Wessex and her first Christian kings

Two Saxon warriors – realistic portrayal of the sort of warrior farmers who entered the former Roman province of Britannia in numbers, in the fifth century AD.

“Saxon warriors, southern England, 6th century CE”, Angus McBride

It is obvious that the sequence pagan England–Augustine of Canterbury–Christian England is hardly an approximation to the reality of seventh-century history, even to the events as we know them. But it is easy to forget how unsteady the early decades were. In Kent Queen Bertha had been celebrating mass for the best part of a generation in her chapel at court before her husband followed suit; and when he died their son relapsed to paganism for a time. A similar relapse befell Essex on the death of its king Sæberht, at about the same time. To judge from the grave furniture at Sutton Hoo, Rædwald of East Anglia was planning to keep his options open at his death in the 620s and the Christian cause was to suffer a serious setback in the Northumbrian kingdoms within its first ten years.

But this was the world of the warrior code and of ring-giving lords: for the fighting men on all sides, Christian or pagan, British or Saxon, the struggle was as important as the outcome. The year that Oswald of Northumbria stood sponsor at his baptism, Cynegils of Wessex led a victorious campaign into the recently Christian kingdom of Essex (according to Bede, the East Saxons had relapsed into paganism and this was their punishment).

When Cynegils died in 643, Wessex once again found itself under pagan rule as his son Cenwalh flirted briefly in alliance with Penda of Mercia, taking the pagan king’s sister as his queen and then, for reasons best known to himself, separating from the queen; her furious brother drove him from his throne. Cenwalh found exile with the East Angles where he reconverted to Christianity. When he recovered Wessex in 648 he founded the minster of St Peter’s, Winchester, and, with the installation of the Frankish churchman Agilbert, seemed to have secured the new faith in Wessex.

Cenwalh (d. 672) continued to ply the royal trade of war leader. Success in the 650s against the Christian British/Welsh near Bradford on Avon and the annexation of areas of what is now Wiltshire and Somerset, was followed (661) by humiliation at the hands of Mercia as its new, now Christian, king drove a triumphant campaign south to occupy the Isle of Wight. The West Saxon dynast seemed in eclipse. His widow Seaxburgha, the only queen regnant of the Anglo-Saxon period, held the centre until her own death in the early 670s. In the next decade the throne was seized by a pagan warrior claiming descent from the royal house, despite his apparently Celtic name of Cædwalla. In three ruthless years (685–8) he conquered the kingdoms of Kent, where he installed his brother Mull, later burnt alive in a general uprising, and Sussex, recently converted by the exiled bishop Wilfrid of York. He, it seems directed Cædwalla to Christianity; he certainly received large estates in the Isle of Wight, which the king also conquered. Cædwalla’s origins are obscure, his military success indisputable. It guaranteed him the spoils of war and the kind of fame as lord and ring-giver that in turn guaranteed followers. Like Guthlac, Cædwalla adopted the life of faith. He had lived as a pagan warlord but his return to the new religion confirmed it in Wessex beyond further question. In 688 he abdicated the throne he had seized and went, a pilgrim, to Rome; one of the first of the many English kings to do this. There he accepted baptism and, ten days later, died.

Weapons – the honoured tools of war

Thanks to the archaeologist, the early medieval king-warlord and his war band of companions or gesiths stand before us as men of extreme wealth and extravagant display; ostentatious on the battlefield and in the pomp of death. The largest pieces of equipment, helmet and shield, are at the same time the most majestic emblems. (Though even here makers might attempt to cut corners. King Æthelstan’s Grately code (c. 930) warned shield-makers not to use sheepskin, in place of true leather.) Made of wood and covered with tan-toughened leather, the heavy round shield, up to three feet (91 cm) in diameter, mounted with a central boss to deflect blows or be used as a bludgeon at need, could be a weapon of offence as well as defence. It was also a platform for display. Relief ornaments, in copper with applied silver-sheet embellishments, are exquisitely worked in animal forms – birds of prey, for example, or reptilian bodies – reminiscent in shape of the creatures that inhabit the scrolls and tendrils of the monks’ illuminated manuscripts, and mounted seemingly at random for maximum decorative effect, but almost certainly in arrangements that conveyed symbolic meanings to the initiated.

For the fighting man himself the sword was surely the most valued tool of his trade in practical, but also in almost mystical, terms. The Beowulf poet writes of a sword treasured from the days of the giants, the envy of warriors, that only the hero himself could wield. As in the samurai culture of Japan, such high-status swords might pass through many hands, possibly as a gift from lord to gesith, possibly from father to son, certainly at the highest social level. They might be embellished, sometimes by successive owners, with gold fittings or other rich ornaments.

The sword-smith was highly rated in this warrior world: a craftsman of the highest calibre and respected social status. In the law code of Æthelberht of Kent the killing of the king’s smith commands special compensation. As in many African traditions, the ironworker as such was held to be under divine patronage and, like the Roman god Vulcan, the legendary Weland the Smith of the Anglo-Saxons was lame. But whereas Vulcan was born so, Weland, it was believed, had been crippled deliberately by a king to prevent his escape from the royal smithy.

In the early centuries, the finest swords were produced by ‘pattern welding’. The process, as depicted by Kevin Leahy, begins by twisting strips of iron of the required length and then hammering them into flat ribbons. Four such ‘ribbons’ are next fire-welded onto an iron core and hammered out so that the twist marks, flattened into oblique lines, may create a chevron or ‘herringbone’ pattern. A strip of steel is next welded to either side of the core unit to provide the cutting edges. These are now ground and the whole polished to bring out the chevron effect – the blade’s badge of fighting quality and inherent value. By the mid-ninth century, though, furnace improvements and refinements of the smith’s technique made possible the production of quality blades without the need for pattern welding.

Weapons of all kinds, such as spears, light throwing axes or short single-edged dagger-swords (seaxes), which according to one tradition gave the Saxons their name, and, less frequently, swords, are excavated as grave goods and it seems reasonable to assume that the bones with which they are found are those of a warrior whose social status and fighting specialisms can be deduced from their presence. But, by an extensive analysis of some 1,660 male burials in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, concentrating on sword-bearers, Heinrich Härke of Reading University concluded that this does not necessarily follow. For example, some ‘weapon burials’ were those of children aged as young as twelve months, and some of men too severely disabled ever to have seen action. Then there were skeletons presenting combat wounds but not accompanied by weapons of any kind.

Such facts and others have long persuaded scholars that weapon burials had a largely symbolic meaning. But Dr Härke has proposed a further hypothesis. Analysis shows that those adult males buried with weapons tended to be up to two inches taller than those without – more or less the height difference revealed, by other studies, as that between the Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British populations. Härke has argued that the [taller] immigrant Germanic [community] ‘used weapons in the burial rite . . . perhaps . . . to demonstrate that they were ruling [the land] by force; a material culture version of the conquest myth’.16 But it could be that these opulent inhumations, which would have had to be highly public events to make such an aggressive demonstration, were, rather, exclusive family memorials to kinship solidarity. The ceremony attending the baby boy buried with the family sword ‘that any warrior would envy and only a hero could wield in battle’ would, surely, have been one of howling private grief, not of ethnic triumphalism.

Eighth-century Wessex: the first West Saxon law code and the first shires

It was the view of Bishop Stubbs, the great nineteenth-century scholar of medieval studies in England, that when the House of Commons appears it is largely as an assembly of representatives of other, older assemblies. (He was writing at a time when the House of Commons was of some consequence.) He traced this in part back to the shire courts of Anglo-Saxon England. Nearly all were in place by the year 1000 and some, as Professor Campbell has pointed out, were much older: ‘At least three were former kingdoms. Such a shire as Hampshire is much older, as a unit of government and authority, than is France.’

The eighth century opened promisingly for the kingdom of Wessex. The name was coming into general use for the territory stretching from the lands of the Gewisse people, around the upper Thames, southwards to the coastal lordship established by the semi-legendary Cerdic two centuries earlier. It is not clear how or by whom the two regions were united, but the ruling dynasty held to the title of the Cerdingas. With King Ine (688–726) the historic heartland kingdom of the later Anglo-Saxon period secured its own core territories. The men of Kent were forced to pay compensation for the killing of Mull; Surrey was effectively a frontier province (bordering on Essex); while Sussex, it seems, was generally a biddable ally helping Ine in a campaign against the British king Geraint of Dumnonia.

The reign of Ine remains important for his law code, the first by a Wessex king, which survives as an attachment to the code of Alfred and holds the first references to the shire court presided over by a royal agent or scirman (‘shireman’). It seems that the core West Saxon shires of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset, though based on existing administrative subdivisions, may have been established under this king. By a wide margin the Western world’s oldest organs of local government still functioning, the West Saxon shires were already, in the classic English manner, of different type. The first two take their names from royal residences (vills) at [South] Hampton and Wilton. Dorset and Somerset, on the other hand, were named for the local folk, the settlers (sæte), in the vicinity of the forts of Dorchester and Somerton. Ine’s laws are concerned that a malefactor might escape his lord’s control by getting into a neighbouring shire. Apparently ‘crossing the county line’ has been an option for fugitives from justice for well over a millennium.

The shire with its subdivisions, such as the hundreds, was headed by a royal appointee originally in Wessex known as an ‘ealdorman’, though the term in general came to denote an official of higher status; by the year 1000 most of England had been divided under successive rulers into shires, each with its royal official known as the scir gerefa (the ‘reeve’), an administrative officer of the shire (certain Canadian municipalities still have an official known as ‘reeve’). The modern English sheriff has limited, often ceremonial functions. In the US his equivalent, inherited from the colonial period, remains an important local law enforcement officer. Familiar to all aficionados of the Western film, at the time of the western frontier the sheriff was empowered to recruit a ‘posse’ of the county’s citizenry to help him at need. Like the man, the term derives from medieval England, from the (post-Conquest) Latin posse comitatus, the ‘force of the county’. In some US states the posse may still be deployed as a citizen police force, to patrol shopping malls, for instance.

It is also under Ine that the term ‘ealdorman’first appears in West Saxon documents, the first West Saxon coins were minted and the king first began to interest himself in commerce. In fact, it appears that King Ine, whose laws on the regulation and protection of foreign merchants encouraged the commercial development of Wessex, probably stimulated the kingdom’s economy by the carefully planned development of the port of Hamwic, adjacent to the royal vill of Hampton. Population was resettled from the surrounding countryside; gravel and other building materials were shipped on site at the king’s expense; and a new port was ready to join the international Channel–North Sea network of centres, given the generic name of ‘emporium’ (plural ‘emporia’) by historians of the period.

In the 710s Boniface of Crediton, then a monk at Nursling, en route for his mission to Germany, twice went by road to Lundenwic (London) to make the sea crossing from there. As a Wessex man he may have considered himself to be still on home territory. In the early 700s the law code of King Ine mentions the East Saxon Eorcenwold, bishop of London, as ‘our bishop’, which suggests that the West Saxon king considered he had a controlling interest in the place. Twenty years before that, a reference in the Kentish law code refers to the ‘king’s hall’ and the king’s wic gerefa (‘wic reeve’) – presumably the hall within the Roman city area and the reeve based in the wic (or trading area) to watch over the king’s interests in the emporium’s trade. Given its place on the Thames and at the convergence of many frontiers, and its status as an international emporium, we can assume that all adjacent authorities wanted their fingers in the honeypot and that London’s merchant magnates knew how to restrict access.

Boniface had already made his mark when King Ine and his church councillors chose him to head a deputation to Canterbury. Churchmen had been among the advisers, both lay and clerical, the king had consulted when drawing up his legal code, which, among other things, legislated to enforce both infant baptism and the payment of tithes, levies due to the church. During his reign the kingdom, up to that time a single church province, was divided between two new bishoprics, Winchester and Sherborne, where the devout and scholarly Aldhelm, apparently of the royal kin, was installed. In Alfred’s day it was believed that Ine built the first monastery in the vicinity of the numinous site of Glastonbury Tor and he certainly was a patron to the abbey of Malmesbury where Aldhelm, who had long been a student at Theodore’s Canterbury school, was abbot from the 680s. On the western edge of Anglo-Saxon settlement and conquest, the abbey had a sizeable number of Britons among its dependent population. As Della Hooke explains in The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (p. 40)

Although large numbers of Anglo-Saxon immigrants followed the initial raids . . . [or wars, we might say, such as that of Ine and his Sussex ally against Dumnonia] and settled across England . . . the bulk of the population, especially in the west, must surely have remained Romano-British stock.

The original name of the minster of Malmesbury was Maildubhi Urbs the ‘city’ of Maildubh, in Old English Maeldubh’s burh, and tradition holds that it originated around the hermitage of an Irish monk of that name. Irish monks may also have had a presence at Glastonbury. Certainly non-Roman Christianity was strong in the region. About 700 we find Aldhelm, writing to King Geraint of Dumnonia, spelling out the Roman way of calculating the date for Easter and urging that his British clergy adopt it. The approach to the West Country ‘Celtic’ Christians seems to have had some success. Bede claimed that the British already within the West Saxon borders were convinced of the Roman way. Apparently, however, the British across the Severn, the Welsh, refused to eat with ‘the Roman party’ and imposed a penance of forty days on priests who had anything at all to do with the Romans.

One of the pillars of Anglo-Saxon spirituality in Wessex was to be the new foundation at Wimborne, inaugurated with King Ine’s sister Cuthburg as its first abbess. Married for a time to King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685–705) and later a nun at Barking in Essex, she lived a career typical of the kind of networking that was possible for women between the kingdoms of the Heptarchy. Dynastic rivalry was also part of the royal scene and, though Ine fended off his rivals, such family feuding would return sporadically to disrupt later reigns. Like his predecessor, Ine abdicated to make the pilgrimage to Rome, where he would die. Men said it was he who founded the Schola Saxonum, the English quarter near St Peter’s. In a reign of some forty years he had maintained the prestige and standing of Wessex and opened up the field of royal government beyond the activities of warlord and conqueror.

The Chronicle tell us that Ine was followed peacefully by a kinsman who ruled from 726 to 740. A family member named Cuthred, in turn, succeeded him. There is evidently drama behind the brief entries for these decades. We learn that in 733 Æthelbald, king of Mercia, captured the West Saxon royal vill of Somerton and that in this year the sun looked like ‘a black shield’. Seven years later, Cuthred took the war to Æthelbald. Three years after this the two men were allies against the Welsh. For a time Cuthred was endangered by domestic rivals and no doubt he faced other threats not recorded in the Chronicle’s terse chronology. In fact, between the seventh and the ninth centuries, the rule in Wessex rarely seems to have passed from father to son; perhaps the succession should be rather understood as an almost institutionalized pattern of challenge and counter-challenge among families of the establishment who laid claim to descent from Cerdic. In the year 752 Cuthred went against Æthelbald once more and this time ‘put him to flight’. Four years later, Cuthred died.

There followed twelve months of conspiracy and murder among the ruling establishment, in which the new King Sigeberht was driven from his throne by his successor Cynewulf. Forced to flee, an outlaw, into the forest of the Weald, he was assassinated by a herdsman – on Cynewulf’s orders, it was supposed. The next thirty years belong to Cynewulf who, we are told by the Chronicle, could trace his paternal ancestry in direct line back to Cerdic, and who fought many ‘great battles’ against the Britons. For all that, one of the longer, and it would seem more successful, reigns in English history receives little attention from the Chronicle bar the mention that it ended with the king’s murder by Cyneheard, the brother of Sigeberht, whose own death Cynewulf too had contrived some thirty years previously. Cyneheard too was killed and the succession was secured by Beohrtric, another direct descendant of Cerdic. He may well have owed his throne to Offa of Mercia; he married his daughter. Beohrtric was opposed by Ecgberht, connected with the West Saxon and Kentish royal lines, and grandfather ‘to be’ of Alfred the Great. Although Wessex won a momentary independence, Ecgberht was driven from ‘the land of the English’ i.e. England by Beohrtric who was assisted by Offa, and Ecghberht was forced to live at the court of Charles the Great, king of the Franks, for several years.

No doubt the overbearing Mercian looked upon Wessex as at best a client kingdom, at worst a subject province. According to King Alfred, who recounted the tradition to his biographer, Asser, many years later, Eadburh’s malevolent period as royal consort explained why the wife of a West Saxon king was never consecrated queen. A true daughter of her father, she ruled the court circle by tyranny and intrigue, but had to flee the country when a plot misfired and she almost poisoned her husband. Whether any of this was true (was she following instructions?) or whether we are dealing here with a simple case of misogynistic gossip, the kings of Wessex did not, after her time, honour their wives with the title of queen and held their ceremonial ‘crown wearings’ in solitary state. It was a change from earlier times. In the seventh century the West Saxons had been briefly ruled by a queen regnant and as late as the 740s a king’s wife was witnessing charters as ‘regina’ (‘queen’).

Beohrtric’s reign (786–802) witnessed an event of terrible omen for the English. ‘In these days’, records the Chronicle, ‘came the first three ships of Northmen’ – it seems they may have been from the region around Hardanger Fjord in western Norway. One report has them landing at Portland. The king’s gerefa rode out to meet them because he did not know what they were, although, presumably they were not traders, since otherwise they would have been heading for Hamwic. Maybe they had steered a wrong course. It was the reeve’s duty to have newcomers report themselves to the king’s town. They killed him.

It was a portent of things to come. Ecgberht, the next king of Wessex (802–39), who was king of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex from 825, and was awarded the title of ‘bretwalda’ by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as eighth in line of the wielders of the imperium named by Bede, would spend the last years of his reign combating recurring incursions of such ‘northmen’ or ‘Vikings’

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