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CEAWLIN, King of Wessex

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CEAWLIN. King of Wessex. (Celin is the Northumbrian form of the name)(Bede uses Caelin, and adds that he was known in the speech of his own people as Ceaulin.)(Ceolin-S3). [CHART A1].
Son of CYNRIC.

Note that the earliest sources do not use the term "West Saxon". According to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the term is interchangeable with the Gewisse, meaning the descendants of Gewis. The term "West Saxon" only appears in the late seventh century.

An early source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records several of his battles, from 556 to 592. Ceawlin’s campaigns are not near the coast: they range along the Thames valley and beyond, as far as Surrey in the east, and the mouth of the Severn in the west. Ceawlin is clearly part of the West Saxon expansion.

The first record of a battle fought by Ceawlin is in 556, when he and his father, Cynric, fought another group of Anglo-Saxons, or British, at "Beran byrg", or Bera's Stronghold. This is now identified as Barbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort in Wiltshire, near Swindon. Cynric would have been king of Wessex at this time.

He succeeded his father as King of the West Saxons (Wessex) in 560 A.D..

The first battle Ceawlin fought as king is dated by the Chronicle to 568, when he and Cutha fought with Æthelberht, the king of Kent. The entry says Here Ceawlin and Cutha fought against Aethelberht and drove him into Kent; and they killed two ealdormen, Oslaf and Cnebba, on Wibbandun. The location of Wibbandun, which can be translated as Wibba’s Mount, has not been definitely identified. It was at one time thought to be Wimbledon, but this is now known to be incorrect. This battle is notable as the first recorded conflict between the invading peoples. Previous battles recorded in the Chronicle are between the Anglo-Saxons and the British.

The chronology of his life is highly uncertain: his reign is variously listed as lasting seven, seventeen, or thirty-two years, and the historical accuracy and dating of many of the events in the Chronicle have been called into question. However, it appears that under Ceawlin, Wessex acquired significant territory, though some was later lost to other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Ceawlin is also named as one of the eight bretwaldas. This was a name given in the Chronicle to eight rulers who had overlordship over southern Britain, though the actual extent of Ceawlin’s control is not known.

He extended his power into Surrey. He resisted an attack from Athelbert, King of Kent. Extended his conquests northwards, into Bedford, Buckingham, and Oxford. He next pushed his conquests westward.

The annal for 577 reads Here Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against the Britons, and they killed 3 kings, Coinmail and Condidan and Farinmail, in the place which is called Dyrham, and took 3 cities: Gloucester and Cirencester and Bath. This Cuthwine was his brother. Dyrham is also called Deorham, the modern Derham, in Gloucestershire. Here they obtained possession of the Roman cities of Glevum, Corinium, and Aquae Solis, which became known to the Saxons by the name of Glev-ceaster or Gleow-ceaster (Gloucester), Cyren-ceaster (Cirencester, and Bathan-ceaster (Bath). This entry is all that is known of these British kings; their names are in an archaic form that makes it very likely this annal derives from a much older written source. The battle itself has long been regarded as a key moment in the Saxon advance, since in reaching the Bristol Channel the West Saxons divided the Britons west of the Severn from land communication with those in the peninsula to the south of the Channel. Wessex almost certainly lost this territory to Penda of Mercia in 628, when the Chronicle records that Cynegils and Cwichelm fought against Penda at Cirencester, and then came to an agreement.

It is possible that when Ceawlin and Cuthwine took Bath, they found the Roman baths still operating to some extent. Nennius, a ninth-century historian, mentions a Hot Lake in the land of the Hwicce, which was along the Severn, and adds It is surrounded by a wall, made of brick and stone, and men may go there to bathe at any time, and every man can have the kind of bath he likes. If he wants, it will be a cold bath; and if he wants a hot bath, it will be hot. Bede also describes hot baths in the geographical introduction to the Ecclesiastical History, in terms very like Nennius's.

Wansdyke, an early medieval defensive linear earthwork, runs from south of Bristol to near Marlborough, passing not far from Bath. It was probably built in the fifth or sixth centuries, perhaps by Ceawlin.

Ceawlin’s last recorded victory is in 584. The entry reads: Here Ceawlin and Cutha fought against the Britons at the place which is named Fethan leag, and Cutha was killed; and Ceawlin took many towns and countless war-loot, and in anger he turned back to his own [territory]. There is a wood named Fethelée mentioned in a 12th century document that relates to Stoke Lyne, in Oxfordshire, and it is now thought that the battle of Fethan leag must have been fought in this area.

The phrase in anger he turned back to his own probably indicates that this annal is drawn from saga material, as perhaps are all of the early Wessex annals. It has also been used to argue that perhaps Ceawlin did not in fact win the battle, and that the chronicler chose not to record the outcome fully – a king does not usually come home in anger after taking many towns and countless war-loot. It may be that Ceawlin’s overlordship of the southern English came to an end with this battle.

He was deposed from the throne by Ceolric in 591 AD.

Ceawlin lost the throne of Wessex in 592. The annal for that year reads, in part: Here there was great slaughter at Woden’s Barrow, and Ceawlin was driven out. Woden’s Barrow is a tumulus, now called Adam’s Grave, at Alton Priors, Wiltshire. No details of his opponent are given. The medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury, writing in about 1120, says that it was the Angles and the British conspiring together. The relevant part of the annal reads: Here Ceawlin and Cwichelm and Crida perished. Nothing more is known of Cwichelm and Crida, though they may have been members of the Wessex royal house – their names fit the alliterative pattern common to royal houses of the time.

Ceawlin died in 593 AD, having been deposed the year before, possibly by his successor, Ceol (Ceolric).

According to the Regnal List, Ceol was a son of Cutha, who was a son of Cynric; and Ceolwulf, his brother, reigned for seventeen years after him. It is possible that some fragmentation of control among the West Saxons occurred at Ceawlin's death: Ceol and Ceolwulf may have been based in Wiltshire, as opposed to the upper Thames valley. This split may have also contributed to Æthelberht's ability to rise to dominance in southern England. The West Saxons remained influential in military terms, however: the Chronicle and Bede record continued military activity against Essex and Sussex within twenty or thirty years of Ceawlin's death.

CHILDREN of Ceawlin:
  1. CUTHWINE. [CHART A1].
  2. Cutha.


SOURCES:

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