James Lloyd visits Devon, or possibly Wiltshire, with brief stops in Hampshire, to remember the scandalous falls of two successive West Saxon kings.
The King had been defeated. He looked around at the assembly of bishops and abbots, ealdormen and thegns, the lords and officers through whom he governed his kingdom, in anger and astonishment. The list of his crimes was read. He was, or so they said, tyrannical and oppressive, with no respect for the law and therefore unfit to be its chief enforcer. One member of the assembly did speak up for him. Cumbra, Ealdorman of Hampshire, rose to his feet and defended the King, reminding the assembly that they had elected him only the previous year and sworn oaths of loyalty to him.
True, they acknowledged but had not the King himself sworn oaths to govern according to the law, oaths that he had broken?
The verdict was passed. Sigeberht, descendent of Cerdic and King of the West Saxons, was deprived of office, with only one concession: He would keep Hampshire, since that shire’s ealdorman had argued for him. As for his successor, everyone knew who that would be, the instigator of the coup. Cynewulf rose from his place and stepped towards the former King of Wessex, assuming that his own election was already complete. Sigeberht barely said a word but merely backed away, seeing Cynewulf’s hand hover over the pommel of his sword.
Ealdorman Cumbra walked towards him and stood between the former King Sigeberht and the new King Cynewulf. With the one loyal ealdorman to defend him, as he had always defended him, Sigeberht slunk from the hall. In the yard outside, he turned to run and nearly trod on the group children who had gathered just outside. They scattered before him, running more in fear of being caught spying than to save their little bodies from the running man’s tread. Yet one of them did not flee. He stood there watching Sigeberht, a look of confusion and fear on his face. Sigeberht glanced back, as he ran for the stables and saw the little boy watching him. The same thought passed through both their minds.
I shall never see him again.
Anglo-Saxon royal succession was not strictly hereditary. Although great weight was lain on descent from a kingdom’s founder, with the result that anyone who did not possess (or could not convincingly claim) such descent was ineligible, the actual choice was made by an assembly of the bishops, abbots, ealdormen (governors of shires) and thegns (major landowners) in the kingdom. Sometimes this was a formality but on other occasions it made a real difference and one of the clearest cases of this was in 757, when the nobles of Wessex, having elected Sigeberht (pronounced “see-ya-bert”) king only the previous year, ditched him in favour of Cynewulf. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes it all sound very constitutional and sound but the reality was probably much more violent and Cynewulf may have presented the West Saxon nobles less with a convincing re-count than with a convincing army.
Nonetheless, Sigeberht did himself no favours. The allegations of misconduct against him seem to have been borne out by his treatment of Ealdorman Cumbra, his one loyal supporter, whom he ended up stabbing to death, possibly in an argument over which of them was really in charge of Hampshire. King Cynewulf then led a manhunt that chased Sigeberht into the Weald, where he was killed by a herdsman (apparently) near Privett.
Cynewulf reigned for twenty-nine years, an unusually long space of time and rather surprising, considering that he was not gloriously successful. He lost a string of battles with Mercia, to which he relinquished in whole or in part Berkshire, Surrey and Somerset. His real problem, however, was Sigeberht’s brother, Cyneheard. It is important to note that the names Cynewulf and Cyneheard have the same first element, “cyn”, a recurrent feature in West Saxon royal names, which suggests that Cynewulf’s claim to belong to the same dynasty may indeed have been true.
Unfortunately for him, this meant that Cyneheard was eligible for the throne as well. In 786, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records, Cynewulf attempted to have Cyneheard expelled. Was he afraid that Cyneheard was planning his own bid for power? Had Cyneheard, who had probably been very young at the time, never forgiven Cynewulf was deposing his brother? The two motivations were not mutually exclusive and Cynewulf should have seen them coming long before but he acted too late.
In one of the longest and most intense narratives amongst its annals, the Chronicle records that Cynewulf took a break from politics to visit his mistress’s house at “Merantun”, accompanied by only a few bodyguards and a “British” (i.e. of Celtic descent) hostage, presumably captured in one of Cynewulf’s many battles in Devon, still a war-zone at the time, disputed between the West Saxons and the Britons. The location of Merantun is uncertain. One possibility is the tiny hamlet of Marton in Wiltshire but the name is usually translated as Merton. There are Mertons in Norfolk, Surrey, Oxfordshire and Devon but the first three were outside Cynewulf’s dominions. The presence of a British captive in the King’s party, however, makes the Devonian Merton (in this author’s opinion) the likeliest setting for the episode.
The King’s bodyguards were stationed discreetly outside the bower, while Cynewulf shut himself in with his mistress and behaved very indecorously indeed. Eventually, however, he realized that the groans he was hearing were not the usual approving noises from the woman beneath him but the cries of fighting men. He extricated himself from his lover’s arms and opened the door to see what the matter was.
His bodyguards were under attack. Unknown assailants had broken into the compound and surprised them while they were engaged in smutty lèse-majesté. When they saw the King wearing less armour than usual, they seized the opportunity but, for a man in the nude, he defended himself surprisingly well, until he spied amongst the crowd the instigator of the ambush, the brother of the tyrant whom he had deposed twenty-nine years before.
The King blazed forth, his weapon flying, only to be cut down. The mistress, beholding the slaughter from the doorway, screamed and her scream brought more thegns, who had been sleeping elsewhere on the estate, to a belated and futile rescue. They too were butchered. Yet so flush with victory was Cyneheard that he did not notice one injured Briton creeping out from the pile of bodies and slinking into the night.
The next morning it was Cyneheard’s turn to be roused by unwelcome news. A band of soldiers, led by two ealdormen, had arrived at the estate, having been alerted by the Briton to the King’s assassination. Cyneheard went to the gate to parley with them and offered them any land they wanted in exchange for the crown. He pointed out that several of the ealdormen’s own relatives were amongst his supporters.
No man, the ealdormen replied, was dearer to them than their own lord. They would never obey his killer. They did, however, offer their relatives the chance to leave now, unharmed.
The same offer, their kinsmen retorted, had been made to friends of theirs who had been in Cynewulf’s party. They had refused to abandon their lord. Neither would they abandon Cyneheard now.
The ensuing battle in the gateway was vicious and left all of Cynehead’s band dead, save the godson of one of the ealdormen. Cynewulf was buried in Winchester Cathedral, the mausoleum of West Saxon kings, while Cyneheard, as befitted a prince, was buried in the royal church at Axminster. Cynewulf had left no son (despite his mistress’s best efforts), so the nobility assigned the throne of Wessex to Beorhtric, another distant relative but also the son-in-law and pawn of the powerful King Offa of Mercia.
Another claimant was overlooked. Egbert, yet another descendent of Cerdic, launched his own campaign but he was outmanoeuvred by Beorhtric, who invoked Mercian aid and drove him from Wessex. Egbert sought refuge at the court of Charlemagne, a landless prince in a foreign country, fearing for his life.
No one would have guessed that it was Egbert, his grandson Alfred and his grandson Æthelstan who would eventually unify England into one kingdom, over which his descendents would rule to this day.