The Isle of Wight is known for being fiercely independent and has developed a strong sense of identity that often sets it apart from mainland thinking.
It’s probably not a surprise to find out that in the Early Middle Ages, while the rest of England’s inhabitants had been converted to Christianity at sword-point, the Wightwarians, as they were known at the time, were still independently pagan and ruled by a king called Arwald.
The Pagan King
England during Arwald’s reign was divided into kingdoms controlled by tribal lords forever fighting each other. While much of England was being converted from paganism to Roman Christianity, the Island was peacefully unaware of the slaughter to come.
The Roman’s had abandoned the Island long ago, and from around 530AD, the Jutes, a people who had migrated from Northern Denmark, lived and ruled on the Isle of Wight. King after king was toppled until a man called Arwald found himself in control around the late 600s.
King Arwald presided over 300 families, which may have been only around 1200 people.
The Quiet Before the Storm
The pagan Jutes on the Island lived in clearings surrounded by forest, in small hamlets of several families in thatched and wooden-tiled homes. They ground corn by hand and wove their own clothing.
They made everyday items from wood, clay and iron, and crafted sophisticated and beautiful jewellery. They were connected to nature and worshipped pagan gods like Woden and Thor.
While the rest of England was brutally being converted to Roman Christianity, King Arwald was determined to preserve the Island’s pagan way of life.
Meanwhile on the mainland, Rome’s evangelising pope was taking advantage of any Anglo-Saxon barbarian with a desire to conquer new land and convert the people ‘ignorant of the name and faith of God’ to the ways of the Lord.
One such powerful bishop was called Wilfred who befriended a man called Caedwalla, a barbarian king of Wessex, a warmonger with revenge on his mind mainly because, as a youth, he had been exiled from Wessex. Caedwalla had later returned to kill the South Saxons and their king called Aethelwealh in what is now Sussex. It was written that he went through the English counties ‘by merciless slaughter’. And slaughter he did. But as Caedwalla looked across the Solent he set eyes on the last remaining pagan outpost, the Isle of Wight. With blood still dripping from his sword, he amassed his army and set sail.
Arwald must have put up a brave fight because his quarry, Caedwalla, was badly injured in the battle for the Island, but, alas, it wasn’t enough. It has been written that Caedwalla destroyed all the inhabitants of the Island, killing Arwald and forcing the remaining Islanders to renounce their beliefs and convert to Christianity. After the battle, the injured Caedwalla made a pilgrimage to Rome to be baptised – was this to absolve his guilt for all the slaughter? – only to die ten days later.
Fruits of the Massacre
Vestiges of Arwald’s family, his two brothers, their names still unknown, fled the Island across the Solent to the New Forest, but were eventually betrayed and captured by Caedwalla. He forced them at sword-point to convert to Christianity, before being murdered.
They were described as ‘the first fruits’ of the massacre of the population of the Island, and later canonised collectively as St Arwald, in memory of King Arwald. The day is now remembered, although not by many, annually on the 22nd April.