During the last years of his thirty-seven year reign, Ine’s grip on power seems to have weakened. He was personally challenged by young rivals, and Surrey and Sussex would appear to have been slipping out of West Saxon control. Following Ine’s abdication and retirement to Rome, Wessex was ruled by a sequence of five obscure kings about whose descent the West Saxon king-list and genealogy of Alfred the Great, that serves as a preface to Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript A, offers only the broadest of claims: “whose kin reaches to Cerdic”.[*]
Æthelheard, the first of them, succeeded Ine in 726: ”And in that same year Æthelheard and the ætheling Oswald fought.” The Chronicle proceeds to trace the pretender Oswald’s descent from, Cerdic’s grandson (or great-grandson), Ceawlin.[*] With no indication that it was violent, the death of “the ætheling Oswald” is reported in 730.[*]
Bede, writing about “the present state of the English nation” (HE V, 23), in 731, states that all the: “southern provinces, as far as the boundary formed by the river Humber, with their several kings, are subject to Æthelbald, king of the Mercians.” Presumably the disturbed situation at the time of Ine’s abdication had provided Æthelbald with the opportunity to extend his authority into Wessex – it is possible that it was his support that enabled Æthelheard to defeat Oswald and secure his position, though at the cost of accepting Æthelbald as his overlord.
The rivers Thames and (Lower) Avon, loosely, marked the boundary between Mercia and Wessex. Under the year 733, the Chronicle announces: “Æthelbald captured Somerton”. Somerton (in Somerset), was in West Saxon territory, indeed, Æthelweard (II, 14) calls it a “royal vill”. Somerset wasn’t the only area where Æthelbald appropriated territory from the West Saxons – he gave the monastery of Cookham, in Berkshire, to the church of Canterbury (S1258).[*]
WhenÆthelheard died, in 740, he was succeeded by Cuthred – who was “his brother”, according to Symeon of Durham (HR). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports, s.a. 743: “In this year Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, and Cuthred, king of the West Saxons,[*] fought against the Welsh.”[*] It seems reasonable to suppose that Cuthred was obliged to accompany Æthelbald, his overlord, on this campaign.
The Chronicle, s.a.748, makes the rather enigmatic comment: “Cynric, ætheling of the West Saxons, was slain” —
— and records, s.a. 750, that Cuthred: “fought against Æthelhun, the proud ealdorman.”
Cuthred was evidently not content to let Wessex remain under Mercian suzerainty. In its report of Cuthred’s accession, the Chronicle comments: “and he warred boldly against Æthelbald, king of the Mercians[*]”, then s.a. 752: “Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, in the 12th year of his reign, fought at Beorhford against Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, and put him to flight.[*]” [*]
It seems likely that Wessex remained independent for the remainder of Cuthred’s reign. His last recorded exploit appears s.a. 753 in the Chronicle, when he: “fought against the Welsh.” (In this instance, “the Welsh” would be the Cornish Britons.)
Cuthreddied in 756, and was succeeded by one Sigeberht. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that, the next year: “Cynewulf and the West Saxon witan deprived Sigeberht, his kinsman,[*] of his kingdom, for his unrighteous deeds – except Hampshire; and that he held until he slew the ealdorman who had longest remained with him.[*] And then Cynewulf drove him into Andred [the Weald]; and he there abode until a herdsman stabbed him at Pryfetesfloda [Privett]; and [thus] he avenged the ealdorman Cumbra.”
It may be that Cynewulf owed his position to Æthelbald’s support, since he immediately appears as witness to a charter in which Æthelbald grants land in Wiltshire to a certain Abbot Eanberht (S96) – Æthelbald is styled: “king, not only of the Mercians but also of the neighbouring peoples”. Clearly, Æthelbald was Cynewulf’s overlord. However, later the same year, 757, Æthelbald was assassinated, and Mercia underwent a period of instability as Offa established his authority. Cynewulf capitalized on the situation. He evidently recovered territory previously lost to Mercia – he could grant land freely in Wiltshire (as demonstrated by S260, dated 758), and in 760 he took the monastery of Cookham, Berkshire, which Æthelbald had given to the church of Canterbury, into his own ownership.[*] He also annexed land from the Mercian sub-kingdom of the Hwicce – in S265, Cynewulf grants land at North Stoke, Somerset, to the monastery at Bath (both North Stoke and the monastery being north of the Avon, in the territory of the Hwicce).
The Chronicle mentions that: “Cynewulf fought often in great battles against the Britons”. The Britons in question being the Cornish. In a charter dated 766 (S262), Cynewulf makes a land-grant to the minster at Wells: “for the love of God and for the expiation of my sins, and also, which is sad to say, because of some harassing of our enemies, the Cornish people”.
Despite his appearance in the witness-list of a charter of Offa’s dated 772 (S108), concerning Sussex (which Offa annexed), Cynewulf would appear to have retained his independence. In 779, as reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “Cynewulf and Offa fought around Bensington [Benson, Oxfordshire], and Offa took the town.” A charter issued after Offa’s death (S1258, of 798) states that Offa had: “seized from King Cynewulf the oft-mentioned monastery, Cookham, and many other towns, and brought them under Mercian rule.” Bath returned to Mercian control – indeed, in 781, the bishop of the Hwicce (i.e. the bishop of Worcester) was obliged to do a deal with Offa, in which the king gained direct control of the monastery, its environs, and some additional land on the south side of the Avon that had previously been bought, by the bishop, from Cynewulf (S1257). Charters (S144, undated; S127, dated 787) also show that Offa took-over Surrey. Nevertheless, Cynewulf remained his own man – when papal legates arrived in Britain in 786, a synod was held under the auspices of both Offa and Cynewulf.
Later the same year (786), however: “Cyneheard slew King Cynewulf, and he [too] was there slain, and 84 men with him”. In fact, the Chronicle had previously (s.a. 755, for 757), in an untypically elaborate entry, told this story at length. Cyneheard, “the ætheling”, was the brother of Cynewulf’s predecessor, Sigeberht, and it would seem he had his eye on Cynewulf’s throne. Cynewulf had decided to drive him out of Wessex, but Cyneheard:
… learned that the king, with a small company, was on a visit to a woman at Merantune [unidentified]; and he there beset him, and surrounded the chamber before the men who were with the king became aware of him. And when the king perceived this, he went to the door, and then gallantly defended himself, until he caught sight of the ætheling, and then rushed out on him, and sorely wounded him;[*] and they were all fighting against the king, until they had slain him. And when by the woman’s cries the king’s thegns had discovered the tumult, they ran thither, whoever was ready, and with all speed.[*] And to each of them the ætheling offered money and life; and not one of them would accept it; but they continued fighting, until they all lay dead, save one, a British hostage, and he was sorely wounded. When, in the morning, the king’s thegns who had remained behind heard that the king was slain, they rode thither – and Osric his ealdorman, and Wigfrith his thegn, and the men whom he had previously left behind – and found the ætheling in the stronghold where the king lay slain; and they had locked the gates against them, and they went thereto. And he [the ætheling] then offered them their own choice of money and land, if they would grant him the kingdom; and made known to them that their kinsmen were with him, who would not forsake him. And they then said that to them no kinsman was dearer than their lord, and that they would never follow his slayer. And they then offered their kinsmen that they might depart uninjured; and they [the kinsmen] said that the same had been offered to their companions who before had been with the king. They then said that they no more minded it “than did your companions who were slain with the king”.[*] And they [the king’s men] then were fighting about the gates, until they made their way in and slew the ætheling and the men who were with him, all save one, who was the ealdorman’s godson; and he saved his life, although he was often wounded. And Cynewulf reigned 31 winters,[*] and his body lies at Winchester, and the ætheling’s at Axminster; and their direct paternal kin goes to Cerdic.
In786: “Beorhtric succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons, and he reigned 16 years, and his body lies at Wareham; and his direct paternal kin goes to Cerdic.” In 789, Beorhtric married Offa’s daughter, Eadburh, and together the two kings expelled Egbert, who would later succeed Beorhtric, from England. There were obviously close ties between Offa and Beorhtric, but it is not clear if this went as far as Beorhtric recognizing Offa as his overlord.
Followingits announcement of King Beorhtric’s marriage, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (s.a. 787, for 789) notes:
And in his days [i.e. 786x802] first came 3 ships of Northmen. —
— And then the reeve rode thereto, and would drive them to the king’s town, for he knew not what they were, and they there slew him. —
— Those were the first ships of Danish men that sought the land of the English race. V ►
Offa died in 796. Beorhtric seems to have been on good terms with his brother-in-law, Offa’s son and successor, Ecgfrith, whom he persuaded to restore a parcel of land in Wiltshire, previously seized by Offa, to Malmesbury Abbey (S149). Ecgfrith died after ruling for less than five months. A charter of, Ecgfrith’s successor, Cenwulf, dated 799 (S154), refers to a peace treaty of that year, between the Mercians and the West Saxons. The snag, however, is that, in the surviving text, the two kings said to have made the treaty are Cenwulf and Egbert, who succeeded Beorhtric in 802. Plainly, either the date is incorrect or the West Saxon king’s name is incorrect.[*]
Beorhtric died in 802. According to a tale related by Asser, biographer of Alfred the Great, Beorhtric’s wife (Offa’s daughter, Eadburh) accidentally poisoned him[*].
802 – 839 Egbert
Son of Ealhmund.
West Saxon genealogies present Egbert as a descendant of Ingild, the brother of King Ine.[*] Egbert’s father, Ealhmund, is identified by a margin note in Manuscript F of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the King Ealhmund ruling Kent in 784. Egbert was driven out of England by Offa, king of Mercia, and Beorhtric, king of Wessex (and Offa’s son-in-law), into exile with the Franks.[*] The Chronicle reports that, in 802: “King Beorhtric and Ealdorman Worr died; and Egbert succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons; and that same day Ealdorman Æthelmund rode over [the border] from the Hwicce at Cynemæresford [Kempsford, Gloucestershire]; then Ealdorman Weohstan met him with the Wiltshire men; and there was a great fight, and both the ealdormen were slain, and the Wiltshire men [i.e. the West Saxons] got the victory.” Although the rest of the English provinces south of the Humber were under the sway of Cenwulf, king of Mercia, there is no evidence to suggest that he ever had any authority over Egbert and the West Saxons.[*]
After announcing his accession, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is silent about Egbert’s activities until 815, when: “King Egbert harried in West Wales [i.e. Cornwall] from eastward to westward.” And then, another decade later, in 825: “there was a fight of the Welsh [i.e. Cornish Britons] and Devonians, at Gafulford [probably Galford, Devon]”. The Chronicle doesn’t mention the outcome of the battle, but perhaps the Devonshire men (West Saxons of course) had been defeated, requiring Egbert’s personal intervention – the texts of two Winchester charters (S272, S273) state: “The beginning of this document was written in the army when Egbert, king of the Gewisse [i.e. West Saxons], advanced against the Britons at the place called Creodantreow [unidentified], in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 825, indiction 3, on 19th August.”
Maybe Beornwulf, king of Mercia, decided to take advantage of Egbert’s preoccupation with the Cornish to launch an invasion of Wessex. After its report of the battle at Gafulford, the Chronicle continues:
… and in the same year , King Egbert and King Beornwulf fought at Ellendun [generally identified with Wroughton, Wiltshire];[*] and Egbert gained the victory, and a great slaughter was there made. —
— He then sent Æthelwulf his son, from the army, and Ealhstan his bishop, and Wulfheard his ealdorman, to Kent with a large force, and they drove Baldred the king north over the Thames; —
— and the people of Kent, and those of Surrey, and the South Saxons, and the East Saxons, turned to him [Egbert], because they had formerly been unjustly forced from his kinsmen. —
— And the same year the king of the East Angles, and the nation, sought Egbert for peace and as protector, from dread of the Mercians;[*] and in this same year the East Angles slew Beornwulf, king of the Mercians.
Beornwulf’s successor, Ludeca, was killed, probably by the East Angles, in 827. He was succeeded by Wiglaf. In 829 Egbert expelled Wiglaf and took direct control of Mercia – he minted coins at London inscribed: ECGBERHT REX M (Egbert, king of the Mercians). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle originated in the Wessex of Egbert’s grandson, Alfred, and it crows: “King Egbert subdued the kingdom of the Mercians, and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king who was Bretwalda.” The Chronicle takes the previous holders of this accolade from a list of seven kings, each of whom had acquired the overlordship of all the English kingdoms south of the Humber, given by Bede (HE II, 5). At any rate, having established himself as master of south-Humbria, Egbert promptly: “led an army to Dore against the Northumbrians, and they there offered him obedience and concord; and thereupon they separated.”[*] The following year (830), however, the Chronicle reports that: “Wiglaf again obtained the kingdom of the Mercians … and in the same year King Egbert led an army against the North Welsh [i.e. the Welsh proper, rather than the Cornish Britons], and he reduced them to humble obedience.”[*]
The mechanism by which Wiglaf recovered his throne is not recorded. If it was by force of arms, it hardly seems likely that Egbert would have been campaigning in Wales later the same year.[*] Henry of Huntingdon (HA IV, 29) maintains that: “King Egbert, moved by pity, conceded to Wiglaf that he should hold the kingdom of Mercia under him.”[*] Charters, however, indicate that Wiglaf ruled independently – and, indeed, raise the possibility that, for a time, he managed to re-establish Mercian overlordship of Essex.[*] On the other hand, Wiglaf apparently didn’t resume the production of coins after his restoration, which could be because Egbert did not allow him to. Perhaps Egbert, realizing he had overstretched himself, was obliged to reach an accommodation with Wiglaf, which enabled the latter to resume his reign as, to all intents and purposes, an independent ruler.[*]
Whatever influence Egbert had in Wales, Northumbria and East Anglia evaporated following Wiglaf’s restoration. All was not lost, however. At some stage, Egbert amalgamated the eastern provinces that had submitted to him – Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex – into a sub-kingdom of Wessex, with his son Æthelwulf as king.[*]
TheAnglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that, in 835: “heathen men ravaged Sheppey [an island off the north coast of Kent].” The “heathen men” were, of course, Vikings. The next year, 836: “King Egbert fought against the crews of 35 ships at Carrum [Carhampton, Somerset], and there was great slaughter made, and the Danes held possession of the battle place.” And in 838: “a great ship-army came to the West Welsh [i.e. the Cornish Britons], and they combined together, and warred against Egbert, king of the West Saxons. When he heard that, he then went thither with an army, and fought against them at Hengestesdun [Hingston Down], and there put to flight both the Welsh and the Danes.[*]” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle evidently uses the term ‘Danes’ in a generic sense – all Vikings are Danes. It appears that the Vikings who targeted the North Sea and Channel coasts of England were, in the main, from the area around Denmark, but it was, in the main, their more northerly cousins, from Norway, whose adventuring took them around the top of Scotland and into the Irish Sea.[*] Presumably the ‘Danes’ mentioned in the two raids on the West Country were Irish Sea based Vikings. V ►
Hingston Down was apparently the Cornish Britons’ last attempt to secure their independence – there is certainly no record that they tried again. Though the attempt had failed, native kings were evidently allowed, for the time being, to rule there. The last certainly attested king of Cornwall (recorded by the Annales Cambriae) is one Dungarth, who drowned in 876.
In 839: “King Egbert died.… And that Egbert reigned 37 winters and 7 months; and Æthelwulf son of Egbert succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons; and he gave his son Athelstan the kingdom of the people of Kent, and of the East Saxons, and of Surrey, and of the South Saxons.[*]”
839 – 858 Æthelwulf
Son of Egbert.
855 – 860 Æthelbald
Son of Æthelwulf.
860 – 865 Æthelberht
Son of Æthelwulf.
Æthelwulf succeeded his father, Egbert, as king of Wessex in 839, having previously ruled Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex, which Egbert had combined to form an eastern sub-kingdom of Wessex. On his accession to the throne of the main kingdom, Æthelwulf entrusted the rule of the sub-kingdom to his own son, Athelstan. It was a time of escalating Viking activity. In 840 (837 ASC): “Ealdorman Wulfheard fought at Hamtun [Southampton] against the crews of 33 ships, and there made great slaughter, and gained the victory; and that year Wulfheard died. And in the same year Ealdorman Æthelhelm fought against a Danish army at Port [Portland] with the Dorset men, and for a good while put the army to flight;[*] but the Danes held possession of the battle place, and slew the ealdorman.” In 841 (838 ASC): “Ealdorman Hereberht was slain by heathen men, and many with him among the Marsh-dwellers [Romney Marsh, Kent]; and again, in the same year, in Lindsey, and in East Anglia, and among the people of Kent, many men were slain by the [heathen] army.[*]” In 842 (839 ASC): “there was a great slaughter at London, and at Cwantawic, and at Rochester.”
A year later, 843 (ASC840), Æthelwulf himself: “fought at Carrum [Carhampton, Somerset] against the crews of 35 ships, and the Danes held possession of the battle place.”[*]
In 848 (ASC 845): “Ealdorman Eanwulf, with the men of Somerset, and Bishop Ealhstan [of Sherborne], and Ealdorman Osric, with the men of Dorset, fought at the mouth of the Parrett against the Danish army; and there made great slaughter, and gained the victory.”[*]
It would appear that the increased Viking threat gave rise to a new, cooperative, relationship between the West Saxons and the Mercians. Æthelwulf and Beorhtwulf, king of Mercia, issued stylistically related coins, and even shared moneyers. The often disputed border territory of Berkshire seems to have been transferred to Wessex by diplomatic means – there are no recorded battles, and the Mercian ealdorman of Berkshire (another Æthelwulf) retained his position afterwards. There would seem to be a five year window during which the transfer took place – in a charter dated 844 (S1271), Beorhtwulf is evidently still in control, but, according to Asser (§1), Æthelwulf’s famous son, Alfred (Alfred the Great), was born at Wantage in 849.
At this point, correct chronology is restored in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,[*] although it seems that the entry s.a. 851 actually begins in late-850:
In this year Ealdorman Ceorl, with the men of Devonshire, fought against the heathen men at Wicganbeorg [unidentified],[*] and there made great slaughter, and gained the victory. —
— And the heathen men for the first time stayed over winter in Thanet.[*] And in the same year [now 851] came three-and-a-half hundred ships to the mouth of the Thames, and stormed Canterbury and London, and put to flight Beorhtwulf, king of the Mercians, with his army, and then went south over the Thames into Surrey; and there King Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald, with the army of the West Saxons, fought against them at Aclea [unidentified], and there made the greatest slaughter among the heathen army that we have heard tell of until this present day, and there gained the victory.[*]And in the same year King Athelstan and Ealdorman [dux] Ealhhere fought in ships and slew a great army at Sandwich in Kent,[*] and took 9 ships, and put the others to flight.[*]
King Beorhtwulf died in 852, and was succeeded by Burgred. In 853:
… Burgred, king of the Mercians, and his witan, asked King Æthelwulf to help him reduce the Welsh to obedience. He [Æthelwulf] then did so, and went with an army over Mercia against the Welsh, and made them all obedient to him [to Burgred].[*]… in the same year, Ealhhere with the men of Kent, and Huda with the men of Surrey, fought in Thanet against a heathen army, and at first gained the victory, and there was many a man slain and drowned on each side; and the ealdormen both dead.[*]And then after Easter, King Æthelwulf gave his daughter to King Burgred, from Wessex to Mercia.[*]
For the winter of 854/5: “the heathen men for the first time stayed over winter in Sheppey.” The Chronicle has no record of Viking activity for the next five years. V ►
Returning to the eventful year of 853, Manuscripts A, B and C of the Chronicle carry an additional entry: “King Æthelwulf sent his son Alfred to Rome. Then at that time, the lord Leo was pope of Rome [Leo IV 847–55]; and he hallowed him king, and took him for his episcopal son [i.e. as his godson in confirmation].” Æthelweard and Asser also say the same thing, though Asser adds (§8) that Alfred, who was four years-old in 853, was accompanied by: “an honourable escort both of nobles and commoners.” Unlikely as it seems, it appears that Alfred did, indeed, make this journey to Rome. In the surviving extract of a letter written to Æthelwulf (generally accepted as being authentic), Pope Leo says:
We have now graciously received your son Alfred, whom you were anxious to send at this time to the thresholds of the Holy Apostles, and we have decorated him, as a spiritual son, with the dignity of the belt [cingulum – ‘sword’ may be meant] and the vestments of the consulate, as is customary with Roman consuls, because he gave himself into our hands.[*]
The ceremony described by Leo does not appear to amount to Alfred’s being anointed king, as asserted by the Chronicle, and subsequently by Asser and Æthelweard – after all, Alfred certainly had three older, hence senior, living brothers (Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred) at this time, so the possibility of his succeeding to the throne would have looked pretty remote – and it would seem that a little polish has been applied to the story by the anonymous West Saxon writer who compiled the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle during Alfred’s reign.
The Chronicle records that, in 855: “Æthelwulf gave by charter the tenth part of his land over all his kingdom for the glory of God and his own eternal salvation; and in the same year went to Rome …” Switching now to Asser, who gives a considerably more detailed account than the Chronicle:
… he [Æthelwulf] went to Rome with much honour; and taking with him his son, the aforesaid Alfred, a second time on the same journey, because he loved him more than his other sons, he remained there a whole year.[*] —
— After this he returned to his own country, bringing with him Judith, daughter of Charles [the Bald], king of the Franks. —
— In the meantime, however, whilst King Æthelwulf was residing this short time beyond sea, a base deed was done in the western part of Selwood, contrary to the practice of all Christians. For King Æthelbald, Ealhstan, bishop of the church of Sherborne, and Eanwulf, ealdorman of Somerset, are said to have formed a conspiracy to the end that King Æthelwulf, on his return from Rome, should not again be received in his kingdom. This unfortunate occurrence, unheard-of in all previous ages, is ascribed by many to the bishop and ealdorman alone, since, say they, it resulted from their counsels. Many also ascribe it solely to the insolence of the king [i.e. Æthelbald], because he was headstrong in this matter and in many other perversities, as I have heard related by certain men, and as was proved by the result of that which followed. —
— For on his return from Rome, Æthelwulf’s son aforesaid, with all his counsellors, or rather waylayers, attempted to perpetrate the crime of repulsing the king from his own kingdom; but neither did God suffer it, nor did the nobles of all Wessex [Saxonia] consent thereto. For to prevent this irremediable danger to Wessex of a war between father and son, or rather of the whole nation waging civil war more fiercely and cruelly from day to day, as they espoused the cause of the one or the other – by the extraordinary clemency of the father, seconded by the consent of all the nobles, the kingdom which had hitherto been undivided was parted between the two, the eastern districts being given to the father, and the western to the son. Thus where the father ought by just right to have reigned, there did his unjust and obstinate son bear rule; for the western part of Wessex is always superior to the eastern. —
— When Æthelwulf, therefore, returned from Rome, the whole nation, as was fitting, so rejoiced in the arrival of the ruler that, if he had allowed them, they would have expelled his unruly son Æthelbald, with all his counsellors, from his share of the whole kingdom. But he [Æthelwulf], as I have said, acting with great clemency and prudent counsel, would not have it done thus, lest the kingdom should be exposed to peril. He likewise bade Judith, daughter of King Charles, whom he had received from her father, take her seat by his own side on the royal throne, without any dispute or enmity from his nobles even to the end of his life, though contrary to the perverse custom of that nation. For the nation of the West Saxons does not allow the queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called “queen”, but only “king’s wife”; which hostility, nay infamy, the old persons of that land say arose from a certain headstrong and malevolent queen of the nation, who did all things so contrary to her lord and to the whole people that not only did the hatred which she brought upon herself bring to pass her exclusion from the queenly throne, but also entailed the same corruption upon those who came after her, since, in consequence of the extreme malignity of that queen, all the inhabitants of the land banded themselves together by an oath never in their lives to let any king reign over them who should bid his queen take her seat on the royal throne by his side.…
Now King Æthelwulf lived two years after his return from Rome; during which, among many other good deeds of this present life, reflecting on his departure according to the way of all flesh, that his sons might not quarrel unreasonably after their father’s death, he ordered a will, or rather a letter of instructions, to be written, in which he commanded that his kingdom should be duly divided between his two eldest sons [Æthelbald and Æthelberht]; his private heritage between his sons, his daughter, and his relatives; and the money which he left behind him between [the welfare of] his soul and his sons and nobles.[*]
Vita Alfredi §§ 11–13 & 16
Æthelwulf died in 858 – on 13th January according to a between-the-lines addition, in red ink, to the main manuscript (Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 157) of Florence of Worcester’s chronicle – and was, say the Annals of St Neots (which apparently make use of a very early version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), buried at Steyning, in Sussex. If that be the case, then his remains had been moved by the time Manuscript A was written-up:
… his body lies at Winchester, and he reigned eighteen years and a half. [Here there is a genealogy, tracing Æthelwulf’s descent back, via Woden, to Adam.] … And then Æthelwulf’s two sons succeeded to the kingdom; Æthelbald to the kingdom of the West Saxons, and Æthelberht to the kingdom of the people of Kent, and to the kingdom of the East Saxons, and to Surrey, and to the kingdom of the South Saxons. And then Æthelbald reigned 5 years.[*]
Though the Chronicle does not record Æthelbald’s plot against his father, nor the subsequent division of territory between them (Asser is the only authority for those events), its attribution of a reign of five years to Æthelbald (since he died in 860) is an acknowledgement of the fact that he had ruled in Wessex since 855.
But when King Æthelwulf was dead, his son Æthelbald, contrary to God’s prohibition and the dignity of a Christian, contrary also to the custom of all pagans, ascended his father’s bed, and married Judith, daughter of Charles, king of the Franks, incurring much infamy from all who heard of it.[*] During two years and a half of lawlessness he held after his father the government of the kingdom of the West Saxons.
Vita Alfredi §17
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records no incidents for the period of Æthelbald’s reign.
Æthelbald’sbrother, Æthelberht, had been ruling the eastern sub-kingdom (comprising Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex) since at least 855 (though there is the possibility that he had to stand down in favour of his father, Æthelwulf, between 856 and 858). When Æthelbald died, in 860: “Æthelberht succeeded to all the kingdom”, i.e. Wessex and the eastern territories were unified under his sole rule.
The Frankish Annals of St Bertin note, s.a. 860, that a Danish fleet, which had been on the river Somme, crossed the Channel: “to attack the Anglo-Saxons by whom, however, they were defeated and driven off. They then made for other parts.” Presumably this is the same event recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “there came a great ship-army to land, and took Winchester by storm. And Ealdorman Osric with the Hampshire men, and Ealdorman Æthelwulf with those of Berkshire, fought against the army, and put them to flight, and held possession of the place.”[*]
The Chronicle reports, s.a.865, that: “a heathen army stayed in Thanet, and made peace with the people of Kent, and the people of Kent promised them money for peace; and during the peace and the promise of money,[*] the army stole itself away by night, and ravaged all eastern Kent.”[*]
Asser (§19): “So Æthelberht governed his kingdom five years in peace and love and honour; and went the way of all flesh [in 865], to the great grief of his subjects. He rests interred in honourable wise at Sherborne, by the side of his brother [Æthelbald].” V ►
865 – 871 Æthelred
Son of Æthelwulf.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle announces Æthelred’s accession to the West Saxon throne s.a.866, however it does so before stating: “And in the same year came a great heathen army to the land of the English, and took winter quarters among the East Angles[*]”. It must have been in the autumn of 865, therefore, that Æthelred succeeded his brother Æthelberht.
The East Angles “made [i.e. bought] peace”, and in the autumn of 866: “the army went from the East Angles, over the mouth of the Humber, to the city of York in Northumbria”. Having killed two Northumbrian kings, the Danes installed a compliant Englishman on the throne of Northumbria. In the autumn of 867: “the same army went into Mercia to Nottingham, and there took up winter quarters. And Burgred, king of the Mercians, with his witan, asked Æthelred, king of the West Saxons, and Alfred his brother, to help him fight against the army. And they went with a force of West Saxons into Mercia as far as Nottingham, and there found the army in the works [i.e. fortress], and there besieged them.[*] But there was no hard battle there; and the Mercians made peace with the army.”[*]
In the autumn of 868: “the army went again to the city of York, and sat there one year.” In the autumn of 869: “the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter quarters at Thetford”. This time, the Danes killed the king of the East Angles, “and subdued all that land” (possibly establishing a puppet regime there).
TheChronicle year 871 (i.e. the campaigning-year 870/71) is sometimes called the ‘year of battles’. Asser, in the main, provides the more detailed account:
… the pagan army of hateful memory left East Anglia [late-870], and, entering the kingdom of the West Saxons, came to the royal vill called Reading, situated on the south bank of the Thames, in the district called Berkshire; and there, on the third day after their arrival, two of their earls, with a great part of the army, rode forth for plunder, while the others made a rampart between the rivers Thames and Kennet, on the right-hand [i.e. southern] side of the same royal vill. They were encountered by Æthelwulf, ealdorman of Berkshire, with his men, at a place called Englefield. Both sides fought bravely, and made long resistance to each other.[*] At length one of the pagan earls was slain,[*] and the greater part of the army destroyed; upon which the rest saved themselves by flight, and the Christians gained the victory and held the battle-field. —
— Four days afterwards, King Æthelred and his brother Alfred, uniting their forces and assembling an army, marched to Reading. When they reached the fortress gate, they cut to pieces and overthrew all the pagans whom they found outside the fortress. But the pagans fought no less valiantly and, rushing like wolves out of every gate, waged battle with all their might. Both sides fought long and fiercely, but at last, sad to say, the Christians turned their backs, the pagans obtained the victory and held the battle-field, the aforesaid Ealdorman Æthelwulf being among the slain. —
— Roused by this grief and shame, the Christians, after four days, with all their forces and much spirit, advanced to battle against the aforesaid army, at a place called Ashdown, which in Latin means mons fraxini [‘hill of the ash’, i.e. the Berkshire Downs]. The pagans, dividing into two bands, arranged shield-walls of equal size – for they then had two kings and many earls – giving the middle part of the army to the two kings, and the other to all the earls. —
— The Christians, perceiving this, divided their army also into two bands, and with no less zeal formed shield-walls. But Alfred and his men, as I have been told by truthful eye-witnesses, arrived more quickly and promptly at the place of battle; for his brother King Æthelred was still in his tent at prayer, hearing Mass and declaring firmly that he would not depart thence alive till the priest had finished Mass, and that he was not disposed to abandon the service of God for that of men; and according to these sentiments he acted. This faith of the Christian king availed much with the Lord, as I shall show more fully in the sequel.
Now the Christians had determined that King Æthelred, with his men, should attack the two pagan kings, and that his brother Alfred, with his troops, should take the chance of war against all the pagan earls. Things being so arranged on both sides, the king still continued a long time in prayer, and the pagans, prepared for battle, had hastened to the field. Alfred, who was then second in command, could no longer oppose the the enemy lines, unless he either retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother. At length, courageously, like a wild boar, he led the Christian troops against the hostile army, as he had previously proposed, although the king had not yet arrived. Relying upon God’s counsel and supported by His aid, having closed up his shield-wall in due order, he straightway advanced his standards against the foe. —
— But here I must inform those who are ignorant of the fact that the field of battle was not equally advantageous to both parties, since the pagans had seized the higher ground, and the Christian array was advancing up-hill. In that place there was a solitary low thorn-tree, which I have seen with my own eyes, and round this the opposing forces met in strife with deafening uproar from all, the one side bent on evil, the other on fighting for life, loved ones and fatherland. When both armies had fought bravely and fiercely for a long while, the pagans, being unable by God’s decree longer to endure the onset of the Christians, the larger part of their force being slain, betook themselves to shameful flight. One of the two pagan kings and five earls were slain, and many thousands on the pagan side fell, slain in that place – scattered everywhere, far and wide, over the whole plain of Ashdown. Thus there fell King Bagsecg, Earl Sidroc the Elder and Earl Sidroc the Younger, Earl Osbern, Earl Fræna, and Earl Harald; and the whole pagan army continued its flight, not only until night, but until the next day, even until they reached the fortress from which they had sallied. The Christians followed, slaying all they could reach, until it became dark.
After 14 days had elapsed King Æthelred and his brother Alfred joined their forces, and marched to Basing [in Hampshire] to fight with the pagans. Having thus assembled, battle was joined, and they held their own for a long time, but the pagans gained the victory, and held possession of the battle-field.
Vita Alfredi §§35–40
Whether by design or by accident, the following episode, that appears at this stage in the Chronicle’s account, is absent from Asser’s text:
And 2 months after, King Æthelred and Alfred his brother fought against the army at Meretun [unidentified]; and they were in two bands; and they put both to flight, and far in the day were victorious; and there was great slaughter on each side, but the Danes held possession of the battle place; and there was Bishop Heahmund [of Sherborne] slain, and many good men. And after this fight there came a great [Viking] summer-force to Reading.[*]
Returning to Asser’s narrative:
That same year , after Easter, the aforesaid King Æthelred, having vigorously, honourably, and with good repute governed his kingdom 5 years through many tribulations, went the way of all flesh, and was buried in Wimborne Minster, where he awaits the coming of the Lord and the first resurrection with the just.[*]
That same year the aforesaid Alfred, who had been up to that time, during the lifetime of his brothers, only of secondary rank, now, on the death of his brother, by God’s permission undertook the government of the whole kingdom, amid the acclamations of all the inhabitants of the kingdom …
Cerdic is, of course, the purported founder of the West Saxon kingdom.
Æthelheard’s succession is placed s.a. 726 by the Chronicle, except Manuscript A, which places it s.a. 728. Manuscripts E and F do not report Æthelheard and Oswald’s battle, and do not give Oswald’s pedigree (“Oswald was son of Æthelbald, Æthelbald of Cynebald, Cynebald of Cuthwine, Cuthwine of Ceawlin”).
747 in Manuscript C.
Manuscript A of the Chronicle, however, has 741, whilst Symeon of Durham (HR) has 739. All Chronicle manuscripts, and the king-list that precedes Manuscript A, agree that Æthelheard reigned 14 years, so his death in 740 is consistent with his having succeeded in 726 (though Manuscript A has 728).
Highlighted wording as Manuscripts D and E. Manuscripts A, B and C simply state “King Æthelbald”.
Highlighted phrases in Manuscripts D and E only.
Highlighted phrases in Manuscripts D and E only.
The Chronicle provides no details, but 12th century historian Henry of Huntingdon flexes his considerable imagination to spice-up the story:
Cuthred, in the fourth year of his reign, and Æthelbald, king of Mercia, being at that time at peace with one another, joined forces and fought against an innumerable host of Britons gathered from all parts. The powerful kings and their illustrious armies split up, and cut through the squadrons of the Britons at different points, overthrowing them eagerly, as if in rivalry, and the Britons were unable to bear the brunt of such warfare. So, choosing ﬂight, they gave their backs to those who were smiting them and spoils to their pursuers. The victorious kings, returning to their own lands, were received with triumphant praises. HA IV, 17
A scribal error in Manuscript E renders xii (12) as xxii (22).
Beorhford is unidentified.
An old identification with Burford, Oxfordshire, was dismissed by Frank Stenton in his paper ‘The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings’ (fn.46), The English Historical Review Vol. 33 Issue 132 (1918).
In what is evidently a reference to the fighting placed in 752 by the Chronicle, the entry s.a. 750 in the ‘Continuation’ of Bede’s HE states that Cuthred: “rose against King Æthelbald and Oengus” (surrexit contra Aedilbaldum regem et Oengusum). Symeon of Durham, HRs.a. 750, however, states that Cuthred “rose against Æthelbald, king of the Mercians” (surrexit contra Ethilbaldum regem Merciorum). The somewhat startling notion that Cuthred rebelled against Oengus son of Fergus, king of the Picts, is, for the most part, supposed by scholars to be the result of textual corruption – Symeon’s statement representing the original annal.
Between 754 and 845 there is a chronological dislocation in all extant manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – hence it must have been in their common antecedent. The majority of entries up to 828 are placed two years too early. From then until 845 the error is increased to three years. (It is a peculiarity of Manuscript B that after 652 the year-number is generally omitted.) The annal announcing the death of Cuthbert and succession of Sigeberht is, in fact, the first annal affected.
Cuthred became king in 740. He is allotted a reign-length of 16 (xvi) years by the Chronicle (Manuscripts B and C, plainly in error, have xxvi, i.e. 26, years), which would place his death in 756, though it actually appears s.a. 754. (Symeon of Durham places Cuthred’s accession in 739 and his death in 755.)
The Chronicle and Symeon allow Cuthred a 16 year reign, but according to the king-list that precedes Manuscript A he reigned for 17 years. Other versions of that text, however, have 16 years.
The notice of Oswald’s death is missing from Manuscripts B and C.
Highlighted phrase in Manuscripts D and E only.
In fact Manuscripts D and E had previously identified Æthelheard as Ine’s kinsman (s.a. 726), Cuthred as Æthelheard’s kinsman (s.a. 740), and Sigeberht as Cuthred’s kinsman (s.a. 754, for 756).
This is the earliest reference to a ‘shire’. Hamtunscire, i.e. Hampshire, is named from Hamtun (also known as Hamwic), now Southampton.
After Archbishop Cuthbert died, in 760, two of his former pupils stole the title-deeds and delivered them to Cynewulf, who kept the monastery and all its possessions for himself (S1258).
Placed s.a. 784 in Chronicle Manuscripts A, D and E, but s.a. 783 in Manuscript C. (As usual, the year-number is omitted in Manuscript B.)
In a symbolic gesture, Æthelbald sent a sod of earth from the monastery’s lands, and all the monastery’s title-deeds, to Cuthbert, who was archbishop of Canterbury from 740 to 760, for display on the altar of Christ Church Canterbury.
Due to the previously mentioned chronological dislocation, placed two years earlier than this by the Chronicle.
Bur (bower, chamber) in Manuscripts A, D and E, wrongly written as burh (fortress) in Manuscripts B and C.
Highlighted section not in Manuscript C.
Old English on, which produces ‘into Andred’. Manuscript C, wrongly, has of, which produces ‘from Andred’.
Highlighted section not in Manuscripts B and C.
The highlighted section is presented as direct speech in Manuscripts A and C only.
The Chronicle allots Cynewulf a reign of 31 years here (as does the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List), but the annals themselves indicate a reign of 29 years only.
A charter of Cenwulf (S154) refers to a peace treaty between the Mercians and the West Saxons. In the form the text has survived, the treaty is said to have been concluded by Cenwulf and Egbert, but the charter is dated 799, which is, of course, incompatible with Egbert’s reign. The date would seem to be correct, since it is given a proper Indiction number (7th) for the AD year (see Anno Domini).
D.P. Kirby accepts the date, but reckons that it was actually Beorhtric who made the treaty, “for whose name Egbert’s has been erroneously substituted.” The Earliest English Kings Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 8 note 123 (p.230).
Patrick Sims-Williams also accepts the date, but dismisses “the historical allusion to the peace treaty as an antiquarian addition.” Religion and Literature in Western England, 600-800 (1990), Chapter 6 (p.171 fn.127).
The Electronic Sawyer, on the other hand, implies that maybe the charter’s date is wrong, and offers 802 as the alternative. Sawyer cites Frank Stenton, who makes the comment: “A solemn treaty between Cenwulf and Egbert may well have followed the raid from Mercian territory into Wessex which according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had taken place on the day of Egbert’s accession.” The Latin Charters of the Anglo-Saxon Period (1955), Chapter 1 (pp.27–8).
The term reeve (gerefa) applies to a whole raft of administrative officials. In the course of time, there arose the position of shire-reeve (scirgerefa), i.e. sheriff.
The law-code of Alfred the Great states (§34): “Further, with regard to traders, it is decreed: they shall bring before the king’s reeve, at a public meeting, the men they are taking with them up into the country, and declare how many of them there are; and they shall take with them [only] such men as they can bring to justice again, at a public meeting. And when they need to have more men with them on their journey, a similar declaration shall always be made to the king’s reeve, before the assembled company, as often as need arises.”
The date of S154 would seem to be correct, since it is given a proper Indiction number (7th) for the AD year (see Anno Domini).
D.P. Kirby accepts the date, and comments: “but friendship was not confirmed between the kings, Cenwulf and Egbert, but between Cenwulf and Beorhtric, for whose name Egbert’s has been erroneously substituted.” The Earliest English Kings Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 8 note 123 (p.230).
Patrick Sims-Williams, though, prefers to: “accept the date … and reject the historical allusion to the peace treaty as an antiquarian addition.” Religion and Literature in Western England, 600-800 (1990), Chapter 6 (p.171 fn.127).
The Electronic Sawyer, on the other hand, implies that maybe the charter’s date is wrong, and offers 802 as the alternative. On the very day that Egbert became king in 802, an incursion from Mercian territory was repulsed by the West Saxons. Frank Stenton (cited by Sawyer) suggests that “a solemn treaty between Cenwulf and Egbert may well have followed”. The Latin Charters of the Anglo-Saxon Period (1955), Chapter 1 (pp.27–8).
Frank Stenton Anglo-Saxon England Third Edition (1971) Chapter 7 (pp.209–10, 220).
Barbara Yorke Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (1990), Chapter 7 (p.141).
Simon Keynes The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. 2 (1995), Chapter 2a (pp.34–5).
D.P. Kirby The Earliest English Kings Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 8 (p.145).
P.H. Sawyer From Roman Britain to Norman England Second Edition (1998), Chapter 2 (p.106).
“King Egbert and King Beornwulf” in Manuscript A.
“Egbert and Beornwulf, king of the Mercians,” in Manuscripts B and C.
“Egbert, king of the West Saxons, and Beornwulf, king of the Mercians,” in Manuscripts D and E (and F’s abbreviated entry).
The pedigree of Egbert’s son, Æthelwulf, appears in Manuscripts A, B, C and D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (s.a. 855 in A and D, s.a. 856 in C, and, as usual, undated in B), and in the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List[*]. Æthelwulf’s great-great-great-grandfather is Ingild, the brother of Ine – the line of descent then goes back to Cerdic, purported founder of the West Saxon kingdom. The Chronicle doesn’t stop there – tracing Cerdic’s descent back, via Woden, to Adam.
The province of the Hwicce corresponded, roughly, to Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and western Warwickshire. It had been a self-governing Mercian satellite, with its own royal dynasty, but during Offa’s rule it was fully absorbed into Mercia.
Between 754 and 845 there is a chronological dislocation in all extant manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – hence it must have been in their common antecedent. The majority of entries up to 828 are placed two years too early. From then until 845 the error is increased to three years. The entry for 802 is, therefore, dated 800. (As is usual for entries after 652, in Manuscript B the year-number is omitted.)
Previously Heather Edwards had noted that the Chronicle:
… records that Beorhtric and one of his leading men, Ealdorman Worr, died on the same day, which suggests that they died by violence, and upheavals in Wessex at this time are attested by a battle between the men of what is now Wiltshire and an invading army of the Hwicce which occurred simultaneously with Beorhtric’s death.… a story incorporated into Asser’s life of Alfred told how Beorhtric’s queen, Eadburh, took countless treasures and fled the country: precisely what she could be expected to have done on the violent overthrow of her husband. Less plausible parts of the story of Eadburh, including the allegation that she poisoned her husband, may have originated as rumours spread by Egbert in order to strengthen his own (presumably precarious) position by discrediting his predecessor's regime and in particular his widow, who, if she had sons, remained a potential threat.[*]
Commenting in retrospect, s.a. 836 (for 839), the Chronicle says: “before he [Egbert] was king, Offa, king of the Mercians, and Beorhtric, king of the West Saxons, had driven him from the land of the English into the land of the Franks, for 3 years”. Manuscripts A, B and C continue: “Beorhtric assisted Offa because he had his daughter for his queen.” Beorhtric married Offa’s daughter, Eadburh, in 789 and Offa died in 796, therefore Egbert was expelled between those dates – in which case he would have returned to Britain a considerable time before Beorhtric’s death in 802. It is sometimes suggested (or, at least, implied) that Egbert’s 3 years in exile should be 13 (an error which would have to have been in the common antecedent of the surviving Chronicle manuscripts), by which token he would have been expelled in 789 (the same year Beorhtric married Eadburh), remained in exile for the remainder of Beorhtric’s reign, and then returned to assume the West Saxon throne.
Beorhtric married Offa’s daughter, Eadburh, in 789 and Offa died in 796, therefore Egbert was expelled between those dates – in which case he would have returned to Britain a considerable time before Beorhtric’s death in 802. Some modern writers suggest (or, at least, imply) that Egbert’s 3 (iii) years in exile should be thirteen 13 (xiii), by which token he would have been expelled in 789 (the same year Beorhtric married Eadburh), remained in exile for the remainder of Beorhtric’s reign, and then returned to assume the West Saxon throne.
Due to the previously mentioned chronological dislocation, placed s.a. 813 by the Chronicle – though Manuscript F’s entry is correctly dated 815.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is now three years adrift. This entry, therefore, is found s.a. 832, instead of the correct year, 835.
As detailed elsewhere on this page, the majority of Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entries at this time are placed two years too early. As a result, Egbert’s conquest of Mercia and receipt of Northumbria’s submission appears s.a. 827 instead of 829, and Wiglaf’s restoration s.a. 828 instead of 830.
Roger of Wendover presents a peculiar sequence of annals:
809 “Egbert, king of the West Saxons, attacked that region called Cornwall, and added it to his kingdom, after many had been slain on either side.”
810 “Egbert, king of the West Saxons, subdued the Northern Britons and made them tributary.”
811 “King Egbert, as in the past year he had compelled the Northern Welsh to pay tribute, so in this year he overran their territories from north to south, and after burning and ravaging them he returned home.”
Most modern historians ignore these annals. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, however, Heather Edwards is not inclined to be entirely dismissive (“Roger of Wendover, possibly drawing on sources now lost”), but insists that they all refer to actions against the Cornish, rather than the Welsh proper. She points out that Roger’s entry dated 811 reads very much like a different version of the campaign of 815 recorded by the Chronicle, and concludes: “unfortunately it is impossible to deduce the correct date, nor can the dates or details of any of these campaigns be absolutely relied upon.”
Dore, near Sheffield, being on the Mercia/Northumbria border.
Roger of Wendover claims that Egbert actually invaded Northumbria – his: “mighty army … committing terrible ravages in that province, and putting King Eanred under tribute.”
William of Malmesbury (GR II §107), similarly: “Wiglaf … first driven from his kingdom by Egbert, and afterwards admitted as a tributary prince, augmented the West Saxon sovereignty.”
Henry of Huntingdon follows the Chronicle, and places Egbert’s successful campaign against the Welsh immediately after Wiglaf’s restoration in 830. William of Malmesbury (GR II §106), however, makes Egbert ‘subjugate’ the Cornish Britons (presumably a reference to 815) and then proceed to win the submission of the Welsh (“the Northern Britons, who are separated from the others by an arm of the sea”). Egbert’s success against the Welsh inspires Beornwulf (“supposing it would redound to his glory”) to declare war on Egbert, which results in Beornwulf’s ignominious defeat at Ellendun (825).
Frank Stenton was of the opinion that Wiglaf was restored by a rebellion against Egbert’s rule. Since the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle originated in Wessex, Professor Stenton argues that, if Egbert had handed Mercia back to Wiglaf, a West Saxon chronicler would have certainly recorded such magnanimity with a flourish, rather than the low-key announcement: “Wiglaf again obtained the kingdom of the Mercians”. Anglo-Saxon England Third Edition (1971), Chapter 7 (p.233).
S188 records a grant of land in Middlesex, made by Wiglaf, to Wulfred, archbishop of Canterbury. It is dated 831: “the first year of my second reign”. S190, dated 836, is an original document from a synod, held at Croft in Leicestershire, that was attended by the archbishop of Canterbury and eleven other bishops – from the five Mercian sees (Lichfield, Leicester, Lindsey, Worcester, Hereford), plus Sherborne (Wessex), Rochester (Kent), two unidentified bishops, London, and Selsey (Sussex). Wiglaf refers to the whole assembled gathering as “my bishops and ealdormen (duces) and magistrates”, which, says Frank Stenton: “proves, not only the king’s independence, but also the revival of Mercian authority over the southern episcopate.” Anglo-Saxon England Third Edition (1971), Chapter 7 (p.234).
An undated charter of Ceolberht, bishop of London, (S1791) features a “minister of Wiglaf, king of the Mercians” called Sigeric, who is given the title “king of the East Saxons”.
Florence of Worcester (who exhibits the same chronological dislocation as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) says that Egbert: “promised that he would willingly assist them [the East Angles] in all things.”
There are suspicions that Egbert’s campaign against the Welsh, in fact, preceded Wiglaf’s recovery of the Mercian throne. In a footnote (fn.55) to his piece ‘Wales and Mercia, 613–918’ (published in Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe, 2001), T.M. Charles-Edwards comments: “While the annal puts Wiglaf’s recovery of Mercia first and the Welsh campaign second, the two events may have been in reverse order or contemporaneous. By expressing it as he did, the annalist ended with a West Saxon triumph instead of a reversal.” Certainly, D.P. Kirby (The Earliest English Kings Revised Edition, 2000, Chapter 9) assumes that the Welsh campaign took place first, writing (p.157) that: “the success of this campaign must have been overshadowed by Wiglaf’s recovery of his kingdom later in the year.”
In Early Anglo-Saxon Coins (2008), Chapter 5 (p.38), Gareth Williams comments: “He [Egbert] also conquered Mercia in 829, briefly issuing coins which celebrated his control of London and Mercia. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicates that in the following year Wiglaf of Mercia ‘obtained’ his kingdom again. How he obtained it is not specified, and it may be that the phrase refers to some sort of loose West Saxon over-kingship rather than full Mercian independence. Certainly Wiglaf appears not to have issued coins for the remaining ten years of his reign, perhaps echoing the suppression of the coinage of lesser kings during the Mercian supremacy of Offa.”
D.P. Kirby argues that Egbert owed his position and success to Frankish backing, and when that support ceased, due to a revolt against Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious, in February 830, Egbert’s fortune changed: “Nothing would better explain the change which comes over the West Saxon military advance after 830 than a relatively sudden withdrawal of Frankish support.… In the absence of any further Frankish aid and support, as the Carolingian domestic scene deteriorated rather than improved, the three surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in southern England – the Mercian, East Anglian and West Saxon – will have been left to find their own level of influence so that a more natural equilibrium established itself from the mid-830s onwards.” The Earliest English Kings Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 9 (p.159).
35 (xxxv) in Manuscripts A, B and C.
25 (xxv) in Manuscripts D and E (and F’s abbreviated entry).
Highlighted wording as Manuscript B – there would appear to have been a textual error in the original, which has been best resolved by B. In Manuscripts D and E the highlighted section is substituted with: “Then he marched against them”.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, still three years adrift, places Egbert’s death s.a. 836.
Highlighted phrase missing in Manuscripts D, E and F.
Manuscripts D, E and F have “his other son”, which would make Athelstan Egbert’s son, whereas the reading “his son”, in Manuscripts A, B and C, makes him Æthelwulf’s son. Æthelweard makes Athelstan Æthelwulf’s son, as do Florence of Worcester and William of Malmesbury (Roger of Wendover alleges he was Æthelwulf’s illegitimate son). Henry of Huntingdon, however, follows Manuscripts D, E and F, making him Egbert’s son. It seems the majority of modern scholars are happy to state categorically that Athelstan was Æthelwulf’s son.
33 (xxxiii) in Manuscripts A, B, D and E. 34 (xxxiiii) in Manuscript C.
At this time, a chronological dislocation in all extant manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – hence it must have been in their common antecedent – places the majority of entries three years too early. The entry for 840, therefore, appears s.a. 837 (no entry in Manuscript F). As is usual for entries after 652, in Manuscript B the year-number is omitted.
Hamtun was also called Hamwic – the wic name-ending signifying it was a trading settlement.
Highlighted section not in Manuscripts D and E.
Highlighted phrase omitted in Manuscripts D and E.
(No entry at all in Manuscript F.)
Lindsey – once a kingdom in its own right, but by this time a region of Mercia – occupied northern Lincolnshire.
The highlighted phrase is in Manuscript A only. Manuscripts E and F have no entry s.a. 838.
Also, MS D erroneously has myrc, i.e. boundary, instead of mersc, i.e. marsh.
Nithard History of the Sons of Louis the Pious IV, 3. English translation in English Historical Documents c. 500–1042 Second Edition (1979), edited by Dorothy Whitelock, Item 22.
On the basis that Nordhunnwig represents the Old English Nordhamwic, i.e. ‘North-hamwic’, the most popular modern suggestions for its identification seem to be Northam, a minor settlement just to the north of Hamwic/Hamtun, and the small Roman town at Southampton (possibly called Clausentum), about a mile to the north-east of Hamwic/Hamtun.
Except Manuscript C, which has 841.
This entry for 843 is remarkably similar to an entry for 836 (ASC 833). (Both entries are found in all Chronicle manuscripts.) Æthelweard also reports both the 836 and the 843 battles at Carhampton, but mentions that the Viking fleet comprised thirty-five ships only in relation to the earlier battle.
Manuscripts A, B and C, correctly (as testified by charters and Æthelweard), have Eanwulf (Eanulf), but D, E and F, incorrectly, have Earnwulf (Earnulf).
Whilst Manuscripts A, B and C, in contemporary English style, title Eanwulf and Osric ealdorman (modern English: ‘alderman’), D and E give them the Latin equivalent, dux (modern English: ‘duke’). The Old English entry in Manuscript F, somewhat anachronistically, employs the word eorl (modern English: ‘earl’), which did not properly become a title of rank in England until the reign of Cnut (1016–1035).
Manuscript C, however, by the erroneous addition of two blank annals, is immediately two years ahead of true date, so the annal correctly dated 851 in the other manuscripts is dated 853 in Manuscript C. One blank annal is then dropped, prior to the next entry, by Manuscript C, which puts it just one year ahead of true date, and that is how it stays for the remainder of the century. (It is a peculiarity of Manuscript B that after 652 the year-number is generally omitted.)
Highlighted phrase as in Manuscripts A, B, D and E. In Manuscript C: “the heathen army”.
(In Manuscript F, the annal does not begin until the notice of the arrival of ships in the Thames.)
The highlighted sentence as in Manuscripts B and C.
In Manuscript A: “And the heathen men for the first time stayed over winter.”
In Manuscripts D and E: “And the heathen men stayed over winter in Thanet.”
Thanet is an island off north-east Kent – actually it is now an island in name only (the Wantsum Channel that separated it from mainland Kent having silted-up). This is the first time that the Danes are recorded over-wintering anywhere on English soil.
Asser uses the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to provide the historical framework for his biography of Alfred, and Annal 851 is his starting point. Asser’s version says (§3): “In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 851, which was the third of King Alfred’s life … the heathen first wintered in the island called Sheppey, which means ‘Sheep-island’, situated in the river Thames between Essex and Kent, though nearer to Kent than to Essex, and containing a fair monastery.” In fact, the Chronicle places the Danes’ first over-wintering in Sheppey s.a. 855 (856, Manuscripts C and F), so Asser would appear to be incorrect here. Perhaps his copy of the Chronicle, like Manuscript A, did not name the place s.a. 851, and Asser assumed it to be Sheppey.
The phrases “and London” and “until this present day” are omitted in Manuscripts D, E and F.
The phrase “among the heathen army” is omitted in Manuscripts B and C.
The phrase “and London” is also missing in Asser, but this is clearly due to a scribal oversight, since there is a passage that obviously describes London.
The highlighted entry, which is the first record of a naval battle in English history, is placed at the end of the annal (as here) in Manuscripts B, C, D and E (and, without mention of Ealdorman Ealhhere, in Manuscript F), and also by Asser. In Manuscript A, however, it is placed immediately before the report of the Danes’ first over-wintering. Æthelweard places it in the same year as the battle at the mouth of the Parrett – which event comprises the previous filled-in (as opposed to blank) annal in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (s.a. 845). In her translation of the Chronicle (1961), Dorothy Whitelock notes: “It looks as if it were a marginal addition in the original, inserted into the text differently by the various copies.”
All Chronicle manuscripts (also, Asser and Æthelweard) say it was nine ships, except Manuscripts B and C, which say eight.
The highlighted phrase is omitted in Manuscript A (and Asser).
S1271 records a grant of land at Pangbourne, Berkshire, made by the bishop of Leicester to Beorhtwulf. Although it is dated 844 (dcccxliiii), it is also given the Indiction number 6 (vi), which would be fine for the last four months of 842 and the first eight months of 843, but not at all for 844 (see Anno Domini). The charter is further dated to year 4 (iiii) of Beorhtwulf’s reign. The year of Beorhtwulf’s succession is, though, a little nebulous – it could be 839 or 840, though S192 places him on the throne by Easter, i.e. 28th March, 840.
20th century boundary changes have ‘moved’ Wantage from Berkshire into Oxfordshire.
Witan: The king’s advisory council, composed of important secular and ecclesiastical personages.
Actually, called the ‘North Welsh’ by the Chronicle, which, in modern terms, is simply the Welsh, i.e. the British inhabitants of what is now Wales (the ‘West Welsh’ being the Britons of Cornwall).
This report is from Manuscripts A, B and C of the Chronicle, and it is somewhat dismissive of Burgred. In his account, Asser makes it clear that both Æthelwulf and Burgred campaigned against the Welsh, whilst Manuscripts D and E of the Chronicle say: “Burgred, king of the Mercians, subjected to himself the Welsh with King Æthelwulf’s assistance.”
The phrase “and at first gained the victory” is omitted in Manuscripts D and E.
The phrase “and the ealdormen both dead” is omitted in Manuscript A. (The decease of the ealdormen, Ealhhere and Huda, is not mentioned by Æthelweard either.)
Placed in 853 by Manuscripts A and D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (and Asser). As previously mentioned, Manuscript C is one year in advance, so the annal is dated 854, whilst Manuscript E places it s.a. 852. As usual, it is undated in Manuscript B, and the material does not appear at all in Manuscript F.
This report is from Manuscripts A, B and C. Manuscripts D and E say: “And Burgred, king of the Mercians, received the daughter of Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons.”
The name of Æthelwulf’s daughter was Æthelswith. Asser says (§9) that the wedding took place: “at the royal vill of Chippenham [in Wiltshire].”
Appearing in the Chronicle as the opening comment s.a. 855 (856 in Manuscripts C and F).
English translation in English Historical Documents c. 500–1042 Second Edition (1979), edited by Dorothy Whitelock, Item 219.
In a piece entitled “The Problem of King Alfred’s Royal Anointing” (The Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 18 Issue 2, 1967), Janet L. Nelson argued that this extract was a fake, concocted at Rome in the 1060s or 70s. In a later paper (“The Franks and the English in the Ninth Century Reconsidered”, in The Preservation of Anglo-Saxon Culture, 1997), however, she admitted “I am now fairly sure that I was wrong” (Note 30).
Asser is the sole authority for Alfred’s second trip to Rome.
This “English School” was not a school in any modern meaning of the word. As described by Roger of Wendover (s.a. 727), it was, in effect, a hostel for the use of English pilgrims, and Roger says it was founded by Ine, the West Saxon king who, in 726, abdicated and moved to Rome. Later (s.a. 793), Roger tells how Offa went to Rome to secure the canonization of St Alban and to get papal blessing for his plans to establish a monastery on the site of Alban’s tomb. Having achieved his aims, Offa is said to have made a grant to “the English School, which flourished at Rome at that time”. Sadly, there is no evidence to support the notion that Offa went to Rome at all.
Æthelberht is styled rex (king) in a charter from Rochester dated 855 (S315).
Asser goes on to say that, “for the benefit of his soul”, Æthelwulf: “directed that, throughout all his hereditary land, one poor man from every ten hides, either native or foreigner, should be supplied with food, drink, and clothing by his successors unto the final Day of Judgment; on condition, however, that that land should still be inhabited both by men and livestock, and should not become deserted. He commanded also a large sum of money, namely, three hundred mancuses, to be carried annually to Rome for the good of his soul, to be there distributed in the following manner: a hundred mancuses in honour of St Peter, especially to buy oil for the lights of that apostolic church on Easter Eve, and also at cockcrow; a hundred mancuses in honour of St Paul, for the same purpose of buying oil for the church of St Paul the apostle, to fill the lamps for Easter Eve and cockcrow; and a hundred mancuses for the universal apostolic pope.”
The hide is a unit of land assessment – notionally, one hide is the amount of land needed to support a single peasant household.
By this time, the standard form of Anglo-Saxon coinage was the silver penny (see Shillings and Pence), and the production of coins in gold was, as evidenced by the dearth of surviving examples, a very rare event. It seems clear, as demonstrated by a comment in the will of Eadred, king of the English (d.955): “let there be taken 2000 mancuses of gold and let it be coined into mancuses”, that a mancus was, primarily, a unit of weight applying to gold, but it was also a name used for a gold coin. Ælfric ’the Grammarian’ (c.955–c.1010) says that one mancus had the same value as thirty pennies.
Asser is evidently in error here. The early-7th century pagan king of Kent, Eadbald, married his father’s widow – abandoning her later, when he adopted Christianity.
This event appears s.a. 860 in Manuscripts A, D and E (s.a. 861 in Manuscripts C and F, and, as usual, is undated in Manuscript B), but is not definitely pinned to that year, being introduced by the phrase: “in his [Æthelberht’s] day” (the same expression is used by Asser and Æthelweard).
Manuscripts B and C have the name Wulfheard for the ealdorman of Hampshire. He is not named in Manuscript F. Manuscripts A, D and E have Osric, as do Æthelweard and Asser.
Æthelwulf, ealdorman of Berkshire, was a Mercian. He had retained his position when Berkshire passed from Mercian into West Saxon ownership in the 840s.
Asser, rather more expressive than the Chronicle, says (§18) that the Danes (“the pagans”) were intercepted “as they were returning laden with booty to their ships”, and: “were slain on every side; and finding themselves unable to resist, they took to flight like women, and the Christians held the battle-field.”
866 in Manuscript C, which is a year ahead until the end of the century.
867 in Manuscript C, which is a year ahead until the end of the century.
The material s.a. 855 in the Chronicle (s.a. 856 in Manuscripts C and F) covers the period 855–858, and is in all manuscripts, but with various differences of no consequence, and obvious transcription errors. The quoted section is as it appears in Manuscripts A and B.
Asser dates this event 864 (§20). He makes it clear that “the pagans” spent the winter, i.e. of 864/5, on the Isle of Thanet, and says that they decided not to wait for the promised buy-off because: “they knew they could get more money from stolen booty than from peace”.
Highlighted phrase not in Manuscript A.
Asser (§30): “And when the pagans, protected by the defences of the fortress, refused to fight, and the Christians were unable to destroy the wall, peace was made between the Mercians and the pagans, and the two brothers, Æthelred and Alfred, returned home with their troops.”
The whereabouts of the Gaini is unknown. The “noble Mercian lady” that Alfred married was, in fact, called Ealhswith (oddly, Asser doesn’t name her). She died on 5th December 902, and, in the so-called ‘Metrical Calendar of Hampson’ (originating in the reign of Alfred and Ealhswith’s son, Edward) she is commemorated as: “the true and beloved lady of the English”.
Though generally referred to as Danes (by both ancient and modern writers), the “heathen army” comprised: “people from all quarters, that is to say, of the Danes and Frisians, and other pagan nations”, writes Symeon of Durham in his ‘Tract on the Origins and Progress of this the Church of Durham’ (II, 6).
The English rank immediately below king was ‘ealdorman’. The equivalent rank among Scandinavians was ‘earl’ (Old Norse: jarl). Asser, writing in Latin, here uses the Late Roman title comes (which is translated into English as ‘count’) for both Englishman and Dane alike.
Manuscripts A and F of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (and Æthelweard) do not mention that a Danish earl was killed. Manuscripts B, C, D and E say the killed earl was called Sidroc, but this is almost certainly an error (as will become apparent).
This mention of Reading is in Manuscripts B, C, D and E, but not in Manuscript A. Manuscript F and Æthelweard omit the arrival of the “summer-force”.
Asser, who omits the battle of Meretun, after the battle of Basing, says: “another army of pagans came from lands overseas, and joined the company.”
To fix Asser’s omission, Florence of Worcester inserts his Latin rendition of the Chronicle entry concerning the battle of Meretun into Asser’s narrative, but in the process loses all mention of the arrival of more Vikings.
A between-the-lines addition, in red ink, to the main manuscript of Florence of Worcester’s chronicle (Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 157) gives the date of Æthelred’s death as the 23rd of April, which, since Easter was on the 15th of April in 871, is perfectly reasonable. However, it is somewhat suspicious that a later, and rather more famous, King Æthelred (‘the Unready’) died on the 23rd of April (in 1016), and it may well be that the two kings have been confused.
Gaimar writes: “
And Æthelred and Alfred
Were driven to Wiscelet.
This is a ford towards Windsor,
Near a lake in a marsh.
Thither the one host came pursuing,
And did not know the ford over the river.
Twyford has ever been the name of the ford,
At which the Danes turned back,
And the English escaped.” (lines 2963–2971)
In his 1904 edition of Asser, W.H. Stevenson suggests that mediam: “is probably a scribal error for unam or primam” (p.234). In a note (n.68, p.242) to their translation (1983), Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge suggest that: “Asser may merely have intended by the use of mediam to convey the idea that the part of the army assigned to the kings was the more important.”
In Manuscript A, the word ‘heathen’ is omitted from the highlighted phrase. As usual when referring to Viking forces, the word used for ‘army’ is here. The Chronicle generally uses the word fyrd when referring to an English army.
Manuscript F omits mention of the arrival of the “great heathen army” on English soil.
In The Vikings: A Very Short Introduction (2005), Chapter 12 (pp.131–2), Julian D. Richards writes: “A major genetics survey carried out for the BBC in 2001 took DNA samples from men at a number of sites. In the main, small towns were chosen and the men tested were required to be able to trace their male line back two generations in the same rural area. The aim was to reduce the effects of later population movements, assuming that in-between the Norman invasion of 1066 and the 20th century movement would have been limited. The tests looked at the Y chromosome, which is only carried by men. Samples taken in modern-day Norway were used to represent the Norwegian Vikings, and samples from Denmark represented the Danish input. The results were disappointing but probably not surprising. Eastern England has been subject to invasion from adjacent areas of the continental mainland for countless millennia. Some migrations are historically attested although the majority, going back into prehistory, are undocumented. In England the survey team encountered difficulties in distinguishing between the DNA of Saxon and Danish invaders. The outlying Scottish isles provided the most conclusive evidence of a Scandinavian presence. In the Northern and Western Isles, as well as in the far north of the Scottish mainland, Norwegian genetic signatures were found. In Shetland and Orkney 60 per cent of the male population had DNA of Norwegian origin, although again it is very difficult to establish the date that this was transmitted from modern populations.”
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum
(Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation).
Ætheling: a male of royal blood; an eligible candidate for the throne.
s.a. = sub anno = ‘under the year’.
Historia Regum (History of the Kings).
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.
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.
Witan: The king’s advisory council, composed of important secular and ecclesiastical personages.
Named after St Neots Priory, where the manuscript was found during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Annals (written in Latin) were apparently compiled, in the early-12th century, at Bury St Edmunds. The unique manuscript is now the first item of a miscellany bound together in Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.7.28.
Anglo-Norman chronicler Geffrei Gaimar wrote his Estoire des Engleis (History of the English), for a Lincolnshire patroness, round-about 1140. It is the earliest known historical work to have been written in the French language, and is in verse (actually, octosyllabic rhymed couplets). In fact, the Estoire des Engleis is the latter part of a longer work, but the earlier part has not survived. The existing work covers the period from the arrival in Britain of Cerdic (495) to the death of William Rufus (1100). Up to 959, it is based on a lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.