January 13, 858: Death of King Æthelwulf of Wessex

Coin of King Æthelwulf of Wessex
Coin of King Æthelwulf, facing right. Legend: + EÐELVVLF REX.
King Æthelwulf (839-58) was the son of King Ecgberht (802-39), and it was Ecgberht of Wessex who broke the Mercian power over most of the southern English kingdoms left over from King Offa's day (757-96) and replaced it with a West Saxon version. By his first wife Osburh Æthelwulf had a daughter and five sons. After the death of all his older brothers by 871, Æthelwulf's youngest son Alfred unexpectedly ended up on the throne, and became the most famous Anglo-Saxon king ever, so that hundreds of years later he would be known as "Alfred the Great".

Æthelwulf is known for helping his father consolidate West Saxon control, for cooperating with the Mercians (the Mercian king Burgred married his daughter Æthelswith), and for fighting the Viking attacks which had started in the 790s and would start taking over Saxon kingdoms in the 860s. But he is perhaps best known for leaving his country in charge of two of his sons in 855 and going to Rome. He took Alfred with him, but more relevant to the history of the 850s, on his way back he married Judith, the daughter of the King of the Franks, Charles the Bald.

Since the Franks as well as the English were suffering under Viking attacks, an alliance between the two made good sense -- just as in 1002, King Æthelred would marry Emma of Normandy. But it seems to have occurred to Æthelwulf's son Æthelbald that any children of Æthelwulf and Judith would have royal blood from both parents and so be more throneworthy than he was. For whatever reason, Æthelbald plotted to prevent the return of his father in 856, and though Æthelwulf did return, the country seems to have been split between father and son for the last two years of Æthelwulf's reign. After Æthelwulf's death, Æthelbald solved the troubling problem of Judith's royal bloodline by marrying her himself.