Wessex was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the West Saxons, in South West England, from the 6th century, until the emergence of the English state in the 9th century, under the Wessex dynasty. It was to be an earldom after Canute the Great's conquest of 1016, from 1020 to 1066. After the Norman Conquest there was a dissollution of the English earldoms, and Wessex was split between the followers of William the Conqueror.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), Wessex was founded by Cerdic and Cynric, chieftains of a clan known as " Gewisse". They are said to have landed on the Hampshire coast and conquered the surrounding area, including the Isle of Wight. However, the specific events given by the ASC are in some doubt. Archæological evidence points to a considerable early Anglo-Saxon presence in the upper Thames valley and Cotswolds area as well as in Hampshire, and the centre of gravity of Wessex in the late sixth and early seventh century seems to have lain further to the north than in later periods. Bede states that the Isle of Wight was settled not by Saxons but Jutes, who also settled on the Hampshire coast, and that these areas were only acquired by Wessex in the later seventh century. It is therefore possible that the ASC account is a product of the circumstances of the eighth and ninth centuries being projected back into the past to create an origin story appropriate to the contemporary form of the kingdom.
The two main sources for the names and dates of the kings of Wessex are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and an associated document known as the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List. The Chronicle gives small genealogies in multiple places, under the annals for different years. These sources, however, conflict in various ways, and cannot be fully reconciled. A recent analysis by David Dumville has produced a set of plausible dates for the West Saxon kings; has been used by other scholars but cannot be regarded as definitive. Dumville's dates are used in the historical outline below, with reference to the original sources to highlight some of the conflicts.
The Chronicle gives 495 as the date for Cerdic's arrival in Britain, but this date has been revised to about 538. The later genealogies were written with the intent of connecting all lineages to Cerdic, and this has introduced additional inconsistencies which cannot all be resolved. Cerdic appears to have reigned for about 16 years, and the throne passed to Cynric in about 554. Cynric is Cerdic's son according to some sources and Cerdic's grandson in others, which name Creoda, son of Cynric, as Cynric's father. Cynric was in turn succeeded by Ceawlin, who was probably his son, in about 581.
Ceawlin's reign is thought to be more reliably documented than those of the earlier kings, though the Chronicle's dates of 560 to 592 are substantially different from the revised chronology. He made conquests around the Chilterns and in Gloucestershire and Somerset during a time when, it is thought, the Anglo-Saxon expansion had begun again, after a long pause caused by the battle of Mons Badonicus. Ceawlin is one of the seven kings named in Bede's "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" as holding "imperium" over the southern English; the Chronicle later repeats this claim and refers to Ceawlin as a "bretwalda", or "Britain-ruler".
Ceawlin was deposed, perhaps by his successor Ceol, and died the following year. Ceol was the son of Ceawlin's brother, Cutha. Six years later, in about 594, Ceol was succeeded by Ceolwulf, his own brother; and Ceolwulf was succeeded in his turn in about 617 by Cynegils. The genealogies are remarkably inconsistent on Cynegils' pedigree: his father is variously given as Ceola, Ceolwulf, Ceol, Cuthwine, Cutha, and Cuthwulf.
Christian Wessex and the rise of Mercia
It is in Cynegils' reign that the first event in West Saxon history that can be dated with reasonable certainty occurs: the baptism of Cynegils by Birinus, which happened at the end of the 630s, perhaps in 640. Birinus was then established as bishop of the West Saxons, with his seat at Dorchester-on-Thames. This was the first conversion to Christianity by a West Saxon king, but it was not accompanied by the immediate conversion of all the West Saxons: Cynegils' successor (and probably his son), Cenwealh, who came to the throne in about 642, was a pagan at his accession. However, he too was baptised only a few years later and Wessex became firmly established as a Christian kingdom. Cynegils's godfather was King Oswald of Northumbria and his conversion may have been connected with an alliance against King Penda of Mercia, who had previously attacked Wessex.
These attacks marked the beginning of sustained pressure from the expanding kingdom of Mercia. In time this would deprive Wessex of its territories north of the Thames and the Avon, encouraging the kingdom's reorientation southwards. Cenwealh married Penda's daughter, and when he repudiated her, Penda again invaded and drove him into exile for some time, perhaps three years. The dates are uncertain but it was probably in the late 640s or early 650s. He spent his exile in East Anglia, and was converted to Christianity there. After his return, Cenwealh faced further attacks from Penda's successor Wulfhere, but was able to expand West Saxon territory in Somerset at the expense of the Britons. He established a second bishopric at Winchester, while the one at Dorchester was soon abandoned as Mercian power pushed southwards. Winchester would eventually develop into the effective capital of Wessex.
After Cenwealh's death in 673, his widow, Seaxburh, held the throne for a year; she was followed by Aescwine, who was apparently descended from another brother of Ceawlin. This was one of several occasions on which the kingship of Wessex is said to have passed to a remote branch of the royal family with an unbroken male line of descent from Cerdic; these claims may be genuine, or may reflect the spurious assertion of descent from Cerdic to legitimise a new dynasty. Aescwine's reign only lasted two years, and in 676 the throne passed back to the immediate family of Cenwealh with the accession of his brother Centwine. Centwine is known to have fought and won battles against the Britons, but the details have not survived.
Centwine was succeeded by another supposed distant relative, Caedwalla, who claimed descent from Ceawlin. Caedwalla reigned for just two years, but achieved a dramatic expansion of the kingdom's power, conquering the kingdoms of Sussex, Kent and the Isle of Wight, although Kent regained its independence almost immediately and Sussex followed some years later. His reign ended in 688 when he went on pilgrimage to Rome, where he was baptised by the Pope and died soon afterwards.
His successor was Ine, who also claimed to be a descendant of Cerdic through Ceawlin, but again through a long-separated line of descent. Ine was the most durable of the West Saxon kings, reigning for 38 years. He issued the oldest surviving English code of laws apart from those of the kingdom of Kent, and established a second West Saxon bishopric at Sherborne, covering the territories west of Selwood Forest. Near the end of his life he followed in Caedwalla's footsteps by abdicating and making a pilgrimage to Rome. The throne then passed to a series of other kings who claimed descent from Cerdic but whose supposed genealogies and relationship to one another are unknown.
During the 8th century Wessex was overshadowed by Mercia, whose power was then at its height, and the West Saxon kings may at times have acknowledged Mercian overlordship. They were, however, able to avoid the more substantial control which Mercia exerted over smaller kingdoms. During this period Wessex continued its gradual advance to the west, overwhelming the British kingdom of Dumnonia and absorbing Devon. As a result of the Mercian conquest of the northern portion of its early territories in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, the Thames and the Avon now probably formed the northern boundary of Wessex, while its heartland lay in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Dorset and Somerset. The system of shires which was later to form the basis of local administration throughout England (and eventually, Ireland, Wales and Scotland as well) originated in Wessex, and had been established by the mid-eighth century.
The hegemony of Wessex and the Viking raids
The fortunes of Wessex were transformed by King Egbert, who came to the throne in 802 and who claimed descent from Ine's brother Ingild. With his accession the throne ceased to change hands between different lines of alleged descendants of Cerdic and became firmly established in the hands of a single such lineage. In 825 he overturned the political order of England by decisively defeating King Beornwulf of Mercia at Ellendun and seizing control of Sussex, Kent and Essex from the Mercians, while with his help East Anglia broke away from Mercian control. In 829 he conquered Mercia, driving its King Wiglaf into exile, and secured acknowledgment of his overlordship from the king of Northumbria. He thereby became the Bretwalda, or high king of Britain. This position of dominance was shortlived, as Wiglaf returned and restored Mercian independence in 830, but the expansion of Wessex across south-eastern England proved permanent.
Egbert's later years saw the beginning of Danish Viking raids on Wessex, which occurred frequently from 835 onwards. In 851 a huge Danish army, said to have been carried on 350 ships, arrived in the Thames estuary. Having defeated King Beorhtwulf of Mercia in battle, the Danes moved on to invade Wessex, but were decisively crushed by Egbert's son and successor King Aethelwulf in the exceptionally bloody Battle of Aclea. This victory postponed Danish conquests in England for fifteen years, but raids on Wessex continued.
In 855-6 Aethelwulf went on pilgrimage to Rome and his eldest surviving son Aethelbald took advantage of his absence to seize his father's throne. On his return, Aethelwulf agreed to divide the kingdom with his son to avoid bloodshed, ruling the new territories in the east while Aethelbald held the old heartland in the west. Aethelwulf was succeeded by each of his four surviving sons ruling one after another: the rebellious Aethelbald, then Ethelbert, who had previously inherited the eastern territories from his father and who reunited the kingdom on Aethelbald's death, then Aethelred, and finally Alfred the Great. This occurred because the first two brothers died without issue, while Aethelred's sons were too young to rule when their father died.
The last English kingdom
In 865 another enormous Danish host arrived in England. Over the following years this army overwhelmed the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia. Wessex was invaded in 871, and although Aethelred and Alfred won some victories and succeeded in preventing the conquest of their kingdom, a number of defeats, heavy losses of men and the arrival of a fresh Danish army in England compelled Alfred to pay the Danes to leave Wessex. The Danes spent the next few years subduing Mercia and some of them settled in Northumbria, but the rest returned to Wessex in 876. Alfred responded effectively and was able with little fighting to bring about their withdrawal in 877. A portion of the Danish army settled in Mercia, but at the beginning of 878 the remaining Danes mounted a winter invasion of Wessex, taking Alfred by surprise and overrunning much of the kingdom. Alfred was reduced to taking refuge with a small band of followers in the marshes of Somerset, but after a few months he was able to gather an army and defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington, bringing about their final withdrawal from Wessex to settle in East Anglia.
Over the following years Alfred carried out a dramatic reorganisation of the government and defences of Wessex, building warships, organising the army into two shifts which served alternately and establishing a system of fortified burhs across the kingdom. This system is recorded in a 10th century document known as the Burghal Hidage, which details the location and garrisoning requirements of thirty-three forts, whose positioning ensured that no one in Wessex was more than a long day's ride from a place of safety.. In the 890s these reforms helped him to repulse the invasion of another huge Danish army – which was aided by the Danes settled in England – with minimal losses.
Alfred also reformed the administration of justice, issued a new law code and championed a revival of scholarship and education. He gathered scholars from around England and elsewhere in Europe to his court, and with their help translated a range of Latin texts into English, doing much of the work in person, and orchestrated the composition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As a result of these literary efforts and the political dominance of Wessex, the West Saxon dialect of this period became the standard written form of Old English for the rest of the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond.
The Danish conquests had destroyed the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia and divided Mercia in half, with the Danes settling in the north-east while the south-west was left to the English king Ceolwulf, allegedly a Danish puppet. When Ceolwulf's rule came to an end he was succeeded as ruler of "English Mercia" not by another king but by a mere ealdorman named Aethelred, who acknowledged Alfred's overlordship and married his daughter Ethelfleda. The process by which this transformation of the status of Mercia took place is unknown, but it left Alfred as the only remaining English king.
The unification of England and the Earldom of Wessex
After the invasions of the 890s Wessex and English Mercia continued to be attacked by the Danish settlers in England and by small Danish raiding forces from overseas, but these incursions were usually defeated, while there were no further major invasions from the continent. The balance of power tipped steadily in favour of the English. In 911 Ealdorman Aethelred died, leaving his widow, Alfred's daughter Aethelflaed, in charge of Mercia. Alfred's son and successor Edward the Elder, then transferred London, Oxford and the surrounding area, probably including Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, from Mercia to Wessex. Between 913 and 918 a series of English offensives overwhelmed the Danes of Mercia and East Anglia, bringing all of England south of the Humber under Edward's power. In 918 Aethelflaed died and Edward took over direct control of Mercia, extinguishing what remained of its independence and ensuring that thenceforth there would be only one Kingdom of the English. In 927 Edward's successor Athelstan conquered Northumbria, bringing the whole of England under one ruler for the first time. The Kingdom of Wessex had thus been transformed into the Kingdom of England.
Although Wessex had now effectively been subsumed into the larger kingdom which its expansion had created, like the other former kingdoms it continued for a time to have a distinct identity which periodically found renewed political expression. After the death of King Eadred in 955, England was divided between his two sons, with the elder Edwy ruling in Wessex while Mercia passed to his younger brother Edgar. However, in 959 Edwy died and the whole of England came under Edgar's control.
After the Danish conquest of England, and the coronation of Canute the Great, in 1016, England's former kingdoms were to become the earldoms of Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. Canute initially saw to the administration of Wessex personally, although within a few years he had made an earldom of Wessex too, for his English henchman Godwin. For almost fifty years the vastly wealthy holders of this earldom, first Godwin and then his son Harold, were the most powerful force in English politics after the king. Finally, on the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, Harold was to be king, and the earldom of Wessex once again in cognate with the crown. There was no other earl of Wessex before the Norman conquest of England, and the coronation of William the Conqueror, in 1066, who soon did away with the great earldoms of the late Anglo-Saxon period when he brought in continental institutions. This marks the end of Wessex as an official entity.
Wyvern or dragon
Wessex is often symbolized by a wyvern or dragon.
Both Henry of Huntingdon and Matthew of Westminster talk of a golden dragon being raised at the Battle of Burford in AD 752 by the West Saxons. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts a fallen golden dragon, as well as a red/golden/white dragon at the death of King Harold II, who was previously Earl of Wessex. However, dragon standards were in fairly wide use in Europe at the time, being derived from the ensign of the Roman cohort, and there is no evidence that it identified Wessex
A panel of 18th century stained glass at Exeter Cathedral indicates that the association of a dragon with the kingdom of Wessex pre-dates the Victorians. Nevertheless, the association was popularised in the 19th century, particularly in the writings of E A Freeman. By the time of the grant of armorial bearings by the College of Arms to Somerset County Council in 1911, a (red) dragon had become the accepted heraldic emblem of the former kingdom. This precedent was followed in 1937 when Wiltshire County Council was granted arms. Two gold Wessex dragons were later granted as supporters to the arms of Dorset County Council in 1950.
In the British Army the wyvern has been used to represent Wessex: The 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division adopted a formation sign consisting of a gold wyvern an a black background, and both the Wessex Brigade and Wessex Regiments used a cap badge featuring the heraldic beast.
When Sophie, Countess of Wessex was granted arms, the sinister supporter assigned was a blue wyvern, described by the College of Arms as "an heraldic beast which has long been associated with Wessex".
The Wessex Society have produced a flag which features an heraldic golden wyvern on a red background.
Attributed coat of arms
A coat of arms was attributed by medieval heralds to the Kingdom of Wessex. These arms appear in a manuscript of the thirteenth century, and are blazoned as Azure, a cross patonce between four martlets Or. The assigning of arms to the West Saxon kings is prochronistic as heraldry did not develop until the twelfth century. These arms continued to be used to represent the kingdom for centuries after their invention.
The English author Thomas Hardy used a fictionalised Thomas Hardy's Wessex as a setting for many of his novels, reviving the term Wessex for South West England. His Wessex included all the counties mentioned in the previous paragraph apart from Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, along with Devon. He gave the counties the following fictionalised names: Berkshire = North Wessex; Devon = Lower Wessex; Dorset = South Wessex; Hampshire = Upper Wessex; Somerset = Outer Wessex; Wiltshire = Mid-Wessex. Neighbouring Cornwall was described as Off-Wessex or Lyonesse. See Thomas Hardy's Wessex.
There is a movement in modern day south-central England to create a regional cultural and political identity in Wessex. This consists of three distinct but interlinked organisations. The Wessex Regionalist Party is a registered political party which contests elections. The Wessex Constitutional Convention is an all-party pressure group in which those sympathetic to Wessex devolution who are not members of the Wessex Regionalist Party can also be represented. The Wessex Society is a cultural society which promotes a cultural identity for Wessex while remaining neutral on questions of political devolution.
The boundaries of Wessex were unclear and subject to dispute. The Wessex Constitutional Convention and Wessex Society add Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire to Hardy's list; and the Wessex Regionalists, who currently use Hardy's definition of Wessex, are likely to follow suit in the near future.
This definition of Wessex has been criticised from a number of quarters. A number of people within Devon, southern Somerset and parts of Dorset see those areas as sharing a Dumnonian Celtic identity with Cornwall, whereas some regard Hardy's definition as correct on the grounds that the counties north of the Thames, along with Berkshire and north-east Somerset, were part of Mercia for most of the Anglo-Saxon period. There are also a few in Hampshire who argue that southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were once a Jutish province in their own right and deserve to be treated differently to the rest of Wessex.
The Wessex regionalist movements justify their eight- shire definition of Wessex in terms both of history and of modern regional geography and point to the impossibility of pleasing everyone as an argument against change at the present time, though they do not rule out the possibility of change in the future if the popular will demands it.
The present South West England region
The government office region of South West England covers a different area, consisting of Hardy's Wessex, less Berkshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, but including Cornwall and Gloucestershire. Wessex groups are currently campaigning for boundary revisions to the regions in order to more closely match their definitions of Wessex.
- Wessex Institute of Technology
- Wessex Stadium, home to Weymouth F.C.
- 43rd (Wessex) Brigade - British Army's regional command for the South West region
- Royal Wessex Yeomanry - British Army territorial unit
- Wessex Archaeology - An educational charity and the largest UK archaeological practice
- Wessex culture - an archæological label used anachronistically to describe a Bronze Age culture whose remains are found in the Wessex area
- Wessex League - football league covering Hampshire and parts of the surrounding counties
- Wessex Sound Studios - a renowned former recording studio
- Wessex Trains - train operating company that used to operate in much of the South West region
- Wessex Water - water supply and sewage company that covers much of the South West region
- Wessex Cyclists Touring Club - cycling and events across the region
- Southampton University sports teams have adopted 'Wessex' as a group identity
- Wessex Saddleback - a pig breed originating from Wessex
Earl of Wessex
In an unusual move, Prince Edward was made Earl of Wessex and Viscount Severn in honour of his marriage to Sophie, The Countess of Wessex. The title Earl of Wessex had not been in use for over 900 years. The last earl, King Harold Godwinson, was famously killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.