Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies
Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies refer collectively to the genealogies of the pre-Viking Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain. These trace the royal families through legendary kings and heroes and usually an eponymous ancestor of their clan, and in most cases converge on the god-hero of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, Woden. In their fully elaborated forms, they continue the pedigrees back to Judeo-Christian patriarchs Noah and Adam. While historically these were accepted as a representation of authentic lineage, they are now dismissed by scholars as having been the product of reworking and outright invention to represent alliances and affinities at the time they were first recorded.
The Anglo-Saxons, uniquely among the early Germanic peoples, preserved royal genealogies. The earliest source for these genealogies is Bede, who in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (completed in or before 731) said of the founders of the Kingdom of Kent:
The two first commanders are said to have been Hengest and Horsa ... They were the sons of Victgilsus, whose father was Vecta, son of Woden; from whose stock the royal race of many provinces deduce their original.
He similarly provides ancestry for the kings of the East Angles. An Anglian collection of royal genealogies also survives, the earliest version (sometimes called Vespasian or simply V) containing a list of bishops that ends in the year 812. This collection provides pedigrees for the kings of Deira, Bernicia, Mercia, Lindsey, Kent and East Anglia, tracing each of these dynasties from Woden, who is made the son of an otherwise unknown Frealaf.
The same pedigrees, in both text and tablular form, are included in some copies of the Historia Brittonum, an older body of tradition compiled or significantly retouched by Nennius in the early 9th century. These apparently share a common late-8th century source with the Anglian collection. Two other manuscripts from the 10th century (called CCCC and Tiberius, or simply C and T) also preserve the Anglian collection but include an addition: a pedigree for King Ine of Wessex that traces his ancestry from Cerdic, the semi-legendary founder of the Wessex state, and hence from Woden. This addition probably reflects the growing influence of Wessex under Ecgbert, whose family claimed descent from a brother of Ine. Pedigrees are also preserved in several regnal lists dating from the reign of Æthelwulf and later but seemingly based on a late-8th or early 9th century source or sources. Finally, later interpolations (which were added by 892) to both Asser's Vita Ælfredi regis Angul Saxonum and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle preserve Wessex pedigrees extended beyond Cerdic and Woden to Adam.
John of Worcester would copy these pedigrees into his Chronicon ex chronicis, and the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon genealogical tradition was also used as a source by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century for his Prologue to the Prose Edda.
The majority of the surviving pedigrees trace the families of Anglo-Saxon royalty to Woden. The euhemerizing treatment of Woden as the common ancestor of the royal houses is presumably a "late innovation" within the genealogical tradition which developed in the wake of the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons. Kenneth Sisam has argued that the Wessex pedigree was co-opted from that of Bernicia, and David Dumville has reached a similar conclusion with regard to that of Kent, deriving it from the pedigree of the kings of Deira. When looking at pedigree sources outside of the Anglian collection, one surviving pedigree for the kings of Essex in a similar fashion traces the family from Seaxneat. In later pedigrees, this too has been linked to Wōden by making Seaxnēat his son. Dumville has suggested that these modified pedigrees linking to Wōden were creations intended to express their contemporary politics, a representation in genealogical form of the Anglian hegemony over all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
The derivation of a claim of kingship from descent from a god may be rooted in ancient Germanic paganism. In Anglo-Saxon England after Christianization, this tradition appears to have been euhemerized to kingship of any of the realms of the Heptarchy being conditional on descent from Woden.
Kent and Northumbria
Bede gives Wecta (Wægdæg), son of Woden, as the ancestor of Hengest and Horsa and the kings of Kent, as well as of Aella of Deira and his son Edwin of Northumbria. He appears in the Prologue to the Prose Edda as Vegdeg (Vegdagr). Although Wecta is mentioned as the father of Witta and the grandfather of Wihtgils in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Historia Brittonum, the Prose Edda reverses the order of Witta and Wihtgils in the genealogy.
Ida is given as the first king of Bernicia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicates that Ida's reign began in 547, and records him as the son of Eoppa, grandson of Esa, and great-grandson of Ingwy. Likewise, the Historia Brittonum records him as the son of Eoppa, and calls him the first king of Berneich or Bernicia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle elaborates that he ruled for twelve years and built the Bernician capital of Bamburgh Castle. Later, however, the Chronicle confuses his territory with the later Northumbria, saying that Ælla, historically a king of Deira rather than Bernicia, succeeded him as king after his death. Northumbria did not exist until the union of Bernicia with the kingdom of Deira; this happened for the first time under Ida's grandson Æthelfrith. The genealogies of the Anglo-Saxon kings attached to some manuscripts of the Historia Brittonum give more information on Ida and his family; the text names Ida's "one queen" as Bearnoch and indicates that he had twelve sons. Several of these are named, and some of them are listed as kings. One of them, Theodric, is noted for fighting against a British coalition led by Urien Rheged and his sons. Some 18th- and 19th-century commentators, beginning with Lewis Morris, associated Ida with the figure of Welsh tradition known as Flamdwyn ("Flame-bearer"). This Flamdwyn was evidently an Anglo-Saxon leader opposed by Urien Rheged and his children, particularly his son Owain, who slew him. However, Rachel Bromwich notes that such an identification has little to back it; other writers, such as Thomas Stephens and William Forbes Skene, identify Flamdwyn instead with Ida's son Theodric, noting the passages in the genealogies discussing Theodric's battles with Urien and his sons. Ida's successor is given as Glappa, one of his sons, followed by Adda, Æthelric, Theodric, Frithuwald, Hussa, and finally Æthelfrith (d. c. 616), the first Northumbrian monarch known to Bede.
The pedigree given the kings of Mercia traces their family from another of Woden's sons, Wihtlæg. His descendants are frequently viewed as legendary Kings of the Angles, but only one, Offa of Angel is known independent of the genealogies, appearing in Beowulf, Widsith and the later Gesta Danorum and Vitae duorum Offarum. Icel, the legendary eponymous ancestor of their Icling dynasty that founded the Mercian state is made a descendant of Offa.
Woden's descendant Wehha is made the ancestor of the historical Wuffingas dynasty, named after Wehha's son Wuffa. His name appears as Ƿehh Ƿilhelming - Wehha Wilhelming, who was the son of Wilhelm, from whom the line continues back, Hryþ, Hroðmund (a name otherwise only known from Beowulf), Trygil, Tyttman, Caser (Julius Caesar), Woden. The Wuffingas were named after Wehha's son Wuffa. According to the 9th-century History of the Britons, Guillem Guercha (the Wilhelm of the Anglian collection pedigree) was the first king of the East Angles. D. P. Kirby is among those historians who have concluded that Wuffa's father Wehha was the founder of the Wuffingas line.
Wessex and Bernicia
While excluded from the original pedigree sources, two later copies of the Anglian collection from the 10th century (called CCCC and Tiberius, or simply C and T) include an addition: a pedigree for King Ine of Wessex that traces his ancestry from Cerdic, the semi-legendary founder of the Wessex state, and hence from Woden. This addition probably reflects the growing influence of Wessex under Ecgbert, whose family claimed descent from a brother of Ine. Pedigrees are also preserved in several regnal lists dating from the reign of Æthelwulf and later but seemingly based on a late-8th or early 9th century source or sources. Finally, later interpolations (which were added by 892) to both Asser's Vita Ælfredi regis Angul Saxonum and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle preserve Wessex pedigrees extended beyond Cerdic and Woden to Adam. Scholars have long noted discrepancies in the Wessex pedigree tradition. The pedigree as it appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is at odds with the earlier Anglian collection in that it contains four additional generations and consists of doublets which when expressed with patronymics would have resulted in the uniform triple alliteration that is common in Anglo-Saxon poetry but that would have been difficult for a family to maintain over a number of generations and is unlike known Anglo-Saxon naming practices.
|Anglo Saxon Chronicle||Anglian Collection C&T|
Further, when comparing the Chronicle's pedigrees of Cerdic and of Ida of Bernicia several anomalies are evident. While the two peoples had no tradition of common origin, their pedigrees share the generations immediately after Woden, Bældæg whom Snorri equated with the God Baldr, and Brand. One might expect Cerdic to be given descent from a different son of Woden, if not from a different god entirely such as the Saxon patron, Seaxnēat, who once headed the pedigree of the Essex kings before his relegation as another son of Woden. Likewise, while the Chronicle places Ida's reign after Cerdic's death, the pedigrees do not reflect this difference in age.
The name Cerdic, moreover, may actually be an Anglicized form of the Brythonic name Ceredic and several of his successors also have names of possible Brythonic origin, indicating that the Wessex founders may not have been Germanic at all. All of these suggest that the pedigree may not be authentic.
The Wessex royal pedigree continued to puzzle historians until, in 1953, Anglo-Saxon scholar Kenneth Sisam presented an analysis that has since been almost universally accepted by historians. He noted similarities between the earlier versions of the Wessex pedigree and that of Ida. Those appearing in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in the published transcript of Asser (the original having been lost in an 18th-century fire) are in agreement but several earlier manuscript transcripts of Asser's work give, instead, the shorter pedigree of the later Anglian collection manuscripts, probably representing the original text of Asser and the earliest form of the Cerdic pedigree. Sisam speculated that the additional names arose through the insertion of a pair of Saxon heroes, Freawine and Wig, into the existing pedigree, creating a second alliterative pair (after Brand/Bældæg, Giwis/Wig, where the stress of "Giwis" is on the second sylable) and inviting further alliteration, the addition of Esla to complete an Elesa/Esla pair, and of Friðgar to make a Freawine/Friðgar alliteration. Of these alliterative names (in a culture whose poetry depended upon alliteration rather than rhyme) only Esla is perhaps known elsewhere: British historians working before Sisam suggested that his name is that of Ansila, a legendary Goth ancestor or that he is Osla 'Bigknife' of Arthurian legend, an equivalency still followed by some Arthurian writers, although Osla is elsewhere identified with Octa of Kent Elesa has also been linked to the Romano-Briton Elasius, the "chief of the region" met by Germanus of Auxerre.
|Anglo Saxon Chronicle|
Having concluded that the shorter form of the royal genealogy was the original, Sisam compared the names found in different versions of the Wessex and Northumbrian royal pedigrees, revealing a similarity between the Bernician pedigree found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and those given for Cerdic: rather than diverging several generations earlier they are seen to correspond until the generation immediately before Cerdic, with the exception of one substitution. "Giwis", seemingly a supposed eponymous ancestor of the Gewisse (a name given to the early West Saxons) appears instead of a similarly eponymous ancestor of the Bernicians (Old English, Beornice), Benoc in the Chronicle and (slightly rearranged in order) Beornic or Beornuc in other versions. This suggests that the Bernician pedigree was co-opted in a truncated form by Wessex historians, replacing one "founding father" with another.
|Ida of Bernicia||Cerdic of Wessex|
|Anglian Collection V||Historia Brittonum||Anglo Saxon Chronicle||Anglian Collection C&T||Asser (original text)||Anglo Saxon Chronicle
Sisam concluded that at one time the Wessex royal pedigree went no earlier than Cerdic and that it was subsequently elaborated by borrowing the Bernician royal pedigree that went back to Woden, introducing the heroes Freawine and Wig and inserting additional names to provide alliterative couplets. Dumville concurred with this conclusion, and suggested that the Wessex pedigree was linked to that of Bernicia to reflect a 7th-century political alliance.
A genealogy for Lindsey is also part of the collection. However, unlike the other kingdoms, the lack of surviving chronicle materials covering Lindsey deprive its pedigree of context. In his analysis of the pedigree, Frank Stenton pointed to three names as being informative. Cædbæd includes the British element cad-, indicative of interaction between the two cultures in the early days of settlement. A second name, Biscop, is the Anglo-Saxon word for bishop, and suggests a time after conversion. Finally, Alfreið, the king to whom the document traces, is not definitively known elsewhere, but Stenton suggested identification with an Ealdfrid rex who witnessed a confirmation by Offa of Mercia. However, this is now interpreted to be an error for Offa's son Ecgfrið rex, anointed as King of Mercia during his father's lifetime, rather than the Lindsey ruler.
For the southern realm of the East Saxons, a unique pedigree is preserved that does not derive the royal family from Wōden. This pedigree is thought to be independent of the Anglian collection, and ends with Seaxnēat ("companion of the Saxons", or simply knife-companion), matching the Saxnôt whom, along with Wodan and Thunaer, ninth-century Saxon converts to Christianity were made explicitly to renounce. Subsequently, Seaxnēat was added as an additional son of Wōden, joining the Essex royal pedigree to the others of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The first king, Æscwine of Essex, is placed seven generations below Seaxnēat in the pedigree.
Ancestry of Woden
The earliest surviving manuscript that extends prior to Woden, the Vespasian version of the Anglian collection, adds one earlier name for most of the pedigrees, an otherwise unknown Frealeaf, but in the case of the genealogy of the kings of Lindsey makes Frealeaf son of Friothulf, son of Finn, son of Godulf, son of Geat. This appears to be a more recent addition, added after the Historia Brittonum tabular genealogies were derived from the Anglian collection's precursor, and subsequently added to other lineages. In the prose pedigree of Hengist in the Historia Brittonum Godulf, father of Finn was replaced by a variant of Folcwald the father of legendary Frisian hero Finn. Later versions do not follow this change: some add an additional name, making Friothwald the father of Woden, while others omit Friothulf.
The name at the head of this pedigree is that of another legendary Scandinavian, Geat, apparently the eponymous ancestor of the Geats and perhaps once a god. This individual has also been taken as corresponding to Gapt, the head of the genealogy of the Goths as given by Jordanes. None of the individuals between Woden and Geat, except possibly Finn, is known elsewhere. Sisam concludes; "Few will dissent from the general opinion that the ancestors of Woden were a fanciful development of Christian times."
|Bede||Anglian Collection V
all but Lindsey
|Anglian Collection V
|Anglo Saxon Chronicle
Abington 547 annal
|Anglo Saxon Chronicle
Otho B 547 annal
|Anglo Saxon Chronicle
Parker 855 annal,
|Anglo Saxon Chronicle
Abington & others
Anglian Collection T
Several sources extend the pedigree prior to Geat. These fall into three classes, the shortest being found in the Latin translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle prepared by Æthelweard, himself a descendant of the royal family. His version makes Geat the son of Tetuua, son of Beo, son of Scyld, son of Scef. The last three generations also appear in Beowulf in the pedigree of Hroðgar. The surviving manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle make Scyld a distant descendant of Sceaf instead. Asser gives a similar pedigree with some different name forms and one version of the Chronicle has an obvious error removing the early part of the pedigree, but all these clearly represent a second pedigree tradition. Snorri's Prose Edda pedigree, while missing two names, is also of this group. William of Malmesbury presented a third variant, having Scef as both father of Scyld and, in modified form, as founder of the longer line given in the Chronicle. The Chronicle version appears to have additional names interpolated into the older tradition reported by Æthelweard, one of them, Heremod, reflecting the legendary ruler of the Danish Scyldings. The Malmesbury version was, then, an attempt to harmonize Æthelweard's pedigree with the longer one of the Chronicle.
|Beowulf||Æthelweard||Chronicle||Prose Edda||William of Malmesbury|
The earliest names in the supposed pedigree were probably the last to be added, the Biblical genealogy placing Noah as father of Scef and tracing back to Adam, an extension not followed by Æthelweard who apparently used a copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle containing that extension but also had family material independent of the Chronicle. In this way, by repeated steps of extension, interpolation and modification, the accepted pedigree of the kings of Wessex and of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were extended to the dawn of creation. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlasson, also incorporates a version of the pedigree, replacing the name of Noah with a descent leading through Magi, Móda, Vingener, Vingethor, Enridi and Lóridi to Thor and his wife Sif, with Thor being son of king Memnon by Tróan, daughter of Priam of Troy.
Esla appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the son of Gewis and a descendant of Woden. He is also described as the father of Elesa, the father of Cerdic of Wessex who invaded Britain and founded the kingdom of Wessex. That an earlier pedigree of the kings of Bernicia is very similar, except that it has Bernic, eponymous ancestors of the Bernicians, in the same place as the later Wessex pedigree substitutes Gewis, eponymous ancestor of the Gewisse or West Saxons, has led to the suggestion that the later Wessex pedigree may have been modified from that of the Bernicians. Elsa is just a mythical, probably invented, name in a mythical pedigree, that doesn't even belong to the family that is supposedly supplying the notoriety (the original pedigree was hijacked from the Bernician kings).
There has been some speculation which connects Esla to the Gothic name Ansila and in late Welsh sources, a figure with the (possibly Gothic) name Osla, nicknamed Cyllellfawr "Big-Knife" in Welsh. Other scholars may have argued that the name is Brythonic.
It is possible that Esla never existed. Kenneth Sisam makes a strong argument that Esla was simply invented to provide an alliterative couplet with Elesa, demanded when the intrusion of the heroic pair of Wig and Freawine into the borrowed Bernician pedigree set up a pattern of alliteratively-coupled names.
Gewis appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the son of Wig and a descendant of Woden. He is described as the father of Esla and supplies an explanation for the early name of the inhabitants of Wessex, the Gewissas.
- Sisam, p. 287
- J. Robert Wright (2008). A Companion to Bede: A Reader's Commentary on the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 2. ISBN 978-0802863096.
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Chapter XV. From the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
- Sisam, pp. 288
- Sisam, pp. 287-290
- Sisam, pp. 292-294
- Sisam, pp. 290-292
- Sisam, p. 291
- Sisam, pp. 294-297
- Sisam, pp. 297-298
- N.J. Higham (2002). King Arthur: Myth-Making and History. Routledge. p. 100. ISBN 978-0415483988.. "no king by the late seventh century could do without the status that descent from Woden entailed." Richard North (1998). Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0521551830.
- Michael James Swanton (translator and editor) (1998). The Anglo-Saxon chronicle. Routledge. pp. 2, 16, 18, 24, 50, 66. ISBN 978-0415921299.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, entry for 547.
- Historia Brittonum, ch. 56.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, entry for 560.
- Historia Brittonum, ch. 57.
- Historia Brittonum, ch. 63.
- Morris-Jones, John (1918). "Taliesin". Y Cymmrodor 28: 154.
- Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1386-8., p. 353.
- Newton, The Origins of Beowulf , p. 105.
- Medway Council, Medway City Ark: Textus Roffensis, notes. Accessed 9 August 2010.
- Nennius, History of the Britons, p. 412.
- Kirby, The Earliest English Kings, p. 15.
- R. W. Chambers, Beowulf, an Introduction, Cambridge: University Press, 1921, p. 316
- Sisam, pp. 298,300-307
- Sisam, pp. 300-304
- Richard North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, Cambridge: University Press, 1997, p. 43
- David Parsons, "British *Caratīcos, Old English Cerdic", Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, vol. 33, pp. 1-8 (1997); Henry Howorth, "The Beginnings of Wessex", The English Historical Review, vol. 13, pp. 667-71 (1898) - a contrary opinion is taken by Alfred Anscombe, "The Name of Cerdic", Y Cymmrodor: The Magazine of the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorion vol. 29, pp. 151-209 (1919)
- Sisam, pp. 300-305
- Sisam, pp. 304-307
- Alfred Anscombe, "The Date of the First Settlement of the Saxons in Britain: II. Computation in the Eras of the Passion and the Incarnation 'secundum Evangelicam Veritatem'", Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie, vol. 6, pp. 339-394 at p. 369; Alfred Anscombe, "The Name of Cerdic", Y Cymmrodor: The Magazine of the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorion vol. 29, pp. 151-209 (1919) at p. 179.
- Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of King Arthur, p. 211; John Evans, "The Arthurian Campaign", Archaeologia Cantiana, vol. 78, pp. 83-95, at. p. 85.
- Grosjean, P., Analecta Bollandiana, 1957. Hagiographie Celtique pp. 158-226.
- Sisam, pp. 305-307
- North, p. 43
- Dumville, 1977, p. 80
- Dumville, 1977, pp. 80-1.
- Stenton, F. M. (Frank Merry), "Lindsey and its Kings", Essays presented to Reginald Lane Poole, 1927, pp. 136-150, reprinted in Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England: Being the Collected Papers of Frank Merry Stenton : Edited by Doris Mary Stenton, Oxford, 1970, pp. 127-137 
- Malcolm Godden; Michael Lapidge (1991). The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge University Press. p. 95. ISBN 978-0521377942.
- Sisam, pp. 308-9
- Sisam, pp. 309-10
- Sisam, pp. 310-14
- Sisam, pp. 307-8
- "The genealogies do not end with Woden but go back to a point five generations earlier, the full list of names in the earlier genealogies being Frealaf—Frithuwulf—Finn—Godwulf—Geat. Of the first four of these persons nothing is known. Asser says that Geat was worshipped as a god by the heathen, but this statement is possibly due to a passage in Sedulius' Carmen Paschale which he has misunderstood and incorporated in his text. It has been thought by many modern writers that the name is identical with Gapt which stands at the head of the Gothic genealogy in Jordanes, cap. 14; but the identification is attended with a good deal of difficulty." Chadwick, Hector Munro. The Origin of the English Nation (1907) (Page 270)
- Sisam, pp. 308
- Sisam, pp. 314, 317-318
- Murray; Sam Newton, The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, pp. 54-76.
- Sisam, pp. 313-6
- Sisam, pp. 318-319
- Sisam, pp. 318
- Sisam, pp. 320
- Sisam, 320-322; Daniel Anlezark, "Japheth and the origins of the Anglo-Saxons", Anglo Saxon England, vol. 31, pp. 13-46.
- Sisam, pp. 322-331
- Chambers, R. W., Beowulf, an Introduction, Cambridge: University Press, 1921
- Dumville, David, "Kingship, Genealogies and Regnal Lists", Early Medieval Kingship, in P.W. Sawyer and Ian N. Wood, eds., Leeds University, 1997, pp. 72–104
- Dumville, David "The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists", in Anglo-Saxon England, Clemoes, ed., 5 (1976), pp. 23–50.
- Kirby, D. P. (2000). The earliest English kings. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-24210-X. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
- Moisl, Hermann, "Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and Germanic oral tradition", Journal of Medieval History, 7:3 (1981), pp. 215–48.
- Murray, Alexander Callander, "Beowulf, the Danish invasion, and royal genealogy", The Dating of Beowulf, Colin Chase, ed. University of Toronto Center for Medieval Studies, 1997, pp. 101–111.
- North, Richard, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, Cambridge: University Press, 1997
- Sisam, Kenneth "Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies", Proceedings of the British Academy, 39 (1953), pp. 287–348
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at Project Gutenberg - Public domain copy.