Beorhtric of Wessex

Annie Lee | May 31, 2024

Table of Content


Beorhtric († 802) was king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex from 786 to 802.


Beorhtric is said to be from the House of Wessex, but this claim may have been made to legitimize his kingship. He belongs to a group of five West Saxon kings from the period between 726 and 802, whose claims of origin must be viewed with skepticism.


Beorhtric came to the throne of Wessex in 786 after King Cynewulf was murdered. Whether he was Cynewulf's designated successor or an outsider who took advantage of the power vacuum is unclear. Possibly, Beorhtric's accession to the throne happened with the help of Offa (757-796), the king of Mercia and the most powerful ruler in England at that time.

His reign was marked by close and friendly relations with neighboring Mercia. In 789 he married Eadburh, a daughter of King Offa of Mercia, with whom he probably entered into a formal alliance at that time. In this alliance, Offa was the dominant partner. Between 789 and 796, Offa and Beorhtric drove the West Saxon pretender to the throne, Ecgberht, from England into Frankish exile. Offa was able to dispose of lands in West Saxon Somerset, but Beorhtric remained an independent king.

After Offa's death in the summer of 796, Beorhtric and Eadburg continued to maintain good contacts with his son and successor Ecgfrith (796), who, however, ruled for only half a year. Probably in return for Ecgfrith's support, Beorhtric received back some lands near Malmesbury that Offa had annexed. Then Beorhtric seems to have come under some domination by Cenwulf (796-821), the succeeding king of Mercia. In 798 he agreed to Cynehelm, a son of Cenwulf, becoming lord of Glastonbury Abbey. The exact circumstances are unclear, but it is unlikely that Beorhtric did so voluntarily. His power in Somerset remained unimpaired, as evidenced by charters in which he held lands without reference to Mercia. From about 796, Beorhtric again had silver coins (pæneġas) minted according to the Mercian model. Whether the mint was in Hamwic (Southampton) or Winchester is disputed. The mintings were only in small numbers and represented his claim to power rather than serving economic purposes. Beorhtric's three surviving coins show two different mintages. The first Viking raid on Wessex occurred during Beorhtric's reign. With three ships, the Danes or Norwegians are said to have landed at Portland in Wessex around the year 789 and killed the royal official Beaduheard. These early raids, however, were largely inconsequential at first. It is possible that the expelled Ecgberht had returned in the late 790s and been recognized as king, at least in parts of Wessex.

Death and succession

A tradition of Asser attributes the death of Beorhtric to an accidental poisoning by his wife Eadburg, who is said to have then fled to the Frankish Empire. The negative image of Eadburg, who was also accused by Asser of numerous intrigues and several poisonings, probably originated more from the propaganda of Beorhtric's successor Ecgberht (802-825), who was at enmity with Beorhtric and Eadburg's father Offa, than from historical facts. Possibly, the self-confident Eadburg also represented quite one-sided mercenary interests.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, on the other hand, reports that "Beorhtric and the ealdorman Worr died and Ecgberht succeeded to the throne." At the same time, the ealdorman Æthelmund of Hwicce crossed the Thames at Kempsford (Gloucestershire), but was defeated in battle by the West Saxon ealdorman Wiohstan. The most likely interpretation is that Ecgberht invaded Wessex with his followers and Beorhtric fell in battle. Whether the Mercia-dependent Hwicce intervened in the fighting on the side of Beorhtric or selfishly wanted to take advantage of the turmoil in Wessex remains speculation. Beorhtric was buried in Wareham.

A land exchange with the princeps Hemele was documented by Beorhtric around 790. In 794 he transferred lands to his præfectus Wigfrith Two charters of the Mercian king Ecgfrith were signed by Beorhtric as a witness in 796. Beorhtric was considered "very pious", but no donations or privileges from him to monasteries or churches are known. However, the fact that the few extant charters list only laymen as beneficiaries is probably only coincidental.


  1. Beorhtric of Wessex
  2. Beorhtric
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  9. ^ Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 209
  10. ^ a b c Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens (New york: Carroll & Graf, 1999), p. 312
  11. ^ Barbara Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 141
  12. ^ Coin article and image
  13. Edwards, Heather (2004). "Beorhtric (d. 802), king of the West Saxons". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
  15. Cramp, Rosemary (2006). Corpus of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture in England, Volume 7. Oxford University Press. p. 65.

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