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Ethelwulf of Wessex

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Title: Ethelwulf of Wessex  
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Ethelwulf of Wessex

For other uses, see Æthelwulf.

Depiction of Æthelwulf from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, a late-13th-century manuscript in the British Library.
King of Wessex
Reign 839–858
Predecessor Egbert
Successor Æthelbald
Spouse Osburh
Judith of Flanders
Æthelstan of Wessex
Æthelswith, Queen of Mercia
Æthelbald, King of Wessex
Æthelberht, King of Wessex
Æthelred, King of Wessex
Alfred, King of Wessex
House House of Wessex
Father Egbert, King of Wessex
Died 13 January 858
Burial Steyning then the Old Minster, Winchester. Remains now in Winchester Cathedral

Æthelwulf, also spelled Aethelwulf or Ethelwulf; Old English: Æþelwulf, meaning "Noble Wolf", was King of Wessex from 839 until his death in 858. He was the only known child of King Egbert of Wessex.[1] He conquered the kingdom of Kent on behalf of his father in 825, and was sometime later made King of Kent [2] as a sub-king to Egbert. He succeeded his father as King of Wessex on Egbert's death in 839, at which time his kingdom stretched from the county of Kent in the east to Devon in the west. At the same time his eldest son Æthelstan became sub-king of Kent as a subordinate ruler.


Historians give conflicting assessments of Æthelwulf. According to Richard Humble, Æthelwulf had a worrying style of Kingship. He had come to the throne of Wessex by inheritance. He proved to be intensely religious, cursed with little political sense, and with too many able and ambitious sons.[3] To Frank Stenton, "Æthelwulf seems to have been a religious and unambitious man, for whom engagement in war and politics was an unwelcome consequence of rank."[4] However, Janet Nelson thought that his reign has been under-appreciated in modern scholarship, and that he laid the foundations for Alfred's success, finding new as well as traditional answers, and coping more effectively with Scandinavian attacks than most contemporary rulers.[1] In Simon Keynes's view, "it was he, more than any other, who secured the political fortune of his people in the 9th century, and who opened up channels of communication which led through the Frankish realms and across the Alps to Rome."[5]

Martial career

The most notable and commonly used primary source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which refers to Æthelwulf's presence at some important battles. In 840, he fought at Carhampton against 35 ship companies of Danes, whose raids had increased considerably. His most notable victory came in 851 at "Acleah", possibly Ockley in Surrey or Oakley in Berkshire. Here, Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald fought against the heathen, and according to the Chronicle it was "the greatest slaughter of heathen host ever made." Around 853, Æthelwulf and his son-in-law, Burgred, King of Mercia, defeated Cyngen ap Cadell of Wales and made the Welsh subject to him. The Chronicle depicts more battles throughout the years, mostly against invading pirates and Danes. This was an era in European history when nations were being invaded by many different groups; there were Saracens in the south, Magyars in the east, Moors in the west, and Vikings in the north.[6] Before Æthelwulf's death, raiders had wintered on the Isle of Sheppey and pillaged at will in East Anglia. Over the course of the next 20 years the struggles of his sons were to be "ceaseless, heroic, and largely futile."[7]

Family life

One of the first of Æthelwulf's acts as king was to split the kingdom. He gave the eastern half, including Kent, Essex, Surrey, and Sussex, to his eldest son Æthelstan (not to be confused with the later Athelstan the Glorious). Æthelwulf kept the ancient, western side of Wessex (Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, and Devon) for himself.

Æthelwulf and his first wife, Osburh, had five sons and a daughter. After Æthelstan came Æthelbald, Æthelbert, Æthelred, and Alfred. Each of his sons, with the exception of Æthelstan, succeeded to the throne. Alfred, the youngest, has been praised as one of the greatest kings to ever reign in Britain. Æthelwulf's only daughter, Æthelswith, was married as a child to King Burgred of Mercia.

Pilgrimage to Rome, marriage, conspiracy of Æthelbald, death

Religion was always an important part of Æthelwulf's life. As early as the first year of his reign he planned a pilgrimage to Rome. Due to the ongoing and increasing raids he felt the need to appeal to the Christian God for help against an enemy "so agile, and numerous, and profane."[3]

In 853, Æthelwulf sent his son Alfred, a child of about four years, to Rome. In 855, about a year after the death of his wife Osburga, Æthelwulf followed Alfred to Rome, where he was generous with his wealth. He distributed gold to the clergy of St. Peter's and offered them chalices of the purest gold and silver-gilt candelabra of Saxon work.[9] During the return journey in 856 he married Judith, a Frankish princess and a great-granddaughter of Charlemagne. She was about 12 years old, the daughter of Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks.

Upon their return to England in 856 Æthelwulf met with an acute crisis. His eldest surviving son Æthelbald (Athelstan had since died) had devised a conspiracy with the Ealdorman of Somerset and the Bishop of Sherborne to oppose Æthelwulf's resumption of the kingship on his return. While Æthelwulf was able to muster enough support to fight a civil war or to banish Æthelbald and his fellow conspirators, he instead chose to yield western Wessex to his son, while he himself retained central and eastern Wessex. The absence of coins in Æthelbald's name suggests that West Saxon coinage was in Æthelwulf's name until his death. He ruled there until his death on 13 January 858.

That the king should have consented to treat with his rebellious son, to refer the compromise to a meeting of Saxon nobles, to moderate the pugnacity of his own supporters, and to resign the rule over the more important half of his dominions – all this testifies to the fact that Æthelwulf’s Christian spirit did not exhaust itself in the giving of lavish charities to the Church, but availed to reconcile him to the sacrifice of prestige and power in the cause of national peace.[10]

The restoration of Æthelwulf included a special concession on behalf of Saxon queens. The West Saxons previously did not allow the queen to sit next to the king. In fact they were referred to not as a queen but merely as the "wife of the king." This restriction was lifted for Queen Judith, probably because she was a high-ranking European princess.

He was buried first at Steyning and later re-interred in the Old Minster in Winchester. His bones now rest in one of several "mortuary chests" in Winchester Cathedral.


Æthelwulf was first married to Osburh, daughter of Oslac. They had six children, four of whom became kings of Wessex.

Name Birth Death Notes
Æthelstan[11] c. 852[12] Eldest son. Did not rule.
Æthelswith 888 Only daughter. Married Burgred of Mercia.
Æthelbald 20 December 860 Son. Married 858, Judith of Flanders, his father's widow. Ruled 858–860.
Æthelbert 865 Son. Ruled 860–865.
Æthelred c. 848[13] 23 April 871 Son. Married. Two known children. Ruled 865–871.
Alfred c. 849 26 October 899 Son. Married 868, Ealhswith. Six known children. Ruled 871–899.

Æthelwulf was married a second time to Judith of Flanders, aged about 12,[1] with whom he had no issue.

See also



Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of Wessex
Succeeded by
King of Kent
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