In the tumultuous landscape of eighth-century England, a resilient and ambitious king named Egbert of Wessex rose to power, forever altering the course of history as he transformed Wessex into a dominant kingdom.
In the later years of the eighth century, Mercia was the dominant kingdom. Indeed it was during this time that Offa of Mercia was arguably the most powerful man in the entire country. Cynewulf, who reigned in Wessex from 757 to 786, had a level of independence but when he died, a power struggle ensued between Egbert and Beorhtric.
Thanks in part to the fact Beorhtric had married Offa’s daughter, he became king of Wessex. Together, Beorhtric and Offa forced the future Egbert of Wessex into exile at the court of Charlemagne. It was there where he likely learned the skills of his trade, which eventually led to the balance of power shifting permanently in favour of the kingdom of Wessex.
When Beorhtric died in 802, Egbert came home.
King Ecbert of the West Saxons
Little is known of the early years of Egbert. There is a – probably spurious – claim that he was descended from Cerdic, the founder and first king of Wessex. However this was written decades later by scribes loyal to Wessex, so it must be taken with a pinch of salt.
There is very little documented information about the first twenty years of the reign of Egbert – sometimes spelled Ecgberht of Wessex. It was written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that in 815, he took an army southwest and ravaged the territory known since the fourth century as Dumnonia, modern-day Cornwall.
The reasons for this attack are unknown, however it has been assumed they were financial rather than territorial. There were lucrative ports in the area and the region had been known for centuries as a hotbed of tin production and with it, associated skilled craftsmen. Useful if a man wanted to equip an army.
The Battle of Ellandun & Wessex Supremacy
Although largely forgotten, the Battle of Ellandun in 825 is considered to be one of the most important battles of the Anglo-Saxon age, and one which altered the course of history. Fought between the armies of Mercia under Beornwulf and Wessex under Egbert, it’s generally accepted it took place in the forty-mile corridor somewhere between modern-day Swindon and Wilton in Wiltshire.
A decisive victory for King Ecbert of the West Saxons put paid to Mercian dominance and ushered in the age of Wessex. In the dictionary definition of striking while the iron is hot, Egbert sent his son Aethelwulf southeast to conquer Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Essex. The kingdom of Wessex doubled in size almost overnight. By 829, the Northumbrians recognised Egbert as their overlord. For a short time, he ruled over most, if not all, of England.
In the same year, Egbert defeated Mercia once more and drove their king, Wiglaf, into exile. He was described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a bretwalda, which has been translated as ‘Britain-ruler’ or ‘wide ruler.’
Not content with England, a year later in 830 King Egbert successfully fought the Welsh. This was the year the power of Egbert was at its zenith.
Wessex & The Vikings
Egbert’s hold on Mercia didn’t last long. Wiglaf returned from exile and retook the Mercian throne. However, the damage was done and Wessex – with King Ecbert in control – remained the most powerful kingdom in the land.
In the mid-830s, England faced a new threat. The Vikings attacked in 836 and formed an unlikely alliance with the Celts from Devon and Cornwall. Egbert was defeated at Carhampton in Somerset. Two years later he had his revenge.
At the Battle of Hingston Down – some suggest the battle took place in Devon while others suggest it took place in Cornwall – Ecgberht of Wessex faced a similar foe. The Cornish, called at the time the West Welsh, and the Vikings, were soundly beaten by the armies of the West Saxons.
Succession, Death & Legacy
King Ecbert of the West Saxons died in 839. In the year before his death, he assured the succession of his son Aethelwulf by granting land to the sees of Canterbury and Winchester in return for their support of his son. Thanks to his conquests he died a rich man and was buried in Winchester.
He was generally seen at the time as a good and effective king. He stabilised the kingdom of Wessex, and his familial line ruled until the middle of the tenth century. Indeed it’s said that without the reign of Ecgberht of Wessex, the beginning of the unification of England under his grandson Alfred the Great may never have been possible.