Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Geoffrey Ashe: Woden’s Brood

Geoffrey Ashe, Mythology of the British Isles (Methuen Publishing Ltd., 2002)

The English Inheritance: Woden’s Brood [pp.291-293]

As British resistance weakened, the chiefs of Anglo-Saxondom consolidated their hold and pressed forward. Seven regional kingdoms took shape, so that incipient England has been spoken of as a Heptarchy. Nearest the continent was Kent, founded by Hengist under Vortigern’s auspices, a realm of Saxons and Jutes. Westward from it was Sussex, and west of that was Wessex. North-east of London was Essex. Those three names denoted the domains of the South Saxons, West Saxons and East Saxons. Beyond Essex was the kingdom of the East Angles. In the midlands was Mercia, and all the Anglian north was Northumbria.

Since the first rulers were heathen, they could claim loftier antecedents than their British counterparts, who, being Christian, could no longer say that their reputed ancestors were gods, even when they were. Saxon royal pedigrees, with a single exception, were traced to the head god Woden, whom Scandinavians knew as Odin. The exception was the East Saxon dynasty, and that was descended from another God, Seaxnot. Woden gave his name to Wednesday, and to several places where his worshippers settled before their Christianisation, such as Wednesbury and Wednesfield. A famous British earthwork is called the Wansdyke, Woden’s Ditch, because, when the Saxons reached it, they believed it to be superhuman.

Folk-memory did not reach far back. The royal pedigrees had few generations, and put Woden himself in the third or fourth century AD, with almost no history for the years between. However, while the kingdoms’ creators lacked a cohesive tradition or common purpose, they recognised a unity in the Roman-formed country they had come to, and expressed this in a title. Whichever Anglo-Saxon king was respected as paramount was the Bretwalda, the Britain-ruler. That distinction passed from kingdom to kingdom - from the South Saxon ruler to the West Saxon, from him to the king of Kent, from Kent to East Anglia, and then to Northumbria and Mercia and finally to Wessex again. At first the Bretwaldaship was hardly more than honorary, but with the passage of time it became a focus of power. Wessex, when it emerged as supreme, made England politically one. Present royalty is descended from the West Saxon house, and thus from its founder, whose name was Cerdic.


On the face of it, Woden in the genealogies is an ancestor-deity, as the Welsh Beli originally was. Yet they make him so recent that a real person may be involved, perhaps a patriarchal chief named after the God, like Brennus. All these kings claimed divine descent to assert a god-given right to whatever they had acquired in Britain. Most of the founders had been self-made, not the heirs of kings before the migration.Only the Mercian dynasty had an ancestor, Icel, who can be traced on the continent as a person of authority in the fifth century.

The Heptarchy is an approximation. Smaller kingdoms came into being and disappeared, taken over or merged with others. While there is no evidence anywhere for a mass genocide of Britons, the ethnic mix varied. Kent was more solidly ‘English’ than most areas. Northumbria, at the other extreme, was created by dominance of the new stock over a population not vastly altered. Wessex absorbed many Britons as it expanded, and gave them a recognised status in its laws, though not an equal one. But whatever the differences, the Anglo-Saxons’ ascendancy was a constant. Their language became the norm everywhere - Cornwall was the only part of England where another vernacular survived - and it evolved into English with very little assimilation of British words, though the old language persisted in geographical names, notably the names of rivers.

The Bretwaldaship, an unusual institution, had a touch of mystique. Its movement from one holder to another depended for many years on consent rather than force. The third Bretwalda, Aethelbert of Kent, was by no means the strongest of the kings. His contemporary Aethelfrith of Northumbria was a major conqueror, yet was never Bretwalda. This may have been because the Bretwaldaship did not at first extend past the Humber, but an implication remains of some sort of agreement, some hazy notion of proprieties and spheres of influence: Aethelfrith could not break into the system. Aethelbert’s Bretwaldaship may have been due to his reigning over the most civilised part of the country, with continental contacts lending prestige. The next Bretwalda was Raedwald of East Anglia, and in his case the wealth and foreign connections of his court, spectacularly revealed by the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, may have been decisive. The point is that power alone was not.

After Raedwald, however, the Bretwaldaship changed. Supremacy was confined to the three largest kingdoms, first Northumbria, then Mercia, then Wessex. The Bretwalda became more of an overlord, and the lesser kingdoms were absorbed. The final triumph of Wessex, and the descent of its dynastic title right through to the House of Windsor, give that dynasty’s origin a special interest. Its beginning was on Southampton Water, where the founder Cerdic is said to have planted himself late in the fifth century. His settlers and their immediate heirs, though attested archaeologically, seem to have been few. However, they pushed north and asserted control over larger Saxon bodies, forming a kingdom that grew swiftly from the 560s onward.

The early West Saxon annals are most confused, and almost nothing is known of Cerdic himself. Some writers have made him an opponent of Arthur, and involved him in the battle of Badon. This is fancy. But there is one intriguing fact, which no Saxon chronicler or genealogist would have invented. His name is not Saxon but British, and several Britons are on record who bore it. While he is given a Woden pedigree as a matter of course, the name hints at a family connection with Britons. An early term for the West Saxons was ‘Gewisse’, which meant ‘allies’ or ‘confederates’, but was taken to mean ‘Gewis’s people’; Cerdic therefore has a Gewis in his pedigree. Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, transfers the word to Wales and says Vortigern was the ruler of the Gewissei. He does not mention Cerdic, yet there are indications, as we have seen, that in using this word he is trying to handle a tradition about a title Vortigern held, and it may now appear that it was supposed to have passed from him to the West Saxon dynasty, perhaps through an unmentioned offspring of his Saxon marriage.

Quite seriously, Cerdic could have been a noble of mixed blood, with a foot in both camps. He might have recruited a following in Gaul. Emigrant Britons on the lower Loire were in contact with more-or-less subdued Saxon settlers. Cerdic, let us say, assembled a combined British-Saxon band in that area, and returned to Britain to carve out a domain based on his British status. Tiny at first, it grew into Wessex, and eventually into England and the United Kingdom. Modern royalty may be descended not only from the West Saxon sovereigns but, farther back, from Britons of the ‘Arthurian’ world.

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