Wihtred of Kent

Last updated
King of Kent
Reign c. 690 – 23 April 725
Bornc. 670
Died23 April 725 (aged 54–55)
Issue Æthelberht II, Eadberht I, and Alric
Father Ecgberht

Wihtred (Latin : Wihtredus) (c. 670 – 23 April 725) was king of Kent from about 690 or 691 until his death. He was a son of Ecgberht I and a brother of Eadric. Wihtred ascended to the throne after a confused period in the 680s, which included a brief conquest of Kent by Cædwalla of Wessex, and subsequent dynastic conflicts. His immediate predecessor was Oswine, who was probably descended from Eadbald, though not through the same line as Wihtred. Shortly after the start of his reign, Wihtred issued a code of laws—the Law of Wihtred—that has been preserved in a manuscript known as the Textus Roffensis . The laws pay a great deal of attention to the rights of the Church (of the time period), including punishment for irregular marriages and for pagan worship. Wihtred's long reign had few incidents recorded in the annals of the day. He was succeeded in 725 by his sons, Æthelberht II, Eadberht I, and Alric.

Circa – frequently abbreviated c., ca., or ca, and less frequently circ. or cca. – signifies "approximately" in several European languages and as a loanword in English, usually in reference to a date. Circa is widely used in historical writing when the dates of events are not accurately known.

Kingdom of Kent realm

The Kingdom of the Kentish, today referred to as the Kingdom of Kent, was an early medieval kingdom in what is now South East England. It existed from either the fifth or the sixth century CE until it was fully absorbed into the Kingdom of England in the tenth century.

Ecgberht was a King of Kent who ruled from 664 to 673, succeeding his father Eorcenberht.


Kent in the late seventh century

The kingdoms of Britain in the late seventh-century British seventh century kingdoms.svg
The kingdoms of Britain in the late seventh-century

The dominant force in late-seventh-century politics south of the River Humber was Wulfhere of Mercia, who reigned from the late 650s to 675. The king of Kent for much of this time was Ecgberht, who died in 673. Ecgberht's sons, Eadric and Wihtred, were probably little more than infants, two or three years old, when their father died; Wulfhere was their uncle by virtue of his marriage to Eormenhild, Ecgberht's sister. Hlothhere, Ecgberht's brother, became king of Kent, but not until about a year later, in 674, and it may be that Wulfhere opposed the accession of Hlothhere and was the effective ruler of Kent during this year-long interregnum. [1]

Wulfhere of Mercia 7th-century King of Mercia

Wulfhere or Wulfar was King of Mercia from 658 until 675 AD. He was the first Christian king of all of Mercia, though it is not known when or how he converted from Anglo-Saxon paganism. His accession marked the end of Oswiu of Northumbria's overlordship of southern England, and Wulfhere extended his influence over much of that region. His campaigns against the West Saxons led to Mercian control of much of the Thames valley. He conquered the Isle of Wight and the Meon valley and gave them to King Æthelwealh of the South Saxons. He also had influence in Surrey, Essex, and Kent. He married Eormenhild, the daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent.

Eadric was a King of Kent (685–686). He was the son of Ecgberht I.

Hlothhere of Kent 7th-century English monarch

Hlothhere was a King of Kent who ruled from 673 to 685.

Eadric raised an army against his uncle and Hlothhere died of wounds sustained in battle in February 685 or possibly 686. [2] Eadric died the following year, and according to Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People is one of the primary sources for this period, the kingdom fell apart into disorder. [3] Cædwalla of Wessex invaded in 686 and established his brother Mul as king there; Cædwalla may have ruled Kent directly for a period when Mul was killed in 687. [4] When Cædwalla departed for Rome in 688, Oswine, who was probably supported by Æthelred of Mercia, took the throne for a time. Oswine lost power in 690, but Swæfheard (son of Sebbi, the king of Essex), who had been a king in Kent for a year or two, remained. [5] There is clear evidence that both Swæfheard and Oswine were kings at the same time, as each witnessed the other's charters. It seems that Oswine was king of east Kent, which was usually the position of the dominant king, while Swæfheard was king of west Kent. [6]

Bede 7th and 8th-century Anglo-Saxon monk, writer, and saint

Bede, also known as Saint Bede, Venerable Bede, and Bede the Venerable, was an English Benedictine monk at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul in the Kingdom of Northumbria of the Angles. Born on lands likely belonging to the Monkwearmouth monastery in present day Sunderland, Bede was sent there at the age of seven and later joined Abbot Ceolfrith at the Jarrow monastery, both of whom survived a plague that struck in 686, an outbreak that killed a majority of the population there. While he spent most of his life in the monastery, Bede travelled to several abbeys and monasteries across the British Isles, even visiting the archbishop of York and King Ceolwulf of Northumbria. He is well known as an author, teacher, and scholar, and his most famous work, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, gained him the title "The Father of English History". His ecumenical writings were extensive and included a number of Biblical commentaries and other theological works of exegetical erudition. Another important area of study for Bede was the academic discipline of computus, otherwise known to his contemporaries as the science of calculating calendar dates. One of the more important dates Bede tried to compute was Easter, an effort that was mired with controversy. He also helped establish the practice of dating forward from the birth of Christ, a practice which eventually became commonplace in medieval Europe. Bede was one of the greatest teachers and writers of the Early Middle Ages and is considered by many historians to be the single most important scholar of antiquity for the period between the death of Pope Gregory I in 604 and the coronation of Charlemagne in 800.

<i>Ecclesiastical History of the English People</i> 8th-century Latin history of England by Bede

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written by the Venerable Bede in about AD 731, is a history of the Christian Churches in England, and of England generally; its main focus is on the conflict between the pre-Schism Roman Rite and Celtic Christianity. It was originally composed in Latin, and is considered one of the most important original references on Anglo-Saxon history and has played a key role in the development of an English national identity. It is believed to have been completed in 731 when Bede was approximately 59 years old.

Cædwalla of Wessex 7th-century King of Wessex

Cædwalla was the King of Wessex from approximately 685 until he abdicated in 688. His name is derived from the Welsh Cadwallon. He was exiled from Wessex as a youth and during this period gathered forces and attacked the South Saxons, killing their king, Æthelwealh, in what is now Sussex. Cædwalla was unable to hold the South Saxon territory, however, and was driven out by Æthelwealh's ealdormen. In either 685 or 686, he became King of Wessex. He may have been involved in suppressing rival dynasties at this time, as an early source records that Wessex was ruled by underkings until Cædwalla.

Accession and reign

Family tree showing the descendants of Eadbald. Wihtred, through his father Egbert, is of Eorcenberht's line. Oswine's descent was probably through one of Domne Eafe's siblings, but which one is not known. DESCENDANTS OF EADBALD OF KENT.svg
Family tree showing the descendants of Eadbald. Wihtred, through his father Egbert, is of Eorcenberht's line. Oswine's descent was probably through one of Domne Eafe's siblings, but which one is not known.

Wihtred emerged from this disarray and became king in the early 690s. [5] Bede describes his accession by saying that he was the "rightful" king, and that he "freed the nation from foreign invasion by his devotion and diligence". [3] Oswine was also of the royal family, and arguably had a claim to the throne; hence it has been suggested that Bede's comments here are strongly partisan. Bede's correspondent on Kentish affairs was Albinus, abbot of the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul (subsequently renamed St. Augustine's) in Canterbury, and these views can almost certainly be ascribed to the Church establishment there. [7] [8] [9]

St Augustines Abbey Canterbury

St Augustine's Abbey was a Benedictine monastery in Canterbury, Kent, England. The abbey was founded in 598 and functioned as a monastery until its dissolution in 1538 during the English Reformation. After the abbey's dissolution, it underwent dismantlement until 1848. Since 1848, part of the site has been used for educational purposes and the abbey ruins have been preserved for their historical value.

Two charters provide evidence of Wihtred's date of accession. One, dated April 697, indicates Wihtred was then in the sixth year of his rule, [10] so his accession can be dated to some time between April 691 and April 692. Another, dated 17 July 694, is in his fourth regnal year, giving a possible range of July 690 to July 691. [11] The overlap in date ranges gives April to July 691 as the likely date of his accession. [12] Another estimate of the date of Wihtred's accession can be made from the duration of his reign, given by Bede as thirty four and a half years. He died on 23 April 725, which would imply an accession date in late 690. [13]

Initially Wihtred ruled alongside Swæfheard. [5] Bede's report of the election of Beorhtwald as Archbishop of Canterbury in July 692 mentions that Swæfheard and Wihtred were the kings of Kent, but Swæfheard is not heard of after this date. It appears that by 694 Wihtred was the sole ruler of Kent, [5] though it may also be that his son Æthelberht was a junior king in west Kent during Wihtred's reign. [14] Wihtred is thought to have had three wives. His first was called Cynegyth, but a charter of 696 names Æthelburh as the royal consort and co-donor of an estate: the former spouse must have died or been dismissed after a short time. Near the end of his reign, a new wife, Wærburh, attested with her husband and son, Alric. [15]

Archbishop of Canterbury senior bishop of the Church of England

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury. The current archbishop is Justin Welby, who was enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral on 21 March 2013. Welby is the 105th in a line which goes back more than 1400 years to Augustine of Canterbury, the "Apostle to the English", sent from Rome in the year 597. Welby succeeded Rowan Williams.

Æthelbert II was king of Kent. Upon the death of his father Wihtred, the kingdom was ruled by his three sons, Æthelbert II, Eadberht I and Alric. Æthelbert seems to have outlived both of his brothers and later reigned jointly with his nephew Eardwulf. He died in 762, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He seems to have left a son, Eadberht II.

It was also in 694 that Wihtred made peace with the West Saxon king Ine. Ine's predecessor, Cædwalla, had invaded Kent and installed his brother Mul as king, but the Kentishmen had subsequently revolted and burned Mul. Wihtred agreed compensation for the killing, but the amount paid to Ine is uncertain. Most manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record "thirty thousand", and some specify thirty thousand pounds. If the pounds are equal to sceattas, then this amount is the equal of a king's wergild—that is, the legal valuation of a man's life, according to his rank. [16] [17] It seems likely that Wihtred ceded some border territory to Ine as part of this settlement. [18]


The first page of the twelfth-century manuscript known as the Textus Roffensis, which contains the oldest surviving copy of Wihtred's law code. Law of Æthelberht.jpg
The first page of the twelfth-century manuscript known as the Textus Roffensis , which contains the oldest surviving copy of Wihtred's law code.

The earliest Anglo-Saxon law code to survive, which may date from 602 or 603, is that of Æthelberht of Kent, whose reign ended in 616. [19] In the 670s or 680s, a code was issued in the names of Hlothhere and Eadric of Kent. The next kings to issue laws were Ine of Wessex and Wihtred. [20]

The dating of Wihtred's and Ine's laws is somewhat uncertain, but there is reason to believe that Wihtred's laws were issued on 6 September 695, [21] while Ine's laws were written in 694 or shortly before. [22] Ine had recently agreed peaceful terms with Wihtred over compensation for the death of Mul, and there are indications that the two rulers collaborated to some degree in producing their laws. In addition to the coincidence of timing, there is one clause that appears in almost identical form in both codes. [23] Another sign of collaboration is that Wihtred's laws use gesith, a West Saxon term for noble, in place of the Kentish term eorlcund. It is possible that Ine and Wihtred issued the law codes as an act of prestige, to re-establish authority after periods of disruption in both kingdoms. [24]

Wihtred's laws were issued at "Berghamstyde"; it is not known for certain where this was, but the best candidate is Bearsted, near Maidstone. The laws are primarily concerned with religious affairs; only the last four of its twenty-eight chapters do not deal with ecclesiastical affairs. The first clause of the code gives the Church freedom from taxation. Subsequent clauses specify penalties for irregular marriages, heathen worship, work on the sabbath, and breaking fasts, among other things; and also define how members of each class of society—such as the king, bishops, priests, ceorls, and esnes—can clear themselves by giving an oath. [25] In addition to the focus of the laws themselves, the introduction makes clear the importance of the Church in the legislative process. Bertwald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was present at the assembly which devised the decrees, and so was Gefmund, the Bishop of Rochester; and "every order of the Church of that nation spoke in unanimity with the loyal people". [25] [26]

The privileges given to the Church are notable: in addition to the freedom from taxation, the oath of a bishop is "incontrovertible", which places it at the same level as the oath of a king, and the Church receives the same level of compensation for violence done to dependents as does the king. This has led one historian to describe the Church's power, less than a century after the original Roman mission landed in Kent, as "all but co-ordinate with the king himself in the Kentish state", [27] and it has also been described as presupposing "a frightening degree of royal power". [28] However, the presence of clauses that provide penalties for any of Wihtred's subjects who "sacrifice to devils" makes it clear that although Christianity was dominant, the older pagan beliefs of the population had by no means died out completely. [25] [29]

Clause 21 of the code specifies that a ceorl must find three men of his own class to be his "oath-helpers". An oath-helper would swear an oath on behalf of an accused man, to clear him from the suspicion of the crime. The laws of Ine were more stringent than this, requiring that a high-ranking person must be found to be an oath-helper for everyone, no matter what class they were from. The two laws taken together imply a significant weakening of an earlier state in which a man's kin were legally responsible for him. [30]

Death and succession

On his death, Wihtred left Kent to his three sons: Æthelberht II, Eadberht I, and Alric. [13] The chronology of the reigns following Wihtred is unclear, although there is evidence of both an Æthelbert and at least one Eadbert in the following years. [31] After Wihtred's death, and the departure of Ine of Wessex for Rome the following year, Æthelbald of Mercia became the dominant power in the south of England. [32]

See also


  1. Kirby, Earliest English Kings, p. 115.
  2. Kirby, Earliest English Kings, p. 118.
  3. 1 2 Bede, Ecclesiastical History, IV. 26, p. 255.
  4. Kirby, Earliest English Kings, pp. 120–121.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Kirby, Earliest English Kings, pp. 122–123.
  6. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, p. 32.
  7. Kirby, Earliest English Kings, p. 53.
  8. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 182.
  9. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, p. 25.
  10. "Anglo-Saxons.net: S 18". Sean Miller. Retrieved 14 October 2007.
  11. "Anglo-Saxons.net: S 15". Sean Miller. Retrieved 14 October 2007.
  12. Note that Kirby uses S18 in his argument for Wihtred's accession date, whereas Whitelock uses S15. See Kirby, Earliest English Kings, p. 123; and Whitelock, English Historical Documents, p. 361.
  13. 1 2 Bede, Ecclesiastical History, V. 23, p. 322–325.
  14. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, p. 33.
  15. Kelly, Wihtred. The charter of 716, which recorded a Synod at Bapchild in Kent, is regarded as spurious, but is thought to have used genuine witness lists.
  16. Swanton, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 40–41, note 3.
  17. Lapidge, Michael (ed.), "Wergild", in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, p. 469.
  18. Kirby, Earliest English Kings, p. 124.
  19. Whitelock, English Historical Documents, p. 357.
  20. Whitelock, English Historical Documents, pp. 327–337.
  21. Whitelock, English Historical Documents, p. 361.
  22. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 72.
  23. The law is chapter 20 in Ine's code, and chapter 28 in Wihtred's. Ine's version reads "If a man from a distance or a foreigner goes through the wood off the track, and does not shout nor blow a horn, he is to be assumed to be a thief, to be either killed or redeemed." Wihtred's version is "If a man from a distance or a foreigner goes off the track, and he neither shouts nor blows a horn, he is to be assumed to be a thief, to be either killed or redeemed." See Whitelock, English Historical Documents, pp. 364, 366.
  24. Kirby, Earliest English Kings, p. 125.
  25. 1 2 3 Whitelock, English Historical Documents, pp. 362–364.
  26. Kirby, Earliest English Kings, p. 2.
  27. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 62
  28. Wormald, Patrick, "The Age of Bede and Aethelbald", in Campbell, The Anglo-Saxons, p. 99
  29. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 128
  30. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 316–317.
  31. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, p. 30–31.
  32. Kirby, Earliest English Kings, p.131.

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Primary sources

Secondary sources

Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of Kent
c. 690 – 23 April 725
With: Swæfheard (to c. 694)
Succeeded by
Æthelbert II
Eadbert I