The Shakespearean Death of King Cynewulf


Upon the death of King Cuthred of Wessex around the year 756, the throne passed to Sigebert, a distant member of the royal family. As the new king was not a direct descendant of his predecessor, he was vulnerable to court intrigue. Unluckily for him, another distant kinsman of the late King Cuthred had his own ambitions for the crown, and the prospective usurper waited only a year to strike. In the end, corruption was Sigebert’s undoing—either his own corruption, or the corrupting influence of his rival. Sometime during the year 757, the officials of Wessex abruptly turned against Sigebert. The witan, a high advisor of the king, charged Sigebert with allegations of unrighteousness and corrupt behavior. A man named Cynewulf then claimed the throne, with the witan’s support, and his first order of action was to chase his rival into a forest, where the unfortunate King Sigebert was murdered.

King Cynewulf went on to rule for multiple decades. By Anglo-Saxon standards, he was a decent king. As a warrior, Cynewulf fought bravely and, as a Christian monarch, the monk-historians of medieval Britain seemed to have no complaint with the way he dealt with the church. The biggest blemish on Cynewulf’s rule was the battle he lost to King Offa of Mercia, the high king (or Bretwalda) of the time, at Bensington in 779. Overall, however, Cynewulf kept the strength of Wessex largely intact during his reign. Nevertheless, despite his successes, the death of his predecessor, Sigebert, would haunt Cynewulf to the end.

The deposed and murdered King Sigebert had a brother named Cyneheard. This brother, understandably, had a bitter grudge against the new king of Wessex. In the course of the feud, Cyneheard was eventually exiled from the kingdom, but even then, he never stopped longing for revenge. Instead, he apparently built a network of informants and constantly watched for an opportunity to attack.

Cyneheard finally found his opportunity in the year 786. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cyneheard discovered that the king was traveling with a light entourage to visit a mistress in Merton. Sensing an opportunity, he reportedly gathered a posse of eighty-five companions and set off to confront the king.

What supposedly happened next reads like a cross between a tragic play and an Icelandic saga. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cyneheard snuck past the camp of soldiers that had followed the king to Merton. After slipping past the guards, Cyneheard and his companions surrounded the gated building where the king was spending the night with his mistress. The king was reportedly very thinly guarded at the time, and had no idea that his life was in danger.

It was only when Cyneheard reached the gate that someone in the residence realized that something was amiss. The king was informed and he rallied whatever few guards were with him to defend the gate. In the hustle and bustle, the mistress of the king also managed to slip away unnoticed by the besiegers, intending to reach the king’s nearby camp of loyal soldiers. If King Cynewulf had defended the gateway until help arrived, he may have survived the night—nevertheless, the king had different plans.

As the story goes, the king charged out of the gate as soon as Cyneheard came into his field of vision. In a heroic last stand, the king pushed his way through his nemesis’ eighty-five warriors and managed to deal Cyneheard a significant wound. Yet, before he could completely strike down his foe, King Cynewulf and his few guards were surrounded and killed by his assailants.

Meanwhile, the late king’s mistress successfully reached the military camp. The men who were on sentry, as well as whoever else happened to be awake and armed, all rushed toward the gated building, hoping to save their king. Yet, when this first wave of troops arrived, they discovered that their king was dead and that Cyneheard had apparently moved his own forces within the gate and walls. The assassin reportedly offered to hire the warriors and announced his intention to become the next king. The warriors, however, refused to join Cyneheard and instead fought to the death in an unsuccessful effort to avenge the death of their king.

By the first light of morning, the rest of the men from the military camp had awakened and armed themselves for battle. The large band of loyal warriors was led by Osric, the king’s alderman, and Wiverth, a loyal thane. When this larger mass of warriors arrived at the gated building, Cyneheard once again announced his intention to become king and offered them land and wealth in exchange for their support. Yet, like first wave of warriors from the camp, the men led by Osric and Wiverth refused to join with their liege’s murderer. In the end, the late king’s loyal warriors smashed through the gate and slaughtered Cyneheard, along with all but one of his eighty-five followers. The lone survivor was only shown mercy because he happened to be Osric’s godson. With the king and his most prominent rival both dead, the throne of Wessex passed to their distant kinsman, King Beorhtric (r. 786-802).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Cynewulf of Wessex Slain at Merton (Surrey), 786 AD, illustration from Hutchinsons Story of the British Nation, by Richard Woodville, c.1920, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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