A lineage of indomitable rulers, the Anglo-Saxon kings of Wessex etched their names in the annals of history, shaping the destiny of a nascent England. From the visionary King Edgar to the tenacious King Alfred the Great, these monarchs forged a realm through military might and diplomatic prowess.
Wessex, from the Old English form of ‘West Saxon’ was one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. As their dominion expanded through the centuries, the kings of Anglo-Saxon Wessex ruled much of modern-day Kent, East & West Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Latterly, they ruled much of the country.
The early years of Wessex were beset by battles against the kingdom of Mercia, for centuries the most powerful in Britain. But in the later years of the ninth century, first King Egbert and then Alfred the Great, the most famous of the kings of Wessex, saw their kingdom replace Mercia as the most powerful in the country. It was from this kingdom that a unified England got its first ruler, Æthelstan.
Discover the fascinating impact these influential kings had on history, as they laid the groundwork for a united England.
The Wessex Kings
Since the first Wessex kings came to power some 1,500 years ago, a unified list upon which all historians agree is hard to come by. Unusually, it’s the end of the kingdom and the last king of Wessex that has caused the most debate.
Some lists of the rulers of Wessex stop at Alfred the Great in 899 – and a number even carry on until the Norman Conquest in 1066. Our list starts with Cerdic in 519 and ends in 927 with Æthelstan. He united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under his rule and effectively became king of the expanded nation of England.
Cerdic | Reign: Approx. 519 - 534
Very little is known about Cerdic, indeed his very existence is disputed. He may have arrived from Germany in the late fifth century and engaged in battles with the locals until becoming the first King of Wessex in 519.
Cynric | Reign: Approx. 534 - 560
Possibly the son or grandson of Cerdic, everything we know about him was written centuries later in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. One of the earliest kings of Wessex, it’s said he expanded the kingdom into Wiltshire and fought battles with the Britons at Sarum, near modern-day Salisbury in 552 and what is now Barbury Castle in Wiltshire in 556.
Ceawlin | Reign: Approx. 560 - 592
Ceawlin may have been the son of Cynric and his reign may have been from 560 until 592 but both are disputed. Some sources put his reign as short as seven or seventeen years. During his kingship, it’s believed he drove the Britons out of southern England and defeated Kentish king Aethelbert I. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 592 read, ‘Here there was great slaughter at Woden’s Barrow, and Ceawlin was driven out.’
Ceol | Reign: 592 - 597
Believed to be the nephew of Ceawlin and grandson of Cynric, Ceol was supposedly responsible for the slaughter at Woden’s Barrow. Aside from this, almost nothing is known about his reign as one of the early rulers of Wessex.
Ceolwulf | Reign: 597 - 611
The younger brother of Ceol, he was said to be a powerful ruler who, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘continually fought and contended either against the English, or the Britons, or the Picts, or the Scots.’ He battled the South Saxons in 607 and started Wessex on course for expansion into the south-west.
Cyngelis | Reign: Approx. 611 - 642
His ancestry is uncertain, indeed he may have been a brother or son of Ceowulf, a son of Ceol or a grandson of Ceawlin. It’s also possible he was none of the above. It’s also said that for a time, possibly from around 626, he reigned jointly as kings of Anglo-Saxon Wessex with his son Cwichelm. Cyngelis fought the Welsh in 614 where ‘he slew two thousand and forty-six’. In 628, he suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Mercians at the Battle of Cirencester.
Cenwalh | Reign: Approx. 642 - 645 & 648 - 672
The son of Cyngelis reigned for two years during which time he married the sister of Penda, king of Mercia, in order to shore up an alliance between the two kingdoms. The Venerable Bede wrote that Cenwalh ‘put away the sister of Penda’ to marry a local woman named Seaxburh. Penda waged war on Wessex, took control of the kingdom and drove the king into exile for three years.
Seaxburh | Reign: Approx. 672 - 674
In the list of the Wessex kings, there may have been one queen. The ascension of the wife of Cenwalh, also spelled Sexburga, is written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle however it may be that she acted as a figurehe
Æscwine | Reign: Approx. 674 - 676
Not much is known about Æscwine except he may have been the son of Seaxburh. It’s likely he was one of the sub-kings during the previous reign. He is said to have defeated the Mercians at the Battle of Bedwyn, possibly in modern-day Wiltshire, in 675.
Centwine | Reign: Approx. 676 - 686
Possibly a son of Cyngelis and a brother of Cenwalh, again very little is known with any degree of certainty about the kings of Wessex from this period and Centwine is no exception. He may have been another sub-king. Aldhelm, the Bishop of Sherborne writing twenty years after Centwine’s death said he won ‘three great battles’ but it seems all have been lost to history. The king is believed to have abdicated to become a monk.
Cædwalla | Reign: Approx. 686 - 688
Another of the rulers of Wessex whose ancestry is unknown, Cædwalla was said to have been a brutal warrior who lived the life of an outlaw, attacking the South Saxons with a personal militia and killing their king before ascending to the throne of Wessex. Later, he returned to Sussex and won the territory again, along with Surrey, Kent and the Isle of Wight. He is believed to have been injured fighting on the Isle of Wight and after embracing Christianity, he abdicated and went to Rome where he was baptised by Pope Sergius.
Ine | Reign: Approx. 689 - 726
After the death of Cædwalla, the kingdom of Wessex was beset by internecine struggles until Ine emerged victorious. His family line is unknown but he is said to have been one of the kingdom’s most powerful rulers, spoken of in the same breath as Alfred the Great.
In his reign of thirty-seven years, Ine is believed to have introduced a system of coinage, he focused on trade by developing the port city of Hamwic – modern-day Southampton – and issued laws (Ines asetnessa, or the ‘Laws of Ine’) ranging from damage caused by cattle, to the rights of convicted criminals. These laws laid the foundation stone for the structure of English society in the coming centuries. Ine abdicated in 726 and went to Rome where he died. Of all the Wessex kings, Ine left one of the most enduring legacies.
Æthelheard | Reign: 726 - 740
Ine wanted to leave his kingdom ‘to younger men’ and it’s possible another power struggle ensued. Æthelheard may have been a brother-in-law of Ine but there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest he was. During his reign, he lost a lot of land to the Mercians and may even have been a puppet ruler for his neighbours to the north.
Cuthred | Reign: 740 - 756
Cuthred was described as ‘a relative’ of Æthelheard and he may have even been his brother. For the first dozen years of his reign, Wessex was subservient to the all-powerful kingdom of Mercia. However, in 752, Cuthred fought Mercian king Æthelbald at Battle Edge in Oxfordshire for independence and was victorious. In this list of kings of Wessex, Cuthred was one of the most successful.
Sigeberht | Reign: 756 - 757
Sigeberht may have been a distant cousin of Cuthred and he is one of the rulers of Wessex who won’t be remembered particularly fondly. He was ousted from power after a year by the noble council, known as the Witan, for ‘unrighteous deeds’.
Cynewulf | Reign: 757 - 786
Believed to be a direct descendent of Cerdic, the first of the kings of Anglo-Saxon Wessex, Cynewulf, like Cuthred before him, may have been another Mercian puppet of Æthelbald. On the latter’s death, he saw an opportunity to make Wessex independent once more and even took territory from the Mercians. It’s said he was killed by the brother of Sigeberht.
Beorhtric | Reign: 786 - 802
Translated from the Old English meaning ‘magnificent ruler’, Beorhtric, during whose reign the Vikings first raided England, ruled for sixteen years but was largely backed by Mercian king Offa. Indeed Beorhtric even married Offa’s daughter, Eadburh. Although there seems to be no conclusive evidence, legend has it that Beorhtric died after being accidentally poisoned by his wife.
Ecgberht | Reign: 802 - 839
Of all the kings of Wessex, Ecgberht is one of the most well-known and was the grandfather of Alfred the Great. The first two decades of his reign weren’t well documented but from around 825 or so, Mercia and Wessex fought for supremacy at the Battle of Ellandun near Swindon. Ecgberht’s forces won and fresh from victory, he ordered his men to annex Essex, Kent, Sussex and Surrey from Mercia. In a little over a year, Wessex took over from Mercia as the nation’s most powerful kingdom. Four years later, The kingdom of Wessex encompassed almost all of England up to the River Humber. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called him a ‘bretwalda’, or ‘wide ruler’ of much of Anglo-Saxon England. A mortuary chest in Winchester Cathedral supposedly contains his bones.
Æthelwulf | Reign: 839 - 858
Æthelwulf is believed to be the first son to succeed his father since Cenwalh succeeded Cyngelis in 642. He allied with the Mercians to fend off Viking invasions and even recorded a victory against the Danes in 851 at the Battle of Aclea, perhaps in modern-day Surrey. Indeed it was written by a contemporary historian that Aclea was ‘the greatest slaughter of heathen host ever made.’ After returning from a pilgrimage to Rome, he found that his son Æthelbald had taken Wessex from him and refused to give up the throne. He died in 858 laying the eventual foundations for his son Alfred to become one of the most famous Wessex kings of all.
Æthelbald | Reign: 858 - 860
Oddly for the later kings of Wessex, little is known of the reign of Æthelbald aside from the fact that it was described by contemporary Bishop Asser as ‘iniquitous and grasping.’ After his father Æthelwulf died, he married his fourteen-year old stepmother and signed two charters. He died childless in 860 and was buried in Sherborne Abbey in Dorset. The throne passed to his brother Æthelberht.
Æthelberht | Reign: 860 - 865
During his reign, Wessex and Kent were unified for the first time. He saw off two Viking attacks and was described as ‘a vigorous but kind ruler’ by William of Malmesbury in the twelfth century. He also died childless and was buried in Sherborne Abbey next to his brother.
Æthelred I | Reign: 865 - 871
Another of Æthelwulf’s sons, the reign of Æthelred was almost entirely taken up with battles against the Vikings. He went to the assistance of the Mercians when the Great Heathen Army landed in East Anglia and was subsequently beaten at the Battles of Reading, Basing and Meretun. Æthelred was victorious at the Battle of Ashdown in 871. He died soon after and according to Asser, he ‘went the way of all flesh, having vigorously and honourably ruled the kingdom in good repute, amid many difficulties, for five years.’
Alfred the Great | Reign: 871 - 899
As the most famous ruler in this list of kings of Wessex, Alfred was the only king to receive the epithet ‘the Great’, albeit in the sixteenth century. The fourth son of Æthelwulf is believed to have declared that he never wanted to become king, preferring the life of a scholar. He spent the first part of his reign fighting the Danes and subsequently focused his attention on developing an efficient navy and effecting lasting reforms to the education system.
Edward the Elder | Reign: 899 - 924
The Wessex throne was occupied by Alfred’s oldest son Edward who was a successful military campaigner and, by this time, the de facto ruler of the whole country. Like many of his most recent predecessors, he spent considerable time fighting the Viking hordes and conquered most of the land they occupied. It’s believed by the end of his reign he had virtually removed the Danish threat from England.
Ælfweard | Reign: 924
It remains a subject of much debate whether Ælfweard was the last king of Wessex, indeed whether he was one of the kings of Wessex at all. He is believed to have outlived his father Edward by just sixteen days and a few twelfth century sources, Textus Roffensis, or the Annals of Rochester and the New Minster Liber Vitae mention his succession. If he was one of the rulers of Wessex, it’s almost certain he was never crowned.
Æthelstan | Reign: 924 - 927
The last king of Wessex was Æthelstan who in 927 became the first king of a unified England. He is thought of as one of the great rulers of Anglo-Saxon England and one of mediaeval Europe’s most accomplished diplomats and statesmen. Twelfth century chronicler William of Malmesbury said of him, ‘no-one more just or more learned ever governed the kingdom.’
There we have it, the list of kings of Wessex including the last king of Wessex.