History Files


Anglo-Saxon Britain

The Nothgyth Quest Hypothesis

by David Slaughter, 3 February 2008

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Part 3a: The (conjectured) dynasty descended from Ælle, founder of Sussex and Cerdic founder of Wessex

The evidence of Charter witness lists vouches for the existence of all the noblemen who are given entries in this section. There are fifteen genuine South Saxon charters that have survived from the period covered by the Nothgyth Quest, but there must have been a host more, now lost, which would have given further confirmation of the names of rulers who granted them.

Ecgwald, born late 620s?

There is radical genealogical conjecture in this entry. To begin with, it is speculated that he was the son of Cuthwulf and younger brother of Ceowald. All the descendants of Cuthwine, who fathered the three brothers, Cadda, Cynebald and Cuthwulf, would have had a blood claim on the kingdom of the South Saxons, including Ecgwald, in terms of the speculative history given above.

Charter evidence tells us that after his conquest of Sussex in 686, Caedwalla, who was the grandson of Cadda and king of the West Saxons, appointed Ecgwald to be his sub-king in Sussex. This choice might have been because Ecgwald was based in Sussex, or, to extend the elements of this conjectural quest, because of the union between Nothhelm, assumed here to have been Ecgwald's son, and Aethelthryth, assumed here to have been the daughter of King Aethelwalh and Queen Eafe of the South Saxons. This marriage could have taken place around 685 (see the entry for Nothhelm below). Ecgwald probably remained Caedwalla's sub-king in Sussex until the latter's abdication in 688.

Nothgyth, born circa 655?

Known to have been the sister of Nothhelm, in whose affections she was apparently closely held [6]. It is argued here that she would have been older than her brother and that both siblings were the offspring of Ecgwald. In 692 she became a patron of the young church in Sussex, which had been established by Bishop Wilfrid's conversion of the South Saxons from their pagan gods, during the years 681-686. Wilfrid was the bishop of York and was later canonised. He received thirty three hides at Lidsey, Aldingbourne, Westergate (?) and Mundham from Nothgyth, an estate which had been granted to her previously by her brother King Nothhelm.

[6] Unusually, the royal beneficiary was addressed in the second person, the Latin 'tibi', which was not the norm in the South Saxon charters that have survived.

Nothhelm, born late 650s?

All the genealogy in this entry is carefully considered but radical conjecture, including the speculation of Nothhelm's marriage to Aethelthryth.

It is worth mentioning that Nothhelm was also called Nunna, a more intimate name by which he would have been known by his kinsfolk and those aldermen who were in attendance at his court. It is contended here that he was younger than the Lady Nothgyth and that they were both children of the sub-king Ecgwald, and that Nothhelm took Aethelthryth of Sussex, the daughter of King Aethelwalh and Queen Eafe, as his wife in about 865. Bede records information on this royal pair. To support the speculation of Nothhelm's marriage to Aethelthryth and the conjecture on her lineage, it can argued that the union would have been at the root of a royal house comprising two dynasties in Sussex, a well known enigma, and that such a union could have saved the lives of Aethelwalh's probable relatives when Caedwalla crushed the South Saxons after the death of Berhthun, in 686.

Caedwalla's actions, as recorded by Bede, prove that he was not a man of compromise. In Berhthun's entry below it is conjectured that he was an illegitimate son of Aethelwalh, making him one of Aethelthryth's half brothers. It would seem that Nothhelm was appointed by Ine, king of the West Saxons, to be the dominant king of the South Saxons in 688. Watt, considered here to have been another of Aethelthryth's half brothers, was probably installed as the co-ruling king who witnessed Nothhelm's early charters, at the same time. It seems likely that when King Watt died, perhaps around 700, Aethelstan, who is considered here to have been Queen Aethelthryth's full brother, became Nothhelm's second co-ruler.

According to the chroniclers, Nothhelm and his kinsman, King Ine, were allied against Geraint of Dumnonia in the campaign of 710. The British king was defeated and killed by the combined forces of the South and West Saxons.

Drawing this entry to a close, it is argued here that Nothhelm died in 722, without naming his successor, since that decision was in the hands of king Ine who continued to exercise supremacy over the South Saxons. It is also conjectured that the West Saxon ruler appointed Aethelberht, a prince known to have been a South Saxon king later in the eighth century, to succeed Nothhelm, and that the said Aethlberht was the eldest son of Aethelstan.

Print of a bear cub

The last element -hun in Saxon names meant 'bear cub'. Berhthun, for instance, meant 'bright-young-bear-cub'. He and Andhun regained the Meonware and the Isle of Wight from Caedwalla in 685.

Osric, born late 680s?

Surmised here to have been the eldest son of Nothhelm. Following the speculation given above, Osric's mother would have been Aethelthryth of Sussex, to whom his father was married in about 685.

In all probability, Osric was introduced to the duties expected of a royal alderman while still in his teenage years, following the death of the co-ruling Watt, when he was required to witness one of the charters granted by Nothhelm [7].

In terms of this hypothesis, the deceased Watt would have been Osric's uncle. However, it appears that this prince was never elevated to kingship by Ine, who had kept his supremacy over the Saxons of Sussex. It can probably be assumed, in the context of the genealogical theory developed here, that Osric had four sons, Osmund, Oswald, Aelfwald and Oslac, three of whom were destined to become South Saxon kings.

Osa/Oswald, Bishop of Selsey

[7] In its first stage this charter granted land to Berhfrith in order that he could build a minster, where prayers would be said for Nothhelm. The earliest acceptable date for this clause is 705, which also appears to be the most likely.

According to S E Kelly, Osa might have been a relative of Osric and Osmund. The speculation here is that he was born circa 705 (?) and that he was the youngest child of Nothhelm and Aethelthryth, and destined from his earliest years for a priestly career.

It is known that in the course of time he became the fifth bishop of Selsey, the diocese of the South Saxons, and held office from before 765 to before 780. After the Mercian conquest of Sussex in 772, Bishop Osa was granted an estate at Bexhill by King Offa, on 15 August in the same year. The charter was witnessed by aldermen assumed here to have been his consanguinal nephews, Osmund the former dominant king, Oswald the first duke of the South Saxons, and the ex-kings Aelfwald and Oslac.

Osmund, born early 710s?

Conjectured in this entry as the eldest of Osric's four sons.

It is also speculated that during the last years of Aethelberht's reign as unitary king of the South Saxons, Osmund made moves to secure power for his grandfather's dynasty, but that his main obstacle was the high royal standing of Prince Ealdwulf, Aethelberht's heir (see Part 4 of this hypothesis).

Following this theory, by Aethelberht's death, very likely in 758, Osmund would have been in a strong enough position to outrival the much younger, Ealdwulf. In the supposed genealogy here, Ealdwulf would have been his second cousin. Osmund was then able to impose himself as the dominant king of the South Saxons. Nevertheless, going by the evidence which remains, it appears that Osmund needed the support of Aelfwald and Oslac, taken as his two youngest brothers in this quest, as co-ruling kings to contain the authority of Ealdwulf.

Map of Cissa's kingdom

A map of Cissa's kingdom

View image

Even so, Osmund must have been obliged to recognise Ealdwulf as the senior co-ruler. This assertion can be gleaned from the witness lists of contemporary charters. The instability of the Osmundian regime of plural kingship enabled Offa, king of the Mercians, to conquer the South Saxons in 772, after which he deposed all the ruling Cerdicingas [8] of Sussex. Offa also demoted them from their previous royal status, as is clear from surviving charters.

Oswald, born circa 715?

He is presumed here to have been the second son of Osric and a younger brother of Osmund. He did not participate in Osmund's regime, probably because he would not support the new plural kingship that his brother was determined to set in place. After Offa's conquest of Sussex, early in 772, as the witness list of the charter granted by Offa on 15 August 772 tells us, Oswald was appointed as the Mercian king's first duke of the South Saxons.

Aelfwald, born early 720s?

It is surmised here that he was the third son of Osric and second ranking co-ruling king during Osmund's reign (on charter evidence). He was deposed by Offa in 772 , and never chosen subsequently to hold ducal office. Perhaps he might have declined such an appointment by a Mercian ruler.

[8] The Cerdicingas were the members of the royal dynasty founded by Cerdic, the first West Saxon king.

Oslac, born circa 725?

It is surmised here that he was the fourth son of Osric and the third ranking co-ruling king under Osmund (on charter evidence). He was deposed by Offa, who appointed him later as his second duke of the South Saxons, probably after the death of Oswald.

The Charter of Oslac

Dated 780, and drawn up as a land grant to a certain St Paul's church.

Oslac's grant was later confirmed by Offa, king of the Mercians, and his co-ruling son, Ecgfrith, between 787 and 796. Please to note that the discussion in this entry concerns extended genealogical conjecture.

The only original South Saxon charter to have survived. It was granted by Oslac, the second duke of the South Saxons. No permission was sought from Offa for this land grant. The charter was drawn up during the period 776-785, when Kent had temporarily thrown off the Mercian yoke, thus giving Oslac a measure of ducal independence. At this time Surrey was held by Wessex and, without Kent, Offa had no direct overland access to Sussex.

Now for the theoretical content of this entry. Besides a number of other alderman, it is contended here that this ducal document was witnessed by several of Oslac's kinsmen. Aelfwald, his surviving elder brother, Ealdwulf, his second cousin, who was to succeed him as the next duke, and also his nephews, Waermund (born in the late 730s?), and Waerfrith (born early 740s?), the sons of his eldest brother Osmund. Finally there was Aethelmund, assumed here to have been Oslac's grand-nephew, born in the early 760s (?) and the son of Waermund.

Notice the South Saxon naming pattern, from one generation to the next, Osmund, Waermund, Aethelmund, which is supportive of the contention here. Compare with Aethelwalh, Aethelstan, Aethelberht. It appears from his position towards the end of the witness list that Aethelmund's conjectured former royal rank, he must have been born before the Mercian conquest of Sussex, was of no account when it came to the social precedence of his own generation in the 780s.

Nooks and Corners of Old Sussex

'Nooks and Corners of Old Sussex' was a Sussex Archaeology publication of 1875. It has 'Original and Selected Notes' by the Rector of Rodmell and was printed on the Farncombe press in Lewes.

Part 3b: The (conjectured) rule of South Saxon chieftains under their West Saxon overlords, the kings of Wessex [9]

When Cissa died in 567, the second Bretwalda, Ceawlin of the West Saxons, whose heir, Cuthwine, is presumed here to have been the grandson of Wine, became overlord in Sussex.

With the military victories of Ceawlin's reign in an age of warriors, as he advanced against the Britons, the kingdom founded by Cissa became irrelevant. With its extinction, the chieftains in Sussex must have become the ultimate authority, replacing the regal status of a native king. The senior men would have been the patrilineal descendants of early royalty, and of aristocratic warriors, who had fought for the cause of the warlord Ælle.

The presumption is that most powerful of these chieftains would have formed a shared leadership that replaced the focus of a South Saxon king, and that under this leadership (probably supported by Cuthwine, in line with the presumption that he was the grandson of Wine) the South Saxons were in endemic revolt against their third overlord, Ceowulf. The belligerent attitude of this prince was noted by the chroniclers.

[9] With regard to the conjectured rule discussed in this part, a discredited king list for West Sussex, compiled during the eighth century in Wessex, ostensibly to underline continuing kingship, may well reflect the former regal power of a South Saxon chieftain.

It is presumed here that the Saxon chieftains in Sussex would normally have shown loyalty to an overlord to whom they could look for the protection of their estates and status, and that when Cynegils became king of the West Saxons, in 611, peace was restored. Cenwalh, their last overlord, divorced his queen in 645. It is recorded that she was the sister of Penda of the Mercians, and that in revenge her brother invaded Wessex and Cenwalh fled to the court of King Anna, in East Anglia.

The conjectural input modifying known history, at this point, is that Penda then appointed Aethelwalh as unitary king of the South Saxons. Such an action would have given the Mercians an ally on the English Channel coast, re-established a South Saxon monarchy after seventy-eight years and deprived Cenwalh of his status as overlord in Sussex, while giving his brother Aethelwalh his own kingdom. This family relationship is discussed in Aethelwalh's entry below.

The conclusion here is that with the end of the royal status of South Saxon chieftains, the Sussex of Arthur's Britain (477-645), passed into history. It is also conjectured that a new era of the Sussex of the Cerdicingas (645-c.796) with the two branches of their royal family, descending from Ecgwald and Cynegils respectively, replaced the chieftains' regime. It followed also that royal naming patterns in Sussex were to reflect the descent of both dynasties from Queen Eafe and their ties with the Hwicce (re: the entries for Ecgwald's dynasty above). It may be that such a policy was adopted to give the Cerdicingas of Sussex their own kingly identity amongst the South Saxon aldermen. However it is worth noting, with regard to the theoretical Rule of the Chieftains expounded in this section, that under such conditions the local rulers in the eastern reaches of Sussex might well have retained much of their authority. Maybe from their viewpoint, they would simply have exchanged an overlord who was king of the West Saxons for an overlord who was rather nearer home.

Adam and Eve being driven out of Eden

Adam and Eve being driven out of Eden. Queen Eafe of the South Saxons appears to have been called by the female form of Eafa, but her name might also have been chosen as a suitable Old English equivalent for Eve.



Images are free from copyright. Text copyright © David Slaughter, BA Hons, ATC (Sussex), Blue Robe Order of the Welsh Gorsedd, expanded from material first released on the Anglo-Saxon Kings of Sussex blogspot. An original feature for the History Files.