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 4: The (conjectured) dynasty of Aethelwalh Cynegilsing, descended from Cerdic, founder of Wessex

There is the evidence of the chroniclers and/or the witness lists of South Saxon charters for the existence of all the nobility whose entries are to be found in this section.

Aethelwalch, born in the early 620s? [10]

The theory here is that Aethelwalh was the second eldest of the four surviving sons of Cynegils, king of the West Saxons, and appointed by Penda, the king of the Mercians, as the unitary king of the South Saxons in 645. Thus the kingdom founded by Cissa in 514 was re-established in 645.

[10] His marriage to Eanfrith's daughter, Eafe of Hwicce, is a matter of recorded history.

To speculate further, it appears that rather than take a concubine, Aethelwalch cohabited with a number of women, who were perhaps connected to royal estates, before and during the early years of his reign, by whom he had four illegitimate sons (see the entries immediately below), their names not being dynastic.

In the context of this hypothesis, it was only later that he married Eafe of Hwicce (born early 640s?), by whom he had a son (born early 660s?).

It is also conjectured that Eafe gave him two other children, Aethelthryth (born circa 665?), and Aethelstan (born late 660s?). His union with Eafe almost certainly took place in 661, at the insistence of the Christian Wulfhere, king of the Mercians.

History tells us that in the same year Wulfhere had gained supremacy over Sussex and, also, that the chosen Eafe was a Christian princess. Bede says that in 675, in return for his having been baptised, Aethelwalh gained the Mercians territories of the Jutish Meonware and the Isle of Wight. These were ceded to him by Wulfhere, he having been godfather at Aethelwalh's baptism. The new possessions had previously formed part of Wessex, until they were seized by Wulfhere during 661.

As a result of this development, Arwald of the Isle of Wight had a new overlord, and the borders of the South Saxon kingdom reached their greatest extent. Taking account of a tradition from the Isle of Wight that the king of Sussex and his son were killed at Shalcombe Down, maybe it was on this down that Aethelwalh was assassinated in 685 (probably by the exiled West Saxon atheling, Caedwalla himself), together with his eldest son by Queen Eafe who was killed while defending his elderly father. The name of the young prince is unknown, but 'Aethelric' is a distinct possibility, since Aethelthryth (according to this hypothesis his elder sister) was to call her firstborn son Osric, perhaps in line with contemporary naming patterns.

For her conjectured children, the reader is referred back to the entries for Osric and Osa.

Watt, born early 640s?

Surmised here to have been the eldest of Aethelwalh's four illegitimate sons.

He appears not to have taken part during the turbulent months which followed his presumed father's assassination. He became a co-ruling king of the South Saxons, probably appointed by Ine of Wessex in 688, sharing power with Nothhelm, the dominant ruler, in the early years of the latter's reign.

Also conjecturally, Queen Aethelthryth of the South Saxons was the half sister of Watt.

Berhthun and Andhun, born circa 645?

Bishop Wilfred

A nineteenth century illustration of Bishop Wilfrid, who was imprisoned in an unlit dungeon by King Ecgfrith, after a disagreement. The saintly bishop recited psalms causing light to shine about him.

The conjecture here is that they were the illegitimate sons of Aethelwalh, who entered their father's service as his personal royal aldermen. They were recorded by Bede as being the king's aldermen. Historically they were almost certainly twins. Bede also records that, after Aethelwalh's assassination, they drove out Caedwalla from the lands ceded to Sussex by Wulfhere, and then ruled jointly over the South Saxons from 685-686.

It is known that Berhthun was killed in 686 while invading Kent to quell an uprising. The documented cause for his invasion went back to the death of the Kentish King Hlothere, who died in February 685 fighting a force of South Saxons lead by his nephew Eadric. Eadric then shared the Kentish throne with Suaebhard of Essex, supported by the South Saxons. On Berhthun's death, Caedwalla, by now king of the West Saxons, again invaded the territories of Sussex and crushed the South Saxons. Bede's account of this military campaign suggests that little mercy was shown to the people of Sussex by Caedwalla.

Bryni, born early 650s?

It is surmised here that he was the youngest of Aethelwalh's four illegitimate sons. Evidently he did not take any part in the events of 685 and 686, but he was later recorded in his charter of circa 700, witnessed by the kings Nothhelm and Watt, as duke of the South Saxons. He appears to have been the first South Saxon alderman to hold this title and it would make sense that he held it owing to high status, for example because his father had been king Aethelwalh. In his charter, Bryni granted four hides at Highleigh in Sussex to Eadberht, the Abbot of Selsey.

Map of South Saxons in 685

A map of South Saxon power in 685

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Aethelstan, born in the late 660s

The conjecture in this entry, includes his being appointed king, by Ine, on Nothhelm's death in 722, that he was the eldest surviving son of King Aethelwalh and Queen Eafe, his older full sister being Aethelthryth, and that on the death of his illegitimate half brother, the co-ruling King Watt, at the beginning of the eighth century, Aethelstan was appointed to succeed him by Ine of Wessex. Aethelstan was to witness a charter, granted by Nothhelm in 717 to the monks of Selsey, in the presence of his presumed full sister Queen Aethelthryth, but in the absence of the dominant ruler.

Although not documented history, the following is argued here conjecturally. Firstly, that on the death of Aethelstan's senior partner, Nothhelm, perhaps in 722, Aethelberht, was appointed by Ine of Wessex as the dominant king of the South Saxons, and to be the unitary king on Aethelstan's death. Secondly, that the said Aethelberht was the eldest son of Aethelstan. Thirdly, that Aethelstan had a younger son, Ealdberht, who was the Ealdberht recorded as a dissident. Further, it is contended that Ealdberht rebelled because he was aggrieved that he had not been included in the elevation to kingship.

It is also conjectured that Aethelstan, who had seen so much bloodshed in his youth, was able to stay the hand of Ealdberht, after the latter had been defeated by Ine in 722. Finally, it is contended that when Aethelstan died, in 725, Ealdberht decided to gather another force of South Saxons and once again prepare for battle. Ine defeated Ealdberht for a second time, the latter losing his life in combat. Ealdberht's uprisings of 722 and 725 are to be found in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles.

Aethelberht, born late 690s?

Account should be taken of the genealogical conjecture already stated that he was the eldest son of the co-ruling king, Athelstan, and the elder brother of the Ealdberht who was recorded as a dissident by the chroniclers. Aethelberht was very likely appointed the dominant king of the South Saxons on the death of Nothhelm, his presumed uncle-in-law, claimed to have been in 722 in this hypothesis.

Following the argument here, Ealdberht then rebelled against Ine because he had not been elevated to the kingship as well. This supposed motive is discussed more fully in the entry for Ealdberht, below. The chroniclers say that Ealdberht was then driven out of Wessex and forced to find sanctuary on the Sussex-Surrey border, with the South Saxons. Defeated by Ine on the Sussex border in 722, Ealdberht was defeated and killed in a second battle in 725.

Saxon church at Worth in Sussex

The Saxon church at Worth in Sussex. It is said that during the crusades mounted knights filed through one door, were blessed, and then rode through another exit on their way to the coast.

On the death of Athelstan, claimed here to have been in the same year, it is conjectured that Aethelberht became the unitary king of the South Saxons. It is presumed here that during the middle years of his reign, possibly after 730, when King Aethelheard of the West Saxons lost Berkshire to the Mercians, Aethelberht was able to take advantage of a less powerful Wessex, and throw off a West Saxon yoke that had already been weakened by the abdication of Ine in 726. The commentary of Bede on this matter is relevant here. If this indeed is what happened, then under the rule of Aethelberht, the South Saxons would have experienced a last, strong, native king, his eldest son, Ealdwulf, being destined to succeed to a stable and unitary kingship. Taking that as the case, then Osmund, assumed above as the eldest grandson of Nothhelm, had clearly laid plans to outmanoeuvre the young heir on his father's death. When Aethelberht died, probably in 758, Ealdwulf, would have found himself opposed by his much older and politically adroit second cousin, Osmund, who then established a new regime of plural kingship.

Ealdberht, born early 700s?

In terms of the conjecture in this entry, he was the second son of Athelstan and voiced his grievances at not being elevated to kingship with his elder brother, Aethelberht, when their uncle, Nothhelm, died in 722. Perhaps the attitude of the dissident Ealdberht, or his unwise actions - he might have threatened rebellion, ir challenged the royal authority of King Ine - led to Ine deciding to exile him.

It is documented that the penalised prince took refuge in the fortress at Taunton, which had been built as a defence against the West Britons. Queen Aethelburh, Ine's consort, destroyed the fortress, but Ealdberht escaped to the Sussex-Surrey border. Evidently he had supporters there who were ready to give him sanctuary. According to the annals, Ealdberht must have raised a fighting force of South Saxon warriors, and prepared for battle. In the ensuing contest of arms against Ine and his West Saxon army Ealdberht was defeated. Conceivably, it was Aethelstan, who had witnessed times of murder and bloodshed in his youth (see the conjecture in the entry for him above), who managed to stay the hand of his rebellious son and broker some kind of peace following Ine's victory. The annals then tell us that in 725, assumed here to have been the year of Aethelstan's death, Ealdberht gathered another force of South Saxons and again prepared for battle. Once again Ine defeated Ealdberht's warriors and the young prince lost his life in the heat of battle.

Ealdwulf, born in the early 730s?

Interior of Steyning Church

The Norman interior of Steyning church. Aethelwulf, king of Kent and Sussex, who died in 858, would have been buried in the† wooden church of St Cuthman. The present Church was dedicated to Andrew, patron†saint of Normandy.

In this entry the conjecture is that he was the eldest son of Aethelberht and destined to succeed his father as the unitary king of the South Saxons, but that on Aethelberht's death in 758, Ealdwulf's second cousin, Osmund Osricing, was able to assert himself as the dominant ruler in Sussex.

In terms of the genealogy in this hypothesis, Osmund would have been some two decades older than Ealdwulf and politically far more experienced. On charter evidence it can be said that Ealdwulf was recognised as the senior ranking co-ruler, but his power would have been curtailed by being obliged to co-operate with Osmund's presumed co-ruling brothers, both of whom must have been older than Ealdwulf, who is known to have lived until the 790s. The Osmundian regime weakened regnal authority in Sussex, a development that proved fatal to the South Saxon monarchy. That Ealdwulf was deposed by Offa in 772, but was appointed later as the third duke of the South Saxons, is historical fact.

Aethelwulf, born circa 735?

It is surmised here that he was Ealdwulf's younger brother. He held no royal office under the dominant Osmund and he held no share of power during the earlier years of Offa's ducal deputies in Sussex. However, it appears that Aethelwulf was allowed some share in authority during the tenure of Offa's third duke, assumed here to have been his elder brother, since Aethelwulf was the only witness to Ealdwulf's last ducal charter which was drawn up in 791.

Kinsmanship between Ealhmund and Aethelmund
Conjectural Table showing Ealhmund, King of Kent and Aethelmund, an alderman of Sussex, as agnates based on the Justinian Law of Succession



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.