Anglo-Saxon Kingdom: Wessex

Wessex; the kingdom of the West Saxons, started from humble beginnings, becoming the most powerful kingdom in the land.

Cerdic, founder of Wessex the first Anglo-Saxon King, had ventured from Saxony in AD495 landing on England’s Hampshire coastline, with his son Cynric and five warrior ships.

In AD519, Cerdic was victorious at the “Battle of Cerdic’s Ford” (Cerdicesleag) and claimed the title “King of Wessex” (520-540).

Cynric son of Cerdic, succeeded him upon his death and reigned from 540-560.  Cynric spent the early years of his reign, expanding the kingdom of Wessex into Wiltshire.  He faced much opposition from native Briton’s, but managed minor gains; “Battle of Sarum” and “Beranbury,” known as Barbury Castle.  In 560 Cynric died and was succeeded by his son Ceawlin.

When Ceawlin stepped forward as the next Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex, much of southern England was under Anglo-Saxon control.

The “Battle of Wibbandun” took place in 568, between the forces of the Saxons of Wessex and the Jutes of Kent.  In 571 Ceawlin capturedAylesbury and Linbury, and by 577 he had taken Gloucester and Bath, reaching the Severn Estuary.

Ceawlin ordered the construction of a defensive earthwork, stretching between Wiltshire and Bristol.

Ceawlin King of Wessex achieved much fame among his people, as they crossed England as victorious warriors.  All this would change in 584, when Ceawlin fought the Britons at Fethanleag; “Battle of Stoke Lyne” followed by a period of taking towns and countless spoils of war, from the local area.

Then he retreated to his own lands… questions remain unanswered, why?  Did he lose the battle, and attack local towns in response.

As written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:  This year Ceawlin… fought with the Britons on the spot that is called Fretherne… And Ceawlin took many towns, as well as immense booty and wealth.  He then retreated to his people.

In 591 Ceawlin’s nephew; Ceol is believed to have led an uprising against his King, at the “Battle of Woden’s Burg.”  Ceol became King of Wessex after deposing his uncle; Ceawlin.

Ceol reigned from 591-597, his successor his son; Cynegils, was too young to inherit the throne.  Ceolwulf, brother of Ceol claimed the throne.  One could say he was keeping the seat warm for the future king.

Cynegils came to the throne in 611 after Coolwulf’s death and would reign till 643.  His reign commenced with a victory over Welsh forces in 614.

Cynegils granted the northern part of his kingdom to his son Cwichelm, at a time when the Northumbrian’s grew in power.  Cynegils forged an alliance with the King of Mercia.  This alliance was sealed through marriasge; Cynegils youngest son Cenwalh married the sister of King Penda of Mercia.

In 626 Cwichelm launched a failed assassination against King Edwin of Northumbria.  Edwin laid siege to the Kingdom of Wessex, clashing against the Mercian and Wessex forces, in reply to the attempted assassination, and was victorious.

Cynegils and Cwichelm had suffered a humiliating defeat by a smaller army, and forced to retreat back, within their own borders.

In 628 the forces of Wessex and Mercia fought at the “Battle of Cirencester.”  With Mercian’s victorious, Wessex became a minor kingdom as control of the Severn Valley, parts of Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire were lost.

In 635, Cynegils of Wessex was baptised by Bishop Birinus in Dorchester.  In 636 Cwichelm was also baptised in Dorchester and died later that year.  In 643 Cynegils died…

In 643, Cenwalh the youngest son of Cynegils became King of Wessex, he who had been forced into a marriage with King Penda of Mercia’s sister, to seal an alliance of the kingdom’s.

One of his first duties was to discard his wife and marry Seaxburh, which annoyed King Penda, where upon a war was declared and Cenwalh was driven from his lands and into exile in 645.

Cenwalh converted to Christianity whilst exiled in East Anglia, and by 648 had reclaimed his throne; King of Wessex.  He went on to commission the construction of Winchester Cathedral, and built it in St.Peter’s name.

In 672 King Cenwalh died and Seaxburh his wife succeeded him as the first Queen of Wessex from 673-674.

In 674 Seaxburh died, and was succeeded by her son; Aescwine.  In 675 Aescwine’s forces defended his kingdom from the Mercian’s at the “Battle of Bedwyn” becoming victorious in battle.

In 676 Aescwine passed away and his uncle Centwine claimed the throne.  In the early part of hisd reign, he was a pagan king, and in the 680’s converted to Christianity.  In 685, King Centwine of the Wessex Kingdom, abdicated his position as king to become a monk.

Caedwalla descendant of Cerdic and from a noble house, who had been driven from Wessex by Cenwalh in the removal of sub-royal families.  Aged barely twenty-six had gathered support, as he invaded Sussex and built his own kingdom.

Caedwalla became the new King of Wessex following Centwine abdication.  He conquered the Kingdoms of Sussex, Kent and the Isle of Wight.  It is believed, he went on to commit acts of genocide and forced his people to renounce the Christian faith.

In 688 King Caedwalla travelled to Rome, and received holy baptism on the 13th April from Pope Sergius, who gave him the name Peter.  On the 20th April, he died dressed in his baptismal robes and was laid to restin St.Peter’s Church.

Ine, a nobleman claimed the throne of Wessex in 689, taking over a kingdom stretching from the Severn Estuary to Kent’s shorelines.  King Ine is remembered in his reforms; increasing trade, coinage throughout his realm.  The introduction of laws in 694, covering convicted murder’s rights, which would lead to the development of an English society.

In 728, King Ine of Wessex had become weak and feeble, opting to abdicate his post, travel to Rome and retire.  At that time it was one’s belief it would aid one’s ascension to heaven.

Aethelheard, brother-in-law to King Ine, claimed the Wessex throne in 726.  Nobleman Oswald contested his right to the throne, and a bitter struggle lasted for almost a year, until Aethelheard prevailed with assistance from the Mercians.

His fourteen year reign was a struggle as he fought with the Mercians to the north, and lost much land in the process.  They who had supported him in battle for the throne, demanded that the Kingdom of Wessex should fall under their control.

In 740 King Aethelheard passed away and was succeeded by his brother Cuthred who received the West-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, which he would hold for sixteen years.  He fought fiercly with Aethelbald, King of Mercia.

In the early years of Cuthred’s reign, Wessex was nothing more than a puppet state of Mercia.  When the Mercian’s fought the Welsh, the warriors of Wessex were expected to assist.

In 752 Cuthred was fed up of Mercian dominance and went to war against them, in a bid for Wessex independence.  Victory was theirs and Independence was theirs…  In 753 Cuthred took on the Welsh and passed away in 756.

Sigeberht succeeded his cousin as the new King of Wessex in 756.  His reign was short lived, for he had killed the Earl of Cumbra.  The council of nobles stripped of his title as King, and Cynewulf drove him into the weald, where he lived until a swineherd stabbed him to death at Privett stream, and so the death… the murder of the Earl had been avenged.

Cynewulf became King of Wessex in 757 and had the support of Aethelbald of Mercia in his claim for the throne.  In the first few months of his reign, Cynewulf felt more a sub-king of Wessex under Mercian rule.

Aethelbald of Mercia was assassinated in 757 at Seckington.  With Aethelwald out of the way, Cynewulf saw his opportunity to push for an independent Wessex, and the expansion of Wessex territories into the southern counties of Mercia.

Cynewulf lost the Mercian territories in 779, when he was defeated by King Offa, who had succeeded Aethelbald as King of Mercia at the “Battle of Bensington.”  A defeated Cynewulf army, were forced back, to the lands of Wessex.

In 786, Cynewulf of Wessex was murdered by the nobleman Cybeheard, whom he had exiled years earlier.

In 786 Beorhtric, distant descendant of Cerdic, founder of Wessex, succeeded to the throne with the backing of King Offa of Mercia.  Beorhtric married Lady Eadburh; daughter of King Offa.

Legend has it; Beorhtric was poisoned by his wife Eadburh, and exiled to Germany for her crime in 789.  Charlemagne and his son offered her the choice of husband, she chose the younger. Charlemagne replied you chose badly and as such, will have neither.

Embarassed by the affair chose to live out her remaining years in a German convent.  She was expelled after receiving her vows, for breaking the rules by having sex with a Saxon man.  She spent her remaining days, begging on the streets of Pavia in northern Italy. 

Egbert exiled by Beorhtric in the 780’s returned to the Kingdom of Wessex in 802, upon the death of Beorhtric, to claim the throne.

The first twenty years of his reign, was spent keeping Wessex independant from Mercia.  In 825 they met in battle at Ellandun.  Egbert’s victorious forces pushed the Mercian’s to retreat to the north, Egbert’s army pushed south-east to Surrey, Sussex, Essex and Kent.

It took barely a year, and by 826 Anglo-Saxon England, had seen Wessex become the most powerful kingdom in the land.  In 829, Egbert was victorious against the Mercians, as he claimed all of southern Britain up to the River Humber, and the kingdom of Northumbria submitted to him.

Egbert had claimed Mercia, as the exiled King Wiglaf revolted, driving the Wessex army, back into their own lands.  The Mercians made no attempt to re-claim lost territories of Kent, Sussex, and Surrey.  Wessex was seen as the most powerful kingdom of southern England.

Aethelwulf, son of Egbert and King of Kent, became the next King of Wessex in 839, following his father’s death.  Aethelwulf’s kingdom of Kent, would be ruled by his son; Aethelstan, on his behalf.

Aethelwulf and his wife; Osburh bore six children one of whom was Alfred.  In 853 Alfred was sent to Rome on a pilgrimage.  Aethelwulf’s wife died in 855, and he joined his son in Rome.  On his return journey home, met his second wife, a twelve year old French princess named Judith.

When Aethelwulf landed on British shores in 856, his son Aethelbald had stolen his kingdom from him, in his absence.  His Christian attitudes led him to grant Aethelbald the western part of Wessex, an attempt to avoid civil war breaking out.

In 858 Aethelwulf died and was succeeded by his son Aethelbald. who took his father’s widow, Judith as his wife.

Aethelberht, brother to Aethelbald and son of Aethelwulf became King of Wessex in 860.  He integrated the Kingdom of Kent into Wessex, and battled against Viking incursions seeing off the Danish invaders.  Around 865 these Vikings accepted money from men of Kent, in return for a truce, but it wasn’t long before it was broken, as these Vikings ravaged eastern Kent.

In 865 Aethelberht died with no successor, and so the throne of Wessex was passed to his brother; Aethelred.

Aethelred’s six year reign as King of Wessex was one battle after another with Viking invaders.

In 871, King Ethelred, the West Saxon King and elder brother of Alfred dies in battle.  On the 23rd April, Alfred becomes King of Wessex, a land beset with Viking invaders.

Alfred builds an English fleet of ships, to take on these Viking invaders on land and sea.  The English learnt quickly, for in 875 they claim their first sea victory, capturing one of the Viking ships.

In 878, Alfred is pushed west into the Somerset marshes by Danish forces.  From Athelney Fort and surrounding areas he creates a force to come out fighting, beating the Danes.

In 878 the “Treaty of Wedmore” is born, dividing England in two, with Alfred overlord of both halves.  Anglo-Saxons in the south and west, with Danes in the north and east.

As the Danes invade Kent in 885, Alfred drives Danish forces out of London in 886, and recognised by its people, as King of all England.

Alfred the Great, King of England, died in 899 and was succeeded by Edward, which was disputed by Edward’s cousin; Aethelwold, who sought assistance from the Danes, in claiming the crown.

Edward retaliated attacking the Danish Kingdom of East Anglia, culminating at the “Battle of Holme” where East Anglian Danes and Wessex warriors fought, and Aethelwold died in battle.

Edward the Elder’s reign was made up of constant clashes with the Danes.  By the end of his reign, Edward had almost quashed threats of Viking invasion.

Edward the Elder dies in 924 and is succeeded by his son, Aelfweard who reigns for a mere sixteen days.

Aethelstan becomes the next King of Wessex in 924 and the first King of England.  By the time of his coronation in 925, Anglo-Saxons had retaken much of England leaving an area around York in Danish control.

A truce was drawn up, preventing either side going to war.  When the Danish King; Sihtric died in 927, Aethelstan swiftly captured York and the Danes were forced into submission.

Aethelstan believed he be King of Britain, and called a gathering of the Kings including Scotland and Wales to acknowledge that he be the true King of England.  The welsh and Scots agreed, providing borders were placed between the three countries.

King Aethelstan died on the 27th October 940.  During his reign he had defeated the Vikings, created a united Anglo-Saxon Kingdom under a single banner, becoming the first King of England.

King Alfred versus The Vikings

The Viking made it known; they could not be bought off with gold in the name of peace.  They objected to our religion of Christianity, and when King Edmund point blank refused to give up his Christian faith, and follow that of Odin, they murdered him, making him a martyr, who died for his faith.

Ethelred I, King of Wessex fought a fierce battle alongside his brother against these Viking warriors attacking their lands.

In 871, Ethelred died and Alfred became the new King of Wessex.  His first battle as King against the Vikings was a disaster, they were beaten and he was forced to make peace with these invaders.

In 878, Guthrum led his army against Wessex, his men, his Kingdom surrendered but Alfred could not be found, for he had hidden in the Somerset Marshes, planning how to regain his Kingdom of Wessex.

In spring of 878, Alfred met the Vikings on the battlefield at Edington, and defeated them in battle…  He proved to his followers and the enemy that the Vikings were not invincible…

He allowed the Viking leader Guthrum and his men to settle in East Anglia, all in the name of peace.  Guthrum was baptized a Christian and named Athelstan, and had Alfred as his godfather.

The lands held by the Vikings; York – Danish Mercia and East Angles, became known as Danelaw, and they followed Danish not Saxon laws.

The treaty of Wedmore was created, dividing the lands of Britain; The Viking lived in Northumbria, East Anglia and down to Essex.

Could Alfred trust these Vikings to remain within these lands, living a new life as farmers?

In the early years, many became farmers and took English wives, yet they still kept to their own language and abided by their own laws … Viking laws.

The war between Alfred and Guthrum may have been over, yet the Vikings had fortified bases at Leicester, Nottingham, Stamford, Derby, Lincoln and York.

Alfred built forts, which grew into thriving towns making Wessex strong once again.  He was offered support from Mercia and Wales.

In 885, the Viking Danes attacked Kent, but the armies of King Alfred defeated them.  In 886, King Alfred of Wessex, entered London, rebuilt the city walls.  As far as the people were concerned, this one man was truly their King, for he marched against the Vikings and won battles victoriously.

He restored rebuilt monasteries, created laws and was responsible for the writing of books in Latin and English. 

Wessex had become a Kingdom, which had grown in stature, for it had gained the loyalty of its people.  He needed to fight off constant attacks by the Vikings which led to a series of Burhs (Forts) being constructed.

Some 25,000 men manned these burhs, and each was within a day’s march of the next.  They were more than that, if Vikings attacked, they gave safe harbour for local people.

The Vikings moved by sea, by horse on land.  Alfred had to counteract these barbaric fighters at all costs or see his lands plundered; his people murdered, or at worst enter a life of slavery.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Alfred broke his forces up into two, each responsible for set duties.  “Ealdormen” were put in charge of a shire, and Kingdoms were made up of shire’s, consisting of up to 100 families.  “Thanes” served up to a month at Alfred’s court, amongst other local duties.  “Town Officer’s” called “Reeves” collected taxes and kept law and order between the families.

Alfred created laws:

According to Saxon law, if a man fled a feud he was permitted sanctuary for up to 7 days in a church, but he would not be permitted any food.

A thief, who stole from a church, could have his hand cut off for his crime or pay a fine.

Alfred showed he meant business against these Viking seafarer’s, when he ordered a fleet of ships be built.

The early years of the Wedmore treaty was honoured, then in 890 Guthrum died.  The Viking farmers took up their arms, and joined in attacking the Saxons.  Alfred was prepared and fought off the uprising.

In 899 Alfred died, and his son Edward led his forces into the Viking held lands of East Anglia in 902.

With the help of his sister Aethelflaed of Mercia, Edward defeated the Northumbrian Vikings and won control of Danelaw as it had become known.

The final threat from the Viking’s came in the form of Raegnald of Dublin, who had made himself King of York in 919, and in 920 a defeated Raegnald submitted to Edward.

Anglo-Saxon’s: Englands Invasion

The Anglo-Saxon tribes began their invasion of Britain, as Roman legions departed for Rome.  According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, they set foot on British soil in 449.

Saxon mercenaries led by Hengest and Horsa, sons of Whitgils landed in Kent at the invitation of the Celtic King; Vortigern.  He who was fighting a losing battle against the Picts of Scotland, called upon mercenaries for assistance.  They fought well, and victory was theirs against the Picts.

With victory theirs, the Saxon mercenaries sacked their employer Vortigern, and began taking land from the celts in south-eastern areas.  Hengest went forth and established himself in Kent.

These Saxon tribes originated from across European states: Saxons from Germany, Angles from Schleswig-Holstein, Jutes and Frisians from Jutland, Denmark.  According to the Beowulf poem, the Jutes could have been the Geats of Sweden.

The British found a strong leader, as the legendary King Arthur stepped forward, in their time of struggle against these Saxons.  King Arthur commanded a well armed cavalry unit, and went on to achieve victory at Mount Badon.

With the death of Arthur, Celtic resistance against these Saxon invaders soon collapsed.

Some Celts were assimulated into Anglo-Saxon society, whilst others were driven to the outer fringes of Britain, Wales, Cumbria and the Cornish peninsula.

Wales, derives its name from the Anglo-Saxons word Wealas, which means foreigner.

Cornwall, derives its name from the words, Kernow and Waelas.

Cumbria derives its name fron the Celtic word, Cymru which means comrades.

Whilst conquered territory became known as Angleland.

Anglo-Saxon King: Edward the Confessor

Edward, the son of King Ethelred II and Emma of Normandy, was a direct descendant of King Alfred the Great.  Edward was educated at an English monastery, and when the Danes invaded, his mother Emma fled to Normandy with her children, and it was here Edward developed strong ties with Normans.

With the death of King Ethelred II in 1016, Emma returned to England and married the new Danish King: Cnut the Great.  The son of Emma and Cnut; Hardecnut succeeded his father as King and then proceeded to bring back his half-brother; Edward from Normandy to England in 1041.

Hardecnut, King of England died in 1042 and was succeeded by his half-brother Edward, who was crowned Edward the Confessor at Canterbury Cathedral on Easter Sunday.

Edward, King of England from 1042-1066, kept the kingdom in a state of relative peace.  However the latter years of his reign were plagued by who would be successor.

Edward, famous for his piety, was canonized in 1161.

His most lasting contribution to English history, was the building project that turned the Benedictine Abbey in Westminster into the great religious and political centre of the kingdom; Westminster Abbey. 

Edward, may have been King, but he found it difficult to assert his own authority over the earls of his kingdom, especially one Godwin of Essex.  He who had been chief adviser to King Cnut, who had been rewarded with large expanses of land and much wealth.  Godwin’s influence across Edward’s kingdom, increased further when Godwin demanded that Edward marry his daughter; Edith.  Edward, needed Godwin’s military support and was forced into agreeing to this marriage.  Edith was the main pawn in Godwin’s game to rule England.

Edward appointed the Norman, Robert of Jumieges as the new Archbishop of Canterbury in 1051, and straight away this caused a rift with Godwin. 

When Godwin failed to support Edward’s brother-in-law in a dispute with the citizens of Dover, Edward banished him, and promised William the Duke of Normandy, that he would be his heir, to the English throne.  In 1052 Godwin returned to England, and with support from the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, forced Edward to name Stigand as Archbishop of Canterbury instead of Robert of Jumieges.  Edward withdrew to concentrate on the building of Westminster Abbey.

Shortly before his death in 1066, he changed his successor to the English throne, from William, the Duke of Normandy, to Godwin’s son Harold.  As news reached William that Edward had died and the English throne had passed to Harold, William of Normandy invaded England, to claim what was rightfully his in the Battle of Hastings.

Edward’s death in 1066 precipitated the Norman Conquest that ended Anglo-Saxon rule and ushered in a new period of English history; The Dark Ages.

Anglo-Saxon Legend: Beowulf

We know not who wrote the epic 3,182 line Anglo-Saxon poem; Beowulf, written in Old English.

The Beowulf story is set within a warrior society, a blood-curdling tale of gore and brutality, about a hero governed by duty, honour and bravery.  It tells the story of Beowulf, a young warrior and his victories.

Grendel, the semi-human monster, repeatedly attacks the Great Hall of Herat, by dragging away his prey, one victim after another.

Beowulf is summoned to the court of the Danish King; Hrothgar.  Whose castle has been under siege these past twelve years.  His knights are being constantly slaughtered night after night, by the monster; Grendel.

Beowulf and Grendel come face to face in battle.  Beowulf, rips Grendel’s arm from its socket, and Grendel hobbles back to his lair where he bleeds to death.

Grendel’s mother seeks revenge the following night, from the likes of Beowulf.  A great under water fight takes place between Beowulf and the monstrous matriarch, with Beowulf emerging as the victor.

Beowulf returns home to Sweden a hero of his people.  He rules for many years, and his people believe he is a wise ruler.  According to legend, a dragon guarded the city’s treasure, and all was quiet for some 300 years, then things changed the dragon is disturbed and he goes on the rampage; burning Beowulf’s hall to cinders.

Beowulf summons up all his courage, and makes a pledge to his people, that he and his follower’s will kill the dragon.  Beowulf’s follower’s gazed upon their leader and the dragon, and fear seeped through their bodies, as they fled in fear.

Wiglaf a young kinsman stands by Beowulf, prepared to fight side by side in battle.  As Beowulf prepares to vanquish the dragon, his sword shatters and the creature inflicts a deadly poison venom upon him.  Wiglaf and Beowulf kill the beast as the venom seeps through Beowulf’s body, as life is slowly taken from him.

Wiglaf proved himself in battle, and loyal to his King, earning the trust of Beowulf, who passes his throne to him… a worthy successor and King.

The poem concludes with a gloomy prediction which talks about catastrophes which will strike down Beowulf’s people, now their hero had died.

Beowulf’s people lament, that he had been a gracious and fair minded King, with kindness of heart.

Anglo-Saxons and Normans

Normans and Anglo-Saxons each were Scandinavian immigrant’s who had settled in another’s land, and taken over from its ruling aristocracy.  English and Norman basic social structures were similar.

Land was the defining currency, for both societies.  The Lord owned the land which was parcelled out amongst his followers in return for service.  They in turn would settle upon the land as minor lords, surrounded by a retinue of warriors, their reward for service would be parcels of land.

Success in battle generated more land and treasures, which was shared around.  If a lord wasn’t generous enough, his followers would desert him, seeking a better lord.  The lord led his warriors; and the warrior fought for his lord; both would be serviced by non-fighting tenant farmers.

Basic building block of the system is known as the hearth.  The lord owned a hearth-hall upon his land, where he would house his retinue warriors.  Tenant farmers brought produce to the hearth-hall, feeding and maintaining the retinue.  In return, the lord would provide security for all who resided on his land… lack of security defined a bad lordship.

Best described in the Saxon poem entitled; Beowulf.  Beowulf is drawn into the hearth of King Hrothgar by his generosity.  Beowulf rids Hrothgar of monsters threatening the hearth and receives a generous reward.  Beowulf dies trying to win a treasure from a dragon threatening his lands.

In 10th century Anglo-Saxon England, in pre-Norman England had become one of the most organised states in Western Europe.  The land was divided into shires, controlled by the King upon which taxation was levied, and collected in coinage from the burhs.  This appeared to be a Roman based system.

The Normans were immigrants from France.  The land of Normandy granted to their founder; Rollo in AD911.

Anglo-Saxon and Norman systems differed much.  The Norman system, had seen the creation of mounted warriors focussed on war, whilst Anglo-Saxons were managed by many a farmer.

Prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Normans introduced cases to be tried in front of a Jury.  Saxon cases would rely on oaths of a lord and peer to vouch for one’s innocence.  Later this would be changed to “Trial by Battle” or “Trial by Combat.”

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