Kingship of King Egbert 802-825
The Life of King Egbert

The Kingship of King Egbert (802-839)

The Years 802-824


After the death of King Beorhtric in 802, Egbert was the sole surviving heir of the royal families of both Kent and Wessex. Since Coenwulf’s power was too strong for Egbert to challenge, his claim to Kent would have to wait. The coronation of the kings of Wessex took place in Winchester, and even in the time of Egbert the ceremony was a very ancient one. After receiving his crown, Egbert swore a royal oath that he would preserve and protect the Christian Church, prevent inequities from coming to any subjects, and would render good justice.

The day of return must have been a memorable one for Egbert who might now hope to receive the love and respect of his people. Charlemagne prevented Coenwulf of Mercia from taking any action against Egbert on his return to England, but trouble did come from one of Coenwulf’s vassals. The very day that Egbert was crowned king of Wessex, the Mercian ealdorman Aethelmund launched an attack into Wessex from the country of the Hwiccas, crossing the upper Thames at Kempsford with a large force. The Mercians were confronted by Weoxtan, ealdorman of the Wilsaetas and the men of Wiltshire. The similarity of names, the location of Wiltshire and the time of death, indicates Weoxtan might be Earl Wulstan of Wiltshire, the husband of Alburga, King Egbert’s sister. There was a fierce battle, and both the ealdormen were slain as the men of Wessex defeated the Mercians.

Following the victory Egbert contacted Coenwulf, king of Mercia, to discuss the attack. Coenwulf disavowed the action of his ealdorman, Aethelmund, and “soon after a peace was confirmed by the oaths of the noblest men of Egbert and of the Mercian king Coenwulf.” If Coenwulf had resented Egbert’s kingship, he would have been strong enough to strike a second time and dethrone the new king. Since he tolerated Egbert as a vassal for many years, he must have disavowed the action of Aethelmund. Egbert’s men had won an important battle and he now sat securely upon the throne. This enabled Egbert to spend the first thirteen years of his reign in relative peace and security.

In the year 802, sometime after he became king, Egbert summoned his witan to meet at Winchester, and decreed that the name of his kingdom should be changed from Britain to England. The first mention was in the “Monastic Annals of Winchester,” at a time when Egbert had come to be popularly regarded as king of all England. There was also a statement that appeared in the register of a hospital at York that soon after his accession he held a witan at Winchester, in which he ordered the name of his kingdom changed from Britain to England. The word “England” meaning Anglo-Saxon Land. This renaming took the land’s title away from the tribes of the Britons, and reflected the conquest of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons. It also could be expressing Egbert’s pride in his heritage. Perhaps the name change was meant not only to reflect the changed majority of the inhabitants but to also indicate to the people he would view other groups in society from a new perspective.

At Egbert’s succession, England was still divided into several kingdoms, and no one king was able to dominant over the others for any length of time. Egbert began by strengthening his own kingdom so that he could achieve his one great ambition, the unification of England under his rule. It should be noted that he dates certain charters granted in the later years of his reign by the year of his “ducatus,” when he refers to 812 or 813. Whatever he may have meant by the term “ducatus,” it certainly points to gain in his status. Egbert made good use of his time in preparation for the exploits which eventually brought Wessex into a position of strength rivaling that of Mercia.

When Egbert became king Wessex had been a kingdom without unity or vigor, depressed beneath the dominance of Mercia, and poor from the looting of his treasury. He used the first decade or so of his reign to accomplish two goals; to replenish the depleted royal treasury and restore economic prosperity to Wessex, and to reorganize his army by introducing continental methods of warfare. Coenwulf of Mercia, whose realm included Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Essex, almost encircled Wessex. Throughout those years Mercia had been slipping gradually into a state of disunity and indecision much like what Wessex had felt in the past. Egbert had the gift of patience and industry, he worked and waited.


The year 814 is remembered for the death of Charlemagne, but unfortunately history does not record whether Egbert left Wessex to attend his former protector’s funeral. Egbert continued, however, to show the influence of Charlemagne on his character as his reign grew longer. Egbert understood the means by which men are disciplined, improved, and taught to act together. When the period of waiting and recovery was over, he knew how to utilize the moral results, and to what ends. After thirteen years of preparation Egbert began to be capable of great deeds.

When the Danish king Godfred died in 810 by an assassin’s knife, Egbert must have understood the danger that the Vikings represented to his kingdom. The coast of Ireland had been plundered. Vikings of Norway, as well as Danes of Denmark, were on the water. The murdered Godfred was succeeded by Canute I, who ruled as king of Denmark from 810-850, and proved to be even more aggressive and warlike. There can have been little doubt in Egbert’s mind that he would face attacks from the Viking forces of Canute I in the future.

In 814 Egbert, with Coenwulf’s permission, led a vigorous war against the West Welsh of Damnonia (Devon), whom previous kings had left unmolested. He laid the land to waste , and compelled its king to do him homage. Egbert regarded  814 as an important year in the growth of his power. For his charters of 826 are dated “in the twenty-fourth year of his kingly power, and the fourteenth since he obtained his suzerainty,” meaning he had become a overlord over princes, and these must be those of Damnonia. He annexed what remained of Devonshire to his dominions at this date, leaving only Cornwall to the native kings.

Egbert was cementing an alliance between his kingdom and the church at the same time. He initiated an alliance between his kingdom of Wessex and the church. At the time the church recognized Mercia as the dominant English kingdom, and gave Mercian interests greater consideration. Determined to reverse this situation in favor of his own kingdom, in 814 Egbert sent Bishop Wigberht of Winchester to accompany Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury on his journey to Rome. The diplomatic discussions that took place in Rome must have been successful from Egbert’s point of view, because from that date there was a gradual coolness between Wulfred and Coenwulf of Mercia which later broke out into an open quarrel. This led to closer ties between the see of Canterbury and Wessex, that later grew into a strong alliance.

Charlemagne’s empire belonged to a new political world, based on utterly different concepts than the old Roman civilization, but Egbert never allowed himself to be drawn into the circle of the Frankish empire. He was profoundly and permanently influenced by it but preserved his individuality. English kings in general did not admit that their sovereign title was derived from the Church. The Church ranked among the great forces which Egbert consulted, and which accepted him and ratified his title; but it was never allowed to be more. Egbert continued with firm patience to be “Egbert Rex.”

Those first quiet years of Egbert’s reign were lived while the threat from the North grew gradually more ominous. There were raids against Frisia and Gaul; but it was the raiders in western waters who were the most serious. The damage they did was at this early stage not very great; it was their presence itself that was alarming, and the opportunities they found for exploration and the gathering of definite geographical knowledge. All this was reconnaissance work which was made to pay its own expenses. The center of interest was still upon the Elbe. The Danish king, Sigfrith, had regarded the Saxon wars of Charles with interest. He had not intervened, but he had extended protection to the Saxon chief, Widuking, when refuge was sought, and he had been in diplomatic communication with Charles.

Then there was Guthfrith the Proud (or Godfred) who took a stronger line. He attacked Frisia, and made the Franks understand his might. The raids in the Irish seas were not casual adventuring. This became clear from their sudden pause while Guthfrith was attacking in the North Sea. Guthfrith’s career came to an abrupt end in 810, when he was assassinated. There was political meaning behind the episode of his murder. His successor was disputed and at least one of the rival candidates proved to be under Frankish patronage.

The death of Guthfrith changed the focus of Viking raids to Britain and relieved the anxiety of the Franks. The western seas filled again with raiders. The Irish coast was harried. Northmen of Norway, as well as Danes of Denmark, were on the water. Along the Elbe frontier, Franks and Danes watched one another; but the trouble there did not come to a crisis then. The real attack was developing slowly in the western British seas.


Cornwall was always an important strategic point for the fleets. Egbert’s interest in Cornwall marked the beginning of a new chapter in his reign. In 815 he “laid waste West Wales (Cornwall) from eastward to westward.” Egbert compelled the king of Cornwall to do him homage, he annexed what remained of Devonshire to his realm, leaving only Cornwall to the Cornish king. Afterward he forced the king of Cornwall to hand over to the West Saxon church a tenth part of that area. This created bitter resentment against King Egbert’s overlordship among the Cornish inhabitants. Even after his conquest of Cornwall, Egbert was an insignificant force in the overall balance of power in southern England. This is demonstrated by the fact that during the great Synod of Chelsea in 816, there is no record of any mention of Egbert. But later he regarded this campaign as one of the first step to the attainment of the leadership position he wanted

Local tradition says that Egbert landed near Llanfaes and defeated the Welsh in 818. He was eventually driven off by Mervyn Vrych, but not before the area had become known as “Angles Eye,” the Island of the English. Egbert was very aware of the dangers to come from the North, and was steadfastly defending against it. He showed his strength and determination and definitely made an impression of the Vikings of the North.

When Aethelheard, the archbishop of Canterbury, died in 805 he was succeeded by Wulfred, who was a Kentishman, and an opponent of the Mercian supremacy. For six years (814-20) Coenwulf and the archbishop were more or less at odds. The Mercian king summoned him to a witan at London in 820, and offered him the choice between submission and exile accompanied by the confiscation of all his goods. Wulfred yielded, gave up more of his estates, and had to disguise his hatred for his overlord. Before his death he was to have an opportunity of showing his real feelings towards the Mercian domination.

Coenwulf’s attention during his latter years may have been mainly taken up by wars with the Welsh. It appears that he was busy with invasions of Wales between 816 and his death in 821. His wars of invasion against the Welsh seems to prove that Coenwulf’s authority in England was practically undisputed. He died during an expedition against the North Welsh. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle simply adds that he was succeeded by Ceolwulf, who was his brother. That proved to be a fateful year for the future of Wessex, and on the career of Egbert. From the beginning of his reign in 802, he had been overshadowed by the comparative power and influence of his overlord, Coenwulf.

Coenwulf was succeeded in 821 by his brother Ceolwulf who issued charters as “rex Mersiorum vel etiam Cantwariorum.” Ceolwulf was probably elderly when he ascended the throne–his brother had reigned twenty-five years. The first mention of him is as continuing Coenwulf’s Welsh war, storming the castle of Diganwy (Conway) and overrunning most of Powys in 822. But he was called off from this war by the rebellion of Beornwulf, one of his late brother’s ealdormen, and a member of one of the branches of the Mercian royal house.

There was apparently civil war for two years, and then Ceolwulf was deposed and banished (823). It would seem that the vassal states meanwhile had cast off their dependence on Mercia. The Welsh were certainly in arms, and probably also the East Angles and the men of Wessex: one or the other may have slain the two ealdormen, Burghelm and Mucca, who are recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have fallen in 824, the year after Beornwulf’s accession.  Aethelweard speaks of them as if they had been put to death at a synod which the Mercian king held at Clovesho in that year. When Beornwulf ascended the throne of Mercia, outside his own kingdom his authority was only recognized in Essex, Middlesex and Kent.

The year 824 marked Egbert’s twenty-second year as king of Wessex when he would have been about 49 years old. In that year, he called the first recorded meeting of the West Saxon witenagemot of his reign. This Synod of Wessex was ordered to meet at Acleah–Oakley (probably the Hampshire Oakley, near Basingstoke)–to attest to a gift of land by Egbert to his ealdorman Wulfheard, who was also his friend and counselor. Even though the charter which records this grant speaks of a synod, nothing of ecclesiastical importance transpired at this meeting. Egbert simply wanted to reward his ealdorman in the presence of a formal assembly. As Egbert’s power grew, so did the ceremonial aspects of his court.

The kingdom of Mercia around 802
The darker green is the heart of Mercia,
the lighter green is the area they grew into,
and the yellow their vassal kingdoms.
Nothumbria is to the north in orange.
Cornwall and Devon to the south in white
and the Picts were in the white area to the north.

© The British Library Board

The only surviving Anglo-Saxon World Map,
called the Tiberius Map, made in the early 11th century

for larger image

It is divided into the three continents of Europe,
and Africa, with the Mediterranean Sea
in the center. The outline and detail of the
British Isles
are relatively accurate, with
London and Winchester
represented as town buildings, and the river

and another river indicated. In Ireland, there
is the first representation of
Armagh, and the Isle of
, and the Orkney Islands can be identified.

Charlemagne's tomb in Aachen Cathedral

gold coin of Coenwulf

The weight of the coin suggests it was designed to
represent the sum of a ‘mancus’, a word which
appears to have represented both a nominal weight
of c.4.25g and also the value of thirty silver pennies.

The coin also provides new information about
 the status of London during Coenwulf's reign,
in addition to carrying his name and title on
the obverse, the coin contains the intriguing
 inscription which parallels with a gold coin of
Coenwulf’s contemporary Charlemagne.
This suggests that Coenwulf was playing
one-upmanship games with the most powerful

ruler in Europe.

Map of Cornwall and Devon,
showing the location of Camelford

Stone cross at Camelford
Stone cross at Camelford, Cornwall

© The British Library Board  
An Anglo-Saxon King with his witan
"Pharaoh has the baker hanged"
An old English illustrated hexateuch, by Aelfric, England mid-11th  century, illustrating, in the Anglo-Saxon language, an excerpt from Genesis 41, 1-7. Pharaoh [with Saxon Witan] has the chief baker hanged.

for larger image

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