History Files
 

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Saxons & Jutes of Southern England

 

MapWihtware (Victuarri / Isle of Wight)

FeatureFrom its regional capital at the Roman town of Venta Belgarum (probably Caer Gwinntguic to the Romano-Britons, Winchester in Hampshire - see feature link), the British territory of the Belgae reasserted some form of independence in the early fifth century (if not before). The region was tasked with defending the westernmost section of the Saxon Shore in the fifth century. Saxon laeti were probably hired and settled on the south coast for this very reason, arriving in the first half of the fifth century (archaeology confirms this). In the mid-fifth century the political situation suddenly changed. British central authority was locked in civil war, and the country was struck by plague and subjected to a barbarian sacking from coast to coast. Sacking swiftly turned to conquest, and parts of the south coast near Southampton Water were settled by Jutes who called themselves the Meonware.

It seems highly possible that Inis Vectis was a possession of Caer Gwinntguic during the gradual breakdown of central control in the fifth century (the name Inis Vectis is close to the Latin 'Insula Vectis', but 'inis' or 'ynys' also come from the Common Celtic word for an island, and are still in use today by the Welsh and Irish). Midway through that century - probably not long after the civil war, plague, and widespread sacking of Britain - the island was taken over by Jutish settlers from the Meonware settlements. Those of them who made the short journey across the Solent took the local place name, Vectis, mangling it as 'Wiht' and taking the name Wihtware (the 'Whit' people - otherwise shown as Victuarri, or Uictuarii).

'Vectis' is pronounced 'wechtis' or 'wekhtis', so the only change in pronunciation is the dropping of the '-is' suffix, and then the gradual softening of the 'kh' to an 'h', which later vanishes entirely to produce 'Wight'. The second half of the Wihtware name is a loanword into Germanic tongues from Common Celtic. In this it means 'men, male', ie not female. In the early days of Germanic expansion into Central and Western Europe, Celtic words and culture were commonly part of the Germanic make-up.

FeatureThe records of the West Seaxe later ascribed the conquest of Wight to themselves, but Jutish Ynys Weith (see feature link) probably did not become a West Saxon possession until it was seized in 530 by Cerdic and Cynric (although even this event may be a later invention - the real date of the West Saxon invasion is more likely to be 686). The Jutes' stronghold was Wihtgarabyrig, the 'fortress of the men of Wiht'. The stronghold's former British name was forgotten or ignored, but it was almost certainly located at the same place, modern Carisbrooke Castle, which overlies a late Roman military structure which itself could well be a Saxon Shore fort. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle supplies the basic dates but, as is often the case, it provides too little information to be fully useful outside of that.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, 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), and from Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, Barbara Yorke.)

c.450 - 455

The Meonware sail around Southampton Water and along the Solent to settle in eastern Hampshire. They have either left the main host of Jutes who are just starting their conquest of Kent or, having made their way across the North Sea to join their countrymen, they decide to sail further and found a colony which is not under the control of their (probably) Angle masters. Alternatively, they could be the descendants of settled laeti who have integrated into British society and whose existence only becomes noteworthy from this point onwards. Further settlements are established on Inis Vectis.

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

530 - 534

FeatureThe island is apparently ruled directly by Cerdic, king of the West Seaxe (according to their later records). Wihtgar (if he exists) is installed as a client king in 534, probably upon Cerdic's death. The name Wihtgar breaks down into 'wiht', the name of the island, and 'gar', meaning 'spear', so 'spear of Wiht'. Could this be a title for the man who led the West Saxon conquest of the island? It may also be wordplay because 'wiht' is the same word in Anglo-Saxon for 'weight', so the name could also be taken to mean 'heavy' spear (probably in terms of it having crushed the natives).

The Jutes of Wight retain probable family links to the royal house of the West Seaxe (Alfred the Great's mother descends from them), although these are more likely established after the 686 invasion. (See feature link for more thoughts on the Meonware.) In all likelihood, Cerdic's influence over the island is nominal at best, and nonexistent at worst. Later West Saxon records seem designed to increase the prestige of the early kingdom.

534 - 544

Wihtgar

Buried at Wihtgarabyrig. Eponymous founder figure?

534 - 544

Stuf

The name, meaning stump, may have been a nickname.

544 - 661

The island's rulers are unknown; perhaps it is ruled directly by the West Seaxe, but it is just as likely that the island's Jutish inhabitants enjoy a period of peace and isolation from the mainland. Even West Saxon records remain silent, showing that their writers have nothing from this period which they can embellish in their favour.

661

Wight is ravaged by Wulfhere of Mercia, who forcibly converts the populace to Christianity. The island is subsequently controlled by the Suth Seaxe (from 675), but as soon as Wulfhere leaves, the populace revert to paganism.

685 - 686

Arwald / Atwald

From the Suth Seaxe? Killed by the West Seaxe.

686

FeatureMapThe West Seaxe King Caedwalla ravages the island and annexes it to his kingdom. Some scholars accuse the West Saxons of pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing against the Jutes (see feature link), but this may be confined to the aristocracy who had ruled the island. The Jutes of Wight become the last Anglo-Saxons to accept Christianity, including the two younger brothers of Arwald who, as claimants to the Jutish throne of the island are subsequently executed by Caedwalla. Arwald's unnamed sister survives, as the wife of the king of Kent. She is a direct ancestor of Alfred the Great.