English 51

Cynewulf and Cyneheard


Prof. Joseph S. Wittig
Greenlaw 518
email: jwittig@unc.edu
voice mail: 962-4050
Revised: 1/23/00

Introduction to Cynewulf and Cyneheard

This famous story comes from a brief entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 755. It recounts a series of incidents whose culmination dramatizes the conflict between loyalties: loyalty to kin, and loyalty of "thane" (soldier and subject) to "lord."

That the story appealed to the chronicler's imagination appears from the fact that he leaps from the incident he first records for 755 to the climactic encounter which took place some thirty years later, and which is entered in due course under the date 784 later in the Chronicle. (I append a translation of the 784 entry below.)

The central figures Cynewulf, Sigeberth, and Cyneheard are all "athelings," members of the West Saxon nobility. Cynewulf was king of the West Saxons; Sigeberht was a "sub-king" whose power Cynewulf could influence.

I have translated the "Parker Chronicle" as printed in Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel, ed. John Earle and Charles Plummer (Oxford: Clarendon, 1898, repr. 1972), I, 46-48 (755) and 52 (784).

Cynewulf and Cyneheard: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 755

In this year Cynewulf and the councillors of the West Saxons deprived Sigeberht, a kinsman of his, of his kingdom, except for Hampshire, because of his unjust acts; and he [Sigeberht] held Hamshire until he killed the ealdorman [Cumbra] who had stayed with him the longest; and then Cynewulf drove him into the forest, and he lived there until a swineherd stabbed him to death at Pvivett's stream, and he [the swineherd] was avenging Ealdorman Cumbra.

And Cynewulf often fought in great battles against the Britons. And some thirty-one years after he had come to the kingship he wanted to drive out an atheling who was called Cyneheard, and this Cyneheard was Sigeberht's brother. And then he [Cyneheard] found out that the king, accompanied only by a small troop, was womanizing at Merton, and he rode against him there, and surrounded the outbuilding [where the king was] before the men who were with the king discovered him. And then the king discovered that, and he went to the door and defended himself in no lowly fashion, until he caught sight of the atheling [Cyneheard], and then he rushed out at him, and wounded him severly; and they [Cyneheard's men] were all fighting against the king until they killed him.

And then, through the carrying on of the woman, the king's men discovered the disturbance, and they ran there, each one as quickly as he could get ready. And the atheling [Cyneheard] offered each of them money and life [if they would surrender to him], and none of them was willing to be a party to that. But they were all fighting continually until they [the king's troop] lay dead, except for a British hostage; and he was severely wounded.

When in the morning the king's thanes who had not been with him heard about the king having been killed, then they rode there [to Merton], including his second in command Osric, and his thane Wiferth, and all the men the king had left behind earlier, and they confronted the atheling [Cyneheard] in the burgh where the king lay slain. And they [Cyneheard and his men] had shut the gates against them [Osric, Wiferth and the rest], and they advanced to the gates. And they [Cyneheard and those inside with him] offered them [the slain king's men] money and land as much as they should decide for themselves if they would yield Cyneheard the kingship; and those inside made known to those outside that kin of those outside were in there with them who did not want to leave. And those outside said that no kin were dearer to them than their lord, and that they would never become followers of their lord's killer; and they offered their kin inside the chance to come out unharmed; and they said that the same offere had previously been made to the little troop who had accompanied the king. Then they said they didn't want to take any more thought of that sort of escape "than your companions did who earlier were slain along with the king." And they were then fighting about the gates until those outside forced their way in, and slew the atheling [Cyneheard] and the men who were with him, all but one, who was Osric's Godson, and he spared his life, but neverhteless he was much wounded. ...

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 784, Recording Cynewulf's Death

784 In this year Cyneheard killed Cynewulf the king, and he was also slain there, and eighty-four men with him; and then Beorhtric assumed the rule of the kingdom of the Westsaxons, and he ruled sixteen years ...