The British Monarchy-Ethelwulf of Wessex

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The Second King of the House of Wessex

Ethelwulf was the oldest son of King Egbert and ruled Wessex on behalf of his father, starting in 825.

Following the death of King Egbert, Ethelwulf was styled King of Wessex, Kent, Cornwall and the East and West Saxons.

Ethelwulf’s Military Career

In 839, Ethelwulf ascended to the throne, following the death of his father, King Egbert. Unlike Egbert, who was a grizzled veteran of many battles and who had to fight continuously to keep his crown, Ethelwulf possessed little of his father’s cunning or political skill. He also had many sons who were both able-bodied and ambitious. One of his first acts as king was to divide the kingdom. He gave one part to his oldest son, Athelstan, while keeping the rest of the kingdom for himself.

Ethelwulf in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The most notable primary source record of Ethelwulf’s life comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places Ethelwulf at numerous battles, suggesting that much of his reign was spent fighting. In 840, he defeated 35 companies of Danes at the Battle of Carhampton, which came about as a result of an increase in the frequency of Viking raids on the English coast.

Ethelwulf’s Reign

In 851, Ethelwulf won the Battle of Acleah, which is believed to have taken place somewhere in the Berkshires, most likely near Surrey. In 853, Ethelwulf and his son-in-law, Burgred, the King of Mercia invaded Wales after defeating Cyngen ab Cadell. As a result Wales became a vassal of Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also describes Ethelwulf as defeating “a great host of heathens,” and claims that this is his greatest victory to date, even though the enemy is not named or described.

From the earliest days of his reign, Ethelwulf had been planning a pilgrimage to Rome. He was motivated, in part by his deep spirituality and by the continued Viking raids on the English coast, which he saw as punishment from God.

In 853, Ethelwulf sent his son Alfred to Rome ahead of him. Ethelwulf followed in 855. While in Rome, Ethelwulf was very generous with his wealth. He donated gold chalices and silver candelabras to the clergy at St. Peter’s Basilica. During the return journey to England in 856, Ethelwulf married Judith, a Frankish princess and the great-grand daughter of Charlemagne.

Following his return to England, Ethelwulf was met with an acute crisis. His oldest surviving son, Ethelbald had conspired with the Ealdorman of Scotland and the Bishop of Sherborne, to oppose Ethelwulf’s resumption of kingship. Ethelwulf mustered the army and it seemed that civil war was inevitable. However, an eleventh hour agreement was reached, in which Ethelbald was given western Wessex, while Ethelwulf kept central and eastern Wessex for himself. It is interesting to note that Ethelbald’s name did not appear on any coins in western Wessex during the reign of Ethelwulf. Ethelwulf and his advisers must be commended for their open-mindedness and willingness to compromise. Had civil war broken out, it would have destroyed any chance for Ethelwulf to secure the future of the dynasty that King Egbert had founded.

Ethelwulf’s Legacy

Ethelwulf also changed the status of English Queens. Before his reign, queens in England did not hold an official title. They were merely referred to as the wife of the king; however, due to the status of Judith as a descendent of Charlemagne and a member of one of Europe’s great royal houses, Ethelwulf officially made her his queen.

Ethelwulf died on January 13, 858. He was succeeded by Ethelbald, his oldest surviving son.

Sources

Ashley, Maurice. Great Britain to 1688: A Modern History. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1961.

Garmonsway, GN. Translation of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: JM Dent & Sons, 1953.

Hindley, Geoffrey. The Anglo-Saxons. London: Robinson, 2006.

Hodgkin, RH. A History of the Anglo-Saxons. London: Oxford UP, 1935.

Humble, Richard. The Saxon Kings. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.

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