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(d. 858)
  • Janet L. Nelson

Æthelwulf (d. 858)


© Copyright The British Museum

Æthelwulf (d. 858), king of the West Saxons, was the son of Ecgberht (d. 839), king of the West Saxons. His mother's identity is unknown; no siblings are recorded. He was sent by his father to take control of Kent in 825. In 838 Ecgberht held an assembly at Kingston, Surrey: Æthelwulf was acknowledged as Ecgberht's heir, and perhaps (the evidence is oblique) received royal consecration from episcopal hands, in return for concessions to Canterbury and other churches. When Ecgberht died in 839, Æthelwulf succeeded, giving his eldest (and perhaps adult) son, Æthelstan, 'the kingdom of Kent, of Essex, of Surrey and of Sussex' (ASC, s.a. 836). Æthelwulf's wife was Osburh (839), who as far as is known bore all his recorded offspring. Her ancestry was traced back to 'Goths and Jutes', who had received control of the Isle of Wight from their royal Cerdicing kinsmen. Æthelwulf married Osburh well before 839—their second son, Æthelbald, subscribed charters from c.840. Their daughter Æthelswith married the Mercian king Burgred in 853. Four of their five sons successively became kings of Wessex: Æthelbald (858–60), Æthelberht (860–65), Æthelred (865–71), and Alfred (871–99). In 856 Æthelwulf married Judith [see below], daughter of the Carolingian king Charles the Bald (823–877) of West Francia and his queen, Ermentrude (d. 869); whether Osburh had died or been repudiated is uncertain. Æthelwulf and Judith had no offspring and Æthelwulf died on 13 January 858.

Æthelwulf's reign has been relatively under-appreciated in modern scholarship. Yet he laid the foundations for Alfred's success. To the perennial problems of husbanding the kingdom's resources, containing conflicts within the royal family, and managing relations with neighbouring kingdoms, Æthelwulf found new as well as traditional answers. He consolidated old Wessex, and extended his reach over what is now Devon and Cornwall. He ruled Kent, working with the grain of its political community. He borrowed ideological props for his kingship from Mercians and Franks alike, and went to Rome, not to die there, like his predecessor Ine (as recalled in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account of Æthelwulf's genealogy), but to return, as Charlemagne had, with enhanced prestige. Æthelwulf coped more effectively with Scandinavian attacks than did most contemporary rulers.

Æthelwulf and Kent and Mercia

Possibly himself descended from the kings of Kent, Æthelwulf oversaw the evolving association of Kent with Wessex rather than, as had formerly been the case, with Mercia. His sub-kingship of Kent is well documented in charters: in some, Ecgberht acted in Kent with his son's permission. The Rochester mint may have worked for son as well as father. Æthelwulf in turn established his son Æthelstan as sub-king of Kent, but exercised a more direct control over the sub-kingdom than Ecgberht had. Æthelstan, who attested as 'king' his father's charters for Kentish beneficiaries, apparently never issued charters or coins of his own. Æthelwulf visited Kent on several occasions: taking only a small retinue of West Saxons, he drew local Kentish nobles into his presence, and had them attest his Kentish charters. Æthelwulf, like Ecgberht, but unlike Kent's earlier Mercian overlords, had indigenous Kentish nobles as loyal ealdormen. For instance, Ealdorman Alhhere benefited directly from Æthelwulf's largess and also requested Æthelwulf's grant to a Kentish thegn of property at Canterbury. Already in 838, Kentish minster communities had chosen Æthelwulf 'for protection and lordship', and he had promised them freedom to elect their heads without interference from 'any other party': they were exchanging the archbishop of Canterbury's 'protection' for Æthelwulf's. Æthelwulf ran a Carolingian-style family firm of plural realms, held together by his own authority as father-king, and by the consent of the distinct élites. Increasingly heavy Scandinavian attacks convinced Kentishmen in halls and minsters, in countryside and town, that their best hope of security lay in West Saxon royal power. In Kent as elsewhere, local ealdormen had born the brunt, but in 850, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 'King Athelstan and Ealdorman Alhhere destroyed a great host at Sandwich in Kent, captured nine ships and drove off the rest' (ASC, s.a. 851). (Æthelstan may have died soon after this, his last recorded action.) Hardly coincidentally, Alhhere and Æthelstan came also in 850 to Wilton (in modern Wiltshire) and Æthelwulf granted the ealdorman a vast estate in Kent. Archbishops of Canterbury now remained firmly within the West Saxon orbit; and Canterbury housed the main mint for Æthelwulf's whole kingdom.

From the 820s, Mercian dominance south of the Thames had weakened. In 840 Ashdown, in the west of what is now Berkshire, was already under West Saxon control and the birth of Æthelwulf's youngest son, Alfred, at Wantage in 848 or 849 suggests West Saxon control there then. By 858 the whole shire was in West Saxon hands. King Berhtwulf of Mercia (r. 840–52) was Æthelwulf's close ally. Their moneyers co-operated. In 853 Æthelwulf was asked by Berhtwulf's successor Burgred (r. 852–74) and his witan 'to help them bring the Welsh back into subjection' (ASC, s.a. 854): a joint campaign was successful. That same year, Æthelwulf gave his daughter in marriage to Burgred, perhaps claiming a certain superiority over the new Mercian king. This kind of alliance was to continue under Æthelwulf's sons.

Æthelwulf in Wessex

Wessex remained the heart of Æthelwulf's kingdom: charters show him staying at, or summoning assemblies to, Wilton, Southampton (Hamtun), Edington, Dorchester, and Winchester. Æthelwulf's interest in Winchester, where his father was buried, and where Bishop Swithun was his appointee in 852–3, represented a shift of focus, only partially balanced by generous grants of a new shrine for St Aldhelm at Malmesbury and of land in what is now Somerset to his princeps Ealdorman Eanwulf. This area was to become the power base of Æthelwulf's second son, Æthelbald, as, later, of his youngest son, Alfred. Æthelwulf's grant to himself, dated 26 December 846, of the large estate at South Hams, in the west of modern Devon, reveals a clear strategy: as 'bookland', it would be available for him 'to leave eternally to anyone whatever as it may be pleasing to me' (AS chart., S 298). Æthelwulf would thence reward loyal followers and fund the establishment of West Saxon control in this frontier zone. The Hams charter, surviving as an original, was subscribed by 'Æthelbald, king's son', perhaps already endowed in Somerset. In a Kentish charter dating to 855, and attested by his third son, Æthelberht as 'king', Æthelwulf granted land near Rochester to his thegn Dunn 'on account of the tithing of lands which … I have decided to do for some of my thegns' (AS chart., S 315). This grant, dated in relation to Æthelwulf's 'proceeding to Rome', referred back to the 'decimation' mentioned by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under 855 (apparently correct for Kent, though West Saxon charters suggest 854): 'King Æthelwulf booked the tenth part of all his land throughout all his kingdom'. Although much of the charter evidence is shaky, this 'decimation' certainly occurred (unlike an alleged earlier one in 844). Æthelwulf apparently released from secular burdens one tenth of all land in lay hands hitherto subject to them, thus enabling the owners to make grants to churches: a royal act of exceptional piety, and also of exceptional astuteness, designed to win the king secular as well as ecclesiastical friends, since laymen were keen to endow churches under their own patronage; but designed, too, to ensure a constant supply of the prayers believed to bring victory.

The papacy and the Franks

The consecration of Offa of Mercia's son Ecgfrith as king in 787 may have inspired whatever Ecgberht arranged for Æthelwulf in 838. Carolingian precedent was probably more influential still. The Kingston assembly took place only months after the 837 Christmas assembly at Aachen, when Louis the Pious granted his son Charles (the Bald) a kingdom. Early in 839 Ecgberht was in touch with Louis about the Scandinavian threat to Franks and English and the need for repentance to avert divine punishment. Ecgberht sought permission to travel through Francia on pilgrimage to Rome, but died before he could accomplish it. In 855 Æthelwulf made a similar request to Charles the Bald, and this time the journey was made. Continental contemporaries registered its impact. Charles gave 'the king of the Anglo-Saxons … all the supplies a king might need, and … an escort, with all the courtesies due to a king' (Annals of St Bertin, s.a. 855). The biographer of Pope Benedict III recorded Æthelwulf's arrival at Rome 'with a multitude of people', and carefully noted Æthelwulf's gifts to St Peter: 'a fine gold crown weighing 4 lb., … one sword bound with fine gold; four silver-gilt Saxon bowls; one all-silk white shirt with roundels, with gold-studding; and two large gold-interwoven veils', as well as lavish donations of gold and silver to 'the clergy, leading men, and people of Rome' (Davis, 187). On the way home in 856, Æthelwulf enjoyed Charles's hospitality for three months, perhaps joining him in a successful campaign against Scandinavians west of the Seine. Lupus, abbot of Ferrières, Charles's confidant, had written to Æthelwulf c.852 to felicitate him on a recent victory against pagans and to solicit, in return for prayers, a gift of lead for the monastery roof (the request implies appreciation of Æthelwulf's access to the resources of the Mendip Hills). In July 856 Æthelwulf was betrothed to Charles's daughter Judith (b. after 843, d. c. 870); on 1 October the marriage was solemnized and Judith was consecrated in an elaborate ceremony, while her husband 'conferred on her the title of queen: something not customary before then to him or his people' (Annals of St Bertin, s.a. 856). Charles, constructing a network of quasi-imperial alliances, and perhaps anxious to concert operations against the vikings, evidently thought Æthelwulf a useful son-in-law. Æthelwulf wanted a share of Carolingian charisma, emphasizing his own status through Judith's. His Frankish connection, insistently recalled by the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the early 890s, continued Ecgberht's, and was as politically significant. Already, in the 840s, a Frank named Felix 'was responsible for Æthelwulf's letters': Lupus, who thought Felix wielded much influence over the king, referred in similar wording to Felix's job and to that of Charles's arch-chancellor. The influence of Carolingian diplomacy is undetectable in the texts of Æthelwulf's charters, yet Æthelwulf may have had a little chancery and Felix may have headed it. In Wessex, as in Francia, the drafting of charters was the work of notaries (such as, in Æthelwulf's entourage, the deacon Eadberht), but a Carolingian's arch-chancellor might oversee added enactment clauses: perhaps Felix was behind Carolingian-style references in 'decimation' charters of 854 to their production in palatio nostro. Felix's appointment indicates substantial similarities of form and substance, as well as high-level contacts, between West Saxon and Frankish regimes.


Judith's consecration may have restored, even enhanced, the status of queenship in Wessex: within two generations, a queen's rite complemented the king's in Anglo-Saxon liturgical books. The prestige she herself conferred explains why, when Æthelwulf died, her stepson Æthelbald 'against God's prohibition and Christian dignity, and also contrary to the practice of all pagans … married Judith, daughter of Charles king of the Franks'. Asser's further comment about 'great disgrace' (Life of Alfred, chap. 17) was not echoed in the Frankish record of the event. Although Asser's claim about its being contrary to pagan practice had been anticipated by Bede, who cited St Paul to the same effect, none the less Augustine of Canterbury had found it necessary to consult Pope Gregory about the lawfulness of stepmother marriage and Eadbald of Kent had married his father's widow in 616. Similar cases are attested among early medieval peoples in the British Isles and on the continent. A dowager queen seems to have been regarded as in some sense embodying her late husband's realm, hence to marry her conferred, or strengthened, a claim to rule.

Æthelbald's death in 860 left Judith little future in Wessex. She was no older than seventeen, and still childless. 'Selling up the possessions she had acquired' there (Annals of St Bertin, s.a. 860), she returned to her father who kept her 'under episcopal guardianship, and with all the honour due to a queen', in his stronghold of Senlis. Thence, early in 862, she fled with Baldwin, count of Flanders, at his instigation, and married him. The couple sought diplomatic support from King Lothar II and Pope Nicholas I, and apparently an offer of refuge from Roric, the viking lord of Frisia. Charles the Bald, initially furious, soon forgave his daughter, who settled down in Flanders and produced two sons. Baldwin died in 879. Some time between 893 and 899, their son Count Baldwin (II) married Alfred's daughter Ælfthryth. If Judith was still alive, she probably helped negotiate this match. If not, the advantages of cross-channel alliance behind her own successive West Saxon marriages were not lost on her son. Perhaps she brought him up on stories of her youthful career. In the mid-tenth century Judith was remembered by the genealogist of the counts of Flanders as 'most wise, and beautiful', the transmitter of Carolingian blood to the comital dynasty, while any scandals were forgotten. Six generations after Judith, her descendant and namesake, the daughter of Count Baldwin (IV), remade an English connection through her marriage to Tostig Godwineson.

Dealing with Scandinavians

From the early 840s the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports Scandinavian raids as increasingly frequent, and, in 850–51, a viking force as overwintering 'for the first time'. Æthelwulf's efforts at resistance are reported too: he fought unsuccessfully against thirty-five ships' companies of Danes at Carhampton in what is now Somerset in 843; in 851, after Danes had stormed Canterbury and London, and put the Mercians to flight, 'Æthelwulf and his [second] son Æthelbald with the West Saxon levies fought against them at Acleah and there made the greatest slaughter of a heathen host that we have heard tell of up to this present day' (ASC, s.a. 851). News of this important success reached West Francia. Notable in the chronicle's coverage of Æthelwulf's reign are repeated references to victories won by ealdormen with the men of their shires. Derived from contemporary records, and contrasting with the emphasis in the 870s on royal command, these entries present a more consensual leadership style in Æthelwulf's reign than in the earlier part of Alfred's.

Family politics

Vikings were not Æthelwulf's only problem in the 850s. For him in his later years, as for Alfred and several ninth-century Carolingians, tensions revealed in other sources, between the ageing father and adult sons, and between older and younger sons, are suppressed in the main annalistic record. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 853, Æthelwulf sent Alfred to Rome, where Pope Leo IV 'consecrated him king and stood sponsor to him at confirmation'. A fragment of a letter from Leo to Æthelwulf reports Alfred's reception and investiture 'with the belt of consulship' (English Historical Documents, 1, no. 219). Mid-ninth-century entries in the Liber vitae of San Salvatore, Brescia, indicate that Æthelred accompanied Alfred to Italy (he too may have been given an honorific reception at Rome, though neither the chronicle compilers nor the eleventh-century excerptor of Leo's letter were interested in recording that) and also suggest that Alfred went to Rome a second time, with his father. The terms of Æthelwulf's will, as described in Alfred's will (made between 879 and 888), indicate a considerable age gap between his two older surviving (after 851) sons and the two younger. These terms bear out charter evidence that Æthelwulf meant Æthelbald to inherit Wessex, and Æthelberht Kent. In sending his two younger sons to Rome (as Charlemagne had sent his, in 781), he affirmed their throneworthiness and hoped to secure them against the fate that threatened some little Carolingian contemporaries, of being tonsured (and hence excluded from the succession) by elder brothers. There was no better way to provide such security, and underwrite paternal arrangements, than to invoke papal authority (as Charlemagne sent his projected divisio regni of 806 to the pope for 'approval'). If Æthelwulf intended Æthelred and Alfred to remain in the running, he may have thought Sussex, Essex, or even Surrey, capable of being reconstituted as separate kingdoms. He was also providing against one or both the elder sons dying heirless.

One provision of Æthelwulf's will (mentioned in Alfred's will), concerned a particular part of his personal inheritance (yrfe), as distinct from the royal lands that sustained the kingship: evidently a rich estate (or cluster of estates) situated in old Wessex. The two younger sons were to have shares in this along with their eldest brother, Æthelbald, on condition that 'whichever of us should live longest was to succeed to the whole [estate]' (English Historical Documents, 1, no. 96). Pace some modern historians, this provision had nothing to do with the kingdom of Wessex, and introduced no new principles of fraternal succession or the realm's indivisibility. When Æthelbald died in 860, Æthelberht took over Wessex and became, at his younger brothers' request, temporary trustee for their shares of the yrfe. Asser in his Life of Alfred (written in 893) clarifies Æthelwulf's last years, without conflicting with the other, fragmentary, evidence. Asser states that Alfred went to Rome in 853, and again, with Æthelwulf, in 855. Then, 'while King Æthelwulf was returning from Rome, his son Æthelbald with all his councillors [Asser names Ealhstan bishop of Sherborne and Eanwulf ealdorman of Somerset as chief conspirators] tried to perpetrate a terrible crime: expelling the king from his kingdom'. News of Æthelwulf's impending Carolingian marriage had evidently provoked the rebellion, as Æthelbald reacted to the threat of displacement by higher-born (half-)brothers. Father and son negotiated a peace, whereby Æthelwulf received his kingdom's 'eastern districts', Æthelbald the western. Asser disapproved, 'because the western part of the Saxon land has always been more important than the eastern' (Life of Alfred, chap. 12). Although this agreement has usually been read as severing Wessex again from the acquired lands to the east, Asser perhaps described a division of Wessex itself between parts west and east of Selwood: if so, Æthelwulf's West Saxon reign continued until 858, as implied by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's assigning him a reign length of eighteen and a half years. It is hard to see why Asser should have invented the story of the rebellion (though the chronicle understandably suppressed it).

In, or soon after, late 856 Æthelwulf made a will, says Asser, 'so that his sons should not quarrel unnecessarily among themselves after his death'. He prospectively 'divided his kingdom between his two eldest sons', while 'his personal inheritance was split between his sons, daughter and kinsmen' (Life of Alfred, chap. 16). Æthelwulf's planned division of his recently constructed composite kingdom has been judged retrograde by some historians—a judgement coloured by teleology. Throughout the middle ages, dynastic thinking impelled the accumulation of plural realms in order to provide, through redistribution, for plural sons. Æthelwulf had long foreseen separate futures for Wessex and Kent. Yet Wessex itself was not to be divided (as perhaps in 856), and nor was any acquired realm. Æthelwulf's two younger sons, not yet of age, were designated to no kingdom. Within Wessex, Æthelwulf distinguished, significantly, between kingdom and personal inheritance. His moveable wealth (recall his resources in gold, silver, and lead) was to be split, in terms reminiscent of Charlemagne's will, between 'children, nobles, and the needs of the king's soul' for which last 'a great sum of money should be taken every year to Rome'. Judith remained childless, yet may well have cared for her young stepchildren, as Carolingian stepmothers did theirs. Æthelwulf's death early in 858 may have been unexpected. His body was buried at Steyning, Sussex, and only later transferred to Winchester. As the will stipulated, Wessex went to Æthelbald, the 'eastern districts' to Æthelberht.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, especially its record of Æthelwulf's military effort against vikings, its stress on his Carolingian marriage, and its 855–8 entry with his lengthy genealogy, shows why his remembered reign had such importance for Alfred's court. Charter evidence shows the living Æthelwulf hard at work maintaining the support of aristocrats, West Saxon and Kentish, and especially of his thegns. A token, still extant, of that bond is the gold ring, about an inch across, richly decorated with religious symbols, and inscribed 'Ethelwulf Rex'. Found at Laverstock, Wiltshire, in 1780, it was surely made to be a gift from this royal lord to a brawny follower: the sign of successful ninth-century kingship.



English Historical Review
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)
P. H. Sawyer, , Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks (1968)