History Files


Anglo-Saxon Britain

Nothgyth Quest Supporting Notes

by David Slaughter, 3 February 2008

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7

Part 4: The Agnatic Witenagemot 567-645

By the time Cissa reached his eighty-ninth winter, it seems feasible to suggest that Ceawlin, king of the West Saxons, had already agreed to the terms of being the guardian of a new regime in Sussex.

The Royal Legend related that the kingdom of Cissa devolved on Ceawlin, and it has been postulated in this hypothesis that Ceawlin could well have been married to Cissa's granddaughter, the child of Wine. Ceawlin's legitimate children would then have been half South Saxon.

The establishment of this conjectural regime would have had its advantages. It would have avoided a contest for kingship between the members of the presumed Witenagemot that had developed into an agnatic institution of noblemen descending from Ælle, Mealla and Wlanca. Royal power was to be shared.

It would have given an unwieldy coastal territory the security of a strong overlord, and such an arrangement would probably allow for a considerable measure of independence to continue in the theoretical centres of power, west and east of the Adur, already mentioned. It is also suggested that the permanence of this conjectured regime would have been guaranteed by the accession of Cuthwine Ceawlining as ruler over both South and West Saxons. If that had been the plan, such hopes did not materialise.

The circumstances of Ceawlin's paternal nephews, Ceol and Ceolwulf, taking power in Wessex are not recorded. Maybe the king suffered a debilitating stroke, and Cuthwine was absent when the takeover occurred. It is surmised that Ceol had the wisdom, under the political circumstances put forward in the previous paragraph, not to aggravate an already dismayed South Saxon leadership.

However, it is proposed that when Ceolwulf became king in 597, he was determined to divest the highest ranking descendants of Ælle, Mealla and Wlanca of their regal powers in Sussex. The argument seems feasible, and an aggressive policy of this nature could easily have led to an armed struggle in which Cuthwine was involved. By the time Cynegils had succeeded his paternal uncle in 611 and peace had been restored, many South Saxon aldermen might have become concerned about the situation for their tribe. At least that is the contention here.

These men would have been staunch pagans, apart from anything else, and what historians describe as the the political baptism of King Cynegils and Cwichelm, his co-ruling son, in 636, might have caused considerable alarm. It could be suggested, perhaps, that this event raised the issue of re-establishing a kingdom of the South Saxons at the level of the Witenagemot.

Following through this supposition, when Cenwalh became king of the West Saxons in 642, a delegation might have been sent from Sussex to ask the new overlord to appoint one of his own brothers as king of the South Saxons. It has already been asserted in the main text that the prince in question was Aethelwalh.

Leonardo da Vinci's warrior's face

This drawing by Leonardo is the study of a warrior's face for a battle scene. Underneath their helmets, one might imagine the faces of experienced South Saxon fighters looking like this. There is a hardened resolve in the expression of Leonardo's warrior, such as the battle leaders of the South Saxons must have had in their armed struggle against the West Saxons, who were probably the invaders.

Perhaps Cenwalh would have hesitated, being concerned, as he must have been, with the breakdown of his marriage with King Penda's daughter. It is postulated here that the supposed delegation were senior members of the theoretical Witenagemot of the South Saxons and that its agnatic noblemen would have represented the sixth generation of their tribe.

The fathers of this generation must have made up the armed opposition against Ceol recorded briefly by the chroniclers of Alfred the Great.



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.