Wessex – the kingdom of the West Saxons – would seem to have its origins in the upper Thames valley. This group of Saxons were at first called the Gewisse,[*] and apparently only became known as the West Saxons towards the end of 7th century, by which time they had made significant territorial gains in the south and southwest. West Saxon expansion north of the Thames and Avon, though, was thwarted by the powerful kingdom of Mercia. In 825, the West Saxon king Egbert won a resounding victory over the Mercians, that allowed him to combine Kent, Essex, Sussex and Surrey into a West Saxon sub-kingdom. By this time, however, the Vikings were making their presence felt. They eventually conquered Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia. It was Egbert’s grandson, Alfred – the only English monarch that history has honoured with the epithet ‘the Great’ – who halted their advance. The kings of Wessex would become the kings of England.
In this year came two chieftains to Britain, Cerdic and Cynric his son, with 5 ships, at the place which is called Cerdices ora; and on the same day fought against the Welsh [i.e. the Britons].
The West Saxon king-list and genealogy of King Alfred (r.871–899), that serves as a preface to Manuscript A of the Chronicle, places the above event in 494, then adds:
And 6 years after they landed they subdued the West Saxons’ kingdom; and they were the first kings who conquered the West Saxons’ land from the Welsh …
A statement to the same effect is made by the late-10th century West Saxon chronicler Æthelweard.
In this year came Port to Britain, and his 2 sons, Bieda and Mægla, with 2 ships, at the place which is called Portes mutha [Portsmouth],[^] and there slew a very noble young British man.[*]
In this year Cerdic and Cynric slew a British king, whose name was Natanleod, and 5 thousand men with him; after that the land was named Natan leaga [Netley] as far as Cerdices ford [Charford].
In this year came the West Saxons to Britain, with 3 ships, at the place that is called Cerdices ora, and Stuf and Wihtgar Stuf and Wihtgar, and fought against the Britons and put them to flight.[*]
In this year Cerdic and Cynric assumed the kingdom[^]; and in the same year they fought against the Britons, where it is now named Cerdices ford [Charford][^].
In this year Cerdic and Cynric fought against the Britons at the place which is called Cerdices leaga.[*]
In this year Cerdic and Cynric took Wihte ealond [the Isle of Wight], and slew a few men at Wihtgarabyrg.[*]
In this year Cerdic died, and Cynric his son succeeded to the kingdom, and reigned on for 26 winters; and they gave Wihte ealond to their two nephews, Stuf and Wihtgar.[*]
In this year Wihtgar died, and they buried him at Wihtgarabyrg.
In this year Cynric fought against the Britons at the place which is named Searobyrg [Old Sarum], and put the Britons to flight.
In this year Cynric and Ceawlin fought against the Britons at Beranbyrg [Barbury Castle].
In this year Ceawlin succeeded to the kingdom in Wessex ...
There are many problems with the story told by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It implies that the Isle of Wight (Wihte ealond) and its stronghold, Wihtgarabyrg, are named from Wihtgar. They are, though, derived from the island’s Latin name: Vectis (pronounced ‘Wectis’).[*] Like Wihtgar, Natanleod and Port are also mythological characters derived from place names, rather than the reverse.[*] Indeed, by the same token, it is possible that Cerdic himself, the purported founder of the West Saxon kingdom, is an invention. The name Cerdic, however, is apparently British – a form of Ceretic (modern: Caradog) – which would, perhaps, be a strange choice for the mythological founder of a Saxon kingdom.[*] As for Cynric; whilst the Chronicle is clear that he is Cerdic’s son in the above annals, elsewhere Creoda, Cerdic’s son, is said to be Cynric’s father.
The arrival of Cerdic and Cynric is placed in 495, and, apparently, again in 514. Annal 527 may well duplicate the event recorded in 508. Similarly, the reference made in the preface to Manuscript A and by Æthelweard, dating the establishment of the West Saxon kingdom to 500, is repeated by annal 519. In short, the story is told twice – the second time nineteen years after the first.[*] This duplication has lengthened the timeframe, and accounts for the unlikely implication that Cerdic and Cynric spent twenty-four years battling against the Britons before their position was secure.
There are further chronological inconsistencies. The preface to Manuscript A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is one of a number of versions of a text that has been dubbed the ‘West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List’. It records the reigns of West Saxon kings (and one queen) from Cerdic to Alfred. Working backwards from the slightly firmer chronological ground of Cynegils’ reign (611–642), the regnal lengths given by the List suggest yet more possible dates for the kingdom’s beginnings. One theory that seems to be gaining favour is that the purported foundation of the West Saxon kingdom and start of Cerdic’s sixteen year reign should be located a further nineteen years later, i.e. in 538, and, consequently, Cynric’s succession dated 554.[*]
Be that as it may, the notion that Wessex was carved out from the Hampshire coast does not sit comfortably with the later, properly-historical, record, and archaeological evidence, which suggests that the original West Saxon homelands were in the upper Thames valley. Further, Bede says (HE I, 15) that the Isle of Wight, and the opposite mainland, was settled by Jutes, not Saxons. Bede also says (HE III, 7) that the West Saxons were originally called the Gewisse, and he tells (HE IV, 16) how: “After Cædwalla had obtained possession of the kingdom of the Gewisse [in 685/6], he took also the Isle of Wight … and by merciless slaughter endeavoured to destroy all the inhabitants thereof, and to place in their stead people from his own province”. Up to that time the island had had its own ruling dynasty, which Cædwalla ruthlessly crushed. Asser records that King Alfred’s grandfather (his mother’s father) was: “descended from the Goths and Jutes – of the seed, namely, of Stuf and Wihtgar” (§2).
560 ? – 591 ? Ceawlin
Son of Cynric.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places Ceawlin’s accession to the West Saxon throne in 560, and indicates that he ruled for thirty-one years. In the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List, however, his reign is given as seven or seventeen years (depending on manuscript).[*] Ceawlin’s chronology is, therefore, very uncertain.
Ceawlin emerges as the victor in the first battle recorded between two English kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states, s.a. 568: “Ceawlin and Cutha fought against Æthelberht, and drove him into Kent; and slew two ealdormen at Wibbandune”.
Although the traditional identification of Wibbandune with Wimbledon is no longer considered to be acceptable, it is likely that it was in that vicinity, and that Ceawlin’s dispute with Æthelberht, king of Kent, was over the control of Surrey. According to the reign lengths given by the List, Ceawlin cannot have been king before 571, and his reign lasted no later than 589,[*] though the Chronicle apparently places the end of his reign in 591. Exactly when Æthelberht began to reign is also uncertain, but there are indications that it may have been c.590. If that really is the case, then the battle between Ceawlin and Æthelberht should probably be placed at the start of Æthelberht’s reign, c.590. Ceawlin is second in a list of seven kings whom Bede says (HE II, 5) were recognized as overlord of all the English kingdoms south of the Humber (“the second, Cælin, king of the West Saxons, who, in their own language, is called Ceawlin”) and, consequently, also appears as the second Bretwalda listed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Ceawlin’s successor to that honour was Æthelberht.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 571: “In this year Cuthwulf fought against the Britons at Bedcanforda [unidentified], and took 4 towns; Lygeanburg [Limbury, Bedfordshire], and Ægelesburg [Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire], Bænesingtun [Benson, Oxfordshire], and Egonesham [Eynsham, Oxfordshire]; and the same year he died.”
The controversial aspect of annal 571 is the implication that there was still territory controlled by the British in that area at that time.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 577: “In this year Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against the Britons, and they slew 3 kings, Coinmail, and Condidan, and Farinmail, at the place which is called Deorham [Dyrham, Gloucestershire], and took 3 cities from them, Gloucester, and Cirencester, and Bath.”
The significance of such a victory by the West Saxons would be that it effectively drives a wedge between the Britons of, what was to become, Wales and those in the south-western peninsula.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 584: “In this year Ceawlin and Cutha fought against the Britons at the place which is named Fethanleag, and Cutha was there slain; and Ceawlin took many towns, and countless booty; and wrathful he thence returned to his own [land].[*]”
Fethanleag (which can be interpreted as ‘Battle wood’), on the strength of a 12th century reference to a wood named Fethelée, can probably be placed at Stoke Lyne, north-east Oxfordshire. Ceawlin is said to have returned home “wrathful”, which would seem to imply that his campaign was not actually a great success.
It seems that Ceawlin was overthrown in 591 – the Chronicle simply records the beginning of the reign of Ceawlin’s nephew, Ceol (son of Cutha), in that year. Then, in 592: “there was a great slaughter [“in Britain”, adds MS E] at Woddesbeorge, and Ceawlin was driven out.” Woddesbeorge (Wodnesbeorge in MS E), i.e. ‘Woden’s barrow’, is identified with a neolithic long barrow known as Adam’s Grave, in Wiltshire. Finally, in 593: “Ceawlin and Cwichelm and Crida perished”.[*]
Presumably Ceol was responsible for the overthrow of his uncle, Ceawlin. There is no record of his exploits.
The Chronicle annal for 597 announces: “In this year Ceolwulf began to reign in Wessex, and he constantly fought and strove against either the Angle race [i.e. the English], or against the Welsh [i.e. the Britons], or against the Picts, or against the Scots.”
And s.a. 607: “In this year Ceolwulf fought against the South Saxons.”
Ceolwulf would certainly seem to have been remembered as a considerable warrior, but, although clearly not impossible, it does seem unlikely that he had any dealings with the Picts or the Scots. In 611, Ceolwulf’s successor, Cynegils, is reported to have taken to the throne.
611 – 642Cynegils
Son of Ceol or Ceolwulf.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.a. 611: “In this year Cynegils succeeded to the kingdom in Wessex, and held it 31 winters.”[*]
In 614: “Cynegils and Cwichelm fought at Beandune, and slew 2 thousand and 46 Welsh [Britons].” Cwichelm was apparently Cynegils’ son.[*]
In what might have been a dispute over the control of Surrey, the three brothers who ruled the East Saxons marched, perhaps in 623, against the West Saxons. It is not recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but it is mentioned by Bede. Something else not recorded by the Chronicle, but mentioned by Bede, is that the West Saxons were not as yet known as the West Saxons – they were actually called the Gewisse. At any rate: “marching out to battle against the nation of the Gewisse, they [the three East Saxon kings] were all slain with their army.” (HE II, 5).
It would appear that the early West Saxons (or, strictly speaking, the Gewisse) also employed a system of multiple kingship – the dominant king, e.g. Cynegils, sharing his rule with kinsmen, e.g. Cwichelm. Bede reports (HE II, 9) that, in 626, “the king of the West Saxons, whose name was Cwichelm” sent, for unspecified reasons, an assassin to kill Edwin of Northumbria (who, being Bretwalda, was also overlord of the West Saxons). The assassination attempt failed, but Edwin was wounded. Following his recovery, he: “raised an army and marched against the nation of the West Saxons; and engaging in war, either slew or received in surrender all those of whom he learned that they had conspired to murder him.” Manuscript E of the Chronicle notes, s.a. 626, that Edwin: “went against the West Saxons with an army, and there slew 5 kings, and many of the people.” Edwin evidently failed to eliminate Cwichelm.
The Chronicle reports that, in 628: “Cynegils and Cwichelm fought against Penda [king of Mercia] at Cirencester, and afterwards came to an agreement.” It seems likely that Cynegils was obliged to cede Cirencester, and territory along the Severn, to Penda.[*]
The threat posed by Penda, who killed Edwin in 633, probably prompted Cynegils to seek an alliance with Edwin’s eventual successor, Oswald (who was Christian). Bede reports that:
… the nation of the West Saxons, in former times called the Gewisse, in the reign of Cynegils, received the faith of Christ through the preaching of Bishop Birinus, who came into Britain by the counsel of Pope Honorius [625–638]; having promised in his presence that he would sow the seed of the holy faith in the farthest inland regions of the English, where no other teacher had been before him.… but on his arrival in Britain, he first came to the nation of the Gewisse, and finding all in that place confirmed pagans, he thought it better to preach the Word there, than to proceed further to seek for other hearers of his preaching. Now, as he was spreading the Gospel in the aforesaid province, it happened that when the king himself, having received instruction as a catechumen, was being baptized together with his people, Oswald, the most holy and victorious king of the Northumbrians, being present, received him as he came forth from baptism, and by an honourable alliance most acceptable to God, first adopted as his son, thus born again and dedicated to God, the man whose daughter he was about to receive in marriage. The two kings gave to the bishop the city called Dorcic [Dorchester-on-Thames], there to establish his episcopal see …
HE III, 7
Bede doesn’t date this event, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places it in 635: “Cynegils was baptized by Birinus the bishop at Dorchester, and Oswald [“king of the Northumbrians”, adds MS E] received him.” At some stage, Oswald was recognized as Bretwalda, but 635 was only a year after he had won his own kingdom, and, though he probably witnessed Cynegils’ grant to Birinus, it is highly unlikely that Oswald had the power to grant land in Cynegils’ kingdom.[*] Neither is there any suggestion that Oswald compelled Cynegils to adopt Christianity.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes, s.a. 636, that: “Cwichelm was baptized at Dorchester, and in the same year died.” And s.a. 639: “Birinus baptized Cuthred at Dorchester, and received him for son.” Manuscripts B, C and F say “King Cuthred” (in fact, Manuscript F also titles Cwichelm ‘king’ in its version of annal 636). Cuthred was apparently Cwichelm’s son.[*]
Cynegils died in 642, and was succeeded by his son, Cenwalh.[*]
642 – 673 Cenwalh
Son of Cynegils.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle grants Cenwalh a reign of 31 years, but this isn’t quite the case.
When the king [Cynegils] died, his son Cenwalh succeeded him on the throne, but refused to receive the faith and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom; and not long after he lost also the dominion of his earthly kingdom; for he put away the sister of Penda, king of the Mercians, whom he had married, and took another wife; whereupon a war ensuing, he was by him deprived of his kingdom, and withdrew to the king of the East Angles, whose name was Anna, where he lived three years in exile, and learned and received the true faith; for the king with whom he lived in exile was a good man, and blessed with a good and saintly offspring …
The Chronicle places Cenwalh’s expulsion in 645, and his baptism in 646.[*]
645 – 648 No ruler is recorded for this period. Presumably the West Saxons were subject to Penda.
Cenwalh evidently regained the throne in 648. According to the anonymous, late-12th century, Liber Eliensis: “With King Anna’s assistance, Cenwalh returned after a while to Wessex, and successfully wrested his father’s kingdom from his enemies.” (I, 7). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 648: “Cenwalh gave to Cuthred his kinsman 3 thousands of land by Ashdown [Berkshire Downs].[*] This Cuthred was son of Cwichelm, Cwichelm of Cynegils.”[*] It is possible that Cenwalh shared his rule with Cuthred.[*]
… when Cenwalh was restored to his kingdom, there came into that province out of Ireland, a certain bishop called Agilbert, a native of Gaul, but who had then lived a long time in Ireland, for the purpose of reading the Scriptures. He attached himself to the king, and voluntarily undertook the ministry of preaching. —
— The king, observing his [Agilbert’s] learning and industry, desired him to accept an episcopal see there and remain as the bishop of his people. Agilbert complied with the request. And presided over that nation as their bishop for many years.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that, in 652: “Cenwalh fought at Bradford-on-Avon.” And, in 658: “Cenwalh fought against the Welsh at Peonnum, and put them to flight as far as the Parrett.”[*] The Chronicle fails to mention who Cenwalh’s enemies were in the 652 battle. William of Malmesbury, however, writes that Cenwalh: “totally defeated in two actions the Britons, furious with the recollection of their ancient liberty, and in consequence perpetually meditating resistance; first at a place called Wirtgernesburg [meaning “Vortigern’s stronghold”], and then at a mountain named Pene” (GR I §19). This seems to imply that Wirtgernesburg is synonymous with Bradford, and that the enemy was, therefore, the Britons. Æthelweard, though, in his rendition of the event (II, 7), uses the phrase “civil war”, which presumably means that he believed the battle to be an internal dispute, or, at least, against other Anglo-Saxons.
In 655, Penda had been killed by, the Northumbrian king, Oswiu. For the three year period following Penda’s death, Oswiu was at the height of his powers. He took direct control of Mercia, and was recognized as Bretwalda – overlord of the south-Humbrian English kingdoms. Cenwalh and his bishop, Agilbert, apparently enjoyed cordial relations with the Northumbrian court – particularly with Oswiu’s son, Alhfrith, who ruled Deira on his father’s behalf.
Relations between Cenwalh and his bishop, however, deteriorated. Bede writes:
At length the king, who understood only the language of the Saxons, weary of his [Agilbert’s] barbarous tongue, privately brought into the province another bishop, speaking his own language, by name Wine, who had also been ordained in Gaul; and dividing his province into two dioceses, appointed this last his episcopal see in the city of Venta, by the Saxons called Wintancæstir [Winchester]. Agilbert, being highly offended, that the king should do this without consulting him, returned into Gaul …
HE III, 7
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 660: “In this year Bishop Agilbert withdrew from Cenwalh; and Wine held the bishopric for 3 years”. It seems more likely, however, that Agilbert left Wessex in 663 and, in the first instance, travelled to Northumbria.
In 658, the Mercians had rebelled against Oswiu, and installed Penda’s son, Wulfhere, on the Mercian throne.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 661:
In this year Cenwalh fought at Easter at Posentesbyrg; —
— and Wulfhere son of Penda, committed ravage as far as Ashdown.[*] And Cuthred son of Cwichelm and King Cenberht died in one year.[*] And Wulfhere son of Penda, committed ravage on Wight, and gave the people of Wight to Æthelwald, king of the South Saxons, because Wulfhere had received him at baptism.[*] And Eoppa the mass-priest, by order of Wilfrid and King Wulfhere, first brought baptism to the people of Wight.
Bede says (HE IV, 13) that when Æthelwalh (as he calls the South Saxon king) was baptized, Wulfhere, his godfather, actually gave him: “two provinces, to wit, the Isle of Wight [which still had its own king], and the province of the Meonware, in the country of the West Saxons.”[*] This occurred, says Bede, “not long before” Bishop Wilfrid’s arrival in Sussex. Wilfrid, having been exiled from Northumbria by Oswiu’s successor, Ecgfrith, arrived in Sussex in 681. Bede’s comment might suggest that this particular aspect of the above Chronicle annal should be dated considerably later than 661 (though it would obviously have to be at some point before Wulfhere’s death, which was in 675). Presumably “Eoppa the mass-priest”, mentioned by the Chronicle, is the same priest that Bede calls Eappa, who worked in Sussex, but apparently not the Isle of Wight. According to Bede (HE IV, 16), Wilfrid entrusted the conversion of the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight to Beornwine, his nephew, and Hiddila, and that was after the deaths of both Wulfhere and Æthelwalh.
Not many years after his [Agilbert’s] departure out of Britain, Wine was also expelled from his bishopric by the same king [i.e. Cenwalh], and took refuge with Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, of whom he purchased for money the see of the city of London, and remained bishop thereof till his death. —
— Thus the province of the West Saxons continued no small time without a bishop. During which time, the aforesaid king of that nation, sustaining repeatedly very great losses in his kingdom from his enemies, at length bethought himself, that as he had been before expelled from the throne for his unbelief, he had been restored when he acknowledged the faith of Christ; and he perceived that his kingdom, being deprived of a bishop, was justly deprived also of the Divine protection. He, therefore, sent messengers into Gaul to Agilbert, with humble apologies entreating him to return to the bishopric of his nation. But he excused himself, and protested that he could not go, because he was bound to the bishopric of his own city [Paris] and diocese; notwithstanding, in order to give him some help in answer to his earnest request, he sent thither in his stead the priest Leuthere, his nephew, to be ordained as his bishop, if he thought fit, saying that he thought him worthy of a bishopric. The people and king received him honourably, and asked Theodore, then archbishop of the church of Canterbury, to consecrate him as their bishop; and having been consecrated in that same city, he for many years administered the bishopric of the Gewisse [i.e. of the West Saxons] alone, by synodical authority, with diligent governance.
HE III, 7
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 670: “Leuthere, the nephew of Bishop Agilbert, succeeded to the bishopric over the West Saxons, and held it 7 years”. Whereas Birinus and Agilbert, the first two bishops of the West Saxons, were based at Dorchester-on-Thames, Wine and, now, Leuthere were based at Winchester. Mercian expansionism had placed Dorchester on the front-line. It was never the seat of a West Saxon bishop again, and in fact, about 679, it became, briefly, a Mercian see under Bishop Ætla.
In his Historia Abbatum (History of the Abbots, of Wearmouth and Jarrow) Bede says (§4) that, Northumbrian nobleman turned monk, Benedict Biscop, having returned to Britain after a journey to Rome: “decided he should visit Cenwalh, king of the West Saxons, whose friendship he had enjoyed and whose kindness had helped him more than once. But just then Cenwalh died unexpectedly and before his time, and at length Benedict turned again to his own people and the land of his birth”. (Benedict then founded the monastery of Wearmouth, and a few years later, Jarrow.) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places Cenwalh’s death s.a. 672, but the reign lengths attributed to Cenwalh and his successor indicate that 673 is more appropriate.
673 – 674 Seaxburh
Widow of Cenwalh.
674 – 676 Æscwine
Son of Cenfus.
676 – 685/6 Centwine
Son of Cynegils.
Bede notes (HE IV, 12) that, when Cenwalh died: “sub-kings [subreguli] took upon them the government of the nation, and dividing it among themselves, held it for about 10 years”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List, however, present an orderly line of succession, starting with the one year rule of Cenwalh’s widow: “Seaxburh his queen”. Neither source gives any detail about her or her brief reign.[*] “Then Æscwine succeeded to the kingdom”, states the List, “whose kin reaches to Cerdic, and held it 2 years.” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 674: “In this year Æscwine succeeded to the kingdom in Wessex; he was son of Cenfus, Cenfus of Cenfrith, Cenfrith of Cuthgils, Cuthgils of Ceolwulf, Ceolwulf of Cynric, Cynric of Cerdic.”[*]
Though he isn’t accorded the title Bretwalda, it seems that, by this time, Wulfhere, king of Mercia, was, indeed, overlord of the south-Humbrian English kingdoms. In 674 he “roused up all the southern nations”, says Stephen the Priest, which would of course include the West Saxons, with the intention of gaining the overlordship of Northumbria also. Wulfhere’s forces, however, were roundly defeated: “Countless numbers were slain, the king [i.e. Wulfhere] was put to flight and his kingdom laid under tribute”.[*] As a consequence, Mercia lost control of Lindsey (essentially, the northern half of modern Lincolnshire) to Northumbria, and Wulfhere’s grip on the southern English kingdoms was loosened. The Chronicle reports that in the following year, 675, Æscwine and Wulfhere: “fought at Biedanheafde”. The outcome is not mentioned, and the site of the battle is unidentified. Wulfhere died in the same year.[*]
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 676: “In this year Æscwine died … and Centwine succeeded to the kingdom [“of the West Saxons”, adds MS E]. And Centwine was son of Cynegils, Cynegils of Ceolwulf.”[*] Centwine was, therefore, Cenwalh’s brother. The West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List gives Centwine a seven or nine year rule depending on manuscript.
Mercia was enjoying a revival in its fortunes under Wulfhere’s successor, Æthelred. In 679 he defeated Ecgfrith, the Northumbrian king who had defeated Wulfhere in 674, and recovered Lindsey. In the miscellany that precedes the Chronicon ex Chronicis, a reorganization of the Mercian bishoprics is said to have followed, in which Dorchester-on-Thames, erstwhile seat of the bishop of the West Saxons, was made the seat of one of Mercia’s bishops.[*] Evidently, Æthelred also extended his authority into, what is now, northern Wiltshire, at the expense of the West Saxons – he features in charters dated 681 (S71, S73), granting land to Aldhelm , abbot of Malmesbury – and, in 685, one Berhtwald granted land to Abbot Aldhelm (S1169) as Æthelred’s sub-king. There is, though, no evidence to suggest that Æthelred was Centwine’s overlord.
The annal for 682, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is famously enigmatic: “In this year Centwine drove the Britons as far as the sea.”
The battle of 682 is the only event of Centwine’s reign recorded by the Chronicle, but Aldhelm (abbot of Malmesbury, and then, from 706 until his death in 710, bishop of Sherborne), a contemporary of Centwine – indeed, possibly his son[*] – in a poem (Carmina Ecclesiastica III) written to commemorate a new church built by a daughter of Centwine during the reign of Ine (688–726), says that Centwine was victorious in three battles, although his opponents are not named. Aldhelm also says that Centwine converted to Christianity and gave generously to the Church. Having ruled successfully “for several years”, he abdicated and entered a monastery.
The Chronicle annal for 685 announces that: “Cædwalla began to strive for the kingdom.”
685/6 – 688 Cædwalla
Son of Cenberht.
In 681, Wilfrid, the exiled erstwhile bishop of York, arrived in Sussex, and under the patronage of the South Saxon king, Æthelwalh, set about converting the South Saxon populace to Christianity. Wilfrid’s biographer, Stephen the Priest, writes:
Now in those days, when by the labours of our bishop the Church of God was increasing abundantly from day to day and the glory of His name was growing wondrously, there came a certain exile of noble descent from the desert places of Chiltern and the Weald whose name was Ceadwalla. He earnestly asked for the friendship of our holy father, praying Wilfrid to be his true father, to teach and help him, while he, on his side, promised him with a vow that he would be an obedient son. This compact, which they undertook with God as their witness, was faithfully fulfilled.
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.42
In fact, although he was seemingly drawn towards Christianity, Cædwalla had not yet been baptized. Bede (HE IV, 15) calls him “a young man of great vigour, of the royal race of the Gewisse”, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides his pedigree: “Cædwalla was son of Cenberht, Cenberht of Cadda, Cadda of Cutha, Cutha of Ceawlin, Ceawlin of Cynric, Cynric of Cerdic.”[*] His father, Cenberht, had, until his death in the 660s, apparently ruled as a sub-king during Cenwalh’s reign. Cædwalla (which is actually an Anglicized form of, the British name, Cadwallon) had evidently gathered a considerable following during his wanderings in “the desert places”. At some time between 681 and 685:
Cædwalla … an exile from his country, came with an army, slew Æthelwalh, and wasted that province [i.e. Sussex] with cruel slaughter and devastation; but he was soon expelled by Berhthun and Andhun, the king’s ealdormen, who afterwards held the government of the province. The first of them was afterwards killed by the same Cædwalla, when he was king of the Gewisse, and the province was reduced to more grievous slavery.
Bede HE IV, 15
Centwine, king of the West Saxons (or, strictly speaking, the Gewisse), had abdicated to enter a monastery. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes, s.a. 685: “Cædwalla began to strive for the kingdom.” Bede (HE IV, 12) says: “the sub-kings were subdued and removed, and Cædwalla received the supreme authority.” Stephen the Priest, who makes no mention of the slaughter of Wilfrid’s former patron, says that Wilfrid:
… helped the exile [Cædwalla], who was often in difficulties, assisting and supporting him in various ways, and strengthened him until he was powerful enough to overcome his enemies and to get the kingdom. When Cædwalla had come to the throne and, after slaying or subduing his foes, was reigning over all the land of the West Saxons, he immediately, in all humility, summoned St Wilfrid our bishop to come to him; for Wilfrid, who was converting the heathen population of Sussex to God, and through his efforts wondrously glorifying the name of the Lord, was his venerable father and dearest of all to him.
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.42
Aldhelm, who was abbot of Malmesbury during Cædwalla’s reign, writing after the king’s death (Carmina Ecclesiastica III), says he was “a powerful occupant of the throne and its rightful heir.”
In 686: “Cædwalla and Mul, his brother, ravaged Kent and Wight[*]”, reports the Chronicle. Perhaps the second attack on Sussex mentioned by Bede, when Ealdorman Berhthun was killed and the South Saxons were brought under Cædwalla’s control, also belongs to this time. The Jutish provinces of the Isle of Wight and of the Meonware (the Meon valley, in what is now Hampshire, opposite the Isle of Wight) had been gifted to Æthelwalh by Wulfhere, king of Mercia. Presumably Cædwalla had already wrested control of the Meonware from the South Saxons when he launched his assault on the Isle of Wight. Bede writes:
After Cædwalla had obtained possession of the kingdom of the Gewisse, he took also the Isle of Wight, which till then was entirely given over to idolatry, and by merciless slaughter endeavoured to destroy all the inhabitants thereof, and to place in their stead people from his own province; binding himself by a vow, though it is said that he was not yet regenerated in Christ, to give the fourth part of the land and of the spoil to the Lord, if he took the island. He fulfilled this vow by giving the same for the service of the Lord to Bishop Wilfrid, who happened at the time to have come thither from his own people. The measure of that island, according to the computation of the English, is of one thousand two hundred families, so possession of the land of 300 families was given to the Bishop. The part which he received he committed to one of his clergy, whose name was Beornwine, and who was his sister’s son, assigning to him a priest named Hiddila, to administer the Word and laver of life to all who wished to be saved. I think I must not pass over in silence here that, among the first fruits of those of that island who believed and were saved, two royal boys, brothers to Arwald, king of the island, were crowned with the special grace of God. For when the enemy [i.e. Cædwalla] approached, they made their escape out of the island, and crossed over into the neighbouring province of the Jutes, where, when they had been brought to a place which is called Ad Lapidem [perhaps Stone, Hampshire], believing that they would be concealed from the victorious king, they were betrayed and ordered to be killed. This being made known to a certain abbot and priest, whose name was Cyneberht, who had a monastery not far from there, at a place which is called Hreutford, that is, ‘the ford of reeds’ [Redbridge], he came to the king, who then lay in concealment in those parts to be cured of the wounds which he had received whilst he was fighting in the Isle of Wight, and begged of him, that if the boys must needs be killed, he might be allowed first to instruct them in the mysteries of the Christian faith. The king consented, and the abbot, having taught them the Word of truth and cleansed them in the font of salvation, assured to them their entrance into the eternal kingdom. Then the executioner came, and they joyfully underwent the temporal death, through which they did not doubt they were to pass to the life of the soul, which is everlasting. Thus, in this manner, after all the provinces of Britain had received the faith of Christ, the Isle of Wight also received the same; yet because it was suffering under the affliction of foreign subjection, no one received the office or see of a bishop before Daniel, who is now bishop of the West Saxons.[*] The island is situated opposite the borders of the South Saxons and the Gewisse, being separated from it by a sea, three miles wide, which is called Solvente [the Solent]. In this sea the two tides of the ocean, which break all round Britain from the boundless northern ocean, daily meet in conflict beyond the mouth of the river Homelea [Hamble], which runs into the aforesaid sea through the lands of the Jutes, which belong to the country of the Gewisse; and when their conflict is over they flow back into the ocean whence they came.
Bede knows nothing of Cædwalla’s brother, Mul, mentioned by the Chronicle. Following their invasion of Kent, Cædwalla apparently installed Mul as king there – a later Kentish charter (S10) refers to his reign. Cædwalla secured control of Surrey.[*] He granted land for the foundation of a monastery at Farnham (S235), and he granted an estate at Battersea to the monastery of Barking (S1246) – which tends to suggest that he was overlord of Essex too. This is also indicated by a grant (S1171) made to Barking by a kinsman of, the co-king of the East Saxons, Sæbbi, which has West Saxon witnesses. A charter (S233), recording a grant of land at Hoo in Kent to an Abbot Ecgbald, made by Cædwalla, suggests that the West Saxons had East Saxon assistance in their takeover of Kent – the East Saxon king Sigehere, Sæbbi’s co-ruler, is featured in the witness-list, and within the body of the document there is a reference to Sigehere’s conquest of Kent. Perhaps Mul shared the rule of Kent with Sigehere.
In 687, says the Chronicle: “Mul was burnt in Kent, and 12 other men with him; and in that year Cædwalla again ravaged Kent.” Perhaps he received further wounds, or maybe he was seriously ill – for whatever reason, Cædwalla seems to have realized his death was approaching. The next year, 688:
… Cædwalla, king of the West Saxons, having most vigorously governed his nation for two years, relinquished his rule for the sake of the Lord and an everlasting kingdom, and went to Rome, being desirous to obtain the peculiar honour of being cleansed in the baptismal font at the threshold of the blessed Apostles, for he had learned that in baptism alone the entrance into the heavenly life is opened to mankind; and he hoped at the same time, that being made clean by baptism, he would soon be freed from the bonds of the flesh and pass to the eternal joys of Heaven; both which things, by the help of the Lord, came to pass according as he had conceived in his mind. For coming to Rome, at the time that Sergius was pope, he was baptized on the Holy Saturday before Easter Day, in the year of our Lord 689, and being still in his white garments, he fell sick, and was set free from the bonds of the flesh on the 12th of the Kalends of May [i.e. 20th April], and obtained an entrance into the kingdom of the blessed in Heaven. At his baptism, the aforesaid pope had given him the name of Peter, to the end that he might be also united in name to the most blessed chief of the Apostles, to whose most holy body his pious love had led him from the utmost bounds of the earth. He was likewise buried in his church, and by the pope’s command an epitaph was written on his tomb, wherein the memory of his devotion might be preserved for ever, and the readers or hearers thereof might be stirred up to give themselves to religion by the example of what he had done.
Bede HE V, 7
Bede proceeds to quote the epitaph which is, in effect, a poetic rendition of what Bede has just said in prose. The inscription concluded (the tombstone itself is now lost):
Here was buried Cædwalla, who is also Peter, king of the Saxons, on the 12th of the Kalends of May, in the 2nd indiction, aged more or less 30 years, in the reign of our most pious lord the Emperor Justinian, in the 4th year of his consulship, in the 2nd year of the pontificate of our Apostolic lord Pope Sergius.[*]
688 – 726 Ine
Son of Cenred.
“When Cædwalla went to Rome, Ine succeeded to the kingdom, being of the royal stock”, states Bede (HE V, 7). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 688, provides a genealogy: “Now Ine was son of Cenred, Cenred of Ceolwald, Ceolwald was brother of Cynegils; and they were the sons of Cuthwine, son of Ceawlin, Ceawlin of Cynric, Cynric of Cerdic.”[*]
Ine’s father, Cenred, was alive when Ine succeeded to the throne. Ine is the first West Saxon king known to have issued a law-code – the earliest surviving specimen of Anglo-Saxon legislation outside of Kent – and, in the preamble, “Cenred, my father” is the first of those he credits with assisting in its compilation. Cenred appears to have ruled as a sub-king under his son – he is called “King Cenred” by Æthelweard (III, 4), and in a charter dated 692 (S45), issued by a king of the South Saxons named Nunna (also called Nothhelm), he features in the witness-list with the title ‘king of the West Saxons’ (taking precedence over Ine, who is given no title).[*]
Ine had inherited control of Sussex from Cædwalla – Bede says (HE IV, 15) that Ine oppressed the South Saxons in the same way as his predecessor had “for many years”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that, in 710: “Ine and Nunna his kinsman fought against Geraint, king of the Welsh [i.e. the Britons of Dumnonia]”.[*] The Chronicle doesn’t mention the outcome, but according to Florence of Worcester Ine and Nunna: “routed [Geraint] and put him to flight.”
Cædwalla’s brother, Mul, who was ruling in Kent, had been killed in 687. Cædwalla had “ravaged Kent” in response, but West Saxon authority there evidently did not outlast his abdication the next year. Influence in Essex was also lost, and it may be that Mercian/East Saxon collusion had broken the West Saxon hold on Kent.[*] However, the Chronicle records that, in 694: “the people of Kent” paid compensation to Ine: “because they had formerly burned Mul.”[*]
Surrey apparently remained under West Saxon control following Cædwalla’s departure – in the acknowledgements that precede his law-code, Ine refers to both Hædde, bishop of the West Saxons, and Eorcenwald, bishop of London, whose diocese included Surrey, as “my bishop”. In 693, however, Æthelred, king of the Mercians, who had acquired authority in the western part of East Saxon territory (i.e. London and the Middle Saxons), is found exercising power in Surrey – confirming a grant, made by Cædwalla, of land at Battersea, in Surrey, to Eorcenwald, for the monastery founded by the latter at Barking, in Essex (S1248). Æthelred abdicated in 704, to become a monk. His successor, his nephew Cenred, inherited the overlordship of London and the Middle Saxons. A letter, written c.705 by Waldhere, bishop of London (Eorcenwald seemingly having died in 693), to Berhtwald, archbishop of Canterbury tells of disputes between Ine and “the rulers of our country”, a phrase which could include Cenred as well as the East Saxon kings (there was shared rule at the time). It seems possible, perhaps likely, that the cause of the disputes was the control of Surrey. A peace treaty had been arranged – the East Saxons agreed not to shelter West Saxon exiles, Ine agreed not to carry out his threats – and Waldhere was keen to attend a council at Brentford to settle the matter. Waldhere apparently had to seek the archbishop’s leave to attend because the West Saxons were being blackballed for not complying with an edict concerning “the ordination of bishops”, which is generally seen as meaning that the archbishop’s instruction to divide up the, unwieldy, West Saxon diocese had not been carried out. At any rate, when Hædde, bishop of the West Saxons, died, in 706, his diocese was divided – Daniel was appointed to Winchester (Hædde’s erstwhile see), and Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, was appointed to the new see of Sherborne. Subsequently, Surrey was transferred from the bishop of London’s jurisdiction to the bishop of Winchester’s.[*]
In 715 Wessex was evidently invaded by the Mercians, since the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states: “Ine and Ceolred fought at Woddesbeorge.” Woddesbeorge (or Wodnesbeorge), i.e. “Woden’s barrow”, is identified with a neolithic long barrow known as Adam’s Grave, Wiltshire. Who won the battle is, though, not recorded.[*]
The Annales Cambriae indicate it was in 722 that there occurred: “the battle of Hehil among the Cornish … and the Britons were the victors”. Hehil has not been convincingly identified, but presumably it was Ine’s forces that were defeated.
During the late years of his reign, Ine’s authority appears to have been challenged by rival princes. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that, in 721: “Ine slew Cynewulf the ætheling.[*]” The entry for 722 says: “In this year Queen Æthelburh destroyed Taunton, which Ine had previously built. And Ealdberht the exile withdrew into Surrey and Sussex; and Ine fought against the South Saxons.[*]” Then, for 725: “Ine fought against the South-Saxons, and there slew Ealdberht the ætheling, whom he had before driven out.[*]”
The following year, 726, Ine abdicated. Bede writes:
When Cædwalla went to Rome, Ine succeeded to the kingdom, being of the royal stock; and having reigned 37 years over that nation, he in like manner left his kingdom and committed it to younger men, and went away to the threshold of the blessed Apostles, at the time when Gregory was pope [Gregory II, 715–731], being desirous to spend some part of his pilgrimage upon earth in the neighbourhood of the holy places, that he might obtain to be more readily received into the fellowship of the saints in heaven. This same thing, about that time, was wont to be done most zealously by many of the English nation, nobles and commons, laity and clergy, men and women.
This group of annals appears, with small differences, in all manuscripts of the Chronicle (except Manuscript D, which has no entries for the period 190–692).
The Chronicle calls them “ealdormen”, but at this stage the word can hardly have the later connotation of territorial jurisdiction.
and forthwith seized the land,
Highlighted phrase in Manuscript E.
In Manuscript F the annal ends here.
“Young” omitted in Manuscripts B and C.
Manuscript A originally had: [+] A later scribe altered it to give the same reading as the other manuscripts. In its original phraseology, Manuscript A presents Stuf and Wihtgar as the Saxons who arrived with three ships in 514, whereas, in the phraseology of the other manuscripts, it is possible for that not to be the case.
Whilst Manuscripts B and C have “a few” (fea) men killed at Wihtgarabyrg, Manuscript E has “many” (feala) men. Manuscript A originally had “a few”, but a later scribe has changed it to “many”. (The killings at Wihtgarabyrg are not mentioned in Manuscript F.)
of the West Saxons
Highlighted phrase in Manuscript E. It was not in Manuscript A originally, but has been added (above the line) by a later scribe.
; and the royal offspring of the West Saxons reigned from that day onwards
Highlighted phrase in Manuscript E. It was not in Manuscript A originally, but has been added by a later scribe.
The scribe of Manuscript E has, in error (presumably misreading from the previous annal), written ford here, not leaga.
(Incidentally, Cerdices ford means “Cerdic’s ford”, Cerdices leaga means “Cerdic’s woodland”, Cerdices ora means “Cerdic’s shore”.)
Manuscript F has no entry for the year 527.
In Manuscript E it is emphasized that it was “all” (eall) the Isle of Wight that was given to Stuf and Wihtgar.
In Manuscript E, both here and in the entry for 530, the name of the Isle of Wight has been telescoped: Wihtland. Manuscript A has Wihte ealond in 530. Here, in 534, it was originally Wiehte ealond, but a later scribe has inserted “all” above the line, and modified the spelling, to produce eall Wiht ealand.
Bede (HE III, 7): “the nation of the West Saxons, in former times called the Gewisse”. The derivation of the name Gewisse is uncertain, and it is never used by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which has its origins in the Wessex of King Alfred). In genealogies appearing s.a. 552, 597 and 855/6, though, the Chronicle does present a Gewis as the great-grandfather of Cerdic, the purported founder of Wessex. Asser begins his biography of King Alfred with a genealogy. He misses out a generation, showing Gewis as the grandfather of Cerdic, but he notes: “Gewis, from whom the Welsh [Britones] name all that people the Gewisse”. It is likely that, in fact, it was the other way around – Gewis was a mythical character invented to justify the ancient tribal name, and enable the claimed descent of West Saxon kings to be traced to the tribe’s father-figure (and thence, via Woden, to Adam).
Bede mentions the Gewisse in five chapters of the Historia Ecclesiastica. An English adaptation of the work was produced around the time of King Alfred’s reign, but, interestingly, it does not include any references to the Gewisse.
26 (xxvi) in Manuscripts A and E, but 27 (xxvii) in B, C and F.
For instance, in the entries for 855 in Manuscripts B, C (s.a. 856) and D. (Actually, it is a peculiarity of Manuscript B that after 652 the year-number is generally omitted. Such is the case here.)
Barbara Yorke notes: “Other features which are likely to have derived from an oral story-telling tradition are people invented from existing place-names. These include the mythical British king Natanleod who was supposedly defeated at Natanleaga (Netley: ‘the wet wood’), Port who landed in 501 at Portsmouth (from Latin portus) and Wihtgar whose name derives ultimately from the Latin name of the Isle of Wight which he allegedly ruled.” Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (1995) Chapter 1 (p.33).
Frank Stenton, though, is not inclined to be quite so dogmatic. He writes about the Chronicle entry for 501: “This annal has often been dismissed as a fabrication based on the place-name Portsmouth. It is a plausible view, but it does not explain the appearance of the names Bieda and Mægla, it takes no account of the other evidence for Port as an Old English personal name, and it offers no reason for the invention of the annal.” Anglo-Saxon England (Third Edition, 1971) Chapter 1 (p.20 fn.2).
The place-name suffix byrg is a form of burh – from which the modern word ‘borough’ – and it designates a fortified site.
Wihtgarabyrg was probably ‘stronghold of the Wight-dwellers’, not ‘stronghold of Wihtgar’. It does not appear in history again, and its location is not known (though Carisbrooke is popularly suggested).
The word used is nefa, which can mean grandson or nephew. Asser says (§2) that Stuf and Wihtgar received the Isle of Wight “from their uncle, King Cerdic, and his son Cynric their cousin”.
Proposed by David Dumville, ‘The West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List and the Chronology of Early Wessex’, published in Peritia Vol. 4 (1985).
The reign of Cynric’s successor, Ceawlin, presents something of a problem. It is given as seven or seventeen years in different manuscripts of the List (in the Chronicle his reign seems to last thirty-one years). In order to arrive at 538 for the start of Cerdic’s reign it is necessary to accept that Ceawlin ruled for seven years.
A difference of nineteen years may be significant. Kenneth Harrison: “How, then, did this duplication arise? The Dionysiac tables [see Anno Domini] used in England from about 600 onwards comprised a 95-year term, in five separate cycles of nineteen years, each cycle being written down as a unit … When forming a chronicle it was not necessary, or even desirable, to work out a complete Easter table. The simplest approach, when dealing with dates as far away as 450 or earlier, would be to extrapolate backwards, arranging the Anni Domini in separate units of nineteen years to avoid confusion – a hope, in the event, not to be realised altogether. It will be observed that since a 19-year cycle runs from 494 to 512, and the next from 513 to 531 (both inclusive), the paired dates 495=514, 500=519 and 508=527 fall as a block into one cycle or the other. This arrangement is surely beyond coincidence. What has happened, it would seem, is that a version of virtually the same story, told in different words, has been transferred to the wrong Dionysiac cycle.” The Framework of Anglo-Saxon History to A.D.900 (1976) Chapter 7 (p.127).
Frank Stenton: “The name Cerdic, which is both rare and obscure, has sometimes been regarded as a mere figment derived from the place-names Cerdices ora, Cerdices ford, and Cerdices leaga, which occur in the traditions of the West Saxon invasion. This theory involves the improbable assumption that three separate place-names, each containing the same anomalous personal name, existed before these traditions were written down, in the small area to which they relate. But the most serious objection to any view which would regard Cerdic as a fiction founded on place-names is his position in the genealogy of the West Saxon kings. He was undoubtedly regarded as the founder of the West Saxon dynasty in an age when a claim to rule in Wessex rested on descent from the original head of the West Saxon royal house. The assumption that the poets who first recited the West Saxon royal genealogy evolved an ancestor for their patrons out of three obscure place-names conflicts with all that is known of the attitude of a Germanic aristocracy towards matters of descent. It may be added that no one inventing an ancestor for these kings would have been likely to give him so singular a name as Cerdic. It does not correspond to any known English name, and in the opinion of most scholars it represents the Old Welsh name Ceretic.” Anglo-Saxon England (Third Edition, 1971) Chapter 1 (pp.24–25).
The identification of Bedcanforda (Manuscript A) or Biedcanforda (Manuscripts B, C and E) with Bedford is no longer considered acceptable.
Working backwards from the relative safety of the start of Cynegils reign, 611: Ceolwulf 17 years, Ceol 5 or 6, Ceawlin 7 or 17.
“The Middle Angles, that is, the Angles of the Midland country”, says Bede (HE III, 21). See Tribal Hidage.
In Manuscripts B and C, a short genealogy follows, tracing Cynegils’ line back to his great-grandfather, Cynric. In this, Cynegils’ father is given as Ceola. It is possible that Ceola is a contracted form of Ceolwulf. In Manuscript A, the genealogy has been erased, but restoring it from the surviving text of Manuscript G gives Ceol, the name of Ceolwulf’s brother, as Cynegils’ father. Florence of Worcester also has Ceol. Further, the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List refers to Cynegils as “Ceolwulf’s brother’s son”. However, a genealogy found s.a. 676 in Manuscripts A, B and C, has it that Cynegils was Ceolwulf’s son.
45 (xlv) in Manuscripts B and C. 65 (lxv) in Manuscript E. In Manuscript A, 65 (lxv) has been written over an erasure – presumably it originally had 46 (xlvi), as appears in the text of Manuscript G. Florence of Worcester has “forty-six”.
The name Surrey (Sudergeona in HE IV, 6; Suþrige in ASCs.a. 722) means ‘southern district’, so presumably it originated as an adjunct of the Middle Saxons, to its north, across the Thames. It seems likely that by about 600 the East Saxons had absorbed the Middle Saxons. Then as now, Surrey was a desirable piece of real estate, and its ownership was disputed. At different times in the 7th century it is found under Kentish, Mercian and West Saxon control.
As already noted, the Chronicle indicates that Cynegils and Cwichelm were father and son. William of Malmesbury, however, presents them as brothers and co-rulers. He conjures up (from his imagination of course) a charming picture of fraternal harmony: “both active, both contending with each other only in mutual offices of kindness, insomuch that, to their contemporaries, they were a miracle of concord very unusual amongst princes, and to posterity an example worthy of imitation. It is difficult to say whether their courage or their moderation exceeded, in the numberless contests in which they engaged both against the Britons, and against Penda, king of the Mercians, a man … wonderfully expert in the subtleties of war, and who, overpassing the limits of his own territory, in an attempt to add Cirencester to his possessions, being unable to withstand the power of these united kings, escaped with a few followers.” (GR I §18).
In fact, it would appear that Penda was successful in gaining control of Cirencester and other territory, along the Severn, that the West Saxons had, not very long before (in 577, according to the Chronicle), captured from the British. It is possible that the Mercian sub-kingdom of the Hwicce (roughly, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and western Warwickshire) was founded by Penda following this acquisition. Frank Stenton writes: “there is every reason to believe that it was he [Penda] who first brought the Angles and Saxons of the middle and lower Severn under a single lordship, and that the under-kingdom of the Hwicce which is known to have existed within a generation of his death was in fact his creation.” Anglo-Saxon England Third Edition (1971) Chapter 2 (p.45).
D.P. Kirby opines: “Since Oswald was still securing himself as king over the northern Angles in the mid-630s, his presence in the Thames valley before the late 630s seems unlikely; the baptism of Cynegils, therefore, should probably be dated to the late 630s, possibly c.640.” The Earliest English Kings, Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 3 (pp.39–40).
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (s.a. 648 Manuscript A, s.a. 647 Manuscripts B and C): “Cuthred was son of Cwichelm, Cwichelm of Cynegils”.
Chronicle Manuscripts B, C and E place Cenwalh’s succession in 641. Manuscript F places it in 642, and Manuscript A in 643.
Oswald’s death (he was killed by Penda) is dated to 5th August 642 by Bede. Chronicle Manuscript A places Oswald’s death in 642, and the succession of Cenwalh is placed in the next annal. The other manuscripts, however, record the death of Oswald, prior to the succession of Cenwalh, in the same annal. All manuscripts agreed, s.a. 611, that Cynegils ruled for 31 years, which points to his reign ending in 642.
(Manuscript D has no entries for the period 190–692. Manuscript F has no annal 611.)
31 (xxxi) in Manuscripts A, B and C (and in the West Saxon king-list and genealogy of King Alfred that serves as a preface to Manuscript A), but Manuscript E, clearly in error, has 21 (xxi).
Manuscripts B, C and E are one year behind on these dates.
This annal is dated 648 in Manuscripts A and E, but in Manuscripts B and C, one year behind, 647. In Manuscript E, the genealogy is not present and Cuthred is called Eadred. None of this material is in Manuscript F.
Manuscripts B and C have “3,000 hides”.
Manuscripts B, C and F grant a Cuthred the title ‘king’, on the occasion of his baptism, in 639.
650 in Manuscripts A and F of the Chronicle, 649 in Manuscripts B, C and E. Whilst Manuscripts A, B, C and E report only that Agilbert succeeded Birinus in that year, Manuscript F states explicitly that Birinus had died in the same year.
Annal 652 is in Manuscripts A, B and C only. Annal 658 is in A, B, C and E. There are no dating variations between the different manuscripts.
“The Welsh” in question are the British inhabitants of south-western England, not of Wales.
The native Churches of the British Isles had operated independently for many years. There were doctrinal differences – the main one concerning the proper way to calculate Easter – between these indigenous Churches, frequently lumped together under the umbrella-term ‘Celtic Church’, and the Catholic Church of Rome, the representatives of which, Pope Gregory the Great’s mission, had landed in Kent in 597 (see King Æthelberht). The ‘Celtic’ and Catholic doctrines coexisted in the Northumbrian court. King Oswiu followed the (Celtic) teachings of the monks of Lindisfarne (who had arrived from Iona by the invitation of Oswiu’s predecessor, and brother, Oswald), whilst his wife, Eanflæd (who was the granddaughter of King Æthelberht of Kent), followed the teachings of the Church of Rome: “Thus it is said to have sometimes happened in those times that Easter was twice celebrated in one year; and that when the king, having ended his fast, was keeping Easter, the queen and her followers were still fasting, and celebrating Palm Sunday.” (HE III, 25).
This wording in Manuscript A. (Old English oþ = ‘as far as’.)
In Manuscripts B and C, Wulfhere ravaged “on [OE on] Ashdown.”
In Manuscript E, Wulfhere ravaged “from [OE of ] Ashdown.”
Ashdown being the Berkshire Downs.
The Meonware were the inhabitants of the Meon valley – in what is now Hampshire, opposite the Isle of Wight. According to Bede: “From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent, and of the Isle of Wight, including those in the province of the West Saxons who are to this day called Jutes, seated opposite to the Isle of Wight.” (HE I, 15).
Evidently Cenberht ruled as a sub-king under Cenwalh, as, indeed, Cuthred seems to have done. A Cenberht, presumably the same, appears as Cædwalla’s father, in the latter’s genealogy, s.a. 685 (Manuscripts A, B and C). Cenwalh was Cuthred’s uncle, and their line of descent, according to the Chronicle, is from Cynric (son of the purported founder of the West Saxon kingdom, Cerdic) via his son Cutha. Cædwalla and Cenberht’s line is from Cynric via his son Ceawlin.
xxvii (27) – except Manuscripts B and C, which, clearly in error, have xxxvii (37).
Genealogy only in Manuscripts A, B and C.
In the genealogy of Ceolwulf s.a. 597, his father is given as Cutha and his grandfather is Cynric.
(Manuscript D has no entries for the period 190–692.)
Genealogy only in Manuscripts A, B and C.
According to the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List, Cynegils was “Ceolwulf’s brother’s son”.
Henry of Huntingdon spices-up the meagre report provided by the Chronicle with some imaginative flourishes: “there was a very fierce battle between him [Æscwine] and Wulfhere the Mercian king. The Mercian king, in possession of his father’s and grandfather’s valour, was for a little while superior in battle. But both armies suffered a terrible shattering, and many thousands from both sides sank down to hell. It is worthwhile to consider how vile are the acts of men, how vile the glorious battles of kings and their noble deeds. For when the said kings had brought such great slaughter to their people for the sake of pomp, pride, and empty glory, one of them, Wulfhere, died of disease in the same year. The other died the following year.” (HA II, 37).
William of Malmesbury (GR I §32) maintains that: “she levied new forces, preserved the old in their duty; ruled her subjects with moderation, and overawed her enemies: in short, she conducted all things in such a manner, that no difference was discoverable except that of sex: but breathing more than female spirit, she died, having scarcely reigned a year.” On the other hand, Roger of Wendover (s.a. 672) alleges that Seaxburh: “was expelled the kingdom by the indignant nobles, who would not go to war under the conduct of a woman.”
683 in Manuscript C.
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.20. Stephen the Priest is the main source for this event – Bede mentions it only in passing (HE IV, 12). Neither of them locates the battle nor provides a date. Peter Hunter Blair, in his paper ‘The Moore Memoranda on Northumbrian History’ (in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe, 1950), argued that the date was 674. This is now generally accepted.
In a list of five monks from the Northumbrian monastery of Whitby who went on to become bishops, Bede notes about one of them, Ætla: “it may be briefly stated that he was appointed bishop of Dorchester.” (HE IV, 23). Bede, however, does not mention when this happened. Ætla is not known to have had a successor, and there is no evidence to indicate that the bishopric existed for long.
The British kingdom of Dumnonia originally comprised Cornwall, Devon, and possibly parts of Dorset and Somerset. W.G. Hoskins suggests (§1) its eastern frontier: “probably made use of three great natural features which, with little interruption, linked the sea to the north with that to the south: the Parrett estuary and the wide swamps of its middle course, then the massive escarpment of the Blackdown Hills which dominates the western horizon as one comes across the Somerset levels, and finally the broad flood-plain of the Axe valley”.
Manuscripts A, B and C, s.a. 685. (Manuscript D has no entries for the period 190–692.)
Whilst the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle presents an orderly line of succession between the reigns of Cenwalh and Cædwalla (the period 673–685/6), Bede says (HE IV, 12): “sub-kings took upon them the government of the nation [the West Saxons], and dividing it among themselves, held it for about 10 years”.
As it stands, S233 is a fake. However, it is evidently based on authentic material.
S1165 indicates that Surrey had been under the control of Egbert, king of Kent, in, probably, 666 (when the monastery of Chertsey was founded), and had been ruled by a sub-king on behalf of Wulfhere, king of Mercia, round about 673.
The British Kingdom of Dumnonia originally comprised Cornwall, Devon, and possibly parts of Dorset and Somerset. By this time, however, British rule was probably confined to Cornwall.
The compensation paid to Ine is variously recorded by the Chronicle manuscripts. A, D and E have 30 thousand, but don’t say 30 thousand what. B and F say it was 30 thousand pounds. C says it was 30 pounds, whilst G has 30 men. It was probably 30,000 of the silver coins – forerunners of the penny, called ‘sceattas’ by numismatists – which were being produced by this time.[*]
Henry of Huntingdon claims (HA IV, 6) that: “King Ine led formidable and well-ordered battle-lines of seasoned troops into Kent to avenge the burning of his kinsman Mul. King Wihtred, however, came out to meet him, not with ferocious arrogance, but with peaceful supplication, not with the gnashing of teeth, but with the sweetness of honeyed eloquence. In this way he persuaded the ﬁerce king to lay down his arms and accept a large sum of money from the Kentish people in compensation for the ætheling’s murder. Thus the case was brought to an end, and once established, peace continued.”
Ætheling: a male of royal blood; an eligible candidate for the throne. Henry of Huntingdon, writing in Latin of course, employs the word iuvenis, literally ‘young man’, in lieu of ætheling.
Between 708 and 715, Pope Constantine issued a privilege to the monasteries of Bermondsey and Woking. These establishments, both in Surrey, are said to be “in the province of the West Saxons”.
Waldhere’s letter to Berhtwald: Haddan & Stubbs Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Vol. 3 (1871), pp.274–5. The privilege of Pope Constantine: pp.276–8.
According to William of Malmesbury (GP V, §189), Maildufus, i.e. Maeldubh, was a learned Irish monk who settled at what would become Malmesbury to live the life of a hermit. He found it necessary, however, to take fee paying pupils in order to buy food. In the fullness of time, his pupils followed his example and became monks, and Malmesbury Abbey was founded.
The native Churches of the British Isles had operated independently for many years. There were doctrinal differences – the main one concerning the proper way to calculate Easter – between these indigenous Churches, frequently lumped together under the umbrella-term ‘Celtic Church’, and the Catholic Church of Rome, the representatives of which, Pope Gregory the Great’s mission, had landed in Kent in 597: “to preach the Word of God to the English nation” (HE I, 23). The error of the ‘Celtic’ churchmen in their calculation of Easter is a favourite subject of Bede’s. It was a long process for the various regions of the British Isles to adopt the Catholic Easter – the Britons of Wales did not fall into line until 768.
The text of a letter written by Aldhelm whilst he was still abbot of Malmesbury, to Geraint, king of Dumnonia, pressing the case for Catholicism, survives. Aldhelm addresses Geraint as “most glorious lord, wielding the sceptre of the western kingdom”.
Bede: “Daniel, the most reverend bishop of the West Saxons, who is still living, communicated to me in writing some things relating to the Ecclesiastical History of that province, and the adjoining one of the South Saxons, as also of the Isle of Wight.” (HE Preface).
Bede: “Daniel, the most reverend bishop of the West Saxons, who is still living [i.e. in 731], communicated to me in writing some things relating to the Ecclesiastical History of that province, and the adjoining one of the South Saxons, as also of the Isle of Wight.” (HE Preface).
In 706 the incumbent bishop of the West Saxons died. The opportunity was taken to divide the diocese. Daniel was made bishop at Winchester, whilst Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, was made bishop at the new see of Sherborne.
Henry of Huntingdon asserts (HA IV, 9): “The fighting was so dreadful on both sides that it is not to be known which of them suffered the more appalling slaughter.”
Aldfrith had another connection with Wessex. A surviving text by Aldhelm (the abbot of Malmesbury who became bishop of Sherborne in 706 and died in 710) comprises an essay on the number seven, two treatises on Latin metrics, and a collection of a hundred riddles, the whole being addressed to one Acircius (the text is called Epistola ad Acircium). Acircius is evidently Aldhelm’s nickname for Aldfrith (it means ‘someone from the region of the northwest’ – presumably an allusion to Aldfrith’s stay on Iona). At any rate, it is clear that the two men had been comrades some twenty years previously – Aldhelm is a little cryptic, but it seems as though he stood as sponsor to Aldfrith at his confirmation. Aldhelm makes no mention of where they were at the time – Iona (it is not inconceivable that Aldhelm studied on Iona) and Wessex both have their advocates.
Highlighted phrase in Manuscripts D and E only.
Ætheling: a male of royal blood; an eligible candidate for the throne. Æthel (Æþel), meaning ‘noble’, features as an element of many Anglo-Saxon names.
Highlighted phrase in Manuscripts A, B and C only.
In Manuscript C all year-numbers on folio 124r have had the last character of the numeral erased. So the entry for 715 (dccxv) has ended-up dated 710 (dccx), 718 (dccxviii) has become 717 (dccxvii), 721 (dccxxi) has become 720 (dccxx), and 722 (dccxxii) has become 721 (dccxxi). The last annal on the previous page had been dated 708, instead of 709 as per the other manuscripts (as usual, the year-number is absent in Manuscript B), and a blank annal 709 had not been added to complete the sequence. Although the year-numbers on 124r were correct, someone decided that the numbers should be de-incremented by one year, to follow-on from 708. This person, however, failed to add the necessary characters at 710, 715 and 720: e.g. at 710, dccx had the last character erased, to leave dcc (700), but ix should have been added to produce 709 (dccix).
Entry in Manuscripts A, D and E only.
Highlighted phrase in Manuscripts D and E only.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ine succeeded to the West Saxon throne in 688, and his reign ended in 726 (728 in Manuscript A). In the Chronicle, and in the king-list that precedes Manuscript A, Ine is allotted a reign of 37 years (though Manuscript E, plainly in error, has 27 years).
Later, s.a. 793, Roger tells how Offa, the powerful Mercian king, visited Rome: “going to the English School, which flourished at Rome at that time, he made a grant to it for ever for the support of such of his kingdom as shall come there, of a penny from every family that had possessions in lands to the value of thirty pence … the king granted the blessed Peter’s penny, as has been said before, which the English call ‘Romescot’.”
In 855, the West Saxon king Æthelwulf made a pilgrimage to Rome. William of Malmesbury (GR II §109) writes: “he went to Rome, and there offered St Peter that tribute which England pays to this day … Continuing there one whole year, he nobly repaired the English School, which, according to report, was first founded by Offa, king of the Mercians, and had been burnt down some time back.”
There is, in fact, no evidence that Offa ever travelled to Rome.
Highlighted phrase in Manuscript E (and also F).
Manuscripts A, B and C mention that Mul was Cædwalla’s brother in their annal 685, which Manuscript E does not. (F’s entry s.a. 685 has no mention of Cædwalla, though it does note that: “In this year there was bloody rain in Britain, and milk and butter were turned to blood.”)
Charter evidence suggests that Beorwald, abbot of Glastonbury, flourished around this period.
It seems that the mancus was a unit of weight applying to gold, but it could also be a name used for a gold coin. Since the late-7th century, however, the production of English coins in gold had been, as indicated by the dearth of surviving examples, a very rare event. The standard unit of coinage in Alfred’s day was the silver penny (see Shillings and Pence). Ælfric ‘the Grammarian’ (c.955–c.1010) says that thirty pennies were worth a mancus. In the law-code of Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan (r.924–939), an ox is valued at one mancus.
Æthelwald in Manuscript A (Æþelwalde).
Æthelwold in Manuscripts B, C (Æþelwolde) and E (Æðelwolde).
Bede has Æthelwalh (Aedilualch).
William of Malmesbury writes: “The reader of King Alfred’s Handbook will find that Kenten, father of the blessed Aldhelm, was not brother of King Ine [r.688–726], though closely related to him.” (GP V §188). Michael Lapidge, in his paper ‘The Career of Aldhelm’: “The form Kenten is not as such Anglo-Saxon (the second element, -en, is not Old English), and the simplest explanation is that it is a corrupt spelling of the OE name Centwine. Now Centwine is not a common name, and the Centwine in question is most plausibly to be identified with Centwine, king of Wessex … Alfred’s statement in his lost Handboc, that Aldhelm was the son of Centwine must be taken on the highest authority.” Published in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 36 (2007).
Genealogy only in Manuscripts A, B and C.
(Manuscript D has no entries for the period 190–692.)
It is possible that Cenred was a sub-king before Ine became the dominant king. A Cenred granted land in Dorset to an Abbot Bectun sometime between 670 and 676 – the charter (S1164) has no dating clause, but it is witnessed by Leuthere, bishop of the West Saxons 670–76. Cenred is not given any title, but as Barbara Yorke comments: “the ability to grant land at this time is likely to have been a royal prerogative.” Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (1995) Chapter 2 (pp.82–3).
The entry takes this form in Manuscripts D and E. Manuscript A originally had no entries s.a. 710, but this is one of two notices that have been placed there afterwards (at Winchester in the mid-10th century). Manuscripts B and C have: “Ine and Nunna fought against Geraint the king”.
In Manuscript C the last character of the year-numeral has been erased (all the year-numerals on folio 124r have had this treatment), so 710 (dccx) looks like 700 (dcc).
Bede doesn’t explicitly date Hædde’s death. He says (HE V, 18): “In the year of our Lord 705, Aldfrith, king of the Northumbrians, died before the end of the 20th year of his reign. His son Osred, a boy about eight years of age, succeeding him in the throne, reigned 11 years. At the beginning of his reign, Hædde, bishop of the West Saxons, departed to the heavenly life”. The precise date of Aldfrith’s death is provided by Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 14th December 705. Now, Bede doesn’t mention it, but one Eadwulf evidently (according to Stephen the Priest) occupied the Northumbrian throne for two months between Aldfrith’s death and Osred’s accession. It would seem, therefore, that Hædde died in 706.
Also, the method Bede apparently uses to relate regnal years to A.D. dates would make the whole of 705 the last year of Aldfrith’s reign, regardless of when in that year he died, and the whole of 706 Osred’s first year, so even ignoring Eadwulf’s brief rule, the implication is still that Hædde died in 706. (see Anno Domini).
The pallium: a white, scarf-like, vestment worn by the pope, and bestowed by him on archbishops as a symbol of delegated papal authority.
This statement appears s.a. 643 in Manuscript A, s.a. 641 in Manuscript E, and s.a. 642 in Manuscripts B and C. The latter two manuscripts specify that it was the “old church at Winchester” that Cenwalh commanded to be built. This first church became known as the Old Minster when a new church, the New Minster, was built alongside at the beginning of the 10th century.
See: Barbara Yorke ‘The Foundation of the Old Minster and the Status of Winchester in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries’, published in Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society Vol. 38 (1982), freely available online.
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum
(Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation).
The Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely) is a history of the monastery of Ely, from its 7th century beginnings – it was founded by King Anna’s daughter, Æthelthryth – to the 12th century.
s.a. = sub anno = ‘under the year’.
The West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List records the reigns of West Saxon kings (and one queen) from Cerdic to Alfred the Great (during whose reign, 871–899, it was composed). The List survives in a number of manuscripts – in his paper on the ‘Manuscripts and Texts’, Anglia Vol. 104 (1986), David Dumville describes seven, two of which are fragmentary – dating from around the last quarter of the 9th century to the first quarter of the 12th century. One text of the List serves as a preface to Manuscript A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England).
Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, first produced his Historia Anglorum (History of the English) about 1130. He later revisited the work – revising and extending – several times. The final version concludes with the accession of Henry II in 1154.
Anglo-Saxon charters are referred to by their number in Sawyer’s catalogue.
Available online: The Electronic Sawyer.
Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the Bishops of England).