Aethelwulf, meaning noble wolf was King of Wessex from 839 AD until his death in 858 AD. He was the father of one of the greatest if not the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings, Alfred the Great. He was the only known child of King Egbert of Wessex. He conquered the Kingdom of Kent on behalf of his father in 825, and was later made King of Kent as a sub-king to his father. He succeeded his father as King of Wessex, on Egbert’s death I 839. By this point the Kingdom stretched from Kent in the east to Devon in the west. At the same time as Aethelwulf became King of Wessex his son Aethelstan became King of Wessex.
Historians have conflicting assessments of Aethelwulf. Some state that Aethelwulf was intensely religious with little political sense. He was an unambitious man who suffered greatly because of the inconvenience of rank. Some historians state that he has been under-appreciated and lay the foundations for Alfred’s reign. He managed to find new and adapt traditional answers and coped with the Scandinavian threat better than others in the same period. It is also mentioned that he was the first to open channels of communications through the Frankish realms in Europe towards the Alps and Rome.
The most common source from the time the Anglo Saxon Chronicle refers to Aethelwulf’s presence at some important battles of the time. In 840 AD he thought at Carhampton against 35 ship companies of Danes whose raids had increased greatly. His most notable victory came in 851 AD in ‘Acleah’. This could be possibly either Ockley in Surrey or Oakley in Berkshire. Here Aethelwulf and his son thought against ‘the greatest slaughter of heathen host ever made.” Around 853 AD Aethelwulf and his brother in law Burged, King of Mercia defeated Cyngen ap Cadell of Wales, and made the Welsh subject to him. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle Aethelwulf fought more battles through the adjoining years mainly against different pirating bands and Danes.
This was an era when different European nations were being constantly raided and invaded by many different groups. In the south this was by the Saracans, in the east the Maygars, in the west the Moors and in the north the Vikings. Before Aethelwulf’s death raiders had wintered on the Isle of Sheppey and pillaged East Anglia which would then set precedence for his sons to be constantly harassed by different raiding parties.
As king Aethelwulf split the kingdom into two. He gave the eastern part to his eldest son Aethelstan, this including the counties Kent, Sussex, Essex and Surrey. Aethelwulf then kept the more ancient western half for himself, which included Hampshire, Wiltshire, Devon and Dorset.
Aethelwulf and his first wife Osburh had five sons and a daughter. After Aethelstan came Aethelbald, Aethelbert, Aethelred and Alfred. Each of his sons with the exception of Aethelstan succeeded to the throne. Alfred the youngest has been praised as one of the greatest kings to ever reign in Britain. Aethelwulf’s daughter Aethelswith was married as a child to King Burgred of Mercia.
Religion was always a great and important part in Aethelwulf’s life and this did rub off on his son Alfred. As early as the first year of his reign he began planning a pilgrimage to Rome. With the increase of raids he felt the need to appeal to the Christian god. In 853 AD he sent his son Alfred to Rome. Alfred was only four years old. In 855 AD about a year after the death of his wife Osburga, Aethelwulf followed Alfred to Rome where he was generous with his wealth. He disturbed gold to the church of St Peter.
On the return journey from Rome he married Judith of Flanders in 856 AD. Judith was a Frankish princess and a great-granddaughter of Charlemagne. She was about twelve at the time and her father was Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks.
Upon his return to England in 856 AD Aethelwulf was met with a rebellion. His elder son Aethelbald (Aethelstan had since died) had devised a conspiracy with the Ealdorman of Somerset and the Bishop of Sherborne to oppose Aethelwulf ‘s resumption of kingship upon his return. Although Aethelwulf had enough support to banish Aethelbald and his fellow conspirators he instead yealded the western half of Wessex to Aethelbald while keeping the central and eastern parts for his own rule.
Also on returning to England Aethelwulf managed to change the laws regarding the future Kings Queens. Previously the Queen was not called Queen but known only as ‘wife of the King’. They were not allow the Queen to sit next to the King. The restriction was lifted for Queen Judith and it is believed that the concessions were made because she was already a high-ranking European princess.
Aethelwulf died 134th January 858 AD and was buried at Steyning and later re-interred in the Old Minster at Winchester. His bones now rest in one of several ‘mortuary chests’ at Winchester Cathedral.