James Lloyd visits the Isle of Wight, the only county in England to be coextensive with an island and reviews its violent past.
The Isle of Wight is a curious little county. When the tide is in, it sneaks past Rutland to become temporarily the smallest county in England (not including Bristol and the City of London, the last of the counties corporate). It is, however, debatable for how long it may be said to have been a county. Historically, it was part of Hampshire and did not gain a county council of its own until 1890. Even then it remained under the sheriff, Lord-Lieutenant, coroner and magistrates of Hampshire until it achieved complete detachment in 1974, being graced in that year with a full paraphernalia of shrieval dignitaries of its own.
It is, perhaps, surprising that it took the Isle so long to achieve this status. The counties of Kent, Essex and Sussex and arguably also Surrey, Devon and Cornwall were, for periods in their past, kingdoms in their own right that were adopted and re-designated shires as the kingdom of Wessex expanded. The Isle of Wight too was once a kingdom, a sovereign state. So, how comes it that the Kingdom of Wight did not enjoy the same survival rate as other kingdoms-to-counties?
For the early history of the Isle of Wight we are reliant entirely on sources from outside the island. According to the Venerable Bede (who, working from Jarrow, was almost as far away from Wight as one can be without leaving England), Britain was settled by three Germanic nations, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. The latter group are the most mysterious to historians. Bede said that they came from Jutland and this would appear to fit the name but apart from that very little is known about them. Bede reported that the Jutes settled Kent, Wight and the Meon valley opposite the Isle, where the settlers were known as the Meonware, the Meon People.
This information is filled in further by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which says that Cerdic and Cynric, the two Saxons who founded the Kingdom of Wessex at the beginning of the sixth century, conquered Wight almost in passing as they invaded Britain via the Meon. Cerdic died in 534 and the new King Cynric gave the Isle to his cousins Stuf and Wihtgar. Wihtgar died in 544 and was buried at the eponymous “Wihtgaræsbyrg”, Wihtgar’s fortress, probably on the site of Carisbrooke Castle, where a rich burial of around this period has been found. Of the dynasty that ruled the Isle thereafter, the Chronicle has nothing to report.
In 661, King Wulfhere of Mercia, who had already conquered Sussex and installed his godson Æthelwalh as sub-king, turned his violent attention to Wight and the Meon valley, which he added to Æthelwalh’s portfolio. Wulfhere died in 675 and Æthelwalh followed him ten years later, just as a new king was acceding in Wessex. Cædwalla, though nominally a convert to Christianity, retained a pagan’s moral code. His reign lasted for only three years but they were shockingly bloody and violent. He rampaged across the south-east, conquering first Sussex and then Kent, where he imposed his brother Mul as King. The Men of Kent rose in rebellion and burnt down Mul’s less-than-safe-house with the usurper inside it.
Wight did not escape Cædwalla’s attention. He promised God that, if He would let him conquer the Isle, Cædwalla would give a fourth of the land to the church, along with a fourth of the inhabitants (the rest he intended to exterminate and replace with West Saxons). God, apparently, agreed, for Cædwalla’s invasion was a complete success. Its king, Arwald, was killed. His younger brothers had already fled to Stoneham in the New Forest but some snitch reported their whereabouts to Cædwalla.
The West Saxon king had been injured in the recent battle but he still managed to haul himself to Stoneham to supervise the boys’ execution. Cyniberht, abbot of the monastery at nearby Redbridge, shocked that the two pagans were to be killed without having a chance to convert to Christianity first, persuaded Cædwalla to give him time to catechize and baptize them. Cædwalla granted them that much grace and thus, having been Christians for all of five minutes, the boys came to be regarded as saints by the Men of Wight. Since their names were not recorded, they became known collectively as Saint Arwald, after their brother, who himself had died a pagan.
Wight was annexed to Wessex and probably became part of Hampshire then and there. Its history of foreign conquest (and, in those days, a Saxon of Wessex was as foreign to a Jute of Wight as today’s German is to a Dutchman) means that whatever records or chronicles might have been composed by its own people have not survived. All we have is the view of outsiders.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was commissioned by Alfred the Great, a West Saxon king and it gives the West Saxon view of history. That the Isle was originally ruled by two West Saxons is difficult to reconcile with Bede’s politically colourless report that it was settled by Jutes. It is much likelier that the history of Stuf and Wihtgar was adapted by a West Saxon annalist for partisan purposes, giving Wessex an ancestral claim to Wight and making the annexation of the Isle seem more natural and lawful than it was. The name of Wihtgar, literally “white-spear”, is suspiciously similar to the name of the Isle itself and it may be that we are dealing with a toponymical phantom, created out of a misreading of “Wihtwarabyrig”, fortress of the Men of Wight, for the aforementioned “Wihtgaræsbyrg”.
There was, however, to be a strange afterlife for the Kingdom of Wight. During the West Saxon incursion of Kent, Wihtred, its young prince and rightful claimant to the throne, fled and it may have been in Wight that he found refuge, the last gasp of the alliance between the two Jutish kingdoms (is it just a coincidence that his name had “white” in it?). After he established himself as King of Kent around 690, Wihtred paid war reparations to the contemporary West Saxon King Ine for the burning of Mul.
Significantly for this story, Wihtred had married Arwald’s sister. A hundred years later, their descendent, Ealhmund, was briefly King of Kent before being ousted by King Offa of Mercia (do keep up). Ealhmund in turn has been identified by some historians with Ealhmund the father of Egbert, who became King of Wessex in 802 and whose career of conquering his way through the south of Britain inaugurated the chain of events that would lead to the creation of a Kingdom of England. As if that were not enough, Egbert’s grandson, Alfred the Great, claimed to be descended from Stuf and Wihtgar on his mother’s side, meaning that in the persons of Egbert and Alfred, Kent and Wight, the Jutish kingdoms who endured years of being battered around by Wessex, achieved a remarkable turnaround.
Even this was not quite the end. The Elizabethan antiquary William Camden recorded a story that King Henry VI was so fond of his favourite Henry Beauchamp, fourteenth Earl of Warwick, that he personally crowned him King of the Isle of Wight in 1444, at the age of only nineteen. The story is undoubtedly fiction but Warwick died two years later in any case and the Kingdom of Wight has never since been revived. In the 1970s, a tongue-in-cheek Vectis National Party did call for the Isle to be made a Crown Dependency but they polled extremely poorly and folded, the electorate unconvinced of the necessity of reinstating a long-deceased kingdom.
How fashions change. Perhaps the time has come for them to try again.