King empire

The question of ancient kings: Cerdic of Wessex, first Saxon king of England?

Historians of the ancient world face myriad challenges when studying the past. Centuries of legends and myths intertwine with recorded facts, leaving behind an intricate web of mysteries. This is the case of Cerdic of Wessex. Was he an ancient Saxon conqueror or a British ealdorman? Did he fight King Arthur, or was he himself the legendary wielder of Excalibur? Did Cerdic of Wessex even exist?

Cerdic of Wessex and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

According to Anglo-Saxon Chronicle , Cerdic of Wessex did exist. The the Chronicle was the first attempt at an official record of English history, written around AD 890 and edited until AD 1100. He tells us that Cerdic was a Saxon leader (referring to people of Germanic descent who occupied central and northern Germany) who landed in modern Hampshire in 495 with five ships full of warriors.

By 519, Cerdic and his son, Cynric, had claimed tracts of land through a series of battles with the British. After his victory at the Battle of Cerdic’s Ford, Cerdic established the kingdom of the West Saxons (Wessex) with himself as king.

Cerdic is thought to have died in 534, but his influence lasted for centuries. Some genealogies of the English monarchy state that all monarchs of England except Canute, Hardecanute, the Harolds and William the Conqueror are descended from Cerdic.

Southern Britain at the beginning of the 6th century, which more or less corresponds to the time when Cerdic of Wessex lived. (my work / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Cerdic of Wessex: King or Ealdorman?

This is where the historical record gets complicated. First, the researchers noted that “Cerdic” is a British name, not a Saxon one. Moreover, the the Chronicle refers to Cerdic and Cynric as ealdormen, not kings. If they were the leaders of a group of invaders from the continent, why the title of ealdormen, which suggests that they were appointed officials in some capacity?

Finally, the ancient sources differ and conflict in their account of Cerdic’s life, reign, and lineage, and the the Chronicleour primary source of evidence regarding Cerdic, was written 350 years after the events described.

Yet, although the accuracy of the recording is not entirely reliable, Cerdic is referenced in numerous works. In addition, three sites in England bear his name: Cerdicesford, Cerdicesleaga and Cerdicesbeorg. Presumably these places were named after an influential person, and that person was Cerdic.

Theories regarding Cerdic’s name

Rodney Castleden, author of many well-respected history books, posits that Cerdic may have been a Briton whose family was tasked by the late Roman Empire with defending part of the Saxon coast (a series of fortifications placed in place along both sides of the English Channel). Cerdic may have decided to expand his territory and launched his invasion from his family’s estate. This would explain the title of ealdormen as well as the British etymology of the name and is supported by the lack of Saxon architecture in the area.

Castleden further argues that Cerdic may not have been Germanic or an inhabitant of what would later be called Wessex; he may have come from Sussex as a vanguard. Cerdic’s arrival along the Southampton coast in 495 coincides with the consolidation of his kingdom by Aelle (King of the South Saxons) and would be a logical strategic move. The name “Cerdic” may have been a nickname given by other Sussex residents and adopted by Cerdic, as Saxons taking British names was not unprecedented (Castleden refers to Caedbaed, an Anglo-Saxon king who took a British name). But if these are historically logical explanations for certain aspects of Cerdic’s aura of mystery, what about his relationship with King Arthur?

Tapestry showing King Arthur, who is sometimes considered the same as Cerdic of Wessex, as one of the Nine Worthy, bearing a coat of arms often attributed to him from around AD 1385.  (Public domain)

Tapestry showing King Arthur, who is sometimes considered the same as Cerdic of Wessex, as one of the Nine Worthy, bearing a coat of arms often attributed to him from around AD 1385. ( Public domain )

Arthurian legend and Cerdic, King of Wessex

First, the historical consensus is that there is no evidence that King Arthur was a real person. The two main descriptions of Arthur, Nennius’ story of Arthur’s 12 battles and that of Geoffrey of Monmouth History of the King of Brittany, are based primarily on poetry or a long-lost manuscript to which Monmouth would have had access. Each presents a series of physical impossibilities. For example, the 12 battles of Nennius were so geographically widespread that it is unlikely Arthur could have participated in all of them. Moreover, the only surviving contemporary historical record of a battle between the Saxons and the British (Badon Hills) does not describe Arthur at all. How, then, did Cerdic become embroiled in Arthur’s myth and legend?

Details regarding Cerdic’s life and exploits are scarcely available, likely leading historians to “fill in the blanks” over centuries of writing. In his 1862 book, The Date Manual, George H. Townsend refers to a battle fought in 520 between Cerdic and Arthur. Yet if Arthur, who supposedly never lost a fight, won a resounding victory over Cerdic of Wessex, why was Cerdic allowed to conquer so much territory and establish a kingdom? While much of Arthur’s supposed life is shrouded in utter mystery, at least parts of Cerdic’s are accepted as fact, including his successful invasion of the Isle of Wight in 530, a few only years after he was supposed to have been defeated by Arthur. So even if Arthur existed, it seems highly unlikely that the two would ever have met on the battlefield.

“King Carados” (in blue on the front), who is linked with the name Ceredig Vreichvras or Cerdic of Wessex, sits at the Round Table as the Holy Grail appears in a 15th-century miniature by the artist French Évrard d’Espinques. (Evrard d’Espinques / Public domain )

Are Cerdic and King Arthur one and the same?

Historians John and Joseph Rudmin have noted a number of similarities between the Arthur of legend and the Cerdic of history (who they claim was also known as Ceredig Vreichvras). They reviewed several writings regarding the two characters and created a chart comparing them side by side, revealing some striking parallels. The article is a fascinating read and argues that King Arthur and Cerdic were actually the same person, which the authors say resolves a number of issues surrounding Arthur’s potential presence in the story. Others, however, have pointed out that these conclusions rest on the shaky foundations of the hypothesis and lack the kind of solid historical evidence needed to draw a firm conclusion.

Ultimately, modern historians must grapple with the fact that history has often been used as a political tool. For centuries (and yes, even today), historical narratives have served to bolster nationalism, promote political ideals, bolster the reputation of leaders, or downplay dark deeds.

This fact, combined with the often poorly recorded detail of the ancient world, leads to figures like King Arthur and Cerdic of Wessex, people shrouded in mystery whose lives have been mythologized by successive chroniclers of history weaving stories based on of their needs.

We may never know the truth about who Cerdic was, why he was so influential, or if he may have inspired Arthurian legend, but to be honest, the mysteries of the story are half the fun.

Top image: An imaginary depiction of Cerdic of Wessex from John Speed’s “Saxon Heptarchy” of 1611. Source: John Speed/ Public domain

By Mark Johnson