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Ceawlinlocked

(d. 593)
  • Barbara Yorke

Ceawlin (d. 593), king of the Gewisse, was the son of Cynric and the third recorded ruler of the Gewisse, later known as the West Saxons. He was remembered as one of the most powerful kings of his day. The dating of his reign presents particular problems, and like that of other sixth-century West Saxon rulers seems to have been deliberately lengthened, probably when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was compiled in the late ninth century. In the chronicle annals he is said to have come to the throne in 560 and to have been driven out of the kingdom in 592, though he may have ceased to rule in 591, when the accession of his successor (and nephew), Ceol, was recorded. In the regnal lists Ceawlin is allotted a much shorter reign of either seven or seventeen years, which would imply accession in either 574–5 or 584–5. He may have been associated with his father's rule previously, and the chronicle records both men fighting the Britons at Barbury in 556. Ceawlin in turn seems to have shared power with Cuthwulf (who may have been his brother) and then with his son Cuthwine. In 568 Ceawlin and Cutha (probably Cuthwulf) are said to have put to flight Æthelberht of Kent at ‘Wibbandun’. Cuthwulf fought against the British at ‘Biedcanford’ in 571, leading to the capture of the tunas ('estate centres') of Limbury, Aylesbury, Bensington, and Eynsham, while Ceawlin and Cuthwine are said to have killed three British kings, Conmail, Condidan, and Farinmail at Dyrham in 577 and to have taken their cities of Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath. In 584 Ceawlin and Cutha fought the Britons at ‘Fethanleag’ (possibly in the north-east of modern Oxfordshire); Cutha was killed, but Ceawlin captured numerous unspecified tunas before 'returning in anger to his own land' (ASC, s.a. 584).

The reliability of these entries is hard to assess, and at the very least their dates must be suspect. The names of the three kings and their cities which fell to Ceawlin in 577 could have been taken from a Welsh triad, but whether they have been correctly allocated to Ceawlin's reign is another matter. Saxon settlement had begun in what is now Gloucestershire before 577, and the places said to have fallen to Cuthwulf in 571 are even less likely to have been still in British hands at that date, for these were areas with some of the earliest evidence for Anglo-Saxon settlement and the captured places all have Anglo-Saxon names. Bensington certainly, and possibly the other places in the 571 annal, were in dispute in the eighth century between Mercia and Wessex, and it has been suggested that the entry could have been constructed, or reconstructed, to help support the West Saxon cause by giving them a long-established claim to these local administrative centres. The impression given of Ceawlin as a successful and wide-ranging ruler does, however, receive some corroboration from his inclusion in Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum as the second name in a list of kings who exercised substantial power in southern England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is probably also correct in placing his activities in the upper Thames valley and beyond, for when King Cynegils was baptized in 635 he chose Dorchester-on-Thames for his episcopal see, which would suggest that the area was central to West Saxon interests. Ceawlin's reign appears to have ended with discord with rival members of the royal house after his nephew Ceol apparently seized the throne in 591. After 'a great slaughter' at Woden's Barrow on the Ridgeway, near Alton Priors in what is now Wiltshire, Ceawlin was driven out and his death is recorded the following year, 593, together with that of Cwichelm and Crida, who were presumably also members of the West Saxon royal house but are otherwise unknown (ASC, s.a. 592).

Sources

  • ASC, s.a. 556, 560, 568, 571, 577, 584, 592, 593
  • D. N. Dumville, ‘The West Saxon genealogical regnal list and the chronology of early Wessex’, Peritia, 4 (1985), 21–66
  • P. Sims-Williams, ‘The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle’, Anglo-Saxon England, 12 (1983), 1–41
  • B. Yorke, Wessex in the early middle ages (1995)
Bede, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave & R. A. B. Mynors, OMT (1969); repr. (1991)
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)