April 20, 689: Death of King Cædwalla of Wessex, in Rome

Cædwalla was a prince of the West Saxons in the early 680s, and emerged as king in about 685. We learn from Aldhelm that the previous king, Centwine (676-85), retired and became a monk. We do not know whether this was a voluntary decision on Centwine's part or whether he was forcibly retired against his will by his enemies: there would be precedent for either.

Cædwalla was actively pursuing power in Centwine's reign, so much so that he was exiled from Wessex for at least part of it. While in exile, he gathered an army and took it to Sussex and killed King Æthelwalh. He might have hoped to rule Sussex instead of Wessex, but two of Æthelwalh's ealdormen, Berhthun and Andhun, drove Cædwalla out and ruled Sussex themselves for a few years. Unsurprisingly, one of Cædwalla's first acts on becoming king in Wessex was to take another (presumably larger) army and ravage Sussex again, conquering it completely, and also the Isle of Wight. The next year (686) Cædwalla ravaged the Isle of Wight again, and also ravaged Kent and set up his brother, Mul, as king there. When the people of Kent burned Mul with his twelve Mercian advisers, Cædwalla returned in 687 and ravaged Kent again.

It comes as quite a shock to a modern observer that after this short and bloody reign, Cædwalla should retire in 688, go to Rome, and be baptised there by the Pope (on 10 April 689, the Saturday before Easter Sunday). But Cædwalla, though a heathen until the end of his reign, did have dealings with Bishop Wilfrid, himself in exile from Northumbria at the time. (This unlikely alliance was probably helped by the fact that Wilfrid had been snubbed at Centwine's court in Wessex as well.) And perhaps Wilfrid convinced him that the very bloodiness of his actions made the all-forgiving waters of baptism that much more essential.

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