King Ceol of Wessex is probably the single-most important person in the Royal Wessex line but is also one of its briefest rulers.
He usurped Ceawlin and denied the rightful heir Cuthwine, changing the course of the Wessex lineage in doing so. There is very little information about Ceol as a person, but there are some interesting conclusions we can draw from the sources.
Let’s discover the King Ceol of Wessex
Seizure of the Throne of Wessex
Ceol was the son of Cutha (the brother of Ceawlin). Cutha had died in 584 on the battlefield when Ceawlin had intended to extend the Kingdom of Wessex further.
Ceol isn’t mentioned as being present during this invasion and we can speculate he was probably too young at the time.
When Ceawlin returned home from battle with treasure and war-loot, it was likely a celebratory affair. But to Ceol, Ceawlin’s return without his father would have been a deeply upsetting and bitter experience.
By 592, Ceol was old enough to rally men to his cause and replace Ceawlin as the King of Wessex. We can guess he was likely around 10-12 at the time of his father’s death and around 18-20 at the time he took the throne.
Taking the Kingdom is Easy – Ruling is Hard
By 592, Ceawlin was in his fifties (elderly by Saxon standards) and probably couldn’t do much to mount a fighting defence himself. The burden probably fell on his son Cuthwine to take up his father’s mantle.
The outcome of the battle was decisive and it seems Ceawlin and his forces scattered with Cuthwine taking his family to a different location than his father.
Ceawlin died alongside two of his men (Cwichelm and Crida) a year later. Noted as brothers and commanders, but likely just commanders rather than biological brothers. The reason it is unlikely they were brothers is because they are previously unmentioned in either the reigns of Ceawlin or his father Cynric.
Whereas Cutha a known brother of Ceawlin was mentioned at least two times alongside Ceawlin.
There is a fringe historical view that Ceawlin died of natural causes, but this is unlikely – what are the odds of three important Wessex commanders dying of natural causes at the same time? Ceawlin was most likely executed alongside his remaining loyal men.
King Ceol of Wessex as a King
Beyond usurping Ceawlin, Ceol did nothing of note at least according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He was unremarkable with no mentions of battles.
Ceawlin had ruled Wessex for a long time and Ceol likely spent a number of years stabilising the kingdom and purging the old guard. It took him a year to take action against Ceawlin himself, possibly amid rumours of a potential uprising to retake the throne.
He ruled from 592 (when he deposed Ceawlin) for 5 years until 597. His death was unexpected, and he was probably 25 when he died.
His son Cynegils was too young to inherit the throne so instead Ceol’s younger brother/or older cousin Ceolwulf took the throne.
Ceolwulf a Younger Brother or Cousin?
As a small aside, an interesting mystery is whether Ceolwulf was a son of Cutha or not.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle clearly notes Cutha (twice) and a Cuthwulf (once) during the reign of Ceawlin – which historians have now proposed are one and the same individual.
However, this shouldn’t be taken as fact. For example, if Cynric had two sons (other than Ceawlin), Cutha and Cuthwolf, they might name their son’s respectively Ceol and Ceolwulf. There is a linearity there which isn’t available if the latter pair shared the same father.
For example, it is unlikely Cutha referred to himself in duality, as both Cutha and Cuthwulf and then named two distinct individual sons according to his split name.
With this in mind I prefer to think Ceolwulf was a cousin to Ceol and son of Cuthwulf. Whereas Ceol was son of Cutha.
The source material supports this. It states in 571 Cuthwolf passed away. Yet the same source material mentions Cutha as alive in 584 – meaning at face value they can’t be the same individual.
How Did Ceol of Wessex Die?
There are three possibilities for Ceol’s death. The most commonly accepted is he died in a conflict that wasn’t noteworthy enough to be recorded as a battle.
He may also have died of illness or a disease as was common for the period. Lastly, he may have picked up a wound when overthrowing Ceawlin that disabled him and caused him to slowly decline over the years.