FROM DOT TO DOMESDAY Early Medieval The Birth of Nations: England
WESSEX
section two *
 
King of the West Saxons
726 – 740  Æthelheard
740 – 756  Cuthred
756 – 757  Sigeberht
757 – 786  Cynewulf
786 – 802  Beorhtric
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 his abdication, 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 Manuscript A of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, 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 Oswald the ætheling 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 “Oswald the ætheling” 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 King Æthelbald.”  Presumably the disturbed situation at the time of Ine's abdication had provided Æthelbald, king of Mercia, 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 Avon, loosely, marked the boundary between Mercia and Wessex. Under the year 733, the ‘Chronicle’ announces: “Æthelbald captured Somerton”.  Somerton, Somerset, was in West Saxon territory, indeed, Æthelweard 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).*
When Æthelheard 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”....
Henry of Huntingdon expands the above statement, though whether he is drawing on anything more substantial than his own imagination is impossible to say: “In the 9th year of Cuthred, Cynric, his son, was slain, a brave warrior and bold hunter, tender in age, but strong in arms, little in years, but great in prowess; who, while he was following up his successes, trusting too much to the fortune of war, fell in a mutiny of his soldiers, suffering the punishment of his impatient temper.” (‘HA’ IV, 18).
.... and records, s.a. 750, that Cuthred: “fought against Æthelhun, the proud ealdorman.”
Once more, Henry of Huntingdon fleshes out the story: “In the 11th year of his reign Cuthred fought against Æthelhun, a proud chief, who fomented a rebellion against his sovereign, and although he was vastly inferior to his lord in number of troops, he held the field against him for a long time with a most obstinate resistance, his exceeding caution supplying the deficiency of his force. But when victory had well nigh crowned his enterprise, a severe wound, the just judgement of his traitorous intentions, caused the royal cause to triumph.” (‘HA’ IV, 18).
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 [unidentified] against Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, and put him to flight.+” *
Henry of Huntingdon goes to town: “Cuthred, in the 13th year of his reign, being unable to submit any longer to the insolent exactions and the arrogance of King Æthelbald, and preferring liberty to the hope of life, encountered him at Beorhford with bannered legions. He was attended by Æthelhun, the aforesaid chief, with whom he was now reconciled, and, supported by his valour and counsels, he was able to try the chances of war. On the other side, Æthelbald, who was king of kings, had in his army the Kentish men, the East Saxons and Angles, with a numerous host. The armies being drawn up in battle array, and, rushing forward, having nearly met, Æthelhun, who led the West Saxons, bearing the royal standard, a golden dragon, transfixed the standard bearer of the enemy. Upon this, a shout arose, and the followers of Cuthred being much encouraged, battle was joined on both sides. Then the thunder of war, the clash of arms, the clang of blows, and the cries of the wounded, resounded terribly, and a desperate and most decisive battle began, according to the issue of which, either the men of Wessex, or the men of Mercia, would for many generations be subject to the victors. Then might be seen the troops with rustling breastplates and pointed helmets and glistening spears, with emblazoned standards shining with gold; but a short time afterwards stained with blood, bespattered with brains, their spears shattered, and their ranks broken, a horrible spectacle. The bravest and boldest on both sides gathering about their standards, rank rushed desperately on rank, dealing slaughter with their swords and Amazonian battle-axes. There was no thought of flight, confidence in victory was equal on both sides. The arrogance of their pride sustained the Mercians, the fear of slavery kindled the courage of the men of Wessex. But wherever the chief before mentioned fell on the enemy's ranks, there he cleared a way before him, his tremendous battle-axe cleaving, swift as lightning, both arms and limbs. On the other hand, wherever brave King Æthelbald turned, the enemy were slaughtered, for his invincible sword rent armour as if it were a vestment, and bones as if they were flesh. When, therefore, it happened that the king and the chief met each other, it was as when two fires from opposite quarters consume all that opposes them. Each of them, to excite terror in the other, came on with threatening mein, thrusting forth the right hand, and gathering themselves up in their arms struck furious blows, the one against the other. But the God who resists the proud, and from whom all might, courage, and valour proceed, made an end of his favour to King Æthelbald, and caused his wonted confidence to fail. Since then he no longer felt courage or strength, Almighty God inspiring him with terror, he was the first to flee while yet his troops continued to fight.” (‘HA’ IV, 19).
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.)
Cuthred died in 756, and was succeeded by one Sigeberht. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ reports that, after only a 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 Pryfetesflodan [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 at 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, 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 discovered him who were with the king. And when the king perceived that, 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 [the king's men] then offered their kinsmen that they might depart uninjured; and they [the ætheling's men] said that the same had been offered to their [the king's men's] companions who before had been with the king. They [the ætheling's men] then said that they [the ætheling's men] 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 followed 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 had been repeatedly 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.”
In 786: “Beorhtric succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons, and he reigned 16 years, and his body lies at Wareham; and his 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.
A margin note in Manuscript F of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ identifies Egbert's father as Ealhmund, the king of Kent who, it appears, had been ruling immediately before Offa annexed the kingdom in 784/5. Perhaps Egbert had taken refuge in Wessex, with Cynewulf, at the time of that annexation. Commenting in retrospect, s.a. 836 (actually 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”, and Manuscripts A, B and C continue: “Beorhtric assisted Offa because he had his daughter for his queen.”*  Scholarly opinion seems to be divided about whether Offa was or wasn't Beorhtric's overlord, and crucial to the argument is the interpretation of Egbert's expulsion. Frank Stenton sees Egbert and Beorhtric fighting for the West Saxon throne: “Offa intervened in the struggle on Beorhtric's side, married a daughter to him in 789, and helped him drive Egbert out of the country”.  Professor Stenton describes Beorhtric as “a protected dependant” of Offa, and calls him “Offa's protégé”.  Barbara Yorke writes: “After Cynewulf was killed in 786 Offa was able to increase his control over Wessex. The new king Beorhtric either came to the throne with Offa's help or came under Offa's influence soon afterwards.”  Professor Yorke, too, is of the opinion that “Offa helped Beorhtric” to exile Egbert. Simon Keynes, though, cautions: “one should not forget that Egbert was the son of Ealhmund, who had been recognised as a king of Kent towards the end of the period of Kentish independence from Mercia (776–c.785). Egbert might thus have been perceived as a potential threat to Offa's position in the southeast, and Beorhtric would have been in the best position to secure his removal from England. Of course a West Saxon chronicler might be expected to put the best construction on the events; but his statement that it was Beorhtric who helped Offa (and not vice versa) might reasonably be construed as an indication that, in this instance, the king of the West Saxons was performing a favour for his father-in-law, without any implication of political subordination thereafter.”  D.P. Kirby talks of the “continuing independence” of the West Saxons during Beorhtric's reign, and P.H. Sawyer states: “Offa's friendly relations with Beorhtric did not, however, amount to an overlordship”.*
Following its announcement of Beorhtric's marriage, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ notes: “And in his days [i.e. 786x802] first came 3 ships of Northmen....
Manuscript A omits that the three ships were “of Northmen”. Manuscripts D, E and F specify that they were from Hordaland, which is actually the area around Hardanger Fjord in Norway, though all manuscripts refer to them as “ships of Danish men”. The ‘Annals of St Neots’ (partially derived from a, now lost, version of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’) specifies their landing site as Portland, Dorset.
.... 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....
Æthelweard explains that the reeve, whose name was Beaduheard, was at Dorchester when he heard of the ships' arrival: “[Beaduheard] leapt upon his horse and rode to the port with but few attendants, thinking them to be merchants rather than enemies; and then issuing his commands he ordered them to be driven to the king's town;* but he and his attendants were slain.” (III, 1).
.... 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, who 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, Beorhtric's successor, Egbert. Plainly, either the date is incorrect or Egbert's name has been substituted for Beorhtric's.*
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.
According to West Saxon genealogies, Egbert was 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 died and the ealdorman Worr died; and Egbert succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons; and on the same day, the ealdorman Æthelmund rode over [the border] from the Hwicce at Cynemæresford [Kempsford, Gloucestershire]; then the 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 the Mercian king, Cenwulf, there is no evidence to suggest that he ever had any authority over Egbert and the West Saxons.
West Saxon genealogies claim that Egbert was a descendant of Ine's brother, but some modern scholars are sceptical. For instance, in the ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’, Heather Edwards writes: “If the family were West Saxon, it is difficult to see why Ealhmund should have sought power in Kent, thereby embroiling himself quite unnecessarily with Offa, who was mounting determined attacks on Kent both before and after Ealhmund's reign. If the family were Kentish, then Ealhmund's position is perfectly natural, and there is no great difficulty in accounting for Egbert's: by 802 the native Kentish rulers had been wholly dispossessed, so it is not surprising that a Kentish ætheling should turn up elsewhere, while the evidence that Egbert gained power by conquest precludes any necessity to assume that he had any prior support within Wessex.* In the years since the reign in Kent of his putative father, Ealhmund, he may well have operated as an independent war leader (like the West Saxon Cædwalla, or St Guthlac, earlier), with his own following of fighting men at whose head he achieved his successful coup in Wessex... when Offa and Beorhtric expelled Egbert (between 789 and 796), Beorhtric helped Offa because he had married Offa's daughter. Evidently Beorhtric had no personal quarrel with Egbert, so Egbert cannot at this time have been perceived as a possible claimant to the West Saxon kingship. Offa was the one who wanted rid of him, and the most likely reason for this is that Egbert was a potential contender for the throne in Kent. The claim in Æthelwulf's genealogy of a West Saxon descent for Æthelwulf and his father is no evidence for the truth of this assertion. It would have been extraordinary if the family had not claimed descent from Cerdic, as West Saxon kings traditionally did. It may well be that the genealogy was drawn up during Egbert's reign as part of his attempts to legitimize his dynasty and secure the peaceful succession of his son.”
A number of displaced Englishmen sought refuge with Charles, king of the Franks. Charles, better known as Charlemagne, was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III (795–816) on Christmas Day 800. Charlemagne and Leo seemingly engineered the restoration of Eardwulf, the exiled king of Northumbria, in 808. In ‘The Earliest English Kings’ (Second Edition, 2000, Chapter 9), D.P. Kirby writes: “A few years before, on the death of Beorhtric, king of the West Saxons in 802, the accession of Egbert, son of Ealhmund, following his return from exile in Gaul, was also probably a consequence of Carolingian and possibly even papal influence, exerted on this occasion on behalf of a southern-based family which had no love for Offa who had driven Egbert out of England with Beorhtric's help.”
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 [825], King Egbert of the West Saxons and King Beornwulf of the Mercians fought at Ellendun [generally identified with Wroughton, Wiltshire]; and Egbert gained the victory, and a great slaughter was there made....
Henry of Huntingdon notes that Egbert: “fought a battle against Beornwulf, king of Mercia, at Ellendun, from whence it is said, “Ellendun's stream was tinged with blood, and was choked with the slain, and became foul with carnage.” There, indeed, after a prodigious slaughter on both sides, Egbert obtained a dearly bought victory. ” (‘HA’ IV, 29).  Henry of Huntingdon is adept at using his imagination to flesh-out the spare reports of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’. In ‘The Lost Literature of Medieval England’ (1952), however, R.M. Wilson suggests that the above is the last of six instances of Henry introducing a quote, translated into Latin, from a now lost Old English poem on famous battles. (The first five battles occurred within the short period 616–655, and all involved Northumbria.)
.... 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 ....
Baldred was probably a Mercian appointee – indeed, his name suggests he was a relative of Beornwulf.
.... and the Kentish people, 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....
Presumably the ‘Chronicle’ is only referring to Kent having been “unjustly forced from his [Egbert's] kinsmen” – the other territories mentioned being, in effect, in parentheses – Egbert's father, Ealhmund, apparently having ruled Kent around 784, prior to its takeover by Offa.
.... 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.”
Although Beornwulf's defeat at Ellendun, the ejection of Baldred, the submission of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex to Egbert, and the East Anglian rebellion against Mercia, are all consigned to a single annal, it seems that these events actually spread across two years. There is a charter (S1267) which indicates that Beornwulf's authority was still recognised in Kent on 27th March 826. It would appear, then, that Baldred was expelled from Kent and Beornwulf was killed during 826.
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 Mercia). The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ originated in the Wessex of Egbert's grandson, Alfred, and it crows: “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 be campaigning against the Welsh later in the same year.* Henry of Huntingdon (‘HA’ IV, 29) maintains that: “King Egbert, from motives of commiseration, yielded to Wiglaf the kingdom of Mercia, to be held in subjection to himself.”*  Charters, however, indicate that Wiglaf ruled independently – and, indeed, raise the possibility that, for a time, he managed to reestablish 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 Æthelwulf as king.*
The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ reports that, in 835: “heathen men ravaged Sheppey [island off NE 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 went thither with an army, and fought against them at Hengestesdune [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 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 Kentish people, 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 Hamtune [Southampton] against the crews of 33 ships, and there made great slaughter, and gained the victory. And in the same year Wulfheard died. And in the same year the 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’): “the ealdorman Hereberht was slain by the 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 Kentish people, many men were slain by the army.”  In 842 (839 ‘ASC’): “there was great slaughter at London, Cwantawic, and at Rochester.”
Cwantawic (Cantwic in Manuscripts D and E) is Quentovic – a major Frankish port, on the Channel, at the mouth of the Canche. (Manuscript C, erroneously, has Cantwarabirig, i.e. Canterbury, and there is no entry in Manuscript F.)  The contemporary Frankish historian Nithard (d.844) records that “the Northmen ravaged Contwig [Quentovic]” in 842. He then says that this party of raiders: “crossed the sea and likewise plundered Hamwig [Southampton] and Nordhunnwig [possibly Northam].”*
A year later, 843 (‘ASC’ 840), Æthelwulf himself: “fought at Carrum [Carhampton, Somerset] against the crews of 35 ships, and the Danes held possession of the battle place.”*
The Frankish ‘Annals of St Bertin’, s.a. 844: “The Northmen launched a major attack on the island of Britain, in that part which is largely inhabited by the Anglo-Saxons. After a battle lasting three days, the Northmen emerged the winners: plundering, looting, slaughtering everywhere, they wielded power over the land at will.”
In 848 (‘ASC’ 845): “the ealdorman Eanwulf, with the men of Somerset, and Bishop Ealhstan [of Sherborne], and the ealdorman Osric, with the men of Dorset, fought at the mouth of the Parret 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: “the ealdorman Ceorl, with the men of Devonshire, fought against the heathen men at Wicganbeorg [unidentified], and there made great slaughter, and gained the victory....
Those Vikings who settled areas bordering the Irish Sea, particularly in Ireland itself, are often referred to as the Hiberno-Norse. Presumably it was them who, having landed on the Bristol Channel coast, were roundly defeated by the West Saxons at the mouth of the Parret (‘ASC’ 845) and at Wicganbeorg (‘ASC’ 851). Barbara Yorke writes: “These are the last recorded ninth-century raids which can plausibly be identified as those of Hiberno-Norse, though we should not discount the possibility of unrecorded hit-and-run raids. However, it would appear that decisive defeats had discouraged the Norse from attempting to establish permanent bases on the north-west coast of Wessex.” (‘Wessex in the Early Middle Ages’, 1995, Chapter 3).
.... And the heathen men, for the first time, took up their quarters 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 landed, and took Canterbury and London by storm, 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 the ealdorman [dux] Ealhhere fought in ships and slew a great force at Sandwich in Kent,+ and took 9 ships, and put the others to flight.+
Athelstan, ruler of the eastern sub-kingdom (Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex), disappears from history at this time.
©Trustees of the British Museum The two gold finger-rings pictured above are in the British Museum. The one on the left (2.8 cm dia.) was found at Laverstock, Wiltshire, in 1780. Its inscription reads as ‘Æthelwulf Rex’ (King Æthelwulf). The ring on the right (2.6 cm dia.) was found near Aberford, West Yorkshire, in 1870. Scratched inside the bezel is an inscription that reads ‘Æthelswith Regina’ (Queen Æthelswith) – Æthelswith being Æthelwulf's daughter, wife of King Burgred. It is unlikely that the rings were worn by Æthelwulf and Æthelswith themselves – they were probably given as presents or symbols of office.
King Beorhtwulf died in 852, and was succeeded by Burgred. In 853: “Burgred, king of the Mercians, and his witan, prayed King Æthelwulf that he would aid him, that he might reduce the Welsh to obedience. He then did so, and went with an army over Mercia against the Welsh, and made them all obedient to him.+... in the same year, Ealhhere with the Kentish men, and Huda with those 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 both ealdormen fell.+ And the Easter after this, King Æthelwulf gave his daughter to King Burgred, from Wessex to Mercia.+
For the winter of 854/5: “heathen men first took up their quarters 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 a letter 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 sword 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 chartered [i.e. granted] 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’: “[Æthelwulf] went to Rome with much honour; and taking with him his son, the aforesaid King Alfred, a second time on the same journey, because he loved him more than his other sons, he remained there a whole year.*....
The ‘Annals of St Bertin’, s.a. 855: “Charles [Charles the Bald, king of West Francia] also gave an honourable reception to King Æthelwulf of the Anglo-Saxons who was hastening on his way to Rome. Charles gave him all the supplies a king might need and had him escorted right to the boundary of his realm with all the courtesies due to a king.”  The biography of Pope Benedict III in the ‘Liber Pontificalis’ (Book of the Popes) notes that Æthelwulf arrived at Rome “with a multitude of people”, and lists the valuable gifts he donated to St Peter, including “a fine gold crown weighing 4 pounds” and “sword bound with fine gold”.  According to William of Malmesbury (‘GR’ II §109), Æthelwulf: “nobly repaired the English School [in Rome], which, according to report, was first founded by Offa, king of the Mercians, and had been burnt down some time back.”*
.... After this he returned to his own country, bringing with him Judith, daughter of Charles [the Bald], king of the Franks....
The ‘Annals of St Bertin’, s.a. 856: “In July Æthelwulf king of the western English, on his way back from Rome, was betrothed to King Charles' daughter Judith. On the Kalends [i.e. the 1st] of October, in the palace of Verberie, he received her in marriage. After Hincmar, bishop of Rheims, had consecrated her and placed a diadem on her head, Æthelwulf formally conferred on her the title of queen, which was something not customary before then to him or to his people. When the marriage had been sealed by mutual exchange of royal gear and gifts, Æthelwulf sailed with Judith to Britain where his kingdom lay.”  Judith was twelve or thirteen years-old at this time. The mother of Alfred, and as far as is known all of Æthelwulf's children, was called Osburh: “an extremely devout woman, noble in mind, noble also by descent; she was daughter to Oslac, the famous cupbearer of King Æthelwulf”, says Asser (§2). Presumably Osburh had died by, or during, the time of Æthelwulf's sojourn in Rome.
.... 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, repugnant to the morals 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 persons, and as was proved by the result of that which followed....
On his departure for Rome, Æthelwulf had evidently left the two oldest of his surviving sons in charge – Wessex proper to the care of Æthelbald, and the eastern sub-kingdom (Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex) to Æthelberht.* Perhaps Æthelbald feared that any children from his father's new, rather superior, marriage would take precedence over Æthelwulf's existing family.
.... 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 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....
Barbara Yorke (‘Wessex in the Early Middle Ages’, 1995, Chapter 3): “Asser's words are not without ambiguity and it is not clear whether ‘the eastern districts’ are Kent, Sussex, Surrey and the East Saxons or the eastern portion of the Wessex heartlands. It has usually been assumed that Æthelwulf took back the former from his son Æthelberht”.  Frank Stenton (‘Anglo-Saxon England’, Third Edition, 1971, Chapter 8): “to avoid a civil war he [Æthelwulf] agreed to a division of the kingdom, leaving Wessex to Æthelbald and taking for himself Kent and the other parts of south-eastern England which Egbert had annexed in 825.”  D.P. Kirby (‘The Earliest English Kings’, Second Edition, 2000, Chapter 9): “This cannot be right... What the evidence suggests ... is that, if there was a division of the kingdom, it was West Saxon territory itself which Æthelwulf partitioned with Æthelbald, Æthelbald continuing to reign in west Wessex, beyond Selwood perhaps, while Æthelwulf ruled east and central Wessex, leaving Æthelberht in Kent; in other words, a territory and position comparable to Æthelberht's in the south-east was carved out for Aethelbald in the south-west.”
.... 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 the kingdom. But he, as I have said, acting with great clemency and prudent counsel, would not act in this way, 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 the king's wife; which refusal, or rather reproach, the chief 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 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 should leave behind him between his soul and his sons and nobles.”* (‘Vita Alfredi’ §§ 11–13 & 16).
Æthelwulf died in 858 – on 13th January according to Florence of Worcester – 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 [a genealogy, tracing Æthelwulf's descent back, via Woden, to Adam, follows]... 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 Kentish people, 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.
Asser (§17) writes: “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 the heathen,* 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 West Saxons.”
Following Æthelbald's death, Judith left Britain. She eloped with Baldwin ‘Iron Arm’, who was created first count of Flanders by her father. Subsequently, their son, Count Baldwin II, married Ælfthryth, the daughter of, Æthelwulf's son, Æthelbald's brother, Alfred.
The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ records no incidents for the period of Æthelbald's reign.
Æthelbald's brother, 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 the ealdorman Osric with the Hampshire men, and the 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 took up their quarters in Thanet [late in 864], 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 Kent eastward.”*
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.
Whilst previous Viking bands had been content to hit-and-run, this “great heathen army” became more ambitious, and embarked on war of conquest and settlement. “The army” would begin each campaigning-year by setting-up winter quarters, and the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ (and, consequently, Asser and Æthelweard) apparently adopts the convention of starting the year in September,* to accommodate this routine.
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 York in Northumbria”.  Having killed two Northumbrian kings, the Danes seem to have taken direct control of the country south of the Tyne, whilst installing a compliant Englishman to rule the country beyond the Tyne. 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, prayed Æthelred, king of the West Saxons, and Alfred his brother, that they would aid them, that they might 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. stronghold], and there besieged them.+ But there was no hard battle there; and the Mercians made peace with the army.”*
During 868, according to Asser (§29), Alfred married: “a noble Mercian lady, daughter of Æthelred, surnamed Mucil, ealdorman of the Gaini.* The mother of this lady was named Eadburh, of the royal line of Mercia, whom I often saw with my own eyes a few years before her death. She was a venerable lady, and after the decease of her husband remained many years a chaste widow, even till her own death.”
In the autumn of 868: “the army went again to 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).
The ‘Chronicle’ year 871 (i.e. the campaigning-year 870/71) is sometimes called the ‘year of battles’. It was apparently in late-December 870 that, as Asser, who, in the main, gives a much more detailed account than the ‘Chronicle’, records (§§35–40): “the heathen army, of hateful memory, left East Anglia, 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 heathen 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....
It is suggested that the change of year, from 870 to 871, occurs about here in the narrative.
.... Four days afterwards, King Æthelred and his brother Alfred, uniting their forces and assembling an army, marched to Reading, where, on their arrival at the stronghold gate, they cut to pieces and overthrew the heathen whom they found outside the fortifications. But the heathen 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 heathen obtained the victory and held the battle-field, the aforesaid Ealdorman Æthelwulf being among the slain....
When Berkshire had finally become a possession of Wessex, in the 840s, the incumbent Mercian ealdorman, Æthelwulf, had retained his position. Æthelweard says (IV, 2) that Ealdorman Æthelwulf's body was: “removed by stealth, and carried into the province of Mercia, to a place called Northworthig, but in the language of the Danes, Deoraby [Derby].”
According to Geffrei Gaimar, the Danes drove Æthelred and Alfred in the direction of Windsor, as far as Whistley Green (Wiscelet), but the English escaped across a river (the Loddon) by a ford, Twyford, that the Danes did not know about.*
.... 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 [the Berkshire Downs] ... The heathen, forming in two divisions, arranged two shield-walls of similar size; and since they had two kings and many earls, they gave the middle part of the army to the two kings, and the other part to all the ealdormen....
The ‘Chronicle’ identifies the two kings as Bagsecg and Halfdan.
.... The Christians, perceiving this, divided their army also into two troops, and with no less zeal formed shield-walls. But Alfred, as I have been told by truthful eye-witnesses, marched up swiftly with his men to the battle-field; for King Æthelred had remained a long time in his tent in prayer, hearing mass, and declaring that he would not depart thence alive till the priest had done, 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 heathen kings, and that his brother Alfred, with his troops, should take the chance of war against all the heathen earls. Things being so arranged on both sides, the king still continued a long time in prayer, and the heathen, prepared for battle, had hastened to the field. Then Alfred, though only second in command, could no longer support the advance of the enemy, unless he either retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother. At length, with the rush of a wild boar, he courageously led the Christian troops against the hostile army, as he had already designed, for, although the king had not yet arrived, he relied upon God's counsel and trusted to His aid. Hence, having closed up his shield-wall in due order, he straightway advanced his standards against the foe. At length King Æthelred, having finished the prayers in which he was engaged, came up, and, having invoked the King of the universe, entered upon the engagement.  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 heathen 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, and dear ones, and fatherland. When both armies had fought bravely and fiercely for a long while, the heathen, 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. There fell one of the two heathen kings and five earls; many thousand of their men were either slain at this spot or lay scattered far and wide over the whole field 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 heathen army pursued its flight, not only until night, but until the next day, even until they reached the stronghold from which they had sallied. The Christians followed, slaying all they could reach, until it became dark.  After fourteen days had elapsed King Æthelred and his brother Alfred joined their forces, and marched to Basing [in Hampshire] to fight with the heathen. Having thus assembled, battle was joined, and they held their own for a long time, but the heathen gained the victory, and held possession of the battle-field.”
At this point, Asser omits an episode that features in the ‘Chronicle’: “And 2 months after, King Æthelred and Alfred his brother fought against the army at Meretun [unidentified]; and they were in two divisions; 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 (§§41&42): “That same year [871], after Easter, the aforesaid King Æthelred, having bravely, honourably, and with good repute governed his kingdom five 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 people”.
In ‘The Life of Alfred, Prior to his Accession to the Throne’ (§3 in ‘The Life and Times of Alfred the Great’, 1902), Charles Plummer writes: “Heahmund, bishop of Sherborne, fell in the battle of Meretun, the last engagement in which Æthelred took part. So little was his warlike activity held to derogate from his episcopal character, that his death in battle against heathen foe won him the title of martyr, and a place in the calendar. His day is March 22, and that would almost certainly be the day on which he fell; and this fits in well with the statement of the ‘Chronicle’ that the battle of Meretun was before Easter, which fell on April 15 in 871. Reckoning backward from this we get January 22 for the English defeat at Basing, January 8 for the victory of Ashdown, January 4 for the abortive attack on the Danish lines at Reading, December 31 for the successful engagement at Englefield, and December 28 for the descent of the Danes on Reading. These two last dates according to our reckoning belong to 870”.
Wessex/Mainline continued    
Translations:
Alfred's Laws by F.L. Attenborough
Asser ‘Vita Alfredi’ by Albert S. Cook
‘Annals of St Bertin’ by Janet L. Nelson
Æthelweard ‘Chronicon’ by Joseph Stevenson
Roger of Wendover ‘Flores Historiarum’ by J.A. Giles
‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ by Benjamin Thorpe (adapted)
Symeon of Durham ‘Historia Regum’ by Joseph Stevenson
Bede ‘Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum’ by A.M. Sellar
Henry of Huntingdon ‘Historia Anglorum’ by Thomas Forester
Florence of Worcester ‘Chronicon ex Chronicis’ by Thomas Forester
Geffrei Gaimar ‘L'Estoire des Engleis’ by Sir T.D. Hardy and C.T. Martin
William of Malmesbury ‘Gesta Regum Anglorum’ by John Sharpe, revised by Joseph Stevenson
In the interests of clarity, the spelling of personal names, most of which are found in several forms, has been standardized. Those names which have survived into modern times are given their familiar spelling.
Back to: section one.
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 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).
This is the wording in 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 joined his forces with those of Æthelbald, king of Mercia, with whom he was then at peace, against the Britons, who were assembled in immense multitudes. But these warlike kings, with their splendid army, falling on the enemy's ranks on different points, in a sort of rivalry and contest which should be foremost, the Britons, unable to sustain the brunt of such an attack, betook themselves to flight, offering their backs to the swords of the enemy, and the spoils to those who pursued them. The victorious kings, returning to their own States, were received with triumphant rejoicings.” (‘HA’ IV, 17).
A scribal error in Manuscript E renders xii (12) as xxii (22).
The identification of Beorhford with Burford, Oxfordshire, has now been discredited.
Symeon of Durham (‘HR’) states: “Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, rose against Æthelbald, king of the Mercians.”  This is clearly a reference to the event placed in 752 by the ‘Chronicle’, though Symeon's comment appears s.a. 750. The ‘Continuation’ of Bede's ‘Ecclesiastical History’ says the same as Symeon, also s.a. 750, but adds: “and Oengus”.  The somewhat startling notion that Cuthred rebelled against Oengus son of Fergus, king of the Picts, is assumed to be the result of textual corruption.
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.
Cuthbert 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 appears s.a. 754. (Symeon of Durham places Cuthbert's accession in 739 and his death in 755.)
The ‘Chronicle’ and Symeon allow Cuthbert a sixteen year reign, but according to the king-list that precedes Manuscript A he reigned for seventeen years. Other versions of that text, however, have sixteen 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).
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 Manuscripts A, D and E of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, 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, B and E, wrongly written as burh (fortress) in Manuscripts C and D.
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 thirty-one years here (as does the ‘West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List’), but the annals themselves indicate a reign of twenty-nine years only.
Under the year 755 – actually 757.
(Not in Manuscript F.)
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 King Alfred 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.”
On the face of it, the date of S154 would seem to be correct, since it is given a proper Indiction number (seventh) for the AD year (see: Anno Domini).
Possibly, as preferred by D.P. Kirby: “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’, Second Edition, 2000, Chapter 8 note 123).
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 footnote 127).
On the other hand, The Electronic Sawyer implies that maybe the charter's date is wrong, and suggests 802, when Egbert succeeded Beorhtric, as the alternative.
Frank Stenton ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ (Third Edition, 1971), Chapter 7.
Barbara Yorke ‘Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England’ (1990), Chapter 7.
Simon Keynes ‘The New Cambridge Medieval History’ Vol.II (1995), Chapter 2a.
D.P. Kirby ‘The Earliest English Kings’ (Second Edition, 2000), Chapter 8.
P.H. Sawyer “From Roman Britain to Norman England” (Second Edition, 1998), Chapter 2.
Eadburh, daughter of Offa
The genealogy 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’*. Ingild being the brother of Ine, the line of descent then goes back to Cerdic, purported founder of the West Saxon kingdom.
The Hwicce was a region of Mercia corresponding, 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.”
Commenting in retrospect, s.a. 836 (actually 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.
See: Æthelbald.
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.
See: Anno Domini.
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.
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 in 825.
Roger of Wendover presents a peculiar sequence of annals: “In the year of our Lord 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.  In the year of our Lord 810 ... Egbert, king of the West Saxons, subdued the northern Britons and made them tributary.  In the year of our Lord 811, King Egbert, as in the past year he had compelled the people of North Wales 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.”
Charter 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 other bishops from territory under West Saxon control. Wiglaf refers to them as “my bishops”, the implications of which are much debated.
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”.
The influential historian Frank Stenton (‘Anglo-Saxon England’, Third Edition, 1971) 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”.
Florence of Worcester (who exhibits the same chronological dislocation as the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’) says that Egbert: “promised them [the East Angles] his ready aid in all emergencies.”
There are suspicions that Egbert's campaign against the Welsh, in fact, preceded Wiglaf's recovery of the Mercian throne. In footnote 55 of 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’, Second Edition, 2000, Chapter 9) assumes that the Welsh campaign took place first, writing 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, 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 (‘The Earliest English Kings’, Second Edition, 2000, Chapter 9) 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.”
35 (xxxv) in Manuscripts A, B and C.
25 (xxv) in Manuscripts D, E and F.
The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, still three years adrift, places Egbert's death s.a. 836.
Highlighted phrase has been omitted 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.
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. (As is usual for entries after 652, in Manuscript B the year-number is omitted.)
See: Hamwic.
Highlighted section omitted in Manuscripts D and E.
(No entry at all in Manuscript F.)
Highlighted section 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 much of modern-day Lincolnshire.
The following annal is missing in Manuscripts E and F. The other manuscripts, still three years adrift, place it s.a. 838.
‘History of the Sons of Louis the Pious’ IV, 3. Translation from ‘English Historical Documents: c.500–1042’ (Second Edition, 1979), edited by Dorothy Whitelock.
Barbara Yorke (‘Wessex in the Early Middle Ages’, 1995, Chapter 3) suggests: “this may be a reference to the raid [on Southampton] the Chronicle dated to 840.”
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.)
Manuscripts B, C, D and E (and Æthelweard) specify “in Thanet”, an island off north-east Kent – though now an island in name only (the Wantsum Channel that separated Thanet from mainland Kent having silted-up). Manuscript A does not say where the Danes made their winter quarters (nor does Manuscript F, since this over-wintering of the Danes – the first time that they are recorded as having remained on English soil for the winter – is not mentioned at all). 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, 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.
This entry, which is the first record of a naval battle in English history, is placed at the end of the annal (as shown here) in Manuscripts B, C, D, E and F (and by Asser), but in Manuscript A 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 Parret – 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 is correct for 843 but not 844 (see: Anno Domini). 843 could, therefore, be the correct date. (S1271 is also said to be in Beorhtwulf's 4th regnal year. The year of Beorhtwulf's succession is a little nebulous, but 839 is possibly the best guess. If this is correct, then 843 for S1271 would also be correct.)
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 Æthelwulf's help.”
The phrase “and at first gained the victory” is omitted in Manuscripts D and E.
The phrase “and both ealdormen fell” is omitted in Manuscript A. (The loss of the ealdormen 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 simply say: “And Burgred, king of the Mercians, married 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).
Asser is the sole authority for Alfred's second trip to Rome.
The queen in question was Eadburh, daughter of, the powerful Mercian king, Offa, who married Beorhtric, king of the West Saxons, in 789.
See: Eadburh, daughter of Offa.
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 ever went to Rome.
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, through all his hereditary land, one poor man to 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 cattle, 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 wrong on this last point. 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: “and 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 heathen”) 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 heathen” overwintered in Thanet, and says that they decided not to wait for the promised buy-off because: “they knew [it] was less than they could get by plunder”.
Highlighted part of annal not in Manuscript A.
Asser (§30): “When now the heathen, defended by the stronghold, refused to fight, and the Christians were unable to destroy the wall, peace was made between the Mercians and the heathen, 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).
Asser, writing in Latin, here uses the Late Roman title comes (which is translated into modern English as ‘count’) for both Englishman and Dane alike. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ uses the title eorl for the Danes, which is the Old English equivalent of the Old Norse jarl, and both translate into modern English as ‘earl’. At this stage in English history, however, the English rank that equates to the Danes' ‘earl’ is ‘ealdorman’ (from which the modern term ‘alderman’ is derived) – ‘earl’ did not properly become a title of rank in England until the reign of Cnut (1016–1035).
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).
Though in Manuscripts B, C, D and E, this mention of Reading is 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 heathen came from beyond sea, and joined them.‘
Florence of Worcester asserts that Æthelred died on 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 Florence has confused the two.
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 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.
In ‘The Vikings: A Very Short Introduction’ (2005), Chapter 12, 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 People).
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 of Huntingdon first produced his ‘Historia Anglorum’ (History of the English) around 1130. He then revisited the work – revising and extending – several times before his death. The final version concludes with the accession of Henry II in 1154.
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 (during whose reign, 871–899, it was composed). The text survives in a number of manuscripts (in his paper on the ‘Manuscripts and Texts’, of 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.
Witan: The king's advisory council, composed of important secular and ecclesiastical personages.
Named after St Neots Priory, Huntingdonshire, 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.
Anglo-Norman chronicler Geffrei Gaimar wrote his ‘L'Estoire des Engleis’ (History of the English), for a Lincolnshire patroness, in about 1136–37. The earliest known historical work to have been written in the French language, it is based on a now lost version of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, and is in verse (actually, octosyllabic rhymed couplets).
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