The Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy

Part 4: Sussex and Wessex

A large part of this kingdom was the Forest of Andred, which is known today as the Weald. In this large dense forest lived bears, boars, and wolves. Sussex also included, for a time, the Isle of Wight. The capital of Sussex was Chichester; other notable towns in the kingdom were Ashurst, Ditchling, and Shipley.

One of the leaders most associated with Sussex was Ælle, a powerful 5th-Century warrior who is known to have seized a Saxon Shore fort near Pevensey and who, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was the first bretwalda.

One of English Christianity's more well-known names, Wilfrid of Northumbria, arrived in Sussex in 681 and set about converting the population. Wilfrid helped found Selsey Abbey.

The list of kings of the kingdom of Sussex has some holes in it, not least because other kingdoms were ruling Sussex on and off for a considerable amount of time.

One of the most successful early Saxon leaders was Cerdic, who arrived in 495, along with his son Cynric and five ships full of warriors. Cerdic proved an able military commander and also an able leader of men, and he is now known as the first king of what has come to be known as the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. He ruled just a short time, from 520 to 534; when he died, his son Cynric succeeded him. One of the conquests of both Cerdic and Cynric was the Isle of Wight. They also, between them, gained control of a large swath of land in what is now south central England.

Important settlements in Wessex included Ashdown, Dorchester, and Winchester.

The legendary Battle of Badon Hill, in which many sources say King Arthur won a great victory over a Saxon horde, is thought to have been in Wessex.

Cerdic is said by many sources to have bene the first king of Wessex. Whether Cerdic was a Germanic leader has been questioned by some historians, who think that he might have been a British leader who threw in his lot with the Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Cerdic arrived in 495, with his son Cynric. A few years later, the two fought a fierce battle against a British king named Natanleod and were victorious. They then took surrounding lands and the Isle of Wight. Cerdic also, tradition holds, fought against King Arthur.

Cerdic died in 534, and Cynric succeeded him as ruler of Wessex; Cynric, sources say, ruled for 26 years. Subsequent Kings of Wessex were keen to claim descendance from Cerdic.

Cadwalla was a late 7th Century king who was a successful warrior; he killed the King of Sussex before taking over in Wessex. He also laid waste to Kent, installing his own ruler there. Cadwalla succeeded as King of Wessex a warrior named Centwine, who abdicated to become a monk; Cadwalla then ended his reign in 688 by going on a religious pilgrimage (possibly also because he had suffered grievous wounds in yet another battle).

Well-known 7th Century Wessex leaders include Cynegils and his son Cenwealh, who married Seaxburh, a daughter of Mercia's King Penda. Seaxburh succeeded Cenwealh when he died. Most well-known of these early leaders, however, was Cadwalla, who conquered three neighboring kingdoms and the independent Isle of Wight and then gave up his throne to go on a religious pilgrimage to Rome.

In 688, King Ine of Wessex established a set of codes that have been called one of the first sets of comprehensive laws in Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Egbert ruled Wessex for 37 years, beginning in 802. He eventually defeated Mercian forces while also controlling Kent, Sussex, and the rest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the Humber River. In 829, Northumbria submitted to Egbert's rule, and Egbert was bretwalda. He is also said to have led campaigns into the kingdom of Dumnonia, also known as Cornwall and sometimes referred to as West Wales.

Egbert's military accomplishments were significant. Mercia soon regained its independence, and Northumbria continued to make its own way. However, Wessex under Egbert absorbed with some finality the kingdoms of Kent and Sussex. Egbert left a relatively stable Wessex for his son Aethelwulf.

It was Egbert who was King of Wessex when the Danes arrived and Egbert's successors who battled the Danes for several long years. Among these successors were Æthelwulf, Æthelbald, Æthelbert, and Æthelred.

The most famous of all English kings, however, is thought to have been Alfred, named "the Great" for his role in stopping the Danish takeover of England. Alfred's successor, Edward, consolidated his power by absorbing every English kingdom but Northumbria, and then Edward's successor, Æthelstan, conquered Northumbria and became the first recognized "king of all England" (the legend of King Arthur notwithstanding).

Wessex continued to flex its muscle, so much so that the last king of Anglo-Saxon England, Harold Godwinson, was from Wessex.

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David White