The Kingship of King Egbert (825-829)
The Life of King Egbert

The Kingship of King Egbert (802-839)
 
The Years 825-829

825

Ceolwulf’s place was taken by Beornwulf who presided over two councils to resolve Kentish disputes in 824 and 825. Evidence suggests that Kent remained a Mercian dependency under Beornwulf but with its vassal king, Bealdred, who was probably a Mercian. This may have been an attempt to meet the Kentish wish to be independent, a determination which had already cost the Mercians so much, and may have been a factor in the quarrel between Coenwulf and Wulfred which led to the archbishop’s suspension from his See from 817 to 821. Beornwulf’s third year (825) was the critical one: in this year he and Egbert of Wessex fought a battle which was to turn the whole course of English history, and to register the fall of Mercia as an imperial power.

The first entry of the Chronicle in that summer of 825 deals with the activity of Egbert in another area. He battled once more against the West Welsh he had fought in 814. Two casual grants of lands by Egbert made at “Crediantreow” giving August as the date of the expedition. There was a complete defeat of the Damnonians at Gafulford, which is generally interpreted as Camelford in Cornwall. The battle fought near Camelford–Slaughter Bridge still bears the tradition of ancient fight. The place of the battle betrays its cause and its object. Camelford is close to the “Bretland” coast, and it was fought in order to seize and hold Cornwall against invasion by sea.

The Britons of Cornwall had never accepted the loss of territory resulting from their previous war with Egbert. They had merely waited until they judged the time was right to take back their lost land. Britons knew time was running short, because every year since 815, King Egbert had been encouraging and sending his people to colonize the newly-won land.

The battle sealed the fate of West Devonshire, which remained there after a part of Wessex. The occupation of large estates in Cornwall as personal inheritance by the family of Egbert possibly dated from this same conquest. But their seizure may equally well go as far back as the king’s first Damnonian campaign in 814, or have been made only as a punishment for the later revolt of the West Welsh in 835. Whatever the date it illustrates the importance Egbert placed on retaining the land.

No sooner had Egbert brought his second Cornish war to a successful conclusion than he found his realm under attack by the king of Mercia. King Beornwulf had realized when he seized the throne in 823 that Mercia’s prestige and glory had faded. He was determined to restore Mercia to her former position and to reestablish his overlordship over Wessex, which Egbert had renounced during the reign of Beornwulf’s predecessor, Ceolwulf. Beornwulf marched an army to Swindon in Wessex before Egbert could return from the Cornish fight to confront him. It looks as if the Mercian had taken advantage of the absence of the king and army in the extreme west, in order to strike at the heart of the realm of the West Saxons. Perhaps he had even stirred up the diversion in Damnonia for that very purpose. But if so his design was defeated. Egbert led his army against the invaders, encountering them at Ellandun in northeast Wiltshire. Although heavily outnumbered, Egbert chose to attack. He knew that he had one of the best trained armies in England at this time, plus the experience they had gained in two Cornish wars.

The Battle of Ellandun (Wilton) was fought in September of 825, and since the army of Wessex was outnumbered and tired from their previous fight with the men of Cornwall, the struggle was long and bitter. By the end of the day, however, Egbert of Wessex defeated Beornwulf in one of the most decisive battles of Anglo-Saxon history. The battle had been extremely bloody and destructive, and it is said that “Ellandun’s stream was tinged with blood, was choked with the slain, and became foul with the carnage.” Beornwulf managed to escape with his life from the battlefield, and fled back to his capitol at Lichfield. Yet as complete as the victory was for Egbert, he too found it very costly. One of his best friends and most ardent supporters, Hun, the ealdorman of the province of Somerset, had been killed, along with many other valiant leaders.  Sorrowfully, Egbert had Hun’s body brought to his city of Winchester for burial. The clash at Ellandun was a great and fiercely fought battle, with a heavy fall of men: but it was decisive. As a result the whole of England south of the Thames fell into the hands of Egbert.

Egbert then sent a large army into Kent, commanded by Aethelwulf, his eldest son (then 29 years old), Wulfheard, his ealdorman, and Eahlstan of Sherborne, the first fighting bishop known in English history. Egbert was determined to recover the kingdom of his father Ealhmund, which, as the Chronicler says, had been unjustly lost. Egbert himself, to cover his son’s attack, entered Mercia with an army on the side of Oxfordshire, and threatened the heart of Beornwulf’s kingdom. Aethelwulf’s expedition met with complete success. Baldred, the Mercian vassal-king of Kent, led an army to confront the forces sent against him. Aethelwulf easily defeated the Kentish army, and passing through every part of the country, drove Baldred into the northern parts beyond the river Thames. The people of Kent had not rallied to Baldred in his hour of need, having rather all deserted him.

After the conquest of Kent had been secured, the people of Surrey, Sussex, and Essex willingly submitted to Egbert as the rightful successor of his father, “because formerly they had been wrongly forced away from their loyalty to his kinsmen.” This statement of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the fact that Egbert’s father, Ealhmund, had been the king of Kent from 784-86, and that the kingdom of Surrey had formerly been an integral part of the kingdom of Wessex. Sussex had been ruled by Nunna, a relative of Ine, and his descendants. Only the claim to Essex is debatable since there has never been any proven connection between that kingdom and the house of Egbert. After 825, Kent, Surrey, and Sussex were never again separated from the West Saxon monarchy. Essex was only detached from it by a Danish conquest long after Egbert had died.

It seems that Kent joyfully accepted liberation from the Mercians. Archbishop Wulfred, who had so long been oppressed by Coenwulf, led the whole people to accept the new overlord. In the case of Kent, where the kingship had come to an end, Egbert adopted a special policy. The kingdom was important, both as the seat of the ecclesiastical government of England, and as the district most closely connected with the continent. At the same time the strong local feeling that had manifested itself in opposition to Mercia, rendered it unadvisable to attempt a policy of absolute annexation. Accordingly Egbert, who regarded the kingdom as peculiarly his own, bestowed it on his son Aethelwulf, probably in 825, and it remained attached to the heir to the West Saxon throne until it was united with the rest of the south of England on the succession of Aethelbert to the kingdom of Wessex.

When Egbert enlarged Wessex by adding to it Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Essex, he acquired in the process two of the most important cities in all of England, Canterbury and London. In these cities were the principal mints responsible for producing the currency of Southern England. The continuous production of English currency began with Offa, and from the reign of Offa to that of Henry III, the English currency was based on a silver penny which showed the king’s name on the obverse and the moneyer’s name on the reverse. Since the mints in Canterbury and London had been controlled by the kings of Mercia, when Egbert conquered Kent and Essex these mints and the future production of currency became his responsibility. In 825, for the first time in his reign, Egbert ordered the production of his own coinage. There is little doubt that this issuance was made at Canterbury and that Egbert, prior to securing the Canterbury mint, made no issues of coin. His coins, which are rare though examples from nineteen different mints are known, bear his name and the title Rex, the additions Saxo, “M,” or “A’ denoting Wessex, Mercia, and East Anglia respectively.

The coins that Egbert minted in 825 show the king’s head and are of great rarity. They are of the denomination of pennies and were made by the moneyer Tidbearht. Egbert’s profile on these coins is to the right, and it is possible to get a description of his features from them. Egbert is shown with a thick neck and an oval shaped face, with a high set brow, and a long straight nose. He has low cheek bones that extend down to a round, smooth chin. His ears are of average size, set close to his head. His eyes are depicted as quite serious and determined. This sense of determination is further accentuated by the set of his jaw. His semi-full lips are set in a half smile, with the corners of his mouth slightly turned up showing smile lines. Egbert’s features suggest that he is a happy man, and a kind but stern ruler. He wears a simple unadorned crown very low on his forehead.

Shortly after Egbert took control of the mints at Canterbury and London, he ordered the construction of a minor mint at Southampton, and took possession of the last mint under Mercian control at Rochester. Under Egbert, the coins produced at these sites remain essentially proto-pennies, what numismatists today call “stycas.” Egbert eventually employed twenty different moneyers, and from the end of 825 to his death in 839 completely controlled the money supply throughout Southern England. The tax-function of the whole Anglo-Saxon coinage system had been neglected since the reign of Ceolwulf, and Egbert worked hard to stabilize the quality and the quantity of coins being produced. He provided for the production of a respectable standard silver penny that greatly facilitated the collection of royal taxes and revenues.

The attack upon West Devonshire during the month of August of 825 had interrupted a meeting of the West Saxon witan at which Egbert had been presiding. Egbert summoned the assembly of magnates at “Creodantreow” in order to make and confirm several grants to the church of Winchester and to take care of certain other ecclesiastical matters. On August 19, 825, Egbert made two grants of lands to the church at Winchester, and the witan witnessed the profession of obedience made by Herefrith, Bishop of Winchester to Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury. The significance of Herefrith is that he became the first coadjutor or shire-bishop. Wigthegn had been Bishop of Winchester since 816, and continued to be the principal bishop of the city until 828. Egbert, in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, was initiating a policy of increasing the number of West Saxon bishops by appointing a bishop to assist another bishop in the same city.

After the long interruption caused by the second Cornish War, and after that the war with Mercia, Egbert reconvened his witenagemot on December 26, 825 at Southampton. This session of the witan lasted into January 826, and Egbert took the occasion to reward Archbishop Wulfred for the great assistance he had given during Egbert’s annexation of the kingdom of Kent. At Egbert’s command, and attested by Bishops Wigthegn, Ealkstan, and Hereferth, as well as the rest of the witan, two more grants of lands were made and confirmed to the church of Winchester. After this, Egbert spent the rest of 826 organizing and consolidating the conquests he had made in 825.

“At the same time,” the Chronicle adds in 825, “the King of the East Angles and his people sought alliance and protection of Egbert, for dread of the Mercians.” Immediately after the note about the alliance of the East Angles with Egbert, there is the statement that Beornwulf of Mercia turned himself against them, and was slain by them in battle. This must have been very late in 825, after the Ellandune campaign and Egbert’s conquest of Kent, when the Mercian king met his end at the hands of the East Angles

Egbert had withdrawn his army from Mercia as soon as his son’s conquest of Kent was complete. As soon as he left Beornwulf began to gather another army. When he learned of the new alliance between East Anglia and Wessex the king of Mercia decided to attack the East Angles before Egbert could arrive to help them. Beornwulf, with his newly assembled forces, invaded East Anglia. But the East Angles, motivated by their hatred of the Mercian government and remembering their subjection to the Mercian overlord, fought the invaders with savage determination. The result was another disastrous defeat for Mercia; Beornwulf was killed, and most of his army perished with him. East Anglia then chose to be under the overlordship of Egbert, and Egbert was now master of a third of England at the age of fifty.

After the victories of 825 Egbert had united most of southern England, expanded its agriculture and trade, and given it wise and just government. The business of establishing his own coin production, and attending to other internal matters throughout his newly expanded kingdom, absorbed the attention of Egbert throughout the year 826. The Mercians, reeling from their defeat at Ellandun, followed by the loss of their king and the rest of their army in East Anglia, were too busy putting their own house in order to bother Wessex. Ludecan succeeded his kinsman Beornwulf as king of Mercia at the end of 825, but this kingdom was greatly reduced in size; it now comprised only Mercia proper, Lindsey, Middle Anglia, and the provinces of the Hwicce and Magonsaetan. Ludecan did not trouble Egbert during the first year of the former’s reign.

826-828

In a charter of 828 he was styled “rex Anglorum;” this, however, must not be taken as signifying more than the over-lordship of East Anglia, and in 830 he is described simply as “king of the West Saxons and Kentishmen,” and in 833 as “king of the West Saxons.” His description as “king of Kent and other nations” in another charter of 833 does not necessarily imply any termination of Aethelwulf’s authority; Egbert was presiding over a meeting of the Kentish witan, and naturally used the style of the kingdom. It is, however, curious that Aethelwulf’s name does not occur among the witnesses.

Charlemagne died the year before the Cornish expedition. A little time passes, and the King Coenwulf of Mercia died, and Mercia slid a little further into chaos. A very little more time passes, and then the new king of Mercia, Ceolwulf, was thrust out by his people, and Beornwulf reigned in his stead only to be defeated by Egbert. The events that follow this show clearly that Egbert had foreseen them and prepared for them–had even, perhaps, helped make it happen. Great and sudden movements are not made with sudden decisions. Twenty-three years of preparation had made Wessex ready and Egbert followed through with his plans with great success.

Mercia, however, was not yet subdued, for Beornwulf was succeeded by Ludecan, who had been one of Beornwulf’s ealdormen, and his kinsman. He reigned for less than two years (end of 825 to middle of 827). Ludecan worked hard during 826 to prepare another army so Mercia could reassert their supremacy. He nearly drained the royal treasury to attract warriors into his army. Ludecan’s burning desire was to avenge the death of Beornwulf by conquering East Anglia and replacing Egbert’s overlordship with his own. He invaded East Anglia in the middle of 827, and suffered an even more terrible defeat than had his predecessor. He was slain in battle “and his five ealdormen with him.” Such a slaughter evidently represents a most bloody defeat, involving the extermination of the vanquished, for Mercia did not have more than seven, and perhaps only five, ealdormen within its borders. Once again, the battle occurred before Egbert and the army of Wessex could intervene. How the East Angles twice achieved victory over the Mercians within three years has never really been explained.

829

Ludecan was succeeded by Wiglaf, who was not regarded with the respect that the earlier kings of Mercia had received. The old royal house of Mercia had become extinct with the death of Ceolwulf, and all the ealdorman of Mercia had perished with Ludecan. Egbert regarded him with contempt. Egbert was now at the head of a league of all the minor states against the old regime, a huge army. Egbert marched against Wiglaf in 829, and drove him completely out of his realm. “He conquered all the kingdom of the Mercians, and all that lies south of Humber.” Moreover–and here it is not the Chronicle that give the information, but the actual coins that the conqueror struck–he actually annexed Wiglaf’s realm, and took the title of King of the Mercians.

At the end of his Mercian campaign Egbert led his army to Dore where King Eanred of Northumbria came and offered him obedience and allegiance, “and with that they separated.” That Northumbria was in no condition to contest the supremacy of England with Egbert, or even to defend itself, was shown by the tame fashion in which it is said Eanred did homage to the king of Wessex at Dore in 829. In the Chronicle’s words, the Northumbrians “offered him submission and peace.” It is at this point that the chronicler proudly adds Egbert to Bede’s list of bretwaldas. The West Saxon kingdom was obviously the success story of the first half of the ninth century.

The Northumbrian Chronicle incorporated in Roger of Wendover’s thirteenth century history shows that the Northumbrian campaign was a bloodier affair than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles implies. “When Egbert had obtained all the southern kingdoms, he led a large army into Northumbria, and laid waste that province with severe pillaging, and made King Eanred pay tribute.” The brutal conquest left deep-seated resentments among the Northumbrian people. Egbert gained sovereignty over them but was denied their loyalty. This is a good illustration of how a king claimed as bretwalda by sources from his own kingdom can look differently in sources from elsewhere; it also shows the sort of resentments that still divided England on the eve of the main Viking attack. Nevertheless, he had now united all the kingdoms in one great state, almost four hundred years after the first arrival of the Saxons in Britain.

The combination of an army styled along continental lines and a prudent political policy had at last enabled Egbert to realize the ambitions he had formed while residing at Charlemagne’s court many years before. Kent, Northumberland, and Mercia, which had successively aspired to rule all Britain, were now incorporated in his empire. Egbert’s territories in 829 were nearly the same as those that are now properly called England. In three campaigns, with the energy, speed, and completeness rivaling Charlemagne’s, Egbert had made himself master of England.

Returning from Northumbria to Lichfield in Mercia Egbert announced that henceforth Mercia was annexed to Wessex, and he then had himself crowned King of the Mercians. By an ironic twist of fate, Egbert was now in a position to deal with the former king, Wiglaf, much as Offa had once dealt with him forty years ago. Egbert, with what may have been grim satisfaction, banished Wiglaf from the latter’s former kingdom until such time as it would please him to let Wiglaf return. Egbert then returned to Winchester to be acclaimed as Bretwalda. Such homage had been demanded and received by earlier king. Egbert would be the last, because after him the title would be dropped and never used again. The consecration of Egbert as Bretwalda took place in the Cathedral of Old Minster, in Winchester, the chief city of Wessex in 829.

After the consecration was over, Egbert and his guests retired to the royal palace for further celebration. Egbert’s royal residence stood in the very center of Winchester, and had been built there in 650 by Coenwalch (634-672), king of Wessex, when he had moved his capital from Dorchester-on-Thames. The site of the palace lay immediately west of the Old Minster, in the area east of Little Minster Street, and south of the New Minster cemetery. Since no excavations have yet taken place on this site, and with no archaeological evidence, no information regarding the size, architecture, or furnishings of what became Egbert’s palace is known with any certainty.

It is known that the palace in the center of Winchester was not the only royal residence which Egbert had at his disposal. He probably also had a manor at Kings Worthy, two miles from Winchester, and still further north, on the route to Bath and Gloucester, he had a palace at Andover, twelve or thirteen miles from Winchester. His royal manors of Barton Stacey and Wherwell formed a continuous tract of royal territory along the Roman road between Winchester and Andover. The location of these manors suggest that Egbert may have preferred to reside outside the city of Winchester, and used the Winchester palace purely on formal or ceremonial occasions. He had yet other royal residences in Hampshire, at Micheldever and Southampton. Since from the beginning of Egbert’s reign royal charters would appear to have been dated from Southampton almost as often as from Winchester, his fondness for Southampton may indicate that he was born on his family’s ancestral estate there.

Wiglaf had, after various wanderings, found shelter with Aethelthryth, the daughter of Offa and betrothed of Aethelbert of East Anglia. With the help of his good friend Siward, the abbot of Abingdon, Wiflaf entered into long and difficult negotiations with Egbert concerning his restoration as king in Mercia. After holding the Mercian crown himself for about a year, Egbert permitted Wiglaf to return to his old kingdom and to reign there as his vassal king for the remainder of his life (830-39). Egbert allowed the reconciliation with Wiglaf and, with the condition of an annual tribute, restored him to his former kingdom under the suzerainty of the West Saxon monarch. The terms of the agreement between Egbert and Wiglaf gave the Mercian king back not only his crown but many of its powers. Wiglaf once again had control over Middlesex and London and Berkshire, and commanded homage in church-state matters from the bishops of Kent and Sussex. Returning London to Mercia meant giving up direct control of the mint in that city. The restoration of Wiglaf was probably caused by some hostile movement of the Welsh on the Mercian border, which rendered it advisable to secure the fidelity and provide for the defense of the kingdom.

Egbert had for the first time united all the English under one over-lordship, and, though there were future divisions of his empire, his work was never wholly undone. He was not king of England, for the idea of a territorial kingship belongs to a later period. Nor was he the immediate ruler of the peoples that had submitted to him; they still had kings of their own, who were dependent on Egbert as the West Saxon overlord.

Homage had been demanded and received by earlier kings, and might have meant no more in the end than the slight submission that had been granted to Edwin or Oswald. But the situation in 829 differed from that which had repeatedly been seen before. A new power was about to appear in Britain, and to dash to pieces all the states which might have asserted themselves against Egbert’s heirs, when he himself should have disappeared from the scene. It was the sudden continuation of the Danish invasions that changed the situation for the English states, and prevented the rivals of Wessex from reasserting themselves.









The Camelford-Slaughter Bridge






















Depiction of a king in battle


























Wessex in 802
Wilton was then known as Ellandun, the Hwicce in Mercia were to the north of Bath, Devon and Cornwall to the southwest in pink, Surrey and Sussex to the east in light yellow, and Mercia to the north in tan.






















To the west lies Mercia and Wessex





















a coin of King Egbert


















both sides of a coin of King Egbert

























East Anglia in 802

Wessex is to the southwest in orange,
Sussex to the southeast in dark green






















In Battle














Saxon Spearmen
















Ready for Battle























Anglo-Saxon Kite Shield and Banner
The lion rampant and cross fleury was said
to have been used by King Egbert.




















© The British Library Board  
for larger image

King Offa and St. Albans Abbey

“King Offa of Mercia” King Offa, a royal benefactor of St. Albans
Abbey, is seated holding a model of the abbey, from Golden Book
of St. Albans, author Thomas Walsingham, with William
DeWylum scribe, illustrator Alan Stayler, made in 1380.


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
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