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Ceawlin of Wessex

Ceawlin of Wessex (also spelled "Ceaulin" or "Caelin") is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as being king of the West Saxons, or Wessex from 560 to 591, and named by Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum as the second Bretwalda. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records his death as occurring in 593.

Recent scholars have speculated over the relationship of Ceawlin with the Saxon tribe called the Gewissae, whom Bede located in the upper Thames region near Dorchester-on-Thames. He may have been a member of their ruling dynasty; the surviving genealogies of the Wessex royal line all have contradictions, and scholars suspect that these have been altered to support the claims of descent by later rulers.

A fact that has also drawn much comment is the gap of a generation or two between the first Bretwalda Ælle and Ceawlin. This has been cited as supporting Gildas' claim that for over 40 years after the battle of Mons Badonicus the British lived in peace and were secure from major predations from the Anglo Saxon invaders. And if we ignore the raids of Ceredic and his sons in the areas of present-day southern Hampshire and Wiltshire, and acknowledge that the Angles in Bernicia were confined to a single stronghold by the British, this makes sense.

Our principal source for the events of his life are the eight entries from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle from 556 to 593. Although the Chronicle itself dates from the final decade of the ninth century, these entries appear to record the skeleton of an older saga. A discussion of these entries follows.

556 In this year, Cynric and Ceawlin fought against the British at Beranburh.

This is Ceawlin's first appearance in the Chronicle. Cynric was the current king of the West Saxons, and Ceawlin apparently was the junior member in this action. Beranburh is identified with Barbury Camp in the Marlborough Downs, overlooking the valley of Swindon.

560 In this year, Ceawlin succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons.

The Chronicle has no mention of Cynric's death; there is no sign whether Ceawlin's actions in 556 allow him to seize the primacy of the West Saxons, or if the chronicler missed an entry.

568 In this year, Ceawlin and Cutha fought against Æthelbert, sending him in flight to Kent, and two aldermen were slain in Wibbandun, Oslaf and Cnebban.

Æthelbert here is the Æthelbert of Kent who welcomed the missionary Augustine to Britain. While this entry is consistent with the Chronicle's claim that Æthelbert ruled Kent from 560, the contemporary account of Gregory of Tours indicates that he more likely became king closer to 590. This discrepancy suggests that the Chronicler either modified his source, or that his source did not reflect the original facts here; or that Gregory was mistaken.

In any case, the point of this entry was to show that Ceawlin was superior in arms than the better known Æthelbert.

Since at least as early as Charles Plummer' edition of the Chronicle, it has been observed that this is the first recorded battle between the Anglo Saxon tribes.

Wibbandun up to the early twentieth century was identified with Wimbleton, but research in the formation of that place name did not support that identification. Currently, scholarly opinion holds that it is located somewhere south of the Thames, west of the Kent border. It is now considered that the site of the battle was Whitmoor Common, Worplesdon, north of Guildford.

Nothing more is known of the aldermen Oslaf and Cnebban.

571 In this year, Cuthwulf fought against the British Welsh at Bedcanford and took 4 towns, Lygeanburg, Aegelesburg, Baenesington and Egonesham, and in the same year he passed on.
So the Parker manuscript, as well as two others; the Laud manuscript names the West Saxon leader "Cutha". The term "British Welsh" is an attempt to translate the Anglo-Saxon "Bretwalas", which appears in the Chronicle only nine times, including this entry: up to the entry for about year 600, the Chronicler calls the native British inhabitants "Brettas" or British -- except for his entries concerning Aelle -- and "Wealas" or Welsh afterwards

Bedcanford up to the early twentieth century was identified with Bedford, but research in the formation of that place name does not support that identification. The four towns, respectively, are the modern Limbury, Aylesbury, Benson, and Eynsham -- all located in the Chilterns. Archeological evidence points to the fact that there was an enclave of British communities around London and Verulamium into the sixth century. This area may be remembered as the Chilternsaete listed in the Tribal Hidage, who were taxed at a valuation of 4000 hides.

577 In this year, Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against the British, and they killed 3 kings Coinmail, Condidan, and Farinmail in the place that is called Deorham. And they captured 3 strongholds, Gloucester, Cirencester and Bathcester.

This is the Battle of Deorham. Much has been made that with this battle the Cornish Celts were separated from the Welsh; in actual fact, the Celtic peoples living in those parts of Britain could still travel by land with little significant barrier between them for many more years. The Historia Britonum records one Glast as coming from Lichfield south to found Glastonbury about the time the Mercians conquered part of their kingdom to create Shropshire. More important is the fact that the Anglo-Saxon invaders could now sweep into the Severn valley (as Ceawlin is said to have done several years later) and plunder the inhabitants, while the Celts to the west no longer could as easily penetrate the Cotswalds scarp between Gloucester and Cirencester to return the visit.

Deorham has been identified as Dyrham, a village on the turnpike between Bath and Cirencester since at least the mid-19th century.

It is not clear if the three kings should be matched with one "stronghold" each, or perhaps they were relatives who shared rule over all three. The modern Welsh form of these kings names is Cynvael, Cynddylan, and Ffernvael.

584 In this year, Ceawlin and Cutha fought against the British in the place that is named Fethanleag and Cutha was slain. And Ceawlin took many towns and robbed countless bodies, and in anger he returned to his lands.

Cutha again appears a final time, thirteen years after his possible death at Bedcanford. It is not clear if the chronicler made a confusion of his source materials, or if Cutha and Cuthwine are different individuals. However the phrase "in anger he returned to his lands" appears to be a line from saga.

This event has been interpreted as a sweeping raid up the Severn valley to the location of Fethanleag. Plummer identifies this place name with Faddiley in Cheshire; more recent scholarly research identifies this with Stoke Lyne.

592 In this year, there was a great slaughter at Woddesbeorg, and Ceawlin was driven out.
(So the Parker manuscript; the Laud manuscript reads "In this year Gregorius succeeded to the papacy in Rome, and there a great slaughter happened in Britain this year at Wodnesbeorg, and Ceawlin was driven out.")

Woddesbeorg/Wodnesbeorg is a rare pagan Anglo-Saxon place name. It is identified with the present day Alton Priors seven miles east of Devizes.

The chronicler shows that this was a decisive defeat for Ceawlin by dating it only a year prior to his death; all of his other entries concerning Ceawlin are separated by five to seven years. Obviously this exile would also demonstrate that his claim to the title of Bretwalda ended at the same time.

Of unknown value is William of Malmesbury's comment that this slaughter at Woddensbeorg was the result of "the Angles and the British conspiring together". We have no other evidence for the identity of Ceawlin's adversary, only the suspicion that his successor Ceolwulf, son of his associate Cutha, might have been involved -- but if that is the case, it is puzzling that would he need until 597 to succeed to the kingship of the West Saxons.

593 In this year, Ceawlin, Cuichelm and Crida perished, and Æthelfrith succeeded to the kingdom in Northumbria.

By dating Ceawlin's death to the same year Æthelfrith became king of Northumbria, the Chronicler betrays his assumption that the various kings of this early period followed closely upon each other. While the entry of 568 suggests that Ceawlin and Ethelbert were contemporaries, this entry should not be taken as proof that Ceawlin died at the same time Æthelfrith became king.

One feature of Ceawlin's activities, similar to other early Anglo-Saxon kings, is that he is frequently mentioned in the company of other individuals. This suggests that although he was renowned as a warrior, his own following was too small for his to effectively wage war by himself, and that he depended on the support of other nobles or kings of the West Saxons. In other words, there was no centralized kingdom of Wessex at this time, instead Wessex was properly a federation of varying closeness of petty rulers.

The translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in this article is copyrighted by its translator, and appears here under the provisions of the GNU FDL.

Preceded by:
Cynric of Wessex
List of British monarchs Succeeded by:
Ethelbert of Kent