West Saxons: The House of Wessex
We know relatively little of Alfred’s great-grandfather, Eahlmund of Kent. The only contemporary reference to him is a charter of 784 granting land to the Abbot of Reculver. It is probable that by 875 Offa of Mercia was directly ruling Kent, as there is no mention of a local king in a charter of his at this date.
Ecgberht of Wessex was king of Wessex from 802 until 839. At some point in the 780’s, Ecgberht was forced into exile by King Offa of Mercia and Beorhtric who was King of Wessex from 786 to 802. When Beorhtric died in 802, Ecgberht returned from exile and took the throne.
Little is known of the first twenty years of Ecgberht’s reign, but in 825 he defeated Beornwulf of Mercia, and took control of Mercian dependencies in southeast England. In 829 Ecgberht defeated Wiglaf of Mercia and drove him out of the kingdom, ruling in his stead. Later that same year, he received the submission of the King of Northumbria and was given the title of ‘Bretwalda’ (ruler of Britain).
However, Ecgberht was unable to maintain this position, and within a year Wiglaf regain the throne of Mercia. Ecgberht retained possession of Kent, Sussex and Surrey and gave these territories to his son Æthelwulf to rule.
On his father’s death in 839, Æthelwulf took the throne of Wessex and Æthelstan, his eldest son became King of Kent as a sub-king to his father. This meant that Æthelstan ruled Kent, Surrey and Sussex, while Æthelwulf retained the ancient western part of Wessex (Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Devon).
Historians have been divided over their assessment of Æthelwulf as king, but he does seem to have been more effective than most of his contemporaries in fighting the Viking incursions.
By 855 Æthelwulf’s eldest son, Æthelstan, had died. Æthelwulf chose to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, possibly with the intention of remaining there as other kings had done so before him. He left his eldest surviving son, Æthelbald, to rule Wessex and his third son, Æthelbert to rule in the South-East.
Æthelwulf did return to England, however, stopping first at the court of Charles the Bald, where he formed an alliance by marrying Charles’ fourteen-year-old daughter, Judith. His return was opposed by Æthelbald who had strong supporters in the west, such as Ealdorman Enwulf of Somerset and Bishop Ælfstan of Sherborne. Rejected by Wessex, Æthelwulf retired to Æthelbert’s provinces in the South-East where he remained until his death in 858.
When Æthelbald died without issue in 860, Æthelbert also assumed the kingship of west Wessex, thus uniting the two parts of the realm.
Æthelbert died in 865 (the year of the arrival of the Great Army) and was succeeded by his brother, Æthelred. On 4 January 871, Æthelred fought the Vikings at the Battle of Reading, where he suffered a severe defeat. He was able to rally his forces in order to win a victory at the Battle of Ashdown, but he suffered another defeat at the Battle of Basing on 22 January, and was killed at the Battle of Merton on 23 April 871. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Ælfred.
For further information about Viking activity in England see: Viking Raids in the British Isles
Next Page: King Alfred The Great