Ælle of Sussex

Ælle of Sussex

Infobox Monarch

caption=Ælle's name is visible in this line from the Parker manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written c. 890
title=King of Sussex
reign=c.477 – c.514

Ælle (also Aelle or Ella, pron-en|ˈælə) is recorded in early sources as the first king of the South Saxons, reigning in what is now called Sussex, England, from 477 to perhaps as late as 514. The information about him is so limited that it cannot be said with certainty that Ælle existed.

Ælle and three of his sons are reported to have arrived from the continent near what is now Selsey Bill—the exact location is under the sea, and is probably a sandbank currently known as the Owers—and fought with the Britons. A victory in 491 at present day Pevensey is said to have ended with the Saxons slaughtering their opponents to the last man. Although the details of these traditions cannot be verified, evidence from the place names of Sussex does make it clear that it was an area with extensive and early settlement by the Saxons, supporting the idea that this was one of their early conquests.

Ælle was the first king recorded by the eighth century chronicler Bede to have held "imperium", or overlordship, over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.Bede, "Ecclesiastical History", II 5.] In the late ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (around four hundred years after his time) Ælle is recorded as being the first bretwalda, or "Britain-ruler", though there is no evidence that this was a contemporary title. Ælle's death is not recorded, and it is not known who succeeded him as king of the South Saxons.

Historical context

Ælle, if he existed, lived in the middle of the least-documented period in English history of the last two millennia.For example, James Campbell writes: "The natural vice of historians is to claim to know about the past. Nowhere is this claim more dangerous than when it is staked in Britain between AD 400 and 600" ("The Anglo-Saxons", p. 20).] By the early fifth century Britain had been Roman for over three hundred and fifty years. The most troublesome enemies of Roman Britain were the Picts of central and northern Scotland, and the Gaels known as Scoti, who were raiders from Ireland. Also vexatious were the Saxons, the name Roman writers gave to the peoples who lived in the northern part of what is now Germany and the southern part of the Jutland peninsula. Saxon raids on the southern and eastern shores of England had been sufficiently alarming by the late third century for the Romans to build the Saxon Shore forts, and subsequently to establish the role of the Count of the Saxon Shore to command the defence against these incursions. Roman control of Britain finally ended in the early part of the fifth century; the date usually given as marking the end of Roman Britain is 410, when the Emperor Honorius sent letters to the British, urging them to look to their own defence. Britain had been repeatedly stripped of troops to support usurpers' claims to the Roman empire, and after 410 the Roman armies never returned.Hunter Blair, "An Introduction", pp. 1–14.] Campbell et al, "The Anglo-Saxons" pp. 13–16.]

Sources for events after this date are extremely scarce, but a tradition, reported as early as the mid sixth century by a British priest named Gildas, records that the British sent for help against the barbarians to Aetius, a Roman consul, probably in the late 440s. No help came. Subsequently (and Gildas's information here is supplemented by other, later sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), a British leader named Vortigern is supposed to have invited continental mercenaries to help fight the Picts who were attacking from the north. The leaders, whose names are recorded as Hengest and Horsa, rebelled, and a long period of warfare ensued. The invaders—Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians—gained control of parts of England, but lost a major battle at Mons Badonicus (the location of which is not known). Some authors have speculated that Ælle may have led the Saxon forces at this battle, [cite book |last=Bradbury|first=James|title=The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare|pages=140|year=2004| location= New York|publisher=Routledge| isbn= 0-415-22126-9] while others reject the idea out of hand. [cite book |last=Warner|first=Philip|title=British Battlefields: The Midlands|pages=23|year=1972|location=Reading|publisher=Osprey| oclc=60058359]

The British thus gained a respite, and peace lasted at least until the time Gildas was writing: that is, for perhaps forty or fifty years, from around the end of the fifth century until midway through the sixth.Hunter Blair, "An Introduction", pp. 13–16.] Campbell et al, "The Anglo-Saxons" p. 23.] Shortly after Gildas's time the Anglo-Saxon advance was resumed, and by the late sixth century nearly all of southern England was under the control of the continental invaders.Hunter Blair ("Roman Britain", p. 204) gives the twenty-five years from 550 to 575 as the dates of the final conquest.]

Early sources

Kent and does not mention Ælle.] There are two early sources that mention Ælle by name. The earliest is "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People", a history of the English church written in 731 by Bede, an English monk. Bede mentions Ælle as one of the Anglo-Saxon kings who exercised what he calls "imperium" over "all the provinces south of the river Humber"; "imperium" is usually translated as "overlordship". Bede gives a list of seven kings who held "imperium", and Ælle is the first of them. The other information Bede gives is that Ælle was not a Christian—Bede mentions a later king as "the first to enter the kingdom of heaven".

The second source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals assembled in the Kingdom of Wessex in c. 890, during the reign of Alfred the Great. The Chronicle has three entries for Ælle, from 477 to 491, as follows:Translations are Michael Swanton's ("Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", p. 14), from the A text of the Chronicle; except that Frank M. Stenton's translation ("Anglo-Saxon England", pp. 17–18) of part has been substituted to keep "Andredes leag" and "Andredes cester" in the text, for subsequent explanation.]

*477: Ælle and his 3 sons, Cymen and Wlencing and Cissa, came to the land of Britain with 3 ships at the place which is named Cymen's Shore, and there killed many Welsh and drove some to flight into the wood called Andredes leag.
*485: Here Ælle fought against the Welsh near the margin of Mearcred's Burn.
*491: Here Ælle and Cissa besieged Andredes cester, and killed all who lived in there; there was not even one Briton left there.

The Chronicle was put together about four hundred years after these events. It is known that the annalists used material from earlier chronicles, as well as from oral sources such as sagas, but there is no way to tell where these lines came from.Swanton, "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. xviii-xix] It should also be noted that the terms 'British' and 'Welsh' were used interchangeably, as 'Welsh' is the Saxon word meaning 'foreigner', and was applied to all the native Romano-British of the era.Swanton, "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", p. 14.]

Three of the places named can be identified. "Cymen's Shore" ("Cymenes ora" in the original) now lies under the sea, but from later references it is clear it lay south of what is now Selsey Bill, just east of the Isle of Wight. Sandbanks—the Middle and Outer Owers—now mark the spot.Hunter Blair, "Roman Britain", p. 176.] The wood called "Andredes leag" is the Weald, which at that time was a forest extending from north-west Hampshire all through northern Sussex; and "Andredes cester" is known to be Anderitum, the Saxon Shore fort, built by the Romans, at Pevensey Castle, just outside the town.Stenton, "Anglo-Saxon England", pp. 17–19.] This was later to be the Norman base before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule.

The Chronicle mentions Ælle once more under the year 827, where he is listed as the first of the eight "bretwaldas", or "Britain-rulers". The list consists of Bede's original seven, plus Egbert of Wessex.Swanton, "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. 60–61.] There has been much scholarly debate over just what it meant to be a "bretwalda", and the extent of Ælle's actual power in southern England is an open question.Hunter Blair, "An Introduction", pp. 201–202.] Campbell et al, "The Anglo-Saxons", pp. 53–54.] It is also noteworthy that there is a long gap between Ælle and the second king on Bede's list, Ceawlin of Wessex, whose reign began in the late sixth century; this may indicate a period in which Anglo-Saxon dominance was interrupted in some way.

Earlier sources than Bede exist which mention the South Saxons, though they do not name Ælle. The earliest reference is still quite late, however, at about 692: a charter of King Nothelm's, which styles him "King of the South Saxons".Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", pp. 20–21.] Charters are documents which granted land to followers or to churchmen, and which would be witnessed by the kings who had power to grant the land. They are one of the key documentary sources for Anglo-Saxon history, but no original charters survive from earlier than the end of the seventh century.Hunter Blair, "Roman Britain", pp. 14–15.] Campbell et al, "The Anglo-Saxons", pp.95–98.]

There are other early writers whose works can shed light on Ælle's time, though they do not mention either him or his kingdom. Gildas's description of the state of England in his time is useful for understanding the ebb and flow of the Anglo-Saxon incursions. Procopius, a Byzantine historian, writing not long after Gildas, adds to the meagre sources on population movement by including a chapter on England in one of his works. He records that the peoples of Britain—he names the English, the British, and the Frisians—were so numerous that they were migrating to the kingdom of the Franks in great numbers every year.Hunter Blair, "Roman Britain", p. 164.] Although this is probably a reference to Britons emigrating to Armorica to escape the Anglo-Saxons. They subsequently gave their name to the area they settled as Brittany, or Bretagne.

Evidence from place names in Sussex

The early dates given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the colonization of Sussex are supported by an analysis of the place names of the region. The strongest evidence comes from place names that end in "-ing", such as Worthing and Angmering. These are known to derive from an earlier form ending in "-ingas". "Hastings" for example, derives from "Hæstingas" which means "the followers or dependents of a person named Hæsta".Hunter Blair, "Roman Britain", pp. 176–178.]

From west of Selsey Bill to east of Pevensey can be found the densest concentration of these names anywhere in Britain. There are a total of about forty-five place names in Sussex of this form, and the personal names from which these are derived appear in many cases to have gone out of current use before the seventh century, when written records appear again. Hence it is generally accepted that these place names are evidence of the establishment of Saxon communities with stable populations as early as the fifth and sixth centuries.Hunter Blair, "An Introduction", p. 22.] In addition, Sussex has unusually few place names of British origin. This does not necessarily mean that the Saxons killed or drove out almost all of the native population, despite the slaughter of the Britons reported in the Chronicle entry for 491; however, it does imply that the invasion was on a scale that left little space for the British.

These lines of reasoning cannot prove the dates given in the Chronicle, much less the existence of Ælle himself, but they do support the idea of an early conquest and the establishment of a settled kingdom.


Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the area of modern Sussex.] If the dates given by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are accurate to within half a century, then Ælle's reign lies in the middle of the Anglo-Saxon expansion, and prior to the final conquest of the Britons. It also seems consistent with the dates given to assume that Ælle's battles predate Mons Badonicus. This in turn would explain the long gap, of fifty or more years, in the succession of the "bretwaldas": if the peace gained by the Britons did indeed hold till the second half of the sixth century, it is not to be expected that an Anglo-Saxon leader should have anything resembling overlordship of England during that time. The idea of a pause in the Anglo-Saxon advance is also supported by the account in Procopius of sixth century migration from Britain to the kingdom of the Franks. Procopius's account is consistent with what is known to be a contemporary colonization of Armorica (now Brittany, in France); the settlers appear to have been at least partly from Dumnonia (modern Cornwall), and the area acquired regions known as Dumnonée and Cornouaille.Campbell et al, "The Anglo-Saxons", p. 22.] It seems likely that something at that time was interrupting the general flow of the Anglo-Saxons from the continent to Britain.Stenton, "Anglo-Saxon England", p. 12.]

The dates for Ælle's battles are also reasonably consistent with what is known of events in the kingdom of the Franks at that time. Clovis I united the Franks into a single kingdom during the 480s and afterwards, and the Franks' ability to exercise power along the southern coast of the English channel may have diverted Saxon adventurers to England rather than the continent.

It is possible, therefore, that a historical king named Ælle existed, who arrived from the continent in the late fifth century, and who conquered much of what is now Sussex. He may have been a prominent war chief with a leadership role in a federation of Anglo-Saxon groups fighting for territory in Britain at that time. This may be the origin of the reputation that led Bede to list him as holding overlordship over southern Britain.Fletcher, "Who's Who", p. 17.] The battles listed in the Chronicle are compatible with a conquest of Sussex from west to east, against British resistance stiff enough to last fourteen years. His area of military control may have extended as far as Hampshire and north to the upper Thames valley, but it certainly did not extend across all of England south of the Humber, as Bede asserts.Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p. 55.]

Ælle's death is not recorded by the Chronicle, which gives no information about him, or his sons, or the South Saxons until 675, when the South Saxon king Æthelwalh was baptized.Stenton, "Anglo-Saxon England", p. 12]

ee also

*Timeline of the Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover of Britain



;Primary sources
*cite book |last= Bede|authorlink= Bede|title= Ecclesiastical History of the English People|others= Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, revised R.E. Latham, ed. D.H. Farmer|location= London|publisher= Penguin|year= 1991|isbn= 0-14-044565-X
*cite book |last= Swanton|first= Michael|title= The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle|year= 1996| location=New York|publisher= Routledge|isbn=0-415-92129-5;Secondary sources
*cite book |last= Campbell|first= James|title= The Anglo-Saxons|coauthors=John, Eric & Wormald, Patrick|year= 1991|location=London|publisher= Penguin Books|isbn=0-14-014395-5
*cite book |last= Fletcher|first= Richard|title= Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England|year= 1989|location=London|publisher= Shepheard-Walwyn|isbn=0-85683-089-5
*cite book |last= Hunter Blair|first= Peter| authorlink=Peter Hunter Blair|title= An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England|pages=13–16|year= 1960|location=Cambridge|publisher= Cambridge University Press
*cite book |last= Hunter Blair|first= Peter|title= Roman Britain and Early England: 55 B.C. – A.D. 871|year= 1966| location=New York|publisher= W.W. Norton & Company|isbn=0-393-00361-2
*cite book |last= Kirby|first= D.P.|title= The Earliest English Kings|year= 1992|location=London|publisher= Routledge|isbn=0-415-09086-5
*cite book |last= Stenton|first= Frank M.| authorlink = Frank Stenton|title= Anglo-Saxon England|year= 1971| location=Oxford|publisher= Clarendon Press|isbn=0-19-821716-1

NAME = Ælle
SHORT DESCRIPTION = First king of the South Saxons

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