King Ceawlin of Wessex – A Long and Prosperous Reign

king ceawlin of wessex

After Cynric passed away, King Ceawlin took the throne of Wessex and for the first time, we have a lot more insight into the Kingdom of Wessex and how Saxon Kingdoms functioned.

Unlike most royal dynasties, the Saxon line got off to a flying start and despite a minor blip with Creoda, they maintained a stable grip of Wessex.

With King Ceawlin, as is so often the case the wider political landscape changed and presented challenges the previous kings hadn’t contended with.

Who was King Ceawlin of Wessex?

It is extremely likely that Ceawlin was the son of Cynric and therefore the grandson of Creoda.

This would also make him the great-nephew of Cerdic, the original king of Wessex.

Modern historians often debate the accuracy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the length of Ceawlin’s reign is often bickered about by the ‘experts’.

The truth is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has thus far given us a reasonably accurate series of events and where there are discrepancies, with a bit of abductive reasoning we can fill in the gaps.

How Long Did King Ceawlin of Wessex Reign?

There are three proposed reign lengths for Ceawlin:

  • 7 years – This reign is extremely unlikely if not impossible. Ceawlin was too active in his reign to have such a short reign.
  • 17 years – Possible, but again, it makes the timeframe for Ceawlin’s achievements tight to say the least. Not to mention events spanning the reign which Ceawlin participated in exceed 17 years.
  • 32 years – As recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and most likely correct.

Historians View on Reign Length

Historians have long debated the length of Ceawlin’s reign, mainly because he supposedly ruled for an unusually long time and was deposed rather than died.

When considering the information in totality, the 7-year and 17-year reign don’t tally and we know he must have been in power for at least 20 years because of two specific events attributed to Ceawlin being 20 years apart.

The scribes who compiled the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may well have made a slight mistake with duration, but we can’t disregard the 32 years because there is simply not enough supporting evidence for disputing it.

With that in mind, I have taken the Chronicle’s genealogies at face value for this article even though the reign might have been a couple of years shorter.

Wessex under King Ceawlin

With a reign of 32 years, we have to accept Ceawlin was probably a teenager or young adult when he assumed his father’s throne. He is recorded as being at his aging father’s side at the Battle of Beran Byrg in 556 – so he was of fighting age then.

Fighting age and adulthood in Saxon times would likely have been after puberty rather than the arbitrary 18-years-old we have today. He may well have been 15 or 16 in 556, making him 19 or 20 when he took the throne.

Ceawlin had witnessed first-hand his father’s expansion and successes in Wiltshire and continued his father’s legacy. Unlike Cynric, Ceawlin appears to have hit the ground running and continued Saxon expansion from day one.

Expansion under King Ceawlin of Wessex

When Ceawlin inherited the throne, the Kingdom of Wessex covered the south including Hampshire and a portion of the Isle of Wright. Westward Wessex extended to the boundaries of Wiltshire.

On the eastern flank of Wessex was another Saxon kingdom the South Saxons (Sussex).

In real terms, the Kingdom he inherited was fairly sizable but had little infrastructure. Some of the terrain was good for farming but equally, some of terrain was useless.

Ceawlin set about expanding the Kingdom of Wessex further which bought him into conflict with Britons, and for the first time in Saxon England – with other Saxons.

The First Saxon on Saxon Conflict – Wibbandun 568 AD

Ceawlin had turned his attention from the west (Wiltshire) to the east.

The conflict at Wibbandun is confusing to say the least because historians once again can’t decide the location of Wibbandun.

Let’s try and work out where Wibbandun was.

One historian believes Wibbandun is modern day Wyboston, which is close to Bedford. This is an okay theory if the king who Ceawlin fought had belonged in that area – but the king he fought was the King of Kent Aethelberht.

Anyone with a small knowledge of British geography will know Bedford is no where near Kent and the Kingdom of Kent at the time was surrounded by other Saxon Kingdoms. So what on earth was the King of Kent doing in Bedford having passed through other Saxon kingdoms?

There were three Saxon Kingdoms immediately surrounding:

  • East Saxons – Essex
  • Middle Saxons (Eventually Mercia)
  • South Saxons – Sussex

Bedford itself was under control of the Middle Saxons, so where were they? After all two rival factions were fighting on their territory for their land – it is nonsense.

east sussex coast
‘East Sussex’ by Steve Payne via Unsplash

Location of Wibbandun

We have to once again (as is becoming a recurring theme) dismiss the modern historian consensus.

Wibbandun must have been somewhere in the south. It may have even been in Wessex itself and Ceawlin may have seen off an invasion. For example, Wimborne became a prominent settlement in Wessex and it may have been here that King Aethelberht invaded.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that Ceawlin drove off King Aethelberht into Kent, which doesn’t imply a pitched battle for new land – rather an unwarranted intrusion.

It is possible, Aethelberht had either navigated around Sussex by land or sea or alternately, formed an alliance with Sussex. The most likely, is a raid from sea made by Aethelberht on Wessex.

By comparison, Bedford is landlocked, so Aethelberht had to march his armies through hostile territory to arrive there. We may concede Essex formed an alliance, but the Middle Saxons would not allow a King of Kent to fight for their land uncontested.

Finally, Wimbourne is very close to the south coast.

The Battle of Wibbandun

We know very little about the battle or whether it was even a battle in the traditional sense. If my suspicion is correct it would have been a very one-sided affair with a raiding party from Kent seen off by the domestic Wessex force.

There were two aldermen (ealdormen) killed, possibly for assisting the raiding party in some way. The Chronicle suggests this was an execution rather than the aldermen falling in battle.

“And they killed two ealdormen, Oslaf and Cnebba, on Wibbandun.”

Perhaps the most important bit of information we get from the battle is Ceawlin fought alongside his brother Cutha. Ceawlin was likely around 28-30 at this time.

Battle of Lower Severn 577 AD

Ceawlin likely realised his Kingdom needed additional protection from outside threats, especially as he had witnessed first hand that Saxons would raid other Saxon kingdoms. Whether King Aethelberht realised he was raiding in Saxon territory is unknown, but he found out nonetheless.

Wessex had two separate Briton communities in the northwest that posed a significant threat and strategically it was important to take the Lower Severn to break lines of trade and communication.

In 577 AD, Ceawlin and Cuthwine (not the abovementioned Cutha) fought a pitched battle against a united Briton force. They killed three Briton kings and seized the cities of Bath, Gloucester and Cirencester.

King Ceawlin of Wessex – Roman Discoveries and Defensive Positions

In taking Bath, the Saxons were undoubtedly impressed by the Roman infrastructure and the famous Roman baths. Various sources mention the Roman Baths were still operational at this time and Ceawlin would have been keen to keep hold of the territory for political and strategic reasons.

There is a large earthworks called Woden’s Dyke or Wansdyke that spans from Bristol to Wiltshire with a ditch and mound. Although unconfirmed, it was probably built by Ceawlin to mark the boundary of Wessex and serve as a defensive position.

Battle of Fethan Leag 584 AD

In 584, Ceawlin would set out to claim more territory with his brother Cutha. At the time of this battle Ceawlin was likely 44-46.

This was a battle against the Britons again and sadly, Cutha was killed in battle. How this conflict was resolved is a little unclear but it seems Ceawlin abandoned trying to retain the territory, raiding and pillaging the area instead before returning to Wessex.

The actual account states:

“Ceawlin and Cutha fought against the Britons at a place which is named Fethan Leag, and Cutha was killed; and Ceawlin took many towns and countless war-loot, and in anger he turned back to his own.”

Historian Perspective of King Ceawlin of Wessex and Fethan Leag

As is the case with historians there are multiple interpretations of this statement, and none take it at face-value. Instead there is a tendency to romanticise or distrust the original source material.

  • The account is based on a saga,
  • Ceawlin lost the battle,
  • Ceawlin lost territory.

The problem is that reading it at face-value provides a very likely account. Ceawlin probably invaded with the intention of taking new territory and installing Cutha to oversee the new land.

With Cutha dead, his intentions had been undone and he was understandably angry. He has just lost his brother and has no ability to incorporate new territory into Wessex without overextending himself. He turns back toward Wessex, burning and pillaging towns as he goes.

592 AD – King Ceawlin is Deposed and Cuthwine is Exiled

In 592, the by now elderly Ceawlin was overthrown by his nephew (Cutha’s son) Ceol.

Ceawlin would have been 52-54 and for the time would have been long-lived. His health may have been declining and Ceol may have felt someone young should lead the West Saxons or there may have already been tension.

It might be the case Ceawlin had intended to install Cutha elsewhere to prevent further rivalry between the brothers or it may be that Ceol felt bitter by his father’s death.

Initially, it seems Ceawlin was allowed to live in exile with his family, but a year later in 593, Ceawlin and his family were killed. Only Cuthwine escaped and lived out his life in exile. Cuthwine lived to an old age as well, further supporting the idea Ceawlin lived a long life and reigned for a long time (good genes).

Ceawlin was killed aged 53-55. Alongside him, Cwichelm and Crida were also killed (most likely commanders). Some historians propose Ceawlin died of natural causes but the source material suggests an execution – the chances of three individuals perishing together naturally at the same time is slim to none.

Legacy of Ceawlin

The reign of Ceawlin highlighted how cutthroat the world of the Saxons could be and if he wasn’t fighting the Britons, he was dealing with rival Saxon kingdoms or his own family.

Until his downfall, Ceawlin had managed to stave off trouble and maintain stability within Wessex. He extended the borders of Wessex and captured important cities.

It is easy to see his downfall as being an acute event in 592 AD, but it is likely the loss of Cutha 8 years earlier had set the stage for his exile and eventual death. Instead of returning a victorious king with Cutha installed elsewhere, he returned angry to a problematic domestic situation.

His advanced age couldn’t have helped his cause. Ultimately his son Cuthwine would not inherit the throne of Wessex and Ceol would set the house of Wessex on a slightly different course.

Such a small variance could have had a long-lasting impact on the course of history – for example, we don’t know if Alfred the Great would have eventually inherited the throne had Cuthwine ruled.

Jon Logan

Jon Logan is an editorial consultant and author that loves living life without boundaries.

Over the past 5 years, his content at Immortal Wordsmith has helped thousands of readers gain new perspectives and discover interesting stories.

Jon holds several professional qualifications and is financially qualified in the UK. He left the humdrum world of financial advice to pursue a career in writing – his lifelong passion. He has partnered with local and global brands to help them grow their businesses and audiences through insightful and innovative content strategy.

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