Modern archaeologists use the term "Wessex culture" for a
Middle Bronze Age culture in this area (ca. 1600-1200 BC). A millennium before that, in the
Late Neolithic, the ceremonial sites of
Stonehenge were completed on
Salisbury Plain; but the final phase of Stonehenge was erected in the Wessex culture phase, early in the Bronze Age. This area has many other earthworks and erected stone monuments from the Neolithic and Early Bronze periods, including the
Dorset Cursus, an earthwork 10 km. long and 100 m. wide, which was oriented to the midwinter sunset. Although agriculture and hunting were pursued during this long period, there is little archaeological evidence of human settlements. From the Neolithic onwards the chalk downland of Wessex was traversed by the
Harrow Way, which can still be traced from
Marazion in Cornwall to the coast of the
English Channel near Dover, and was probably connected with the
ancient tin trade.
During the Roman occupation numerous country villas with attached farms were established across Wessex, along with the important towns of
Winchester (the ending -chester comes from Lat. castra, "a military camp"). The Romans, or rather the Romano-British, built another major road that integrated Wessex, running eastwards from Exeter through Dorchester to Winchester and Silchester and on to London. The early 4th century AD was a peaceful time in
Roman Britain. However, following a previous incursion in 360 that was stopped by Roman forces, the
Hadrian's Wall in the far north in 367 and defeated the soldiers stationed along it. They devastated many parts of Britain and laid siege to
London. The Romans responded promptly, and
Count Theodosius had recovered the land up to the Wall by 368.
The Romans temporarily ceased to rule Britain on the death of
Magnus Maximus in 388.
Stilicho attempted to restore Roman authority in the late 390s, but in 401 he took Roman troops from Britain to fight the
Goths. Two subsequent Roman rulers of Britain, appointed by the remaining troops, were murdered.
Constantine III became ruler, but he then left for
Gaul and withdrew more troops. The Britons then requested assistance from
Honorius, but when he replied in 410 he told them to manage their own defenses. By this point, there were no longer any Roman troops in Britain.
 Economical decline occurred after these events; circulation of Roman coins ended and the importation of items from the Roman Empire stopped.
In An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England,
Peter Hunter Blair divides the traditions concerning the
Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain into two categories: Welsh and English. The
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, written by
Gildas, contains the best preservation of the Welsh tradition. In brief, it states that after the Romans left, the Britons managed to continue for a time without any major disruptions. However, when finally faced with northern invaders, a certain unnamed ruler in Britain (called "a proud tyrant" by Gildas) requested assistance from the
Saxons in exchange for land. There were no conflicts between the British and the Saxons for a time, but following "a dispute about the supply of provisions" the Saxons warred against the British and severely damaged parts of the country. In time, however, some Saxon troops left Britain; under
Ambrosius Aurelianus, the British subsequently defeated those who remained. A lengthy conflict ensued, in which neither side gained any decisive advantage until the Britons routed the Saxons at the
Battle of Mons Badonicus. After this, there occurred a peaceful period for the Britons, under which Gildas was living at the time he wrote the De Excidio et Conqestu Britanniae.
One of the English traditions about the Saxon arrival is that of
Hengest and Horsa. When
Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he adapted Gildas' narrative and added details, such as the names of those involved. To the "proud tyrant" he gave the name Vortigern, and the Saxon commanders he named Hengest and Horsa. Further details were added to the story in the
Historia Brittonum, which was partially written by
Nennius. According to the Historia, Hengest and Horsa fought the invaders of Britain under the condition of gaining the island of
Thanet. The daughter of Hengest, Rowena, later arrived on a ship of reinforcements, and Vortigern married her. However, a war arose in Kent due to a dispute between Hengest and Vortigern's son. After losing several battles, the Saxons finally defeated the British by treacherously attacking them once the two parties had convened for a meeting. Some additional details of the Hengest and Horsa legend are found in the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle then records subsequent Saxon arrivals, including that of Cerdic, the founder of Wessex, in 495.
Imaginary depiction of Cerdic from
's 1611 "Saxon Heptarchy"
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the primary written source for the founding of Wessex,
 states that
Cynric landed in Britain with five ships in 495.
 Although the entry mentions Cynric as Cerdic's son, a different source lists him as the son of Cerdic's son,
 Their place of landing is believed to be the southern
Bede recorded that Wessex was inhabited by
Jutes and was only annexed by Saxons in the late 7th century, under
 and there have been no definitive archaeological findings considered especially "suggestive of early Anglo-Saxon settlement").
The Chronicle continues, stating that "Port, and his two sons Bieda and Maegla", landed at
Portsmouth in 501 and killed a high-ranking British nobleman.
 In 508, Cerdic and Cynric slew a British king named
Natanleod and five thousand men with him,
 (though the historicity of Natanleod has been disputed)
 and Cerdic became the first king of Wessex in 519. The Saxons attacked Cerdicesford
 in 519, intending to cross the
River Avon and block a road which connected
Old Sarum and
Badbury Rings, a British stronghold. The battle appears to have ended as a draw, and the expansion of Wessex ended for about thirty years. This is likely due to losses suffered during the battle and an apparent peace agreement with the Britons. The battle of
Mons Badonicus is believed to have been fought around this time.
Gildas states that the Saxons were completely defeated in the battle, in which
King Arthur participated according to
Nennius. This defeat is not recorded in the Chronicle.
 The thirty-year period of peace was temporarily interrupted,
 when, according to the Chronicle, the Saxons conquered the
Isle of Wight in 530 at a battle near
Cynric became the ruler of Wessex after Cerdic died in 534, and reigned for twenty-six years.
 It is presumed that
Ceawlin, who succeeded Cynric in about 581, was his son. Ceawlin's reign is thought to be more reliably documented than those of his predecessors, though the Chronicle's dates of 560 to 592 are different from the revised chronology. Ceawlin overcame pockets of resisting Britons to the northeast, in the
Somerset. The capture of
Bath in 577, after the pause caused by the battle of Mons Badonicus, opened the way to the southwest.
Ceawlin is one of the seven kings named in Bede's
Ecclesiastical History of the English People as holding "imperium" over the southern English: the Chronicle later repeated this claim, referring to Ceawlin as a
bretwalda, or "Britain-ruler". Ceawlin was deposed, perhaps by his successor, a nephew named
Ceol, and died a year later. Six years later, in about 594, Ceol was succeeded by a brother,
Ceolwulf, who was succeeded in his turn in about 617 by
Cynegils. The genealogies do not agree on Cynegils' pedigree: his father is variously given as Ceola, Ceolwulf, Ceol, Cuthwine, Cutha or Cuthwulf.
The tradition embodied in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and in the genealogies of the West Saxon dynasty, is open to considerable doubt. This is largely because the founder of the dynasty and a number of his alleged descendants had
Brittonic Celtic, rather than Anglo-Saxon Germanic, names.
 The name Cerdic is derived from the British name *Caraticos.
 This may indicate that Cerdic was a native Briton, and that his dynasty became anglicised over time.
 Other members of the dynasty possessing Celtic names include
Caedwalla. Caedwalla, who died as late as 689, was the last West Saxon king to possess a Celtic name.
Christian Wessex and the rise of Mercia
The Celtic and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in around 600
It is in Cynegils' reign that the first event in West Saxon history that can be dated with reasonable certainty occurs: the
Birinus, which happened at the end of the 630s, perhaps in 640. Birinus was then established as bishop of the West Saxons, with his seat at
Dorchester-on-Thames. This was the first
Christianity by a West Saxon king, but it was not accompanied by the immediate conversion of all the West Saxons: Cynegils' successor (and probably his son),
Cenwealh, who came to the throne in about 642, was a
pagan at his accession. However, he too was baptised only a few years later and Wessex became firmly established as a Christian kingdom. Cynegils's godfather was King
Oswald of Northumbria and his conversion may have been connected with an alliance against King
Penda of Mercia, who had previously attacked Wessex.
These attacks marked the beginning of sustained pressure from the expanding kingdom of
Mercia. In time this would deprive Wessex of its territories north of the
Thames and the
Avon, encouraging the kingdom's reorientation southwards. Cenwealh married
Penda's daughter, and when he repudiated her, Penda again invaded and drove him into exile for some time, perhaps three years. The dates are uncertain but it was probably in the late 640s or early 650s. He spent his exile in
East Anglia, and was converted to Christianity there. After his return, Cenwealh faced further attacks from Penda's successor
Wulfhere, but was able to expand West Saxon territory in
Somerset at the expense of the
Britons. He established a second bishopric at
Winchester, while the one at
Dorchester was soon abandoned as Mercian power pushed southwards. Winchester would eventually develop into the effective capital of Wessex.
After Cenwealh's death in 673, his widow,
Seaxburh, held the throne for a year; she was followed by
Aescwine, who was apparently descended from another brother of Ceawlin. This was one of several occasions on which the kingship of Wessex is said to have passed to a remote branch of the royal family with an unbroken male line of descent from Cerdic; these claims may be genuine, or may reflect the spurious assertion of descent from Cerdic to legitimise a new dynasty. Aescwine's reign only lasted two years, and in 676 the throne passed back to the immediate family of Cenwealh with the accession of his brother
Centwine. Centwine is known to have fought and won battles against the
Britons, but the details have not survived.
Centwine was succeeded by another supposed distant relative,
Caedwalla, who claimed descent from Ceawlin. Caedwalla reigned for just two years, but achieved a dramatic expansion of the kingdom's power, conquering the kingdoms of
Kent and the
Isle of Wight, although Kent regained its independence almost immediately and Sussex followed some years later. His reign ended in 688 when he abdicated and went on pilgrimage to Rome where he was baptised by
Pope Sergius I and died soon afterwards.
His successor was
Ine, who also claimed to be a descendant of Cerdic through Ceawlin, but again through a long-separated line of descent. Ine was the most durable of the West Saxon kings, reigning for 38 years. He issued the oldest surviving English code of laws apart from those of the kingdom of Kent, and established a second West Saxon bishopric at
Sherborne, covering the territories west of
Selwood Forest. Near the end of his life he followed in Caedwalla's footsteps by abdicating and making a pilgrimage to Rome. The throne then passed to a series of other kings who claimed descent from Cerdic but whose supposed genealogies and relationship to one another are unknown.
During the 8th century Wessex was overshadowed by Mercia, whose power was then at its height, and the West Saxon kings may at times have acknowledged Mercian overlordship. They were, however, able to avoid the more substantial control which Mercia exerted over smaller kingdoms. During this period Wessex continued its gradual advance to the west, overwhelming the British kingdom of
Dumnonia. At this time Wessex took de facto control over much of
Devon, although Britons retained a degree of independence in Devon until at least the 10th century.
 As a result of the Mercian conquest of the northern portion of its early territories in
Thames and the
Avon now probably formed the northern boundary of Wessex, while its heartland lay in
Somerset. The system of
shires which was later to form the basis of local administration throughout England (and eventually,
Scotland as well) originated in Wessex, and had been established by the mid-8th century.
Hegemony of Wessex and the Viking raids
Anglo-Saxon-Viking Coin weight. Used for trading bullion and hack-silver. Material is lead and weighs approx 36 g. Embedded with an Anglo-Saxon sceat (Series K type 32a) dating to 720-750 AD and minted in Kent. It is edged in dotted triangle pattern. Origin is the Danelaw region and dates 870-930CE
In 802 the fortunes of Wessex were transformed by the accession of
Egbert who came from a
cadet branch of the ruling dynasty that claimed descent from Ine's brother
Ingild. With his accession the throne became firmly established in the hands of a single lineage. Early in his reign he conducted two campaigns against the "
West Welsh", first in 813 and then again at
Gafulford in 825. During the course of these campaigns he conquered the western Britons still in Devon and reduced those beyond the
River Tamar, now
Cornwall, to the status of a
 In 825 or 826 he overturned the political order of England by decisively defeating King
Beornwulf of Mercia at
Ellendun and seizing control of
Surrey, Sussex, Kent and
Essex from the Mercians, while with his help
East Anglia broke away from Mercian control. In 829 he conquered Mercia, driving its King
Wiglaf into exile, and secured acknowledgement of his overlordship from the king of
Northumbria. He thereby became the
Bretwalda, or high king of Britain. This position of dominance was short-lived, as Wiglaf returned and restored Mercian independence in 830, but the expansion of Wessex across south-eastern England proved permanent.
Egbert's later years saw the beginning of
Viking raids on Wessex, which occurred frequently from 835 onwards. In 851 a huge Danish army, said to have been carried on 350 ships, arrived in the Thames estuary. Having defeated King
Beorhtwulf of Mercia in battle, the Danes moved on to invade Wessex, but were decisively crushed by Egbert's son and successor King
Aethelwulf in the exceptionally bloody
Battle of Aclea. This victory postponed Danish conquests in England for fifteen years, but raids on Wessex continued.
In 855-6 Aethelwulf went on
pilgrimage to Rome and his eldest surviving son
Aethelbald took advantage of his absence to seize his father's throne. On his return, Aethelwulf agreed to divide the kingdom with his son to avoid bloodshed, ruling the new territories in the east while Aethelbald held the old heartland in the west. Aethelwulf was succeeded by each of his four surviving sons ruling one after another: the rebellious Aethelbald, then
Ethelbert, who had previously inherited the eastern territories from his father and who reunited the kingdom on Aethelbald's death, then Aethelred, and finally
Alfred the Great. This occurred because the first two brothers died in wars with the Danes without issue, while Aethelred's sons were too young to rule when their father died.
Last English kingdom
England in the late ninth century
In 865, several of the Danish commanders combined their respective forces into one large army and landed in England. Over the following years, what became known as the
Great Heathen Army overwhelmed the kingdoms of
Northumbria and East Anglia. Then in 871, the Great Summer Army arrived from Scandinavia, to reinforce the Great Heathen Army. The reinforced army invaded Wessex and although Aethelred and Alfred won some victories and succeeded in preventing the conquest of their kingdom, a number of defeats and heavy losses of men compelled Alfred to pay the Danes to leave Wessex.
 The Danes spent the next few years subduing
Mercia and some of them settled in Northumbria, but the rest returned to Wessex in 876. Alfred responded effectively and was able with little fighting to bring about their withdrawal in 877. A portion of the Danish army settled in Mercia, but at the beginning of 878 the remaining Danes mounted a winter invasion of Wessex, taking Alfred by surprise and overrunning much of the kingdom. Alfred was reduced to taking refuge with a small band of followers in the marshes of the
Somerset Levels, but after a few months he was able to gather an army and defeated the Danes at the
Battle of Edington, bringing about their final withdrawal from Wessex to settle in East Anglia. Simultaneous Danish raids on the north coast of France and
Brittany occurred in the 870s – prior to the establishment of
Normandy in 911 – and recorded Danish alliances with both
Bretons and Cornish may have resulted in the suppression of Cornish autonomy with the death by drowning of King
Donyarth in 875 as recorded by the
 No subsequent 'Kings' of Cornwall are recorded after this time, however
Asser records Cornwall as a separate kingdom from Wessex in the 890s.
In 879 a Viking fleet that had assembled in the Thames estuary sailed across the channel to start a new campaign on the continent. The rampaging Viking army on the continent encouraged Alfred to protect his Kingdom of Wessex.
 Over the following years Alfred carried out a dramatic reorganisation of the government and defences of Wessex, building warships, organising the army into two shifts which served alternately and establishing a system of fortified burhs across the kingdom. This system is recorded in a 10th-century document known as the
Burghal Hidage, which details the location and garrisoning requirements of thirty-three forts, whose positioning ensured that no one in Wessex was more than a long day's ride from a place of safety.
 In the 890s these reforms helped him to repulse the invasion of another huge Danish army – which was aided by the Danes settled in England – with minimal losses.
Alfred also reformed the administration of justice, issued a new law code and championed a revival of scholarship and education. He gathered scholars from around England and elsewhere in Europe to his court, and with their help translated a range of
Latin texts into English, doing much of the work in person, and orchestrated the composition of the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As a result of these literary efforts and the political dominance of Wessex, the
West Saxon dialect of this period became the standard written form of
Old English for the rest of the
Anglo-Saxon period and beyond.
Wessex and areas under its control in 871.
Wessex and areas under its control in 886.
Wessex and areas under its control in 897.
The Danish conquests had destroyed the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia and divided Mercia in half, with the Danes settling in the north-east while the south-west was left to the English king
Ceolwulf, allegedly a Danish puppet. When Ceolwulf's rule came to an end he was succeeded as ruler of "English Mercia" not by another king but by a mere
Aethelred, who acknowledged Alfred's overlordship and married his daughter
Ethelfleda. The process by which this transformation of the status of Mercia took place is unknown, but it left Alfred as the only remaining English king.
Unification of England and the Earldom of Wessex
Unification of England and Defeat of the Danelaw in the 10th century under Wessex.
After the invasions of the 890s, Wessex and English
Mercia continued to be attacked by the Danish settlers in England, and by small Danish raiding forces from overseas, but these incursions were usually defeated, while there were no further major invasions from the continent. The balance of power tipped steadily in favour of the English. In 911 Ealdorman
Aethelred died, leaving his widow, Alfred's daughter
Aethelflaed, in charge of Mercia. Alfred's son and successor
Edward the Elder, then annexed London,
Oxford and the surrounding area, probably including
Oxfordshire, from Mercia to Wessex. Between 913 and 918 a series of English offensives overwhelmed the Danes of Mercia and East Anglia, bringing all of England south of the
Humber under Edward's power. In 918 Aethelflaed died and Edward took over direct control of Mercia, extinguishing what remained of its independence and ensuring that henceforth there would be only one Kingdom of the English. In 927 Edward's successor
Northumbria, bringing the whole of England under one ruler for the first time. The Kingdom of Wessex had thus been transformed into the
Kingdom of England.
Although Wessex had now effectively been subsumed into the larger kingdom which its expansion had created, like the other former kingdoms, it continued for a time to have a distinct identity which periodically found renewed political expression. After the death of King
Eadred in 955, who had no legitimate heirs, the rule of England passed to his nephew,
Edwy. Edwy's unpopularity with the nobility and the church led the thanes of Mercia and Northumbria to declare their allegiance to his younger brother,
Edgar, in October 957, though Edwy continued to rule in Wessex. In 959, Edwy died and the whole of England came under Edgar's control.
After the conquest of England by the Danish king
Cnut in 1016, he established earldoms based on the former kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, but initially administered Wessex personally. Within a few years, however, he had created an earldom of Wessex, encompassing all of England south of the Thames, for his English henchman
Godwin. For almost fifty years the vastly wealthy holders of this earldom, first Godwin and then his son
Harold, were the most powerful men in English politics after the king. Finally, on the death of
Edward the Confessor in 1066, Harold became king, reuniting the earldom of Wessex with the crown. No new earl was appointed before the ensuing
Norman Conquest of England, and as the Norman kings soon did away with the great earldoms of the late Anglo-Saxon period, 1066 marks the extinction of Wessex as a political unit.