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Kingdom of the Hwicce

Kingdom of the Hwicce (with later counties). Wychwood Forest, a former Hwicce territory, had apparently been lost before 679.
Capital Worcester
Religion Paganism, Christianity
Government Monarchy
Historical era Heptarchy
 •  Established 577
 •  Assimilated into Mercia 780s

Hwicce was a tribal kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the kingdom was established in 577, after the Battle of Deorham. After 628 the kingdom became a client or sub-kingdom of Mercia as a result of the Battle of Cirencester.

The Tribal Hidage assessed Hwicce at 7000 hides, which would give it a similar sized economy to the kingdoms of Essex and Sussex.

The exact boundaries of the kingdom remain uncertain, though it is likely that they coincided with those of the old Diocese of Worcester, founded in 679–80, the early bishops of which bore the title Episcopus Hwicciorum. The kingdom would therefore have included Worcestershire except the northwestern tip, Gloucestershire except the Forest of Dean, the southwestern half of Warwickshire, the neighbourhood of Bath north of the Avon, plus small parts of Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and north-west Wiltshire.[1][2]

Various historians and archaeologists have examined the Hwicce Kingdom, including Della Hooke and Stephen J. Yeates in his book The Tribe of Witches (2008).


  • Name 1
  • History 2
  • Kings of the Hwicce 3
  • Ealdormen of the Hwicce 4
  • Other notables of the Hwicce 5
  • Notes 6
  • Further reading 7


The etymology of the name Hwicce "the Hwiccians" is uncertain. It is the plural of a masculine i-stem. It may be from a tribal name of "the Hwiccians", or it may be from a clan name.

One etymology comes from the common noun hwicce "ark, chest, locker", in reference to the appearance of the territory as a flat-bottomed valley bordered by the Cotswolds and the Malvern Hills.[3] A second possibility would be a derivation from a given name, "the people of the man called Hwicce", but no such name has been recorded.[4][5] Eilert Ekwall connected the name of the Gewisse.[6] Also suggested by Smith is a tribal name that was in origin pejorative, meaning "the cowards", cognate to quake, Old Norse hvikari "coward".

Stephen Yeates (2008, 2009) has interpreted the name as meaning "cauldron; sacred vessel" and linked to the shape of the Vale of Gloucester and the Romano-British regional cult of a goddess with a bucket or cauldron, identified with a Mater Dobunna, supposedly associated with West Country legends concerning the Holy Grail.[7]

The toponym Hwicce survives in Wychwood in Oxfordshire, Whichford in Warwickshire, Wichenford, Wychbury Hill and Droitwich in Worcestershire.


The territory of the Hwicce may roughly have corresponded to the Roman civitas of the Dobunni.[8] The area appears to have remained largely British in the first century or so after Britain left the Roman Empire, but pagan burials and place names in its north-eastern sector suggest an inflow of Angles along the Warwickshire Avon and perhaps by other routes;[9] they may have exacted tribute from British rulers.[10]

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there was a battle at Dyrham in 577 in which the Gewisse (West Saxons) under Ceawlin killed three British kings and captured Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath. West Saxon occupation of the area did not last long, however, and may have ended as early as 584, the date of the battle of Fethanleag, according to the A.S.C., in which Cutha was killed and Ceawlin returned home in anger, and certainly by 603 when, according to Bede, Saint Augustine attended a conference of Welsh bishops "at St. Augustine's Oak on the borders of the Hwicce and the West Saxons".

The Angles strengthened their influence over the area in 628, when (says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), the West Saxons fought the (Anglian) Mercia but instead became an allied or client kingdom of the Hwicce.

The Hwicce sub-kingdom included a number of distinct tribal groups including the

Further reading

  1. ^ Della Hooke, The Kingdom of the Hwicce (1985), pp.12-13
  2. ^ Stephen Yeates, The Tribe of Witches (2008), pp.1-8
  3. ^ J. Insley, "Hwicce" in: Hoops (ed.) Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde, vol. 15, Walter de Gruyter, 2000, ISBN 978-3-11-016649-1, p. 295.
  4. ^ William Henry Duignan, Notes on Staffordshire place names, 1902.
  5. ^ A. H. Smith, 'The Hwicce', in Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honour of F. P. Magoun (1965), 56-65.
  6. ^ Eilert Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names (Oxford Clarendon Press, reprinted 1991)
  7. ^ Stephen J. Yeates, The Tribe of Witches: The religion of the Dobunni and Hwicce, Oxbow Books (2008). Stephen Yeates, A Dreaming for the Witches (2009).
  8. ^ J. Manco, Dobunni to Hwicce, Bath History, vol. 7 (1998).
  9. ^ D.Hooke, The Anglo-Saxon Landscape: The Kingdom of the Hwicce (Manchester, 1985), pp.8–10; Sims-Williams, 'St Wilfred and two charters dated AD 676 and 680', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 39, part 2 (1988), p.169.
  10. ^ N.Higham, The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the fifth century (Manchester, 1994), chaps. 2, 5.
  11. ^ David P. Kirby, The earliest English Kings (Routledge, 1990, 2000)
  12. ^ Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People ed. J.McClure and R.Collins (Oxford, 1994), p.193.
  13. ^ J. Manco, Saxon Bath: The Legacy of Rome and the Saxon Rebirth, Bath History, vol. 7 (1998).
  14. ^ C. Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (1981), pp.253–71; Hooke, p.10; C. Heighway, 'Saxon Gloucester' in J. Haslam ed., Anglo-Saxon Towns in Southern England (Chichester, 1984), p.375.
  15. ^ John Leland, Collectanea, vol. 1, p. 240.
  16. ^ Charter S 51, MS Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, 111, pp. 59-60 (s. xii2)S51
  17. ^ Bede, The Eccesiastical History of the English People, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p. 212; Chronicle of John of Worcester ed. and trans. R.R. Darlington, J. Bray and P. McGurk (Oxford 1995), 136–8.
  18. ^ "The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester" in The Church Historians of England ed. and trans. J. Stevenson, vol. 2, p.379.
  19. ^ The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. M. Lapidge (Blackwell 1999), 507.
  20. ^ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
  21. ^ Inscription on the chapel: "Earl Odda had this Royal Hall built and dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity for the soul of his brother, Aelfric, which left the body in this place. Bishop Ealdred dedicated it the second of the Ides of April in the fourteenth year of the reign of Edward, King of the English."
  22. ^ Victoria County History of Worcestershire, Vol.2, p.128.
  23. ^ See Earl Odda
  24. ^ For example he appears on this list of Kings of Hwicce. Retrieved on 10 March 2005.


Osred (c. 693) was a thegn of the Hwicce, who has been described by some historians as a king.[24]

Æthelmod granted land to Abbess Beorngyth in October 680 and was probably a member of the royal family.[2]

Other notables of the Hwicce

Name Dates Notes
Æthelmund c. 796-802 Died in battle 802.[20]
?Æthelric fl. 804 Son of Æthelmund. His will of 804 requests burial at Deerhurst.[1]
Leofwine d.c.1023 Father of Leofric, Earl of Mercia
Odda d.1056 Built Odda's Chapel at Deerhurst for the soul of his brother Ælfric.[21] Buried at Pershore.[22] The area of his jurisdiction probably did not include the Hwicce.[23]

Ealdormen of the Hwicce

Name Dates Notes
628 Kingdom conquered by Penda of Mercia.
Eanhere mid-7th century
Eanfrith mid-7th century Brother of Eanhere.
Osric active 670s Entombed in Gloucester Cathedral.
Oshere active 690s Brother of Osric. Died before 716.
Æthelheard active 709 Son of Oshere. Issued charter with Æthelweard.
Æthelweard active 709 Son of Oshere.
Æthelric active 736 Son of Oshere.
Eanberht active 750s Not recorded after 759.
Uhtred active 750s – 779
Ealdred active 750s – 778
780s Assimilation of the Hwicce into Mercia is completed.

No contemporary genealogy or list of kings has been preserved, so the following list has been compiled by historians from a variety of primary sources.[19] Some kings of the Hwicce seem to have reigned in tandem for all or part of their reign. This gives rise to an overlap in the dates of reigns given below. Please consult individual biographies for a discussion of the dating of these rulers.

Kings of the Hwicce

The district remained in possession of the rulers of Mercia until the fall of that kingdom. Together with the rest of English Mercia it submitted to King Alfred about 877–883 under Earl Æthelred, who possibly himself belonged to the Hwicce.

Oshere was succeeded by his sons Æthelheard, Æthelweard and Æthelric. At the beginning of Offa's reign we find the kingdom ruled by three brothers, named Eanberht, Uhtred and Aldred, the two last of whom lived until about 780. After them the title of king seems to have been given up. Their successor Æthelmund, who was killed in a campaign against Wessex in 802, is described only as an earl.

Osric was anxious for the Hwicce to gain their own bishop,[16] but it was Oshere whose influence was seen behind the creation of the see of Worcester in 679–80. Presumably Osric was dead by that time. Tatfrid of Whitby was chosen as the first bishop of the Hwicce but he died before ordination and was replaced by Bosel.[17] A 12th-century chronicler of Worcester comments that that town was selected as the seat of the bishop because it was the capital of the Hwicce.[18]

By a complex chain of reasoning one can deduce that Eanhere married Osthryth, daughter of Oswiu of Northumbria, and had sons by her named Osric, Oswald and Oshere. Osthryth is recorded as the wife of Æthelred of Mercia. An earlier marriage to Eanhere would explain why Osric and Oswald are described as Æthelred's nepotes — usually meaning "nephews" but here probably "stepsons".[15]

It is likely that the Hwicce were converted to Christianity by Celtic Christians rather than by the mission from Pope Gregory I since Bede was well-informed on the latter yet does not mention the conversion of the Hwicce.[13] Though place-names show that Anglo-Saxon settlement was widespread in the territory, the limited spread of pagan burials, along with two eccles place-names that invariably identify Roman-British churches, suggests that Christianity survived the influx. There are also probable Christian burials beneath Worcester Cathedral and St Mary de Lode Church, Gloucester.[14] So it seems that incoming Anglo-Saxons were absorbed into the existing church. The ruling dynasty of the Hwicce were probably key figures in the process. Perhaps they sprang from intermarriage between Anglian and British leading families.

The first probable kings of whom we read were two brothers, Eanhere and Eanfrith. Bede notes that Queen Eafe "had been baptised in her own country, the kingdom of the Hwicce. She was the daughter of Eanfrith, Eanhere's brother, both of whom were Christians, as were their people."[12] From this we deduce that Eanfrith and Eanhere were of the royal family and that theirs was a Christian kingdom.


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