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Anglo-Saxon Britain

Thoughts on the Meonware

by David Slaughter, 2 March 2008

Editor's Note: While this five-part feature and its two-part addendum series do contain a good deal of valid historical and archaeological discussion, they also appear to take some liberties in terms of filling in large gaps between early records (usually via Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) without any apparent historical basis. As such, they should be approached with some caution.

Part 4: The later Meonware

Having put forward some cautious ideas on who the Meonware may have been up until 628, what of their history after that date?

In 634 a Frankish bishop named Burinius, who had been consecrated in Genoa by the archbishop of Milan, came to Britain and preached to a pagan audience in Dorchester-on-Thames. In 636, Cynegils and his son Cwichelm were baptised there. Bishop Birinius continued his priesthood in Wessex until his death in 650, when another Frank, Agilbert, followed him as bishop of the West Saxons.

The thinking here is that the Meonware might have been converted to Christianity at this time, before Cynegils died in 642. However, it is probably not possible to establish whether there was a mission amongst the Meonware like the Irish one at Bosham in Sussex. When Cenwalh divorced his Mercian queen in 645, his angry brother-in-law, Penda, annexed the West Saxon kingdom in his absence.

Cenwalh had taken sanctuary at the court of King Anna of the East Anglians. Perhaps the pagan Arwald was appointed king of the Wihtgara by Penda in 648, before the end of Cenwalh's exile, the Christian Meonware being content to remain as a province in the kingdom of the West Saxons under its recently converted king. In 661, the territory of the Meonware fell into the hands of Wulfhere, Penda's successor in Mercia. One assumes that the Meonware offered resistance, but that they were no match for the military power of Wulfhere. The Mercian ruler also seized the Isle of Wight, forcing Arwald to accept him as overlord.

In 675, Wulfhere decided to give both his Jutish provinces to Aethelwalh of the South Saxons. It is hard to imagine that the Meonware welcomed this development since paganism still flourished in Sussex. It is equally hard to believe that the pagan Arwald was glad to exchange one Christian overlord for another.

When the exiled atheling, Caedwalla, seized the Jutish provinces of the South Saxons in 685, it is possible that the Meonware were keen to support the atheling's cause and return to the company of West Saxons. This could have enabled Caedwalla to land on the Isle of Wight and assassinate Aethelwalh, perhaps on an annual progress through his island province. Caedwalla's aggressive Christian faith would have been at odds with the paganism of the insular Jutes. The South Saxon king is reputed to have been with his son, but it was Berhthun and Andhun, Aethelwalh's personal aldermen, who were probably responsible for representing and enforcing royal authority in Aethelwalh's Jutish lands.

If these were the circumstances, then Berhthun and Andhud would have had no choice but to launch a military campaign to retrieve the lost provinces. Later, in 686, Caedwalla, by now king of the West Saxons, regained the provinces, but only after Berhthun had been slain while quelling a rebellion in Kent. When Caedwalla returned to the Isle of Wight, he was intent on exterminating the Jutish population, because of their pagan beliefs, and repopulating the island with Christian West Saxons.

This attitude was not about securing the ownership of land recently won by settlers. It was a plan for genocide. Perhaps 686 is a fitting place to end this discussion on the Jutes of Wessex, the year in which Arwald was killed while trying to rescue his beleaguered people from the violence which had been instigated in the name of God by the uncompromising Caedwalla.

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Timeline
Part 3: Summary
Part 4: Later Meonware
Part 5: Language Timeline

This scene is carved on ivory and belongs to the Gallic tradition of the Latin School, dating from the mid-fifth century when the first wave of Jutish settlers arrived in Hampshire. The local Britons were mostly Christian with close links to the church in Gaul, but this did not persuade the Jutes to forsake their pagan beliefs. Nor did British Christianity alter the faith of the first Jutish settlers on the Isle of Wight. They and the second wave of settlers continued to practice their paganism up to the late seventh century. Indeed, the Wihtware were accused of human sacrifice, maybe of the kind used by the dwellers of Iron Age Jutland. Caedwalla vowed to exterminate the pagan Wihtware.

The West Saxon king was soon to abdicate his kingship and journey to Rome, where it is thought that he died of the wounds he sustained while fighting on the Isle of Wight.


It has not been possible to expand and clarify conjecture upon a number of debatable issues without sidelining the subject of the Meonware which has been the main purpose of this article.

Similarly, certain documented events were also staggered such as, for instance, the theory that Cerdic may have launched his naval attack of 514 on the west bank of the Solent. Perhaps the site of Cerdic's Shore here could have been Exbury (which itself could have been a name which had been developed from a Welsh form of Aberwysg = Exmouth), a town which stands beside a large estuary.

Apparently, victory did not come to the aspiring Cerdic without a fight of attrition. Again, the battle mentioned in the annals for 519 may have been fought at Fordingbridge on the Avon, perhaps on the boundary of West Saxon territory by this time, where the Britons could have hoped to break through to Southampton Water. The valley of the Avon in the sixth century would have been heavily wooded and very much favourable for planning a strategic attack.

It is also worth restating that the suppositions which have been offered here are only tentative in their nature.

The Massacre of the Innocents in the Codex Purpureus. This miniature belonged to a gospel book dating from the early seventh century. It was executed by an artist of the same school in southern Gaul as the one which produced the Cambridge Gospels, which themselves are said to have been sent by Pope Gregory to implement the mission of St Augustine in Kent.

This is because there is a dearth of any references with which to source feasible theory. For any concrete evidence, provided it is not conflicting, the historian must turn to archaeological evidence, personal and habitation-related place names, or for Jutish words in the local dialect, and perhaps early methods of building or burial rites which may compare to similar practices in Kent or Jutland.

The main thrust of conjecture in this article could be summed up in the following formula: Jutland > Cantware > Meonware/Wihtware < absorption into Wessex.



Images are free from copyright. Text copyright © David Slaughter, BA Hons, ATC (Sussex), Blue Robe Order of the Welsh Gorsedd. An original feature for the History Files.