1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wessex
WESSEX, one of the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon Britain. The story of its origin is given in the Saxon Chronicle. According to this the kingdom was founded by two princes, Cerdic, and Cynric his son, who landed in 494 or 495 and were followed by other settlers in 501 and 514. After several successful battles against the Welsh they became kings in 519. Very few of the localities connected with the story of these princes have been identified with certainty, but such identifications as there are point to the southern part of Hampshire. In 530 Cerdic and Cynric are said to have conquered the Isle of Wight, which they gave to two of their relatives, Stuf and Wihtgar. Cerdic died in 534. Cynric defeated the Britons at Salisbury in 552 and again in conjunction with his son Ceawlin at Beranburh, probably Barbury Hill, in 556. At his death in 560 he was succeeded by Ceawlin, who is mentioned by Bede as the second of the English kings to hold an imperium in Britain. With him we enter upon a period not perhaps of history, but at least of more or less reliable tradition. How far the earlier part of the story deserves credence has been and still is much debated. At all events no value can be attached to the dates given in the Chronicle. The preface to this work places Cerdic's assumption of the sovereignty six years after his landing, that is, in the year 500, and assigns him a reign of sixteen years, which makes his death fall eighteen years before 534, the date recorded in the annals. Again, while the annals record Ceawlin's accession in 560 and his expulsion in 592, the preface with other early authorities assigns him a reign of only seventeen years. Further a number of genealogies, both in the Chronicle and elsewhere, represent Cynric as grandson of Cerdic and son of a certain Creoda. Suspicion likewise attaches to the name Cerdic, which seems to be Welsh, while we learn from Bede that the Isle of Wight, together with part at least of the Hampshire coast, was colonized by Jutes, who apparently had a kingdom distinct from that of Wessex. For these reasons the story of the foundation of Wessex, though it appears to possess considerable antiquity, must be regarded as open to grave suspicion. It is worthy of note that the dynasty claimed to be of the same origin as the royal house of Bernicia and that two of Cerdic's ancestors, Freawine and Wig, figure in the story of Wermund, king of Angel.
Whatever may be the truth about the origin of the kingdom, and it is by no means impossible that the invasion really proceeded from a different quarter, we need not doubt that its dimensions were largely increased under Ceawlin. In his reign the Chronicle mentions two great victories over the Welsh, one at a place called Bedcanford in 571, by which Aylesbury and the upper part of the Thames valley fell into the hands of the West Saxons, and another at Deorham in 577, which led to the capture of Cirencester, Bath and Gloucester. Ceawlin is also said to have defeated Æthelberht at a place called Wibbandun (possibly Wimbledon) in 568. In 592 he was expelled and died in the following year. Of his successors Ceol and Ceolwulf we know little though the latter is said to have been engaged in constant warfare. Ceolwulf was succeeded in 611 by Cynegils, whose son Cwichelm provoked a Northumbrian invasion by the attempted murder of Edwin in 626. These kings are also said to have come into collision with the Mercian king Penda, and it is possible that the province of the Hwicce (q.v.) was lost In their time. After the accession of Oswald, who married Cynegils's daughter, to the throne of Northumbria, both Cynegils and Cwichelm were baptized. Cynegils was succeeded in 642 by his son Cenwalh, who married and subsequently divorced Penda's sister and was on that account expelled by that king. After his return he gained a victory over the Welsh near Pen Selwood, by which a large part of Somerset came into his hands. In 661 he was again attacked by the Mercians under Wulfhere. At his death, probably in 673, the throne is said to have been held for a year by his widow Sexburh, who was succeeded by Aescwine, 674–676, and Centwine, 676–685. According to Bede, however, the kingdom was in a state of disunion from the death of Cenwalh to the accession of Ceadwalla in 6S5, who greatly increased its prestige and conquered the Isle of Wight, the inhabitants of which he treated with great barbarity. After a brief reign Ceadwalla went to Rome, where he was baptized, and died shortly afterwards, leaving the kingdom to Ine. By the end of the 7th century a considerable part at least of Devonshire as well as the whole of Somerset and Dorset seems to have come into the hands of the West Saxons. On the resignation of Ine, in 726, the throne was obtained by Æthelheard, apparently his brother-in-law, who had to submit to the Mercian king Æthelbald, by whom he seems to have been attacked in 733. Cuthred, who succeeded in 740, at first acted in concert with Æthelbald, but revolted in 752. At his death in 756 Sigeberht succeeded. The latter, however, on account of his misgovernment was deserted by most of the leading nobles, and with the exception of Hampshire the whole kingdom came into the hands of Cynewulf. Sigeberht, after putting to death the last of the princes who remained faithful to him, was driven into exile and subsequently murdered; but vengeance was afterwards taken on Cynewulf by his brother Cyneheard. Cynewulf was succeeded in 786 by Berhtric, who married Eadburg, daughter of the Mercian king Offa. Her violent and murderous conduct led to the king's death in 802; and, it is said, caused the title of queen to be denied to the wives of later kings. Berhtric was succeeded by Ecgberht (q.v.), the chief event of whose reign was the overthrow of the Mercian king Beornwulf in 825, which led to the establishment of West Saxon supremacy and to the annexation by Wessex of Sussex, Surrey, Kent and Essex.
Æthelwulf (q.v.), son of Ecgberht, succeeded to the throne of Wessex at his father's death in 839, while the eastern provinces went to his son or brother Æthelstan. A similar division took place on Æthelwulf's death between his two sons Æthelbald and Æthelberht, but on the death of the former in 858 Æthelberht united the whole in his own hands, his younger brothers Æthelred and Alfred renouncing their claims. Æthelberht was succeeded in 865 by Æthelred, and the latter by Alfred in 871. This was the period of the great Danish invasion which culminated in the submission of Guthrum in 878. Shortly afterwards the kingdom of the Mercians came to an end and their leading earl iEthelred accepted Alfred's overlordship. By 886 Alfred's authority was admitted in all the provinces of England which were not under Danish rule. From this time onwards the history of Wessex is the history of England.
Kings of Wessex.
|Ceawlin||560 (c. 571)||Sigeberht||754 (756)|
|Ceol||592 (c. 588)||Cynewulf||755 (757)|
|Ceolwulf||597 (c. 594)||Berhtric||784 (786)|
|Cenwalh||643 (c. 642)||Æthelwulf||836 (839)|
|Sexburh||672 (c. 673)||Æthelbald||855 (858)|
The dates are those of the annals in the Chronicle with approximate corrections in brackets.
See Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, edited by Earle and Plummer (Oxford, 1892–1899); Bede, Hist. Eccl. and Continuatio, edited by C. Plummer (Oxford, 1896); "Annales Lindisfarnensis," in the Monumenta Germ. hist. xix. 502–508 (Hanover, 1866); Asser, Life of King Alfred, edited by W. H. Stevenson (Oxford, 1904); W. de G. Birch, Cartularium Saxonicum (London, 1885–1893). (F. G. M. B.)