The Kingdom of Wessex and the Birth of England
The early history of England was characterized by instability, disorder and uncertainty. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex was the first formation of the modern idea of England, and in its early years it faced threats not only from the neighboring kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, but also from the Danes, or the Vikings as they would become known. One of the most influential kings of this kingdom was Alfred the Great, whose legacy led to the formation of England.
Early History of the Kingdom of Wessex
It is believed that the Kingdom of Wessex began from two settlements. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle , the first was founded by Cerdic and his son (or grandson) Cynric. They arrived in Hampshire in 494 or 495 and were crowned kings in 500 or 519. The other settlement was discovered through archaeological evidence. It was believed it was located on the upper Thames and the people there probably moved there from the northeast.
During these early days, there was little pursuit of expansion. Cerdic and Cynric began a conquest of the Isle of Wight in 530 and the latter fought battles at Salisbury (552) and Barbury Castle, Wiltshire, in 556. However, most of Cynric’s time was spent trying to control the resistance he faced from native Britons and trying to consolidate the lands he already held.
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The lands of Wessex really began to expand when Cerdic and Cynric’s successor Ceawlin, who reigned from 560 to 592, won a number of victories. At the beginning of his reign most of southern England was under Anglo-Saxon control. However, he managed to consolidate the region by winning victories at Dyrham, Gloucestershire, in 577 which in turn led to the capture of Bath, Cirencester, and Gloucester. Ceawlin had, therefore, managed to expand the power of Wessex above the River Thames .
Unfortunately for him, however, Ceawlin was expelled in 592 by his nephew Ceol after deposing him at the Battle of Woden’s Burg. Ceol sat on the throne for just five years until his death in 597. After Ceol came his brother Ceowulf (because his son was too young to rule), who reigned from 567 to 611, and then Ceol’s son Cynegils who ruled between 611 to 643. It was during this period that Wessex began to experience threats not only from the north but also the growing midland kingdom, Mercia.
Cerdic of the Kingdom of Wessex in an imaginary depiction from John Speed’s 1611 “Saxon Heptarchy.” ( Public domain )
Relations Between the Kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex
As Wessex and Mercia both became more powerful, they began battling for control in the regions that now make up England. During their reigns, the Wessex kings, both Cynegils and his son Cwichelm, lost some of their lands to Mercia. Their losses included the provinces of the Hwicce Kingdom, which covered modern-day Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and the southwest of Warwickshire.
Cynegils reign was long and began with an impressive victory over the Welsh in 614. However, concerned about controlling the rise of Northumbria to the north Cynegils gave one of his sons some land in the north, effectively creating a buffer state. He also formed a temporary alliance with Mercia, which was also concerned by the threat posed by Northumbria, by promising his youngest son in marriage to the sister of the King of Mercia.
When Cynegils was succeeded by his youngest son Cenwalh, who took the throne between 643 and 72, the latter agreed to marry the sister of Penda, the ruler of Mercia. However, Cenwalh wounded Penda’s pride by discarding his sister when he eventually took the throne. Instead he married a local woman called Seaxburh. Because of this, Mercia declared war on the Kingdom of Wessex and drove Cenwalh into exile for three years in East Anglia between 645 and 648. During this time, Mercia took control of the Kingdom of Wessex which effectively became its puppet state.
After Cenwalh’s death, Wessex experienced even more turmoil. Seaxburh, the wife of Cenwalh, took the throne after he died in 673 and was the only queen to ever rule over the Kingdom of Wessex. Penda had managed to seize South Hampshire and the Isle of Wight which were then held by Mercia between 661 and 686. It is said that during this period of unrest, Wessex was temporarily divided among sub-kings. Whilst they were somewhat disjointed, however, these kings of Wessex managed to achieve some victories and expand westwards.
For one, the Isle of Wight and West Hampshire were reclaimed by Ceadwalla, who was King of Wessex from 685 to 688. He also attempted to suppress the control and power of the other sub-kings in an effort to establish his own power in the region. He was a brutal ruler, who committed acts of genocide on the Isle of Wight and forced those he conquered to renounce their Christian faith. He eventually abdicated when he was wounded during one of his campaigns in the Isle of Wight.
It is believed that the region then fell into a period of further disorder and infighting among the sub-kings. Ine of Wessex, who took the throne from 689 to 728, emerged as a prominent nobleman who managed to secure the crown for himself. He ruled, uninterrupted, for 37 years. Ine oversaw wide scale reforms of the Kingdom of Wessex and became the first West Saxon king to establish a code of laws and placed a see at Sherborne in Dorset.
Ine also focused on trade and introduced coinage throughout the country. These laws are interesting due to what they tell us about the population of Wessex. They refer to two kinds of people, Anglo-Saxons who were referred to as Englisc and lived mainly in the eastern part of the territory, and native Britons who mainly populated territories in what is now Devon.
The Mercian dominance over most of Wessex eventually ended with the accession of King Egbert of Wessex who reigned from 802 to 839. The struggle for independence from Mercia came to a head when the two sides fought at the Battle of Ellandun near what is now Swindon in 825.
Egbert’s forces won and the Mercians, who had been led by Beornwulf, were forced to retreat north. Whilst the Mercians were still weak, Egbert managed to annex Surrey, Sussex, Essex and Kent all of which were under Mercia’s control in some way. In just a year, Egbert managed to shift the balance of power in favour of Wessex to the point where, by 826, Wessex was seen as the most powerful kingdom.
Miniature of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, father of Alfred the Great, in the Genealogical roll of the kings of England. ( Public domain )
The Viking Invasion and the Kingdom of Wessex
The West Saxons did not only face competition and rivalry from their Mercian neighbours, however. In the 700s the Danes began raiding the coastal towns of what is now Britain and in 865 they arrived with a great army. By this point, the raids had transformed into an invasion. They proceeded to fight their way across the island and conquered East Anglia (869-70), Mercia (873-74) and Northumbria (847-75) where they eventually settled.
The Vikings attempted an invasion of the Kingdom of Wessex, but by this time the region found itself with a strong and capable King who managed to keep the Vikings at bay for much of his reign. King Alfred the Great , the son of King Aethelwulf who reigned from 871 to 899, had come to the throne after three elder brothers at the age of just 22. Throughout his reign, he led multiple battles against the Danes including the Battle of Edington in Wiltshire where the Danes were defeated.
With his victories, Alfred managed to greatly enlarge Wessex’s territorial control. He strengthened his domain further by building a network of fortified towns, known as burhs (boroughs in modern English). These towns were positioned roughly 20 miles (32 km) apart, which was close enough for the militia of one town to come to the aid of another within a day if needed.
There had been a political vacuum left in Mercia after the death of King Ceolwulf in 879. This combined with his victory at Edington gave King Alfred an opportunity to create a new political order. Rather than allowing another King of Mercia, Alfred ensured that the region had an ealdorman or a leading nobleman who would act on Alfred’s behalf.
Unfortunately, Alfred lost some of this power in Mercia when part of it was ceded to the Danes in a treaty with Guthrum who was their leader. The treaty recognized the rights of the Danes and the English in Mercia and effectively divided the area between them. It was at this point, it seems, that Alfred began to be referred to as the “king of the Angles and Saxons” and sometimes even “of the Anglo-Saxons.” A very early idea of an England was being born.
Portrait of King Alfred the Great, of the Kingdom of Wessex, by Samuel Woodforde. ( Public domain )
The Legacy of Alfred the Great
The history of the Kingdom of Wessex cannot be considered without discussing Alfred the Great . He did much during his reign to advance the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms towards the idea of an “England.” Whilst Alfred was an adept warrior and won the West Saxons many battles against the Danes during his reign, he was also an extremely pious and learned man.
During the 880s, from his seat in Winchester, he published a comprehensive code of laws, established a court school with the help of clerical scholars and promoted the use of what has become known as Old English instead of Latin. He went as far as to translate four books from Latin to English himself!
During Alfred’s reign, the capital of Wessex was Winchester. Often thought to be England’s first capital, it stood in the center of the network of burghal towns Alfred had created. Whilst the Anglo-Saxons left little written evidence for modern historians, Alfred’s legacy can still be seen in Winchester today where his bronze statue stands.
Some of the stonewall defenses of Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon city can still be seen in the city as well. These were built to defend the city against the Danes. The city also still holds his 9th-century street plan and his grave lies in Hyde Abbey Gardens.
Winchester Cathedral itself is believed to hold mortuary chests which hold the remains of twelve Anglo-Saxon kings and their wives on which an exhibition has been created. Winchester Cathedral as it stands today is Norman (slightly later than Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons) and is thought to have been built in the late 11th century. However, the remains of the original cathedral which was founded in 642 can see be seen next to it. This was known as Old Minster and was Alfred’s royal chapel.
Statue of Queen Aethelflaed with her nephew Aethelstan, who went on to become King of the English, at Tamworth Castle in Staffordshire, England. ( Wirestock / Adobe Stock)
The Beginning of an “England”
It was from the Kingdom of Wessex, as well as Alfred’s own vision, that the idea of England was born. Whilst it was Alfred who lay the foundations, after his death in 899 aged just 50 it was his children and their children who began the work to construct it.
Alfred had two children, a son and a daughter. Edward the Elder, his son, reigned from 899 to 924 and became the King of the West Saxons after his father’s death. His daughter, Aethelflaed became ruler of the Mercians after the death of her husband in 911. Combined, the two created a powerful force. They both fought against both the Danes and the Welsh and extended their lands in doing so. Aethelflead moved as far north as York where she gained an alliance with the people shortly before she died.
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The first individual to control the entire area of England was Edward's son, Aethelstan. Luckily for him, his sister had married the Viking Sihtric, who was the ruler of the Northumbrians. So, when Sihtric died in 927, Aethelstan inherited his kingdom. Coins and charters from the period have been shown to describe Aethelstan as “King of the English.”
Throughout its history, the Kingdom of Wessex experienced periods of stability and growth as well as periods of extreme chaos and uncertainty. Nevertheless, the Kingdom and its rulers laid down the foundations for the formation of a modern England. In doing this their actions were pivotal to the history of Britain as a whole.
Top image: A statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester. Descended from a long line of kings of the Kingdom of Wessex, Alfred the Great was the son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. Source: Tony Baggett / Adobe Stock
By Molly Dowdeswell
Hudson, A. No date. “How was the kingdom of England formed?” in The British Library . Available at: https://www.bl.uk/anglo-saxons/articles/how-was-the-kingdom-of-england-formed
Johnson, B. No date. “Kings and Queens of Wessex” in Historic UK . Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Kings-Queens-of-Wessex/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1998. “Wessex” in Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Wessex-historical-kingdom