Emperors & Kings
Died At Age: 69
Also Known As: Ecgberht, Ecgbert, Ecgbriht, Ecgbert
Born Country: England
Born in: Wessex
Famous as: King of Wessex
Spouse/Ex-: Redburga, Ida of Herzfeld (m. ? – 811 AD)
father: Ealhmund of Kent
mother: Edgythe of Kent
Died on: 839
Egbert, also spelt Ecgberht, Ecgbert, or Ecgbriht, was an Anglo-Saxon king who ruled over Wessex between 802 and 839. An incredibly competent leader, he paved the way for the coming of his grandson, Alfred the Great. The son of Ealhmund of Kent, Egbert was compelled into exile by Offa of Mercia and Beorhtric of Wessex. However, following the demise of Beorhtric, he came back and ascended to the Wessex throne. Not much information is available on the first two decades of his reign. It is believed that he was successful in retaining his kingdom’s freedom against Mercia, which was the dominant kingdom in Southern England. In 825, he was victorious against Beornwulf of Mercia and expanded his control over the Mercian dependencies in south-eastern England. After winning against Wiglaf of Mercia, he captured the kingdom and reigned there directly for a brief period before Wiglaf was able to drive him back. However, Egbert stopped him from regaining Kent, Sussex, and Surrey. These territories were later passed to Egbert’s son Æthelwulf, who reigned over them under his father. Following Egbert’s death in 839, Æthelwulf became the king.
Childhood & Early Life
There is much debate among historians on Egbert’s ancestry. According to the Parker Chronicle, the oldest version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Egbert was a descendant of Ingild, brother of King Ine of Wessex. The Chronicle traces back the line to Cerdic, founder of the House of Wessex.
The 20th century historian Frank Stenton agreed that Egbert had descended from Ingild but doubted the earlier genealogy back to Cerdic. Heather Edwards, on the other hand, puts forward the notion that he was from Kent.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle declares Egbert as the son of Ealhmund of Kent. In 789, Egbert was defeated and forced to flee to Francia by the West Saxon King Beorhtric and his ally, Offa, the mighty King of Mercia.
During his exile, Charlemagne was on the throne of Francia, and he wanted to maintain significant Frankish involvement in the affairs of Northumbria. He backed Offa’s enemies in the south. William of Malmesbury, a later chronicler, writes that Egbert received lessons on kingship during his time in Francia.
The name of his spouse is not known. A 15th century chronicle speculates that his wife was Redburga, who was a sister-in-law of Emperor Charlemagne, and that they wedded during his exile in Francia. However, modern historians dismiss this. He also allegedly had a half-sister, named Alburga, who later took the veil, becoming Abbess of Wilton Abbey.
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Accession & Reign
Following Beorhtric’s death in 802, Egbert became the King of Wessex, likely with the help of Charlemagne and maybe even the papacy. On the day of his coronation, the tribal kingdom of Hwicce, which was part of Mercia at the time, invaded but was ultimately defeated. It is unknown what happened between the two kingdoms in the next 20 years.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Egbert campaigned in Dumnonia or West Welsh in 815. According to a charter dated August 19, 825, Egbert invaded Dumnonia again that year.
In 825, Egbert came out victorious against Beornwulf of Mercia at Ellandun (present-day Wroughton) in one of the most crucial battles in the Anglo-Saxon history. Mercia’s defeat in this battle effectively ended their dominance in southern England.
According to the Chronicle, Egbert then dispatched his son, Æthelwulf, along with Ealhstan, his bishop, and Wulfheard, his ealdorman, to invade Kent. Æthelwulf forced King Baldred of Kent to retreat north over the Thames, which led to the people of Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex swearing their allegiance to Egbert.
Some scholars dispute the notion that Baldred was forced back immediately after the Batlle of Ellandun. As proof of their theory, they point to a surviving document from Kent that marks 826 as the third year of the reign of Beornwulf.
According to them, this document demonstrates that Beornwulf still had some control over Kent, which could only be possible if Baldred, who was an underling of Beornwulf, was still the king of Kent.
The Chronicle is silent on who initiated the circumstances that culminated in the Battle of Ellandun. Modern historians, however, hold the view that it was almost certainly Beornwulf that provoked the conflict. It is likely that he wanted to use Wessex’s 825 campaign in Dumnonia as a diversion.
The ramifications of Ellandun was far-reaching than the disintegration of Mercian influence in the southeast. The Chronicle states that East Anglians reached out to Egbert, requesting his protection against the Mercian aggression.
Both Beornwulf and his successor, Ludeca, were killed during their own East Anglian campaigns, in 826 and 827, respectively. This practically made Wessex the most powerful kingdom in the southeast.
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King of Mercia
In 829, Egbert attacked Mercia and forced the Mercian King Wiglaf into exile. This win gave him access to the London Mint, and he put out coins as the King of Mercia.
After this victory, he was hailed as a bretwalda, which means 'wide-ruler' or maybe 'Britain-ruler', in a renowned passage of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He is the eighth ruler on whom the Chronicle has designated the title.
Later in 829, the King of Northumbrians, probably Eanred, swore his allegiance to him. A later chronicler named Roger of Wendover writes that Egbert attacked and looted Northumbria before Eanred was forced to submit. Roger of Wendover often used Northumbria annals as sources of information. These events do not appear in the Chronicle.
In 830, Egbert invaded Wales with plans of stretching his power to the Welsh lands, which was previously under the Mercian influence. Egbert was never more powerful than this point in his reign.
Egbert’s control over Mercia did not last long, as, before the end of 830, Wiglaf managed to regain his throne. This led to a decrease of Egbert’s dominion over southern England. The most significant underlying cause of this was likely his over-dependence on Carolingian support.
It is believed that the Franks backed Egbert’s ascension in 802. At Ester 839, shortly before his death, he was corresponding with Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne, requesting the latter man for a safe passage to Rome. Carolingian support was probably one of the most important reasons for Egbert’s military success in the late 820s.
Sometime between the 820s and 830s, the Rhenish and Frankish commercial networks had drastically deteriorated. Furthermore, Louis was busy dealing with a civil war at the time. These distractions probably made Louis unable to lend his support to Egbert.
If this is to be believed, the retraction of Frankish influence meant that East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex had to sort things out among themselves and not rely on outside support.
Although in the 830s Egbert’s power and influence severely declined, he had managed to completely alter the Anglo-Saxon landscape by then. Wessex kept its dominion over the south-eastern kingdoms, except for maybe Essex.
In 836, Egbert lost to the Danes at Carhampton. Two years later, Egbert defeated them and their allies, the West Welsh, at the Battle of Hingston Down. While the Dumnonian royal line existed after this, it marked the end of the independence of one of the last British kingdoms.
Death & Legacy
In 838, in a council at Kingston upon Thames, Egbert and Æthelwulf allocated lands to the sees of Winchester and Canterbury to ensure that the throne would be passed down to Æthelwulf after Egbert’s death without much hindrance.
In his will, he granted lands only to the male members of his family, so they would not be lost to the House of Wessex after a marriage. Egbert passed away in 839 and was laid to rest in Winchester.