Aelle of Sussex

Ælle was king of the South Saxons from 477 to perhaps as late as 514, and was the first king recorded by Bede to have held imperium over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In the late 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (around 400 years after his time) Ælle is recorded as being the first Bretwalda, though there is no evidence that this was a contemporary title.

Our source for the events of A²lle's life (besides the short mention in Bede's Ecclesiastical History) is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled in 891. It states that he landed in Britain in 477 with three ships and his three sons Cymen, Wlencing, and Cissa at Cymenes ora, where "they killed many of the Welsh, and drove the rest into the wood that is called Anredsleage." For the year 485, the Chronicle records that he again fought the "Welsh" at the stream of Mearcread. Then in 491, A²lle with the help of Cissa successfully besieged Anderida (also identified as Pevensey), and slew all of the inhabitants. And with that last entry, the Chronicle contains no more records of this warchief; we have neither a record of the time that he died, nor the means, nor the events in the kingdom of the South Saxons that succeeded his death until the baptism of its king A²thelwalh around 675.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at this point begins narrating the events of the founding of the West Saxon kingdom, or Wessex, so it is possible that the scribe assembling this chronicle forgot to return to the events of Ælle's life. Alaistar Campbell, in examining the chronology of this part of the Chronicle, notes that at several places events are duplicated at 28 year intervals, suggesting that the sources from which the composing scribe assembled the Chronicle were based on 28-year Easter Tables, and that the annal that mentioned the later events of Ælle's life were mislaid.

Ælle’s career may be largely fictional. He is said to have arrived in three ships, with three sons, and fought three battles. The three ships motif occurs in other myths: "According to their own legend, reported by the mid-6th-century Gothic historian Jordanes, the Goths originated in southern Scandinavia and crossed in three ships under their king Berig to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, where they settled…".

The story of Ælle is a heroic Old English legend which explains the acquisition of Sussex. An entirely different and equally implausible British (Welsh) story was preserved by Nennius. He stated that Hengist treacherously seized the British king Vortigern and demanded the cession of Essex and Sussex as ransom for the king: Hengistus sicut dixerat, vociferatus est et omnes seniores trecenti Guorthigirni regis iugulati sunt et ipse solus captus et catenatus est et regiones plurimas pro redemptione enimae suae illis tribuit, id est Estsaxum, Sutsaxum.

It is probable that Saxon migrants had been colonizing the area for decades, and thus Saxons already heavily populated the region before the recorded dates of Hengist and Ælle. In late Roman times, the coast was already known as the Saxon Shore: “The Saxon Shore Forts were built by the Romans in the late 3rd century AD along the southeast coast of Britain to guard against increasing invasion and piracy by Germanic tribes including the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were written in a dry, terse style for the purpose of informing rather than for entertaining, in contrast to the Arthurian stories or the story of Beowulf. Although the Chronicle entry describing Ælle were written many years later, it is a mistake to assume that it is entirely fiction.

There are no easy answers to questions such as 'Who invented the motor car’: it was a gradual process over decades. Likewise, the colonization of South East England by Germanic migrants was a gradual process. But there is a human need for simple answers to complex question. It is for this reason that myths arise. The British (Welsh) myths assume that the provinces were lost due to foul trickery by wicked rebel mercenaries, while the English myths revolve around heroic deeds by noble warriors.

Slightly more relevant is that German king Fraomar and his people were settled in Britain by the Emperor Valentinian a century before the supposed arrival of Ælle: “Another point of view which has grown up from unfortunately reading only the Saxon Chronicle, is that Continental immigration began suddenly with the ‘three keels’. The evidence of tradition, and of tribal names, shows that there had been a continual flow of population into Britain before the Roman age. The Atrebates, the Belgae, the Parisii, the Brigantes, and others, are equally familiar names on both sides of the channel. Nor was this process stopped even by Rome: it was only regulated. Rome brought over masses of troops largely recruited from the Continent, even to the Huns on the Wall. Aurelius brought multitudes of the Marcomanni to settle in Britain. Similarly did Probus, with the colonies of Vandals and Burgundians. The Franks raided the south and occupied London under Allectus. Constantine was accompanied by the king of the Alamanni - and doubtless a good following - when he came over to Britain. Valentinian removed Fraomar and his tribe of Alamanni into Britain.”. However, once independent Germanic (English) kingdoms were established, there was a large immigration of their tribespeople to the island of Britain.



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