Wessex, kingdom of

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Wessex, kingdom of. The origins of the kingdom of Wessex are obscure. Archaeological evidence shows that the communities of Germanic settlers established in the middle Thames region in the late 5th and early 6th cents. constituted one of the principal elements, but literary evidence emphasizes a more southerly origin in the movement of Cerdic and his successors in the early 6th cent. from a base in the Portsmouth area into Hampshire and Wiltshire. The Isle of Wight and the Meon valley in eastern Hampshire were settled by a people of Jutish origin. Historic shape was given to Wessex in the reign of Ceawlin (560–91), who claimed descent from Cerdic and was described by Bede as a bretwalda (overlord). At the battle of Dyrham near Bath in 577, he won a victory over the Britons which left him in control of Bath, Cirencester, and Gloucester. His people at this stage, or possibly only the ruling group, were known as the Gewisse, but also as the West Saxons to distinguish them from the other Saxon folk who gave their names to Sussex, Middlesex, and Essex. They accepted Christianity in the 7th cent. and bishoprics were set up (apparently representing the duality of the predominant groups) at Dorchester-on-Thames (634) and at Winchester (662). Under two powerful kings, Cædwalla (685–8) and Ine (688–726), the West Saxons extended their political control over Devon and Somerset. A significant British element of acknowledged legal status survived in the kingdom. Ine died on pilgrimage to Rome and for the rest of the 8th cent. Wessex played a subordinate part to Mercia in English affairs. Revival came in the 9th cent. during the reign of Egbert (802–39). After his defeat of the Mercians at Ellendun in 825 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle referred to him as bretwalda, and indeed for a brief period he seems to have been recognized as overlord by all the English kingdoms, including Mercia (830–1). This did not prove permanent, but the south-east and East Anglia continued to acknowledge his lordship. The creation of a greater Wessex, involving effective mastery of all lands south of the Thames, can firmly be attributed to his reign. His son Æthelwulf (839–58) and his grandsons, especially his youngest grandson, Alfred the Great (871–99), consolidated the West Saxon hold over Sussex, Surrey, and Kent. But the whole political structure of England was changed in the second half of the 9th cent. by the Danish invasions. Alfred's heroic defence resulted in the peace of Wedmore (878) which left all England north and east of Watling Street and the river Lea in Danish hands. Alfred regained London after 886 and skilfully exploited his position as sole surviving effective representative of the ancient ruling English dynasties. He emphasized the elements of Christian kingship and legal lordship over his own people, and extended it over the Mercians and over all Christian English under Danish rule. From that point onwards the story of the kingdom of Wessex folds absolutely into the story of the kingdom of England. Danish kings and warlords were gradually conquered and their territories reabsorbed into England in the reigns of Alfred's son Edward the Elder (899–924), and grandsons Athelstan (924–39), Edmund (939–46), and Edred (946–55). After 954 and the death of Erik Bloodaxe, the last Scandinavian ruler of York, we deal with a unitary kingdom of England. Intrinsic reasons within Wessex explain why Wessex emerged as the nucleus of such a kingdom: better communications, greater agrarian wealth, proximity to the continent, control of the south-east with its economic and political potential in London, Kent, and Canterbury. Geographic and strategic advantage came to Wessex from its distance from the main thrust of Danish attack across the North Sea. Full credit also must be given to the West Saxon dynasty in the critical century, 871–975, notably to Alfred and ultimately to his great-grandson Edgar (959–75), who laid heavy emphasis on their position as Christian monarchs, extending the range of their legitimate authority beyond the West Saxon people to embrace all the Christian inhabitants of England.

Henry Loyn

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Wessex, kingdom of

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