A Brief History of the Isle of Wight Pagan Kings
By Paul A.T. Wilson
What infomration we are using
We will be concerning ourselves with the information that we have from the Venerable Bebe and his work the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesisastical History of the English People) c731 AD and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as they are the closes contempory accounts we have.
Background: Early Medieval Period
In the early medieval period, the so called “Dark Ages” (because very little written record exist or survive) was a brutal time in the land of Bryttania [Britain]. There was no single country, but a mass of smaller kingdoms that were ruled by warlord kings. In fact even the concept of “Bryttania” seems to have been idea of the past and the name was used in reference to a bygone era (most probably the Roman occupation).
The Kingdom of the Wihtwara (where the name Wight comes from) was fiercely independent and considered itself very much a different sovereign nation, with its own customs and more than likely its own dialect. Little is known about the lines of succession for the Wihtwara Kings, but we do know some detail.
The First Kings of Wihtwara
The name Wihtwara gets its name from the earliest known king, Wihtgar. Wihtgar (There is debate over Wihtgar and whether he was a real person or apocryphal) and Stuf are the first recorded kings of the Island, although it has never been stated they must be either cousins or brothers as they’re reported to be the nephews of the first King of Wessex, Cerdic.
Although Newport is now the County Town for the Island, in the early medieval period the capital of the kingdom was Wihtwarasburgh which over time became known as Carisbrooke. It is thought that Wihtwarasburgh is thought to have been built on top of a pre-existing Roman fort, however this has never been proven. The earliest known archaeological evidence is 6th century pagan cemetery which does match up with the account from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Wihtgar and Stuff ruled from c534 AD to c544 AD and possibly buried at Wihtwarasburgh.
Extract Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A.D. 530. This year Cerdic and Cynric took the Isle of Wight, and slew many men in Carisbrooke.
A.D. 534. This year died Cerdic, the first king of the West- Saxons. Cynric his son succeeded to the government, and reigned afterwards twenty-six winters. And they gave to their two nephews, Stuff and Wihtgar, the whole of the Isle of Wight.
Etymologie of Names
• wiht (Strong Feminine Noun): A person from Wight / a sea creature / person of the sea
• wara (Weak Masculine Noun): An inhabitant
• Wihtwara People of the Isle of Wight / People of the Sea
• Stuf Stump (Possibly a nick name)
• gar (u-stem Masculine): Spear / Dart / Javelin
• Wihtgar The spear of the Isle of Wight / The Spear of the creature of the Sea / The Spear of the Person of the Sea
There are no records for the next 120 years on who ruled the Kingdom of Wihtwara, there are two possible explanations:
1. Because the Wihtwara was a minor Kingdom it was left alone and ruled itself with very little outside intevention. The Kingdom was seen as client Kingdom to Wessex and as long as nobles held up their duties to their overload King then it was probably just left alone.
2. The Kingdom was taken over by Wessex and ruled remotely. This does not seem likely as there is no mention of the Island in that whole time. It could be that the King of Wessex assumed his rule was enforced and again the Island was just left alone.
King Aethelwalh of Sessex
In c661 AD King Aethelwalh of Sussex was given overlordship of the Isle of Wight by King Wulfhere of Mercia. Upon taking control of the Island, Aethelwalh forced the Islanders to convert to Christianity.
There is a discrepancy between Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bede says that the Bishop Wilfrid went to convert the 7,000 families in Kent and then onto Sussex and the Island in 681 AD.
It is unknown if King Aethelwalh over-threw the current King of the Island or if there was a death causing a power vacuum allowing an easy take over. What is known, however, the Island was made “Christian” in name only, and as soon as Aethelwalh left, the Islanders continued with their ancient, pagan beliefs.
Extracts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A.D. 656. This year was Peada slain; and Wulfhere, son of Penda, succeeded to the kingdom of the Mercians. ... "And I Archbishop of Canterbury, Deus-dedit, ratify it." -- Then confirmed it all the others that were there with the cross of Christ (+): namely, Ithamar, Bishop of Rochester; Wina, Bishop of London; Jeruman, Bishop of the Mercians; and Tuda, bishop; and Wilfrid, priest, who was afterwards bishop; and Eoppa, priest, whom the king, Wulfere, sent to preach Christianity in the Isle of Wight; ...
A.D. 661. This year, at Easter, Kenwal fought at Pontesbury; and Wulfere, the son of Penda, pursued him as far as Ashdown. Cuthred, the son of Cwichelm, and King Kenbert, died in one year. Into the Isle of Wight also Wulfere, the son of Penda, penetrated, and transferred the inhabitants to Ethelwald, king of the South-Saxons, because Wulfere adopted him in baptism. And Eoppa, a mass-priest, by command of Wilfrid and King Wulfere, was the first of men who brought baptism to the people of the Isle of Wight.
Extract from Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Chap. XIII. How Bishop Wilfrid converted the province of the South Saxons to Christ. [681 a.d.]
But Wilfrid was expelled from his bishopric, and having long travelled in many lands, went to Rome, and afterwards returned to Britain. Though he could not, by reason of the enmity of the aforesaid king, be received into his own country or diocese, yet he could not be restrained from the ministry of the Gospel; for, taking his way into the province of the South Saxons, which extends from Kent to the south and west, as far as the West Saxons, containing land of 7,000 families, and was at that time still in bondage to pagan rites, he administered to them the Word of faith, and the Baptism of salvation. Ethelwalch, king of that nation, had been, not long before, baptized in the province of the Mercians, at the instance of King Wulfhere, who was present, and received him as his godson when he came forth from the font, and in token of this adoption gave him two provinces, to wit, the Isle of Wight, and the province of the Meanware, in the country of the West Saxons. The bishop, therefore, with the king's consent, or rather to his great joy, cleansed in the sacred font the foremost ealdormen and thegns of that country; and the priests, Eappa, and Padda, and Burghelm, and Oiddi, either then, or afterwards, baptized the rest of the people. The queen, whose name was Eabae, had been baptized in her own country, the province of the Hwiccas. She was the daughter of Eanfrid, the brother of Aenhere, who were both Christians, as were their people; but all the province of the South Saxons was ignorant of the Name of God and the faith. But there was among them a certain monk of the Scottish nation, whose name was Dicul, who had a very small monastery, at the place called Bosanhamm, encompassed by woods and seas, and in it there were five or six brothers, who served the Lord in humility and poverty; but none of the natives cared either to follow their course of life, or hear their preaching.
King Arwald - The Last British Pagan King
Sometime between c661 AD and c686 AD the last king of the Wihtwara, King Arwald came to power. Nothing is known about Arwald’s early life or where he came from. However, it is believed he was born on the Island as he was a Pagan and the Island, by then, was the last Pagan Kingdom in Britain.
Arwald ruled this Island with his two younger brothers by his side who Bede describes as “youths”. Unfortunately neither Bede nor the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded their names, they were sometimes referred to as "The First Fruits". We also know that Arwald had a sister (name also lost to history) and because she went on to marry the then King of Kent, Arwald's family must have been seen as noble.
The Fall of Arwald and the Slaughter
In c686 AD, Caedwalla, who was an exiled King from Wessex had invaded Sussex and killed Aethelwalh and took his lands.
After establishing his powerbase in Sussex he used the pretence of “Conversation” to invade and take Wihtwara.
Caedwalla had promised one quarter of the Island to Bishop Wilfrid and the Church if he was allowed to proceed with his righteous crusade.
Of course this was nothing more than a thinly veiled pretext to invade the Island, slaughter the ruling house and make another power grab.
22nd April 686:
It’s unknown how much foreknowledge Arwald had of the coming invasion but he must have had enough time to amass his small army to defend his land.
Arwald was killed in battle but it isn’t documented if his two brothers (later called “The First Fruits” as they were first fruits of the slaughter that was to come) fought along side Arwald and then escaped or if The King sent them to the mainland for safety. Judging by Bede’s own words, the boys were probably sent away by their brother “… two royal boys, brothers to Arwald, king of the island, were crowned with the special grace of God. For when the enemy approached, they made their escape out of the island … “
What we do know is that the fight was bloody and that Caedwalla suffered many injuries from the battle. So the Islanders, though most likely much smaller in numbers fought valiantly for their kingdom and home.
The two brothers successfully made their way to the mainland and where hidden by sympathisers in Stoneham near Southampton. However, they were betrayed and Caedwalla sentenced them to death because they were the last claimants to the throne.
Before their death, a priest named Cynibert asked to take the boys to convert and baptise them in the name of saving their immortal souls. Cynibert wanted to “instruct them in the mysteries of the Christian faith.” The two youths were subsequently canonised (disingenuously) under the name St Arwald with their feast day being 22nd April.
According to the official Vatican records: ARWALD (Saints) Martyrs (April 22) (7th century) Two brothers, sons of Arwald, a prince in the Isle of Wight, whose proper names are lost. They were put to death by the soldiers of King Ceadwalla, then a Pagan, on the morrow of their baptism (A.D. 686).
The irony being that Caedwalla is painted as being a brutal Pagan barbarian that killed the children for being Christian. Although Caedwalla was still technically a pagan, he was doing "the Church's work" and was Christian in everything but name at this point. Eventually he did get baptised when he went to Rome on pilgrimage only to die ten days later.
Sculpture representing the three brothers looking out to sea on their last day
Once Caedwalla had killed the two brothers he went on the slaughter every Islander that he could and replaced them with his own people. It is unclear if the slaughter was only the noble men at Wihtwarasburgh or every Islander. However, the former is probably more likely with quite a few peasants thrown in for good measure.
Not the end of the Royal House of Wihtwara
The story doesn’t quite end there: as mentioned earlier, Arwald’s sister married the King of Kent, Ecgberht. Arwald’s sister was the mother of King Wihtred of Kent, grandmother of Aethbert II of Kent and great grandmother of Ecgberht of Wessex and in turn great great grandmother to Alfred the Great.
Extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A.D. 686. This year Ceadwall and his brother Mull spread devastation in Kent and the Isle of Wight. This same Ceadwall gave to St. Peter's minster, at Medhamsted, Hook; which is situated in an island called Egborough. Egbald at this time was abbot, who was the third after Saxulf; and Theodore was archbishop in Kent.
Extract Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Book Four)
Chap. XV. How King Caedwalla, king of the Gewissae, having slain Ethelwalch, wasted that Province with cruel slaughter and devastation. [685 a.d.]
In the meantime, Caedwalla, a young man of great vigour, of the royal race of the Gewissae, an exile from his country, came with an army, slew Ethelwalch, and wasted that province with cruel slaughter and devastation; but he was soon expelled by Berthun and Andhun, the king's ealdormen, who held in succession the government of the province. The first of them was afterwards killed by the same Caedwalla, when he was king of the Gewissae, and the province was reduced to more grievous slavery: Ini, likewise, who reigned after Caedwalla, oppressed that country with the like servitude for many years; for which reason, during all that time, they could have no bishop of their own; but their first bishop, Wilfrid, having been recalled home, they were subject to the bishop of the Gewissae, that is, the West Saxons, who were in the city of Venta.
Chap. XVI. How the Isle of Wight received Christian inhabitants, and two royal youths of that island were killed immediately after Baptism. [686 a.d.]
After Caedwalla had obtained possession of the kingdom of the Gewissae, he took also the Isle of Wight, which till then was entirely given over to idolatry, and by merciless slaughter endeavoured to destroy all the inhabitants thereof, and to place in their stead people from his own province; binding himself by a vow, though it is said that he was not yet regenerated in Christ, to give the fourth part of the land and of the spoil to the Lord, if he took the island. He fulfilled this vow by giving the same for the service of the Lord to Bishop Wilfrid, who happened at the time to have come thither from his own people.636 The measure of that island, according to the computation of the English, is of twelve hundred families, wherefore an estate of three hundred families was given to the Bishop. The part which he received, he committed to one of his clerks called Bernwin, who was his sister's son, assigning to him a priest, whose name was Hiddila, to administer the Word and laver of life to all that would be saved.
Here I think it ought not to be omitted that, as the first fruits of those of that island who believed and were saved, two royal boys, brothers to Arwald, king of the island, were crowned with the special grace of God. For when the enemy approached, they made their escape out of the island, and crossed over into the neighbouring province of the Jutes. Coming to the place called At the Stone, they thought to be concealed from the victorious king, but they were betrayed and ordered to be killed. This being made known to a certain abbot and priest, whose name was Cynibert, who had a monastery not far from there, at a place called Hreutford, that is, the Ford of Reeds, he came to the king, who then lay in concealment in those parts to be cured of the wounds which he had received whilst he was fighting in the Isle of Wight, and begged of him, that if the boys must needs be killed, he might be allowed first to instruct them in the mysteries of the Christian faith. The king consented, and the bishop having taught them the Word of truth, and cleansed them in the font of salvation, assured to them their entrance into the kingdom of Heaven. Then the executioner came, and they joyfully underwent the temporal death, through which they did not doubt they were to pass to the life of the soul, which is everlasting. Thus, after this manner, when all the provinces of Britain had received the faith of Christ, the Isle of Wight also received the same; yet because it was suffering under the affliction of foreign subjection, no man there received the office or see of a bishop, before Daniel, who is now bishop of the West Saxons.
The island is situated opposite the borders of the South Saxons and the Gewissae, being separated from it by a sea, three miles wide, which is called Solvente. In this sea, the two tides of the ocean, which break upon Britain all round its coasts from the boundless northern ocean, daily meet in conflict beyond the mouth of the river Homelea, which runs into the aforesaid sea, through the lands of the Jutes, belonging to the country of the Gewissae; and after this struggle of the tides, they fall back and return into the ocean whence they come.
Etymologies of Names
• Ar: Honour / Glory
• Wald: Power / Strength
• Arwald: Power & Honour