Kingship of King Egbert-Reasons for his Success
The Life of King Egbert

The Kingship of King Egbert (802-839)

Reasons for His Success

Reasons for King Egbert’s Success

There are three reasons for the ultimate success of Wessex: control of the southeast; the personality of Egbert; and the effects of the Danish invasions. Control of Kent and the lower Thames valley were the key to supremacy. Traffic with the Continent passed through the Kentish ports and the Thames. London was one of the main trading points of many nations. So the importance of the southeast in general, and of Canterbury and London in particular, was such that ultimate supremacy would go to the kingdom that had a firm grip on Kent and the lower Thames.

Mercia was quite as well placed as Wessex for dominating the southeast, but a crisis between Kent and its neighbors came in the years around 800. The Kentish revolt of 796 seems to have been the turning point. The motives of the rebels were resentment at Offa’s strong rule and his tampering with their old monarchy; perhaps friction caused by dues on shipping levied by Mercian kings at London, and indignation at the erection of the Lichfield archbishopric in 786 over that of Canterbury. Offa’s record was bad enough, but the barbarism with which the revolt of 796 was suppressed by Coenwulf, his successor, was worse. Coenwulf is said to have “ravaged Kent as far as the marshes, and captured Praen their king and led him bound to Mercia and put out his eyes and cut off his hands.” If the transfer of the supremacy from Mercia to Wessex is to be attributed to any one event, it may well be traced to this brutal deed, which seems to have alienated the Kentishmen forever.

Coenwulf’s high-handed act seems to show that Mercia was still pursuing a deliberate policy of establishing its power by any means in eastern Kent. The quarrel was for a time so acute that “the whole English nation was deprived of its primordial authority and of the ministry of Holy Baptism for the space of almost six years,” and it dragged on after the death of Coenwulf (822) down to the eve of Egbert’s humiliation of the Mercians.

Much can be said about the geographical advantages of Wessex. Mercia in comparison with Wessex was clearly lacking in good natural boundaries, and within its poorly defined borders there was little geographical unity. Wessex, on the other hand, was blessed with well-marked frontiers, except for some fifty miles between the upper Thames and the Avon. Wessex enjoyed a certain physical compactness, thanks to the ramparts of chalk which encircled the Winchester-Salisbury country. Thus while the hills of Northumbria and the fens and forests of Mercia made those kingdoms poor and kept them divided, the chalk downs of Wessex held the different parts of the land in touch with one another, connecting east and west by good turf tracks along the ridges.

The second among the three decisive factors contributing to the victory of Wessex is Egbert himself. There were reasons which gave lasting significance to his career. Egbert succeeded in permanently reconciling Kent and Wessex. It is also said that Egbert owed his opportunity to the fact that he “alone among the English rulers of his day could claim direct descent from the kings of the migration time.” Perhaps, also, Kent and the other small states received better treatment from the house of Egbert than from the Mercians. Home rule for a time under princes of Egbert’s blood made it easier for the states of the southeast to sink with dignity from kingdoms into shires.

The greatness of Egbert can be seen in the achievements of his successors. He must have brought with him from his exile with Charlemagne a knowledge of the methods practiced by the greatest administrator and statesman of the Dark Ages. Egbert reorganized the West Saxon fyrd with the care for military details displayed by Charlemagne, and the success of Wessex over the other kingdoms was very understandable. Egbert had a superior administration, and in particular their division of the kingdom into shires, ruled and led by their ealdormen. The annals of the Chronicle, in which one earldorman after another is said to lead the forces of his shire against the enemy, points to the efficiency of the West Saxon shire system.

The personal piety which long made the dynasty illustrious, and the sense of family solidarity which saved it from suicidal feuds like those of the Northumbrians and of the Carolingians, are virtues for which Egbert should be given some credit. From the time of Egbert onwards there were good traditions in the ruling house of Wessex, those of strenuous fighting against Dane and devil, and these traditions may reasonably be supposed to have been implanted by Egbert himself. Egbert made a beginning by reconciling the southeastern kingdoms, by eliminating rival dynasties, by bisecting the rival kingdoms, and by demonstrating, not only to the southeast but also to all Britain, superior leadership.

His dealings with the church of Canterbury are of peculiar importance. Egbert made the church a means of strengthening his own position. Not only did he hold ecclesiastical councils, appoint bishops who were supportive, but he also had a priest named Swithin as one of two counselors and teacher to his children. (His other counselor was an earldoman named Wulfheard.) Egbert founded monasteries, built churches, and in general supported the church. This was partly done to strengthen his political position. It also shows a true concern for the betterment of himself, his family, and the realm.

The third among the three decisive factors was the effect of the Danish invasion. The Danish invaders of the ninth century may be compared to the Anglo-Saxons’ own ancestors when they first assaulted and conquered ancient Britain in the fifth century. Like them they came originally from northern Europe, were a mixture of farmers and pirates, commanded the sea, and were adventurous, hardy, and pagan. In some ways the Vikings were more cultured and sophisticated than their predecessors. Their leaders achieved a high standard of material comfort; nevertheless they were in essence barbarians imbued with primitive beliefs. Unlike the early Anglo-Saxon pirates, they do not appear to have been motivated by the pressure of population in their homelands; their piracy was a well-organized business enterprise. First they pillaged the wealthy monasteries situated near the English coast; then they circled Scotland to attack Ireland, that had incessant internal strive.

The Vikings fed on their successes and grew bolder. The English did not crumple before them, as the Britons had yielded to the Anglo-Saxons. Charlemagne had won a respite for Christian Europe, and the kings of Wessex, who were the most vulnerable to attacks from the sea, were forewarned. Before he died King Egbert had inflicted a check upon the Danes at the battle of Hingston Down in 838. In 850 Aethelwulf defeated the Danish host at the battle of Aclea and his son Athelstan, who was then the king of Kent, also repulsed them. In the same year both London and Canterbury were sacked. The peril was severe; it has been estimated that over ten thousand Vikings in some 350 ships bore down upon England during those campaigns.

In the early ninth century Wessex became supreme; by the end of the ninth century it was the only English kingdom; in the tenth and eleventh centuries it was converted into the kingdom of England. This was  the joint work of the Danish invaders and the dynasty of King Alfred. The Danes raided, and then settled in England in the ninth century; by 871 they had conquered most of it, Wessex excepted. The other royal dynasties became extinct. From 871 to 899 England was ruled by Alfred, an indefatigable warrior, and a man who showed exceptional imagination in the arts both of peace and of war. He saved Wessex, and laid foundations on which his successors were able to build a united English kingdom; but this could hardly have happened if he had not been succeeded by a line of notably able rulers, his son Edward the Elder (899-925), his grandson Athelstan (925-39) and his great-grandson Edgar (959-75) in particular.

The personal character of the reigning monarch was the main factor that settled which of the great kingdoms the leadership should reside all through the seventh and eighth centuries. The same was the case at the start of the ninth, and the fact that Egbert of Wessex was the leading figure in England at the moment when the stress of the great raids started, was important in determining the future history of the whole island. King Alfred appeared at the later period when the attack of the Vikings reached its culminating point, finally settled the matter, and gave the house of Wessex its great future. But the position from which Alfred started had been secured for him by Egbert: if the grandfather had been a nonentity the grandson would not have had the chance of becoming the savior of England, and the progenitor of the great line of monarchs who beat off the Dane.

King Egbert's England

© The British Library Board  

Anglo-Saxon King of the Eighth Century
by Meyrick, Sir S. Rush and Smith, C.H. , London, 1815.
Anglo-Saxon king and his armor-bearer equipped for battle.
The king wears a golden crown surmounted by three fleur de lys.
 He wears body armor of iron rings.

for larger image

Viking Ship

lion rampantcross fleury
The lion rampant, said to have been used on
King Egbert's shields and/or banners, along
with the cross fleury. The lion would represent a
fighting king
(dauntless courage and royalty),
and the cross fleury someone who has conquered.

Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References