Æthelwulf was the son of Egbert and a sub-king of Kent. He assumed the throne of Wessex upon his father's death in 839. His reign is characterized by the usual Viking invasions and repulsions common to all English rulers of the time, but the making of war was not his chief claim to fame. Æthelwulf is remembered, however dimly, as a highly religious man who cared about the establishment and preservation of the church. He was also a wealthy man and controlled vast resources. Out of these resources, he gave generously, to Rome and to religious houses that were in need. He was an only child, but had fathered five sons, by his first wife, Osburga. He recognized that there could be difficulties with contention over the succession. He devised a scheme which would guarantee (insofar as it was possible to do so) that each child would have his turn on the throne without having to worry about rival claims from his siblings. Æthelwulf provided that the oldest living child would succeed to the throne and would control all the resources of the crown, without having them divided among the others, so that he would have adequate resources to rule. That he was able to provide for the continuation of his dynasty is a matter of record, but he was not able to guarantee familial harmony with his plan. This is proved by what we know of the foul plottings of his son, Æthelbald, while Æthelwulf was on pilgrimage to Rome in 855.
Æthelwulf was a wise and capable ruler, whose vision made possible the beneficial reign of his youngest son, Alfred the Great.