Cædwalla of Wessex

Summary

Peter Caedwalla (Cædwalla) (659 – April 20, 689) was king of Wessex from about 685 until he abdicated in 688. His name derives from the British name Cadwallon. He was exiled from Wessex; during his exile, he gathered an army and attacked Sussex and killed its king Ethelwealh of Sussex. However, Caedwalla was unable to hold the territory, and was expelled by Aethelwealh”s supporters. In 685 or 686 he returned to Wessex and eventually became king. It is possible that he eliminated several of his dynastic rivals, as some records report that Wessex was ruled by several kings until Caedwalla”s arrival.

After his rise in Wessex, Caedwalla returned to Sussex and conquered it again, also occupying the Isle of Wight, eliminating the dynasties that reigned there and converting its inhabitants to Christianity at the point of the sword. He gained control of Surrey and the Kingdom of Kent, and in 686 installed his brother Mul as king of Kent. A year later, Mul was burned during a revolt, so Caedwalla returned to Kent and ruled it directly for a time.

Caedwalla was wounded during the conquest of the Isle of Wight, and perhaps this was the reason he abdicated in 688 to travel to Rome for his baptism, taking the name Peter, and dying there. He arrived in Rome in April 689 and was baptized on the Saturday before Easter, dying ten days later, on April 20, 689. He was succeeded by King Ine of Wessex.

The best document on the facts concerning Wessex is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, written around 731 by Bede, a monk and chronicler from Northumbria. Beda received reliable information about Caedwalla from Bishop Daniel of Winchester and was primarily interested in the Christianization of the West Saxons, as well as recounting the history of the church, which sheds much light on Caedwalla. The contemporary work Vita Sancti Wilfrithi, also known as the Life of St Wilfrid, was written by Stephen of Ripon, but has often been mistakenly attributed to Eddius Stephanus, who also mentions Caedwalla. Another useful source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a set of events from the annals of English history compiled in Wessex in the late ninth century, probably under the direction of King Alfred the Great, associated with the work The Chronicles, which is a listing of the kings and their reigns, known as “The Genealogical List of the Kings of West Saxony” (Wessex King List). There are also six surviving charters, though some of doubtful authenticity. These charters were documents drawn up to record gifts of land by kings to their followers or to the church, and are among the earliest documentary sources of early England.

During the course of the 7th century, the West Saxons occupied a southwestern sector of England, although the exact boundaries are difficult to define.To the west was the native British kingdom of Dumnonia, in present-day Devon and Cornwall. To the north was Mercia, whose King Wulfhere dominated southern England during his reign. In 674 he was succeeded by his brother Etelredo, militarily less active than his brother Wulfhere. Ethelred laid siege to much of the Wessex border, and much of western Saxony, but had to cede some of the territory acquired by Wulfhere. To the southeast was the kingdom of the South Saxons, now known as Sussex; and to the east was the kingdom of Essex (East Saxons), which controlled London.

Not all the regions named in the Chronicles can be identified, but apparently the East Saxons occupied the northern part of Somerset, south of Gloucestershire and north of Wiltshire, facing Britons and Mercians. To the southwest, there is evidence of West Saxon influence under Cenwalh of Wessex, who reigned from 642 to 673 and is remembered as the first Saxon patron of Sherborne Abbey in Dorset. Similarly, Centwine of Wessex was the first Saxon patron of Glastonbury between 676 and 685 in the Somerset region. Evidently the monasteries in the region were built by them. Exeter, to the west, in the Devon region was under West Saxon control from 680, as Boniface was educated there at that time.

The chronicler and monk Bede held that Caedwalla was “a bold young man of the royal house of Gewissæ” and lost his life very young, at the age of 33, in the year 689. Bede used to use the tribal name “Gewisse” as an equivalent to describe the West Saxons: The genealogies of the West Saxons go back to a certain “Gewis”, who was surely legendary.

According to The Chronicles, Caedwalla was the son of Coenberht, a descendant, through Ceawlin, of Cerdic, the first Gewisse to settle in England. However, there are many difficulties and contradictions in the lists of reigns, partly caused by the efforts of later scribes to try to prove that every king on the list was a descendant of Cerdic, so Caedwalla”s genealogy must be treated with some caution. His name is an Anglo-Saxon form of the British name “Cadwallon,” which may indicate in part his British ancestry.

The first mention of Caedwalla is found in The Life of St. Wilfrid, in which he is described as an exiled nobleman in the forests of Chilternn and Andred. It was not unusual for a seventh-century king to have to spend some time in exile before ascending the throne. Oswald of Northumbria is another prominent example. According to The Chronicles, Cædwalla began his contest for the throne in 685. Despite his exile, he was able to muster enough military force to defeat and kill Ethelwealh of Sussex, although he was soon driven out again by the Ealdormen Berthun and Andhun, kinsmen of King Æthelwealh, who administered the country from then on, possibly as if they were kings. They even came to dominate the Isle of Wight and the valley of the River Meon, which lies to the east of Hampshire; The Chronicles document dates this event to 661, but according to Bede it occurred “shortly before Wilfrid”s mission against the South Saxons in 680, implying a much later date. Wulfhere also attacked Ashdown, and The Chronicles again date this event to 661, but it most likely took place later. If these events occurred in 680 or shortly before, Caedwalla”s attack on Æthelwealh would be explained as a response to pressure from those in the Mercia region.

Another indication of the political and military situation may be the split in 660 of the West Saxon episcopal see of Dorchester, Dorset, a new see being established at Winchester, very close to the border with South Saxony. Bede”s explanation for the split is that Cenwalh tired of the “frank” speech of the bishop of Dorchester, most likely a response to the Mercian advance, which forced westward expansion of Saxony, such as Caedwalla”s military activities to the west, south and east, rather than to the north. Caedwalla”s military success may be the reason why the term “West Saxon” rather than “Gewisse” came into wider use at that time, as from that time onwards the West Saxons began to rule over other Anglo-Saxon peoples.

In 685 or 686, Caedwalla became king of the West Saxons after Centwine of Wessex, his predecessor, retired to a monastery. Beda relates that Caedwalla managed to hold the throne for two years, until 688, but if his reign lasted at least three years, it is possible that he ascended the throne in 685. In the “West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List” there are records that the reign period was three years and not two as indicated by Beda.

According to Beda, prior to Caedwalla”s reign, the region of Wessex was ruled by a kind of half-kings, who were dominated one by one by Caedwalla before becoming king himself. Although Beda does not make this explicitly clear, it is possible to conjecture that in some sense Caedwalla ended the form of kingship of these half-kings. Beda dates the death of King Cenwalh as the beginning of a ten-year period in which the West Saxons were ruled by these half-kings; however, Cenwalh is believed to have died in 673, so this is somewhat incompatible with the dates of Caedwalla”s rise to power. It may be that Centwine, Caedwalla”s predecessor as king of Wessex, began as a co-ruler, and then established himself as king until Caedwalla”s arrival. It is also possible that there were other factions with their own half-kings drawn from the royal dynasty of the West Saxons, competing for power with Centwine and Caedwalla. The qualification of these rulers as “half-kings” may be due to an unbiased description of the situation by Bishop Daniel of Winchester, who was one of Bede”s main informants in West Saxony. It is also possible that not all of the sub-kings were eliminated. There is King Bealdred, who reigned in the area of Somerset and western Wiltshire, who is mentioned in two land-grant treaties; the first dates from 681 and the other from 688, although these documents have been labeled as forgeries by some historians. Even more confusing is the status of another land grant, believed to be true, which shows Ine”s father Cenred still reigning in Wessex at a period after Ine”s rise to power.

Once on the throne, Caedwalla again attacked the South Saxons, and on that occasion killed Berthun, and “the region was left in the worst state of subjection.” He also conquered the Isle of Wight, which was still under the rule of an independent pagan kingdom, and set about killing all the natives of the island, so as to secure the settlement of his own people. Arwald, king of the Isle of Wight, was with his two young brothers the heirs. They fled the island, but were found at Stoneham, in Hampshire, and killed on Caedwalla”s orders, although they were persuaded by a priest to allow themselves to be baptized before being executed. Bede also mentions that Caedwalla was wounded and was recovering from his wounds when the priest came to ask permission to baptize the princes.

In a charter of 688, Cædwalla makes an apportionment of land at Farnham for the construction of the Cathedral, which serves as evidence that Cædwalla controlled the territory of Surrey. He also invaded Kent in 686, and may have founded a monastery at Hoo, northeast of Rochester, between the River Medway and the Thames. There his brother, Mul of Kent, was installed as king of Kent in place of his predecessor King Eadric of Kent. In a subsequent revolt, Mul was burned to death, along with twelve other followers, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Caedwalla responded with a new campaign against the region of Kent, ravaging the land and leaving a total state of chaos. He may have ruled Kent directly after this second invasion.

Caedwalla was not yet baptized when he came to the throne in Wessex, and remained so throughout his reign. Although he is often referred to as a pagan, this is not necessarily the best description, as it is possible that he held Christian beliefs, at that time the syncretism existing between the Old Customs and Christianity was quite common, but he delayed his baptism until some time later, according to his convenience.

He was clearly respectful of the Church, as several letters of grants made to churches and religious buildings of the time show. When Caedwalla first attacked the South Saxons, Wilfrid was at the king”s court, and when Æthelwealh was killed, Wilfrid himself acknowledged Caedwalla; the writing The Life of Wilfrid recalls that Cædwalla regarded the latter as a spiritual father. Beda states that Caedwalla pledged to give a quarter of the Isle of Wight to the Church if it was successfully conquered, and that Wilfrid was the beneficiary when the promise was fulfilled. Bede also says that Caedwalla agreed to have the heirs of Arwald (king of the Isle of Wight) baptized before they were executed. Two of Caedwalla”s letters contain gifts of land to Wilfrid, and there is also later evidence that Caedwalla worked with Wilfrid and Eorcenwald, a bishop of the East Saxons, to establish a Sussex ecclesiastical society. However, there is no evidence that Wilfrid exercised any influence over the secular activities Caedwalla or his campaigns.Wilfrid”s association with Caedwalla may have benefited him in another way: in The Life of Wilfrid it is stated that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, expressed a desire for Wilfrid to be his successor. If true, there is evidence of an apparent association of Wilfrid with the southern bishopric during Caedwalla”s reign.

In 688 Caedwalla abdicated power and went on pilgrimage to Rome, possibly because he was already dying from wounds he had suffered while fighting on the Isle of Wight. Caedwalla had never been baptized, and Bede maintains that Caedwalla would like to “obtain the special privilege of receiving the purification of baptism at the shrine of the blessed Apostles.” It is known that he stopped in France in the town of Samer, near Calais, and that he donated money there for the foundation of a church, and there are also records of his passing through the court of Cuniperto, king of the Lombards, in what is now northern Italy.

In Rome, he was baptized by Pope Sergius I on the Saturday before Easter (according to Bede). He took the name Peter and died a short time later, “still wearing his white robes”. He was buried in the church of St. Peter. Bede”s writing Ecclesiastical History and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles agree that Caedwalla died on April 20, but these writings state that he died seven days after his baptism, although the Saturday before Easter was April 10 of that year. The epitaph on his tomb describes him as “King of the Saxons”.

Caedwalla”s departure from power in 688 seems to have led to instability in southern England. Ine of Wessex, Caedwalla”s successor, abdicated in 726, and the compilation “Royal Genealogical List of the West Saxons” clarifies that he reigned for thirty-seven years, implying that his reign began in 689 rather than 688. This may indicate a period of instability between Caedwalla”s abdication and Ine”s seizure of power. The monarchy also underwent changes in the region of Kent in 688, with Oswine of Kent, who was apparently a Mercian taking the throne, and there is no evidence of eastern Saxon influence over the region of Kent in the years immediately following Caedwalla”s abdication.

In 694, Ine subtracted an indemnity of 30,000 pence from the Kentish treasury for Mul”s death. This amount represented, he claimed, the value of Aetheling”s life. Ine seems to have retained control of Surrey, but never regained the territory of Kent. No Wessex king ventured eastward again until the arrival of Egbert of Wessex, more than a hundred years later.

Sources

  1. Cædwalla de Wessex
  2. Cædwalla of Wessex
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