King Æthelwulf of England

By: Alan Chanter

Æthelwulf (or Ethelwulf), who was born around 795 and was the King of Wessex, succeeded to the throne on the death of his father King Egbert1 in 839. The first of the Danish (Viking) invasions were to begin during his reign.

In 835 he had commanded his father's army which conquered Kent and expelled King Baldred, the last King of Kent. This ultimately led to the submission of Essex, Sussex, and Surrey to Wessex rule. As a reward he was appointed as the sub-king of all his father's southeastern lordships. He passed these lordships on to his eldest son Æthelstan when he succeeded his father as King of Wessex.

In 835 he had commanded his father's army which conquered Kent and expelled King Baldred, the last King of Kent. This ultimately led to the submission of Essex, Sussex, and Surrey to Wessex rule. As a reward he was appointed as the sub-king of all his father's southeastern lordships. He passed these lordships on to his eldest son Æthelstan when he succeeded his father as King of Wessex.

After suffering a defeat at sea in 842 (or possibly 843) during the battle of Carhampton against the crews of thirty-five Viking Ships, King Æthelwulf struggled to resist invasion and was finally successful when his second son Æthelbard routed the Danes at the battle of Aclea with great slaughter.2 This battle was one of the few in which the Anglo-Saxons were successful in defeating the Danes and greatly increased the power of Wessex. Subsequently his eldest son Æthelstan defeated a Viking fleet off the coast of Sandwich in Kent. This success would be marred by Æthelstan's untimely death later that year.

Æthelwulf was not an ambitious ruler, although he was noted for his piety. His first wife (ca. 830) Osburh, the daughter of the Kentish nobleman Oslac of Hampshire, bore him five sons: Aethelstan, Æthelbard, Æthelbert, Æthelred and Alfred, as well as a daughter named Æthelswith.

In 853, King Burgred of Mercia asked for Aethelwulf's assistance in a campaign against the Welsh. The alliance was sealed by his marriage to the Æthelwulf's daughter, Princess Æthelswith. The long contested lands of Berkshire passed permanently into Wessex hands at this time and were probably a part of the marriage settlement. The Viking menace was obviously having an effect on old Anglo-Saxon rivalries.

In 855 the King embarked with his eight year old youngest son Alfred (later Alfred the Great) on a prolonged pilgrimage to Rome, which would leave an impression on the young prince that would greatly affect his attitude towards learning in later life. This lengthy pilgrimage left the Kingdom of Wessex under the regency of his eldest surviving son Æthelbard, whilst the southeastern provinces would be held by Prince Æthelbert.

Æthelwulf may have intended to have taken his retirement in Rome (as many monarchs had done before) but ultimately decided to return home, stopping on the way at the court of the Frankish King Charles the Bald. The two Kings had many similar troubles caused by the marauding Vikings. Their talks concluded with a formal alliance which was guaranteed by the marriage of sixty year old Wessex King to Charles' fourteen-year-old daughter, Judith. Æthelwulf even agreed to the condition that his new wife should be crowned as queen, although this was contrary to usual Saxon tradition.

Prince Æthelbald was not exactly overjoyed to see his father return to England to reclaim his crown. Judith might yet bare the elderly king more rivals to the throne, and during Æthwulf's absence the prince had acquired many ardent supporters, particularly in Western Wessex. Ealdorman Enwulf of Somerset and Bishop Aelfstan of Sherborne encouraged him to retain his position. Thus, rejected by Wessex, Æthelwulf retired to Æthelbert's provinces in the southeast.3

Æthelwulf died on January 13th, 858 and was buried at Steyning in Sussex, although his body was later moved for reburial at Winchester.

Works Cited