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The Reign of Aethelwulf, King of Wessex: Between Realm and Religion

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The early history of England includes all kinds of different cultures and remarkable figures. And one of the crucial parts of the history of this country belongs to the Anglo-Saxon era. Filled with generations of kings who ruled over several small kingdoms, the England of this age was a land of strife, ambition, and the rattling of swords. But one man stood out – a king of Wessex – as a pious, calculated leader, and a father of legendary figures. He was called Aethelwulf – the Noble Wolf – and today’s story is all about him.

Lengthy and eventful, Aethelwulf’s reign is a topic of much debate among historians today. For some too lenient and pious, and for others a practical, competent ruler, Aethelwulf certainly had his ups and downs, all of which served to pave the way for his son – the legendary Alfred the Great.

In His Father’s Steps: The Early Life of King Aethelwulf

The early history of the kings of Wessex is for the most part clouded, with names available, but the histories behind them largely lost. In that period, Anglo-Saxon England consisted of several smaller kingdoms, which were mostly in conflict with one another and vying for influence over the whole of England. Aethelwulf’s father was Egbert, the King of Wessex who ruled from 802 until 839. Before seizing the throne of Wessex, Egbert lived in exile, in the Frankish court of King Charlemagne.

And it is at this court that his eldest son, Aethelwulf, was born. While ruled by Egbert, Wessex prospered, and his son and heir had plenty of opportunity to get ready for his future rule. Aethelwulf grew to become an able commander of the Wessex army, and was active in the conflict between his father Egbert, and the Mercian king Beornwulf.

Depiction of Ecgberht from the ‘Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings’, a late 13th-century manuscript in the British Library. (Public Domain)

Depiction of Ecgberht from the ‘Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings’, a late 13th-century manuscript in the British Library. ( Public Domain )

Egbert was victorious, with the help of his son, and conquered Kent and the South-Eastern lordships in 825 AD. In turn, Aethelwulf was appointed the sub-king, and ruled over Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Essex. His command of the Wessex army, as well as his rule as a “sub-king”, gave Aethelwulf experience as both a leader of men and a ruler. All of these experiences would come in very handy in the future.

The final years of Egbert’s rule were marked with a new and encroaching threat – the Vikings. In 836 AD, the Norsemen reached the shores of Wessex, Devon, and Somerset. In 838 AD, Egbert managed to defeat a joint army of Vikings and Cornishmen at the Battle of Hingston Down. This victory ended a century of conflict between Saxons and the Cornishmen, and was also the last major feat of King Egbert. He died roughly a year after, leaving the throne to his eldest son – Aethelwulf.

The Early Years

In 839 AD, when the throne of Wessex was his, Aethelwulf already had able sons of his own: Aethelstan, Aethelbald, Aethelberht, Aethelred, Alfred, and a daughter, Aethelswith. Even if he wasn’t too imaginative when naming his children, Aethelwulf still followed in his father’s footsteps and bestowed his sons with the sub-rule of the smaller parts of his kingdom, successfully consolidating his rule. Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Essex were given to his eldest son Aethelstan to rule.

Gold finger-ring, the Æthelwulf ring, with bezel in form of a cocked-hat, with 2 birds and plant on nielloed ground. (CC BY NC SA 4.0)

Gold finger-ring, the Æthelwulf ring, with bezel in form of a cocked-hat, with 2 birds and plant on nielloed ground. ( CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

The early years of Aethelwulf’s reign are largely obscured in history and perhaps uneventful. The greatest achievements of his father remained relevant during most of his rule – namely the annexation of the southern regions were not challenged in Aethelwulf’s time, which still gives some credibility to the power and ability of the new king.

However, during the first decade of his rule, everything pointed to the fact that the new king of Wessex was unlike his father – Aethelwulf was different in the way that he was religious and un-ambitious. He disliked politics and war, but still managed to settle the very old dispute between Wessex and Mercia: around 850 AD he settled the matter of the disputed lands west of the river Thames, managing to add Berkshire into the realm of Wessex and expand his kingdom.

But the threat that loomed in his father’s reign, once more became a very present force on the English shores. The Danish Vikings were raiding along the Thames and in 851 AD, Aethelwulf would have to prove his worth.

The Wrath of the Norsemen: Viking Invasions

Ever since 793 AD, less than 50 years before Aethelwulf’s reign, when Vikings raided the Lindisfarne monastery and ushered Europe into a new, Viking era, the English shores were becoming increasingly threatened. What started as a series of sporadic and spaced-out raids , turned into more frequent visits and large-scale attacks.

Sea-faring Danes depicted invading England. Illuminated illustration from the 12th century Miscellany on the Life of St. Edmund. (Public Domain )

Sea-faring Danes depicted invading England. Illuminated illustration from the 12th century Miscellany on the Life of St. Edmund. ( Public Domain )

As the Vikings – battle hardened and formidable in combat – realized that the Anglo-Saxon defense was often stretched out, badly coordinated, and unable to properly defend its villages and monasteries, they got bolder and bolder and fixed England as a new land to conquer. They were even arrogant, extracting a payment in gold from the Anglo-Saxons – the so-called Danegeld – in exchange for leaving the English shores alone. But even while they took the gold, the Vikings would trample their word and continue with raiding.

And so the Danish Vikings, even though they were defeated several times, kept increasing their numbers and raiding more and more. One of their earlier raids was in 835, when they managed to plunder the isle of Sheppey, close to the Thames estuary. In 841, they ravaged through the kingdoms of East Anglia and Lindsey, and plundered Southampton in the following year. In 844 and 845 AD the Vikings suffered two major defeats – one near Sandwich in Kent, and the other at the mouth of the river Parrett.

But in 851 they returned, with an invasion force the likes of which was never seen before. A fleet of 350 ships full of Danish Vikings sailed into the estuary of the Thames, stormed Canterbury and London, and defeated the Mercian king Beorhtwulf, sending him into a panicked retreat. Then they crossed the river and entered Surrey, where they were met with king Aethelwulf, in one of the major battles of the era – the Battle of Aclea.

Defending England at The Battle of Aclea

The Battle of Aclea in 851 AD was, according to the historical Anglo-Saxon Chronicle : “the greatest slaughter of an invading heathen army that was heard of up to the present day”. Its significance and impact is undoubted, as it stopped Viking invasions for the next 15 years and shown that Aethelwulf and his sons were capable leaders. But the exact location of this battle is a matter of much debate today. Most scholars agree that the location at Ockley, near Merstham in Surrey, contains several toponyms possibly related to the Danish defeat.

Viking army in battle. (Public Domain )

Viking army in battle. ( Public Domain )

Most likely it was Aethelwulf’s son Aethelbald who commanded the Saxon troops in this battle, but nonetheless, they managed to utterly defeat the invading Danes. This victory was a crucial event in Aethelwulf’s reign, as it helped to contain further Viking attacks, and remove that threat for the time being, helping him focus on running his kingdom.

To Rome: A Turning Point

Just a few years after the crucial battle of Aclea, King Aethelwulf made some decisions that would have a significant echo further in his reign. In 855 AD, the 16th year of his rule, Aethelwulf established a set of so-called “decimation charters” – releasing a 10h of his kingdom from tax and service. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that “the king conveyed the tenth of the land in his kingdom to the glory of God, and for the redemption of his and the souls of his forefathers.”

Today, the charters are subject to a lot of controversy and discussion, since the exact motives behind them are not clear. It could be regarded that the act of excluding the 10th of the kingdom from service and tribute was seen as a means to solidify his status among the nobility and the church – a political act that was disguised as an act of piety.

But soon after, perhaps in the same year, Aethelwulf departed Wessex, embarking on a pilgrimage to Rome. The charters were perhaps the means to earn the favor of his subjects and prevent unrest while he was abroad.

Miniature of King Æthelwulf of Wessex in the Genealogical roll of the kings of England. (Public Domain)

Miniature of King Æthelwulf of Wessex in the Genealogical roll of the kings of England. ( Public Domain )

In his absence, he gave the government of the kingdom to his eldest son Aethelbald. The king spent a whole year in Rome and the journey to and fro was quite eventful. He spent some time at the court of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald, and during his return visit, he married his young daughter Judith at Verberie-sur-Oise, the royal palace of the time. She was just 13 years old – signifying that the marriage was most likely a gesture of alliance between the two kings – both of whom were under constant threat from the Vikings.

The exact reason of Aethelwulf’s pilgrimage to Rome remains hazy. Some consider it reckless – as he effectively abandoned his throne when the kingdom was threatened. Others agree that it was a deeply religious reason – Aethelwulf perhaps felt that the Viking raids were some form of divine wrath, and sought redemption through his pilgrimage.

Whatever the reason, the consequences would soon be obvious. Because when Aethelwulf came home, he found that he was not so welcome anymore.

Return to England – Father Versus Son

In 856, after his marriage to young Judith, Aethelwulf – by now roughly 55 years old – went back to Wessex only to enter into a power struggle. He discovered that his son Aethelbald, backed by several wealthy nobles, decided to stop him from recovering the throne – effectively denying his kingship.

Aethelbald gained the support of several key Anglo-Saxon figures, foremost of which were the ealdorman of Somerset – Eanwulf – and the bishop of Sherborne, Eahlstan. Up to that point, these two men were seen as his father’s trusted men, and the reason for their siding with Aethelbald is unclear. Perhaps they simply faced the facts – Aethelwulf was growing older and the kingdom was threatened by the Vikings and needed an able, young, and ambitious ruler – all of which Aethelbald was.

Facing the possibility of anarchy and open rebellion, Aethelwulf displayed his tactful and peaceful leanings, and in order to avoid bloodshed and further crisis, he negotiated with his son and the nobility. They effectively divided the kingdom between them, with Aethelbald remaining to rule in the west, and Aethelwulf ruling over Kent and the south east.

In a sense, Aethelwulf was successfully deposed from his throne by his son, and acted as a sub-king, as Wessex was the seat of kingship. But either way, the act was a clear insight into Aethelwulf’s nature as a man and a ruler – he possessed the reason and the forbearance to avoid unnecessary death and bloodshed.

Several sources point out that Aethelwulf continued to style himself as king afterwards, but without any significance – for in 858 AD, on January 13th, only two years after marrying Judith, King Aethelwulf of Wessex was dead.

His era was over and a new age was coming for the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – the age of the Danes.

Conclusion

Early historians often dismissed Aethelwulf’s reign as uneventful and his rule as pious and unpractical. But more recently we have an important insight into the significance of Aethelwulf’s era and the way he paved for his sons, the youngest of which, Alfred, would become one of the most important figures of English history.

With plenty of reason, a certain amount of stability in his kingdom, and a crucial victory over the Vikings , Aethelwulf’s rule of Wessex was not that bad. He managed to maintain what his father had left him, and protected it against the Danes, solidifying his place in the history of the Wessex kings.

Top Image: Medieval knight. Credit: rudall30 / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Kirby, D. P. 2000. The Earliest English Kings. Psychology Press.
Yorke, B. 2003. Kings and Kingdoms of the Early Anglo-Saxon England. Taylor & Francis.
Yorke, B. 1995. Wessex in the Early Middle Ages. Leicester University Press.
Stenton, F. 2001. Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford University Press.
Abels, R. 2013. Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Routledge.

The Viking Network (2016). The Vikings. Available at: http://www.viking.no/

ODOmatt (2018). King Aethelwulf’s Grave Stone. Odd Days Out. Available at: www.odddaysout.co.uk/king-aethelwulf-grave-stone

Ford, D. N. Aethelwulf, King of Wessex & The English . Early British Kingdoms. Available at: www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/adversaries/bios/aethelwulf.html

Britroyals. King Aethelwulf (839-856). Available at: www.britroyals.com/kings.asp?id=aethelwulf

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Aethelwulf: Anglo-Saxon King . Available at: www.britannica.com/biography/Aethelwulf

Comments

Aleksa Vučković's picture

By all accounts, as you said, Cornwall couldn't be subdued successfully. The river Tamar always posed a sort of natural boundary, and the toponyms today paint a clear picture to the extent of Anglo-Saxon influence and settlement. That's why the Cornish peoples managed to preserve their identity to this day, even though they were annexed to be a part of England. Thanks for reading! :)

Cousin_Jack's picture

Couldn’t have done a very good job of conquering the Cornish, they still occupy Cornwall. Its thought some sort of deal was done between Aethelwulf and the Cornish. Theres a reason why Aethelwulf marked the land border of Cornwall as the river Tamar, still the same as it is today. Why?

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