The People and Places Important to King Egbert

The People and Places Important to King Egbert

The People

Redburga, wife of King Egbert

Egbert’s spouse, Redburga, was said to be the sister of Charlemagne, though his only known sister was named Gisela. Redburga may have been his sister-in-law, as the sister of his fourth wife, Luitgarde. Some sources describe her as his niece, and another as the great-granddaughter of Charles Martel. She appears in a medieval manuscript from Oxford described as “Regis Francorum sororia” which translated as “sister to the King of the Franks.” More specifically “sororia” means “pertaining to someone’s sister,” so it could mean sister-in-law.

By some accounts, Charlemagne arranged Redburga’s marriage to Egbert in the year 800, while Egbert was in exile at Charlemagne’s court. Judging by the dates of Egbert’s exile and the birth of their oldest child, they were married in the court of Charlemagne. They had three children. The oldest being Aethelwulf, who was born about 796 (probably while they were in the court of Charlemagne), was king of England after his father, and died January 13, 858. Athelstan, who became the under-king of Kent, died in 850, Editha was their daughter, and probably the youngest child.

Little is known about Redburga, due to the custom which started in 802 of keeping the “king’s wife” firmly in the background, and even denying her the title of queen. She was not even allowed to sit beside the king in public. It is known that she influenced Egbert in some of his decisions, though perhaps only in private. The West Saxons forced this policy on Egbert and future kings because of the great wickedness of Beorhtric’s queen Eadburh.  Redburga did have some influence with her husband however. At least one time is known when her influence was felt by the people. She expressed her dislike of the Welsh to King Egbert and, because of the intensity of her feelings, he ordered all the Welsh and their families to leave his kingdom or be put to death.


When Egbert was succeeded by his son Aethelwulf, it the first time a son had followed his father as king of the West Saxons since the seventh century. The reason for this break with tradition was, of course, Egbert’s success. He had prepared the way for Aethelwulf’s succession by making him king of Kent. The evidence is too slight to show whether he destroyed potential rivals but his family’s later monopoly of the kingship would be easier to understand if he had done so. In any case Aethelwulf had a decisive advantage thanks to the new territory that his father had won. He himself continued the expansion by gaining control of Berkshire sometime before 849, when Alfred was born at Wantage, and it thereafter remained West Saxon. Aethelwulf’s will shows that he expected to be succeeded by his sons, four of whom were kings in succession. Aethelwulf was a king of perhaps more than conventional piety, as his pilgrimage to Rome with the young Alfred in 855 also suggests; and that Aethelwulf was anyway both rich and generous.

We know much more of Aethelwulf than of his father, but apparently he was far less worth knowing. He was a man who would never have won the suzerainty over England for himself, but he was just strong enough to maintain it. Though not without fighting power, and full of a good sense of his duty to his kingdom, he had the faults of a conscientious man. He was pious even to excess, an over-indulgent father, and lacked the capacity for righteous resentment that is an essential part of the mental equipment of a great king. Aethelwulf was a worthy man who fell upon evil days, and owed part of his troubles to his own deficiencies. He suffered not only from the Viking invasions, but from unruly sons and disloyal subjects, whom a stronger hand might have tamed.

Aethelwulf, Egbert knew, was not by nature a man of arms, but a man whose heart lay in protecting the church. His gentle and devout nature is largely traceable to Swithin’s teachings and influence. Egbert could only hope that after he was gone, Ealhstan, the warrior-bishop of Sherborne, would counterbalance the pacific influence that Swithin exerted upon Aethelwulf. But Aethelwulf felt himself helpless before a prelate who attacked him on his weak side, and he was cursed with such a one in Ealhstan. This able but turbulent priest was also the first to lead a rebellion against his lawful sovereign.

The reign of King Egbert marked a definite period in the growth of the English kingship. When Egbert died and Aethelwulf stepped into his shoes there was a great change. It was a change in the moral atmosphere, rather than in anything else. There was an air of security, and even of antiquity about Aethelwulf. Although he was the son of a man who had fled overseas for his life, and had spent some years in exile, yet Aethelwulf lived in an atmosphere of firmly established kingly rights. The old sense of peril, of instability, of impending change, of hourly doubt, had disappeared. He created the impression that he was an old man–though, in actual fact, he died younger than many of his contemporary kings of Europe. And this feeling reflects the truth that Aethelwulf did have an almost perfectly assured position, based on the unanimous consent of his subjects. What had once been hazardous and questionable had slipped quietly into being a matter of course.

The accession of Aethelwulf was almost at the same time as the sudden redoubling of the  Danish attacks on England. Very probably the invaders had realized that with the death of Egbert a strong barrier to their assaults had been removed. It does not seem that they were thrown back on England by any rally on the part of the Franks. During Aethelwulf’s early years as king there were also the Frankish civil wars of the sons of Lewis the Pious. With that unrest the Danes were unopposed along the northern shore of Frankland.

Nevertheless in the first year after Aethelwulf’s succession (840), there was a deliberate coasting of the Danes along Wessex. First they landed near Southampton, there defeating Wulfheard ealdorman of Hampshire. Then a second attack follows on the Isle of Portland: Aethelhelm the ealdorman of Dorset came down to meet the invaders, “and for a good time he put the enemy to flight: but finally the Danes had possession of the field and slew the ealdorman.” There can be little doubt that the two victories were won by the same squadron, which probably made great havoc, and returned well laden with plunder. In the next year matters grew much more serious for England, though it was now Wessex this time which bore the brunt of the invasion. A fleet, no doubt after coasting down the Frisian shore, appeared in the Wash. The crews came ashore in the Lincolnshire marshland, started ravaging, and were attacked by Herebert, ealdorman of Lindsey. But they slew him and many more, and then harried all his land. After this the squadron turned south, and plundered in succession the shores of East Anglia and of Kent. To show the widespread activity of the Vikings in this year it must be added that a fleet under Oscar sacked Rouen and devastated all the lands about the Seine-mouth, much about the same time.

King Aethelwulf decided that he must appeal to the Christian God for help against an enemy so numerous, so agile, and so profane. He sent his four-year-old son Alfred to Rome in 853 and later followed himself, marrying a Frankish princess on his way back. In his absence his son Aethelbald, who must have thought it an inappropriate time for his father to leave home, rebelled against him, but the family quarrel was patched up and the House of Egbert crusaded against the ever-swelling Danish hordes, thereby winning their own immortality in the first heroic age of the English people.

St. Editha, daughter of King Egbert, and Polesworth Abbey

St. Editha of Polesworth whose feast day is July 15th, was the daughter of King Egbert and sister to King Aethelwulf. There is no mention of a marriage for her, though there were many princesses married for family alliances during this time. She became a Benedictine nun at Polesworth, Warwickshire, where she was noted for her holiness and became the Abbess. She was named a saint sometime after her death in 871.

Although a Roman villa had been built near the river, the village remained small until the foundation of Polesworth Abbey early in the ninth century. Egbert, King of Wessex, founded the monastery, which was erected in 829, on what is now the north aisle of the present church. It consisted of a small church and a convent dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The Abbey Church and gatehouse survive and several limited excavations have been undertaken which enable a hypothetical reconstruction to be made of the layout of the Abbey buildings. The remains of Polesworth Abbey’s medieval abbey church were later converted into the parish church of St. Editha and the ruins of the cloister can be seen in the rear gardens next to the church. It was probably laid out in a cross shape, standing to the east of the present parish church nave. The nuns’ quire was probably in the western arm, with a central tower, presbytery, and transepts, and the cloister would have been south of the nuns’ quire.

The new Abbey thrived and quickly came to dominate life in the village. Its success was due in part to generous gifts of land and property from King Egbert, as well as from friends and relatives of the nuns, many of whom were from wealthy families. The first two hundred years for the Abbey were quietly prosperous, but after the Norman Conquest this changed disastrously. Shortly after the Conquest, the new Lord of Tamworth Castle, Sir Robert Marmion, seized the Abbey and forced the nuns from their lands. So the story goes, some fifty years after the eviction, Marmion’s successor, Robert Marmion, was visited in a dream by an apparition of the first Abbess of Polesworth, St. Editha, who threatened him with a painful death and eternal damnation if he did not restore the nuns to their Abbey. This so frightened him that he restored the nuns to their former home that very night.

In reality, while the nuns did indeed leave for some fifty years, it was in order to allow extensive building work to take place at the Abbey. The entire complex was greatly expanded to include a larger Abbey church, a gatehouse, an infirmary, a forge, dormitories, and a bake-house. It may even have been that construction work was paid for by the Normans, out of respect for the nun’s work and standing.

St. Alburga, sister of King Egbert, and Wilton Abbey, Wiltshire

A Benedictine convent was established in Wiltshire, England, three miles from Salisbury. The first buildings were made as a college for secular priests by Earl Wulstan of Wiltshire, about 773. Alburga married Earl Wulstan of Wiltshire but no date has been found for it. While Alburga's birth date is not known, it appears she was older than Egbert, since she was established in Wiltshire as the wife of Earl Wulstan at the time of Egbert's arrival from exile. The Earl died in 802 defending Egbert’s realm. After Earl Wulstan’s death King Egbert changed the college into a convent of 12 nuns for his sister, St. Alburga. Alburga joined the community, became the Abbess, and remained there until she died at Wilton.  She was later named a saint. King Egbert is counted as the first founder of Wilton Abbey.  King Alfred, after his temporary success against the Danes at Wilton in 871, founded a new convent on the site of the royal palace and united to it the older foundation. The community was to number 26 nuns.

Wilton is best known as the home of St. Edith, the child of a "handfast" union between Edgar, King of the English (944-75), and Wulfrid, a lady wearing the veil though not a nun, whom he carried off from Wilton probably in 961. After Edith's birth, Wulfrid refused to enter into a permanent marriage with Edgar and retired with her child to Wilton. Edith, who appears to have been educated, received the veil while a child at the hands of Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester, and at the age of fifteen refused the abbacy of three houses offered by her father. She built the Church of St. Denis at Wilton, which was consecrated by St. Dunstan, and died shortly afterwards at the age of twenty-three (984). Her feast is on the 16th of September. St. Edith became the chief patron of Wilton, and is sometimes said to have been abbess. In 1003 Sweyn, King of Denmark, destroyed the town of Wilton, but we do not know whether the monastery shared its fate. Edith, the wife of Edward the Confessor, who had been educated at Wilton, rebuilt in stone the monastery which had formerly been of wood. There are no remains of the ancient buildings.

St. Swithin of Winchester

King Egbert had two counselors, Swithin and Wulfheard, both served the king until the his death. While there is some information about Swithin, there is very little mention of Wulfheard. It seems safe to assume Wulfheard was the military advisor and Swithin the spiritual. St. Swithin was considered to be King Egbert’s chaplain.

Practically nothing is known of the life of St. Swithin of Winchester, although he is still greatly venerated in England. There is much legend about him, but little of it can be authenticated. Probably a native of Wessex, St. Swithin was born about 800. He was a well-remembered virtuous bishop. Swithin was Aethelwulf’s instructor in his youth and his minister in middle age. Aethelwulf appointed him Bishop of Winchester in 852. Swithin established a reputation as a missionary, and was famed for his knowledge of the Scriptures.

By the mid-ninth century, the unfortified city of Winchester was under frequent attack by the Vikings. St. Swithin,Bishop of Winchester from 852-862, is reputed to be responsible for building a wall around the city that helped save it from the attackers. One of St. Swithin's pupils at the cathedral school was Alfred, who also was married and crowned at Winchester Cathedral. He became the town's patron saint, and the shrine of St. Swithin is situated in the Presbytery of the present cathedral.

Swithin’s biographies came long after his life, and are mainly a list of miracles. He was loved by his people obviously, as after his death he was canonized by popular acclaim. At his request, when he died in 862, he was buried beside the north wall of his cathedral where the raindrops from the eaves could fall on his grave. This is the only reasonable source of a superstition that lasts to this day in England, making Saint Swithin’s Day the British equivalent of Groundhog Day in the United States. The legend is that if it rains on his feast then it will rain for forty more days, and if not, there will be forty days of fair weather. He is called Weepy St. Swithin because of an association of his feast day with rain. Some attribute the connection to the forty days of rain that prevented the 971 translation of his relics from the Old Minster cemetery into Winchester Cathedral, whose dedication was changed from Sts. Peter and Paul to St. Swithin.

an early depiction of a Saxon queen

King Aethelwulf

 coin of Aethelwulf

© The British Library Board
Four Saxon Kings

 from Abbreviatio chronicorum Angliae, ca. 1250, the
Four Saxon kings: above, Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Elder; below, Alfred and Athelstan.
For larger image

Polesworth Abbey

Polesworth Abbey Gate

Wiltshire Abbey

Icon of St. Swithin

St Swithun’s Day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days, it will remain:
St Swithun’s Day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.
---English traditional

In this month is St Swithin’s day;
On which, if that it rain, they say
Full forty days after it will,
Or more or less, some rain distill.
This Swithin was a saint, I trow,
And Winchester’s bishop also.
Who in his time did many a feat,
As popish legends do repeat:
A woman having broke her eggs
By stumbling at another’s legs,
For which she made a woful cry,
St Swithin chanc’d for to come by,
Who made them all as sound, or more
Than ever that they were before.
But whether this were so or no
‘Tis more than you or I do know:
Better it is to rise betime,
And to make hay while sun doth shine,
Than to believe in tales and lies
Which idle monks and friars devise.
---Poor Robin’s Almanac, 1697 (July)
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