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16th century painting of Wilfred receiving a charter from King Cædwalla.	Source: Chichester Cathedral/UCL

West Sussex’s Lost Early Medieval Kingdom Has Been Rediscovered

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New research by UCL Archaeology South-East archaeologist suggests West Sussex in England successfully resisted Saxon rule for centuries longer than originally thought, and a kingdom existed there lost to history until now.

Sussex’s Saxon Origins

The origins of Sussex, England are complex. When the Roman legions departed Britain in AD 410 the islands fragmented into a patchwork of small warring kingdoms. During this period there was widespread conquest and occupation from overseas. In 491, the legendary Saxon warlord Ælle conquered the ancient fortress of Pevensey and slew its British rulers, creating ‘Sussex’ – the Kingdom of the South Saxons.

The Saxons brought with them their pagan religion, which replaced the British Christianity that the Romans had introduced. It has long been assumed that Sussex was therefore pagan until the Saxon kingdoms were converted to Christianity in the seventh century.

Sussex has been traditionally held to be the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom to be converted. Historical accounts tell us that Wilfrid, bishop of Northumbria, was responsible for Christianizing Sussex in 681. He is said to have baptized the Sussex King Æthelwealh and built a cathedral at Selsey, the site of the king’s residence.

 

Map of early medieval Sussex. Pevensey can be seen on the right of the image, and Selsey on the left. (Contour data provided by Fiona Griffin, coastline data by Adam Goodfellow/UCL)

Map of early medieval Sussex. Pevensey can be seen on the right of the image, and Selsey on the left. (Contour data provided by Fiona Griffin, coastline data by Adam Goodfellow/UCL)

The Kingdom of West Sussex?

New research by Dr Michael Shapland, a historic buildings archaeologist at Archaeology South-East (UCL Institute of Archaeology), is questioning this narrative about Sussex’s formative history.

In an article soon to be published in  Sussex Archaeological Collections, Michael argues that the supposed Kingdom of Sussex was not one kingdom but at least three, roughly equivalent to modern-day East Sussex, West Sussex and Hastings. These kingdoms have distinct origins – particularly West Sussex.

“There is a gap in the archaeological record for Saxon occupation in West Sussex,” says Michael. “This is not the case east of the River Arun, where evidence of centuries of settlement under Ælle and his successors is plentiful”.

It is not just a lack of Saxon archaeology that is interesting, but also the presence of very rare and significant ‘British’ archaeology. A 5th century AD great stone hall discovered at a Roman villa in Marden, north of Chichester, is one of a handful known anywhere in Britain (Kenny et al. 2016).

There are also gaps – or at least, things that don’t add up – in the likely biased historical accounts of Wilfred’s ‘successful’ Christianization of Sussex. We now think there were several British churches already operating in the region, depicted in the map above. And why would Wilfrid choose to build a cathedral at Selsey, when the Roman city of Chichester was much more like the sites chosen for Anglo-Saxon cathedrals in other kingdoms?

Michael argues that it is likely that there was already a church on Selsey, and that Wilfrid found it easier to simply lay claim to this existing structure.

“Selsey was an island, whose form closely resembles the ancient centers of Christianity in the far north and west: Glastonbury, Lindisfarne and Iona, where the post-Roman kingdoms of Britain had long retained their Christian identity.”

Church Norton, Selsey. This later medieval church probably stands on the site of Selsey’s cathedral. Mostly demolished in the 1860s, a tantalizing glimpse of it can be seen in a 16th century painting of Wilfred receiving a charter from King Cædwalla, in Chichester Cathedral (top image). You can still see some early medieval sculpture from here incorporated into the town’s war memorial.

Church Norton, Selsey. This later medieval church probably stands on the site of Selsey’s cathedral. Mostly demolished in the 1860s, a tantalizing glimpse of it can be seen in a 16th century painting of Wilfred receiving a charter from King Cædwalla, in Chichester Cathedral (top image). You can still see some early medieval sculpture from here incorporated into the town’s war memorial.

But the clincher for Michael has to be Æthelwealh himself, the last king of Sussex, whose name we now realize quite literally means ‘noble Briton’. “Why was this supposed Saxon king using such a British name? Perhaps it is because he wasn’t a Saxon king at all.”

These complex strands of evidence suggest that the western part of Sussex seems to have survived as an independent British Christian kingdom for centuries after its neighbors had succumbed to Germanic rule.

The Fall of West Sussex

Why was Wilfrid so keen to Christianize a place that was already Christian? Michael thinks this was part of the political maneuverings of the time, when the Saxon form of Christianity was used to dominate rival kings. “Wilfrid’s influence in Sussex would eventually destabilize the kingdom. Æthelwealh was killed in battle by a West Saxon prince named Cædwalla in 685 – partially upon the influence of Wilfrid.”

Sussex never again regained its old independence, but instead passed from one kingdom to another in the Games of Thrones that played out across early medieval Britain. If you go to Selsey today there is nothing left of the old cathedral and palace but the ghost of a memory in the landscape.

Top image: 16th century painting of Wilfred receiving a charter from King Cædwalla.               Source: Chichester Cathedral/UCL

This article was first published under the title, ‘West Sussex’s Lost Early Medieval Kingdom Rediscovered’ by UCL, and has been republished with light editing by Ancient Origins editors.

Selsey Cathedral and the Early Medieval Kingdoms of Sussex will be published in Sussex Archaeological Collections (SAC) in July. A talk by Michael on this subject is also available on YouTube. This piece was published with the kind permission of the editor of SAC. Access to the journal is free for members of The Sussex Archaeological Society; digital copies are freely available from the Archaeological Data Service two years after publication.

References

Kenny, J, Lyne, M, Magilton, J and Buckland, P, 2016 A Late Roman ‘Hall’ at Batten Hanger, West Sussex.  Britannia. 4, 193-207.
Shapland, M, in press. Selsey Cathedral and the Early Medieval Kingdoms of Sussex.  Sussex Archaeological Collections. 161, 117-135.

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