Ælfwald of East Anglia

Ælfwald was the son of Ealdwulf and became king of the East Angles upon his father's death, ruling from c.713 to 749.

Although the 36 years of Ælfwald's reign fell short of Ealdwulf's 49, it was still a considerable achievement. The two reigns taken together, with barely any record of external military action or internal dynastic strife, represent an unprecedented period of stability for East Anglia in that period. In Ælfwald's time this was probably owing to his friendly if subsidiary stance towards Æthelbald of Mercia, the prosperity brought through Rhineland commerce with Ipswich, and the settled nature of its ecclesiastical affairs.

Ælfwald's accession

At Ælfwald's accession Wihtred was ruling in Kent, Ine in Wessex, and Ceolred in Mercia (including Lindsey), with dominion in Essex. Ælfwald's sister Ecgburgh was an abbess (possibly at Repton, Derbyshire) and Ælfwald's upbringing was undoubtedly Christian in character. Ceolred's queen, Werburgh, was the daughter of Ælfwald's Kentish cousin Eormenhild, abbess of Ely (who had formerly been married to Ceolred's uncle, Wulfhere of Mercia). Ely was East Anglian patrimony, the double monastery having been founded by Etheldreda, Eormenhild's maternal aunt, daughter of Anna of East Anglia.

Æthelbald's accession

Ceolred's appropriation of monastic assets created disaffection. His persecution of a distant cousin Æthelbald (grandson of Penda's brother Eowa) drove the man to take refuge deep in the Fen at Crowland, where Guthlac, another descendant of the Mercian royal house, lived as a hermit with a group of religious men. East Anglian influence was felt at Crowland, and when Guthlac died in 714 abbess Ecgburgh provided a stone coffin for his burial. Ceolred died in 716 (blaspheming and insane, according to his chroniclers), the posterity of Penda became extinct or disempowered, and Æthelbald emerged as ruler of Mercia. Soon afterwards he richly endowed the church at Crowland.

The East Anglian "Life of Guthlac"

Æthelbald (who lived until 757) carried Mercian power to a new height, but his debt to Crowland and to East Anglia was not forgotten. The first "Life of Guthlac", written in Latin by the East Anglian monk Felix soon after Guthlac's death, is dedicated to Felix's lord King Ælfwald (whose right to rule in East Anglia he asserts), and portrays Æthelbald's exile. Felix had access to works by Bede and Aldhelm, of a Life of Fursey, and of works in Latin by Jerome, Athanasius and Gregory the Great. Old English verse versions of the "Life" drawing on Felix followed, showing the vigour of vernacular heroic and elegiac modes in Ælfwald's kingdom. Dr Newton suggests Ælfwald's reign as a possible horizon for the formulation of the Old English heroic poem "Beowulf".

Ælfwald's bishops

Following the division of the see of Dommoc in c 673, Æcci held Dommoc in succession to Bisi, and during Ealdwulf's reign Æscwulf succeeded Æcci. At the Council of Clofeshoh in 716 Heardred (I) attended as bishop of Dommoc, while Nothberht was present as bishop of the more northerly East Anglian diocese of Helmham, having succeeded Baduwine (appointed c 673). A little later, during the 720s, Cuthwine was bishop of Dommoc. He made a journey to Rome and returned with illustrated books including a "Life and Labours of Saint Paul", and probably also "Epigrammata" of Prosper Tiro and the "Carmen Pachale" of Sedulius. Bishop Cuthwine was known to Bede. In 731 Bede names Aldberct as bishop of Dommoc, and Hathulac bishop of Helmham. By 746/7 Heardred (II) was bishop of Dommoc.

Ælfwald's pedigree

The East Anglian pedigree or tally in the "Anglian Collection" brings the descent down to Ælfwald, indicating that it was compiled for him, possibly by c 726 (Dumville). (This need not mean that he was the last descendant of Wuffa.) The ancestral succession shows Ælfwald (son or affiliate of) Ealdwulf, of Ethilric, of Eni, of Tyttla, of Wuffa, of Wehha, of Wilhelm, of Hryp, of Hrothmund, of Trygil, of Tyttman, of Caser (Caesar), of Woden. Bede may owe his knowledge of Eni and Tyttla to a similar source. The Historia Brittonum (probably compiled in the early ninth century) also has a version ("de ortu regum Estanglorum") in descending order from a similar pedigree, reading 'Woden (genuit, "begat") Casser, begat Titinon, begat Trigil, begat Rodmunt, begat Rippan, begat Guillem Guechan. He first ruled in Britain over the race of East Angles. Guecha begat Guffa, begat Tydil, begat Ecni, begat Edric, begat Aldul, begat Elric.' This Welsh version has interesting phonetic implications. It is not certain whether the last name, Elric, is a mistake for Ælfwald, or if Ælfwald had a brother named Ælric or Æthelric who shared the same tally.

The second building of Gipeswic (Ipswich)

Excavation has revealed that the central part of the town of Ipswich was laid out during the reign of Ælfwald. As the trade capital of his kingdom this was presumably done under his patronage. A rectangular grid of streets linked the earlier quayside town northwards to an ancient trackway running east and west along the valley contour. This development covered rising ground formerly used as a cemetery.

The quay at Gipeswic also continued to develop in a form structurally similar to the quayside at Dorestad (south of Utrecht), perhaps its principal trading partner. North Sea traffic from eastern Britain to the continent became intense as the English Christian mission to Frisia and parts of Germany worked alongside, or in advance of, Frankish military expansion led by Pippin of Heristal and his heirs. Ælfwald was the East Anglian contemporary of Charles Martel.

The street grid, parts of which still exist in the modern town, was subdivided into rectangular plots or insulae, with houses built directly adjacent to metalled roads. The town's pottery industry now gained its full importance, and an urban industrial life developed. The former church dedication to Saint Mildred (Town Hall site, at the Corn Hill or market square) could date to the 740s, when her relics were translated at Minster-in-Thanet (Kent) by her successor abbess Eadburgh. Dedications to Mildred also exist in London and Utrecht.


The coinage of silver sceattas or pennies expanded in Ælfwald's time, and several types are attributed to East Anglian production. Most fall into two main groups, the 'Q' and 'R' series sceattas. Neither group bears a royal name or title, and the authority by which they were issued is not established. The Q series, with some Northumbrian affinities, is most densely distributed in western East Anglia along the Fen edge between The Wash and Cambridge. The R series with bust and standard, derived from earlier Kentish types, is more densely distributed in central and eastern East Anglia including the Ipswich area. Various centres have been suggested as possible mint sites. The Franco-Frisian 'porcupine sceattas', a continental frontier coinage, also occur at productive sites in East Anglia. Various patron-centres possibly used as markets show special densities of coins and other small metal artefacts, an economic development of this period which is not fully understood.

Correspondence with Saint Boniface

A letter from Ælfwald to Saint Boniface (leader of the English continental mission) survives, written on the eve of a major ecclesiastical Council at Clofeshoh in c 747. It reveals Ælfwald's mastery of diplomatic Latin and his deference to Boniface, whom he agrees to support in two points of the Council. These were the uniformity of orthodox prayer in the seven daily monastic congregations, and the inclusion of prayers on behalf of kings and ealdormen. The claim that he speaks of seven monasteries in his kingdom is a misreading. A living link with the age of King Anna was finally broken in 743, when his youngest daughter abbess Wihtburgh died at her monastery of East Dereham (Norfolk).

Ælfwald died in 749. It is not known whether he left an immediate heir.

ee also

*Wuffing dynasty family tree


*"Anglo-Saxon Chronicle".
*Bede, "Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum", Ed. B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford 1969).
*M. Anderton (Ed.), "Anglo-Saxon Trading Centres: Beyond the Emporia" (Glasgow 1999).
*B. Colgrave (Ed.), "Felix's Life of Guthlac" (Cambridge 1956).
*D.N. Dumville, 1976, The Anglian Collection of Royal Genealogies and Regnal Lists, "Anglo-Saxon England" 5, 23-50.
*J. Hines, K. Hoyland Nielsen and F. Siegmund (Eds.), The Pace of Change. "Studies in Early Mediaeval Chronology" 4 (1985).
*R. Hodges, "Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade AD 600-1000" (London 1982).
*D.M. Metcalf, "Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum", Oxford (3 Vols.) (London 1993).
*D.M. Metcalf, 2000, Determining the mint-attribution of East Anglian sceattas through regression analysis, "British Numismatic Journal" 70, 1-11.
*J. Morris, "Nennius, British History and The Welsh Annals" edited and translated (Phillimore, London and Chichester 1980). ISBN 0 85033 298 2
*S. Newton, "The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia" (D.S. Brewer, Cambridge 1993). ISBN 0 85991 361 9
*S.J. Plunkett, 2001, Some recent metalwork discoveries from the area of the Gipping valley, in P. Binski and W. Noel (Eds.), "New Offerings, Ancient Treasures", 61-87 (Sutton, Stroud).
*S. Plunkett, "Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times" (Tempus, Stroud 2005).
*K. Wade, Gipeswic: East Anglia's first economic capital, 600-1066, in N. Salmon and R. Malster (Eds.), "Ipswich from the First to the Third Millennium", 1-6. (Ipswich 2001).
*D. Whitelock, 1972, The Pre-Viking age church in East Anglia, "Anglo-Saxon England" 1, 1-22 (Cambridge).

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