Ceawlin of Wessex
gigatos | June 5, 2022
Ceawlin, also spelled Ceaulin or Caelin (died c. 593) was a king of Wessex, in the southwest of present-day England. He may have been the son of Cynric and the grandson of Cerdic, who, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, led the first Saxons into the territory of the future kingdom of Wessex. Ceawlin”s reign corresponds to the time when the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Brittany came to an end; by the time of his death, the Bretons had been almost entirely driven out of southern England.
The chronology of Ceawlin”s life is very uncertain: depending on the source, his reign lasted seven, seventeen or thirty-two years, and the accuracy, or even the veracity, of some of the dates in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has been questioned. The Chronicle mentions several battles of Ceawlin between 556 and 592, including the first known clash between different groups of Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless, it seems that during Ceawlin”s reign, Wessex underwent significant territorial expansion, although these gains were later partly lost to other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Chronicle also includes him in its list of the eight bretwaldas, a title given to rulers who exercised suzerainty over all of southern England; the exact extent of his power, however, is unknown.
Ceawlin died around 593, a year after being deposed, perhaps by his successor Ceol. Various sources give him two sons, Cutha and Cuthwine (en), but genealogies with this detail are not reliable.
The history of Britain after the end of the Roman occupation is particularly poorly documented, and there is little consensus among historians. Nevertheless, it seems that in the fifth century, the offensives of continental peoples on Britain turned into large-scale migrations. Among the new arrivals were Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. They conquered territories in the south and east of England, but towards the end of the century, the Breton victory at Mount Badon brought their advance to a halt. Around 550, the Bretons began to lose ground again, and within a quarter of a century, it seems that all of southern England had passed into the hands of the invaders.
The peace that followed the battle of Mount Badon is attested in part by Gildas the Wise. This monk wrote, around the middle of the sixth century, a polemical text entitled De excidio Britanniæ (“On the Ruin of Brittany”). He cites few names and dates, but makes it clear that the peace lasted from the year of his birth to the date he wrote. The other main literary source for this period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, especially the entry for the year 827 which lists the Anglo-Saxon kings who bore the title of bretwalda, or “ruler of Britain.” No king of the early sixth century is mentioned among them, which corroborates Gildas” account.
Ceawlin”s reign was part of the period of renewed Anglo-Saxon expansion in the late sixth century. The chronology and activities of the early West Saxon kings remain largely obscure, but Ceawlin is certainly one of the key figures in the final Anglo-Saxon conquest of southern England.
The two main written sources for the early history of the West Saxons are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List. The Chronicle is a collection of annals compiled during the reign of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century. The earliest entries are based on earlier annals that no longer exist, as well as on material from sagas that may have been transmitted orally. The arrival of the future West Saxons in Britain is dated to 495 in the Chronicle with the landing of Cerdic and his son Cynric at “Cerdices ora”, or “Cerdic”s shore”. The campaigns of Cerdic and his descendants are described in nearly twenty entries spread over the annals covering the next century. These annals provide most of the known information about Ceawlin, but the historicity of some of them remains questionable.
The “Royal Genealogical List of the West Saxons” is a list of the kings of Wessex with the duration of their reigns. It exists in several forms, including one in the preface to manuscript B of the Chronicle. Like the Chronicle, it dates from the reign of Alfred the Great, and both documents testify to the desire of their authors to trace the lineage of the kings of Wessex back through Cerdic to Gewis, a descendant of Woden and legendary ancestor of the West Saxons. The result corresponds to the propaganda sought by the chronicler, but proves to be full of contradictions for the historian, to the point that D. P. Kirby qualifies the whole constituted by the Chronicle and the list as “political fiction”.
These inconsistencies become evident by comparing the chronology in the various sources. The first event in Wessex history that can reasonably be dated is the baptism of Cynegils, in the late 630s or perhaps 640. Subtracting the reign lengths given in the “royal list,” this places the beginning of Cerdic”s reign in 532, not 495 as the Chronicle indicates. Neither of these dates is particularly reliable, since the list offers a smoothed version of the royal succession, without omissions or joint reigns, and it is otherwise impossible to confirm that the reign lengths are correct.
The length of Ceawlin”s reign varies according to the sources. According to the Chronicle, he reigned for thirty-two years, from 560 to 592, but the King”s List gives him, depending on the version, seven or seventeen years of reign. A recent detailed study of the list places the arrival of the West Saxons in England in 538, and estimates the most likely duration of Ceawlin”s reign at seven years, suggesting the range 581-588.
The sources agree in making Ceawlin the son of Cynric, and he is generally identified as the father of Cuthwine. There is an inconsistency here: in manuscript A of the Chronicle, the entry for the year 685 gives Ceawlin a son, Cutha, but in the entry for 855, Cutha is presented as the son of Cuthwine. Cutha is also presented as Ceawlin”s brother in manuscripts E and F of the Chronicle, in the entries for 571 and 568 respectively.
It is difficult to say whether or not Ceawlin is a descendant of Cerdic. The grouping of different Saxon lineages gives the impression of distinct groups, one of which corresponds to Ceawlin”s lineage. The inconsistencies in the Wessex genealogies may stem from attempts to integrate Ceawlin”s line with the others: for the kings of the West Saxons, being able to claim descent from Cerdic is crucial. Another reason to doubt the accuracy of these genealogies is etymological: some of the names of the first members of the dynasty do not seem to be of Germanic origin. The name Ceawlin is one of them: it seems rather to be of Brittonic origin.
On the other hand, the oldest sources do not use the expression “West Saxons” to designate the people of Ceawlin. According to Bede the Venerable, this expression is interchangeable with Gewissæ, which designates the descendants of Gewis. The term “West Saxons” did not appear until the end of the 7th century, after the reign of Cædwalla.
At its height, the kingdom of Wessex occupied all of southwestern England, but the early stages of its expansion are not evident in the sources. Cerdic”s landing, whatever its date, seems to have occurred near the Isle of Wight, and the annals date the conquest of the island to 530. According to the Chronicle, Cerdic died in 534, and was succeeded by his son Cynric; it adds that “they gave the Isle of Wight to their nephews, Stuf and Wihtgar”. Bede the Venerable contradicts this statement: according to him, the Isle of Wight was colonized by the Jutes and not by the Saxons, a version that archaeological evidence seems to corroborate.
Later entries in the Chronicle detail some of the battles that led to the expansion of the West Saxon kingdom. Ceawlin”s campaigns did not take place on the coastline: they stretched along the Thames valley and beyond, from Surrey in the east to the mouth of the Severn in the west. Ceawlin clearly played a role in the expansion of the West Saxons, but the military history of the period is difficult to understand. The dates given below are those of the Chronicle, although they are probably too early, as indicated above.
556 : Beran byrg
The first record of a battle fought by Ceawlin is in 556: he and his father Cynric confronted the Bretons at “Beran byrg”, or the fort of Bera, now identified with Barbury Castle, a Stone Age fort in Wiltshire near Swindon. Cynric would have been king of Wessex at this date.
568 : Wibbandun
The first battle fought by Ceawlin as king is dated 568 by the Chronicle, when he and Cutha confronted Æthelberht of Kent. The entry states, “Then Ceawlin and Cutha faced Aethelberht and drove him back into Kent; and they killed two ealdormen, Oslaf and Cnebba, at Wibbandun.” The location of Wibbandum (for a long time it was thought to be Wimbledon, a hypothesis now considered false. This battle is particular, because it is the first known battle between the invaders: all the previous battles recorded in the Chronicle were between the Anglo-Saxons and the Bretons.
There are many examples of shared kingship in Anglo-Saxon history, and Cutha”s presence alongside Ceawlin may be another. Their relationship is not clear, but it is possible that Cutha was also king. The entry for 577, below, is another possible example.
The Chronicle entry for 571 reads, “Then Cuthwulf fought the Bretons at Bedcanford, and took four villages, Limbury and Aylesbury, Benson and Eynsham; and in the same year he died.” The connection between Cuthwulf and Ceawlin is unknown, but the alliteration, common in Anglo-Saxon royal families, suggests that Cuthwulf belongs to the royal line of Wessex. The location of the battle is also unknown. Bedford”s hypothesis contradicts what is known about the history of the town”s names.
It is surprising that such an eastern region should still be in Breton hands at such a late date: there is ample archaeological evidence of earlier Angles and Saxons settling in the Midlands, and historians generally interpret Gildas” De Excidio as implying that the Bretons had lost control of this region by the mid-sixth century. A possible explanation would be that this entry marks the recapture of territory that the Anglo-Saxons had lost in the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Mount Badon.
577 : the lower Severn
The entry for 577 reads: “Then Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought the Bretons, and they killed three kings, Coinmail and Condidan and Farinmail, in the place called Dyrham, and took three cities: Gloucester and Cirencester and Bath. These Breton kings are not mentioned anywhere else; the archaic form of their names suggests that this entry comes from a much earlier written source. The battle of Dyrham is considered a turning point in the Saxon advance: by reaching the Bristol Channel, the West Saxons cut off the Bretons west of the Severn from those on the peninsula south of the channel. The territory conquered after this battle was most certainly lost to Penda of Mercy in 628, when the Chronicle notes that “Cynegils and Cwichelm confronted Penda at Cirencester, and then came to an agreement.
It is possible that in taking Bath, Ceawlin and Cuthwine found the Roman baths still in use to some degree. The ninth-century historian Nennius mentions a “Hot Lake” in the land of the Hwicce (located along the Severn), and adds, “It is surrounded by a wall of brick and stone, and men may go there to bathe whenever they wish, and every man may have the kind of bath he likes. If he wants it, it will be a cold bath, and if he wants a hot bath, it will be hot.” Bede also describes hot baths in the geographical introduction to his Ecclesiastical History, in terms very similar to those of Nennius.
The Wansdyke, a defensive earthwork, stretches from south of Bristol to the outskirts of Marlborough, passing not far from Bath. It was probably built in the 5th or 6th century, perhaps by Ceawlin.
584 : Fethan leag
The last known victory of Ceawlin is dated 584. The entry in the Chronicle reads: “Then Ceawlin and Cutha fought the Bretons in the place called Fethan leag, and Cutha was slain; and Ceawlin took many towns and innumerable spoils, and in rage he returned to his own. A twelfth-century document about Stoke Lyne in Oxfordshire mentions a wood called “Fethelée,” and it is now believed that the battle of Fethan leag must have taken place in the area.
The phrase “and, furious, he returned on his own” probably indicates that this entry comes from a saga, as perhaps do all the annals of early Wessex. It is also possible that Ceawlin actually lost this battle, but that the chronicler preferred not to express the outcome clearly: a king does not usually return “furious” when he has taken “many cities and innumerable spoils. Perhaps this battle should be seen as marking the end of Ceawlin”s suzerainty over southern England.
Around 731, the Northumbrian monk and chronicler Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Although his subject is not secular history, he provides a great deal of information about the history of the Anglo-Saxons, including a list of seven kings who, in his words, exercised “imperium” over the other kingdoms south of the Humber. The usual translation of this term is “suzerainty”. Ceawlin is the second in this list, under the name “Caelin”, Bede specifying that he “was known in the language of his people as Ceaulin”. Moreover, he makes it clear that Ceawlin was not a Christian, since “the first to enter the kingdom of heaven” is Æthelberht of Kent.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle takes up Bede”s list in its entry for the year 827, adds Egbert of Wessex, and specifies that these rulers are also known as “bretwalda”, or “ruler of Britain”. The exact meaning of this word has been the subject of much debate. For some, it is simply a term of “elegiac poetry,” but there is evidence that it certainly implies a military command role.
According to Bede, these kings exercised their authority “south of the Humber”, but it probably extended over a much smaller area, at least for the first of them. In the case of Ceawlin, the extent of his power is difficult to determine with certainty, but his inclusion in Bede”s list, and the list of battles he is supposed to have won, suggest an energetic warlord who, from a base in the upper Thames valley, dominated much of the surrounding territory and exercised suzerainty over southern England for some time. Despite his victories, Ceawlin”s conquests in the north were later lost to Wessex: most of the upper Thames valley passed to Mercy, and the northeastern towns conquered in 571 were subsequently controlled by Kent or Mercy.
Bede”s view must also be seen as a product of his time: at the time of the writing of the Ecclesiastical History, Æthelbald of Mercy dominated England south of the Humber, and Bede”s view of the earlier kings is no doubt strongly colored by the situation of his time. For early Bretwaldas, such as Ælle of Sussex and Ceawlin, Bede”s description is probably, to some degree, anachronistic. It is also possible that Bede refers only to a suzerainty over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and not over the island Bretons.
Ceawlin is the second king in Bede”s list. All the later Bretwaldas follow each other more or less consecutively, but there is a long interval, perhaps fifty years, between Ælle and Ceawlin. The lack of an interval between the other bretwaldas has been used as evidence that Ceawlin”s dates correspond to the later entries in the Chronicle with reasonable accuracy. According to this analysis, the next bretwalda, Æthelberht of Kent, must have already been ruling when Pope Gregory the Great wrote to him in 601, since Gregory would not have written to a sub-king. According to the Chronicle, Ceawlin defeated Æthelbert in 568. The dates of Æthelberht are subject to debate, but the current consensus is that his reign could not have begun before 580. The 568 date for the battle of Wibbandun is considered unlikely, because of the seven or seventeen year length of Ceawlin”s reign given in various versions of the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List. If one places this battle around 590, before Æthelberht had established his power, then the later annals recording Ceawlin”s defeat and death may be fairly close to the correct dates. In any case, the battle with Æthelberht can clearly have taken place only around the year 590, give or take a few years. On the other hand, the interval between Ælle and Ceawlin may be seen as corroborating the story in Gildas” De Excidio that the Breton victory at Mount Badon was followed by a period of peace of a generation or more.
Æthelberht of Kent succeeds Ceawlin in the list of Bretwaldas, but it is possible that their reigns overlapped: recent studies estimate Ceawlin”s dates at 581-588, and place Æthelberht”s accession at about 589, but these are hardly estimates. The fall of Ceawlin in 592 may have been an opportunity for Æthelberht to become the dominant ruler of southern England, which he almost certainly was by 597. It is possible that Æthelberht”s rise took place earlier: the entry for 584 may mention a victory, but it is the last of Ceawlin”s mentioned in the Chronicle, and it may have been followed by Æthelberht”s rise and Ceawlin”s decline.
Ceawlin lost the throne of Wessex in 592. The relevant excerpt from the entry for that year is “Then there was a great slaughter at Woden”s Barrow, and Ceawlin was driven out.” Woden”s Barrow is a burial mound, now called Adam”s Grave, in Alton, Wiltshire. Ceawlin”s opponent is unknown. According to the medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury, writing around 1120, it was “the Angles and the Bretons conspiring together. It is also possible that it is Ceol, supposedly his successor as ruler of Wessex, to whom the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List grants a reign of six years. According to the Chronicle, Ceawlin died the following year: “Then Ceawlin and Cwichelm and Crida perished. Nothing else is known about Cwichelm and Crida, but they too may belong to the royal line of Wessex.
According to the genealogical list, Ceol is the son of Cutha, who is the son of Cynric; and his brother Ceolwulf rules seventeen years after him. It is possible that West Saxon rule fragmented upon Ceawlin”s death: the center of Ceol”s and Ceolwulf”s power may have shifted from the upper Thames Valley to Wiltshire. This fragmentation may also have facilitated the rise to power of Æthelberht of Kent. However, the West Saxons remained a significant military power: the Chronicle and Bede indicate continued military activity against Essex and Sussex in the twenty or thirty years following Ceawlin”s death.