(16th century mural of Caedwalla and Wilfrid painted by Lambert Barnard, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Exile, Kingship, War and Conquest—The life of a 7th Century Warrior Saint
In the region of Wessex, during the middle of the 7th century, there lived a king of Saxon descent who conquered much of southeastern England. Several kings were put to death by his executioners, and various communities were ravaged or massacred on the whim of this conquering king. This was King Caedwalla of Wessex—but there is a catch. He would later be recognized by the Christian church as a saint, and was even laid to rest in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Caedwalla was born in 659 into a family of royal blood. He was supposedly related to the 6th century king of Wessex, Ceawlin (ruled 560-592), who was a successful conqueror until he was eventually forced into exile. Ceawlin’s fate was forced on his descendant, because Caedwalla, too, was eventually exiled from Wessex. Though young Caedwalla was expelled from his homeland, he still had a claim to the throne—a fact he would not forget.
By 685, Caedwalla had amassed a significant band of soldiers during his years of exile. He had enough confidence in his men to attempt to sieze the throne of Sussex, a kingdom at the southeasternmost end of England. Caedwalla and his followers managed to kill the ruler of Sussex, King Aethelwalh, but a new pair of joint kings (Berhtun and Andhun) were able to successfully defend their homeland and push Caedwalla out of Sussex.
Caedwalla’s first invasion resulted in a resounding defeat, but his luck would soon change. Still in the same year, 685, King Centwine of Wessex abdicated his crown, trading his throne for life in a monastery. It is unclear if Centwine made this decision of his own volition, or if he was pressured into his new cloistured life. Whatever the cause, Caedwalla filled the vacancy left by Centwine, and became the next king of Wessex.
With a kingdom at his disposal, Caedwalla was quick to resume his martial ambitions. He was able, through diplomacy or threat (or a mix of both), to make the kingdom of Essex a subservient vassal. Caedwalla used the extra manpower of his new ally, King Sighere of Essex, to expand the influence of Wessex through the power of military might.
King Caedwalla went on a rampage of conquest in 686, when he had his revenge on the kingdom that had defeated him earlier. Caedwalla invaded Sussex for a second time, and killed Berhtun, one of the joint-kings who had defeated him, earlier. This time, his conquest of Sussex was a success. He also invaded Kent through Surrey, and added that region to the domain of his kingdom. Kent’s king was stripped of power, and Caedwalla appointed his own brother, Mul, as the new king of that country. A year later, the people of Kent rejected King Mul, and killed him in an open rebellion. In response, Ceadwalla unleashed his soldiers to avenge his slain brother—a task they did with little mercy. The last, and most brutal, of Caedwalla’s campaigns was against the Isle of Wight in 687. He executed King Aruald of the Isle of Wight, and killed a large portion of the isle’s inhabitants to make room for a Saxon colony. Another saint, named Wilfred, was allowed to proselytize Christianity to the new Saxon colony in the Isle of Wight.
With most of southern England conquered, Caedwalla must have turned his thoughts to topics other than conquest and war. Some accounts claim that Caedwalla may have been injured during his campaign against the islanders of Wight. If that is the case, his brush with death, and the slow recovery that followed, may have made the bloodstained king contemplate his own mortality and the state of his spiritual wellbeing. All we know is that Caedwalla converted to Christianity in 688, and soon after abdicated his throne to embark on a religious voyage to mainland Europe in 689.
(Previous map of 7th century England, but with lands ruled by Caedwalla highlighted in bright red)
Giving up his rule of his empire that included the Kingdoms of Wessex, Essex, Sussex, Kent and the Isle of Wight, Caedwalla left the British Isles, entirely. The former conqueror crossed the English Channel and made a pilgrimage to Rome. When he arrived he received baptism by none other than Pope Sergius I. Mere days after his baptism, still in the year 689, the former King Caedwalla of Wessex died in Rome at the young age of thirty. Legend claims that he was found dead still in his baptismal white garb. He body was laid to rest in St. Peter’s Basilica, and Caedwalla was eventually named a saint. He remains a patron saint of converts.
Written By C. Keith Hansley