Aethelwulf’s Grand Experiment: A New Kind of Succession

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Aethelwulf, King of Wessex, had a grand idea for how to solve the power struggle problem he had inherited from his predecessors: make his oldest son king (when the father died) and then have the new king pass on the crown to next youngest brother, who would pass it on his next-younger brother, and so on. Aethelwulf had five sons, and this plan would have assured that the kingship would stay in the family for generations.

One large emotion stood in the way: jealousy.

Aethelwulf found himself out of a throne when he came back from the Continent in 1855. His oldest son, Aethelbald, was the heir to the throne; however, he got tired of waiting for his father to die off and so took his birthright a few years early.

This, however, was a temporary setback. When Aethelbald became truly king in 858 (Aethelwulf having died that same year), he named his next-younger brother Aethelbert as his heir. Two years later, when Aethelbald died, Aethelbert became king. A few years later, Aethelred succeeded the throne. Finally, in 871, Aethelwulf’s youngest son, Alfred (yes, that Great Alfred) became king.

Aethelwulf’s experiment had worked. But it really shouldn’t have. Consider what he was up against: Tradition had been, at first, that the throne of a kingdom went to the warlord with the most battlefield victories or the most land or certainly the most supporters. When that man died, a power struggle ensued. An orderly succession, such as Aethelwulf envisioned, was not possible early in the Saxon Kingdoms.

However, later on, kings began passing their kingdoms on to their sons. One king who died would be succeeded by his son, who would pass on the crown to his son (the original king’s grandson), and so on. Note how this is different from Aethelwulf’s idea: Traditionally, the son of the king would become king when his father died. Under Aethelwulf’s plan, all of his sons would be king–one right after the other–no matter how many sons they had. (It should be noted here that although Aethelwulf himself fathered five sons, none of the first four sons to become king had any child at all, making it very easy to implement their father’s succession idea.) But consider the consequences if Aethelbald had fathered a son. Civil war would have ensued between Aethelred, the king’s brother, and Aethelsomething, the king’s son. The king’s brother would have his father’s wishes on his side; the king’s son would have precedent and (likely) popular will on his side.

This conflict never arose, however, and the succession was visited on Alfred, who in a very short time would become Alfred the Great, the most revered of all Saxon kings.