Who was Cynric of Wessex and what did he do?

Like many of the early Anglo-Saxon kings, the life of King Cynric is shrouded in conjecture, mystery and half-truths. He has been described both as a brutal warrior and a peacekeeper and protector of his kingdom. Read on to find out about Saxon king Cynric.

History Rulers
3 May 2023

Delve into the enigmatic life of King Cynric, an early Anglo-Saxon ruler whose legacy, shrouded in myth and mystery, played a crucial role in shaping the kingdom of Wessex.

From the Old English ‘West Saxon’, Wessex was one of the seven kingdoms that made up Anglo-Saxon England alongside Mercia, Northumbria, Essex, Sussex, East Anglia and Kent. Wessex grew to become the most powerful and influential of all the kingdoms and gave us Alfred the Great and Æthelstan, the first king of a unified England. But its formative years were about consolidation and expansion.

Like Cerdic before him, almost all of what we know about Cynric of Wessex comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written around 350 years after his death. Indeed life in the mid-sixth century wasn’t well documented so what may have been recorded as truth 1,500 years ago has become interspersed with exaggerations, legends and myths and fact and fiction have become almost indistinguishable from each other.

This is why contemporary and future writers, chroniclers and historians have had to effectively fill in the spaces to fit their own purposes and what remains are stories based on interpretation and conjecture. This is the story of Cynric, king of the West Saxons.

Cynric - Meaning of the Name

Wessex Penny (Photo: Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Many historians believe that Cynric and Cerdic – who may have been his father, grandfather or uncle – came from Germany, but his name is most likely from the Old English Cynric, meaning ‘kin-ruler’ or the Brittonic ‘Cunorix’ meaning ‘hound-king’. The debate continues as to where they originated from and the origins of their names.

Saxon King Cynric

Cynric fighting the Britons at Old Sarum (Photo: Hulton Fine Art Collection via Getty Images)

There is no reliable information about the early life of Cynric. He may have arrived from Germany in 495 with Cerdic, landing close to the Southampton coast. Even this information is disputed on the basis that it’s possible they were in fact native British nobles.

When his father Cerdic died in 534, Wessex had a new ruler; Cynric, king of the West Saxons.

As Wessex became established, king Cynric wanted to expand his power base and moved west towards modern-day Wiltshire. It’s not known when he decided to attack but it’s generally agreed that in 552 he captured the town of Searobyrig, the settlement of Old Sarum, almost exactly where modern-day Salisbury sits.

Four years later in 556, Saxon king Cynric fighting alongside his son and heir Ceawlin won another battle at Beranburh, now believed to be Barbury Castle.

Further incursions inland forced the Britons to flee deeper into the southwest and it’s believed they migrated across to France and established the province of Brittany.

The lives of the early Anglo-Saxon kings including Cynric of Wessex are steeped in mystery for two main reasons. First and foremost there was no reliable record keeping at the time. Indeed if records were kept it was most likely by clerics who recorded the activities of the church rather than the government.

Second, the stories were told and retold over and over again and many took on a life of their own. They were then written down years, and in some cases centuries, after the main protagonists had died by chroniclers and writers who all had particular agendas so the truth would get further distorted.

King Cynric - Death & Legacy

Old map of England, showing the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Photo: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

There is no official record of the death of Cynric, but it’s believed he died of natural causes in 560 and was succeeded by his son Ceawlin.

As in life, his legacy is much disputed. By and large it seemed as if his policy of expansion in the west – despite modest territorial gains – set Wessex on a path to greatness, culminating in the rise of leaders such as Ine in the late seventh and early eighth centuries, and Alfred the Great two hundred years later.

By then, Wessex was the dominant kingdom in England and its rulers were the de facto kings of the entire country.


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