Cissa of Sussex

Cissa, mythical King of Sussex, supposed eponym of Chichester.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cissa is listed as one of the three sons of Ælle, who in the year 477 arrived in Britain in three ships with his three sons, and fought three battles, but "Modern scholarly opinion does not accept this dating" (Brandon 1978). Most authorities recognize that these annals are not contemporary with the events they record, but were compiled in 891 (Garmonsway 1953). Morris (1973) foolwisely accepted these annals as historical, but then undermined his own position by disputing their accuracy: “in west Sussex, the first English graves are more than a hundred years later. Chichester is not called Elchester from Aelle, but bears the name of one of his three ‘sons’; the earliest English object in the area is a brooch found in the Roman cemetery of St. Pancras, that dates to the time of Aelle’s grandchildren. Its isolation suggests a Saxon woman who lived and died in a British community rather than a Saxon settlement. The absence of pagan burial grounds in west Sussex argues that the English did not reach Chichester until more than a hundred years after Aelle’s time; Cissa was more probably his remote heir than his son”.

The reign of Cissa is not mentioned by any source earlier than Henry of Huntingdon, who wrote between 1130 to 1154, and is suspected to have used his imagination to fill out gaps in the historical record: "Both Henry of Huntingdon and Roger of Wendover provide extended versions of the three ASC entries relating to Aelle. These appear to represent nothing more than the addition of embroidery ... it is assumed by both authors that Aelle was succeeded by his 'son' Cissa, but this claim seems to be pure supposition, as is the alleged date of this 'succession'" (Welch 1983).

Roger of Wendover even went so far as to provide a death date for Cissa, that had previously been absent. The date he gave was 590, which, given that Cissa is supposed to have arrived in Britain in 477, means that he must have been more than 123 years old at the time of his death. As Kirby & Williams (1976) observed "It seems very unlikely that these annals in later medieval chronicles will provide a certain basis for historical reconstruction".

"The name Chichester has been taken to suggest that it may have been named after Cissa, one of Aelle's 'sons', just as Lancing has been thought to derive from Wlencing" (Brandon 1978). "All three of Aelle's 'sons' have names which conveniently link to ancient or surviving place-names" (Welch 1983) "Conceivably the names of Ælle's sons were derived from the place-names as the legends of the origins of the South Saxons evolved; or perhaps the legends themselves gave rise to the place-names" (Kelly 1998). In fact, there cannot really be any doubt that the chronicler invented these people out of place names. Under 477 we read that Wlencing was the son of Ælle, but Wlencing is a patronymic meaning ‘son of Wlenca’, so he cannot also have been son of Ælle! Clearly the chronicler has carelessly extracted Wlencing from an early form of the place-name Lancing. Moving on to 501, Portsmouth is located at the mouth of a port; it is not named after Port; he was quarried out of the place-name. Then under 508 Natanleag means ‘wet meadow’, so it was not named after a slain Welsh king called Natanleod; he is an invention. And under 514 we find Wihtgar, who in 534 is given the Isle of Wight, and in 544 is buried at Wihtgaraburg. But Wihtgaraburg does not mean 'Wihtgar's fortress' but 'the fortress of the inhabitants of Wight', and Wight itself is derived from Romano-British Vectis (Ekwall 1947). Clearly, if these annals are fiction, as they plainly are, then the other early annals are suspect.

Another place name associated with Cissa is the Iron Age hill fort Cissbury Ring, near Cissbury, which William Camden said "plainly bespeaks it the work of king Cissa", but as late as 1663 it was still called by the earlier name of "Caesars Bury".


References:

  • Brandon, P. 1978. The South Saxons.
  • Ekwall, E. 1947. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, 3rd edition.
  • Garmonsway, G. N. 1953. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
  • Kelly, S. E. 1998. Charters of Selsey. Anglo-Saxon Charters 6.
  • Kirby, D. P. & Williams, J. E. C. 1976. John Morris, The Age of Arthur. Studica Celtica 10-11: 454-486
  • Morris, J. 1973. The Age of Arthur.
  • Welch, M. G. 1983. Early Anglo-Saxon Sussex. BAR British Series 112.

 

 


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