Kingdom of Sussex

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Kingdom of the South Saxons
Sūþseaxna rīce


Britain around AD 800
Capital Selsey
Languages Old English (Ænglisc)
Religion Paganism (before 7th century)
 - Roman Catholic (after 7th century)
Government Monarchy
Monarchs (see full list)
 -  477-491 or later Ælle
 -  c.660-665 Æðelwealh
Legislature Witenagemot
Historical era Heptarchy
 -  Established 477
 -  Subject to Wessex c.686 to 726
 -  Subject to Mercia 771 to 825
 -  Subject to Wessex From 825
 -  Full integration into crown of Wessex 858
Currency Sceat
Today part of  United Kingdom

The kingdom of the South Saxons (Old English: Sūþseaxna rīce), today referred to as the Kingdom of Sussex, was a Saxon colony and later independent kingdom of the Saxons, on the south coast of England.

The South Saxons were ruled by the kings of Sussex.


Its boundaries coincided in general with those of the earlier kingdom of the Regnenses and the later county of Sussex. For a brief period in the 7th century, the Kingdom of Sussex controlled the Isle of Wight and the territory of the Meonwara[1] in the Meon Valley in east Hampshire. From the late 8th century, Sussex seems to have absorbed the Kingdom of the Haestingas, after the region was conquered by the Mercian king Offa.

A large part of its territory was covered in early times by the Forest of Andred or Andredsweald, known today as the Weald. This forest according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was 120 miles wide and 30 miles deep (although probably closer to 90 miles wide).[2] It was inhabited by wolves, boars and possibly even bears.[2] It was so dense that even the Domesday Book did not record some of its settlements.[2] The heavily forested Weald made expansion difficult but also provided some protection from invasion by neighbouring kingdoms.[3]

The boundaries of the Kingdom of Sussex probably crystallised around the 6th and 7th centuries.[4] To the west, the Kingdom of Sussex bordered the Kingdom of Wessex at the River Ems. To the east at Romney Marsh and the River Limen (now called the River Rother or Kent Ditch), Sussex shared a border with the Kingdom of Kent. North of the Forest Ridge in the Wealden forest lay the sub-kingdom of Surrey which became a frontier area disputed between various kingdoms until it later became part of Wessex.



The foundation legend of the Kingdom of the South Saxons is given by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which states that in the year AD 477 Ælle arrived at a place called Cymenshore in three ships with his three sons.[5] The Chronicle describes how on landing Ælle slew the local defenders and drove the remainder into the Forest of Andred.[5] The Chronicle goes on to describe Ælle's battle with the British in 485 near the bank of Mercredesburne, and his siege of Pevensey in 491 after which the inhabitants were massacred.[6][7]

Cymenshore is traditionally thought to have been located at what is now known as the Owers Rocks, south of Selsey, however there is no archaeological evidence to support the existence of Ælle and his three sons in the Selsey area.[8][9] Most historians regard the foundation of Sussex with Ælle landing with three ships and three sons as a myth.[5][10][11]

The archaeological evidence that we do have indicates the area of settlement by the location of cemeteries of the period.[12] The origins of the settlers can be derived by comparing the design of grave goods and pottery with the designs of similar items in the German homelands.[13] The principal area of settlement in the 5th century has been identified as between the lower Ouse and Cuckmere rivers in East Sussex, based on the number of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries there.;[14] However exceptionally there are two cemeteries in West Sussex at Highdown, near Worthing and Apple Down, 11 km or 7 miles north west of Chichester.[15] The area between the Ouse and Cuckmere was believed to have been the location for the federate treaty settlement of Anglo-Saxon mercenaries.[14]

There is some evidence to support the treaty hypothesis, based on the grave finds of the period.[16] For example, the excavation of one of the cemeteries, at Rookery Hill at Bishopstone, East Sussex, yielded late Roman or insular Roman metalwork including a Quoit Brooch Style buckle, which would indicate settlement here to the early 5th century.[17] Subsequent excavations revealed a considerable area of Saxon buildings. Of the 22 buildings excavated three were sunken huts, 17 are rectangular founded on individual post holes, one is represented by post holes between which are beam slots, and one by eight single large posts.[17]

Highdown is the only 5th century Saxon cemetery found outside the Ouse/ Cuckmere area, and is 2 km from a hoard of Roman gold and silver that was found in 1997.[18][19] The Patching hoard, as it came to be known, contained a coin as recent as 461AD. Thus Highdown cemetery would have been in use by Saxons when the hoard was buried at Patching.[19] The settlement that used Highdown as a burial ground, in the 5th century, has never been identified, but White speculates that there may have been some link between Patching and Highdown and Welch has suggested that a Romano-British community was based there and that they controlled a group of Saxon mercenaries.[14][19]

7th century[edit]

After 491 the written history of Sussex goes blank until 607, when the annals report that Ceolwulf of Wessex fought against the South Saxons.[20]

In 681 the founder of Selsey Abbey, the exiled St Wilfrid of Northumbria, arrived in the kingdom of the South Saxons and remained there for five years evangelising and baptising the people.[21] According to Bede, Æðelwealh, king of Sussex, had previously been baptised in Mercia at the suggestion of Wulfhere, who presented him with the Isle of Wight and the Meonwara.[21]

16th Century Barnardi picture of Cædwalla granting lands to Wilfrid.

There had been a famine in the land of the South Saxons when Wilfrid arrived.[21] Wilfrid taught the locals to fish, and they were impressed with Wilfrid's teachings and agreed to be baptised en masse.[21] On the day of the baptisms the rain fell on the "thirsty earth", so ending the famine.[21]

Æðelwealh gave 87 hides (an area of land) and a royal vill to Wilfrid to enable him to found Selsey Abbey.[21] The abbey eventually became the seat of the South Saxon bishopric, where it remained until after the Norman Conquest, when it was moved to Chichester by decree of the Council of London of 1075.[21][22]

Shortly after the arrival of St Wilfrid, the kingdom was ravaged and Æðelwealh slain by an exiled West Saxon prince Caedwalla.[23] The latter was eventually expelled, by Æðelwealh's successors, two Ealdormen named Berhthun and Andhun.[23] In 686 the South Saxons attacked Hlothhere, king of Kent, in support of his nephew Eadric, but soon afterwards Berhthun was killed and the kingdom subjugated for a time by Ceadwalla, who had now become king of Wessex.

Of the later South Saxon kings we have little knowledge except from occasional charters.

In 692 a grant is made by a king called Noðhelm (or Nunna) to his sister, which is witnessed by another king called Watt.[24] There is a theory that Watt may have been a sub-king who ruled over a tribe of people centred around modern day Hastings in East Sussex, known as the Haestingas and Nunna is described, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as the kinsman of Ine of Wessex who fought with him against Geraint, King of the Britons, in 710.[14][25] According to Bede, Sussex was subject to Ine for a number of years.[26]

8th century[edit]

According to a charter dated 775, the former abbot of Selsey, Bishop Eadberht of Selsey (c.705 x?709) - (716 x?), was given a grant of land by King Nunna; the document included King Watt as a witness. However, the charter is now believed to have been a 10th or early 11th century forgery.[27][28][29]

There is another charter, that is thought to be genuine, that records a series of transactions of a piece of land near modern day Burpham in the Arun Valley.[30][31] It starts off with a grant of land, at Peppering, by Nunna to Berhfrith probably for the foundation of a minster.[32] Berhfrith transferred the land to Eolla, who in turn sold it to Wulfhere. The land then went to Beoba who passed it on to Beorra and Ecca.[32] Finally King Osmund bought the land from his comes Erra and granted it to a religious woman known as Tidburgh.[32] The charter is undated but it has been possible to date the various transactions approximately, by cross referencing people who appear both on this charter and on other charters that do provide dates.[32] On the transaction, where Eolla has acquired the land from Berhfrith and sells it to Wulfhere [c. AD 705 x (716x?)], Nunna's subscription is followed by a certain Osric who was possibly Nunna's co-ruler.[33] The other witnesses who followed Osric were Eadberht and Eolla, both who can be identified as ecclesiastics.[33]

Nunna's last surviving charter, which is dated 714 in error for 717,[34] is witnessed by a King Æðelstan.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that "In 722 Ealdberht fled into Surrey and Sussex, and Ine fought against the South Saxons".

A little later, Æðelberht was King of Sussex, but he is known only from charters. The dates of Æðelberht's reign are unknown beyond the fact that he was a contemporary of Sigeferth, Bishop of Selsey from 733, as Sigeferth witnessed an undated charter of Æðelberht[35] in which Æðelberht is styled Ethelbertus rex Sussaxonum.

After this we hear nothing more until about 765, when a grant[36] of land is made by a king named Ealdwulf, with two other kings, Ælfwald and Oslac, as witnesses.

In 765[37] and 770[38] grants are made by a King Osmund, the latter one was later confirmed by Offa of Mercia.

Offa also confirmed two charters of Æðelberht, and in 772[39] he grants land himself in Sussex, with Oswald, dux Suðsax', as a witness. It is probable that about this time Offa annexed the kingdom of Sussex, as several persons, Osmund, Ælfwald and Oslac, who had previously used the royal title, now sign with that of dux.

Mercian power collapsed in the years following Offa's death in 796, and the South Saxons re-emerged as an independent political entity. This status was to be short-lived because the power of Wessex was rising and Sussex was to become the first kingdom of the old heptarchy to be annexed in a process that brought about the gradual unification of the Ænglecynne and the foundation of a united England.

9th century[edit]

In 825 the South Saxons submitted to Ecgberht of Wessex, and from this time they remained subject to the West Saxon dynasty. The earldom of Sussex seems later to have been sometimes combined with that of Kent. In 858 on the death of Æthelwulf of Wessex, Sussex and the other south-eastern kingdoms are fully integrated into the crown of Wessex.

From 895 Sussex suffered from constant raids by the Danes, till the accession of Canute, after which arose the two great forces of the house of Godwine and of the Normans. Godwine was probably a native of Sussex, and by the end of Edward the Confessor's reign a third part of the county was in the hands of his family.


It is thought that the Æellingi (the South Saxon royal house) continued to govern Sussex as eorldermen (earls) under West Saxon sovereignty until the Norman Conquest in 1066.

The death of Eadwine, Ealdorman of Sussex, is recorded in 982, because he was buried at Abingdon Abbey in Berkshire, where one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was compiled. According to the abbey's records, in which he was called princeps Australium Saxonum, Eadwinus nomine (Eadwine leader of the South Saxons), he bequeathed estates to them in his will, although the document itself has not survived.[40] Earlier in the same year he witnessed a charter of King Ethelred the Unready[41] as Eaduuine dux. His name was also added to a forged charter dated 956 (possibly an error for 976).[42]

In the next generation, Wulfnoth Cild, Thegn of Sussex, played a prominent part in English politics. In 1009 his actions resulted in the destruction of the English fleet, and by 1011 Sussex, together with most of South East England, was in the hands of the Danes. In an early example of local government reform, the Anglo-Saxon ealdormanries were abolished by the Danish kings and replaced with a smaller number of larger earldoms. Wulfnoth Cild was the father of Godwin, who was made Earl of Wessex in 1020. His earldom included Sussex. When he died in 1053, Godwin was succeeded as Earl of Wessex (including Sussex) by his son Harold, who had previously been Earl of East Anglia.

On 14 October 1066, Harold II, the last Saxon king of England was killed at the battle of Hastings and the English army defeated, by William the Conqueror and his army.[43] It is likely that all the fighting men of Sussex were at the battle, as the county's thegns were decimated and any that survived had their lands confiscated.[43] At least 353 of the 387 manors, in the county, were taken from their Saxon owners and given to the victorious Normans by the Conqueror, Saxon power in Sussex was at an end.[44]


  1. ^ Keys, Jim (2010). The Dark Ages. p. 97. ISBN 9781445229850. 
  2. ^ a b c Seward Sussex. p.76
  3. ^ Cannon, John; Hargreaves, Ann (2009). The Kings and Queens of Britain. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191580284. 
  4. ^ Thomas, Gabor (January 2013). "Resource Assessment and Research Agenda for the Anglo-Saxon period" (PDF). South East Research Framework. 
  5. ^ a b c ASC Parker MS. 477AD.
  6. ^ ASC Parker MS. 485AD.
  7. ^ ASC Parker MS. 491AD.
  8. ^ Martin Welch: Early Anglo-Saxon Sussex: from Civitas to Shire, in Brandon (1978), pp.13-35.
  9. ^ S. E. Kelly, Charters of the Selsey, Anglo-Saxon Charters Volume VI p. 118" - Oxford: Published for The British Academy by Oxford University Press, 1998. - Kelly believes that The Owers is where Cymenshore is, she gives the alternate spellings as Cumeneshore, Cumenshore, Cimeneres horan, Cymeneres horan
  10. ^ Welch.Anglo-Saxon England p.9.- When Aella and his three sons land from three ships on a beach named after one of the sons, we are reading legend rather than history.
  11. ^ Jones.The End of Roman Britain. p.71. - ..the repetitious entries for invading ships in the Chronicle (three ships of Hengest and Horsa; three ships of Ælle; five ships of Cerdic and Cynric; two ships of Port; three ships of Stuf and Wihtgar), drawn from preliterate traditions including bogus eponyms and duplications, might be considered a poetic convention.
  12. ^ Welch.Anglo-Saxon England. Chapter 5. Burial practices and Structures
  13. ^ Welch. Anglo-Saxon England. pp.9-13
  14. ^ a b c d Martin Welch. Early Anglo-Saxon Sussex in Peter Brandon's. The South Saxons. pp. 23-25.
  15. ^ Down.Chichester Excavations. p.9. (At Appledown) 282 cremations and inhumations were recorded.
  16. ^ Martin Welch, Early Anglo-Saxon Sussex, pp.25-26
  17. ^ a b Martin Bell: Saxon Settlements and buildings in Sussex, in Brandon (1978), pp. 39-40
  18. ^ Sally White. Early Saxon Sussex c.410-c.650 in Leslies. An Historical Atlas of Sussex. pp. 28-29
  19. ^ a b c Sally White. The Patching hoard published in Medieval Archaeology. pp.88-93
  20. ^ ASC Parker MS. AD607.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Bede.HE.IV.13
  22. ^ Kelly.Chichester Cathedral:The Bishopric of Selsey. p.1
  23. ^ a b Bede.HE.IV.15
  24. ^ "S 45". Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  25. ^ ASC Parker MS AD 710
  26. ^ HE.VI.15.
  27. ^ Kelly. Charters of Selsey. p.26. W. de Gray Birch had suggested an emendation (of the date) to 725 but Kelly says this is still unsatisfactory since it is too late for Bishop Eadberht
  28. ^ "Cap. I/17/1 (S43)". Diocese of Chichester Capitular Records. Retrieved 13 May 2010.  With Professor H.L. Rogers findings on why manuscript is forgery.
  29. ^ Kelly. Charters of Selsey. p.26." without doubt a forgery and not an innocent 10th century copy of a genuine eighth-century charter."
  30. ^ Kelly. Charters of Selsey. p.34
  31. ^ "S 44". Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  32. ^ a b c d Kelly. Charters of Selsey. p.31
  33. ^ a b Kelly. Charters of Selsey. p.33
  34. ^ "S 42". Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  35. ^ "S 46". Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  36. ^ "S 50". Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  37. ^ "S 48". Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  38. ^ "S 49". Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  39. ^ "S 108". Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  40. ^ Kelly.Charters of Abingdon Abbey, Volume 2. p.581.
  41. ^ "S 839". Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  42. ^ "S 828". Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  43. ^ a b Seward. Sussex. pp. 5-7.
  44. ^ Horsfield. Sussex. Volume 1. pp. 77-78


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