NameEgbert (or Ecgberht) King of England
Death4 Feb 839
FatherEalhmund (-786)
Misc. Notes
Egbert, also spelled Ecgberht, or Ecgbryht d. 839king of the West Saxons from 802 to 839, who formed around Wessex a kingdom so powerful that it eventually achieved the political unification of England (mid-10th century).

The son of Ealhmund, king in Kent in 784 and 786, Egbert was a member of a family that had formerly held the West Saxon kingship. In 789 Egbert was driven into exile on the European continent by the West Saxon king Beorhtric and his ally, the powerful Mercian king Offa (d. 796). Nevertheless, Egbert succeeded to Beorhtric's throne in 802. He immediately removed Wessex from the Mercian confederation and consolidated his power as an independent ruler. In 825 he decisively defeated Beornwulf, king of Mercia, at the Battle of Ellendune (now Wroughton, Wiltshire). The victory was a turning point in English history because it destroyed Mercian ascendancy and left Wessex the strongest of the English kingdoms. By virtue of long-dormant hereditary claims, Egbert was accepted as king in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Essex. In 829 he conquered Mercia itself, but he lost it in the following year to the Mercian king Wiglaf. A year before his death Egbert won a stunning victory over Danish and Cornish Briton invaders at Hingston Down (now in Cornwall).

Egbert is son of King Ealhmund of Wessex who descends from Cerdic, King of the West Saxons (reigned 519-34) - see AEM Charts. Cerdic led the Saxon conquest of Britain from the Briton tribes. Egbert is known as the first king of all England. He succeeded to the throne in 802 and "overthrew the Mercian king Beornwulf in 825. This led to the annexation by Wessex of
Sussex, Surrey, Kent and Essex and the temporary recognition of West Saxon supremacy by
Mercia."{-Encycl.Brit.,`56,23:520} His wife, Raedburh, is said to be a sister of the King of Franks. Egbert's later years saw many Danish Viking raids on England. {Ref. Harold W. Smith, "Saxon England," gens. 9-13. Also: "The Earliest English Kings," D. P. Kirby (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 189-95.}

Egbert (Ecgberht) is where most chronologies of the kings of England start, chiefly because he was the first West Saxon king to exercise authority over most of England.  This is a somewhat biased West Saxon perspective, for although Egbert's descendants went on to become kings of England, Egbert himself exercised no greater authority than some of his predecessors, particularly Offa of Mercia and others claiming the title B retwalda . Nevertheless, it is with Egbert that the chain of events begins that brings us to a united England.

Egbert was the son of Ealhmund, almost certainly the same Ealhmund who was briefly king of Kent in 784.  He claimed descent from Ingeld, the brother of Ine of Wessex, and through him back to Cerdic the founder of the West Saxon kingdom, though the authenticity of this descent is dubious.  Egbert's birth date is sometimes cited as 775, and it is unlikely that he was born much earlier than that.  However, some chroniclers claim that Egbert contended for the throne of Wessex after the murder of Cynewulf in 786, but that Offa's influence gave the kingship to Beorhtric.  If Egbert was actively competing at that time he is likely to have been older than eleven, though possibly no more than fifteen or sixteen, which would push his birth year back to 770 or 771.  The ASC claims that Egbert spent three years in exile at the court of Charlemagne in Francia, but it is not clear when those three years were.  Some have speculated that the ASC (Anglo Saxon Chronicle) is in error and that his exile in Francia lasted for thirteen years.  It is difficult to reconcile these dates with the likely chain of events.  It seems that after Egbert first contended for the throne in 786 he retreated to the court of Offa.  He was a troublesome youth, and Beorhtric believed that all the time Egbert was in England he would be a problem.  It was in 789, at the time that Beorhtric was negotiating with Offa over his marriage to Offa's daughter, that Beorhtric suggested Egbert should be handed over to him.  Egbert, realising his life might be in peril, prudently left Mercia and probably left England all together.  As the son of Ealhmund, whose Kentish ancestry gave him strong Frankish connections, he may have been welcome at the court of Charlemagne even though at that time, Offa had angered Charlemagne by seeking to marry his son to one of Charlemagne's daughters, and Charlemagne broke off all trade relations with England.  But it is as likely that Egbert did not go directly to Francia but arrived there after some travels possibly around the year 792.  In truth we know little of Egbert's wanderings.  At Charlemagne's court he would have encountered other exiled princes, as well as the great scholar and teacher Alcuin, whom Charlemagne had placed in charge of his school in Aachen.  Egbert may well have accompanied Charlemagne on some of his campaigns, and he would certainly have learned the science of military tactics as well as the art of kingship.  He probably married whilst at Charlemagne's court as his wife is recorded as Eadburh (or Redburga), Charlemagne's sister (or more probably niece) and his first-born Athelwulf was probably born there, around 795. 796 may have been the next milestone in Egbert's life.  Alcuin left Aachen and became Abbot of Saint Martin, Tours, and that same year saw the death of Offa.  Egbert may have used this as an opportunity to return to Britain and seek to regain his authority.  The period between 796 and 799, when Beorhtric eventually restored relations with Cenwulf of Mercia is not well documented, and it is possible that Egbert sought to regain the kingship of Wessex at that time.  Even though he was unsuccessful it would have brought him back to the attention of the witan, or council, of Wessex with whom he must have remained in contact.  He is very likely to have become involved in the uprising in Kent led by his cousin Eadbert, and may well have remained in Kent until Eadbert was deposed in 798.  Egbert may then have returned to France and it is to this final three years that the ASC refers before Egbert was recalled from exile in 802, after the death of Beorhtric, to succeed to the kingdom of Wessex.

Even though the ASC is predominantly a West Saxon document produced in the time of Alfred, Egbert's grandson, it is rather surprising that so little is recorded of the early years of Egbert's reign.  Considering the later authority that he wielded one might imagine that he spent his early years in conquest, but this does not seem to be the case.  One may conjecture from this that Egbert was not readily accepted by all as king and the inter-dynastic squabbles which troubled the West Saxon line for generations may have occupied much of Egbert's initial years as he sought to establish himself.  He probably had the support of Charlemagne in this endeavour, and quite possibly the Pope as well.  There is no doubt that once Egbert set out on his campaign of conquest, he did it from a firm base, and it would not be surprising that it took him ten years to establish.  Egbert needed to re-organize his army so that it could move quickly and lightly, under strong command.  He also needed to reorganize his administration so that it could handle the greater demands Egbert would place on it.  Primarily he needed to gain the support of the church, and there is little doubt that Egbert developed a strong alliance with Wulfred, the radical archbishop of Canterbury.  It is noticeable that Egbert's first bid for power came after Wulfred had visited Rome and gained the support of the pope for his reforms.  With a strong archbishop amongst his supporters, and one who rapidly became alienated from Mercia, Egbert had much going for him.

It had probably served as a good omen that on the very day Egbert came to power, the ASC records that Athelmund, an ealdorman among the Hwicce of Mercia, invaded Wiltshire at Kempsford and was confronted by Weohstan of Wiltshire.  Both ealdormen were killed in the conflict but the West Saxons were triumphant, and this may have been seen as a good sign.  Egbert's first strike came in 815 when he decided to ensure that he had only one border on which to advance.  In that year he invaded Cornwall and devastated the kingdom, bringing it under his authority.  He allowed client kings to rule, and they would take any opportunity to oppose Saxon sovereignty, but to all intents and purposes from 815 the kingdom of Kernow had lost its independence.  There were doubtless skirmishes between the Saxons and Cornish over the next ten years but the only one recorded was at Camelford in 825 when Egbert had again to subjugate the Cornish.  Perhaps aware that Egbert was engaged in the southwest, Beornwulf, the new king of Mercia, invaded Wessex.  The chronicles suggest that Egbert was taken by surprise, but his years of preparation now paid off.  The two armies met at Ellendun on the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire and the victory went to Egbert.  Whether planned or not, this seemed to be the opportunity Egbert had waited for, and he capitalised on it with a vengeance.  He despatched a large army under the command of his son Athelwolf, ealdorman Wulffierd and Ealhstan, the bishop of Sherborne, into Kent, driving out the local king Baldred.  Egbert had claimed his patrimony and avenged his father's death.  Surrey and Sussex had submitted to Athelwolf en route, and when Baldred escaped into Essex, the East Saxons rapidly submitted to Athelwolf's army.  Athelstan, king of East Anglia, promptly appealed to Athelwulf for support in fighting Mercia and with the aid of the West Saxons, Athelstan gained his freedom from Mercia.  It has been suggested that this Athelstan was a son of Egbert, set up to lead the East Angles in their fight for independence.  Although unconfirmed it is a tempting theory, because it would explain the otherwise apparent independence of the East Angles during Egbert's reign and beyond.  Over the next two years the West Saxons no doubt continued to support the East Angles in their fight against the Mercians.  Beornwulf was slain and the kingship of Mercia was in crisis until the emergence of Wiglaf.  Egbert invaded Mercia directly in 829 and defeated and deposed Wiglaf Egbert continued with his army of conquest north into Northumbria, but Eanred met and submitted to Egbert at Dore.  From 829 Egbert was recognized as bretwalda or overlord and, because his dominion included Cornwall, hitherto unconquered, it is fair to say that Egbert was the first king of all England.  Nevertheless, his client kings still exercised considerable authority, and there is some question as to whether Wiglaf's return to power in 830 was as a client to Egbert or whether he had regained control over Mercia.  It is likely that after 830 Egbert lost some of his support from the Frankish Empire, due to its internal problems, and this weakened authority allowed Wiglaf to reassert himself, even though nominally accepting Egbert as his overlord.  There must have been some agreement between them because in 830 Egbert led an army through Mercia into north Wales to subdue the resurgent Cyngen Ap Cadell.  His devastation was so effective that Cyngen may well have been forced to regard Egbert as his overlord, despite Cyngen's recent display of pride in erecting the Pillar of Elisedd in commemoration of his victories.

After 830 Egbert's reign was dominated by the raids of the Danes.  In 835 the Vikings devastated Sheppey in Kent, and in the following year they landed at Carhampton (or Charmouth) in Devon.  Egbert gathered together his army and almost defeated the Danes, but with the dying rays of the sun the Danes turned the battle and Egbert had to admit defeat - the only recorded defeat of his reign.  The Danes began to establish themselves in Devon and, by 838, had combined forces with the Cornish to declare an all-out war on the Saxons.  Egbert's army was now better prepared.  He no doubt had spent the time studying the battle tactics of the Danes.  The forces met at Hingston Down, near Callington, on the Devon-Cornwall border, and Egbert inflicted a resounding defeat upon the enemy.  It is unlikely that Egbert took a direct part in this battle.  He was now in his late sixties, and his earlier defeat may have been an indication of his failing strength.  He no doubt planned the battle tactics like an army general, but the army was probably commanded by one of his ealdormen, or possibly his son Athelwulf.

Egbert died the following year after a reign of thirty-seven years and seven months, probably in his sixty-ninth year.  He was succeeded by Athelwulf.  He also had a daughter, Edith (Eadgyth) who became a nun at Polesworth Abbey in Warwickshire.

References: [ASC],[AR7],[Weis1],[JAMS]
Last Modified 25 Jun 2003Created 4 Sep 2012 using Reunion for Macintosh