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The Saxon Heptarchy - the Kingdom of Wessex

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The shield of the History, Philosophy and Spirituality faculty of the h2g2 University.The Saxon Heptarchy - Overview
Kingdom Of Mercia (Mittel Angeln) | Kingdom Of Wessex | Kingdom Of East Anglia (Ost Angeln) | Kingdom Of Northumbria (Nord Angeln)
Kingdom Of Sussex | Kingdom Of Kent | Kingdom Of Essex (East Seaxe)

To see how the Kingdom of the Wessex (West Seaxe) related to the other kingdoms of the Heptarchy, please read the introduction to the Saxon Heptarchy.

Principal Towns and Boundaries

The principal towns in the kingdom were:

  • Winchester
  • Southampton
  • Abingdon
  • Wallingford
  • Dorchester
  • Frilford
  • Long Wittenham

At the height of its powers, Wessex covered the following modern counties:

  • Hampshire - home of the Meonwara
  • Berkshire - home of the peoples of the Andredes Leag
  • Cornwall - Kernow, occasionally referred to as Dumnonia
  • Devon - home of the Defnas peoples
  • Somerset - home of the Somersaetas
  • Dorset - home of the Dorsaetas
  • Wiltshire - home of the Wilsaetas
  • Surrey - home of the peoples called the Surrymen or Suther-ge

The Saxon peoples that were part of the kingdom of Wessex included Germanic Jutes, West Saxons, South Saxons and the Thames Valley Saxons peoples the Meonwara from Hampshire and a people named the Andredes Leag.

The kingdom was bounded:

  • To the North by the kingdom of Mercia
  • To the South by the sea
  • To the East by the kingdom of Sussex
  • To the West by the sea

A Brief History of the Kingdom of Wessex

Wessex was established as an independent Saxon Kingdom in 519, but may have existed prior to this time as there are eight kings recorded before this date. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle1 records that Wessex was founded by a tribe known as the Gewisse, from the Dortchester-on-Thames area.

The early kings were ineffective and there was a lack of direction. However Wessex grew from its beginnings and annexed Somerset, Dorset, and Devon. As the kingdom grew, it gained in importance and became equal to the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia, due in part to the wealth gained in trade with Europe.

Cadwalla (685 - 688) was one of the kings of the period that did most to strengthen Wessex. He annexed Kent, Surrey, the Isle of Wight and Sussex. His successor Ine (688 - 726), expanded the kingdom still further by supporting expansion into Devon and Cornwall.

Another important document from the time was the Burghal Hidage2. Alfred established a network of 33 burhs or defended towns and made use of existing fortifications such as the Roman fort of Portchester.

The burhs were: Axbridge, Bath, Bridport, Buckingham, Burpham, Chichester, Chisbury, Cricklade, Eashing, Eorpeburnan, Exeter, Halwell, Hastings, Langport, Lewes, Lydford, Lyng, Malmesbury, Oxford, Pilton, Portchester, Sashes, Shaftesbury, Southampton, Southwark, Twynam, Wallingford, Wareham, Warwick, Watchet, Wilton3, Winchester and Worcester.

If the existence of a burh gives us any clues to population distribution, we can conclude that there was very little population in the area to the west of Dorset.

The symbol of Royal Wessex is thought to have been the Wyvern. The evidence for this is a mention in the account of the Battle of Burford in 752, and the depiction of the standard on the Bayeux Tapestry showing the death of Harold.

The Kings of Wessex

There are eight kings of Wessex listed who are either mythical or are lost in history, namely Woden, Baeldaeg, Brand, Freothogar, Fraewine, Wig, Gewis and Esla.

  • Cerdic (unrecorded - 519) - Claimed decent from Woden.
  • Cerdic (519 - 534)- He took the Isle of Wight.
  • Cynric (534 - 560) - He took the area around Searobyrig or Old Sarum.
  • Ceawlin (560 - 591) - He expanded the kingdom to include most of southern England north of Aylesbury, and lost the throne after the battle of Wanborough in Wiltshire.
  • Ceol (591 - 597) - Came to the throne after he defeated Ceawlin at the battle of Wanborough.
  • Ceolwulf (597 - 611)
  • Cynegils (611 - 643) - He allowed the establishment of Bishop Birinus at Dorchester in 636.
  • Cenwalh (643 - 672) - Deposed in 651, he was baptised while in exile with Christian king Anna of East Anglia. He returned to the throne in 660.
  • Aescwine, Centwine and Queen Seaxburh (672 - 685) - Listed monarchs with no dates of rule given, and it is possible they shared rule.
  • Caedwalla (685 - 688) - He left the throne in 688, then went to Rome and was baptised. He died in Rome in 689.
  • Ine (688 - 726) - He expanded the kingdom of Wessex into Devon. The builder of the second church at Glastonbury and, in 726, he abdicated and took a pilgrimage to Rome.
  • Beorhtric (786 - 802) - He died after his wife poisoned him.
  • Egbert (802 - 839)
  • Aethelwulf (839 - 855) - Forced to abdicate in favour of his son Aethelbad.
  • Aethelbad (855 - 860)
  • Aethelbert (860 - 866) - His reign was troubled by Danish raids in Kent, Hampshire and Northumbria.
  • Ethelred I (866 - 871) - Danish raids were causing disruption. Ethelred I was defeated by the Danes at the Battle of Reading in 871. He managed to defeat the Danish army at the Battle of Ashdown. He continued the resistance and was defeated at the battle of Basing, and was killed at the battle of Merton in 871.
  • Alfred the Great (871 - 899) - He managed to stop the advance of the Danes and was the first king to call himself King of the Anglo-Saxons. He fought several successful battles against the Danes at Englefield in 870 and at Reading and Ashdown in 871. He was defeated at Basing and Marden the same year, and retreated to Athelney fort. By 878 Alfred was ready to fight back; he led his forces in a succession of battles starting in 879, and ending at the Battle of Edington. This led to the treaty of Wedmore, establishing the Danelaw (Danish Lands) north of Watling Street, with Wessex and its supporters occupying the lands to the south. This was not the end of the fighting, but the Kingdom of Wessex was firmly established.
  • Edward I, Edward the Elder (899 - 924) - He died at the battle of Farndon-Upon-Dee.
  • Aethelstan (924 - 939) - Thought of as first King of England. At Bamburgh the other kings of the Heptarchy acknowledged Aethelstan as the high king.
  • Edmund I (939 - 946)
  • Eadred (946 - 955)
  • Edwig (955 - 959)
  • Edgar (959 - 975) - Proclaimed as King north of the Thames by Mercian nobles. At Chester in 974, he also received a pledge of loyalty from six kings of Britain, Scotland and Strathclyde. His reign was noted as a peaceful one; he established many religious houses and restored the Benedictine Rule in England.
  • Edward II, the Martyr (975 - 978)
  • Ethelred II, the Unready (978 - 1016)
  • Edmund II, Ironside (1016)
  • Canute (1016 - 1035)
  • Alfred (1035 - 1036)
  • Harold I, Harefoot (1036 - 1040)
  • Hardicanute (1040 - 1042)
  • Edward III, the Confessor (1042 - 1066) - Regarded as a Saint by the Church. He left no heirs to take over the throne, and three men claimed it by right.
  • Harold II (1066) - He was killed at the battle of Hastings.
1Written at the command of King Alfred the Great, for political reasons.2It is a list of the defences of King Alfred's kingdom.3The ancient capital of Wessex, near Salisbury, from which the modern county of Wiltshire gets its name.

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