THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

13 January 2015

RIP Æthelwulf, King of the West Saxons

King Æthelwulf, who died on 13 January 858, has been rather overshadowed by his more famous son, Alfred the Great – but did he lay the foundations for Alfred’s success?

Æthelwulf consolidated the West Saxon kingdom, strengthened his family’s rule over Kent and brought Devon and Cornwall under his influence. It seems that he was quite a networker, currying favour with Pope Benedict III and Charles the Bald, the Carolingian emperor. He travelled to Rome in 855 ‘with a multitude of people’, and gave gifts of ‘a fine gold crown weighing 4 lb, … one sword bound with fine gold; four silver-gilt Saxon bowls; one all-silk white shirt with roundels, with gold-studding; and two large gold-interwoven veils’, as well as lavish donations of gold and silver to ‘the clergy, leading men and people of Rome’ (from the Liber Pontificalis: AD 817–891, ed. by R. Davis (1995)).

On his way home, Æthelwulf stopped off at the court of Charles the Bald for three months and married the emperor’s daughter Judith in an elaborate ceremony. His new bride replaced Æthelwulf’s wife Osburh, who had borne all his children, including five sons. It is not known if Osburh had died before this or was discarded in favour of Judith, who was probably only fourteen. Æthelwulf’s connection to Carolingian royalty is referred to many times in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and was no doubt considered a very prestigious move.

Royal_ms_14_b_v_f001r
Detail from a genealogical roll, showing Æthelwulf (centre), his father Ecgberht, King of the West Saxons (above), King Beorhtric (right), and below, 4 roundels containing his sons, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and Alfred, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 14 B V, Membrane 1.

Here is an image of King Æthelwulf (in the centre) from a genealogical roll chronicle produced in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). He is shown against a shiny gold background, with his left hand on his heart. The French text beside him focuses on the gifts of money he gave to the Pope. Beside him is a man on stilts playing a pipe with an animal head.

Add_ms_34652_f002v
Text page with West-Saxon genealogy to King Alfred, England, S.E. (Winchester), 4th quarter of the 11th century, Add MS 34652, f. 2v.

This is a leaf that has been detached from Cotton MS Otho B XI, one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It contains an Anglo-Saxon genealogy from King Cerdic (519-534) to Alfred (871-899). On the 7th line, Ecgberht (‘ecbyrht’), father of Æthelwulf, is listed as reigning for 37 years and 7 months (802-839).  He was succeeded by his son: ‘þa feng æþelwulf to his sunu 7 heold nigenteolðe healf gear’ (‘his son Æthelwulf took over the kingdom and held it for the nineteenth half year’, i.e. eighteen and a half years) (lines 8-9). There follows a seven-line list of Æthelwulf’s antecedents with their patronymics: Æthelwulf is ‘ecbyrhting’ (son of Ecbyrht), Ecbyrht is ‘ealmunding’ (son of Ealhmund), Ealmund is ‘eafing’ (son Eafa, who married a Kentish princess) and so on back to ‘cynric cerdiccing’, Cynric, son of King Cerdic, who some believe was a Saxon invader and founder of the dynasty of Wessex.

Stowe Charter 17
Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, England, S. E. (Christ Church, Canterbury), 843, Stowe Charter 17

The earliest surviving charter of a king of Wessex is a grant by King Æthelwulf, dated 28 May 843 (Stowe Charter 17). Æthelwulf gave to his thegn Æthelmod land at Little Chart, Kent, including woods called Theodorice-snad and Beaneccer, and swine-pastures at Ætingden, Lidingden, Meredenn and Uddanh. Attached to the bottom of the charter is a small fragment of parchment containing a note of the witnesses, including Æthelwulf himself and Ceolnoð, Archbishop of Canterbury. This must have been used as an aide-memoire by the scribe when writing up the fine copy.

Æthelwulf was succeeded by his sons Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and finally Alfred, his youngest son, who reigned for 22 winters.

- Chantry Westwell

Comments

Surely 'nigenteoðe healfgear', literally 'nineteenth halfyear' means 'eighteen and a half years'; cf. German 'dritthalb' meaning two and a half; likewise in Greek τρίτον ἡμιτάλαντον, 'third half-talent', means 'two and a half talents'.

Dear Leofranc,

Thank-you very much for the correction and apologies for the slip, which I've now corrected!

Best wishes,

James

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