Ælle of Sussex

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Ælle (also Aelle or Ella, pronounced /ˈælə/) is recorded in early sources as the first king of the South Saxons, reigning in what is now called Sussex, England, from 477 to perhaps as late as 514. The information about him is so limited that it cannot be said with certainty that Ælle existed.

Ælle and three of his sons are reported to have arrived from the continent near what is now Selsey Bill—the exact location is under the sea, and is probably the shoals currently known as the Owers—and fought against the Britons.[1][2] A victory in 491 at present day Pevensey is said to have ended with the Saxons slaughtering their opponents to the last man. Although the details of these traditions cannot be verified, evidence from the place names of Sussex does make it clear that it was an area with extensive and early settlement by the Saxons, supporting the idea that this was one of their early conquests.

Ælle was the first king recorded by the eighth century chronicler Bede to have held "imperium", or overlordship, over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.[3] In the late ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (around four hundred years after his time) Ælle is recorded as being the first bretwalda, or "Britain-ruler", though there is no evidence that this was a contemporary title. Ælle's death is not recorded, and it is not known who succeeded him as king of the South Saxons.


Historical context

Ælle, if he existed, lived in the middle of the least-documented period in English history of the last two millennia.[4] By the early fifth century Britain had been Roman for over three hundred and fifty years. The most troublesome enemies of Roman Britain were the Picts of central and northern Scotland, and the Gaels known as Scoti, who were raiders from Ireland. Also vexatious were the Saxons, the name Roman writers gave to the peoples who lived in the northern part of what is now Germany and the southern part of the Jutland peninsula. Saxon raids on the southern and eastern shores of England had been sufficiently alarming by the late third century for the Romans to build the Saxon Shore forts, and subsequently to establish the role of the Count of the Saxon Shore to command the defence against these incursions. Roman control of Britain finally ended in the early part of the fifth century; the date usually given as marking the end of Roman Britain is 410, when the Emperor Honorius sent letters to the British, urging them to look to their own defence. Britain had been repeatedly stripped of troops to support usurpers' claims to the Roman empire, and after 410 the Roman armies never returned.[5][6]

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