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(d. 786)
  • Heather Edwards

Cynewulf (d. 786), king of the West Saxons, was the hero of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's long and detailed annal for 757. He became king in that year, having gained the support of most of the leading men of Wessex and driven out his predecessor, Sigeberht. Like many West Saxon kings, he is said to have been descended in the paternal line from Cerdic. This may have been true, but it is not advisable to take such statements on trust, since this descent was apparently considered to confer a legal title to rule in Wessex, and would therefore have been claimed whether it was true or false. In fact, Cynewulf is one of five kings in the period from 726 to 802 who do not feature in the extant genealogies of the West Saxon kings.

During the first year of the reign a meeting was held between Cynewulf and King Æthelbald of Mercia, with their leading lay and clerical supporters, at which Æthelbald gave some land in what is now Wiltshire to the West Saxon monastery at Malmesbury. What other business was transacted at this meeting is unknown. It is possible that Cynewulf accepted some sort of subjection to Mercia, but perhaps more likely that Æthelbald recognized Cynewulf as the new rightful king of the West Saxons. Whatever relationship existed between them was terminated later the same year by Æthelbald's assassination, and there is little doubt that Cynewulf then enjoyed over twenty years of independent rule, free from any outside influence.

Cynewulf was a benefactor of the church, granting lands in modern Somerset, Dorset, and Wiltshire to monasteries, but there is also an instance of his retaining for himself estates claimed by the church. He fought against the Cornish on a number of occasions, and at least one grant of land near the western border was intended to support these wars, presumably through the prayers of the monks. He corresponded with Boniface's successor, Lul, and he appears to have had some amicable contact with King Offa of Mercia. He was present in 772 at a remarkable meeting, held in Sussex and attended also by the kings of Mercia and Kent, the leaders of the South Saxons, and numerous other persons, lay and clerical. The subject of this meeting was probably the fate of the South Saxons, who at this time were losing their independence and entering a phase of Mercian domination.

In 779, however, Offa fought against Cynewulf at Benson in the upper Thames valley. Offa captured the town and also seized Cookham and many other places in the area previously controlled by Cynewulf. In 781, following the settlement of a dispute with the see of Worcester, Offa gained control of the monastery at Bath, including various lands which lay on the border between Mercia and Wessex and were of strategic importance, giving him, among other things, command of both sides of the River Avon. Cynewulf at this time certainly lost to Mercia various areas which had formerly been West Saxon, but there is no indication that he was in any other respect subject to Mercian power. He probably continued as the wholly independent king of a slightly reduced kingdom. These recent conflicts did not prevent Cynewulf and Offa from attending a joint council in 786 on the occasion of the visit to England of Pope Hadrian's legates.

Later that year Cyneheard, brother of Cynewulf's defeated predecessor, Sigeberht, emerged as a contender for the West Saxon kingship. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts how Cynewulf and Cyneheard fought at the house of Cynewulf's mistress at 'Meretun', each supported by the unswerving loyalty of his followers. Both died. Cynewulf was buried at Winchester, and Beorhtric became king.


  • ASC, s.a. 757, 779, 786 [texts A, E]
  • AS chart., S 96, 260–65, 269, 1256, 1258, 1681–90
  • F. M. Stenton, ‘The supremacy of the Mercian kings’, Preparatory to ‘Anglo-Saxon England’: being the collected papers of Frank Merry Stenton, ed. D. M. Stenton (1970), 48–66
  • F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edn (1971)
  • P. Wormald, ‘Bede, the “Bretwaldas” and the origins of the “gens Anglorum”’, Ideal and reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon society, ed. P. Wormald, D. Bullough, and R. Collins (1983), 99–129
  • H. Edwards, The charters of the early West Saxon kingdom (1988)
  • D. N. Dumville, ‘Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists’, Early medieval kingship, ed. P. H. Sawyer and I. N. Wood (1977), 72–104
  • S. Keynes, ‘England, 700–900’, The new Cambridge medieval history, 2, ed. R. McKitterick (1995), 18–42
P. H. Sawyer, , Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks (1968)
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)