A History of the British Monarchy/Saxon Rulers/Egbert

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Egbert is often listed as the first name on lists or family trees of English kings, as his grandson Alfred is considered to be the first 'King of the English' and Alfred's grandson Athelstan was the first to declare himself 'King of England'. He is the first king of Wessex of whom historians have a complete record of his reign.

This future king was born between the years 770 and 780. His father was the King of Kent, so he was of royal blood. After the murder of King Cynewulf, Egbert's kinsman Beothric was elected to take the vacant throne of Wessex in 786. However, Egbert who considered himself to have a better claim, contested his right. Egbert was forced to take refuge at the court of the powerful Offa, King of the kingdom of Mercia. However, Beothric was sneaky. He responded by proposing an alliance between himself and Offa, which was to be cemented by his marriage to Offa's daughter Eadburgha. He further requested that Offa deliver the rebel Egbert to him. Offa accepted Beorthric's offer for his daughter's hand in marriage, but instead of handing over Egbert to his enemy and certain death, he merely banished him from England.

Egbert was forced to flee to France, then ruled by Emperor Charlemagne. There are records of Egbert serving in the French army. He remained safely in France for the rest of Beothric's reign in Wessex. He contracted a marriage to Redburga, a Frankish princess, said to have been the sister of Charlemagne, although she remains a shadowy figure and no one really knows much about her. The marriage of Egbert and Redburga produced two sons and a daughter.

On the death of Beothric, Egbert returned to his native England to claim the vacant throne of Wessex in 800. He was widely accepted, although the Mercians opposed his rule. Wessex was attacked by the Hwicce, under ealdorman Ethelmund (the Hwicce had originally formed a separate kingdom, but by that time formed part of Mercia). Weohstan, a Wessex ealdorman and supposedly Egbert's brother-in-law, met him with men from Wiltshire. The Hwicce were defeated, and Weohstan and Ethelmund slain.

Inspired by Frankish military and imperial ideas, Egbert made rigorous efforts to bring the native Britons (Celts) into subjection. Eventually, all of what is now Wales was subject to his authority. Egbert defeated the rival king Beornwulf of Mercia in battle at Ellandune, near Swindon, and marched an army into Kent, which at that time was under Mercian rule. Baldred, the Mercian under-king of Kent, fled and the men of Kent declared for Egbert. Surrey, Sussex, and Essex followed suit. Egbert's elder son, Ethelwulf was made sub-king of these regions.

The East Anglians, who were also subjects of the Mercian king, rebelled. Beornwulf, King of Mercia was intent on re-asserting his authority in the province. The East Anglians then placed themselves under the protection of Egbert, who came to their aid and Beornwulf himself was killed in the ensuing conflict. Wiglaf was elected to succeed him in 829. Allowing Wiglaf no time for preparation, Egbert quickly invaded Mercia and expelled him from the kingdom. This made Egbert ruler of all of England south of the Humber. Egbert then turned his attention to the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, which also fell to him. He now controlled all of England. He had triumphed, he was Bretwalda.

Viking attacks followed and began to grow in strength in the last years of Egbert's reign. They came from over the sea from Denmark and Norway in their dragon prows, or long ships. In 835, the Vikings raided the Isle of Sheppey, Egbert lead an army against them at Carhampton on the North Devon coast. The Celts of Cornwall and Devon, known to the Saxons as Wilisc men (i.e. foreigners) allied themselves with the Danes. Egbert defeated them, but by the time of his death in 839 the Viking raids had become annual occurrences and Mercia had regained its independence.

Egbert was succeeded by his eldest son Ethelwulf, and was buried at Winchester. Following the Norman Conquest, Winchester Cathedral was erected on the Saxon site of the Old Minster. The Royal remains, including King Egbert's bones, were exhumed and placed around St. Swithin's Shrine in the new building. However in the seventeenth century, during the English Civil War, the bones, after being used as missiles to shatter stained glass windows, were scattered and mixed in various mortuary chests along with those of other Saxon kings and bishops. The chests remain today, seated upon a decorative screen surrounding the presbytery of the Cathedral.