Ecgberht of Wessex

As much as it pains me, we’re leaving Mercia behind (at least for the time being) and heading south to Wessex. This time we’re looking at possibly my third favourite figure from the show Vikings (if any of my former lecturers are reading this, please don’t hate me): King Ecgberht, portrayed by the superb Linus Roache. But as we all know, Vikings is a tale, a modern saga. So who actually was the real King Ecgberht and why is he worth writing about?

Born sometime in 771-775, he was exiled (as briefly touched upon last time) by Offa of Mercia and Beorhtric of Wessex sometime in the 780’s, only returning in 802 following the latter’s death and taking on the kingship of Wessex. We know very little of the first decade or so of his reign with a few mentions in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: ‘[815] and that year King Egbert raided in Cornwall from east to west’. It is important to note that the Mercian hegemony was starting to show some cracks as the decades wore on, but King Beorwulf demonstrated Mercian military might through the destruction of the fortress of Deganwy in Gwynedd.

Unfortunately for Mercia, the death knell of the Supremacy was sounded in 825 when Ecgberht and Beornwulf ‘fought at Ellendun, and Egbert took the victory ; and a great slaughter was made there. Then he sent his son Æthelwulf from the army, and Ealhstan, his bishop, and Wulfheard his earldorman, to Kent with a great troop, and they drove B[e]aldred the king north over the Thames; and the inhabitants of Kent turned to him – and the Surrey men and South Saxons and East Saxons – because earlier they were wrongly forced away from his relatives. And, for fear of the Mercians, the same year the king and the nation of the East Angles sought King Egbert as their guardian and protector; and that year the East Angles killed Beornwulf, king of the Mercians.’

That’s a lot to take in but bare with me. The Battle of Ellandun was a landmark moment in the stories of Wessex and Mercia (and England). Ellandun, now Wroughton, near Swindon in Wiltshire as a location suggests that the Mercians were the likely aggressors. The outcome shattered the Mercian grip over southern England once and for all. Following his victory, Ecgberht sent his son Æthelwulf and others (including Ealhstan, bishop of Sherborne, at the head of an army into Kent which proceeded to drive out King Bealdred, who was probably a Mercian-appointed sub-king, and then received the submissions of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex. While West Saxon sources imply this was an instantaneous crumbling of Mercian authority in the south, a Kentish charter from 826 was dated by reference to king Beornwulf of Mercia’s reign. A force of habit perhaps?

While Mercia’s star continued to plummet ever downwards with the death of King Beornwulf in 826 at the hands of the rebellious East Angles, followed by the death of his successor Ludeca in 827 in exactly the same circumstances (clearly the death of his predecessor didn’t worry Ludeca one bit), Wessex’s was on the ascendant. In 829 Ecgberht invaded Mercia and deposed the current ruler Wiglaf, conquering the kingdom and ruling as king of Mercia. Subsequently Ecgberht led the army to Dore where he then received the submission of the Northumbrians. There is absolutely no denying that by this point Ecgberht was the single most powerful Anglo-Saxon king. The Chronicle generously decided to mark the occasion by adding his name to Bede’s list of the seven most powerful overkings by describing him as ‘brytenwalda’ (or bretwalda in the A version).

The following year in 830, with Ecgberht at the apogee of his power, he campaigned throughout Wales, reducing the Welsh to submission according to, again, the Chronicle. However that same year Wiglaf regained his Mercian throne. Charters from the 830’s imply he was a fully independent ruler of some prestige, but was this actually the case? There are no coins minted in his name after 829. Did he regain the throne in the face of West Saxon resistance, or take advantage of an overstretched Wessex? However he did it, there is no indication of continued hostility between Mercia and Wessex afterwards. Indeed the two kingdoms showed increasingly close co-operation in the decades after.

But whatever the state of Wessex’s continued influence on Mercia and Northumbria post-829, it certainly maintained its hold over Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex. Crucially this hegemony would survive the Viking attacks of the later 9th century largely intact, subsequently forming the basis of a united kingdom of England.

Ecgberht died in 839, leaving land only to male members of his family to avoid losing royal estates through marriage. Impressively, unlike previous kings of Wessex or indeed any other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the crown passed directly to his son, Æthelwulf, whose experience as sub-king in the south-east enabled him to pass it to his son, Ælfred the Great, then onto Edward the Elder, then finally onto Æthelstan who was to become the very first King of the English.

Despite this being another quite lengthy post, I’ve had to cut out a lot of information regarding some finer details (for instance a more in-depth look at relations post 829/830). However I hope this proved to be an interesting look into the life of the real King Ecgberht (sorry Vikings, and Linus, I love you really).

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