Æthelwulf, King of Wessex

“…and Æthelwulf, Egbert’s offspring, succeeded to the kingdom of Wessex, and he granted his son Æthelstan the kingdom of the inhabitants of Kent and the East Saxons and Surrey and South Saxons.”

Part 6 of our ramble through the monarchy of (geographically speaking at least) England, is finally here! This time it’s all about Æthelwulf of Wessex, son and successor of Ecgberht. But who was he? The first mention of Æthelwulf is in the year 825, when his father defeated the Mercians at Ellandun before sending Æthelwulf into Kent at the head of an army to drive the Mercian sub-king out. The details of this can be found in the post on Ecgberht, so we shall skip over that and focus on his reign as King of Wessex!

Succeeding to the throne in 839, he had received valuable experience as sub-king of Kent following Ellandun. As the quote above, taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (A version) for the year 836 [839], he in turn made his own sons sub-kings. While Æthelstan had been given a not inconsiderate amount of land to rule over, he did not possess the same power Æthelwulf had been given by his father: while we see that Æthelstan attested many of his fathers charters, we see none being issued in his own name. Interestingly we see a continental (specifically Carolingian) way of governance in Æthelwulf’s approach to kingship: Wessex and Kent were treated as separate entities, each with their own assemblies attended only by the nobles of those kingdoms. He maintained his father’s decision to govern Kent through ealdormen appointed from the local Kentish nobility and advancing their interests. Similarly, Ecgberht’s policy of maintaining good relations with Mercian was also continued. Soon after Æthelwulf’s accession London, having been under West Saxon control throughout the 830’s, reverted back to Mercia. Interestingly the new Mercian king Berhtwulf revived the Mercian mint in London, and the two kingdoms seem to have struck a join issue sometime in the mid-840’s.

One of the most interesting aspects of Æthelwulf’s reign is his interactions with the Norsemen. Vikings had been raiding the English kingdoms in the late 9th century, but none are recorded between 794 and 835. Unfortunately for everyone who wasn’t a Dane, raids increased in the 840’s in both England and Francia. We then see a flurry of activity and engagements recorded in the Chronicle, but it is unclear whether this represents a change in the nature of the Vikings or if the authors want to present the West Saxons as actively resisting Viking depredations: the Chronicle is somewhat selective in its recounting of Viking activity in this period. What we do see is that while there were both victories and defeats, during Æthelwulf’s reign the Danes were contained and did not pose the serious threat they would later in the 9th century.

It is also certainly worth mentioning Æthelwulf’s pilgrimage to Rome in the early 850’s. In 853 he sent his younger sons, Ælfred and possibly Æthelred, to Rome potentially with envoys connected with his own forthcoming visit where they were invested with the “belt of consulship”. Setting out himself in 855, Æthelwulf left Wessex in the care of his oldest surviving son Æthelbald, while Æthelberht ruled as sub-king in Kent. En route they spent some time as guests of Charles the Bald in Francia, before spending a year in Rome itself. He gave lavish gifts to the Pope that rivalled those given even by the emperor’s of Francia and Byzantium. William of Malmesbury (in the 12th century) even wrote how he paid for the restoration of the Saxon quarter for English pilgrims after it had been destroyed in a fire. On his return journey, Æthelwulf and co. spent time again with Charles the Bald where, extraordinarily, in 856 Æthelwulf married Charles’s daughter Judith at Verberie. The reason this is so astounding is not that Judith was 12 or 13, but that A) Carolingian princesses usually went to a nunnery, and were certainly not wed off to foreign monarchs. B) it flew in the face of West Saxon custom: Judith was crowned queen and anointed by Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims. The wives of Saxon kings were just that: wives, not queens, heaven forbid.

Æthelwulf died on 13th January 858. According to the Annals of St. Neots he was buried at Steyning in Sussex, but if this is true he ended up eventually in Winchester, most likely thanks to Ælfred.

The 20th century was not kind to Æthelwulf. He was portrayed as a weak king, who traded his sword for a crozier: he was, to quote Enright, “an impractical religious enthusiast.” The 21st century has been far kinder, seeing in Æthelwulf a king of Wessex who was not just pious, but played a significant role outside of England and who also successfully defended his lands from the re-emerging Vikings.


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