Cerdic is known as the first king of Wessex and the ruler from whom are descended all the monarchs of Wessex, and subsequently England and then the United Kingdom. To be more accurate, he is counted as the first king of the Gewissae, Wessex being the name of the kingdom only after about 640CE.
Archaeological and place-name evidence both indicate that the earliest English settlements, the original lands of the Gewissae (“the Knowers”), were on either side of the Thames in what is now Oxfordshire, around Abingdon and Dorchester-on-Thames.
Significantly, the village of Chearsley in Buckinghamshire, 13 miles from Dorchester-on-Thames, is recorded in the Domesday Book as Cerdeslai. This is similar to the place-name Cerdicesleah mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a place where Cerdic and Cynric won a battle. Chearsley would have been directly accessible from Dorchester in the fifth century via the River Thame, as well as being only a few miles from the Icknield Way. Roman pottery has been found nearby, both in Long Crendon and between there and the Thame. Chearsley’s location is thus much more plausible as deriving its name from King Cerdic than Chard (early spelling: Cerde), in south Somerset – far away from Cerdic’s kingdom.
Though Cerdic was praised by English sources as the first of their kings in the region we now call ‘central southern England’, his name is clearly Celtic and not English, a variant of the princely name Ceretic (as also are Ceredig, the eponymous founder of the kingdom of Ceredigion, and Caradoc). So too are the names of his son and successor Cynric, the next successor Ceawlin, and several later Gewissae kings such as Cynegils and Kenwalh.
Cerdic’s published genealogy is convincing evidence that, even when it was created which was apparently as late as three centuries after his death, he was hailed as a hybrid, an Anglo-British king, not as an Englishman. In what historians reckon was its earliest form, before alliterative add-ons were inserted, the genealogy read:-
Brand (or Brond)
Aluca (or Elesa)
uu became W, thus: uuoden -> Woden; Geuuis -> Gewis. (c.f. likewise, Brythonic uuortigern -> Welsh Vortigern.)
Modern people sometimes ask if the genealogy is genuine, as if its creators intended it to be understood literally. None of the characters named is the literal father, great-uncle, etc, of Cerdic. Elesa may have been the chieftain Elesius who was met by Germanus in 429; if so, he was ruling at least 70, more probably 110, years before Cerdic’s reign began. Elesa, it can be presumed, was an esteemed ancestor, considered by the culture worthy to be remembered – much as the poet who wrote the Elegy for Geraint in 710 called his warriors “Arthur’s braves”, though Arthur died 172 years before Geraint did. What Elesa’s presence in the royal genealogy proclaims, whether it be factual or fabricated, is that Cerdic was no peasant upstart. Cerdic belonged to the regional ruling class. And Briton though he must have been, he may have grabbed power over a kingdom with the help of Saxon warriors already stationed at Dorchester, and/or Abingdon, as foederati (mercenaries).
The kingdom may have included Dorchester-on-Thames and the Thame valley up to Chearsley, but cannot have controlled more than a snippet of the Catuvellauni civitas, for Eynsham and Benson, both nearby forts, did not fall into English hands until 571. Apart from Hertfordshire, where archaeological evidence (at Hitchin, for example) points to English control by c500, most of the Roman civitas of the Catuvellauni became the British kingdom of Calchfynydd (meaning “Chalk Hills” i.e. Chilterns). Rather, Cerdic’s kingdom may have consisted primarily of some or all of the Silchester civitas, which comprised (approximately) the Abingdon District of Oxfordshire, Berkshire, NE Wiltshire, and northern Hampshire.
Gewis, the name before Elesa in Cerdic’s genealogy, is the eponymous founder of the Gewissae. His ‘name’ placed there in the genealogy was the cultural way of stating that Cerdic was the legitimate and rightful king of the Gewissae – he was, they could have said, ‘the father of’ the people he ruled. In the parallel genealogy of Bernicia, the message is comparable: Cerdic’s name is replaced by their eponymous kingdom-founder, Beornic.
The three names above Gewis are gods. Woden at the top is, of course, the pan-English king of the gods. His name at the head of a king’s genealogy proclaims in the language of the culture that the king has the mandate of Heaven, that his rule bears the seal of Divine legitimacy, as surely and plainly as ‘Gewis’ or ‘Beornic’ proclaims temporal legitimacy specific to his territory. Most of the genealogies of early English kings show descent from Woden.
Now, what are Brand and Belda’s place in the genealogy proclaiming? Parallel Divine British (Celtic) legitimacy. Brand has to be Bran (pronounced Vran), the British god of war, their raven god, who also stars in some British royal genealogies. Belda, I suggest more speculatively, is Beli. A Beli (pronounced Veli) is recorded as an ancient heroic king of the tribe known to the Romans as the Catuvellauni; another, as the eponymous origin-father of the tribe known to the Romans as the Belgae. In Roman Britain, the Catuvellauni civitas was a large region stretching from Northamptonshire south to the Middlesex hills (Hendon, Hampstead, Northwood, etc) and west to Oxford and the borders of Wychwood. It included Chearsley and Dorchester-on-Thames. The Belgae’s land was the civitas across the Thames from this, the Silchester civitas, which included Abingdon. One Beli in the genealogy conveniently takes care of asserting ancestral legitimacy for two British civitates that came to be wholly or partly in the kingdom of the Gewissae!
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Cerdic won a battle against Welsh (i.e. Celtic British) opponents at Natanleaga. This place is usually identified as Netley Marsh in Hampshire. However, historians regard the Chronicle’s connecting of Cerdic to Hampshire as spurious – as an “origin myth” story for Wessex invented long after the time period it purports to describe. If Natanleaga can linguistically be Netley, it can surely with equal validity be Notley, and there is a Notley (liable to flooding, too) overlooking the River Thame a mile from Chearsley.
Much as I have suggested that the second to fifth battles in the list of twelve battles attributed to King Arthur in the Historia Brittonum were skirmishes against his Lindinis’s southern neighbour above the River Divelish, a similar explanation can account for the battle of Natanleaga attributed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Cerdic. If Cerdic was the ruler of the kingdom that was the successor state to the Silchester civitas, he could indeed have fought a battle at Notley against Calchfynydd with the help of the English warriors of Dorchester-on-Thames, slain a local warlord, thereby wrested from that ‘Welsh’ kingdom control of the Thame valley and a stretch of the left bank of the Thames, and left his imprint on the map by giving his name to Cerdeslai (now Chearsley), in much the same way – and for much the same reason, military command over an important water transport route – as Cado of Lindinis left his at Cadbury Heath on the north side of the Bristol Avon.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for Cerdic may not be as spurious in its entirety as it has come to be perceived as. It makes a great deal of sense once the origin-myth fable of his arrival in five ships is removed (and replaced I suggest by the hypothesis that he was the ruler of the Silchester civitas), the battle of Natanleaga is relocated from Netley in the New Forest to Notley on the Thame, and the dates of the two events chronicled in his reign postponed from 495 and 508 to a date c535 which is consistent with King Centwine’s (known) dates and the lengths of the reigns of kings between Cerdic and Centwine that are given in the first Cerdic ASC entry.