The British Monarcy: Egbert of Wessex
The First King of the House of Wessex
Egbert was king of Wessex during Britain’s Early Middle Ages and ruled from 802 until his death in 839.
In the early 780s, Egbert was forced into exile by Offa of Mercia following the death of Beorhtric. When Egbert returned, he was able to claim the crown.
Egbert’s Early Reign
Very little is known about the early years of Egbert’s reign, but it is believed that Egbert was able to maintain Wessex’s independence, despite Mercian dominance over the other kingdoms of southern Britain.
Egbert, Ruler of Britain
In 825, Egbert defeated Beornwulf of Mercia at the Battle of Ellendun. In doing so, Egbert took control of the Mercian vassal states in the south-east. In 829, he defeated Wiglaf of Mercia, forcing him to flee the kingdom. That same year, Egbert also accepted the submission of the King of Northumbria. As a result, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle later remembered Egbert as a “bretwalda,” or ruler of Britain.
Egbert was not able to maintain this position for very long, however. Within a year Wiglaf returned and was successful in reclaiming the Mercian throne. Despite this setback, however, Egbert was able to retain control of Kent, Sussex and Surrey, giving these territories to his son, Aethelwulf to rule as a subking.
Very little is known about Egbert’s family or lineage. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle traces the descent of Egbert and Aethelwulf back to Cedric, the founder of the House of Wessex.
Egbert is believed to have been born sometime between 769 and 771. He is also thought to have had a half-sister, Alburga, who was later made a saint. Primary sources say little about her, but it is written that she married Wulstan Ealdoram, a noble from Wiltshire. Upon his death she entered a convent and became a nun.
There is also very little evidence for Egbert’s wife. He is believed to have married a sister-in-law, or perhaps a niece of the Frankish Emperor. This makes sense to medieval historians because Egbert was known to have close political and economic ties to the Caroligian Empire. Additionally, Charlemagne, the Frankish Emperor was also known to support Offa’s enemies in the south of England.
Egbert’s Claim to the Throne of Wessex
Offa, the King of Mercia, was one of the most dominant forces in all of Anglo-Saxon Britain during the second half of the Eighth Century. The relationship between Offa and Cynewulf, Egbert’s predecessor was such that Egbert was forced into exile following Cynewulf’s murder when he contested the succession. As a result of Mercian backing, Beorhtric was made king, and ruled for 13 years. Following Beorhtric’s death in 802, Egbert returned from exile in France and succeeded to the throne.
Egbert came to the throne thanks to the support of Charlemagne and the Pope. Meanwhile, the Mercians continued to oppose Egbert’s claim to the throne of Wessex, attacking his kingdom on the day of his coronation. Despite this, the primary sources do not comment on the relationship between Wessex and Mercia for the first 20 years of Egbert’s rule. Egbert is presumed to have had no influence outside his own kingdom, but at the same time Wessex is not thought to have been a Mercian vassal state. Additionally, the Mercian kings do not appear to have claimed lordship over any lands in southern England.
Egbert’s dominance over southern England came to an end between 830 and 836, when the Mercians began to reassert their independence. Despite this, the military successes of Egbert permanently altered the political landscape of Anglo-Saxon Britain.
During a council at Kingston-upon-Thames, held in 838, Egbert and Aethelwulf granted land to the Archbishops of Canterbury and Winchester in exchange for their support of Aethelwulf as Egbert’s successor. Egbert died in 839 and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
Garmonsway, G.N. ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., pp. xxxii,2,4
Farmer, D.H.: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, p. 10
Searle, W.G., Anglo-Saxon Bishops, Kings, and Nobles, London, 1899, p.343; Weir, Alison, Britain’s Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy (1989), p. 4.
Hunter Blair, Roman Britain, pp. 14–15.
P. Wormald, “The Age of Bede and Æthelbald”, in Campbell et al., The Anglo-Saxons, pp. 95–98
“Anglo-Saxons.net: S 108”. Sean Miller. Retrieved on May 15/09
Swanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pp. 58–63.
Kirby, Earliest English Kings, pp. 189–195.
Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, pp. 148–149.
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