Who was King Beorhtric of Wessex and what did he do?

Was king Beorhtric nothing more than a puppet of the powerful Offa of Mercia or did he wield power of his own during the sixteen years he was on the throne? And what happened when the Vikings landed in England for the first time? Read on to discover the life and times of West Saxon king Beorhtric.

History Rulers
3 May 2023

Beorhtric of Wessex was a relatively unremarkable Anglo-Saxon king, caught as he was in the shadow of the mighty Offa of Mercia. Yet his intriguing tale of power, politics, and the dawn of the Viking Age in Anglo-Saxon England tells us much about the complex, and often brutal, realities of the time.

During the eighth century, Mercia was the most powerful kingdom in the heptarchy, the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England. Many of the Wessex kings were subservient to their Mercian overlords, and Beorhtric of Wessex was no exception. Also known as king Brihtric, it was during his reign that the Vikings first made their presence felt and the borders of Mercia and Wessex constantly changed as they vied for supremacy.

Beorhtric succeeded Cynewulf as king of Wessex after a power struggle with Ecgberht, the grandfather of Alfred the Great. Working in tandem, Beorhtric and Offa drove Ecgberht into exile to France and the court of Charlemagne, but he returned and eventually succeeded Beorhtric as king of Wessex.

It was under Ecgberht’s reign that Wessex took over from Mercia as the nation’s dominant kingdom.

Let’s take a look at the life and times of Beorhtric of Wessex.

King Beorhtric & The Mercian Influence

Silver coin collection (Anglo-saxon period) (Photo: Hein Nouwens via Getty Images)

Nothing is known of the early life or ancestry of the man whose name translates as ‘magnificent ruler’, although some sources have suggested he was descended from Cerdic, the founder and first king of Wessex.

History is unsure whether the moniker was self-imposed or imposed on him by others, but to say king Brihtric was a magnificent ruler is probably a stretch.

He became the king of Wessex in 786 when Cynewulf was killed, and immediately came under the influence of Offa of Mercia. Three years into his reign, the links between Mercia and Wessex were further strengthened when Beorhtric married Offa’s daughter, Eadburh.

Indeed she is believed to have wielded the real power in the kingdom, perhaps acting on behalf of her father. She had a reputation as an ambitious, cruel woman who demanded her enemies be exiled or put to death. It was even said that she poisoned men her husband refused to kill.

The influence of Mercia on king Beorhtric was further enhanced by the fact that borders between the two kingdoms were administered by the Mercian courts and Mercian coinage was commonly used in Wessex at the time.

Beorhtric of Wessex & The Vikings

Vikings boat (Photo: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

The same year Beorhtric married Eadburh, the Vikings appeared on the south coast for the first time, at the Isle of Portland in Dorset. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they killed the shire reeve, perhaps the equivalent of the leader of the council, a man named Beaduheard, which translates as ‘battle-hardened.’ He is believed to be the first man recorded to have died at the hands of the Vikings but he was certainly not the last.

Of West Saxon king Beorhtric, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wrote, ‘And in his days came first three ships of the Northmen from Hordaland, the land of robbers. These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English race.’

A later version of the chronicle written in Latin, probably between 975 and 983, by a Wessex ealdorman and chronicler named Aethelweard, went into more detail. However it’s unclear whether he was just padding out his story or it’s indeed based on fact.

He said that upon hearing of the Viking landing, Beaduheard ‘leapt upon his horse and sped to the harbour with a few men.’ He went on to say that the Vikings were spoken to in an authoritative tone, hence why they killed him.

Again, there’s no contemporary evidence to suggest this story is true, but this late tenth century account was the first to name the man who died.

The Later Years and Death of West Saxon King Beorhtric

A churchyard in the Dorset town of Wareham. (Photo; Bob-McCraight via Getty Images)

When Offa died in 796, Mercian power waned and within a few years Wessex became the country’s dominant kingdom. It’s possible that with his overlord gone, Beorhtric may well have exerted more power over his kingdom. Beorhtric died in 802 and the story of his death is as bizarre as it’s scarcely believable.

According to a Welsh monk and chronicler named Asser, Eadburh, the wife of Beorhtric, attempted to poison a popular young man at the king’s court but ended up mistakenly killing both him and her husband.

Beorhtric of Wessex is buried in the Dorset town of Wareham.


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