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Æthelwealh of Sussex

King of Sussex
File:Ethelwolfe - John Speed.JPG
Imaginary depiction of Æthelwealh from John Speed's 1611 "Saxon Heptarchy"
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fl. c. 660-685
Predecessor Cissa
Successor Eadwulf
Spouse Eafe
Issue Unknown
Died 685

Æthelwealh (fl. c. 660–685) (also written Aedilualch, Aethelwalch, Aþelwold, Æðelwold, Æþelwald, or Ethelwalch) was the first historical king of Sussex. Æthelwealh became the first Christian king of Sussex and was king when Sussex was converted to Christianity in 681. In 661, Æthelwealh received the territories of the Meon Valley in modern-day Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight from his godfather, Wulfhere, king of Mercia. Æthelwealh was killed in around 685 by Cædwalla, at the time a prince of the Gewisse tribe of modern-day Oxfordshire, who had been operating as bandit in Sussex.

All known information about him comes from brief mentions in Eddius's The Life of Bishop Wilfrid, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Æthelwealh was the third recorded ruler of the South Saxons in Sussex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record Aelle as both the first Bretwalda and king of the South Saxons, although Slaughter refers to Bede on ancestral Saxon aldermen and argues that Aelle was probably the South Saxon Warlord (Rulers of the South Saxons before 825). The second ruler of the South Saxons in Sussex is recorded by Roger of Wendover as King Cissa. So Æthelwealh was the third recorded ruler of the South Saxons in Sussex.

The Kingdom of the South Saxons was devolved on Ceawlin of Wessex on Cissa's death (Roger of Wendover) and he would have been the overlord in Sussex. An emendation in the Wendover text from 'died in 590' to 'died aged 90' would give a date of 567 for the devolvement on Wessex, assuming Cissa was born in 477 (Slaughter). A case can be made (Slaughter) that Æthelwealh was installed by Penda in 645, when Cenwalh was driven out of his kingdom by Penda for divorcing the latter's sister. According to Roger of Wendover Sussex was devolved on Ceawlin of Wessex after the death of King Cissa. There is no reason to suppose this devolvement did not continue under Ceawlin's successors and yet Æthelwealh is recorded as the King in Sussex in 661.

Cenwalh is unlikely to have given up his guardianship of Sussex, as its borders were too near his royal centre at Winchester. According to Saxon dooms, recompense depended on the status of the offended person. Cenwalh had deprived Penda's sister of her queenly status, and a just recompense when Penda invaded Wessex would have been for him to have deprived Cenwalh of the kingdom in Sussex. Penda was a decisive man. There is also a case to be made that Æthelwealh was a son of Cynegils. The case is based on

  • comparison of the second-element naming pattern used for the children of King Oswy in Northumbria, Alhfrith, Egcrith, Alhflaed and Aelflaed, with the series Cenwalh, Æthelwealh, Centwine and Aethelwine,
  • the common '-wealh' or Briton element in the names of Cenwealh and Aethelwealh,
  • the connection of Athelney, near the Britons of Creech, with Cynegils' hermit son, St Aethelwine.

There is another case to be made for an Aethelwalhan dynasty. This is illustrated by comparing the earlier "Æthel-eald" dynasty that appears to be found in Sussex with the later "Æthel-ælf" dynasty that ruled over Wessex.

Generation I
Aethelwealh, compare Aethelwulf.
Generation II
Aethelthryth/Aethelstan, compare Aethelred/Aelfred.
Generation III
Aethelberht/Ealdberht, compare Aethelwold/Aethelhelm, Aethelthryth/Aethelweard.
Generation IV
Ealdwulf/Aethelwulf, compare Aelfwine/Aethelwine.

There could perhaps be other members of this dynasty who were Æthelwealh's natural sons. They were aldermen who held high status in Sussex: King Watt, Æthelwealh's personal aldermen Berhthun and Andhun, and Bryni Duke of the South Saxons. Moreover their names alliterate, suggesting that they were indeed brothers. If we assume that Æthelwealh was an elder brother of Centwine and Aethelwine, then he could have been born in the early 620s. If we also assume that it was in 661 Æthelwealh married Eafe, on the insistence of Wulfhere, then it is possible that he had lived with a concubine by whom he had earlier sons. See Slaughter, Rulers of the South Saxons before 825.

Æthelwealh became a Christian while in Mercia where the King of Mercia, King Wulfhere, sponsored his baptism. At this time the people of Sussex were pagans.

In 661, Wulfhere gave Æthelwealh the territories of Meonwara and the Isle of Wight.

Æthelwealh's queen was Eafe (also written Eabae or Ebba), the daughter of Eanfrith (Eanfrid or Eanfridi), a ruler of the Christian Hwicce people.

Wilfrid, the exiled bishop of York, came to Sussex in 681 and converted the people to Christianity with King Æthelwealh's approval. Æthelwealh gave Wilfrid land in Selsey where he founded Selsey Abbey. Wilfrid, however met with Caedwalla a prince of the Gewisse, then operating as a bandit in Sussex , and came to a mutual agreement to advance one another's interests. According to Bede, in 686, Cædwalla invaded South Saxon territory and killed Æthelwealh. Cædwalla was then driven out by two of Æthelwealh's ealdormen, Berhthun and Andhun. When Cædwalla became King of the West Saxons, the following year, he conquered Sussex and appears to have appointed an Ecgwald as a sub-regulus (on cartulary evidence). His name means "noble foreigner", which indicates that he might have been a Saxo-Briton nobleman as might have been Cenwealh Cynegilsing, earlier King of the West Saxons (A-S Chronicles).

According to tradition, Cædwalla invaded Sussex and was met by Æthelwealh at a point in the South Downs just south-east of Stoughton, close to the border with Hampshire and it was here that Æthelwealh was defeated and slain.[1] According to the same tradition, Æthelwealh lies buried in the southern barrow of the group that marks the spot.[1]


  1. ^ a b Alec Hamilton-Barr. In Saxon Sussex. The Arundel Press, Bognor Regis. p 21

External links

  • (Latin) Bede. "Liber Quartus". Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. The Latin Library. Retrieved 2007-03-30.