Who was King Aethelwulf of Wessex and what did he do?

A father of a queen and five kings - including Alfred the Great - Æthelwulf of Wessex defeated the Vikings, commanded continent-wide respect and expanded his kingdom. Yet he faced accusations of impracticality, desertion of duties, and a scandalous marriage. This is the incredible tale of King Aethelwulf.

History Rulers
3 May 2023

Æthelwulf of Wessex was a king with a heart for his people, who reigned during the tumultuous time of Viking invasions. He was not only an effective ruler, but also a devoted father who taught his children the value of power.

By the late 820s, the kingdom of Mercia was losing its influence, and Wessex was on the way to becoming the most powerful kingdom in the land.

King Egbert had ruled Wessex for close to four decades and, when he died in 839, his son Aethelwulf acceded to the throne. Indeed it’s believed he was the first son to take over from his father as king of Wessex since the 640s when Cenwalh succeeded Cyngelis.

The nineteen-year reign of King Aethelwulf was a complex balancing act of maintaining power while fending off threats from neighbouring kingdoms as well as the unwanted visitors from Scandinavia.

His father had ensured for his sons a wide-ranging and broadly stable kingdom, it was his responsibility to keep it that way.

The Early Life of Aethelwulf of Wessex

Æthelwulf (Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

Aethelwulf was the son of King Egbert, who reigned as the King of Wessex from 802 until his death in 839. His mother’s name, along with the year of his birth, has been lost to history. Some sources say that Aethelwulf was born in the German city of Aachen, but there’s no evidence to suggest that’s true.

His father had made him a sub-king of Kent in the mid 820s, and this apprenticeship stood him in excellent stead for when he became king of Wessex. In fact he did the same for his own sons. Osburh, his first wife and mother of his six children, was described by Asser, the biographer of Alfred the Great, as ‘a most religious woman, noble in character and noble by birth.’

The first years of King Aethelwulf’s reign focused primarily on solidifying his power base. Thanks to his father’s generosity, Æthelwulf had the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury and was a major benefactor to Malmesbury Abbey. He spent time visiting the realms over which he ruled and ensured the ealdorman who ruled over his lands were well looked after.

He also forged good relations with Mercia, the old adversary of Wessex. So much so that Burgred, king of Mercia married Aethelwulf’s only daughter, Aethelswith. In the same year, the two kings worked together to subjugate a rebellion by the Kingdom of Powys in Wales.

Aethelwulf, Vikings & Victory

Viking Invasion (Photo: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

In 843 with Viking raids becoming a frequent occurrence, King Aethelwulf faced his foes at Carhampton in Somerset where he was defeated by a fleet of thirty-five Viking ships.

For the next seven or eight years, Viking raids were on a much smaller scale and most were no more than reconnaissance missions, but in 851, the Danes arrived in huge numbers.

The Battle of Aclea in an unknown location – probably somewhere in modern-day Surrey – was Æthelwulf’s finest hour. For Aethelwulf, Vikings were the predominant threat during his reign and they travelled up the River Thames with reportedly 350 ships. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle picks up the story.

‘Three and a half hundred ships came into the mouth of the Thames and stormed Canterbury and London and put to flight Beorhtwulf, King of Mercia with his army, and then went south over the Thames into Surrey and King Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald with the West Saxon army fought against them at Aclea, and there made the greatest slaughter of a heathen raiding-army that we have heard tell of up to the present day, and there took the victory.’

King Aethelwulf in Rome

Portrait of Charles the Bald (Photo: Stefano Bianchetti via Getty Images)

It’s believed that Osburh died in or around 844 and this may have been the deciding factor for Aethelwulf to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. He took his son Alfred, who it’s said was more inclined towards a life as a scholar or in the church than as a king. His reasons for going to Rome in the face of continued and immediate threats from the Danes are unknown, but some of his most trusted men believed it was a dereliction of his duties.

Other later sources have suggested that this year-long trip cemented his place as one of Europe’s most prominent and well-respected leaders, and paved the way for the successes of Alfred a decade and a half later.

On his way back to England, Aethelwulf of Wessex, now probably in his mid-fifties, rested at the court of Charles the Bald, king of the West Franks, and married his daughter Judith who was probably no more than twelve or thirteen. Even in those times, the marriage was considered to be shocking. One early twentieth century historian described the marriage as ‘the folly of a man senile before his time.’

On the home front, Æthelwulf had left Wessex in the hands of his son Aethelbald. When the party returned, Aethelbald refused to give up the throne. The younger man may have felt his father was no longer fit to be king, having been away for a year and come back with a child bride who could bear him more children and therefore more rivals.

It seems Aethelwulf was respectful of his son’s decision and eventually split the kingdom between Aethelbald, another son Aethelberht and himself.

Death & Legacy

A churchyard in Steyning (Photo: paul mansfield photography via Getty Images)

In his final years, King Aethelwulf remained committed to the church both spiritually and by way of grants of land and money. It’s believed King Aethelwulf died of natural causes in 858.

He was first buried in the town of Steyning in Sussex but, probably on the instructions of Alfred, his body was reinterred in Winchester.

In one further bizarre event, Aethelbald married his step-mother Judith, as it was said the prestige of marrying into the preeminent Frankish dynasty was too great to turn down.

Æthelwulf has been described as a man who was keen to avoid confrontation and saw it as an unwelcome consequence of being king. Indeed he could have engaged in civil war when he got back from Rome against his own sons in order to retake the throne of Wessex but decided instead to split the ruling of the kingdom.

He extended the reach of his domain, he withstood Danish attacks better than many of his peers, and enhanced his knowledge of politics and diplomacy by engaging with European monarchs, politicians and religious leaders.

He also ensured a familial line on the throne of Wessex for almost a century before England became a single unified entity in 927.


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