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|Kingdom of Wessex|
Coat of arms
|-||871-899||Alfred the Great|
|-||Established||c. 6th century|
|-||Earldom of Wessex||1016-1066|
|Kingdom of Wessex|
Coat of arms
|-||871-899||Alfred the Great|
|-||Established||c. 6th century|
|-||Earldom of Wessex||1016-1066|
The Kingdom of Wessex (pron.: //) or Kingdom of the West Saxons (Old English: Westseaxna rīce) was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in south-west England, from the 6th century until the emergence of a unified English state in the 10th century.
The Anglo-Saxons believed that Wessex was founded by Cerdic and Cynric, but it is possible that this account is a legend. The two main sources for the kings of Wessex are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List, which conflict and cannot be fully reconciled. After Cenwealh was baptised, Wessex became a Christian kingdom. His conversion may have been connected with an alliance against Penda of Mercia, who had attacked Wessex and forced him into temporary exile. During Cenwealh's rule the territory of the West Saxons was expanded. A later king, Cædwalla, conquered Sussex, Kent and the Isle of Wight. His successor, Ine, issued one of the oldest surviving English codes of laws and established a second West Saxon bishopric. After Ine, the throne then passed to a series of kings with unknown genealogies.
During the 8th century, as the hegemony of Mercia grew, the kings of Wessex were largely able to maintain their independence. It was during this period that the West Saxon system of shires was established. The fortunes of the kingdom were transformed when Egbert conquered part of Dumnonia, seized control of Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Essex, conquered Mercia and secured the overlordship of the Northumbrian king, although Mercian independence was restored in 830. During the reign of his successor Æthelwulf, a Danish army arrived in the Thames estuary but was decisively defeated. When Æthelwulf's son Æthelbald ascended to the throne, the kingdom was divided to avoid bloodshed. Æthelwulf was succeeded in turn by his four sons, the youngest being Alfred the Great.
When Wessex was invaded by the Danes in 871, Alfred was compelled to pay them to leave the kingdom. They returned in 876, but were then made to withdraw. In 878 they forced Alfred to seek refuge in the Somerset Levels, but were eventually defeated at the Battle of Edington. During his reign Alfred issued a new law code, gathered scholars to his court and was able to devote funds in building ships, organising an army and establishing a system of burhs. His son Edward captured the eastern Midlands and East Anglia from the Danes and became ruler of Mercia in 918 upon the death of Æthelflæd, his sister. After Edward's son Athelstan conquered Northumbria in 927, England became a unified kingdom for the first time. Cnut the Great, who conquered England in 1016, created the wealthy and powerful earldom of Wessex, but in 1066 Harold II reunited the earldom with the crown and Wessex then ceased to be a political unit.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Wessex was founded by Cerdic and Cynric, chieftains of a clan known as the Gewisse, who were said to have landed on the Hampshire coast and conquered the surrounding area, including the Isle of Wight. However, the specific events given by the Chronicle are in some doubt: archæological evidence points instead to a considerable early Anglo-Saxon presence in the upper valley of the river Thames, the Cotswolds area and from The Wash along the Icknield Way. The centre of gravity of Wessex in the late 6th and early 7th century seems to have lain farther to the north than in later periods, following successful expansion to the south and west. Bede stated that the Isle of Wight was settled not by Saxons but by Jutes, who also settled on the Hampshire coast, where they were known as the Meonwara, and that these areas were only acquired by Wessex in the later 7th century. It is therefore possible that the Chronicle's account is a product of the circumstances of the 8th and 9th centuries being projected back into the past to create an origin story of the ruling kinship appropriate to the contemporary form of the kingdom.
The names of some of the early West Saxon leaders appear to be British in origin, including the dynastic founder Cerdic (being a form of Ceredic or Caradoc) and Cædwalla (from Cadwallon, a Welsh name derived from the same element in the ethnonym Catuvellauni). These are interspersed with Old English names such as Ceolwulf, Cenberht and Aescwine. This variation might suggest the early rulers came from a hybrid Anglo-British dynasty or that the rule of early Wessex shifted between more than one royal clan, but this is conjecture.
The two main sources for the names and dates of the kings of Wessex are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and an associated document known as the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List. The Chronicle gives small genealogies in multiple places, under the annals for different years. However, these sources conflict in various ways and cannot be fully reconciled. A recent analysis by David Dumville that has produced a set of plausible dates for the West Saxon kings has been used by other scholars, but it cannot be regarded as definitive.
The Chronicle gives 495 as the date for Cerdic's arrival in Britain, "495. There came two eaorlmen to Britain, Cerdic and Cynric his son, with five ships, to a place called Cerdicesora, on the same day they fought the Welsh", but the historian F. M. Stenton gave evidence of doubled entries in the Chronicle, which suggests an early 6th century date for the arrival of the ancestor of the Wessex ruling kinship. The location of Cerdicesora (or "Cerdic's Shore") is generally believed to be somewhere on Southampton Water, perhaps at Calshot.
After making a beachhead and consolidating their position, the invaders next fought the Britons at the Battle of Natanleod, the location of which has been placed at Netley Marsh, "508. This year Cerdic and Cynric killed a British king named Natanleod, and five thousand men with him. After that the land was known as Natanleag up to Cerdicesford". Cerdicesford has been placed at various locations in southern Hampshire, including Chandler's Ford. The historian Albany Major places the site at Charford at the crossing of the river Avon, close to the border with Wiltshire.
The Chronicle appears to repeat itself with the annals for 514 and 519: "514. The West-Saxons came to Briton with 3 ships to a place called Cerdicesora and in the same year they fought the Britons and put them to flight", and "519. Cerdic and Cynric received the West-Saxon kingdom, and the same year they fought with the Britons, in a place now called Cerdicesford. The royal line of Wessex ruled from that day". Despite the repetition, there may have been multiple landings along the part of the coast known to the Saxons as Cerdic's Shore. It is likely that both Winchester and Silchester would have fallen to the West Saxons between the years 508 and 514, but this transition is only suggested by the absence of these important towns in the later annals of the British scribes. A later thrust by the West Saxons up the Avon towards Old Sarum in 519 appears to have been checked by the Britons at Charford. Albany Major, in Early Wars of Wessex, makes the case that the borders of Hampshire probably matched those of the first West Saxon kingdom established by Cerdic and his son. Evidence of this comes from the border between Hampshire and Berkshire, which generally follows the line of the Roman road that ran east and west through Silchester, but is deflected in the north in a rough semicircle, in such a way as to include the whole district around the town. Major argues that the capture of Silchester, of which no record has survived, was not the work of Angles but of the West Saxons, who probably struck north from Winchester, possibly acting in concert with a separate force making its way up the Thames Valley towards Reading. Silchester was desolated after its fall and it is most improbable that any regard would have been paid to its side of the border had the fixing of the county boundary been made at a later period.
A study of the borders between Hampshire and Wiltshire also seem to suggest the West Saxons' westward advance was checked by about 519. This would corroborate the date given in the Annales Cambriae for the crucial British victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus in 517, which is believed to have stopped further Anglo-Saxon encroachments in south-west and mid- Britain for at least a generation.
It is not clear for how long Cerdic ruled, but he was succeeded by Cynric in about 554. Cynric is named as Cerdic's son by some sources but his grandson in others, which name Creoda as Cynric's father. It is presumed that Ceawlin, who succeeded Cynric in about 581, was his son. Ceawlin's reign is thought to be more reliably documented than those of his predecessors, though the Chronicle's dates of 560 to 592 are different from the revised chronology. Ceawlin overcame pockets of resisting Britons to the northeast, in the Chilterns, Gloucestershire and Somerset. The capture of Cirencester, Gloucester and Bath in 577, after the pause caused by the battle of Mons Badonicus, opened the way to the southwest.
Ceawlin is one of the seven kings named in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People as holding "imperium" over the southern English: the Chronicle later repeated this claim, referring to Ceawlin as a bretwalda, or "Britain-ruler". Ceawlin was deposed, perhaps by his successor, a nephew named Ceol, and died a year later. Six years later, in about 594, Ceol was succeeded by a brother, Ceolwulf, who was succeeded in his turn in about 617 by Cynegils. The genealogies do not agree on Cynegils' pedigree: his father is variously given as Ceola, Ceolwulf, Ceol, Cuthwine, Cutha or Cuthwulf.
It is in Cynegils' reign that the first event in West Saxon history that can be dated with reasonable certainty occurs: the baptism of Cynegils by Birinus, which happened at the end of the 630s, perhaps in 640. Birinus was then established as bishop of the West Saxons, with his seat at Dorchester-on-Thames. This was the first conversion to Christianity by a West Saxon king, but it was not accompanied by the immediate conversion of all the West Saxons: Cynegils' successor (and probably his son), Cenwealh, who came to the throne in about 642, was a pagan at his accession. However, he too was baptised only a few years later and Wessex became firmly established as a Christian kingdom. Cynegils's godfather was King Oswald of Northumbria and his conversion may have been connected with an alliance against King Penda of Mercia, who had previously attacked Wessex.
These attacks marked the beginning of sustained pressure from the expanding kingdom of Mercia. In time this would deprive Wessex of its territories north of the Thames and the Avon, encouraging the kingdom's reorientation southwards. Cenwealh married Penda's daughter, and when he repudiated her, Penda again invaded and drove him into exile for some time, perhaps three years. The dates are uncertain but it was probably in the late 640s or early 650s. He spent his exile in East Anglia, and was converted to Christianity there. After his return, Cenwealh faced further attacks from Penda's successor Wulfhere, but was able to expand West Saxon territory in Somerset at the expense of the Britons. He established a second bishopric at Winchester, while the one at Dorchester was soon abandoned as Mercian power pushed southwards. Winchester would eventually develop into the effective capital of Wessex.
After Cenwealh's death in 673, his widow, Seaxburh, held the throne for a year; she was followed by Aescwine, who was apparently descended from another brother of Ceawlin. This was one of several occasions on which the kingship of Wessex is said to have passed to a remote branch of the royal family with an unbroken male line of descent from Cerdic; these claims may be genuine, or may reflect the spurious assertion of descent from Cerdic to legitimise a new dynasty. Aescwine's reign only lasted two years, and in 676 the throne passed back to the immediate family of Cenwealh with the accession of his brother Centwine. Centwine is known to have fought and won battles against the Britons, but the details have not survived.
Centwine was succeeded by another supposed distant relative, Caedwalla, who claimed descent from Ceawlin. Caedwalla reigned for just two years, but achieved a dramatic expansion of the kingdom's power, conquering the kingdoms of Sussex, Kent and the Isle of Wight, although Kent regained its independence almost immediately and Sussex followed some years later. His reign ended in 688 when he went on pilgrimage to Rome, where he was baptised by the Pope and died soon afterwards.
His successor was Ine, who also claimed to be a descendant of Cerdic through Ceawlin, but again through a long-separated line of descent. Ine was the most durable of the West Saxon kings, reigning for 38 years. He issued the oldest surviving English code of laws apart from those of the kingdom of Kent, and established a second West Saxon bishopric at Sherborne, covering the territories west of Selwood Forest. Near the end of his life he followed in Caedwalla's footsteps by abdicating and making a pilgrimage to Rome. The throne then passed to a series of other kings who claimed descent from Cerdic but whose supposed genealogies and relationship to one another are unknown.
During the 8th century Wessex was overshadowed by Mercia, whose power was then at its height, and the West Saxon kings may at times have acknowledged Mercian overlordship. They were, however, able to avoid the more substantial control which Mercia exerted over smaller kingdoms. During this period Wessex continued its gradual advance to the west, overwhelming the British kingdom of Dumnonia. At this time Wessex took de-facto control over much of Devon, although Britons retained a degree of independence in Devon until at least the tenth century. As a result of the Mercian conquest of the northern portion of its early territories in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, the Thames and the Avon now probably formed the northern boundary of Wessex, while its heartland lay in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Dorset and Somerset. The system of shires which was later to form the basis of local administration throughout England (and eventually, Ireland, Wales and Scotland as well) originated in Wessex, and had been established by the mid-eighth century.
In 802 the fortunes of Wessex were transformed by the accession of Egbert who came from a cadet branch of the ruling dynasty that claimed descent from Ine's brother Ingild. With his accession the throne became firmly established in the hands of a single lineage. Early in his reign he conducted two campaigns against the "West Welsh", first in 813 and then again at Gafulford in 825. During the course of these campaigns he conquered the western Britons still in Devon and reduced those beyond the River Tamar, now Cornwall, to the status of a vassal. In 825 or 826 he overturned the political order of England by decisively defeating King Beornwulf of Mercia at Ellendun and seizing control of Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Essex from the Mercians, while with his help East Anglia broke away from Mercian control. In 829 he conquered Mercia, driving its King Wiglaf into exile, and secured acknowledgment of his overlordship from the king of Northumbria. He thereby became the Bretwalda, or high king of Britain. This position of dominance was short-lived, as Wiglaf returned and restored Mercian independence in 830, but the expansion of Wessex across south-eastern England proved permanent.
Egbert's later years saw the beginning of Danish Viking raids on Wessex, which occurred frequently from 835 onwards. In 851 a huge Danish army, said to have been carried on 350 ships, arrived in the Thames estuary. Having defeated King Beorhtwulf of Mercia in battle, the Danes moved on to invade Wessex, but were decisively crushed by Egbert's son and successor King Aethelwulf in the exceptionally bloody Battle of Aclea. This victory postponed Danish conquests in England for fifteen years, but raids on Wessex continued.
In 855-6 Aethelwulf went on pilgrimage to Rome and his eldest surviving son Aethelbald took advantage of his absence to seize his father's throne. On his return, Aethelwulf agreed to divide the kingdom with his son to avoid bloodshed, ruling the new territories in the east while Aethelbald held the old heartland in the west. Aethelwulf was succeeded by each of his four surviving sons ruling one after another: the rebellious Aethelbald, then Ethelbert, who had previously inherited the eastern territories from his father and who reunited the kingdom on Aethelbald's death, then Aethelred, and finally Alfred the Great. This occurred because the first two brothers died in wars with the Danes without issue, while Aethelred's sons were too young to rule when their father died.
In 865, another enormous Danish army arrived in England. Over the following years, this army overwhelmed the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia. Wessex was invaded in 871, and although Aethelred and Alfred won some victories and succeeded in preventing the conquest of their kingdom, a number of defeats, heavy losses of men and the arrival of a fresh Danish army in England compelled Alfred to pay the Danes to leave Wessex. The Danes spent the next few years subduing Mercia and some of them settled in Northumbria, but the rest returned to Wessex in 876. Alfred responded effectively and was able with little fighting to bring about their withdrawal in 877. A portion of the Danish army settled in Mercia, but at the beginning of 878 the remaining Danes mounted a winter invasion of Wessex, taking Alfred by surprise and overrunning much of the kingdom. Alfred was reduced to taking refuge with a small band of followers in the marshes of the Somerset Levels, but after a few months he was able to gather an army and defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington, bringing about their final withdrawal from Wessex to settle in East Anglia.
Over the following years Alfred carried out a dramatic reorganisation of the government and defences of Wessex, building warships, organising the army into two shifts which served alternately and establishing a system of fortified burhs across the kingdom. This system is recorded in a 10th century document known as the Burghal Hidage, which details the location and garrisoning requirements of thirty-three forts, whose positioning ensured that no one in Wessex was more than a long day's ride from a place of safety. In the 890s these reforms helped him to repulse the invasion of another huge Danish army – which was aided by the Danes settled in England – with minimal losses.
Alfred also reformed the administration of justice, issued a new law code and championed a revival of scholarship and education. He gathered scholars from around England and elsewhere in Europe to his court, and with their help translated a range of Latin texts into English, doing much of the work in person, and orchestrated the composition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As a result of these literary efforts and the political dominance of Wessex, the West Saxon dialect of this period became the standard written form of Old English for the rest of the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond.
The Danish conquests had destroyed the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia and divided Mercia in half, with the Danes settling in the north-east while the south-west was left to the English king Ceolwulf, allegedly a Danish puppet. When Ceolwulf's rule came to an end he was succeeded as ruler of "English Mercia" not by another king but by a mere ealdorman named Aethelred, who acknowledged Alfred's overlordship and married his daughter Ethelfleda. The process by which this transformation of the status of Mercia took place is unknown, but it left Alfred as the only remaining English king.
After the invasions of the 890s, Wessex and English Mercia continued to be attacked by the Danish settlers in England, and by small Danish raiding forces from overseas, but these incursions were usually defeated, while there were no further major invasions from the continent. The balance of power tipped steadily in favour of the English. In 911 Ealdorman Aethelred died, leaving his widow, Alfred's daughter Aethelflaed, in charge of Mercia. Alfred's son and successor Edward the Elder, then annexed London, Oxford and the surrounding area, probably including Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, from Mercia to Wessex. Between 913 and 918 a series of English offensives overwhelmed the Danes of Mercia and East Anglia, bringing all of England south of the Humber under Edward's power. In 918 Aethelflaed died and Edward took over direct control of Mercia, extinguishing what remained of its independence and ensuring that thenceforth there would be only one Kingdom of the English. In 927 Edward's successor Athelstan conquered Northumbria, bringing the whole of England under one ruler for the first time. The Kingdom of Wessex had thus been transformed into the Kingdom of England.
Although Wessex had now effectively been subsumed into the larger kingdom which its expansion had created, like the other former kingdoms, it continued for a time to have a distinct identity which periodically found renewed political expression. After the death of King Eadred in 955, England was divided between his two sons, with the elder Edwy ruling in Wessex while Mercia passed to his younger brother Edgar. However, in 959, Edwy died and the whole of England came under Edgar's control.
After the conquest of England by the Danish king Cnut in 1016, he established earldoms based on the former kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, but initially administered Wessex personally. Within a few years, however, he had created an earldom of Wessex, encompassing all of England south of the Thames, for his English henchman Godwin. For almost fifty years the vastly wealthy holders of this earldom, first Godwin and then his son Harold, were the most powerful men in English politics after the king. Finally, on the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, Harold became king, reuniting the earldom of Wessex with the crown. No new earl was appointed before the ensuing Norman Conquest of England, and as the Norman kings soon did away with the great earldoms of the late Anglo-Saxon period, 1066 marks the extinction of Wessex as a political unit.
Both Henry of Huntingdon and Matthew of Westminster talk of a golden dragon being raised at the Battle of Burford in AD 752 by the West Saxons. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts a fallen golden dragon, as well as a red/golden/white dragon at the death of King Harold II, who was previously Earl of Wessex. However, dragon standards were in fairly wide use in Europe at the time, being derived from the ensign of the Roman cohort, and there is no evidence that it identified Wessex.
A panel of 18th century stained glass at Exeter Cathedral indicates that the association of a dragon with the kingdom of Wessex pre-dates the Victorians. Nevertheless, the association was popularised in the 19th century, particularly in the writings of E A Freeman. By the time of the grant of armorial bearings by the College of Arms to Somerset County Council in 1911, a (red) dragon had become the accepted heraldic emblem of the former kingdom. This precedent was followed in 1937 when Wiltshire County Council was granted arms. Two gold Wessex dragons were later granted as supporters to the arms of Dorset County Council in 1950.
In the British Army the wyvern has been used to represent Wessex: The 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division adopted a formation sign consisting of a gold wyvern on a black background, and both the Wessex Brigade and Wessex Regiments used a cap badge featuring the heraldic beast.
When Sophie, Countess of Wessex was granted arms, the sinister supporter assigned was a blue wyvern, described by the College of Arms as "an heraldic beast which has long been associated with Wessex".
The Wessex Society have promoted the use of a flag, designed by William Crampton, which features an heraldic golden wyvern on a red background.
A coat of arms was attributed by medieval heralds to the Kings of Wessex. These arms appear in a manuscript of the thirteenth century, and are blazoned as Azure, a cross patonce between four martlets Or.
The assigning of arms to the West Saxon kings is prochronistic as heraldry did not develop until the twelfth century, though in this case the design was based on a genuine object; the pattern on the reverse of a silver penny of the reign of King Edward the Confessor, as reinterpreted by later heralds. These arms continued to be used to represent the kingdom for centuries after their invention and as the "Arms of Edward the Confessor" the design appears a number of church windows in derived shields such as the Arms of the Collegeate Church of St Peter at Westminster (Westminster Abbey, which was founded by the king).
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The English author Thomas Hardy used a fictionalised Wessex as a setting for many of his novels, adopting his friend William Barnes' term Wessex for their home county of Dorset and its neighbouring counties in the south and west of England. Hardy's Wessex excluded Devon, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, but the city of Oxford, which he called "Christminster", was visited as part of Wessex in Jude the Obscure. He gave each of his Wessex counties a fictionalised name, such as for Berkshire, which is known in the novels as "North Wessex".
A movement exists in south-central England which aims to create a new regional cultural and political identity for Wessex. The movement consists of three distinct but interlinked organisations: the Wessex Regionalist Party, a registered political party which contests elections; the Wessex Constitutional Convention, an all-party pressure group in which those who are sympathetic to devolution for Wessex but who are not members of the Wessex Regionalist Party can be represented; and the Wessex Society, which is a cultural society devoted to promoting the distinctive identity of the region, while remaining politically neutral. The Wessex Constitutional Convention and the Wessex Regionalist Party both do not believe that Cornwall should form part of a devolved Wessex region, the boundaries of which remain unclear. Because it does not take a political position regarding devolution to a strictly defined territory, the Wessex Society can afford to assume a relaxed position about where exactly the boundaries of cultural Wessex lie. The Wessex Regionalists had used Hardy's definition of Wessex for their political Wessex Region, but today the party also includes Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. In the 2010 UK General Election, the Wessex Regionalists contested the West Oxfordshire parliamentary seat of Witney. An eight county definition of Wessex has been criticised from a number of quarters. Some people regard Hardy's definition as correct on the grounds that the counties north of the Thames, along with Berkshire and north-east Somerset, were part of Mercia for much of the Anglo-Saxon period. Others would argue that many people in Devon would identify more closely with Cornwall and with the ancient celtic kingdom of Dumnonia, or simply that references to the Dark Ages are not relevant to a modern region defined by its geography.
The Wessex regionalist organisations justify their eight-shire definition of Wessex in terms both of modern regional geography and (less convincingly) early English history. They point to the impossibility of pleasing everyone as an argument against change to their definition of Wessex at the present time, though they do not rule out the possibility of change in the future if the popular will demands it.