Arthur, Cerdic, and the Formation of Wessex
III. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The primary source of information concerning Cerdic and his sons is the
"Anglo-Saxon Chronicle". Here are the entries which concern him. (Garmonsway,
495. In this year two princes, Cerdic and Cynric his son, came to Britain with five
ships, arriving at the place which is called Cerdicesora, and the same day they fought
against the Welsh.
508. In this year Cerdic and Cynric slew a Welsh king, whose name was Natanleod, and
five thousand men with him. The District was afterwards [or in consequence] called
Natanleag as far as Cerdicsford.
519. In this year Cerdic and Cynric obtained the kingdom of the West Saxons, and the
same year they fought against the Britons at a place now called Cerdices-ford. And from
that day on the princes of the West Saxons have reigned.
527. Cerdic and Cynric fought against the Britons at the place which is called
530 In this year Cerdic and Cynric obtained possession of the Isle of Wight and slew a
few (or many) men at Whitgaraesburh.
534. In this year Cerdic passed away, and his son Cynric continued to reign twenty-six
years. They gave all the Isle of Wight to their two nefan, Stuf and Wihtgar.
552. In this year Cynric fought against the Britons at the place called Searoburh [Old
Sarum], and put the Britons to flight. Cerdic was Cynric's father. Cerdic was the son of
Elesa, the son of Esla, the son of Gewis, the son of Wig, the son of Freawine, the son of
Frithuguar, the son of Brand, the son of Baeldaeg, the son of Woden.
The Chronicle then goes on to record how Ceawlin succeeded Cynric in the year 560,
fought against the English king Aethelberht (who it notes was the first king to receive
baptism), and slew two princes Oslaf and Cnebba at Wibbandun. In 577, Ceawlin and Cuthwine
fought the Britons at Dyrham, slaying three kings Coinmail, Condidan, and
capturing Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath. In 584, Ceawlin and Cutha fought the Britons
at Feranleag, capturing many villages and countless booty. Cutha was slain, and Ceawlin
departed in anger to his own lands. In 592 there was great slaughter at Adam's Grave and
Ceawlin was expelled. In 593, Ceawlin perished.
As many historians have pointed out, there are some problems with these accounts. They
give an impression of a bitter unceasing struggle between English and British, an image
also supported by Geoffrey. However, things might not have been nearly so polarized as
they appear. Certainly there was warfare, but even in the Chronicles, it was often English
fighting English, and according to Gildas and others, British fighting British as well.
Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is generally considered relatively objective, it
clearly omits Saxon defeats, suggesting an anti-British bias. During the two hundred-plus
years between the events in question and their recording in the Chronicle, more balanced
perspectives on sixth-century events must have certainly been lost.
A second argument against polarization is that Elesa, Cerdic,
Cynric, and Ceawlin all
have Celtic, not Anglo-Saxon, names. We will discuss this in more detail later. They
appear to be Celtic leaders leading English warriors. This is not inconsistent with the
accounts from other sources. Gildas condemned the British kings for using pagan warriors.
Third, the archeology of Wessex implies accomodation rather than conflict. Salway
(1984, p478), points out that the dominant culture of early Wessex seems to be not
Anglo-Saxon, but Roman. Alcock (1971, p312) points out that the laws of Wessex provided
for wealthy Welshmen, who appear to have been living alongside the English.
Whittock's discussion also supports this (1986, p186). He points out that the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle seems to deal only with the Gewisse--the royal house of Wessex and
its associated warband, ignoring the large population of Saxons already settled in the
upper Thames valley. It was the merger of this West Saxon community with Cerdic's royal
family which created the kingdom of Wessex. Romano-Saxon pottery in the Thames Valley,
dating from before 410, is evidence of the presence of Germanic troops stationed there.
There is evidence of other English settlements throughout the 400s, such as Dorchester on
Thames, northwestern Berkshire, and Oxfordshire. The Saxon settlements were continuous
from Roman times, and mingled with Romano-Celtic ones. By the early sixth century, Thames
Valley Saxons were spreading into Gloucestershire and Warwick-shire.
Whittock presents a critical analysis of the Chronicle. He suggests that the dates are
unreliable although the sequence is roughly correct. Concerning the Celtic names of the
Saxon leaders, he grants the possiblity suggested by Morris (1973, p103), that Cerdic may
have had an English father and a British mother. Whittock then presents various theories
of the name `Gewiss'. He notes that it was used by Bede and the Annales Cambria, and that
it may have meant `confederates'. We would like to add one more possible meaning--that the
word meant essentially the same as it does in modern German--`known' or `assured'. That
is, it describes English who were known to the governing officials, and whose loyalty was
assured, as opposed to strangers, or English of doubtful loyalty.
A passage from Nennius' "Historia Brittonum" supports the idea that Cerdic
was a Celtic leader of Saxons. (Barber, 1972). According to Nennius, "Hengist gave a
feast for Vortigern, and his men, and his interpreter, called Ceretic, and no other Briton
among the Britons knew Saxon except this man; and he applied himself to acquiring a
knowledge of it [or to reading it] until he was able to understand the Saxon speech."
If we credit this passage, then it may well be that of all the Celtic leaders, only
Ceretic was an effective leader of Saxon warriors, at least for a time. The passage does
not indicate WHICH Ceretic is the subject, but certainly Cerdic of Wessex would have to be
a prime candidate. This does pose an age problem. The incident discussed by
which Ceretic was serving as an interpreter, occurred fairly early, probably in the 440s.
Whittock suggests that Cerdic died around 516. If he were born around, say 427, then he
would have been very young as an interpreter in the 440s, but not impossibly so. If he
died in the period 505-516, he would have been over 80 years old--again not impossible.
Note that he had a grown son or grandson, Cynric, in 495.
Another point which Whittock makes is that the most common versions of the Chronicle
give Cynric much too long a reign. This can be partly explained by the inclusion of an
intermediate king, Creoda, who is mentioned in the Abingdon manuscripts of the Chronicles.
We will discuss Creoda again, later.
Cerdic is also briefly mentioned in the History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of
Monmouth: (Geoffrey, VI-13):
Hengist said unto [Vortigern]. . . let us invite also hither my son Octha with his
brother Ebissa, for gallant warriors they be; and give unto them the lands that lie in the
northern parts of Britain nigh the wall betwixt Deira and Scotland, for there will they
bear the brunt of the barbarians' assaults in such sort that thou upon the hither side of
Humber shalt abide in peace." So Vortigern obeyed and bade them invite whomsoever
they would that might bring him any strength of succour. Envoys accordingly were sent, and
Octha, Ebessa, and Cerdic came with three hundred ships (Nennius says 40) all full of an
armed host, all of whom did Vortigern receive kindly, bestowing upon them unstinted
largesse. For by them he conquered all his enemies and won every field that was fought. .
In this passage, the mention of Cerdic is incidental, so there is no obvious reason why
Geoffrey would have fabricated it. Geoffrey mentions it along with the visit of Germanus
in 446-7, and if it is true, it implies a long period of activity for Cerdic.
This raises another question. If Cerdic were in Britain in the 440s, how is it that he
came to Britain in 495? And where did he come from? And why? A possible answer lies in the
turmoil in Gaul in the 490's. According to Geoffrey Ashe (1985, p56), the Visigoth king
Euric may have captured a large number of British troops and settled them as vassals in
western France after he defeated the British king Riothamus in Gaul around 470. It is
possible that Cerdic had been captured at this time, and settled at Nantes or Vannes as a
vassal king within the Visigoth empire. It was around 495 that Clovis expanded his
territory to south of the Loire River, at the expense of the young Visigoth king Alaric
(Euric's successor). When Clovis advanced, Cerdic felt threatened, and would have had to
relocate dispossessed vassals. The time was ripe for a return to Britain, so he seized
control of territory around Southampton. As we shall discuss later, there is evidence that
Cerdic was indeed active in both Britain and Britanny. Furthermore, it may well be that in
moving to Southampton, Cerdic was returning to one of the homes of his youth. As we shall
see, there is a speculative possibility that he may have lived near Winchester as a child.
The citations of Cerdic by Nennius and Geoffrey mention a large fleet, and in our view,
this is essential to understanding the role of Cerdic. His father had been associated with
ships, as indicated by his title, "Master of the Sea," which will be discussed
later. But shipping in northwestern Europe at this time was dominated by what Sidonius
Apollinaris called "the curved ships of the Saxons". (Morris, 1973, p93) Thus
from his youth, Cerdic was intimately involved with ships and Saxons. As further evidence
of this, recall that the Visigoths had been stopped in the early 400s by less than thirty
kilometers of water at Messina and Gibralter, and then suddenly in late 400s we hear of
Gothic admirals coursing the western seas, and supplying tribes along the lower Rhine
against their enemies, the Franks. But seamanship has never been acquired quickly. Euric
must have acquired a fleet--perhaps Cerdic's.
In summary, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written centuries after the
era, is an example of a history like Geoffrey's, influenced by the time-cultivated
paradigm of continuous warfare of ALL Britons against ALL Saxons. Archaeology supports the
conclusion that the earliest West Saxons were peaceful settlers mixed with, and possibly
ruled by, Romano-British. Finally, Cerdic and his sons were of British heritage
themselves. The evidence is that Cerdic was a chieftain of British origin who left and
subsequently returned to Britain, and that he owed much of his success to his lifelong
contact with Saxons.
To dispel any remaining doubt that Cerdic was British, we will now show that Cerdic of
Wessex is the same as a sixth century Welsh patriarch named Caradoc Vreichvras.
John C. Rudmin, 864 Chicago Av, Harrisonburg, VA, 22801
Joseph W. Rudmin, Physics Dept., James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA, 22807
(First submitted for publication in Oct 1993)
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