Wessex

EngliscHeritage

Wessex

Includes – Berkshire, Devonshire, Dorsetshire, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Somersetshire, Surrey and Wiltshire.

Although Wessex is so closely associated with the extreme south-central part of southern England it did not originate there. The earliest settlements of the West Saxons were in the valley of the upper Thames, in south Oxfordshire and Berkshire. the story in the early Anglo-saxon Chronicle that the West Saxons landed under their leaders Cerdic and his grandson Cynric in 495 at the head of Southampton Water and that they fought their way northwards and established their kingdom in Hampshire and Wiltshire is no longer accepted. The archeological evidence indicates that the settlers worked their way up the Thames valley, and some perhaps along the Icknield Way from the wash, to settle in the Berkshire area, around about the year 500. Cerdic’s men were probably small groups of adventurers, great fighters but to few to form permanent settlements. they lived off the land they had invaded and fought their way northwards until under Cynric’s son Caewlin, 560-91, they reached the permanent West Saxon settlements in Berkshire which had been established more than half a century earlier. Ceawlin, a great warrior, named by Bede the second Bretwalda of England was accepted as their King by the established West Saxons and become the first real King of Wessex of the House of Cerdic. Under Ceawlin the expansion of Wessex began. About 577 he penetrated into the south part of Hwicce and occupied the area round Gloucester and Cirencester.

 

Expansion then continued southwards, in the direction from which Cerdic and Cynric had come, into Wiltshire and Hampshire. Under his immediate successors Wessex was unable to withstand the growing power of Mercia. All Wessex north of the Thames, including Dorchester, ite ecclesiastical centre and at that period its only bishopric, passed permanently to Mercia and the rest of Wessex became for a period more or less subordinate to Mercia. Under two strong Kings, Cadwalla 685-8 and Ine 688-726, the strength of Wessex revived and a fresh period of consolidation and expansion developed. Cadwalla conquered Sussex and the Isle of Wight. Under Ine the West Saxons penetrated the Forest of Selwood, hitherto their western boundary, and occupied parts of Somerset and Devon. A Saxon monastery was founded at Exeter before 700. Ine was the greatest of the early Wessex Kings.

 

He strengthened and consolidated his kingdom and re-organised the church in Wessex. He drew up a famous code of West Saxon law which was later incorporated in the even more famous code of Alfred ‘the Great’. He was an intensely religious man his religion proved a tragedy for his country. He resigned his kingship in 726 in order to die in a monastery in Rome. After him Wessex fell again into internal disorder and became subject to Mercia, at this time more powerful than ever the two successive Kings Athelbald and Offa.

Nearly a century later the third great King of Wessex arose, Ecgbert, 802-39, a descendent of Ine’s brother. He had been expelled from Kent, where his father was sub-King, by Offa in 789. He spent some years in the France of Charlemagne and after Offa’s death returned and was accepted as King by the West Saxons. for twenty years Egbert quietly consolidated and strengthened his country. Then the great trial of strength occurred between him and the Mercian King, no longer an Offa, at Ellandun in 825. The power of Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent and Sussex submitted to Egbert; the unification of England had begun.

 

Christianity had been introduced into Wessex by Birinus, an independent missionary, 635 approx. The King, Cynegils (611-43) accepted it and made Birinus the first bishop of the West Saxons with his seat at Dorchester. After a few years Birinus left Wessex and disappeared from history as suddenly as he had entered it. It is doubtful whether he had converted many of his people, but he had made an impression which was permanent. Christianity continued to expand its influence, due partly no doubt, as had been the case earlier in Northumbria, to the devoutly religious character of some of the West Saxon Kings, including the greatest. Moreover Celtic Christianity had for long dominant in the south-west, beyond Selwood; Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset and Malmesbury in Wiltshire were originally Celtic /British Orthodox Christian foundations. The celtic church was only loosely organised. Its influence was spread mainly through isolated monasteries and individual small groups of hermits, such as Dicul of Bosham. But the Christian influence was there which made it easier for the later West Saxon Kings, all of whom were of the Roman Orthodox persuasion, to establish a properly organised church.

 

For some years after the departure of Birinus Wessex had no bishop. Then Bishop Agilbert, a Frank, arrived 650 approx to continue the work. King Cenwalh (643-72) son of Cynegils, made him second bishop of Dorchester. Later 660 approx the King established a second bishopric at Winchester to which he appointed Wine, a Saxon, a bishop. Agilbert soon after left Wessex, the Dorchester area passed to Mercia and Winchester was the only diocese of Wessex for nearly half a century. Cenwal’s son and successor Centwine, 675 approx. 685, was recorded by Aldhelm, the famous Abbot of Malmesbury, as the founder of many churches. It was the great Ine who first organised the church in Wessex. He created a separate bishopric at Sherborne at Sherborne in 705 to look after the needs of ‘Wessex beyond Selwood’ and appointed Aldhelm as the first bishop (705-9). These two were the only sees in Wessex for more than two centuries Under Edward ‘the Elder’, as part of his reorganisation of England after his conquest of the Danelaw, a see of Ramsbury was split off from Winchester to serve Berkshire and Wiltshire, and the two sees of Wells and Crediton were divided off from Serborne to serve respectively Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Later a separate see of St. Germans was created for created for Cornwall. These sees proved too small to be self-supporting and under Edward the Confessor Ramsbury was reunited to Sherborne, St. Germans was abolished and Cornwall and Devon were included in a new bishopric of Exeter, transferred from Crediton.

 

Winchester remained throughout the centuries the ‘mother’ diocese of Wessex and its greatest centre of religious and cultural life. its scriptorium rivalled that of Canterbury and from the mid-tenth century exceeded Canterbury in fame; for it was at Winchester at about this period that the famous ‘Winchester School’ of book illumination developed and spread throughout the southern part of England Winchester illumination was produced at monasteries as far apart as Exeter, Glastonbury, Canterbury, Abingdon and Ramsey (Hunts). Perhaps its most famous product, produced probably at Winchester, was the Benedictional of St. Athelwold, formerly at Chatsworth and now in the British Museum. The school was tersely and aptly described by T. S. Kendrick as the best thing in Englisc art, Englisc born, the first really Englisc thing in Englisc art; and its influence outlived the Saxon period.

From this short sketch of Wessex it might be inferred that there are many pre-conquest churches in the area. There are at least 16 in Hampshire, and about 20 altogether in Berkshire, Wiltshire and Dorset the four counties which comprise the real Wessex. Some are of a very early date; those with towers are later. Some of the churches includes the famous little church at Bradford-on Avon, Wiltshire, was originally part of the monastery founded in the eight century by Aldhelm. There are seven churches if Surrey is included who have towers, all of the eleventh century. They are Wickham, Berkshire, Netheravon, Wiltshire, Breamore and Warblington, Hampshire and Compton, St. Mary’s, Guildford, and Wotton, Surrey.
Kings of Wessex
(known as the ‘Geuissae’ until the reign of Caedwalla, also from the reign of Ecgberht, the Kings of all England)
Cerdic, 495-534 / 538-554, Cynric, 534-560 / 554-581
Father and son of Saxon origin, the first dates of them landing at Southampton and the second dates of them establishing themselves on the upper reaches of the Thames which appears more likely.Ceawlin, 560-591 / 581-588
Son of Cynric expelled from his Kingdom.

Ceol, 591-597/588-594
Son of Cutha and grandson of Cynric.

Ceolwulf, 597-611 / 594-611
Brother of Cutha.

Cynegilis, 611-642
Son of Ceol.

Cenwealh, 642-672
Son of Cyngelis.

Queen Seaxburh, 672-674
Widow of Cenwealh took over the Government on the death of her husband.

Aeswine, 674-676
Son of Cenfus, and a descendant of Cerdic.

Centwine, 676-685
Son of Cynegils who was deposed by Caedwalla.

Caedwalla, 685-689
Great-Great-Grandson of Caewlin and son of Cenberht, abdicated and went to Rome to be baptized as Peter passing seven days later.

Ine, 688-725
Son of Cenred and Great-Great-Great Grandson of Ceawlin became one of the most famous Wessex Kings, like Caedwalla before him abdicated to go to Rome.

Aetheiheard, 726-740
Took the throne with agreement of Ine, like Ine did with Caedwalla.

Cuthred, 740-756
Succeeded Aethelheard to the throne, not known where he came from but he restored Wessex’s prestige.

Sigeberht, 756-757
Kinsman of Cuthred, he was deposed by Cynewulf and the Counsellors of Wessex ‘for unlawful actions’.

Cynewulf, 757-786
Claiming descent from Cerdic, Cyneheard brother of Sigeberht had Cynewulf killed whose relief force killed Cyneheard the following day.

Brihtic, 786-802
Succeeded Cynewulf on his murder, of the family of Cerdic, his parentage unknown.

Ecgberht, 802-839
He has a special place in Wessex and English history as the first king of all England.

Aethelwulf, 839-858
Succeeded Ecgberht was a sub-King before in Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

Athelbald, 858-860
Second son of Aethelwulf, his elder brother Aethelstan sub-king had passed on in 850.

Aethelberht, 860-865
Succeeded his brother, he was a sub-king before the same as Aethelstan.

Aethelred I, 865-871
Fourth son of Aethelwulf who died from wounds after victory at the battle of Ashdown, Berkshire.

Alfred, 871-899
The only English King to be called ‘the Great’, being the father and Founder of England after the victory over Guthrum at the Battle of Ethundun (Edington), Wiltshire.

Edward ‘the Elder’, 899-924
Son of Alfred started the campaign to establish England.

Aelfweard, 924-924
Son of Edward ‘the Elder’ had a very brief reign, dying at Oxford.

Aethelstan, 924-939
Grandson of Alfred ‘the Great’ who was brought up in the Mercian court, he became truly ‘the King of England’.

Edmund I, 939-946
Half-brother of Aethelstan who was stabbed to death at Pucklechurch in Gloucestershire.

Edred, 946-955
Succeeded to the throne on the murder of his brother.

Eadwig, 955-959
A young boy when his father was murdered, he succeeded his uncle on his passing.

Edgar, 959-975
Brother of Edwig, he instituted reforms permitted a good deal of autonomy to the Danes, who were allowed to retain their traditional customs.

Edward II ‘the Martyr’, 975-978
On the instigation of his step-mother Aelthryth and allies, he was assassinated at Corfe Castle whilst visiting his half-brother Aethelred, he became a martyr for his proposed reforms for the Church.

Aethelred II, ‘the Unready’, 978-1016
He had a most unfortunate reign with things which appeared to conspire against him coming now doubt from the assassination of his half-brother Edward who he had reburied in a shrine at Shaftsbury Abbey.

Sweyn ‘Forkbead’, 1014-1014
King of Denmark with his son Cnut swore vengeance after St. Brice’s day massacre where Aethelred had people from Danish extraction murdered including his sister, Gunhild. He died soon where Aethelred was recalled from Normandy.

Edmund II ‘Ironside’, 1016
Son of Aethelred who was the strong arm for his father, but died under mysterious circumstances possibly assassinated.

Cnut, 1016-1035
Son of Sweyn ‘Forkbeard’ elected King of England on the death of Edmund ‘Ironside’ was a very good King considering the St. Brice’s day massacre.

Harold I ‘Harefoot’, 1035-1040
Son of Cnut.

Harthacnut, 1040-1042
Son of Cnut, unworthy King, who thankfully died soon after whilst on a drinking bout.

Edward III ‘the Confessor’, 1043-1066
He was crowned King with no opposition but no children were conceived which caused real problems, he named Earl Harold Godwinson as his heir to the throne.

Alfred the Atheling
Son of Aethelred younger brother of Edward ‘the Confessor’ came to England contend against Harold I for throne, Godwine’s men captured him blinded him to die at Ely, no doubt coloured Edwards attitude towards the Godwine family. Edward the Atheling, son of Edmund ‘Ironside’ came over from the Hungarian court for approval but died shortly after arriving.

Harold II, 1066-1066
Elected King by the Witan as he had demonstrated in the past of a trusted and loyal supporter of Edward and the crown, victory at the battle of Stanford Bridge but defeated at Senlac ridge by the Duke of Normandy vassal of the King of France.

Edgar, 1066
Son of Edmund ‘Ironside’ elected King by the Witan on the death of Harold but was swept aside by the duke of Normandy William ‘the Bastard’ whose troops slaughtered hundreds of people outside Westminster Abbey whilst he crowned ‘himself’ King of England ‘cold heart and bloody hand Now rule the English land’.

Wessex Churches

Saint Laurence’s Church
Bradford upon Avon, Wiltshire

Saint Martin’s Church
Northgate, Wareham, Dorsetshire

Saint Michael at the Northgate
Oxford, Oxon

Corhampton Church
Corhampton, Hampshire

Saint Swithun’s Church
Headbourne Worthy, Winchester, Hampshire