Ecgberht, King of Wessex

Annie Lee | Oct 10, 2023

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Aegbert (c. 770-July 839) was an Anglo-Saxon ruler.

Aegbert (also spelled Ecgberht, Ecgbert, Egbert, Ecgbriht, and Ecgbeorht or Ecbert) was King of Wessex from 802 until his death in 839, becoming the progenitor of the dynasty that settled permanently in the diocese of Winchester and built the foundations of the national unification of England.

His father was Ealhmund of Kent. In the 780s Egbert was forced into exile at Charlemagne's court in the Frankish Kingdom by Offa of Mercia and Beorhtric of Wessex, but upon Beorhtric's death in 802 Egbert returned and took the throne.

Little is known about the first 20 years of Aegbert's reign, but he is thought to have succeeded in maintaining the independence of Wessex against the kingdom of Mercia, which at that time dominated the other southern English kingdoms. In 825 Aegbert defeated Beornwulf of Mercia, ended Mercia's supremacy at the Battle of Ellandun, and subsequently took control of the Mercian dependencies in southeastern England. In 829 he defeated Wiglaf of Mercia and drove him from his kingdom, ruling, for a time, Mercia directly. In the same year Aegbert received the submission of the King of Northumbria to Dore. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle later described Egbert as a bretwalda or "broad ruler" of the Anglo-Saxon lands.

Egbert failed to maintain this dominance, and within a year Wiglaf regained the throne of Mercia. However, Wessex retained control of Kent, Sussex and Surrey; these territories were given to Aegbert's son, Etelvulf, to rule as sub-king under Aegbert. When Aegbert died in 839, Aethelvulf succeeded him; the southeastern kingdoms were eventually absorbed into the kingdom of Wessex after the death of Aethelvulf's son, Aethelbald, in 860. Ecgbert's descendants ruled Wessex and, thereafter, all of England continuously until 1013.

Historians disagree about Egbert's ancestors. The earliest version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Parker's Chronicle, begins with a genealogical preface tracing the ancestors of Egbert's son, Etelvulf, through Egbert, Ealhmund (thought to be Ealhmund of Kent), and the otherwise unknown Eafa and Eoppa to Ingild, brother of King Ine of Wessex, who abdicated the throne in 726. It continues to Cerdic, founder of the House of Wessex . Egbert's descent from Ingild has been accepted by Frank Stenton, but not the genealogy prior to Cerdic. Heather Edwards in her article on Aegbert in the Dictionary of National Biography argues that he was originally from Kent and that the West Saxon lineage may have been fabricated during his reign to give him legitimacy, while Rory Naismith considered a Kentian origin unlikely, and that it is more likely that "Aegbert was born of a good royal West Saxon lineage."

The name of Egbert's wife is unknown. A 15th-century chronicle now held by Oxford University gives her name as Redburga, who was supposedly a relative of Charlemagne whom he married when he was exiled to France, but this is a source overlooked by academic historians in light of its later dating. Etelvulfo is their only known child.

She is said to have had a half-sister Alburga, later recognized as a saint for founding Wilton Abbey. She was married to Wulfstan, ealdorman of Wiltshire, and upon his death in 802 became a nun, abbess of Wilton Abbey.

Offa of Mercia, who ruled from 757 to 796, was the dominant force in Anglo-Saxon England in the second half of the 8th century. The relationship between Offa and Cynewulf, who was king of Wessex from 757 to 786, is not well documented, but it seems likely that Cynewulf maintained some independence from Mercian lordship. Evidence of the relationship between the kings may come from charters (charters), which were documents granting land to followers or churchmen, and witnessed by the kings who had the power to grant land. In some cases a king will appear on a charter as subregulus, or "subking," making it clear that there was another king superior to him. Cynewulf appears as "King of the West Saxons" on a charter of Offa in 772, and he was defeated by Offa in battle in 779 at Bensington, but there is nothing else to suggest that Cynewulf was not his master, and he is not known to have recognized Offa as overlord. Offa did have influence in the southeast: a 764 charter shows him in company with Heahberht of Kent, suggesting that Offa's influence helped put Heahberht on the throne. The extent of Offa's control over Kent between 765 and 776 is debated among historians, but from 776 until about 784 it appears that the kings of Kent enjoyed substantial independence from Mercia.

Another Egbert, Egbert II of Kent, ruled in that kingdom throughout the 770s; he is last mentioned in 779, in a land grant deed to Rochester. In 784 a new king of Kent, Ealhmund, appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle . According to a side note, "this king Ealhmund was the father of Egbert , Egbert was the father of Æthelwulf." This is supported by the genealogical preface in Text A of the Chronicle, which states without further detail that Egbert's father was named Ealhmund. The preface probably dates to the late 9th century; the note in the margin is on manuscript F of the Chronicle, which is a Kent version dating to about 1100.

Ealhmund does not seem to have survived long in power: there is no record of his activities after 784. There is, however, ample evidence of Offa's rule over Kent during the late 780s, with his goals apparently going beyond sovereignty to total annexation of the kingdom, and he has been described as "the rival, not the lord, of the kings of Kent." It is possible that the young Egbert fled to Wessex in about 785; it is suggestive that the Chronicle mentions in a later entry that Beorhtric, Cynewulf's successor, helped Offa exile Egbert.

Cynewulf was assassinated in 786. His succession was contested by Egbert, but he was defeated by Beorhtric, perhaps with Offa's help. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that Egbert, before becoming king, spent three years in France, exiled by Beorhtric and Offa. However, although the text says "iii" meaning three, this could be a typo, and instead be "xiii," meaning thirteen years. Beorhtric's reign lasted sixteen years, not thirteen; and all extant texts of the Chronicle agree on "iii," but many modern accounts assume that Egbert actually spent thirteen years in France. This assumes that the transcription error is common to all manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; many historians make this assumption but others dismiss it as unlikely, given the consistency of the sources. In either case, Egbert was probably exiled in 789, when Beorhtric, his rival, married the daughter of Offa of Mercia.

At the time Egbert was in exile, France was ruled by Charlemagne, who maintained Frankish influence in Northumbria and is known to have supported Offa's enemies in the south. Another exile in Gaul at this time was Odberht, a priest, who is almost certainly the same person as Eadberht, who later became king of Kent. According to a later chronicler, William of Malmesbury, Egbert learned the art of ruling during his time in Gaul.

Beorhtric's dependence on Mercia continued during the reign of Cenwulf, who became king of Mercia a few months after Offa's death. Beorhtric died in 802 and Egbert ascended the throne of Wessex, probably with the support of Charlemagne and possibly the papacy. The Mercians continued to oppose Egbert: on the day of his ascension, the Hwicce (who had originally formed a separate kingdom but at that time were part of Mercia) attacked, under the leadership of their ealdorman, Æthelmund . Weohstan, an ealdorman from Wessex, met him with men from Wiltshire; According to a 15th-century source, Weohstan had married Alburga, Egbert's sister, and so was his brother-in-law. The Hwicce were defeated, although Weohstan was killed as was Æthelmund. For more than twenty years after this battle, there are no accounts of Egbert's dealings with Mercia. It seems likely that Egbert had no influence outside his borders, but on the other hand there is no evidence that he ever submitted to Cenwulf's lordship. Cenwulf had lordship over the rest of southern England, but in Cenwulf's charters the title "lord of southern England" never appears, presumably because of the independence of the kingdom of Wessex.

In 815 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Egbert devastated the entire territory of the remaining British kingdom, Dumnonia, known to the author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as West Wales, occupying the territory that is now Cornwallis. Ten years later, a charter dated August 19, 825, indicates that Egbert was again campaigning in Dumnonia; this may have been related to a battle recorded in the Chronicle at Gafulford in 823 between the men of Devon and the Britons of Cornwallis.

It was also in 825 that one of the most important battles in Anglo-Saxon history took place, when Aegbert defeated Beornwulf of Mercia at Ellandun, now Wroughton, near Swindon. This battle marked the end of Mercian rule of southern England. The Chronicle tells how Aegbertus followed his victory: "Then he sent his son Etelvulf from the army, and Ealhstan, his bishop, and Wulfheard, his ealdorman, into Kent with a great force." Etelvulfo pushed Baldred, the king of Kent, north across the Thames, and according to the Chronicle, the men of Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex all submitted to Etelvulfo "because they had previously been wrongly driven from his kinsmen." This may refer to Offa's interventions in Kent at the time Egbert's father, Ealhmund, became king; if so, the chronicler's observation may also indicate that Ealhmund had connections elsewhere in southeast England.

The Chronicle's version of events makes it appear that Baldred was driven out shortly after the battle, but this was probably not the case. A Kent document survives that places the date, March 826, in the third year of Beornwulf's reign. This makes it likely that Beornwulf still had authority in Kent at this date, as overlord to Baldred; thus Baldred was apparently still in power. In Essex, Egbert expelled King Sigered, although the date is unknown. It may have been delayed until 829, since a later chronicler associates the expulsion with a campaign by Egbert in that year against the Mercians.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not say who the attacker at Ellandun was, but a recent history states that the attacker was almost certainly Beornwulf. According to this view, Beornwulf may have taken advantage of the Wessex campaign in Dumnonia in the summer of 825. Beornwulf's motivation for launching an attack would have been the threat of unrest or instability in the southeast: dynastic connections with Kent made Wessex a threat to Mercian rule.

The consequences of Ellandun went beyond the immediate loss of Mercian power in the southeast. According to the Chronicle, the East Angles asked for Egbert's protection against the Mercians in the same year, 825, although it may be that the request for help was made the following year. In 826 Beornwulf invaded East Anglia, presumably to restore his rule. He was killed, however, as was his successor, Ludeca, who invaded Anglia in 827, evidently for the same reason. It may be that the Mercians hoped for support from Kent: there was some reason to suppose that Wulfred, the archbishop of Canterbury, might have been displeased with the rule of the West Saxons, since Aegbert had terminated Wulfred's currency and begun minting his own, in Rochester and Canterbury, and it is known that Aegbert seized property belonging to Canterbury. The result in East Anglia was a disaster for the Mercians that confirmed the power of West Saxony in the southeast.

In 829 Aegbert invaded Mercia and drove Wiglaf, king of Mercia, into exile. This victory gave Egbert control of the London mint, and he issued coins as king of Mercia. It was after this victory that the West Saxon scribe described him as a bretwalda, meaning "broad ruler" or perhaps "British ruler," in a famous passage in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The relevant part of the Annal reads, in manuscript C of the Chronicle :

The previous seven bretwalda are also named by the chronicler, who gives the same seven names that Bede lists as holders of the imperium, beginning with Ælle of Sussex and ending with Oswiu of Northumbria. The list is often considered incomplete, omitting some dominant Mercian kings such as Penda and Offa. The exact meaning of the title has been much debated; it has been described as "a term of encomiastic poetry" but there is also evidence that it implied a definite role of military command.

Later in 829, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Egbert accepted the submission of the Northumbrians to Dore (the king of Northumbria was probably Eanred. According to a later chronicler, Roger of Wendover, Egbert invaded Northumbria and sacked it before Eanred submitted: "When Egbert had obtained all the southern kingdoms, he led a great army into Northumbria and ravaged that province with severe plunder and forced King Eanred to pay him homage." Roger of Wendover is known to have incorporated the annals of Northumbria into his version; the Chronicle does not mention these events. However, the nature of Eanred's submission has been questioned: one historian has suggested that it is more likely that the meeting at Dore represented a mutual recognition of sovereignty.

In 830, Aegbert led a successful expedition against the Welsh, almost certainly with the intent of extending West Saxon influence into Welsh lands previously within the Mercian orbit. This marked the culmination of Aegbert's influence.

In 830, Mercia regained its independence under Wiglaf-the Chronicle simply says that Wiglaf "obtained the kingdom of Mercia again," but the most likely explanation is that this was the result of a Mercian rebellion against Wessex rule.

Aegbert's rule over southern England ended with Wiglaf's resumption of power. Wiglaf's return is followed by evidence of his independence from Wessex. The charters indicate that Wiglaf had authority in Middlesex and Berkshire, and in a charter of 836 Wiglaf uses the phrase "my bishops, duces and magistrates" to describe a group that included eleven bishops from the Canterbury episcopate, including bishops from sees in territories in western Saxony. Significantly, Wiglaf was still able to convene such a group of notables; the West Saxons, even if they were able to do so, did not hold such councils. Wiglaf may also have brought Essex back into the Mercian orbit during the years following the recovery of the throne. In East Anglia, King Aethelstan minted coins, perhaps as early as 827, but more likely c. 830 after Aegbert's influence was reduced after Wiglaf's return to Mercia. This demonstration of independence by East Anglia is not surprising, since it was probably Æthelstan who was responsible for the defeat and death of both Beornwulf and Ludeca.

Historians have examined both Wessex's sudden rise to power in the late 820s and its subsequent inability to maintain this dominance to find underlying causes. One plausible explanation for the events of these years is that the fortunes of Wessex depended to some extent on Carolingian support. The Franks supported Eardwulf when he recovered the throne of Northumbria in 808, so it is plausible that they also supported the rise of Aegbert in 802. At Easter 839, not long before Aegbert's death, he was in contact with Ludwig the Pious, king of the Franks, to arrange safe passage to Rome. Thus an ongoing relationship with the Franks seems to be part of the politics of southern England during the first half of the ninth century.

Carolingian support may have been one of the factors that helped Egbert achieve the military successes of the late 820s. However, the Rhine and Frankish trade networks collapsed at some point in the 820s or 830s and, in addition, a rebellion against Ludwig the Pious broke out in February 830, the first in a series of internal conflicts that lasted until 830 and beyond. These distractions may have prevented Louis from supporting Egbert. In this view, the withdrawal of Frankish influence would have left East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex to find a balance of power not dependent on outside help.

Despite the loss of dominion, Aegbert's military successes radically changed the political landscape of Anglo-Saxon England. Wessex retained control of the southeastern kingdoms, with the possible exception of Essex, and Mercia did not regain control of East Anglia. Aegbert's victories marked the end of the independent existence of the kingdoms of Kent and Sussex. The conquered territories, as well as Surrey and possibly Essex, were administered as a subregnum for a time. Although Etelvulf was a sub-king under Aegbert, it is clear that he maintained his own royal family, with whom he traveled throughout his kingdom. Charters issued in Kent described Egbert and Ethelvulf as "kings of the West Saxons and also of the people of Kent." When Æthelwulf died in 858, his will, in which Wessex is left to one son and the southeastern kingdom to another, makes it clear that only after 858 were the kingdoms fully integrated. Mercia remained a threat, however; Aegbert's son Aethelvulf, established as king of Kent, gave possessions to Christ Church, Canterbury, probably to counter any influence the Mercians might still have.

In the southwest, Aegbert was defeated in 836 at Carhampton by the Dani, but in 838 he won a battle against them and their West Welsh allies at the Battle of Hingston Down in Cornwall. The Dumnonian royal line continued after this period, but it is on this date that the independence of one of the last British kingdoms can be considered to have ended. Accounts of Anglo-Saxon expansion in Cornwall are rather sparse, but some evidence comes from place names. The Ottery River, which flows east into the Tamar near Launceston, seems to be a boundary: south of the Ottery the place names are predominantly Cornish, while to the north they are more strongly influenced by English newcomers.

At a council in Kingston upon Thames in 838, Egbert and Etelvulph granted the land to the sees of Winchester and Canterbury in exchange for a promise to support Etelvulph's claim to the throne. The archbishop of Canterbury, Ceolnoth, also accepted Egbert and Etelvulf as lords and protectors of the monasteries under Ceolnoth's control. These agreements, together with a later charter in which Etelvulf confirmed the church's privileges, suggest that the church had recognized that Wessex was a new political power to be dealt with. Churchmen anointed the king during coronation ceremonies and helped write wills specifying the king's heir; their support had real value in establishing control of West Saxony as well as a regular succession for Aegbert's line. Both the minutes of the Council of Kingston and another charter from that year include the following sentence: that a condition of the grant is that "we ourselves and our heirs shall always hereafter have firm and unshakable friendships from Archbishop Ceolnoth and his congregation at Christ Church." ("we ourselves and our heirs shall always hereafter have firm and unshakable friendships from Archbishop Ceolnoth and his congregation at Christ Church.").

Although nothing is known about other claimants to the throne, it is likely that there were other surviving descendants of Cerdic (the supposed progenitor of all Wessex kings) who could have contended for the kingdom. Egbert died in 839, and his will, according to the account found in the will of his grandson, Alfred the Great, left land only to male members of his family, so that property would not be lost to the royal house through marriage. Aegbert's wealth, acquired through conquest, was undoubtedly one of the reasons for his ability to buy the support of the Church of Southeast England; the thriftiness of his will indicates that he understood the importance of personal wealth for a king. The sovereignty of Wessex had often been contested between different branches of the royal line, and it is a remarkable achievement of Aegbert that he was able to secure the serene succession of Aethelvulf. Moreover, Aethelvulf's experience as sub-king of the territory formed by Aegbert's southeastern conquests would have been invaluable to him when he succeeded his father.

Aegbert was buried in Winchester, as were his son, Aethelvulf, his grandson, Alfred the Great, and his great-grandson, Edward the Elder. During the 9th century, Winchester began to show signs of urbanization, and it is likely that the sequence of burials indicates that Winchester was held in high regard by the West Saxon royal line.

King Egbert, in the more original diction of King Ecbert, is one of the major characters in the television series Vikings where he is played by Linus Roache.


  1. Ecgberht, King of Wessex
  2. Egberto del Wessex
  3. ^ Ashley, p. 313
  4. ^ Garmonsway, G. N. ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., pp. xxxii, 2, 4
  5. ^ Garmonsway, G.N. ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., pp. xxxii,2,4
  6. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 65–66
  7. ^ Edwards, Egberto
  8. Ashley, p. 313
  9. A crônica descreve a esposa de Egberto como "Redburga regis Francorum sororia" (irmã ou meia irmã do imperador dos francos). Historiadores do século XIX citaram o manuscrito para identificar sua esposa, como W. G. Searle em obras de 1897 e 1899. Outros historiadores da época eram céticos, como William Hunt, que omitiu Redburga em seu artigo sobre Egberto no Dictionary of National Biography original de 1889. Alguns genealogistas e historiadores do século XX seguiram Searle e nomearam Redburga como a esposa do rei, porém historiadores acadêmicos a ignoram ao falar de Egberto, como Janet Nelson em seu artigo de 2004 sobre Etelvulfo na Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, que afirma que sua mãe é desconhecida.[5]

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