786. Cynewulf of Wessex killed by Cyneheard
Beorhtric succeeds to Wessex

The story of the fight of Cyneheard and Cynewulf in 786, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is a set-piece of Anglo-Saxon loyalty and courage. This is the way of it.

After Cynewulf had ruled for nearly 30 years, he wanted to drive out the ætheling Cyneheard, who was the brother of the deposed Sigeberht (see entry on 757). Cyneheard discovered that King Cynewulf was at Merton visiting a woman with only a small following, and overtook him there and surrounded him before Cynewulf's guards were aware of him. The king discovered this, and went to the doorway and defended himself there until he saw Cyneheard the ætheling, whereupon he rushed out and wounded him severely, but the others were able to surround him and kill him. The king's men were alerted by the woman's cries and armed themselves for battle and ran to the spot. The ætheling told them that he would give them money and spare their lives if they backed down, but all refused, and they continued to fight until all (the king's men) were killed except for one British hostage, and he was sorely wounded.

The next morning the rest of the king's men, who had not accompanied him to Merton, including his ealdorman Osric and his thegn Wigfrith, rode thither and discovered that the ætheling held the fort and had barred the doors against them. The ætheling offered them money and land on their own terms, if they would accept him as king, and pointed out that kinsmen of theirs (the king's men) were with him (the ætheling). The king's men replied that no kinsman was dearer to them than their lord, and they would never follow his slayer. And then the king's men told their kinsmen within that they might leave unharmed. But the kinsmen who were with the ætheling said that the same offer had been made to the men who had been with the king, and that they would not accept the bargain, any more than the men who had been slain with the king had. Then there was fighting at the gates until the king's men broke in, and killed the ætheling and all who were with him, save one, who was Ealdorman Osric's godson, and saved by Osric, though he was often wounded.

It has long been assumed that tales of loyalty to the point of refusing to outlive one's slain lord were dear to the hearts of the Anglo-Saxons, from their appearance both here and (much more explicitly) in the poem celebrating the battle of Maldon in 991. Rosemary Woolf has pointed out, however, that these are the only two surviving examples, and even in the poem Beowulf characters take a more pragmatic view (Hengest saw the death of his lord as something which required vengeance, not a heroic death); she also noted that Cynewulf's men are not refusing to live on after the death of their lord so much as refusing to help their lord's killer become the next king. This does not make it any the less a tale of loyalty and courage, and as Woolf remarks, "any king would wish to have followers such as Cynewulf had" (p.71), but it does change the emphasis.

Another possible point of confusion is the word here translated as "visiting a woman", which appears only this once in Old English and which Æthelweard in the 10th century translated into Latin as "residing with a certain whore". Don Scragg has recently pointed out that Æthelweard misunderstood other parts of the annal and there is no reason to assume sexual misdemeanors, nor for that matter any reason why the "woman" should not be Cynewulf's wife: elsewhere in the Chronicle, Cynewulf is always portrayed in a good light (witness the way he deposes Sigeberht in 757 with the assent of the council rather than on his own), and the brothers Cyneheard and Sigeberht are only seen engaging in "unjust acts" (be it killing loyal ealdormen or trying to buy the kingship).

After both Cynewulf and Cyneheard were dead, Beorhtric succeeded to the kingdom. Nothing is known of his lineage, save the claim that it goes back to Cerdic. In 789 he married Offa's daughter Eadburh, and it was perhaps with Offa's assistance that he was able to exile his rival Ecgberht. It was also early in Beorhtric's reign that the first Vikings ships came to the land of the English (see entry on c.790). Beorhtric died in 802.

D. Scragg, "Wifcyþþe and the Morality of the Cynewulf and Cyneheard Episode in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", Alfred the Wise: Studies in honour of Janet Bately (Cambridge: 1997), pp.179-85

R. Woolf, "The ideal of men dying with their lord in the Germania and in The Battle of Maldon", Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976), pp.63-81