King Egbert of Wessex Conquers all to Become Bretwalda, the First King of a United England
King Egbert, later designated the first king of England, began his reign in the 9 th century, when England was fragmented into multiple small kingdoms and under attack by Norsemen. He was one of the first to unify several smaller English kingdoms and was called bretwalda, or “wide ruler” of Anglo-Saxon lands.
Historians do not know much about his first 20 years of rule. He was descended from a line of Anglo-Saxon kings and ruled Wessex, from around 802, when he was declared King of the West Saxons. By 827, he had conquered Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Wales, which together encompassed all the English territories. While he later battled Viking invaders, his efforts were not successful in ending the raids.
Egbert of Wessex. (Public Domain)
When Was King Egbert Born?
Egbert was born around 771-775. He was the son of Ealhmund of Kent. When he was young, he was forced into exile by King Beorhtric of Wessex and King Offa of Mercia. When his kinsman Beorhtric died, Egbert (also spelled Ecgberht, Ecgbert or Ecgbriht) came home and became king of Wessex.
While he was in France, he reportedly served in the military under Charlemagne. He married a Frankish princess, Redburga, who was believed by some to be a sister of Charlemagne, but little is known about her. They had two sons and a daughter.
When he returned to England upon the death of Beorhtric in 800 or 802 (accounts of the exact year differ), rulers of neighboring Mercia tried to prevent his ascension to the throne. But Egbert prevailed.
Egbert Consolidates England
Egbert quickly went about consolidating England. He was inspired by Frankish imperial and military ideas and strove to dominate the native Celts or Britons. He eventually conquered all of what we now call Wales.
He defeated the rival king of Mercia, Beornwulf, in battle and marched on Kent, which was ruled by Mercia. The Mercian under-king of Kent, Baldred, fled. The men of Kent declared for Egbert, and Surrey, Sussex and Essex soon joined them. Egbert appointed his elder son, Ethewulf, as sub-king of these regions.
The East Anglians rebelled against Beornwulf, who was trying to re-establish his rule of Mercia. The East Anglians had been subjects of the Mercians. They appealed to Egbert for protection. Egbert agreed. Beornwulf died in the ensuing war. Wiglaf was elected to lead the Mercians in 829, but Egbert attacked quickly and expelled him.
Egbert then turned to Northumbria, which he conquered. With this, he ruled England and was declared Bretwalda. He was the first person in history to rule unified England.
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Map of England under King Egbert’s rule. (Mike Christie / Public Domain)
Viking Raiders Terrorize the British Isles
The Viking raiders from Denmark and Norway began their attacks on England in 793. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the beginning of these raids:
In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightening and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God's church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.
The Viking attacks continued and during the last years of Egbert’s reign grew in terror. Egbert’s army, with him at the head, fought them at Carnhampton. The Celts of Devon and Cornwall became allies of the Danes, but Egbert’s forces defeated them. However, by the time King Egbert’s death in 839, the Viking raids happened yearly, and Mercia regained independence.
The Viking raids continued and grew in terror. (lassedesignen / Adobe)
How Did King Egbert Die?
While little is known about how King Egbert died, he is buried at Winchester. After the Norman conquest, Winchester Cathedral was built. King Egbert’s bones were dug up and placed around St. Swithin’s Shrine in the church. But during the English Civil War in the 17 th century, Cromwell’s soldiers used Egbert’s bones to break out stained-glass windows. The bones were mixed in multiple mortuary chests with other Saxon kings and bishops and William Rufus, a Norman king. The remains in the chests have been examined by archaeologists.
Egbert’s son Ethelwulf succeeded him as king of Wessex.
Mortuary chest from Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, England, purported to contain the bones of Egbert of Wessex. d. 839, along with others. (Ealdgyth / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Top Image: On Left - Miniature of Egbert, first king of England. On Right Top - Coin of King Egbert of Wessex. On Right Bottom - The entry for 827 in the C manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle listing the territories he brought together to unite England. Source: Left, Public Domain; Right Top, Public Domain; Right Bottom, Public Domain.
By Mark Miller
Encyclopedia Britannica, Egbert, King of Wessex, [Online] Available here: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Egbert
English Monarchs Web page, Egbert 827-839, [Online] Available here: http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/saxon.htm
New Advent Web page, Egbert, available here: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05325b.htm