Southern Anthology

Families on the Frontiers of the Old South

King Ęthelwulf of Wessex[1, 2]

Male - 858

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  • Name Ęthelwulf of Wessex 
    Title King 
    Gender Male 
    Died 13 Jan 858 
    Buried Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, Hampshire Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Winchester Cathedral
    Winchester Cathedral
    • Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 18, Ethelwulf, by William Hunt

      ETHELWULF, ĘTHELWULF, ADELWLF, or ATHULF (d. 858), king of the West-Saxons and Kentishmen, the son of Ecgberht, is said to have been sent by his father to be brought up at Winchester by Swithun, afterwards bishop of that see (Florence, i. 68), to have received subdeacon's orders there (Vita S. Swithuni), and even, according to one legend, to have been bishop of Winchester (Henry of Huntingdon, p. 737); it is probable that he was educated at Winchester, but this is all that can be said. After the battle of Ellandune in 825 his father sent him with Ealhstan, bishop of Sherborne, and the ealdorman Wulfheard, to gain him the kingdom of Kent. The West-Saxons chased Baldred [q. v.] across the Thames; Kent, Surrey, and Sussex submitted to Ecgberht, and probably in 828 he committed these countries to Ęthelwulf, who certainly had a share in the kingship in that year (Kemble, Codex Dipl. p. 223). In 838 he joined with his father in the compact the kings made with Archbishop Ceolnoth at Kingston, and in the compact with the church of Winchester, if that ever took place, and either the same or the next year confirmed the Canterbury agreement at a witenagemot at Wilton, over which he presided alone, though there is some reason to doubt whether Ecgberht was then dead (Eccles. Documents, iii. 617?20; for some of these events see more fully under Egbert). He succeeded to the kingship of Wessex on the death of his father in 839, a date arrived at by adding the length of Ecgberht's reign to the date of his accession, 802, while in a charter of 839 Ęthelwulf declares that year to be the first after his father's death (Kemble, Codex Dipl. p. 240, i. 321; the chronology of the Chronicle is incorrect at this period). He was married to Osburh, daughter of Oslac, the royal cup-bearer, a descendant of the ancient princely line of the Jutes of Wight, and gave his eldest son, Ęthelstan, charge of the Kentish kingdom with the title of king, putting him in the position that he had held during the later years of his father's life (ib. p. 241; A.-S. Chron. sub an. 836). At the time of his accession the English were much troubled about a vision that a priest declared he had seen concerning the neglect of Sunday. Ęthelwulf took the matter to heart as much as his people, determined to make a pilgrimage to Rome, and sent an embassy to the emperor Lewis, asking that he might pass through his dominions (Annales Bertiniani, sub an. 839). His journey, however, was put off. According to William of Malmesbury Ęthelwulf was slothful, loved quiet, and was only stirred to active exertion by the influence of his ministers Swithun and Ealhstan, Swithun giving him advice on ecclesiastical and Ealhstan on secular matters, the one managing the treasury, the other the army (Gesta Regum, ii. sec. 108). While this description is no doubt somewhat coloured by the legend of the king's admission to clerical orders, there is probably some truth in it. Ęthelwulf seems only occasionally to have taken a personal part in resisting the invasions of the Danes; he was roused now and again to great and successful efforts, and then returned to his usual quiet life, and left the work of meeting the constantly repeated attacks to the leaders of local forces. He was extremely religious, and his religion was not more enlightened than that of his people generally, and he was lavish in his gifts to the church. There is reason to believe that a portion of his subjects grew dissatisfied with his rule; he lacked the power or the energy necessary to preserve the unity of his kingdom, and he declined to wage war against rebellion. (For a wholly different view of Ęthelwulf's character see Conquest of England, p. 73. Mr. Green is mistaken in attributing Swithun's influence to the fact that he was 'bishop of the royal city of Winchester;' he did not become bishop until 852, and his promotion to the see was therefore rather a consequence of his ministerial importance than the cause of it.).

      In the first year of the reign the Danes landed at Southampton, and were defeated by the ealdorman Wulfheard, one of Ecgberht's most trusted officers, who evidently met the invaders with the forces of his shire. On the other hand, another party of invaders defeated the Dorset men at Portland, and slew their ealdorman. During the next year Lindsey, East Anglia, and Kent suffered severely. Then successful raids were made on London, Canterbury, and Rochester. Meanwhile Ęthelwulf appears personally to have remained inactive until, perhaps in 842 (A.-S. Chron. an. 840), he met the crews of thirty-five ships at Charmouth and was defeated. During the next nine years all that is known of Ęthelwulf seems to be that he made sundry grants, and the history of the reign is a blank save for the notice of a brilliant victory gained over the invaders at the mouth of the Parret by the fyrds of Somerset and Dorset, under the command of the ealdormen of the two shires and of Bishop Ealhstan. In 851 the invaders were defeated in the west by the ealdorman of Devonshire. More serious invasions were, however, made the same year on the east coast. When the Danish fleet came off Sandwich, King Ęthelstan and the ealdorman of Kent put out to sea and gained a naval victory, taking ten prizes and putting the rest of the ships to flight. Nevertheless the Danes for the first time wintered in Thanet. Meanwhile a fleet of three (or two, Asser) hundred and fifty ships, coming probably from the viking settlements that had lately been formed on the islands between the mouths of the Scheldt and the Meuse, sailed into the mouth of the Thames; the crews landed, took Canterbury and London by storm, put the Mercian king Beorhtwulf to flight, and crossed the Thames into Surrey. Roused by the danger that threatened him, Ęthelwulf and his second son, Ęthelbald, gathered a large force, met the invaders at Ockley, and after a stubborn fight completely routed them, slaying a larger number of them than had ever before fallen in England (A.-S. Chron.; Asser). Ęthelstan, the king's eldest son, probably died in the following year, and his third son, Ęthelberht, was made king in his place (Kemble, Codex Dipl. p. 269), the kingship of Wessex being destined for Ęthelbald. The invasions of the Northmen encouraged the Welsh to rise against their conquerors, and in 853 Burhred [q. v.] of Mercia, the successor of Beorhtwulf, sent to his West-Saxon overlord to come and help him against them. Ęthelwulf accordingly marched into Wales and brought the Welsh to submission. On his return from this expedition he gave his daughter Ęthelswith (ib. p. 278) in marriage to Burhred at Chippenham. This marriage was a step towards the extinction of the existence of Mercia as a separate kingdom. Ecgberht had conquered Mercia, deposed its king, and restored him as an under-king to himself, and now Ęthelwulf governed it by his son-in-law as king. A further step in the same direction was taken by Ęlfred when he married his daughter Ęthelflęd [see Ethelfleda] to the Mercian ealdorman. In this year also he sent his youngest and best loved son Alfred, or Ęlfred [q. v.], to Rome to Leo IV. Although the victory of Ockley checked the invasions of the pirates, they still held Thanet, and a vigorous attempt that was made by the forces of Kent and Surrey to dislodge them ended in failure. Still the country was, on the whole, at peace, and Ęthelwulf determined to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Before he set out he made a grant, or a series of grants, which used to be considered the origin of tithes in England. The whole subject has been critically examined by Kemble (Saxons in England, ii. 481?90), and Haddan and Bishop Stubbs (Eccles. Documents, iii. 636?48). It will therefore be enough to say here that this donation 'had nothing to do with tithe' (Const. Hist. i. 228), that the payment of tithe was ordered by law in 787, and that the effect of Ęthelwulf's charters, as far as anything can be made out of them and out of the notices of historians, was to free a tenth part of the folc-lands, whether held by ecclesiastics or laymen, from all burdens save the three called the trinoda necessitas, which fell on all land, and to give a tenth part of his own land to various thegns and religious houses (Kemble). The grants he made, or at least is said to have made, were very large, and, whatever they conveyed, Ęthelwulf seems to have adopted the measure of the tenth as one that appeared suitable for benefactions. His donation, of course, ?affected Wessex only? (Haddan and Stubbs). His grants were made for the good of his own soul and the souls of his ancestors (Asser). He left England probably early in 855, and proceeded to the court of Charles the Bald, king of the West-Franks. The Frankish king had, equally with Ęthelwulf, to contend with Scandinavian invaders; but the intercourse between the English and the Franks was already so frequent that it seems going too far to imagine that Ęthelwulf's visit and subsequent marriage suggest the formation of ?a common plan of operations,? or show that his policy ?was in advance of his age? (Green). Charles received him with much honour, and conducted him in kingly state through his dominions (Ann. Bertin.) At Rome he is said to have been received by Leo IV, who died 17 July. His visit no doubt really belongs to the pontificate of Benedict III. He made a large number of offerings of pure gold of great weight and magnificence (Anastasius), rebuilt the English school or hospital for English pilgrims, and perhaps promised a yearly payment to the holy see, which is said to have been the origin of Peter's pence (Gesta Regum, i. 152). After staying a year in Rome he returned to France, and in July 856 betrothed himself to Judith, the daughter of Charles. The marriage took place on 1 Oct. at Verberie on the Oise, though, as the bride's parents were married on 14 Dec. 842 (Nithard, iv. c. 6), she could not have been more than thirteen; and there is reason to believe that Ęthelwulf's English wife, Osburh, was still living [see under Ęlfred]. Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, married them, and after the marriage placed a crown upon the bride's head and blessed her as queen, though it was contrary to West-Saxon custom that the king's wife should be crowned or be called queen (Ann. Bertin. sub an. 856), a custom which King Ęlfred told Asser was to be traced to the general abhorrence of the crimes of Eadburh, queen of Beorhtric [q. v.] The form used for the marriage and coronation of Judith is still extant (Capitularia C. Calvi, Bouquet, vii. 620). Ęthelwulf then returned to England with his bride, but according to Asser's story found Wessex in revolt. During his absence his son Ęthelbald, Bishop Ealhstan, and Eanwulf, ealdorman of Somerset, conspired to keep him out of the land, and held a meeting of their adherents in the forest of Selwood. The marriage with Judith, which was probably considered as likely to lead to a change in the succession to the injury of Ęthelbald and the other West-Saxon ęthelings, was the primary cause of the conspiracy, though the king is said to have given other causes of offence. Ęthelwulf was joyfully received in Kent, and the Kentishmen urged him to let them do battle with his son. He shrank from such a war, and at a meeting of the witan gave up the kingdom of the West-Saxons to Ęthelbald, and kept only the under-kingdom of Kent for himself. In this kingdom he set his queen Judith beside him on a royal throne without exciting any anger. Neither the ?Chronicle? nor Ęthelweard mentions this revolt; Florence of Worcester copies it from Asser, and it must therefore stand on Asser's authority, which seems indisputable. Ęthelwulf lived for two years, or perhaps two years and a half, after he returned from France (two years A.-S. Chron. sub an. 855; Asser), and it is certain that in the period of five years assigned in the 'Chronicle' as the duration of Ęthelbald's reign two years and a half must belong to the time during which his father was alive. This would not, however, have any decisive bearing on the story of the partition of the kingdom. Before Ęthelwulf died he made a will with the consent of the witan, perhaps at the witenagemot which gave Wessex to his son. The kingdom of Wessex was to go first to Ęthelbald, and Kent to his next brother Ęthelberht, and on Ęthelbald's death he was to be succeeded in Wessex, not by Ęthelberht, who was to remain in Kent, but by the younger Ęthelred. The king also disposed of his property among his sons, his daughter, and his kinsmen, charging every ten hides with the support of a poor man, and ordering that a yearly payment of three hundred mancuses should be made to the pope. He died in 858 (Ann. Bertin.), on 13 Jan. (Florence) or (according to the Lambeth MS.) 13 June, after a reign of eighteen years and a half (A.-S. Chron.), which, reckoning from the middle of 839, would agree with the earlier date, while the statement of the length of Ęthelbald's reign would imply the later (Eccles. Documents, iii. 612). He was buried at Winchester.

      [Anglo-Saxon Chron.; Florence of Worcester; Asser, Mon. Hist. Brit.; Henry of Huntingdon, Mon. Hist. Brit.; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Gesta Pontificum (Rolls Ser.); Kemble's Codex Dipl. (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Haddan and Stubbs's Councils and Eccles. Documents, vol. iii.; Annales Bertiniani, Prudentius, SS. Rerum Germ., Waitz, 1883; Nithard, SS. Rerum Germ., Pertz; Capitula Croli Calvi, Bouquet, vii. 621; Anastasius, Bibliothec. de Vitis Roman. Pontiff., Rerum Ital. Scriptt. iii. 251; Kemble's Saxons in England, ii. 481 sq.; Green's Conquest of England.]

      W. H.
    Person ID I11693  Dickinson
    Last Modified 27 Jul 2020 

    Father Ecgbeorht, King of Wessex ,   d. 839 
    Mother Rędburh --, (consort of Wessex) 
    Married Y  [4
    Family ID F6431  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

     1. Ęthelstan of Kent,   b. ca. 823,   d. ca. 852  (Age ~ 29 years)  [Birth]
     2. Ęthelberht of Wessex,   b. ca. 830,   d. ca. 865  (Age ~ 35 years)  [Birth]
    Last Modified 5 Feb 2018 
    Family ID F4486  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family 2 Osburga, (consort of Wessex),   d. ca. 850 
     1. Ęthelbald of Wessex,   b. Abt 835,   d. 20 Dec 860  (Age ~ 25 years)  [Birth]
     2. Ęthelswith, Queen consort of Mercia,   b. ca. 840,   d. 888, Pavia, Lombardy, Itlay Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age ~ 48 years)  [Birth]
     3. Ęthelred I of Wessex,   b. ca. 845,   d. Apr 871  (Age ~ 26 years)  [Birth]
    +4. Ęlfred of Wessex,   b. 849, Wantage, Berkshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. ca. 26 Oct 899  (Age 50 years)  [Birth]
    Last Modified 27 Apr 2015 
    Family ID F3290  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family 3 Judith of the Franks,   b. Abt 844,   d. Aft 870  (Age ~ 27 years) 
    Married Oct 856  Verberie, Oise, Hauts-de-France, France Find all individuals with events at this location  [5
    • No issue.
    Last Modified 5 Feb 2018 
    Family ID F3291  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Event Map
    Link to Google MapsMarried - Oct 856 - Verberie, Oise, Hauts-de-France, France Link to Google Earth
    Link to Google MapsBuried - - Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, Hampshire Link to Google Earth
     = Link to Google Earth 
    Pin Legend  : Address       : Location       : City/Town       : County/Shire       : State/Province       : Country       : Not Set

  • Sources 
    1. [S336463] Medieval Lands: A prosopography of medieval European noble and royal families, Charles Cawley, (Online: The Foundation for Medieval Genealogy at, 20XX),

    2. [S431] The Henry Project: The ancestors of king Henry II of England: An experiment in cooperative medieval genealogy on the internet, Stewart Baldwin and Todd Farmerie (editors), (Online:,

    3. [S336351] Dictionary of National Biography, 63 volumes, Sir Sidney Lee, ed., (New York: McMillan and Company, 1885-1900), Public Domain., vol. 18, 40-42 [William Hunt].

    4. [S442] Onomasticon Anglo-Saxonicum, William George Searle, (Cambridge: 1897), citing MS Trin. Coll. Oxf. X, Chronicon rerum Anglic., 74v.
      Anno ... regis Egbricti secundo consors ejus regina Redburga regis Francorum sororia regi consilium adhibuit, ut nullum de stirpe Britonum in Anglorum finibus toleraret.
      Online at at

    5. [S336429] Britain's Royal Families: A Complete Genealogy, Alison Weir, (London: Vintage Books, 2008), 6.