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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Saxons & Jutes of Southern England

 

 

 

MapWest Seaxe (West Saxons / Wessex)
Incorporating the Wiltsaete

The West Saxons formed one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England - in fact it was their kingdom that formed the basis of a single, united English kingdom in the mid-tenth century. However, their beginnings are shrouded in mystery, seemingly formed out of two separate stories that were combined by later generations to make them look better. In very simple terms, the Gewissae (a Saxon tribe descended from Gewis of Baeldaeg's Folk), are claimed as having landed on the south coast where they began to carve out an area of settlement for themselves. This was traditionally in AD 495, and this band of Saxons was led by Cerdic, whose mother (and name) were British.

This straightforward version of events appears to be the result of a traditional form of story telling that covers a more interesting and intricate story. It's rare to have a story of conquest that begins so long before the main participants in the story - the West Saxons - are brought into the story, the gap being between AD 495-519 during which time Cerdic appears to be establishing his own power base. It has been suggested that Cerdic headed a British power bloc which, with Germanic mercenaries or help that was related to him through intermarriage to Jutes or Saxons, staged a takeover and was able to set up a viable Brito-Saxon kingdom. Scholar K Sisam points out (in Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies, 1953) that Cerdic's pedigree has no independent authority. It has been put together from that of the Bernician kings and his real ancestry is unknown. He evidently could not claim descent from any Germanic family of importance. This seems to strengthen the possibility of him having position and/or power within Romano-British society. Even the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) describes him and his 'son', Cynric, as ealdormen, a term normally used in ninth century England for someone who was a prominent official having authority, both civil and military, over a specific territory forming part of a kingdom.

FeatureIt is interesting to note that the date of Cerdic's proposed takeover is very close to the approximate date of the heavy Saxon defeat at Mons Badonicus, circa 496. Could Cerdic have spotted the power vacuum that occurred with the loss of the Bretwalda's power and been in a position to take advantage of it? Given that, and the ASC's description of his rank, it is tempting to think that Cerdic was the head of a partly British noble family with extensive territorial interests along the western end of the Saxon Shore who may have been entrusted with its defence in the last days of sub-Roman authority. Once that authority had faded, he could have decided to go further and assume total authority in the region.

The ASC suggests that when Cerdic 'landed' in 495 (ie. decided to take over), a Saxon settlement existed around Cerdicesora and that Cerdic, 'within about six years of [his] coming... overcame the West Saxon kingdom' (between 495-501) (ASC. mnsrpt. A Parker Chron). Whether or not the above theory is accepted, this took place at about the same time as the Saxons in southern Britain were defeated at Mons Badonicus. This could mean that Cerdic overcame the local territory and its British occupants, but is more likely an indication that the earlier Saxon and Jutish (mercenary) settlements around Southampton Water (neighbouring the Meonware to the immediate east) were bent to Cerdic's cause.

These Jutish settlements had probably existed for thirty or so years, and very likely had mingled with some Saxons who had been settled by the Romans in return for defending the Saxon Shore, plus some communities which may have migrated westwards from the earliest days of settlement by the Suth Seaxe. The lack of archaeological evidence in the area that is specifically German supports the idea that the kingdom was formed from elements that had already been partially absorbed into British culture. This mixing of various peoples is also noted amongst the Belgae on the Continent in the first century BC. Several tribes there are sometimes thought by scholars to be Germanic, although much of the evidence seems to suggest that they were either Belgic Celts, or were ruled by a Belgic nobility. The idea of the Belgae being a mix of Germans and Celts to some extent is firmly stated as being reported to Julius Caesar by the locals. It is a model that could also provide the basis for the foundation of Wessex: local Belgae, who were perhaps already semi-German, fusing with German foederati in late Roman Britain and then with Saxons to form the population of the new kingdom, people who were sometimes known as the Gewissae (and also later as the Hwicce).

Geoffrey Tobin suggests that the 'landing' of 495 be taken literally. The Encyclopaedia of Earth states 'Tidal streams in the eastern English Channel and [around the] Channel Islands area [are] generally anti-clockwise, whilst the western entrance of the Channel has a clockwise tidal circulation [that is] wedded to the Celtic Sea'. Visualising this, one can expect frequent landings in Hampshire from both Brittany and Flanders by skirting the English coast, and return journeys to the Cotentin peninsula then passing along the coasts of Brittany and France. Cerdic may have taken one of these routes while the Saxons took the other. If the strong states of Domnonia and Dumnonia were one kingdom in the fifth century, and Cerdic were an ambitious noble, perhaps a fractious younger brother of the magistrate or ruler of this region, this would explain his actions in landing near Southampton (as Bretons later often did) and taking on the loyalist Natanleod (in 508). Having established a beach-head, it would reflect the times for him to have forged alliances with rebellious Britons, immigrant Saxons, and hybrid groups who needed a seasoned battle leader.

FeatureAs for the Gewissae in Cerdic's story, it seems likely that Gewis could have been a Thames Valley Saxon leader whose pedigree was later attached to Cerdic to give him a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of rival Anglo-Saxon kings. Whatever the politics of the situation in the Thames Valley and the West Saxon heartland of Hampshire, by AD 519, Cerdic had fully secured control of his territory and was proclaimed king of the West Seaxe.

(Additional information by Geoffrey Tobin, and on eighth century Wessex by Mick Baker, and from The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements, J N L Meyers, from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from Wessex, Barbara Yorke, from Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede, from the Oxford Online Dictionary of National Biography: Cenwalh, Barbara Yorke (2004), from The Earliest English Kings, D P Kirby (1992), from Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, Barbara Yorke, from the Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales, John Marius Wilson (1870-1872), from Making Anglo-Saxon Devon: Exeter, Robert Higham (2008), from the BBC series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, first broadcast from 6 August 2013, and from External Links: Encyclopaedia of Earth and the Megalithic Portal.)

495

FeatureAccording to tradition, Cerdic and his (young) son Cynric, together with Saxon and possibly some Jutish companions, land in five ships on the south coast at Cerdices ora (Cerdic's Shore, possibly the western side of the Solent), and begin a takeover of the local Jutish, Saxon and sub-Roman territories. The Jutes and Saxons who are already settled there are apparently already referring to themselves as the West Seaxe (possibly separate from the Meonware to the east).

Post-Roman Londinium
By the mid-fifth century Londinium had been largely abandoned following at least half a century of slow decay and a steadily dwindling population, but with trade virtually ceased the city's purpose was temporarily ended and central power (if any survived) shifted westwards

The fighting begins on the same day as Cerdic 'arrives', suggesting that his potential power play begins in violence or immediate resistance. If Cerdic is in fact a Briton who rebels against the remaining central authority then, given his location, he could be serving as a magistrate of the Belgae territory of Caer Gwinntguic until he seizes part of the tribe's territory in order to found his own little empire.

c.495 - 560

Cerdic (and later Cynric) begin the conquest of the territory of modern Wiltshire. The Wiltsaete (or Wilsaetas, Saxons in modern Wiltshire), appear to migrate into the same territory, either independently as a result of the decaying British defensive situation or as part of Cerdic's invasion.

Cerdic avoids the established British territories to his north and east which have already set themselves up on a defensive footing (postulated as Caer Gwinntguic and Caer Celemion) and aims at securing the more 'soft' territory to the west. Unfortunately, the British chieftains or sub-magistrates there view this as an invasion to be resisted by force in battles which provide incidents that are also recorded in the traditions of the invaders. Archaeologically too, the newcomers leave more conspicuous traces of their presence in settlements that do not initially merge with those of the locals, unlike in Hampshire and southern Berkshire, the heartland of their powerbase.

501

With the initial conquest of the West Seaxe complete, attention is turned more fully to expansion from the kingdom's Hampshire heartland. It seems that any Germanic mercenary settlements that exist in the immediate area have been taken and now Cerdic can focus on expanding his territory.

A newly arrived Saxon chieftain and his two ships of followers kill a Briton of very high rank at Portesmutha (British Portus Adurni, modern Portsmouth, possibly the last surviving part of the proposed British kingdom of Rhegin - alternatively, the Briton could be Gereint of Dumnonia). The name of the Saxon chieftain appears to have been lost, as it has been conveniently recorded as Port in the West Seaxe annals, whereas the fact is that Portsmouth gains its name from a Saxon corruption of Portus Adurni. His sons are Bieda and Mægla (a probable British name - another of Cerdic's British allies?).

Portchester Castle
The Roman walls of Porchester Castle would still have been standing when this former Saxon Shore fort was captured by the West Seaxe

508

FeatureCerdic (and Cynric, credited in name at least) defeats Natanleod's Britons. Afterwards the area is known as Natan leag (Netley Marsh in Hampshire, just to the south-east of Southampton). Could Natanleod be a rival British chieftain or Roman-style official (perhaps of Caer Gwinntguic) who is vying for power with Cerdic or attempting to defend Britain's shores? Having established a beachhead and killed the (possibly) legitimate governor or ruler, Cerdic may be the only hope in the region for strong governance, with the result that Britons, Saxons and Jutes join him.

514

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (ASC) relates briefly that a West Seaxe band of Jutes under Stuf and Wihtgar arrives in three ships at Cerdices ora (Cerdic's Shore - the same arrival point that Cerdic had supposedly used in 405). Stuf and Wihtgar fight and defeat the local Britons, putting them to flight. Are these Jutes related to those of the Meonware?

519

After defeating Britons at Cerdices ford (perhaps Charford on the River Avon about ten kilometres south of Salisbury, Cerdic is declared king of the West Seaxe.

Cynric is variously described as his son or grandson in different versions of the West Saxon genealogy. Creoda appears between him and Cerdic in the pedigree of Ine of Wessex and some texts that use it, such as Asser and the Chronicle entry for 855. No incident involving him is noted in the annals but his name may survive in a minor Wiltshire place name, Creodanhyll. Theoretically, Creoda could be Cerdic's son, and Cynric his son, or even a much younger brother. If it is assumed that Cynric is very young in 495, perhaps no more than ten years old, then the length of his involvement in West Saxon affairs is not quite so unbelievable. Perhaps also Creoda is illegitimate, a factor frequently likely to see an elder son sidelined in favour of a younger, legitimate one. (There are two other early Creodas, one of the Iclingas c.580 who is clearly different, and one of the Lindisware c.500 who is harder to distinguish as being entirely separate.)

519 - 534?

Cerdic (Caraticos?)

Of mixed, Celtic-Saxon, parentage? Former magistrate of Belgae?

? - 534

Creoda?

Ruled jointly with Cerdic (possibly his son or a brother).

527

The Britons are again defeated, this time at Cerdices leag (Certicesford). Unfortunately the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes nothing else about the battle, but it seems to suggest either one or more attempts by the local British forces to remove Cerdic from his power base or early steps in Cerdic expanding that power base.

530

Cerdic and Cynric seize Ynys Weith from the Britons at Wihtgaraesburh, although this could be a later West Seaxe claim to legitimise their seizure of the island in 686. Perhaps the event in this year is more a confirmation of the Jutish ascendancy on the island from their Meonware homeland.

534

Cerdic is buried (according to tradition) at Cerdicesbeorg, a former barrow at Stoke near Hurstbourne that is recorded in an eleventh century charter. Wihtgar, who had arrived in AD 514, claims the kingship of the Jutish Isle of Wight.

Byzantine coins on the Isle of Wight
The Jutes of Wight and Hampshire appear to have maintained trading links with the Byzantines, as findings in both areas have attested. These Byzantine coins were part of a scattering of thirty-five found on the Isle of Wight

The location of Cerdic's burial suggests he has been involved in some operations at the eastern end of the Wansdyke, where it terminates adjacent to the Roman road from Winchester (capital of the proposed Caer Gwinntguic). In 534 that location seems to be within the north-eastern borders of Caer Celemion, close to Caer Ceri's southern border and within touching distance of the Thames Valley Saxons and their Ciltern Saetan neighbours at their westernmost limits.

534 - 560

Cynric

Son of Cerdic (or Creoda according to W-S Reignal List).

552

FeatureFeatureIn a memorable victory, Sorbiodunum (Saxon Searoburh, modern Old Sarum) is captured from the Britons (of the proposed territory of Caer Gwinntguic, which is probably totally overrun at this time). This gives the West Seaxe mastery of central Wiltshire and Salisbury Plain and brings them into contact with the Thames Valley Saxons. If the Wiltsaete are not already under West Seaxe dominance then this victory achieves that too (see second feature link, right). The generation of relative peace following Mons Badonicus is fast coming to an end (see first feature link).

556

FeatureCynric and Ceawlin fight the Britons at Beran byrg (Barbury Castle near Swindon). The result of the battle, fought very close to the generally-accepted site of Mons Badonicus, is unrecorded by the ASC. This suggests that the victory goes to the British, probably those of the three cities (led by Caer Gloui), who are quite possibly still using Ambrosius Aurelianus' former stronghold as a base of operations.

This event is Ceawlin's first mention, making it seem possible that he is being readied for kingship by Cynric who (if he had been a child when Cerdic seized power) would be around sixty-five by now. However, elements in the construction of the ASC text suggest that Ceawlin may not be a direct descendent of Cerdic's. He may even be a ruler of the Thames Valley Saxons whose family has somehow become united with that of the Cerdicingas (probably through conquest), and a level of tension between the two groups seems to remain.

560 - 591

Ceawlin / Ceaulin / Caelin

Bretwalda. A British name. Deposed 591. Died 593.

?

Cutha / Cuthwine?

Brother.

c.560 - 571

Expansion continues with Ceawlin and Cutha conquering the Ciltern Saeten (Chiltern settlers, bands of Angles and Saxons who originally appear to have migrated into the area from the Wash).

In a new dimension in the formation of the West Seaxe kingdom, Ceawlin fights exclusively northwards of the kingdom's Hampshire and Wiltshire heartland. In several expeditions, not all of them successful, he continues down the Thames Valley, but by the 570s he is prevented from reaching Londinium by the East Seaxe, who are already beginning to govern this Middel Seaxe region.

These expeditions can be justified by the fact that the Thames Valley Saxons probably pose as serious a threat to West Seaxe security as they still do at this time to British security in Caer Celemion and Caer Ceri. However, if Ceawlin is a Thames Valley Saxon himself (as proposed in 556 - see above) then the situation is more puzzling. Is he an outcast who returns to show his own people who's boss, or are the Thames Valley Saxons already part of the West Seaxe kingdom, and the expeditions are a response to an East Seaxe threat? Or a Cantware one (see 568, below)? Unfortunately, there is no evidence to say either way.

Roman amphitheatre at Silchester
A reconstruction of the amphitheatre at Caer Celemion (Calleva Atrebatum, modern Silchester), which was built outside the walls, to the north-east

568

Ceawlin and Cutha defeat Æthelbert of the Cantware at Wibbandun. This is notable as being the first recorded conflict between two groups of invaders, rather than a battle against the native British. The location of 'Wibbandun', which can be translated as 'Wibba's Mount', has not been definitely identified. At one time it was thought to be Wimbledon, but this is now known to be incorrect. Instead it seems likely that the battle takes place near the boundary between Hampshire and Berkshire, probably disputed territory between Kent and the West Seaxe. It seems likely that the aggressive Ceawlin is securing his rear before mounting renewed attacks against the British to the west.

An alternative that seems rarely to be considered is that the disputed territory is actually that of Caer Celemion, which still resists the invaders. They lay to Ceawlin's east, and may present a more urgent threat (or at least nuisance) than the Britons of the west. Their region of western Berkshire is known to them by the apparent origin of the name - Barroc, a range of hill tops that may still form part of their defensive efforts. The West Seaxe use the name themselves as 'Barrock', with the 'shire' being added several centuries later.

571

The Britons in the area of Biedcanford (possibly Bedford, near Luton) are defeated by Cuthwulf (one of Ceawlin's relatives). Four towns - Lygeanburg (Limbury), Ægelesburg (Aylesbury), Benesington (Benson), and Egonesham (Eynsham) - are captured. The valleys of the Thame and Cherwell are ruled by the West Seaxe, as is the upper valley of the Ouse. Cuthwulf dies in the same year.

This campaign has long puzzled historians, seemingly relating as it does to a much earlier situation when the Thames Valley Saxons were still establishing themselves in the area, and were only just starting to encroach on the southern borders of Cynwidion, a British kingdom that borders the area, with more Angles or Saxons advancing southwards from the Midlands. It has been proposed that its inclusion in the ASC should be in the region of 441-471. The entry could be the sole survivor from a preface to the Ceawlin saga explaining how his ancestor Cuthwulf came to establish his rule in the Thames Valley. Alternatively, the campaign may be more or less correctly dated, in which case it is possibly one that is launched to regain territory lost to the Britons after the Germanic defeat at Mons Badonicus. If it is local Britons who have recaptured the plain beneath the Chilterns then it is likely that they belong to the kingdom of Cynwidion.

577

In a campaign that is identical to that probably adopted by Bretwalda Ælle almost a century before, Ceawlin thrusts south-westwards from the Upper Thames towards the Bristol Channel. The blow is delivered against the western Britons and is a complete success.

After losing a battle at Deorham (Dyrham/Hinton Hill, eight miles north of Bath), the Brito-Welsh kingdoms of Caer Baddan (Bathanceaster, modern Bath), Caer Ceri (Cirenceaster, now Cirencester) and Caer Gloui (Gleawanceaster, or Gloucester) are conquered by Ceawlin and another relative, Cuthwine (perhaps the long form of Cutha). The Hwicce, who may at first be under the West Seaxe aegis, migrate into the territory. However, it seems likely that Dumnonia or Glastenning subsequently hold onto the West Wansdyke territory just beyond Caer Baddan.

Dumnonia in Maps - Map 3 AD 577
Wansdyke
The fifth or perhaps sixth century construction of the Wansdyke was a massive undertaking which reached from west of Caer Baddan's capital (Roman Aquae Sulis, modern Bath) to the proposed north-western corner of Caer Celemion's border, all to the north-east of Dumnonia's border (External Link: Creative Commons Licence), while above is a map of the West Seaxe advances of AD 577 (click on map to view full sized)

At this time, the West Seaxe seem to be less a single united political entity and more a collection of tribes who acknowledge the king as the overall figure of authority, but perhaps not someone they have to follow without question, as the frequent fights for leadership within the kingdom proves.

584

The Romano-British station at Viriconium in Pengwern is sacked, but Cutha is killed in battle at nearby Fethanleag (possibly Stoke Lyne in north-east Oxfordshire). Ceawlin takes 'many townships and countless spoil and returns in anger to his own', apparently giving up on the possibility of expanding the kingdom to the north and perhaps leaving the way clear for the Hwicce to establish themselves in the territory between the Midlands and the West Seaxe. Instead. it seems likely that Ceawlin starts to concentrate his efforts on pushing out the Dumnonian Britons defending the West Wansdyke, beyond Caer Baddan and in front of the Severn Estuary. But it also seems likely that this defeat marks the realistic end of his claims to the Bretwaldaship, and possibly robs him of vital support within his own kingdom (with the death of Cutha).

591 - 592

Ceawlin's plans to unseat the West Wansdyke Britons, probably by breaking through the East Wansdyke and taking them from the rear, lead to apparent disaster. His nephew, Ceol, takes the throne in 591 and the following year seals this with what appears to be the culmination of a coup, creating 'a great slaughter at Woddesbeorg' (almost certainly the long barrow now called Adam's Grave near Alton Priors, on the north side of the Vale of Pewsey and part of the Eastern Wansdyke), which causes Ceawlin to be driven out.

If Ceawlin is indeed a Thames Valley Saxon, then Ceol's act puts the West Seaxe firmly back under the control of the Cerdicingas, and also secures them governance over the Thames Valley Saxons. The Bretwaldaship switches to Æthelbert of the Cantware, who may be involved in the Woddesbeorg slaughter, as Ceol seems unlikely to be strong enough to achieve such a victory unaided.

591 - 597

Ceol

Son of Cutha.

593

Having been deposed in 591 and driven out by the great slaughter of Woddesbeorg in 592, Ceawlin now perishes. Killed alongside him are Cwichelm and Crida, no doubt chieftains associated with him, and possibly members of the royal house (Cwichelm could be another brother).

597 - 611

Ceolwulf

Brother.

c.600 - 610

The sub-Roman territory with the proposed name of Caer Celemion is destroyed by the West Seaxe. The capital city of this territory is left deliberately devastated. Archaeological discoveries which include the skeleton of a dog and a beef bone suggest that the city is ritually cursed before being abandoned.

Dumnonia in Maps - Map 4 AD 597-611
Lowbury Hill in Berkshire
Caer Celemion's re-use of a former Roman temple at the top of Lowbury Hill (near Compton in west Berkshire) in the mid-500s as a look-out point ended with the territory's fall, but it did see further use as an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, while above is a map showing further West Seaxe advances between AD 597-611 (click on map to view full sized)

Ceolwulf, who 'continually fought against the Angles and the Britons' also clears the West Wansdyke of Dumnonians, consolidating the conquests of 577, secures control of the Thames Valley Saxons, cutting them off from their Middil Engle contacts, and invades the Suth Seaxe (in 607). Securing control of the Thames Valley Saxons could be an ongoing problem for the West Seaxe. The two sides appear to have been battling one another since as early as AD 552.

611 - 642

Cynegils

Baptised 635 by Birinus of the Roman Church at Canterbury.

614

Cynegils takes advantage of a momentary weakness in the British kingdom of Dumnonia and invades the eastern half. Possibly, this incursion weakens the Dorset and Somerset regions of the kingdom so that independent groups of Saxons are able to make inroads over the next generation, forming the Dornsaete and Somersaete respectively.

628

It seems probable that the Hwicce have been dominated until now by the West Seaxe. Cynegils and Cwichelm - his son - fight against Penda of Mercia at Caer Ceri (Cirencester), which is within the territory of the Hwicce settlers. The fight ends with Penda dominant, although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle fails to give details, and he and Cynegils 'come to an agreement'. There is little doubt that the agreement involves handing over Caer Ceri and the territory along the Severn.

642 - 654

Cenwalh / Kenwalch

Incorporated the Dornsaete into the kingdom.

652

Cenwalh makes a breakthrough against the Dumnonian defensive lines at the battle of Bradford-upon-Avon. This means that they make use of the gap in the Wansdyke caused by the passage of the River Avon. Towards the south of this, the Dornsaete (Dorset settlers) who have also been slowly pushing against the Dumnonian borders now come under West Seaxe control.

Dumnonia in Maps - Map 5 AD 652
The West Seaxe made a breakthrough against the Dumnonian defensive lines at the battle of Bradford-upon-Avon in AD 652. This meant making use of the gap in the Wansdyke caused by the passage of the River Avon (click on map to view full sized)

654 - 658

Cenwalh marries the sister of Penda of Mercia but then inexplicably sends her back home soon afterwards. Penda forces Cenwalh into exile with the East Engle, and controls the West Seaxe at a time at which one of their number becomes the first native archbishop of Canterbury. In 658, Cenwalh recovers his throne by means unknown and founds St Peter's Minster in Winchester in thanks.

654 - 658

Penda

King of Mercia. Occupied the West Seaxe kingdom.

658 - 672

Cenwalh / Kenwalch

Restored.

658

Dumnonia is defeated by Cenwalh at the Battle of Peonna (Penselwood - the densely forested area on the eastern boundary of Somerset). The eastern half of the kingdom is permanently captured by the West Seaxe as they advance through the Polden Hills to the River Parrett (approximately forty-five kilometres (thirty miles) further west). They may even go farther than this, to the hills which separate Somerset from Devon, as place names suggest settlement well before the end of this century.

FeatureThe Brito-Welsh territory of Glastenning (in modern Somerset) is probably taken at the same time. The Somersaete also now come under West Seaxe control (if they didn't already after 652), as does Glastonbury Abbey, which is allowed to retain its British abbot.

Dumnonia in Maps - Map 6 AD 658
Glastonbury
The Glastonbury region seems to have experienced a power vacuum in the mid-fifth century which allowed the British Dogfeilion clan to walk in and take over - survival there lasting for a century, while above is a map describing West Seaxe advances in AD 658 (click on map to view full sized)

661

An Easter battle is fought at Posentesbyrig - which could be the Iron Age hill fort at Posbury, just three kilometres (two miles) to the south of Crediton (immediately west of Exeter in Dumnonia). The result of the battle is not recorded but, assuming a West Seaxe victory, this would give them control of the fertile lands of the Exe and Creedy valleys.

672 - 674

Queen Seaxburh

Wife of Cenwalh, reigned for a year after his death.

674

Following the death of Cenwalh the political situation in the kingdom becomes confused. It appears that overall rule is lost and the various groups revert to self rule for a short time. There have certainly been at least two main houses vying for control of the West Seaxe, as witnessed by the conflict between Ceawlin and Ceol in 591-592.

Bede states that Cenwalh's 'under-rulers took upon them the kingdom of the people, and dividing it among themselves, [and] held it ten years', seemingly backing up a claim for the temporary collapse of the kingdom. However, it may not be a collapse as such, because the West Seaxe remain strong and are not invaded by any of their rivals - who would certainly be quick to scent a corpse that's ready to be picked over (although see 675, below). Instead the breakdown appears only to be at the very top, with perhaps the chief nobility agreeing external policy during this time without being able to agree who enforces it.

The ASC states that Cenwalh is succeeded by his wife for about a year. Then Æscwine reigns between around 674-685. DP Kirby says that it is Æscwine's father, Cēnfūs (the Old English spelling of the name) who succeeds Seaxburh (although not how). Bede is usually reliable, but could the fact that Ine rules the West Saxons during his time and with an unquestionable descent from Cynric through Cuthwine, skew the reputation of Æscwine's legitimacy to rule?

674

Cēnfūs / Cenfus

Distant member of the royal family. Not always shown as king.

674 - 676

Æescwine / Aescwine / Escuin

Son. A West Seaxe nobleman who seized Seaxburh's throne.

675

Æescwine fights the battle of Biedanheafde (later Bedwyn, possibly Crofton but the actual location is debatable) against Wulfhere of Mercia. Æescwine repels the Mercians but is unable to gain any advantage from it. The Mercians in this period are a serious threat to the West Saxon hold over their northern provinces, and to maintain their prestige and revenue, they compensate by continuing to push hard against the borders of Dumnonia to the west.

The renowned West Saxon missionary to Continental Europe, St Boniface, is born just outside the recently-conquered Crediton (in Devon) around this date, and later receives an English education in a monastery at Exeter, which is conquered by the West Seaxe around 685.

676 - 685

Centwine

Driven from throne by Caedwalla. Killed. Conquered Somersaete.

681 - 685

The remaining Dumnonian Somerset territory is conquered by Centwine as he clears the western coastal area as far as the modern Devon border. In a two-pronged attack, the territory of the Defnas (Dumnonia / Devon) Britons is also taken by a force that presses along the English Channel coast from Dorset to Exeter. This also serves to confirm that Dorset has fallen to the Saxons.

Amusingly, it seems the new masters of Somerset ask the Celtic natives for the name of a range of hills to the far west of this region. Rather than a name, they are given the Brythonic plural word for hill, 'brendo', to which the Saxons add their own word, 'hill'. The area becomes the Brendon Hills of Somerset, literally the 'hills hills'.

Dumnonia in Maps - Map 7 AD 661-685
Roman Exeter
The settlement of Exeter as built by the Romans, although how much of it continued to be used under the Dumnonians prior to 685 is debatable, while above is a map describing West Seaxe advances in the period between AD 661-685 (click on map to view full sized)

685

Æthelwalh of the Suth Seaxe is killed by Caedwalla before the latter makes his bid for the West Saxon throne. The Suth Seaxe territory is plundered before Caedwalla is driven off. In the same year, Caedwalla begins 'to contend for the kingdom' of the West Saxons, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. His name is an Anglicised form of the British Cadwalla or Cadwallon, which points to a (perhaps continued) British strain in his ancestry. The founder of the kingdom, Cerdic, had also been half British, although the fact that there are no other occurrences of British names in any branch of the royal family makes a direct connection unlikely, even though this is what is claimed.

685 - 687

Caedwalla

A British name. Ravaged Kent. Died 20 April 688 in Rome.

686

FeatureCaedwalla's short reign sees him attempt to subjugate much of southern England, and a good deal of the Suthrig territory falls to him. Caedwalla also places his brother on the throne of Kent as a sub-king. The Wihtware are brought under direct control, and the Suth Seaxe are also under the dominance of the West Seaxe. It is from this point, upon the conquest of the Jutes of Wight, that the West Saxons start to use the name 'West Saxon' to describe themselves instead of calling themselves the Gewissae. This strongly adds to the possibility that the kingdom's more recent leaders are descended from the Thames Valley Saxons, and that it was they who won the internal West Saxon power struggle. The kingdom now appears to be focussing its efforts at control firmly southwards, probably to escape Mercian pressure.

687 - 726

Ine / Ini / Ina

Abdicated to go on pilgrimage to Rome. Died there in 728.

687

Ine is the son of Cenred, himself the son of Ceolwald, whose father was Cuthwulf, all direct descendants of Cynric (or at least so the genealogies claim). It seems possible that Cenred rules part of the West Seaxe domains as a sub-king during the early years of Ine's reign. Ine establishes forts or palaces at Taunton (the name of which means 'settlement on the [River] Tone'), Somerton ('settlement of the Somer [settlers]' - the Somersaete), and South Petherton in order to secure the kingdom's recent conquests from Dumnonia.

FeatureThe way in which and extent to which the conquered Britons survive under the Saxons is a debatable matter. Possibly the length and intensity of the fighting required to create the West Seaxe kingdom has caused many Britons to be driven off, mostly towards the west, whereas many other kingdoms have been created almost instantly and have retained large portions of their British populations - evidence of this is often apparent in titles of power and Christian worship (most notably with the Lindisware and Hwicce, although the Mercians could be even further integrated - see feature link, right). However, Ine's code of laws make provision for them, albeit as second-class subjects, and it seems likely that they form a predominant percentage of the populace in the westernmost districts of the kingdom.

687 - 726

Æthelburg

Wife, queen, and joint ruler.

694

Wihtred of Kent comes to terms with Ine over the killing of the royal prince, Mul, in 687, and the two kings agree on the borders of Kent, Suthrige and the Suth Seaxe Together, the West Seaxe and Kent hold the line against Mercia in this period, limiting its ability to interfere south of the Thames.

710

MapIne defeats and kills Gerren (Geraint) of Dumnonia, inflicting another defeat on his British neighbours to the west. This victory seems to bring West Seaxe domination to the line of the River Tamar, limiting the Britons to Cornwall. The ASC labels Gerren 'the Welsh king' and some published compilations fail to list the battle's outcome. Twelfth century chronicler John of Worcester - with access to versions of the ASC that have not survived to the present day - states that Gerren is killed.

Dumnonia in Maps - Map 8 AD 710
River Tamar
The mighty River Tamar remained a barrier to travel even in the nineteenth century - until the coming of the railways - but in the eighth century it formed a vital line of protection for the remnants of the Dumnonian kingdom, while above is a map showing those West Saxon advances towards the Tamar (click on map to show full sized)

715

Ine fights a battle at Adam's Grave. Ceolred of Mercia is also involved, but nothing else is known of the event. Either the two are fighting together against a common enemy (extremely unlikely) or one or the other of them is attempting to expand or contract West Saxon borders. Since this is the most likely interpretation of the event, it is unfortunate that the outcome is not recorded (quite probably it is a draw). Adam's Grave is a tumulus that is known contemporarily as Woden's Barrow, and is located at Alton Prior in Wiltshire. This had been the site of a West Saxon internecine fight for power in 592.

721 - 722

The ASC records the fact that Ine slays the ætheling, Cynewulf, but says nothing else. The name Cynewulf suggests a West Saxon link, and an atheling is a prince, so an internecine feud is generally suspected. Nothing more is known of this Cynewulf but, in 722, Ine's wife and queen, Æthelburg destroys Taunton, the Somerset settlement at which Ine had previously built a fort. Could the death of Cynewulf have sparked a family argument which results in the queen - clearly with an armed force of her own - wreaking vengeance on one of her husband's prime western strongholds? However, an alternative reason is provided for the same year, below.

722

FeatureThe Annales Cambriae refers to three notable 'Cornish' victories (dated tentatively to this year). The opponent is not named but as the 'Britons were the victors in those three battles', the opponent is clearly the West Saxons. The battles take place at Hehil, Garth Maelog, and Pencon (Pencoed). The first has been the subject of much speculation as to its location, with many scholars taking the mention of 'Cornish' too literally and placing it west of the River Tamar. Instead, all three battles are likely to be in what is now Devon, close to Dumnonia's eastern border - the West Seaxe would regard all free Britons in this area as Cornish by this date, whether or not they live to the west of the Tamar, whilst the Annales Cambriae states that the second and third battles take place amongst the 'South Britons'.

The victories are hugely important, as they appear to win the Dumnonians and Cornish a century of peace in which to cement their compressed but surviving kingdom, and possibly ensure the survival of their culture and language much longer than might otherwise be the case. One has to wonder how far the victories allow the Britons to penetrate into Devon - they do seem to recover parts of Devon as evidenced by the West Saxon attack on these parts in AD 814. Also, in the same year of 722, Queen Æthelburg of the West Saxons destroys the fort at Taunton. Could this be to prevent it being captured by attacking Britons?

Dumnonia in Maps - Map 9 AD 722
Taunton Castle
Ine's fort at Taunton has long gone, and the present Taunton Castle - which houses the Museum of Somerset and which itself underwent various stages of development - does not stand on the same spot, but was the original destroyed by Queen Æthelburg in the face of a victorious Dumnonian advance in AD 722? (click on map to view full sized)

726

By the time Ine abdicates to travel with his wife to Rome on pilgrimage, the West Saxons control all the territory south of the Thames, from the borders of Kent and Suthrig to lands in Devon that are probably fairly close the Tamar. However, in this year, the South Saxons appear to reassert their independence, and the West Saxons contest a throne that has no clear succession. One Oswald puts forward his claim by right as a descendant of Ceawlin, but a rival, Æthelheard, wins the conflict despite having no apparent descent from one of the royal ancestors.

726 - 740

Æthelheard / Aethelheard / Ethelheard

A 'kinsman' of Ine.

733

Æthelbald, king of Mercia and soon to be acclaimed as Bretwalda, captures the royal West Saxon vill of Somerton (capital of the Somersaete). In fact, the Mercian king spends much of his time harrying the West Saxons, turning the kingdom into 'little more than a large outlying province of Mercia' (Stenton).

740 - 756

Cuthred / Cuþræd

A relative, possibly a brother.

740 - 752

Cuthred and Æthelbald, king of Mercia, enjoy mixed relations. As soon as he gains the throne, Cuthred attacks Mercia in return for the events of 733. Three years later, in 743, the two kings are allies in fighting against the Welsh. In 752, the two are again at each other's throats, with Cuthred putting Æthelbald to flight.

756

Cuthred's death paves the way for twelve months of conspiracy and murder amongst the normally competitive ranks of the West Saxon nobility. The initial successor is Sigeberht, but he is driven from his throne by his replacement, Cynewulf, and is assassinated by a herdsman in the forest of Weald, probably on Cynewulf's orders.

756 - 757

Sigeberht / Sigebryht

Distant relative. Driven away. Assassinated in the Weald.

757

While his time on the West Saxon throne is brief, a possible brother of Sigeberht appears on the Kentish throne in 762-764, only to be deposed by the most powerful king in England, Offa of Mercia.

757 - 786

Cynewulf

A descendant of Cerdic. Murdered by Cyneheard.

776

The clash between Kent and Mercia occurs a year or so after the flag of rebellion is raised, the respite probably due to Offa's entanglement with Cynewulf. Kent wins the battle, and the Kentish king reigns in complete independence for about nine years, probably in alliance with Cynewulf.

Offa silver penny
Shown here is a silver penny that is in very good condition, which was issued during Offa's reign and minted in London by Eadhun, although Mercian dominance of London would eventually be replaced by West Saxon dominance

785/786

Ealhmund, a prince of the West Saxons as well as king of Kent, is killed (through circumstances unknown) and Kent is exposed to Offa's vengeance. The king's young son, Ecgberht, is whisked to safety with the West Saxons, his father's native people, but his protector, Cynewulf, is surprised and killed in the same year by a rival claimant, Cynheard, while on a visit to his mistress. On his death, his retainers refuse all offers of mercy and fight to the last man. His successor is soon killed by forces sent to avenge his death, and his retainers also refuse to surrender.

786

Cyneheard

Brother of Sigeberht. Killed by Beohrtric.

786 - 802

Beohrtric / Brihtric

A descendant of Cerdic. A Mercian dependant.

786

The young Ecgberht is soon ordered into exile by Beohrtric, who is little more than a cipher for Offa of Mercia. Ecgberht takes refuge at the Frankish court of Charlemagne. Upon the king's death, he is recalled to accede to the throne and is welcomed by a people who are sick of Mercian interference.

802 - 839

Ecgberht / Egbert

Bretwalda. Heir of Kent. Spent time in exile at the Frankish court.

802

Ecgberht, son of the late Kentish King Ealhmund, proves to be a typical West Saxon king when he effectively destroys British Dumnonia (the West Welsh) at this point. During this century the absorbed Britons and newly-arrived West Saxon settlers in Dumnonia's lost lands begin to appear in written form, pre-dating the appearance of the shires into which they would be assigned. The Wilsaete are mentioned in 802, the Defna, the 'men of Devon', in 825, the Dornsaete in 940, and the Somersaete in 845. The former Dumnonian city of Isca is referred to by the West Saxons as Exan-Cestre or Exacestre, meaning 'the castellated city of the Exe'. Over time the name passes through several variations - Exceaster, Excester, and Exceter - and finally (for now) Exeter.

825

Ecgberht gains revenge for his father's death when he defeats the mighty Mercians at the Battle of Ellandon (Wroughton, near Swindon). He subsequently invades Kent and expels King Baldred, installing his son, Æthulwulf, as king there. The sub-kingdoms of Essex, Sussex and Suthrige submit to him.

In the same year, the men of Cornish Dumnonia (clearly not entirely 'destroyed') clash with the Saxon commanders of Devon at the Battle of Galford (the first written record of the county of Devon in the Saxon form of the name). The actual site of the battle is somewhat disputed but recent writers have tended to select Galford on the River Lew in Devon, a possible border point at which taxes could be collected for cross-border trade (Robert Higham points out the fact that Gafol-ford means 'tax, tribute ford'). From this point forwards, Wessex is the most powerful English kingdom, always dominant over the others.

Dumnonia in Maps - Map 10 AD 802-825
The Dumnonian victory of AD 722 seems to have remained largely unchallenged for almost a century, but in the early ninth century the West Saxons won a series of devastating advances of their own (click on map to view full sized)

839 - 856

Æthelwulf / Aethulwulf

Son. Bretwalda. Abdicated (d.858) m Judith, dau of Frankish king.

851/852

A force of 350 Danish ships sails into the Thames estuary, sacks London and puts to flight a Mercian army under Beorhtwulf. In the same year, Æthelwulf wins a famous victory over Danes (quite possibly the same force of Danes) at Aclea (perhaps in Surrey), and then a great sea victory off Sandwich. It is becoming clear to the kings both of Mercia and Wessex that greater cooperation between them is required before they are swamped by the growing Viking threat. Almost immediately after taking the throne, Burgreda of Mercia is forced to ally with Æthelwulf in order to counter attacks both from the Welsh in the west and the Vikings in the east.

856 - 860

Æthelbald / Aethelbald

Son. Bretwalda. m his stepmother, Judith. Marriage annulled.

860

In what seems to be an overspill of Viking activity in the Frankish empire, raiders sack Winchester before making northwards to the Berkshire Downs, plundering and burning as they go. The men of Berkshire and Dorset are ready for them under the command of their ealdorman. The raiders, slowed by their booty, are cut to pieces where they stand, while the survivors flee.

860 - 865

Æthelberht / Aethelbert

Brother. Last sub-king of Kent. Bretwalda.

860

With Æthelberht's accession to the throne of Wessex, the position of sub-king of Kent is abandoned. Kent becomes a full province of Greater Wessex, along with the rest of the south-east. This consolidation has largely been forced upon the West Saxons by the Viking threat. The old system of retaining under-kings simply has to be abandoned in favour of strong central control.

866 - 871

Æthelred / Aethelred I

Brother. Bretwalda.

871

After laying waste to the great Mercian abbey of Medeshamsteade (Peterborough), Halfdan, brother of Ivarr the Boneless of the Viking kingdom of Dublin, leads the great Danish host into Wessex, making a well-provisioned base at Reading. Æthelred and his younger brother, Alfred, lead the West Saxon army against them and are defeated, the brothers barely escaping with their lives. Undeterred, they rally their forces and win a resounding victory on the chalk ridge at Ashdown, killing five Viking jarls and Bagsecg, brother of Halfdan. Two weeks later they are defeated by the Danes following indecisive battles at Basing (Old Basing in Hampshire, 22 January) and Meretun (Marton, probably also in Hampshire, but location not known, 22 March). Three months later Æthelred is dead.

Vikings

871

Æthelwold / Aethelwold

Infant son. Superseded by Alfred during a time of Danish attacks.

871 - 899

Ælfred / Alfred the Great

Brother of Æthelred. Bretwalda. 'King of the Anglo-Saxons'.

874 - 875

FeatureBy now the Danes have overcome much of the remainder of Anglo-Saxon England, including half of Mercia, and Wessex is virtually the only independent survivor. In 875, Halfdan leaves Guthrum in command of part of the army and heads north towards York and Bamburgh. Guthrum walks into the royal West Saxon burh of Wareham in Dorset, and Alfred lays siege and wins a pledge to cease hostilities. Hostages are exchanged and as soon as the opportunity presents itself, the Danes murder their hostages and ravage westwards until stopped again (Exeter is seized and used as a winter base in 876), this time because a fleet of reinforcements is scattered by a storm in the English Channel. The second pledge to end hostilities sticks and the Danes withdraw to Gloucester in Mercia.

878

Wessex faces its lowest point as the Vikings under Guthrum appear to secure control of it after sweeping across the kingdom from their captured base at Chippenham. Alfred, however, survives with the core of his army in the marshes of Athelney ('island of the princes') in the Somerset Levels, where he builds a strong fort. Alfred is able to use his underground network of contacts to muster his army and strike a decisive victory at Edington.

Guthrum retreats to his stronghold, where he is besieged by Alfred and surrenders after fourteen days. Under the terms of the Peace of Wedmore, Guthrum accepts Christianity and is baptised by Alfred's hand. Guthrum returns to the Danelaw, where he rules what had been East Anglia, Essex, and eastern Mercia.

Viking helmet

879

Following the death of Ceolwulf II of Mercia, Alfred shows just how much greater is his influence over the Mercians when he places his son-in-law on what remains of the throne of Mercia. Although Aethelred holds a king's sway he is known as the 'Lord of Mercia'.

883

There is some evidence of a siege of London by Alfred, and it seems that, by 886 at the latest, he secures the town. Ealdorman Aethelred of English Mercia (Alfred's son-in-law) is entrusted with control of it and 'Lundenburg' is immediately repaired, fortified, and repopulated.

886

Formal recognition is made of the situation on the ground in the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. This confirms the Danish and Anglo-Saxon spheres of control, dividing the country into the Danelaw, which is controlled in the south from East Anglia, and Wessex, which incorporates half of Mercia, south and west of Watling Street. The treaty defines the boundaries of both kingdoms and makes provision for peaceful relations between the two peoples.

890

The Norse Viking, Ottar, reports his findings to King Alfred, who has his account included in the additions to the Universal History of Orosius, which the king republishes. The book is a shared work between Orosius and King Alfred. The Kven Sea is mentioned as the northern border of Germany. The location of Kvenland is also explained in relation to the land of the Norwegians and that of the Swedes.

892

In the autumn of 892 famine threatens north-east Francia. Vikings there make their way to Boulogne, where the Franks provide them with 250 ships so that they can cross the Channel 'in one journey, horses and all'. These heterogeneous war bands of diverse allegiances begin to raid along the English coast. One band, under the command of an experienced leader by the name of Hæstan, arrives with eighty ships at the mouth of the Thames and builds a fort at Milton on the island of Sheerness on the Kent coast. In the same season another host is at Appledore in Kent. But Wessex under Alfred the Great is ready. The king's system of burhs helps to pin down the raiders where they can be picked off, one by one. No serious damage is done.

896

Vikings have been wintering at Quatford (near Bridgnorth), but in the spring of this year they ravage the Welsh kingdoms of Brycheiniog, Gwent, and the Gwynllg region of Glywyssing. Asser records that Elisedd of Brycheiniog requests help from Alfred of Wessex, but another reason for this may also be due to pressure from Anarawd ap Rhodri, the powerful king of Gwynedd and Deheubarth who is keen on expanding his areas of control.

897

Alfred experiments with warship styles for his navy. The two styles of choice are Frisian or Danish, revealing the importance of both peoples in the building of state-of-the-art warships. It seems that Frisian masters and crew make up a sizable proportion of the manpower of his new royal navy. Nine ships are involved in a not entirely successful skirmish in which three of the five officers who are important enough to be named are Frisians. Sixty-two of Alfred's navy are killed, Frisians and English (noted in that order). The Frisians and English are still one people separated only by an ocean, and speaking the same language with only dialectal differences (in the same way that the Britons of Brittany maintain close relations with the Cornish of England until early modern times).

Alfred the Great's navy
Alfred's new navy, designed to secure the coast of England, was largely built by Frisian experts and commanded by experienced Frisian officers, but it began a thousand year tradition of defending the island with 'wooden walls' at sea (illustration by Dan Escott)

899 - 924

Edward the Elder

Son. Died 17 July. 'King of the Anglo-Saxons'.

899

Alfred's death has seen him succeeded by his son, Edward, while his daughter Æthelflaed is already married to Æthelred of Mercia, and is possibly the leading figure in that union. Alfred's nephew, Æthelwald, the son of Æthelred I, gains only three estates, those of Godalming (possibly its first mention in history), Guildford, and Steyning. Alfred's widow is granted estates of her own (key sites of importance to Alfred, including his birthplace at Wantage, and also Edington), enough to support her comfortably while her children take over the reigns of command.

However, Æthelwald is now an ætheling with a claim to the throne that, strictly speaking, is better than Edward's own claim. He launches a coup attempt with support from many non-West Saxon nobles, but it quickly fails and he is driven from Wessex. He takes refuge in York where the Danes receive him as king.

902 - 903

Æthelwald returns, arriving on the Essex coast with Danish support, either from York or from Denmark itself. He ravages west as far as Mercia. Alternatively called 'prince', 'elected king', 'King of the Danes', and even 'King of the Pagans', in 903 (sometimes shown as 902) he is brought to battle against Edward in a major confrontation somewhere in Cambridgeshire. Many fall on either side, including Eohric, king of the Danelaw and Æthelwald himself. However, Edward has to give the Danes silver to buy peace (and to buy time), while his own battered forces recover.

912 - 913

Edward the Elder establishes two burhs in the borderland between Anglo-Saxon London and the Danish Kingdom of East Anglia in 912 and 913 as part of the ongoing campaign to reconquer the east. These burhs form the earliest basis for the later county of Hertfordshire, which is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1011.

Mathuedoi, count of Poher is married to the daughter of the late Alain the Great of Brittany, and his son, Alan, is the godson of Edward the Elder. Mathuedoi puts to sea with a great multitude of Bretons and travels to meet Edward: 'this king had great trust in him because of this friendship and the alliance of this baptism'. Brought up from infancy with Æthelstan (Edward's eldest son), 'Alan is strong in body and very courageous, and does not care to kill wild boars and bears in the forest with an iron weapon, but instead uses a wooden staff'.

914 (916)

Edward the Elder receives the submission of the Danish Jarl Thurketel of Bedford. (The Peterborough Chronicle, dealing with local territory, is regarded as being more accurate than the ASC. Peterborough dates are in red.)

Two sides of a coin issued by Guthrum
Shown here are two sides of a coin that was issued by Guthrum at the end of the ninth century which imitated Alfred the Great's 'two-line' design

915 (917)

Edward advances to the Danish-held fortress of Bedford, taking direct control. Although Jarl Thurketel had offered submission in 914 (917), Edward wants to ensure that his control is made effective in practice.

916 (917)

Jarl Thurketel is allowed by Edward to leave England for the Continent.

917 (918)

The Vikings organise a counter-offensive consisting of three separate strikes: a) an army from Northampton, Leicester and the North attacks the new 'burh' at Towcester (from 24 July to 1 August); b) an army from Huntingdon and part of East Anglia under the Danish king, with Jarl Toglos and his son Jarl Manna, advances to Tempsford, where it constructs a new fortress from which an attempt is launched to recover Bedford; and c) an army from East Anglia attempts to seize the new 'burh' of Wigingamere in Essex.

The failure to apply a concentrated force means that the Danes are defeated on all three fronts. They lose a large number of men - particularly at Bedford, where a sortie organised by the besieged English garrison inflicts a severe defeat upon them and puts their army to flight. A local account recalls how the townswomen are instrumental in swaying things their way, when they rush out and attack the Viking force. Later that year (the following year), Edward attacks Tempsford and inflicts a heavy defeat upon the Vikings, killing their king, Guthrum II, together with jarls Toglos and Manna.

Edward becomes overlord of East Anglia, and by default overlord of its dependent territory of Essex and the eastern half of Mercia. Most of England has effectively been united under one ruler - Edward. Only Scandinavian York still poses a problem.

924

Ælfwearde

Second son. Reigned for 16 days.

924

The reign of Ælfwearde is short and understated. He dies just sixteen days after his father and the two are buried at Winchester. Edward's elder son, Æthelstan, has already succeeded in Mercia and now imposes his authority on Wessex. It takes until 925 before he is fully accepted and crowned king of the Anglo-Saxons, suggesting a degree of resistance to him ruling both kingdoms. However, he does so, and a united kingdom becomes an ever more solid reality.

MapThe Kingdom United (under Wessex)

While not generally being recognised as the first king of all England, from 927 Æthelstan actually was the recognised ruler or overlord not only of all of England, but of the principalities of Wales and all of Scotland and Strathclyde too. It was he who united the remaining fragments of the country, including the Danish territories, he conquered the remnants of Dumnonia, and initiated the idea of the Anglo-Saxon empire. Only the fact that the Scandinavian kingdom of York regained independence after his death prevented him from winning the title of first King of England.

This kingdom of all England that had been created by Æthelstan and his immediate predecessors was not 'reconquered' from the Vikings: it was a new and distinct entity which had no previous equivalent as a political unit. Neither was there any overwhelming desire to stop once York was taken early in Æthelstan's reign. A meeting of all the kings and princes of the island of Britain followed shortly after in 927, at Eamont Bridge in Cumbria. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and associated sources, all of them swore an oath of peace under the overlordship of Æthelstan. Charters and coins of Æthelstan from around that time began to style him not 'king of the Saxons', or even 'king of the Anglo-Saxons' as had been customary for his predecessors. Instead, he was rex totius Britanniae, 'king of all Britain'. This was no empty claim, Æthelstan's court - as revealed by an unusually detailed series of charters - regularly played host to Welsh princes and other visitors from all corners of Britain.

(Additional information by Mick Baker, and from Æthelstan: The First King of England, Sarah Foot (2011).)

924 - 939

Æthelstan / Athelstan

First son of Edward. United all English & Danes under one ruler.

924

Æthelstan ascends the throne of Mercia in 924 on the death of his father, and sixteen days later gains the throne of Wessex as well, following the premature death of his half-brother, Ælfwearde.

Æthelstan
This illustration of King Æthelstan, king of all Britain as proclaimed by various charters and coins of his reign, comes from from the Abbreviatio Chronicorum Angliae

924 - 933

Edwin

Third son of Edward. Sub-king. Drowned on his way into exile.

927

Æthelstan meets with several northern kings at the convention of Eamont (near Penrith) and later meets with the Welsh monarchs, including those of Glywyssing and Gwent. All accept him as their overlord. Once he assumes overlordship of British Corniu, and ousts the Danish king of York, all in the same year, he is well and truly king of England.

928

The West Saxon kings are titled 'Emperors of Britain' (quite possibly following a precedent established by the postulated Romano-British High Kings in the fifth century and furthered by the title of Bretwalda under the Anglo-Saxons). The country reaches its apogee under Anglo-Saxon rule, being one of the wealthiest, most learned, and strongest in all of Europe.

934 - 937

The grand alliance including the Scots, Northumbrian Danes at York, Dublin Danes, and the Welsh of Gwynedd and Cumbria (part of Strathclyde), amass their forces north of the Humber in a bold attempt to destroy Æthelstan. The plan fails, however, when the West Saxons and Mercians of the south destroy the alliance at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937.

936 - 942

Having already encouraged a failed Breton rebellion against the Vikings, the monk Yann de Landévennec now calls on Alan son of Mathuedoi, count of Poher to return to Brittany, which he does with the blessing and support of Æthelstan. Meanwhile, the future Hugh the Great of Aquitaine is organising the return of Louis to France. Alan's campaign against the Loire Vikings is successful and he is declared Duke Alan II. Then he allies himself with his cousin, Judicael of Nantes (called 'Berenger' by the Franks) and Count Hugh II of Maine to attack the Seine Vikings (the Normans). Louis also takes the opportunity to attack Normandy.

939 - 946

Edmund I

Fourth son of Edward, aged 18. Stabbed to death.

939

The Scandinavian kingdom of York (comprising York and the Five Boroughs) breaks away from southern English control, as the eighteen year-old half-brother of Æthelstan gets an early taste of kingship, for which he is not quite ready. A fifteen year battle for supremacy begins.

946 - 954

Eadred

Fifth son of Edward.

954

Eadred becomes first recognised king of England when the Scandinavian kingdom of York falls to him. He hands the day-to-day governance of the region to Oswulf, high reeve of Bamburgh while he rules a kingdom united under a single ruler. He and his immediate successors still have their powerbase in Wessex, and still spend much of their time there, but now that they have a far greater domain, Wessex becomes somewhat demoted in that it is an earldom alongside several other great, pre-Norman earldoms of England.