Æthelwulf, also spelled Aethelwulf or Ethelwulf; Old English: Æþelwulf, means 'Noble Wolf' (c. 795 – 858) was the elder son of King Egbert of Wessex. He conquered Kent on behalf of his father in 825. Thereafter he was styled King of Kent until he succeeded his father as King of Wessex in 839, whereupon he became King of Wessex, Kent, Cornwall, the West Saxons and the East Saxons. He was crowned at Kingston upon Thames.
The most notable and commonly used primary source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
. The chronicle makes reference to a few influential battles, of which Æthelwulf partook. In the year 840 AD, he fought at Carhampton
against thirty-five ship companies of Danes
, whose raids had increased considerably. His most notable victory came in 851 at "Acleah", probably Ockley
. Here, Æthelwulf and his son Ethelbald
fought against the heathen, and according to the chronicle it was "the greatest slaughter of heathen host ever made." Around the year 853, Æthelwulf, and his son-in-law, Burgred
, King of Mercia defeated Cyngen ap Cadell
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 where nations were being invaded from many different groups; there were Saracens
in the south, Magyars
in the east, Moors
in the west, and Vikings
in the north. Before Æthelwulf's death, raiders had wintered over on the Isle of Sheppey, and pillaged at will in East Anglia
. Over the course of the next twenty years the struggles of his sons were to be "ceaseless, heroic, and largely futile."
In 839, Æthelwulf succeeded his father Egbert as King. Egbert had been a grizzled veteran who had fought for survival since his youth. Æthelwulf had a worrying style of Kingship. He had come naturally to the throne of Wessex. He proved to be intensly religious, cursed with little political sense, and too many able and ambitious sons. [Humble, Richard. The Saxon Kings. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980. 41.]
One of the first acts Æthelwulf did as King, was to split the kingdom. He gave the eastern half, that of Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex to his eldest son Athelstan
(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, Osburga
, had five sons and a daughter. After Athelstan came Ethelbald
, and Alfred
. Each of his sons succeeded to the throne. Alfred, the youngest son, has been praised as one of the greatest kings to ever reign in Britain. Æthelwulf's only daughter, Aethelswith
, was married as a child to the king of Mercia
Religion was always an important area in Æthelwulf's life. As early as the first year of his reign he had 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." [Humble, Richard. The Saxon Kings. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980. 41.]
In 853 Æthelwulf, sent his son Alfred, a child of about four years, to Rome. In 855, about a year after his wife Osburh's death, Æthelwulf followed Alfred to Rome. In Rome, he was generous with his wealth. He distributed gold to the clergy of St. Peter's, and offered the Blessed Peter chalices of the purest gold and silver-gilt candelabra of Saxon work. [Hodgkin, RH. A History of the Anglo-Saxons. London: Oxford UP, 1935. 512.]
During the return journey in 856 he married Judith a Frankish princess and a great-granddaughter of Charlemagne. She was about twelve 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 son Ethelbald (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 once he returned. There was enough support of Æthelwulf to either have a civil war, or to banish Ethelbald and his fellow conspirators. Instead Æthelwulf yielded western Wessex to his son while he himself retained central and eastern Wessex. The absence of coins in Æthelbald's name may also suggest that West Saxon coinage was in Æthelwulf's name until his death. He ruled there until his death on January 13, 858. The family quarrel, had it been allowed to continue, could have ruined the House of Egbert. Æthelwulf and his advisors deserved the adoration bestowed upon them for their restraint and tolerance.
- 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. [Hodgkin, RH. A History of the Anglo-Saxons. London: Oxford UP, 1935. 515.]
Æthelwulf's restoration 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 not referred to as a queen, but merely 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 then later transferred to the Old Minster in Winchester. His bones now reside in one of several mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral.
The gold ring, depicted in the picture, is about an inch across, richly decorated with religious symbols, is inscribed Æthelwulf Rex and was found at Laverstock, Wiltshire, in 1780; it was believed to have been a gift from Æthelwulf to a loyal follower.
Æthelwulf married firstly Osburh, daughter of Osric. They had six children, four of whom became kings of Wessex
Æthelwulf married a second time to Judith of Flanders and had no issue
- Ashley, Maurice. Great Britain to 1688: A Modern History. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1961.
- Garmonsway, GN. Translation of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: JM Dent & Sons, 1953.
- Hindley, Geoffrey. The Anglo-Saxons. London: Robinson, 2006.
- Hodgkin, RH. A History of the Anglo-Saxons. London: Oxford UP, 1935.
- Humble, Richard. The Saxon Kings. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.