King of Sussex
( ? - 685)
Also known as Ethelwalch, Ethelwalth or Æthelwalh

One of the very few kings of the South Saxons about whom anything is known, indeed the only recorded king of Sussex since the days of Aella and Cissa.

He was certainly ruler of Sussex when Bede records that he had not long before been "baptized in the province of the Mercians, by the persuasion of King Wulfhere, who was present, and was also his godfather" 1. Bede goes on to mention that Wulfhere gave Aethelwalh two provinces, namely the Isle of Wight, and the province of Meanwara (that is the people of the Meon valley, which is in Hampshire).

For Wulfhere to be giving away chunks of the southern coast of England must have meant that Mercia controlled most of southern England; the fact that he was prepared to give territory away to Aethelwalh clearly indicates that Wulfhere viewed the kingdom of Sussex as being subordinate to himself and Mercia.

Bede gives us this information almost in passing, as his main interest in Aethelwalh is the fact that it was under his reign that Sussex was converted to Christianity. Although Aethelwalh himself was now a Christian as was his wife Eafa 2, the remainder of the kingdom "was ignorant of the Name of God and the faith". Fortunately for Aethelwalh, Bishop Wilfrid, the bishop of York had fallen out with Ecgfrith reigning king of Northumbria, and had been exiled for his pains and was therefore at a loose end.

At Aethelwalh's invitation, in 681 Wilfrid came to Sussex to preach the gospel and so delivered the population from the misery of eternal damnation. Whilst he was doing that he also delivered the kingdom from drought and taught the inhabitants how to fish (they were apparently previously only skilled in the catching of eels), thereby saving them from temporal calamity as well. To demonstrate his gratitude, Aethelwalh granted Bishop Wilfrid land at Selsey, south of Chichester where he founded a monastery.

But like many kings of the time Aethelwalh came to a bloody end. In 685 one Caedwalla, "a daring young man, of the royal race of the Gewissae, who had been banished from his country" (presumably by Wulfhere, see above), raised an army and invaded Sussex killing Aethelwalh. He was briefly succeeded by Berhtun and Andhun before Caedwalla returned to deal with them in a similar fashion.


1The Anglo Saxon Chronicle dates this event to 661, (certainly it took place before 675 when Wulfhere died) and has the Mercians overrunning Kent in 676.

2 Bede tells us had been baptized in her own country, the province of the Hwicce; she was the daughter of Eanfrid king of the Hwicce at the time another kingdom subject to Mercia.

3 All quotations from Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum


Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum by Bede

A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain by Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby (Seaby 1991)

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