Cerdic – The Forefather of a Dynasty

Cerdic is the progenitor of the royal House of Wessex from the heptarchy Kingdom of the same name. The House of Wessex is also referred by its less common name “the House of Cerdic” where Cerdic’s descendants were originally known as the Cerdicingas dynasty. This royal dynasty shaped the landscape of secular and ecclesiastical society of Anglo-Saxon England, most notably Alfred the Great. This emerging powerhouse led to the unification of the heptarchy kingdoms and henceforth became known as the Kingdom of England from 924 AD. Cerdic is regarded as Wessex’s first king, reigning from 519 to 534 AD.

According to tradition in the Anglo-Saxons Chronicles (ASC), which was commissioned by Cerdic’s descendant Alfred the Great, records Cerdic and his young son Cynric, with their Saxon kinsmen and possibly some Jutish companions, landed on the south coast at Cerdices ora (Cerdic’s shore) in Hampshire in 495 AD, with a small fleet of five ships. The location is believed to be the vicinity of Southampton where they fought against the ‘welsh’ the same day. In those days ‘welsh’ meant foreign to an Anglo-Saxon, which means Cerdic most likely fought the Celtic tribe of the Belgae – as Hampshire is part of their territory. Though it is more likely that Cerdic’s invasion force took over the local Jutish and Saxons who were already settled there and referred to themselves as the Westseaxe (West Saxons). The conquest of the Westseaxe is between the years 495 to 501 AD.

After Westseaxe became absorbed into Cerdic’s forces, Cerdic set his ambition for expansion to the neighboring territory of modern Wiltshire, occupied by the Saxons of Wiltshire known as the Wiltsaete or Wilsaetas. Though these Saxons appear to have settled into the same territory, either independently as a result of the decaying Celtic Britons defensive situation or as part of Cerdic’s invasion.

British archeologist and librarian of the Bodleian library of Oxford, J.N.L Myres, notes that the ASC describes Cerdic as an ealdorman, a term which originally applied to a man of high status, including some of royal birth, who had authority, both civil and military, over a specific territory forming part of a kingdom which was independent from a king. Myres remarks that,

“It is thus odd to find it used here to describe the leaders of what purports to be an independent band of invaders, whose origins and authority are not otherwise specified. It looks very much as if a hint is being conveyed that Cerdic and his people owed their standing to having been already concerned with administrative affairs under Roman authority on this part of the Saxon Shore.”

Note: ‘Saxon shore’ is the terminology describing a network of Roman fortifications that followed both sides of the English Channel.

Cerdic of Wessex: The Legendary Figure
Image: By John Speed – John Speed’s Saxon Heptarchy map, from his Theatre. Online at http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PR-ATLAS-00002-00061-00001/1, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2233358

Furthermore, Cerdic’s name is believed by scholars to be Brittonic, rather than Germanic in origin and its been suggested that Cerdic is in fact half Briton (Celtic) possibly Belgae on his mother side and half Germanic (Saxon).

Summing up, Myres believed that,

“It is thus possible … to think of Cerdic as the head of a partly British noble family with extensive territorial interests at the western end of the Litus Saxonicum (Saxon Shore). As such he may well have been entrusted in the last days of Roman, or sub-Roman authority with its defence. He would then be what in later Anglo-Saxon terminology could be described as an ealdorman. … If such a dominant native family as that of Cerdic had already developed blood-relationships with existing Saxon and Jutish settlers at this end of the Saxon Shore, it could very well be tempted, once effective Roman authority had faded, to go further. It might have taken matters into its own hands and after eliminating any surviving pockets of resistance by competing British chieftains, such as the mysterious Natanleod of annal 508, it could ‘begin to reign’ without recognizing in future any superior authority.”

Natanleod was a king of the Britons and was slayed by Cerdic and his son Cynric in the year of 508 AD. They slaughtered five thousand of his men during this battle. Afterwards this area was known as Natan-lea, commonly identified with Netley Marsh in Hampshire, just to the south-east of Southampton. Six years later in 514 AD, three ships of Westseaxe landed once again at Cerdics-ore. On board were two nephews of Cerdic, named Stuf and Whitgar, who fought against the Britons upon their arrival and put them to flight. After Cerdic’s expansion into Wiltshire, he turned his sights towards the Isle of Wight and conquered the island in 530 AD, slaying many men at Wihtgaraesburh. The location is commonly Identified with Carisbrooke, on the south-west outskirts of Newport. After the death of Cerdic in 534 AD, the Jutish Isle of Wight was given to his nephews Stuf and Wihtgar to rule, where his son Cynric ascended to the throne and expanded Wessex’s territory.

In the manuscripts of the royal genealogies, which are collectively referred to as the ‘Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies’, records Cerdic as being a direct descendant of the Germanic God Wōden, or more commonly known in Norse mythology as Odin. The pedigree of some manuscripts also traces Cerdic’s linage to the beginning of the antediluvian patriarchs. However, many royal families of the Anglo-Saxons claim their lineage to Wōden, and scholars have noted discrepancies in the Wessex pedigree tradition, where they believe Cerdic’s linage is somewhat elaborated or borrowed from the Anglian kings of Bernicia’s royal pedigree. As stated above, the ASC was commissioned by Alfred the Great, and we can argue that this manuscript was pro-Wessex where some of its contents is bias towards Alfred’s royal dynasty. Regardless if you believe the Wōden connection to be true, it still makes a nice story that our Anglo-Saxon royal families descended from the stock of the Gods.

Giwis is recorded as the great-grandfather of Cerdic, a name relating to the Saxon tribe called Gewisse (Gewissae). The conquests by the royal house of Gewisse in the 7th and 8th centuries led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Wessex. Notable works (completed in 731 AD) from historian and Benedictine monk Bede (Bǣda), treats Gewisse and Wessex as interchangeable words and during the reign of king Cædwalla, 685 to 688 AD (a descendant of Cerdic) began to replace the title “king of the Gewisse” with “king of the Saxons”. However, Kenneth Sisam and David Dumville believed the House of Wessex co-opted the Bernicia ancestry to reflect the 7th century political alliance, and the Wessex royal pedigree went no earlier than Cerdic.

We can see why Cerdic’s story is shrouded in mystery, like most of the early Anglo-Saxon kings, but nevertheless, Cerdic is regarded as a legendary figure and to some semi-mythical, as Cerdic has also been connected to the legend of King Arthur. However, descent from Cerdic became a necessary criterion for future kings of Wessex, the forefather of a Dynasty.

Author: Jimmer of Wessex

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