A History of the British Monarchy/Saxon Rulers/Ethelwulf

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Ethelwulf succeeded his father Egbert and reigned from 839 to 856. Ethelwulf had a pretty easy time being accepted as a king after his father. In general, Egbert's descendants were accepted by the people of England. It is believed that people accepted Ethelwulf because he had previously been the sub-king of Kent, while his father was king of Wessex. Later in Ethelwulf's reign, his son, Athelstan, became the sub-king of Kent.

Ethelwulf, the name meaning noble wolf, is described by chroniclers as being a heavily built man, who was inclined to be sluggish and indolent. Of a gentle and pious nature, Ethelwulf had expressed a desire to be a priest when he was young, his warlike father was said to have found his pacific eldest son a disappointment. He was aided in government by St. Swithin, Bishop of Winchester, at the time a senior statesman but now chiefly remembered as the patron saint of rainy weather.

The new ruler was crowned at Kingston-upon-Thames in 839. He consolidated the power of Wessex and re-asserted the supremacy over Mercia. An alliance was formed by marrying his daughter to the Mercian King, which was to prove of lasting value to the House of Wessex.

Much of Ethelwulf's reign was spent combating the invading Vikings, whom he struggled to contain. They sailed repeatedly up the Thames and pillaged London and the towns of Rochester and Canterbury. A congress was held at Kingsbury in Oxfordshire, to encourage co-operation with the Mercians in repelling the mutual enemy, to which Ethelwulf sent his father-in-law, Osric, as his ambassador. Ethelwulf, along with his son, Ethelbald, met and defeated them in battle in 851 at Achleah, possibly Oakley in Surrey, where according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he inflicted 'the greatest slaughter of a heathen army that was ever heard of to this present day', thereby Ethelwulf obtained temporary security for his kingdom.

Ethelwulf had a few wives, beginning with Osburh, the daughter of Oslac of Hampshire, a Jute, originating from the Isle of Wight, purported to have been able to trace his line back to Jarl Hengist, one of the leaders of the first Saxon armies to invade England. She was very intelligent but she also had a good reputation. She was said to be a pious woman and was highly respected among the people. The couple had much in common, their children were to be brought up with a deep reverence for religion. Osburh produced five sons, four of whom were to reign in turn, after their father. She died around 850. Shortly after her death, Ethelwulf and his most beloved son, Alfred, went to Rome. Upon return Ethelwulf formed a strong bond with Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, taking in marriage his daughter Judith, who was descended from Charlemagne. The pair were married at Verberie sur Oise on 1 October, 856 and the new Queen of Wessex was solemnly crowned by the Bishop of Rheims.

Despite Alfred being the favorite son, he was not next in line to reign. During Ethelwulf's absence, the oldest surviving son, Ethelbald, who strongly suspected that his father wished to make his favourite son, Alfred, heir to Wessex, had taken advantage of the discontent of his subjects and usurped the throne. The practice of recognising the successor as co-king was an established practice among Germanic tribes. Although he retained some support, to avoid bloodshed and civil dissension, Ethelwulf nobly accepted the status quo and reverted to his former position as sub-king of Kent. While ruling in Kent, he did much to assist the poor of the area. His care continued after his death, for he left provisions in his will for his successors to provide food, drink and lodging for one poor man per tenth hide of cultivated land in the kingdom. King Ethelwulf died in 858, much mourned by his people, few monarchs have had such an epitaph. He was buried at Steyning, but his body was later moved to Winchester Cathedral.