Wessex was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the West Saxons, in Southwest England, from the 6th century, until the emergence of the English state in the 9th century under the Wessex dynasty. It was made an earldom after Canute the Great's conquest of 1016, from 1020 to 1066.
The Origins of the Kingdom and the Early Kings of WessexEdit
Wessex was founded by Cerdic and Cynric, chieftains of the Gewisse clan. They are said to have landed in 495 on the Hampshire coast and conquered the surrounding area, including the Isle of Wight, although therre had long been Saxon and Jute settlement in the area. Cerdic reigned for 16 years, and passed the throne to his grandson Cynric in 554. Cynric was in turn succeeded by his son Ceawlin in 581.
Ceawlin made many conquests around the Chilterns and in Gloucestershire and Somerset, and expanded the lands of the Saxons considerably, and was the first to claim the title of bretwalda, ruler of Britain.
Ceawlin was deposed in 588 by his nephew Ceol, who was the son of his brother Cutha, and died the following year. In 594 Ceol was suceeded by his brother Ceolwulf, who was in turn suceeded by the bastard Cynegils in 617.
Christian Wessex and the Rise of MerciaEdit
in 639 Cynegils was baptised by Birinus, who was the established as Bishop of the West Saxons, with his seat at Dorchester on the Thames. This was the first conversion to Christianity by a heathen West Saxon king, but the Kingdom would not be converted for many years; Cynegils' son Cenwealh was a pagan when he ascended to the thone in 642. He too was baptised in 646 and Wessex subsequently became firmly established as a Christian kingdom.
Cynegils's godfather was King Oswald of Northumbria and his conversion cemented an alliance against King Penda of Mercia, who had previously attacked Wessex. It was at this time that the Kingdom of Mercia would become powerful, evetually depriving Wessex of its territories north of the Thames and the Avon.
Cenwealh married Penda's daughter, and when he repudiated her, Penda again invaded in 648, and drove him into exile for three years. He spent his exile in East Anglia, and was converted to Christianity there. After his return, Cenwealh faced more 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 become 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 descended from Ealdwulf, brother of Ceawlin. Aescwine's reign only lasted two years, and in 676 the throne passed back to the line of Cenwealh with the accession of his brother Centwine. Centwine fought and won many battles against the Britons.
Centwine was succeeded by a distant relative, Caedwalla, who claimed descent from Ceawlin. Caedwalla reigned for two years, but expnaded the kingdom's power in that time, 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 through a long-separated line of descent. Ine was the most durable of the West Saxon kings, reigning for 38 years. He issued a 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.
During the 8th century Wessex was overshadowed by Mercia, whose power was then at its height, and the West Saxon kings at times 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 formed the northern boundary of Wessex, while its heartland lay in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Dorset and Somerset.
The Hegemony of Wessex and the Raids by the DanesEdit
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 descended from Cerdic and became firmly established in the hands of a single lineage.
In 825 Egbert 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 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 bloody Battle of Aclea. This victory would stay the lust for conquest of the Danes for fifteen years, but raids on Wessex continued.
In 855 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.
The Reign of King Alfred and the Last of the English KingsEdit
In 865 a great 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 fortified burhs across the kingdom. In the 890s these reforms helped him to repulse the invasion of another huge Danish army aided by the Danes already settled in England, with minimal losses.
The Danish conquests had destroyed the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia and divided Mercia in half, with the Danes settling in the northeast while the southwest was left to the English king Ceolwulf, 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 WessexEdit
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, 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.
Wessex had now effectively been subsumed into a larger kingdom which its expansion had created. 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 became 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 old line of Wessex once again held the crown. There was no other Earl of Wessex until the coronation of William the Conqueror.