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Chapter VI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1


Succession of Kings of Wessex till the Reign of Egbert, who first assumes the title of King of England.
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The history of the earlier Saxon monarchs of Wessex is exceedingly obscure; of many, little more than the names are known. Cerdic, who arrived in Britain in 495, was crowned King of the West Saxons in 519, and died in 534, leaving his crown to his son Cenric. Cenric, who had greatly distinguished himself in the wars of his father, appears, after his accession to the throne, to have reigned in comparative peace. In 552 he fought a great battle, however, against the Britons, who had taken arms against him. He died in 560.

Ceawlin, his eldest son, succeeded him. This prince greatly added to his authority and possessions. He seized upon the kingdom of Sussex, after the death of Cissa, and was suspected of entertaining the ambitious project of reducing all England under his sceptre. This induced the other kings to form a confederacy against him, at the head of which was Ceolric. Being defeated, Ceawlin ended his days in obscurity.

Ceolric, his nephew, succeeded him; he died in 598.

This last-named prince was followed by his brother, Ceoluph, who defeated the South Saxons, and died in 611.

Cinigisil, the son of Ceolric, succeeded him, and divided the kingdom with his brother Quicelm.

The two last-named princes obtained a great victory over the Britons in 614. Before the death of Quicelm, which took place in 635, he became a Christian: after his decease the kingdom was again united under Cinigisil, also a Christian, who henceforth reigned alone.

Cenawalch, his son, had to carry on a succession of wars with the kings of Mercia. Penda, whose sister he had divorced, drove him from his kingdom, and he remained in exile several years, but was afterwards restored, dying in 672. He left his crown to his widow, Saxburga.

This princess reigned little more than a year, when she died. Some historians contend she was deposed by her subjects, who disliked the idea of being commanded by a woman.

Cenfus for some time associated his son Esc win in the government, as well as Centwin, the brother of Cenawalch. On the death of the two former, the last-named prince reigned alone. In 682 he defeated the Welsh.

Cedwalla succeeded him. During the life of his predecessor, who was jealous of the great affection which the people bore him, he had been compelled to fly. He carried on severe contests with Authun and Berthun, kings of Kent. He afterwards conquered the Isle of Wight; and would have rooted out all the inhabitants, but for the remonstrances of Wilfred, Bishop of Selsey.

In 688 he undertook a journey to Rome, to receive baptism at the hands of the Pope; for although he was a Christian and a great zealot, he had never been baptised. As he travelled through France and Lombardy, he was everywhere very honourably received; and Cunibert, King of the Lombards, was particularly remarkable for the noble entertainment he gave him. When he came to Home, he was baptised by Pope Sergius II., who gave him the name of Peter. He had always expressed a wish to die soon after his baptism, and his desire was gratified, for he died a few weeks after, at Rome, and was buried at St. Peter's Church, where a stately tomb was erected to his memory, with an epitaph showing his name, quality, age, and time of his death. His two sons being too young to succeed him, his cousin Ina mounted the throne.

Ina was one of the greatest of the monarchs of the Octarchy, and must have been in great favour with his countrymen, who proclaimed him King of the Anglo-Saxons. He carried on war with considerable success against the Cornish Britons, the South Saxons, the Kings of Kent and Mercia.

The high character given of him by monkish writers is owing not so much to his military reputation as to his liberality and devotion to the Church. He rebuilt Glastonbury, and added to the endowment of several other religious houses. Finally, he abdicated the crown, and retired to Home, where he built the English college for students and ecclesiastics, and provided for the maintenance of the establishment by a tax of one penny, levied upon every family in England, and hence called "Peter's Pence." He also added a stately church to the college, and died a monk.

Adelard, the cousin of Ina, succeeded on the abdication of the latter, but not without a struggle. Oswald, a prince of the royal stock, disputed the crown with him; but his rival being defeated and slain, peace was restored. Adelard died in 740.

Of Cerdred but little is known beyond his defeat of the Britons in Cornwall in 743. He was succeeded by his nephew Sigebert, whose cruelties drove his subjects to revolt. He was deposed, and died miserably.

Cenulph was most successful in his contests with the Britons; but, after a long reign, fell by the hands of Cunehard, the brother of his predecessor, against whose life he had conspired. The last-named prince, aware of the enmity of the king, resolved to be beforehand with him; and, tracking him to the home of his mistress, attacked him with a numerous body of his followers, and killed him, despite the courageous defence he made, and the frantic entreaties of the woman to spare him. Cunehard was put to death by the friends of Cenulph, and Brethric, the son of the latter, placed upon the throne.

Brethric, who married Edburga, the daughter of Offa, King of Mercia, shortly after his accession became so suspicious of his cousin Egbert, a prince of the Saxon line, that he treated him harshly, and suddenly drove him from Britain to take refuge in France, where he was honourably received by Charlemagne. On the death of Brethric, who was poisoned by his queen, he returned to England, in compliance with the request of his countrymen, who sent an embassy to him, offering him the crown. Shortly after his coronation, which took place at Winchester, he had to march against the Welsh, who were secretly plotting to throw off the yoke. On his approach, however, they submitted without risking a battle.

Not so the Danes, whose incursions about this time became frequent in the island. At first they were mere predatory expeditions, undertaken for plunder, and not made with any idea of forming a permanent settlement in the island. They were descended from the Goths and Swedes. Their early history is, however, purely traditional, being derived from no more reliable source than the Icelandic legends.

Bound by a limited territory, in a climate where population rapidly increases, it is not to be wondered at that Denmark and Norway were overstocked with inhabitants, and, consequently, forced to send away large colonies. Their natural inclination to a sea-life made these exiles readily abandon their country; and the great booty the first adventurers gained tempted the richest and most powerful of their countrymen to urge their fortune in the same manner; to which end they entered into associations, and fitted out large fleets to seek and ravage foreign countries. These associations were much of the same nature with those formed in modern times by the corsairs of Barbary; and they became so entirely devoted to this mode of life, that very considerable fleets were put to sea. They had the authority and example of their highest leaders, who occasionally commanded them in person, for what they did. These leaders were known by the name of Sea-kings. Their fleets made great devastation in several parts of Europe, particularly France, England, and the Low Countries. In France they were called Normans - that is, men of the north; but in England they were generally styled Danes. There is no doubt that the Swedes and Goths very often joined with the Danes in their piratical expeditions; and it appears that the Frieslanders also were concerned with them in ravaging the coasts of France and England. The Saxon historians call them indifferently Getes, Goths, Jutes, Norwegians, Dacians, Danes, Swedes, Vandals, and Frieslanders.

It was shortly after Egbert's expedition against the Welsh that he heard of the landing of a body of these marauders at Charmouth, in Dorsetshire, and hastened to meet them, believing that at his approach they would retire to their ships. In this calculation, however, he was disappointed, for the Danes not only stood their ground, but defeated him. The unfortunate monarch was compelled to fly, and owed his life to the darkness of the night. The conqugrors, after plundering the country, retired,

Two years afterwards, a more considerable body landed in England, having been invited over by the Britons i'n Cornwall, who were anxious to throw off the Saxon yoke. This time Egbert was more fortunate. He defeated the invaders in a bloody battle at Hengistdun, and the island was for several years delivered from their presence.

Egbert died in 836, after having reigned thirty-six years, during the last ten as sole monarch of England. He was succeeded by his son Ethelwulph, in whose reign the ravages of the Danes became yet more frequent. In a great battle fought at Charmouth, the English were once more defeated by their fierce enemy, who retired to their own country again with the spoils they had collected, without attempting any settlement.

The affection of this prince for his illegitimate son, Athelstan, induced him to resign to him the kingdoms of Kent, Essex, and Sussex, together with the title of king of the first-named place, reserving to himself that of King of all j England, and the kingdom of Wessex.

The Danes now seldom failed to visit England yearly for the sake of plunder. In 845, the Earls Enulph and Osrick, aided by Bishop Alstan, obtained a considerable victory over them.

In 851, the barbarians landed again on the coast of Wessex, where they plundered the country to a great extent, but were met by Ethelwulph's general, Earl Ceorle, who defeated them at Wenbury with great slaughter.

Shortly afterwards, Athelstan, the King of Kent, encountered them upon their own element, and succeeded in capturing nine of their ships.

Next year the Danes sailed up the Thames with 300 vessels, and pillaged London, after which they marched into Mercia, and would have overrun all England if the preparations of Ethelwulph and his son, the King of Kent, had not deterred them. They re-passed the Thames, and were defeated at Okely in Surrey.

Shortly after this victory Athelstan died, and his father once more reigned as sole monarch of the Saxon kingdoms in the island.

Ethelwulph appears to have been in some respects a weak, but by no means a cruel prince. He was very religiously disposed, and guided for years, in all religious matters, by Swithin, Bishop of Winchester, and Alstan, Bishop of London. By the advice of the former, he is said to have granted to the Church the tithe of all his dominions. He also sent his youngest son, Alfred, when a mere boy, to Rome, and in 855 visited the Eternal City himself. On his return, he passed through France, where he married Judith, or Leatheta, as she is named in the Saxon Chronicles, the daughter of Charles the Bald, a princess only twelve years of age.

This unreasonable union so incensed his son Ethelbald and Bishop Alstan against him, that on his arrival in England he was compelled to resign the kingdom of Essex to the former to prevent a civil war. The aged monarch survived this partition but two years.

Ethelwulph, by his will, disposed of the kingdom of Kent to his second son, Ethelbert, and the kingdom of Wessex to Ethelbald, Ethelred, and Alfred, in the order of seniority, and directed his heirs to maintain one poor person for every tithing in his hereditary lands. He died in 857, having reigned twenty-one years, leaving behind him four sons and one daughter, who was married to Buthred, King of Mercia, and died at Pavia in 888. Ethelbald, the eldest son, was already in possession of the kingdom of Wessex; and Ethelbert, his "brother, succeeded to Kent, Essex, Surrey, and Sussex, comprised under the name of the kingdom of Kent.

Ethelbald, a prince of but little capacity, reigned not quite three years after his father's death, his brother Ethelbert succeeding him. In the reign of the last-named king, the Danes once more renewed their ravages in England, and penetrated as far as Winchester, from which city they were beaten back to their ships at Southampton by Osrick, and Ethelwulph, two Saxon earls.

On their landing, in the autumn of the same year, in the Isle of Thanet, Ethelbert offered them a large sum of money to retire, which they promised to do, but broke faith with him, and commenced ravaging the kingdom of Kent, and carried off their booty in safety.

After a reign of six years, Ethelbert died, and was succeeded by his brother Ethelred, who, in virtue of his father's will, mounted the throne, to the exclusion- of the late monarch's children.

The reign of the new sovereign was short and unfortunate. He was continually engaged in repelling the incursions of the Danes, who began to entertain the design of making themselves masters of England. One of their leaders, Ivar, having informed himself of the state of the island, landed with his army on the coast of Wessex, and marched as far as Reading. Ethelred fought no less than nine battles with the invaders, and died of a wound he received at Witting ham in 871.

During his reign the Danes plundered and destroyed the celebrated monasteries of Croyland, Ely, and Peterborough, as well as that of Coldingham.

Alfred, his brother, succeeded him.


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Pictures for Chapter VI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

Alfred the Great.
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The Murder of Cenulph, King of Wessex.
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