Crusader Kings II is a game about building a dynasty. You’re not tied to petty nationstates or borders but to your family - it’s about making sure that you have a legacy to last the ages. The game, now a few years after release and well-supported with DLC, can span a truly staggering amount of time. From AD 757 to 1453 the brave, the bold and those with infinite patience can guide a noble family to greatness.
It’s with such an idea that I approach House Cerdicing, a family that in 757 are the rulers of a petty kingdom in South England named Wessex. I will be taking over the fortunes of this Anglo-Saxon dynasty and chronicling their journey from obscurity to European domination… Or until I accidentally drive them into ruin, death and despair. Let the historical games begin!
Cynewulf I - 757-771
Cynewulf is a mild-mannered man of long years. Neither exceptional nor unexceptional, he sits upon the petty throne of Wessex controlling the counties around him with a fair, if not impressive, rule. Cynewulf I is also a semi-historical figure from Anglo-Saxon sagas. His real children will go on to create a powerful English kingdom, but will his virtual ones? Cynewulf marries a young - very young - woman to try and ensure that more children are born as he only had the one heir.
Not much of note happens in Cynewulf’s reign. His wife is young, beautiful and fabulously adulterous. Wessex potters on without anything too interesting happening, apart from a few infrastructure projects here and there. Without warning Cynewulf kicks the bucket in 771, aged 51, to a resounding “meh” from his citizens.
Beorhtric - 771 - 773
Beorhtric is a different man than his father - strong, confident and iron-willed. The first thing he does is marry his dead father’s widow, raising a few eyebrows in court. Ambitious as well as headstrong, the young king orders that a claim be fabricated on Sussex, the neighbouring county to the east. His councillors write up some fake news about Sussexians committing violent acts of war and create a good enough casus belli for conquest to become a legitimate action.
Beorhtric marches forth at the head of an army, greatsword at his side, in 773. His luscious brown beard flows in the autumn breeze. A few days later he catches the pox and dies at the age of 23. The Dark Ages have not gone well so far for the ruling family of Wessex.
Cyneheard - 773-775
Beorhtric had fathered no sons, so the crown passes to the old king Cynewulf’s distant relative Cyneheard, who is also a semi-historical figure. Cyneheard is an old man, 68 when he sits the throne, yet manages to finish the war in Sussex and claim the county from its overlords. He then marries Beorhtric’s widow and settles down to a cup of cocoa and starts the business of fathering an heir.
Evidently the strain of marital obligations is too much on poor Cyneheard’s heart - he pops his clogs at 70. Thankfully his son, Cynewulf II has just been born. Fingers are pointed at the dead king’s wife, who no doubt is annoyed that there aren’t any more monarchs to marry.
Cynewulf II - 775-812
Cynewulf has a lot to do, what with inheriting the throne at age 0. Court politics is too much for the infant king to understand and he is tutored by a succession of men who somehow, for some reason, keep being murdered and replaced. Finally, a priest manages to hold on to the young king long enough to give him an education.
Unfortunately that education is fairly lacking and Cynewulf II enters adulthood as a bit of a dimwit and dullard (much like his namesake). He marries a Lombard woman well out of his league in 790 and begins on an ambitious project of rebuilding the entirety of Winchester. The young king is also confronted with the sombre reality that the Age of the Vikings has now started.
Cynewulf has a daughter in 792 and comes perilously close to death from fever in 793. The king defeats a horde of Vikings in Dorset in the same year, before celebrating by fathering a son in 794. Unfortunately the boy, named Oscytel, inherits the family propensity for illness and dies a year later. Cynewulf II descends into depression at the loss and takes his anger out on any and all vikings he can find, defeating four separate warbands in 795 alone.
In 801 his second daughter is born. Unhappy at his poor Italian wife for not having a boy, Cynewulf declares war on Surrey to sate his growing distaste for life. In a lightning campaign he conquers the region and deposes the unfortunate child-duke in 803. Two years later the warmonger strikes at Kent, absorbing it into Wessex.
A third daughter is born in 809 and Cynewulf II decides enough is enough and succumbs to the family curse - he dies of illness aged 39.
Ecgbert - 812 - 825
Ecgbert is the next in a line of kings who weren’t really ready for it. He’s another distant relative in the Cerdicing line, and already has a young heir-in-waiting. This is a bonus, as apparently everyone in the kingdom despises him. He’s undiplomatic, a poor general and a bad statesman. If ever there’s an argument against autocratic primogeniture then poor Ecgbert is it.
The growing kingdom needs more lands, and Ecgbert decides that Devon will be the next county swallowed up by it. He conducts a fairly short and bloodless war against the county's ruler, taking only two years between 812-815. He also has another daughter in that time. The new king makes sure to marry off all of Cynewulf II’s daughters to ensure they’re away from his throne.
All this expansion comes with a cost, though. Fed up at having a succession of illness-prone kings, the nobles of Wessex come a-knocking at Winchester in 817 and demand a switch of the succession rules in the petty kingdom from primogeniture to gavelkind. This would mean that all lands are split between the king’s sons, and often results in fractured states. What’s worse, it usually splits the family in two as well. With the future of the dynasty at stake Ecgbert says no, despite the fact that the nobles have come armed with very sharp-looking swords.
Civil war erupts across Wessex, pitting brother against brother and illness-prone king against sanguine noble. Outnumbered and defeated in multiple battles due to his overwhelming incompetence, Ecgbert makes a plea to the king of Asturias, his father-in-law, to help in the war. The Asturian king says “fine” as long as Wessex helps them against the Moors in Spain. Ecgbert agrees and prepares to take back his lands.
Asturian reinforcements never arrive and Ecgbert loses the civil war in 820. Not too long after that the Asturian king calls for aid against the Moors, who are invading en masse. Ecgbert doesn’t even reply. A few months later he discovers his wife is having an adulterous affair with two other men. A loser unloved by his people, his subjects and even his family, Ecgbert gives in and dies of illness in 825 aged 56.
Times have been tough for the kings of Wessex. But a new figure appears from the gloom - will the son of the hated Ecgbert bring glory to the family name at last?