Cenwalh succeeded his father, Cynegils, as king of Wessex in 643. He came to power in the midst of a great power struggle in England between the mighty King Penda of Mercia and the powerful kings of Northumbria. The kings of Wessex, the eventual masters of England, were at that time only a minor player in regional politics, hemmed in by the strength of central and northern English kingdoms. Penda of Mercia had invaded Wessex in 628, during the reign of Cenwalh’s father. Unlike many of Penda’s adversaries, the monarchs of Wessex had survived the war, but the peace agreement that resolved the conflict brought them under Penda’s influence. To strengthen the bond between Mercia and Wessex, Penda’s sister married Cenwalh sometime before his ascension to the throne of Wessex in 643. Yet, as was sometimes prone to happen with arranged marriages, Cenwalh and his bride did not get along. As such, within only two years of becoming king of Wessex, Cenwalh made the dangerous decision to divorce himself from his marriage to Penda’s sister.
Cenwalh’s decision would have been safer if he had been related in marriage to a passive and non-aggressive king. Penda, however, was a bloodthirsty and irritable conqueror who would attack his neighbors for little-to-no reason. By the time that Cenwalh became king of Wessex in 643, Penda had already killed at least four rival English kings—Edwin of Northumbria (d. 632), Kings Sigebert and Ecgric of East Anglia (d. 636), and King Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). This rampaging warrior-king was the wrathful brother of the wife whom Cenwalh wanted to divorce. Yet, despite the obvious possible consequences of his actions, King Cenwalh proceeded with his plan and divorced his Mercian bride.
King Penda responded quickly to the poor treatment of his sister by promptly invading Wessex in 645. Little is known about the battles and military maneuvering that may have taken place during Penda’s campaign into Wessex, but the result of the war was a clear Mercian victory. King Cenwalh was forced to flee from Wessex, whereupon he fled to the court of King Anna of East Anglia.
Penda, however, was a busy man with other lands to invade and kings to kill. He eventually lost interest in punishing King Cenwalh, allowing the refugee monarch of Wessex to return to his kingdom in 648. It was an opportune time for Cenwalh to leave King Anna’s court, as Penda invaded East Anglia in 653 or 654 and killed the East Anglian king.
Fortunately for Cenwalh, Penda’s luck was about to run out. In 655, the Mercians invaded Northumbria, where the forces of King Oswiu (r. 642- 670) finally put a stop to the marauding warlord. King Penda was slain at the Battle of the Winwaed near Leeds in 655. As for King Cenwalh, he remarried and continued to rule Wessex until 672. His second wife, Seaxburg, was said to have ruled in Wessex for a year after Cenwalh’s death.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Augustine of Canterbury preaches to Ethelbert of Kent, painted by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
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- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.