but by the time he died Wessex was more politically powerful.
Sigeberht ruled Wessex for a year from 757 to 757. He was probably Cuthred’s cousin. He was kicked off the throne by the Witan – or council- under the leadership of Cynewulf due to unlawful acts. The witan gave him various bits of Hampshire in compensation but he managed to kill someone whose family killed him in return. Sigeberht’s brother Cyneheard was also removed from power when Sigeberht was toppled. He bided his time for the better part of thirty years before taking his revenge.
Cynewulf ruled for 29 years but was eventually murdered by Cyneheard whilst visiting his mistress. In 779 the kingdom of Wessex was beaten in battle by the Offa, the king of Mercia. Mercia dominated politics at this time in the Saxon power shuffle.
Beorthric of Wessex was of the Cerdic line according to the chroniclers but no one was quite clear where he fitted in the picture. Suffice it to say he wouldn’t have been king of Wessex without the help of Offa of Mercia. He married one of Offa’s daughters for good measure having driven his rival Egbert into exile.
Egbert became king of Wessex in 802 having been forced into exile by Offa of Mercia and Beorthric of Wessex. His remains are in the mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral. He was succeeded by his son Ethelwulf in 839. Ultimately he handed Wessex to his son Ethelbad but continued to reign elsewhere in England.
And we arrive at our first scandal. Ethelbad married his father’s widow – Judith of France. Judith was Ethelwulf’s second wife and there were no children from either of the marriages. Understandably the church looked askance at her marriage to her step-son.
Ethelbad died in 860 and was succeeded by is brother Ethelbert who also died without heirs so the throne passed to another brother Ethelred in 865.
King Ethelred or Æthelred I died on 23 April 871 at the Battle of Merton between the Saxons and the Great Heathern Army as the Danes were known. He was succeeded by his very well known brother King Alfred the Great.
When Alfred died he passed the throne to his son Edward the Elder in 899.
In 924/5 Athelstan succeeded his father. Athelstan realistically claimed the crown not only of Wessex but of England. He never married and when he died he was succeeded by his half brother Edmund I – or the Magnificent. He was murdered in 946 whitely having his diner in 946. His brother Edred succeeded him. Edred died in 955 and was succeeded by his nephew Edwy. As you can see the succession is not necessarily as straight forward one. Kings of Wessex and subsequently kings of England were chosen from a pool of people from the Cerdic bloodline.
Edwy the Fair ruled for four years before dying and being succeeded by his brother Edgar. Edgar married twice – his second marriage was to Elfrida who was somewhat scandalous. When Edgar died in 975 he was succeeded by his son from his first marriage Edward -who swiftly became known as Edward the Martyr when he was murdered at Corfe Castle by his step-mother Elfrida who wanted her own son to rule.
Ethelred or Æthelred II now became king – history knows him as Ethelred or Æthelred the Unready. Unready simply means ill advised. He became king in 978 after the untimely demise of his half-brother. Ethelred married twice. His second wife was Emma of Normandy which was convenient when she, Ethelred and their sons Edward and Alfred had to flee England when Sweyn Forkbeard invaded.
Sweyn died in 1014. Ethelred returned and when he died two years later his son from his first marriage Edmund II or Edmund Ironside became king. He died the same year. Edmund had been married to Edith, the daughter of an East Anglian thane and their sons Edward and Edmund were sent to Denmark and from there sent to Hungary. Edmund died young but Edward married Agatha and would have a part to play in England’s history.
Edward spent most of his life in exile. He was eventually invited home by his half-uncle Edward the Confessor only to be murdered (in all likelihood) shortly after arrival in England. His son is better known in history as Edgar the Atheling who was proclaimed king after the Battle of Hastings and the death of King Harold. He was required to submit to William the Conqueror – though of course, that wasn’t the end of his story. Edgar’s sister is known in history as St Margaret.
Meanwhile Ethelred’s widow married to the Danish king Canute who took the throne after Edmund Ironside’s death. Canute or Cnut ruled from 30 November 1016 until 12 November 1035. He was succeeded by his son Hathacanute and then by his half-brother Harold Harefoot. Harold died in 1040 without heirs allowing the royal house of Wessex back into the picture.
Ethelred the Unready’s son, Edward the Confessor now became king of England. He died on the 4th or 5th of January 1066. He had no direct heirs. Edgar the Atheling was too young to rule and was not sufficiently popular in any event so Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex became King Harold II of England.
Weir Alison, Britain’s Royal Families.