When King Ceol died unexpectedly at a young age, his son Cynegils was too young to take the throne of Wessex. Instead, the throne passed to his older cousin King Ceolwulf of Wessex.
Both Ceol and Ceolwulf’s fathers (Cutha and Cuthwulf) had met untimely deaths under the rule of King Ceawlin. This bond likely allowed Ceolwulf to take the throne without too much difficulty, perhaps on the proviso that when he died or Cynegils was old enough he would take the throne.
To this point, the main source of information on Saxon kings was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but now we have new sources beginning to appear as Saxons established a strong foothold in England.
Let’s explore King Ceolwulf of Wessex.
Taking the Throne of Wessex – King Ceolwulf of Wessex
Cynegils, Ceol’s son was probably an infant at the time his father died and was of course unable to lead the West Saxons.
Ceolwulf likely supported Ceol heavily throughout his lifetime and probably helped him usurp King Ceawlin. At the time of taking the throne, Ceolwulf was probably a bit older than Ceol.
His father Cuthwulf fought and died at Bedcanford in 571 AD, making Ceolwulf at least 26 (if he was a new-born upon his father’s death) at the time of taking the throne. It is probably fairly safe to assume he was around 30 at the time of ascending to the throne.
Wessex Under King Ceolwulf
From the sources, it is difficult to decide the condition of the Kingdom of Wessex under King Ceolwulf.
For example the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes Ceolwulf as a warrior king who frequently fought against rival tribes and kingdoms.
“fought and contended either against the English, or the Britons, or the Picts, or the Scots.”
It is however clear this piece was written at a much later date and reflected a later political landscape. Scotland was no where near the Kingdom of Wessex and there is no reason whatsoever for him to have fought the Picts or the Scots. Also, at the time of Ceolwulf the English didn’t exist as a distinct group (being the result of Angle, Jute and Saxon unification).
Ceolwulf likely contended to some extent with the Britons, probably preventing incursions into Wessex.
South Saxon Invasion of Wessex 607
We do know King Ceolwulf of Wessex had to defend Wessex from the South Saxons (Sussex) so he was probably seen externally as a weak ruler. Perhaps with the upheaval of Ceol seizing the throne and subsequent early death, the South Saxons saw opportunity to invade the Isle of Wight and Hampshire.
Both areas had been important to Wessex for almost a century and furthermore Hampshire was key to the very foundation of Wessex. The South Saxons invading these locations is a clear indication of trying to wrest Wessex from Ceolwulf’s control and incorporating the land into their own.
A Clearer Picture of King Ceolwulf of Wessex
Despite other sources emerging there is little written about Ceolwulf of Wessex and his rule was probably unremarkable to the outside world.
Domestically he managed to fend off the South Saxons and retain control of a portion of the Isle of Wright. Hampshire remained a Wessex stronghold and Ceolwulf probably reinforced Wessex’s defences.
This would prove crucial as a strong defensive base is important for future expansion. Ceolwulf may have been beset on all sides leading to the later scribes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing him fighting everyone.
His rule lasted 14 (probably difficult) years and he succeeded in maintaining the existing boundaries of Wessex. In 611 AD he died, probably of natural causes, at around the age of 44. He honoured his presumed promise to Ceol and enabled Ceol’s son Cynegils to take the throne.