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The Life of King Egbert

The Kingship of King Egbert (802-839)

The Years 830-839

830-833

The reorganization of England occupied Egbert for most of 830, but during the following year he successfully continued to extend his power. Egbert aimed at subjecting more than England. In 831 the Welsh had made some hostile moves on the Mercian border which caused the Wiglaf to ask Egbert to come to the defense of his kingdom. In response, Egbert led a large army against the North Welsh, who were unable to offer any effective resistance. He devastated their many kingdoms with fire and sword, from the episcopal see of St. David’s, in Dyfed (Pembrokeshire), which was laid in ashes, to Mount Snowdon in Gwynedd (Caernaravonshire). He then entered the territory called Roweynauc (Denbighshire), and from there crossed the Manai Strait to Mon (Anglesey), not considering the conquest of North Wales complete until he had reduced it to subjection. Only the kings of Cumberland and Strathclyde, and the Picts, did not come to be numbered among Egbert’s vassals. They were indebted to the peaceful stance which they took for their independence.

During the years 826-33, Egbert seems to have called very few meetings of the witan. In a charter of 828, where he styles himself Rex-Anglorum, Egbert, together with Aethelwulf, whom he calls king of Kent in the charter, grants to the church at Rochester immunity for its estates from public duties except the three regular exactions; armed service, the repairing of fortresses, and work on bridges and roads. In 830, as king of the West Saxons and Kentishmen, Egbert gave lands in Kent to his thegn Etheric. In 833, he gave a small estate in Kent to an abbot named Dunn and his church at Sandon, and that year held his court on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, at Dorchester, where he decided a cases involving land.

It is also during the years 826-33 that Egbert probably brought the organization of his shires to completion, both as regards the relation of the local bishop to the shire and the appointment of the ealdorman as the leader of the shire military force or fyrd. This significantly improved West Saxon military preparedness and capability. By the middle of the ninth century, the Chronicle recounts as being commonplace that the ealdormen exercised military command over the people of Dorset, Somerset, and Devon. As far as military affairs were concerned, the ealdormen and the territorial shire were closely linked even before the beginning of the King Alfred’s reign. The improvement seems very much to have been a West Saxon achievement, and specifically of Egbert.

He also continued to pay careful attention to his dealings with the church of Canterbury during these years. While the Mercian kings had continued to weaken the power and influence of the archbishop of Canterbury, Egbert crafted careful alliances with them and in that way strengthened his own position. When his friend and ally, Wulfred, died on March 24, 832, Egbert secured the election of Ceolnoth, a West Saxon, to be the new archbishop of Canterbury.

834-837

At age 59 in 834, Egbert had been for five years overlord of all England. It was then that the immunity from Viking raids came to an end. Now, when he might have thought he would spend the rest of his reign in relative peace and security, Egbert received news that “heathen men were ravaging the Isle of Sheppey.” The Chronicle gives us no details, but apparently this was a hasty and transient descent, followed by a swift departure. Aethelwulf, in charge of Kent, was taken by surprise by the Vikings’ hasty attack on Sheppey, and by their equally swift departure. He was forced to tell his father that the Danes had pillaged the island and had escaped with impunity. Most likely it was the work of a part of a powerful Viking fleet which in that same summer burnt Dorstadt, the great trading port at the mouth of the Rhine, and spoiled the lands around it. Perhaps it was before turning homeward in the autumn that the invaders made an experimental raid into the estuary of the Thames.

Egbert, justifiably alarmed at this event, set about strengthening his kingdom politically and militarily to withstand further Viking attacks. Between the years 830 and 840, a large Viking population was built up in Ireland. A chain of settlements was established along the Irish coast. Wicklow was founded in 835, and Dublin in 838. Egbert realized that the Viking threat from Ireland was very real and very dangerous. He understood that the big island could serve as a base from which strategic attacks could be launched upon England.

Egbert’s fear of an invasion or raid from Ireland no doubt focused on Cornwall as a landing place. It would represent an important strategic point for the Viking fleets. The time would come when they would arrive in force to try to seize the Cornish shore. The town of Camelford that Egbert had won in the second Cornish war is near the coast facing Ireland. Egbert therefore proceeded to fortify and garrison Camelford as one means of protecting Cornwall against invasion by sea.

Politically Egbert sought also to strengthen Mercia. In the event of a major Viking invasion, he wanted to make sure that King Wiglaf would support him, and not take advantage of the situation. Early in AD 835, Egbert summoned his witan to meet during Easter at Dorchester. Among those present were the bishops Alhstan of Sherborne, Rethun of Leicester, and Kinred of Selsey, as well as Egbert’s son Aethelwulf and the ealdormen Osmod and Wigferth. Here, Egbert made a grant of land to Mercia. After this, there are signs that relations between Mercia and Wessex prospered, and that the two kings reached some understanding to their mutual advantage that could be termed an alliance. The understanding grew from this point, and proved to be a critical factor in the struggle against the Vikings.

In 836, Wiglaf gave the church at Hanbury immunity from feeding the king, his officers and messengers, and from all building of the royal residence, reserving only the duty of the construction of ramparts and bridges. The charter exists in its original form, and has several significant features. It is witnessed by the archbishop of Canterbury, and by almost all of the southern bishops, which suggests that Wiglaf was still able to hold the sort of great council that earlier Mercian kings held, despite Egbert’s overlordship. Like many late Mercian royal charters, it is a grant not of land but of immunity. Its endorsements reveal that, whatever the pious sentiments of the main text, such privileges were not had for nothing. Wiglaf was given a life interest in one estate, an earldorman received an estate on the same terms, while another received 600 shillings in gold. Wiglaf was not simply relinquishing their rights and those of their officials; they were selling them for land and treasure. This could imply that Wiglaf was running short of land and needed funds.

The next campaign by Egbert was fought closer to home, and had a sinister significance. In 836-7 the Vikings returned in force to the regions of the Rhine mouth and the Lower Scheldt, and sacked Antwerp and other towns. This was the main area of their activity, but a section of the fleet made a dash for England. This time it was at Charmouth, in Dorsetshire, that the crews of thirty-five ships came to land, and started plunder. The king came out in person against them, probably at the head of his personal following and the shire-levy of Dorset alone. A terrible slaughter developed during this battle, which lasted all day with the English gaining a slight advantage until the arrival of night. Then confusion spread among the Anglo-Saxons enabling the Danes to decisively defeat Egbert and his men, so that they ended by fleeing under cover of darkness. Though “there was a great slaughter made,” yet “the Danes maintained possession of the battle-spot.” The bloody losses Egbert suffered in this his first military defeat, included Herefrith, bishop of Winchester, and Sigelm, bishop of Sherborne, along with the ealdormen Osmod and Dudda.

The raiders were working their way round from Ireland into the Channel. Their topographical knowledge was expanding. This campaign by Egbert was at a point that bore a sinister significance. He fought and the Danes left the field with the honors of the battle. Considering their very moderate force, this battle did not bode well for Wessex. If thirty-five ships’ crews could hold their own against the king even for a day, what was to be expected when fleets of several hundred galleys should appear? And already the Danish squadrons which had been ravaging Frisia and Flanders had reached that strength. Charmouth is in the Channel itself, and it stands close to one of the heads of the great Roman road–the Fosse Way–beginning at Exeter, runs north-eastward across England. The secret of the Roman roads would soon be discovered and then the Danes would take the trouble to fight a serious battle at Charmouth.

838

Egbert continued to show a strong inclination to strengthen himself by obtaining ecclesiastical support. During this period of strife and peril, Archbishop Ceolnoth securely established himself in the see of Canterbury. He had developed a good working relationship with Aethelwulf, sub-king of Kent, and also with Egbert. Egbert began the year 838 by convening a number of witans in the kingdom of Kent, mainly in the towns of Snodland and Freeborough. Egbert, at Snodland, made a large grant of lands to Bishop Beornmod of Rochester, and at Freeborough he had his son Aethelwulf reconfirmed as vassal king of Kent by the witenagemot, which included Archbishop Ceolnoth and the Bishops Beornmod of Rochester, Ealkstan of Sherborne, Eadhun of Winchester, Cynred of Selsey, and Ceolbert of London.

Relations between the archbishop of Canterbury and the king of Wessex were not perfect. Years before an estate at Malling had been given to the Church of Canterbury by King Baldred while he was fleeing Kent during the advance of Aethelwulf and his army. The title to the estate was therefore regarded as imperfect, but instead of returning the property to the church Egbert and Aethelwulf had decided to keep it for themselves. This remained a sore point between Egbert and Ceolnoth, who had urged the king let the church take possession of the lands. Egbert had refused, but now in 838, in a council held at Kingston-on-Thames, Egbert and Aethelwulf reconciled the matter with Archbishop Ceolnoth by restoring the lands at Malling to the church of Canterbury. In return, Archbishop Ceolnoth concluded a treaty of alliance with Egbert and Aethelwulf, not only for themselves, but one which would bind both side’s heirs and successors forever. The treaty stated that “we ourselves and our heirs shall always hereafter have firm and unshakable friendship from Archbishop Ceolnoth and his congregation at Christ Church.” All the Kentish monasteries which had chosen the two kings as defenders were included in the alliance. With the addition of certain immunities for the prelates, the treaty was recorded in two copies and ordered kept among the records and documents at the Church of Canterbury.

Egbert by such statecraft secured the West Saxon succession for his dynasty. His son Aethelwulf would be the first West Saxon king since 641 to succeed his father. Egbert had bought support for his son by an apparent surrender of an estate. The prospect of perpetual friendship between the See of Canterbury and the royal house of Wessex had a higher significance in that it marks the passing of the See of Canterbury from surveillance by Mercia to that of Wessex. Using his agreement with Canterbury as a model, Egbert in 838 also made a grant of lands in the Isle of Wight to the See of Winchester. Both documents create an alliance between church and state, one in Kent and the other in Wessex, but the archbishop of Canterbury and the West Saxon royal family from this point on would deal with each other on equal terms, while the church of Winchester would remain subordinate to the royal will. Having strengthened Wessex internally, and established hereditary succession, Egbert was now ready to face the external threats which would arise.

The Crowning Stone at Kingston was the place where West Saxon kings had been crowned from this time. It is possible that on this occasion the bargain was sealed by the anointing of Aethelwulf at this stone. Egbert’s achievements in unification, and in establishing his descendants as future kings, were the main reasons for the crowning stone’s symbolic importance.

The Thames valley beyond Kingston formed a kind of bottleneck between Kent and the west, which was easily defended. The original boundary between the kingdom of Kent and the kingdom of Wessex must have fallen at Kingston. In 568 when Ceawlin notified King Aethelbert of Kent to keep his claws off Wessex, the battle took place at Wimbledon. If Wimbledon was the place where a battle would take place between Kentish men and West Saxons, then Kingston might well be the border town.

A holy and permanent boundary stone stood at Kingston, and this stone would suit their needs very well as the crowning stone. The name “Aethelstan” commemorated the union of Wessex and Kent; the person who, like the stone, faced and touched both kingdoms. The acquisition of Kent was the corner-stone of West Saxon supremacy, and the means by which Egbert made sure of his command of England. The ceremony of crowning on the stone at Kingston symbolized the achievement of victory. Many kings were crowned at Kingston, where today the stone upon which this crowning ceremony took place can still be seen in the center of town. It is an intriguing link with the earliest emergence of the royal succession.

There was an interval of two years until the next raid, and when it came it was different. In 838 “a great hostile fleet came to the land of the West Welsh and made alliance with them, and together they waged war upon Egbert King of the West Saxons.” A league between the Vikings and any Christian people was a new thing, except in Ireland, where already such threatening combinations had been seen. Some historians have supposed that this fleet may have been composed of Irish Vikings–though not especially probable, since Northmen were very busy this year and actually took Dublin for the first time. The Vikings had learned from their experience at the battle of Charmouth two years ago that Egbert would put up a vigorous resistance to any invasion of his lands.

The Cornishmen were apparently no lovers of English rule. Danes were always quick to detect and exploit the political weakness of their enemies.  A fleet arrived in Cornwall, and the united army of Cornishmen and Northmen pressed eastward. As soon as he heard of the league, Egbert marched westward with all the levies of Wessex, and fought those allies with a great slaughter at Hengestesdune (Hingston Down), a high moorland overlooking the Tamar River. This was Egbert’s third Cornish war, and he was determined that it would be his last. The Danes fled to their ships, and the Cornishmen renewed their oaths of allegiance (which they never seem to have broken again.)

The Chronicle assures us that he won a great victory. The Northmen never reached Wessex, nor any of the points of strategic importance. But Bretland was, in later years after Egbert’s reign, to be a settlement of Northmen and Danes, and an advanced base for their fleets. Today the northern coast of Cornwall shows vivid signs of their presence. Though they never reached Wessex, it could also be true that Egbert would not feel secure with the situation in the Cornish sea.

During Egbert’s final war with Cornwall, the North Welsh had to the best of their ability aided their fellow Britons, and therefore the king now launched a punitive expedition against them. He laid siege to and took Chester, the capital of the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd–strongest of all the several North Welsh states. Of the punishments Egbert visited upon these Britons, the most humiliating was his command that the statue of their ancient king, Cadwalhon, be destroyed and never replaced. When he returned to Wessex, Egbert decreed that all the Welsh and their offspring leave his kingdom within six months or be put to death. Egbert ordered this apparently at the instigation of his wife, Redburga, who did exercise some political influence over her husband, and whose hatred of the Welsh was well-known.

When this last campaign began in 838, King Egbert was 63 years old. He must have had remarkable endurance and good health to lead his armies in a march into battle. The average lifespan of any person in the ninth century was only 45 years. With his ability to have a better lifestyle than the average man, though he faced the repeated dangers of battle, he could have been expected to live longer than the average. He would still have been considered a very elderly man by this time in his life. After this last campaign his health seems to decline, though not injured in the battle.

There were some tasks that Egbert himself still had to perform during and after this campaign. He had greatly extended the boundaries of his kingdom since 802, and his power and influence were greater than any previous West Saxon king’s. His renown on the continent of Europe was such that many important visitors now came to see him. But as his health continued to deteriorate, the demands place upon his hospitality began to overwhelm him. In 838, Egbert asked the bishop of Winchester to assume the duty of receiving and entertaining important visitors who came to see the king. Accordingly, Egbert built a new ceremonial palace just outside the city of Winchester in close physical association with the cathedral church of Old Minster. This new policy of Egbert’s had the side effect of further increasing the power and prestige of the See of Winchester and its bishop.

839

Feeling the burden of his years more heavily every day, and realizing that his life’s work was nearly over, Egbert at the end of 838 or beginning of 839, at Wilton summoned his last witenagemot. Still uneasy about the stability of his dynasty after his death, and anxious of civil strife engulfing Wessex as it had Mercia after the death of Offa, Egbert one last time asked for and received a solemn vow of loyalty to the House of Egbert from all the magnates of the realm. He also had reconfirmed in writing the agreement made between himself, Aethelwulf and the archbishop of Canterbury at Kingston.

This came close to being the last act of King Egbert. He was now approximately sixty-four years of age, and in the summer of that year he died and was buried in the city of Winchester, having ruled Wessex for thirty-seven years and seven months, and having presided over all England as Bretwalda for the last ten years. Several sources mark his death in the summer, but at least one source states it as being February 4th. While the exact cause of his death remains unknown, it can be stated with assurance that it was not from battle wounds. Through all his years of peril and wars he did not suffer any violent injury. The Chronicles, or other records, would have recorded an event when the king became disabled.

Many of the kings of Wessex, and later of all England, were buried in the Old Minster at Winchester Cathedral. Their bones lie in Mortuary Chests within the present Cathedral. Some of the oldest royal bones in the country lie in six small wooden chests. They rest high up on top of a kind of screen each side of the area between the choir stalls and the altar. Among the contents of these boxes is the remains of King Cynegils of Wessex, who died in 643, and who founded Winchester’s Saxon cathedral. King Egbert is in the chest with the Latin inscription “Hic Rex Egbertus Pausat cum Rege Kenulpho” (Here rests King Egbert with King Cenwalh). The church that Cenwalh founded was added to over the years and by 1000 was one of the largest churches in England. It was demolished in 1079 to make way for the present Winchester Cathedral. King Egbert’s wife, Queen Redburga’s burial site is not known, but it is likely that she was buried in the old Saxon cathedral. Among other early kings whose bones are contained in these boxes are King Aethelwulf, Edmond I, a son of King Alfred the Great, King Canute and his wife Queen Emma. Identification is impossible, however, because parliamentarian soldiers smashed the boxes open in 1642 and scattered the contents. One of the boxes states that the jumbled kingly remains were “promiscuously” put back into their containers in 1661.

Even though his last will and testament is nonexistent, it is known with certainty that he bequeathed his land in the male line and not in the female line. His eldest son Aethelwulf, now 43 years old and the vassal king in Kent, moved up to rule over Wessex and wielded suzerainty over all of the realms which had obeyed his father. Kent, however, and with it Essex, Sussex, and Surrey, was handed on to the vassal kingship of Egbert’s younger son Aethelstan, who had been vassal king in East Anglia. Aethelstan, for his part, gave up the crown of East Anglia to his son Aethelweard. Aethelstan died in 850. Egbert’s work would remain intact; as the father of a long line of able descendants, he had founded a dynasty which would control the destiny of England as a whole.

Of Egbert’s character as a man we know nothing by direct record. No poet sang of him; no annalist praised him. No hint of excited admiration has magnified his fame or distorted the picture of his personality. We know him only by his actions and his face on coins. This fact alone would give us a very strong suggestion of the truth. As far as we can judge he was a wise, prudent, and sober man who never committed a single good nor a single bad action through motives of passion, nor inspired a single romantic thought in his people. He attended, throughout a long reign, strictly to business. His actions implied a solid sympathy with the Frankish empire, and the purpose of maintaining the absolutely independent sovereignty of the realm he governed. He was sorely missed by his people to whom he had been a tower of strength.

But his life’s work had vast and far-reaching effects. At the very last moment before the storm broke–while the Danes were focusing on the Frankish empire–Egbert had transformed the situation. What now confronted the Danes was no longer a feeble and disunited England, a ready base for their descent upon the south, but a united kingdom attached by sympathy to the empire of Charles and the world to which it belonged. Whatsoever the Danes now did would need to be done in the teeth of an English power that barred the way. With Egbert, England definitely parted from the world of the north, and ranged herself with the civilization of the south of Europe.

The rule which Egbert extended over the whole of England was the final and conclusive assertion of her unity. Its terms, and the details was hegemony, rather than a solid and unified kingdom: it was a small replica of the Frankish empire of Charles, with the same diversity of local law. The principle of unity which Egbert’s over-lordship represented held good forever. The sovereign independence of the smaller kingdoms was never again permanently made good. Much had to happen before the full benefits of Egbert’s actions were gained: but from this time forward England became one nation and one state–and so men felt it to be. Egbert is used to mark the division between the Dark Ages and Medieval times because he is the first Anglo-Saxon king to achieve the semblance of a united England.

The supremacy over all England had passed into the hands of men who embodied a new spirit. The royal house of Wessex was torn by none of those dramatic feuds which had rent the lines of Northumbria; it breathed none of that fierce and impatient temper which had marked the Mercian royal family. Even when they played their part in terrible events, the West Saxon kings did so with a curiously gentle and amiable air. Most of them were good men, even when judged by the standard of far later and more exacting ages. One of them–Alfred–was almost a saint, and perhaps missed canonization only because of a touch of sober realism that stopped him from trying to work miracles. They dispensed altogether with the tools of intrigue, murder, imprisonment, and repression which some dynasties have felt indispensable to their security. They were destined to reign for over two hundred years, and to demonstrate that amiable virtues can be a good investment for kings.











King Egbert
Not sure if this type of  armor is appropriate for
Egbert's time, and his crown was said to have
cross fleury tips rather than points.  Egbert's face
said to be taken from the likeness on his coins.
















© The British Library Board  
Monk given a Tonsure
for larger image

A monk being given a tonsure by another monk with a knife, from the De similtudinibus, by St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, no date given

















© The British Library Board  
for larger image

Gurm Gamle, King of Denmark and a Danish Youth

The costume of the original inhabitants of the British Islands
from the earliest periods to the sixth century, to which is added
that of the Gothic nations of the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danes,
by Sir S.R. & S. Meyrick, illustrator Charles H. Smith and
R. Havell, 1815


















© The British Library Board 
for larger image
Lydgate and the Canterbury Pilgrims

from “The Siege of Thebes”, a poem by John Lydgate, ca. 1455, written in Middle English, showing John Lydgate and the Canterbury pilgrims leaving Canterbury. From a manuscript containing the Troy Book and the Siege of Thebes, with other poems.


















The Agreement of Egbert and Ceolnoth
© The British Library Board

for larger image 

(Whole document) Record of the agreement between Archbishop Ceolnoth,
and the Kings Egbert, and Aethelwulf, concerning the recovery by
Christ Church, Canterbury, of lands at Malling, co. Sussex, and the
election of abbots and abbesses to the Kentish communities, with
confirmations by King Aethelwulf, and [839], by bishops
south of the Humber. Concluded at the Council of
Kingston in 838














The Crowning Stone at Kingston

























Raids of the Vikings





















Part of the foundation of the Old Minster at Winchester Cathedral





















The Mortuary Chest for King Egbert, and others
in Winchester Cathedral



















Statue of King Egbert
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
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