Wessex’s kings from Ine to Alfred

Æthelred_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VI.jpgBede’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.

Small kingdoms – a start

illustration-Cerdic-edition-John-Speed-The-Theatre.jpgI was interested to read that most English shires took a form that we would recognise today by the end of the tenth century – excepting those northern counties permanently unable to decide whether they were Scottish or not, oh and Rutland.

Kent, Sussex and Essex were once been kingdoms in their own right rather than counties.  Sussex was established in the fifth century by  Ælle who founded the South Saxon kingdom.  Meanwhile the “South folk” and the “North folk” found themselves being ruled by Rædwald who joined the people of Suffolk and Norfolk in to the kingdom of the East Angles – and so, at a stroke, we have a modern region identified.  In fact Brooke describes the county, regional and town names of England as being like a palimpsest leaving bits and pieces of history littering the landscape.

For the purpose of this post it also demonstrates that history does not happen in a vacuum.  Things evolve gradually over time.  Thus the starting date of 1066 for the History Jar is somewhat arbitrary as Duke William of Normandy, Edward the Confessor and Earl Harold did not spring fully formed from thin air on the 1st January that year.

Our story begins, if family is important, with Cerdic who was an Earldorman and war leader.  In 495 he conquered, if the Anglo Saxon Chronicle is to be believed, parts of the south coast and the Isle of Wight.  Just for context this is the time that the historical King Arthur was supposed to be doing battle on behalf of the Romano-British against the raping, looting, pillaging Saxons and Angles.

Cerdic’s family, which were in all probability Celtic in origin (hence the name), hung on to the land that Cerdic took and by the time of his grandson the Gewissæ as Cerdic’s people had became known dominated their little portion of land.  They didn’t do quite so well in the seventh century when the kingdom of Mercia spread down into the top end of the Thames Valley but that was okay because the Gewissæ relocated into the southwest as well as holding their original southern territories. The most important “petty” king of the Gewissæ  of this period was Cædwalla.  Under his rule the Gewissæ became known as the West Saxons – Wessex.

Cædwalla ruled from 685-688 and was succeeded by Ine who ruled until 726. Wessex was basically Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire.  Cædwalla justified his right to rule not from the fact that he was handy in a fight but because he claimed descent from Cerdic – Brooke notes that its impossible to prove that particular fact.  More important even than that so far as posterity was concerned Cædwalla took himself off to Rome got himself baptised by the pope and then promptly died – ensuring that he got into Bede’s history as a shining example of a Christian life.  Poor Ine ruled for thirty-seven years and created a written code that establish clear laws- the earliest one to survive (probably thanks to King Alfred) but Bede spent more time writing about Cædwalla.

Neither of the two Cerdic leaders identified in the previous paragraph were counted as great kings.  There were plenty of little kingdoms. A single kingdom could even be ruled by several warlords.  However from time to time a great warrior would arise who would be acknowledged as a sort of senior king amongst the others – the title given to such a man would be Bretwalda. 

In 1066 when Edward the Confessor died anyone claiming a descent from Cerdic could apply to become king.  Today some historians aren’t even sure that Cerdic existed – even though the Anglo Saxon Chronicle traces his descent back to Woden.

Whilst William Duke of Normandy wasn’t a Cerdic descendant all kings since Henry II have been.  Henry II’s grandmother, the wife of Henry I (Edith, Normanised to Matilda) was the daughter of Margaret of Wessex – better known as St Margaret.

The next couple of posts will explore how Cerdic’s descendants came to dominate the   Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England…or whether they ever did.  There will also be a family tree at some point.

Brooke, Christopher. The Saxon and Norman Kings.