Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Egbert (d.839)
EGBERT, ECGBERHT, or ECGBRYHT (d. 839), king of the West-Saxons, son of Ealhmund, an under-king of the kingdom of Kent, which at this time, besides Kent, included Surrey, Sussex, and Essex (A.-S, Chron. sub an. 823), was when a young man banished from England by the joint action of Offa, king of Mercia, and Beorhtric [q. v.], king of Wessex. He represented the branch of the house of Cerdic that sprang from Cuthwine, the son of Ceawlin [q. v.], for his father was the great-grandson of Ingils, the brother of Ine. The West-Saxon kingship had departed from his house when Ine was succeeded by his kinsman Æthelbeard. When the West-Saxon king, Cynegils, died in 780, Ealhmund was reigning in Kent, and probably died shortly afterwards; for soon after Beorhtric succeeded Cynegils the pretensions of Ecgberht were held to endanger his throne. Beorhtric forced him to take refuge in Mercia, and sent an embassy to Offa offering alliance and requesting that the fugitive might be given up. Offa determined to support Beorhtric, probably because the accession of Ecgberht to the West-Saxon kingdom might have led to the withdrawal of Kent from the Mercian over-lordship and its union with Wessex; he therefore made alliance with the West-Saxon king, gave him his daughter Eadburh [q. v.] to wife in 789, and joined him in driving Ecgberht out of England. Ecgberht took refuge with the Frankish king, Charles, afterwards the emperor Charles the Great (Charlemagne), who entertained many exiles from the different English kingdoms. The date of Ecgberht's banishment and its duration are uncertain. The 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' (sub an. 836), Florence of Worcester (i. 69), and Henry of Huntingdon (p. 733) say that his exile lasted for three years; William of Malmesbury (Gesta Regum, sec. 106) makes it last for thirteen years. While, as far as written evidence goes, the period of three years thus rests on strong ground, it is less probable than the other. Ecgberht certainly came to the throne in 802 (Kemble, Codex Dipl. Introd. p. 87; Eccl. Documents, iii. 557, the dates of the 'Chronicle' needing correction by two years at this period), and it is likely that he returned to England in that year on the death of Beorhtric; his exile, however, could not have begun three years before that date, as Offa was then dead. If the account given in the 'Chronicle' is to be accepted, his return must have taken place on the death of Offa in 796, and his exile in 793, a date which seems to have no significance in this connection, while if William of Malmesbury's statement of the matter is correct, his exile would coincide with the marriage of Beorhtric to Offa's daughter, and would come to an end when, on the death of Beorhtric, he returned to England to ascend the West-Saxon throne; and it is highly probable that Malmesbury based his story on some version of the 'Chronicle' that has not been preserved. According to this theory, then, Ecgberht was banished in 789, and remained with Charles for thirteen years. Nothing is known of his life during his exile save that Henry of Huntingdon records the tradition that he dwelt in honour. At the same time account must be taken of the influence that his long stay at the court of the Frankish monarch must have had on his future career, of the lessons in war and empire that he must have learnt there. He returned to England in 802, and was accepted by the West-Saxons as their king. No opposition seems to have been offered to his accession by Cenwulf of Mercia, and it may reasonably be supposed that his acquiescence had been secured by the emperor (Making of England, p. 431 ). Nothing is recorded of Ecgberht for the next thirteen years; for the statement that appears in the register of a hospital at York that soon after his accession he held a 'parliament' at Winchester, in which he ordered that the name of his kingdom should be changed from Britain to England (Monasticon, vi. 608), does not need confuting here. It should, nowever, be noted that he dates certain charters granted in the later years of his reign (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 1035, 1036, 1038) by the year of his 'ducatus,' which he refers to 812 or 813 (Stubbs, art. 'Egbert,' Dictionary of Christian Biography), Whatever he may have meant by the term Mucatus,' it certainly points to some accession of dignity, and as in 815 (A,-S. Chron, sub an. 813) he 'laid waste West Wales [Cornwall] from eastward to westward,' it has been conjectured (Stubbs) that he refers to the beginning of this war, which in later days he probably regarded as the first step towards the attainment of the leadership he afterwards won. From 815 he does not appear again until 824, when he held a meeting of the West-Saxon witan at Acle, probably Oakley in Hampshire (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 1031 ). The next year was evidently marked by a rising of the West Welsh, who were defeated by the men of Devon at Gafulford or Camelford, a war in which Ecgberht took part in person (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub an. 823; Florence; Kemble, Codex Dipl. 1033 Stubbs).
As soon as Ecgberht had overthrown the Welsh of Cornwall he had to repel a Mercian invasion. The greatness of Mercia had been shaken by civil discord since the death of Cenwulf in 821; his successor was deposed, and another king, Beornwulf, chosen in his place. Beornwulf, who no doubt took ad- vantage of the rising of the Welsh, seems to have marched far into Wessex. Ecgberht defeated him at Ellandune, probably in the neighbourhood of Winchester, for Hun, an ealdorman who fell in the battle, was buried there (Æthelweard, p. 510). The slaughter was great on both sides, and the 'river of blood' that was shed was commemorated in popular verse (Henry of Huntingdon, p. 733). Beornwulf fled, and set himself to gather another army. From Ellandune Ecgberht sent his son Æthelwulf, Ealhstan, the bishop of Sherborne, and an ealdorman, with a large force, to regain his father's kingdom of Kent. Baldred, king of Kent [q. v., was driven across the Thames, and the people of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Essex willingly submitted to Ecgberht as the rightful successor of his father. The king and people of East Anglia, who were under the over-lordship of Mercia, also sent to him seeking his 'peace and protection.' On this Beornwulf led his army against them, and began to lay waste the country, but they defeated and slew him (825), and remained under the over-lordship of Ecgberht (Florence, i. 66; Henry of Huntingdon, p. 733). Mercia, however, was not yet subdued, for Beornwulf was succeeded by Ludecan, who made another attempt to subdue East Anglia, and was likewise defeated and slain in 828. He was succeeded by Wiglaf. Ecgberht, however, at once led an army against him, drove him from the kingdom, and received the submission of Mercia. In 829 he marched against Northumbria, and the Northumbrians met him on the border of their land at Dore in Derbyshire, and there submitted to him and took him for their lord. Under this year (827, correctly 829) the 'Chronicle' says of him that he was the eighth Bretwalda. He had for the first time united all the English race under one over-lordship, and, though there were future divisions of his empire, his work was never wholly undone (Making of England, p. 436). He was not king of England, for the idea of a territorial kingship belongs to a later period. Nor was he the immediate ruler of the peoples that had submitted to him; they still had kings of their own, who were dependent on the West-Saxon overlord, and in 830 Ecgberht restored Wiglaf Egbert to the throne of Mercia as under-king. In the case of Kent, where the kingship had come to an end, Ecgberht adopted a special policy. The kingdom was important, both as the seat of the ecclesiastical government of England, and as the district most closely connected with the continent. At the same time the greatness of the primate, and the strong local feeling that had manifested itself in opposition to Mercia, rendered it unadvisable to attempt a policy of absolute annexation. Accordingly Ecgberht, who regarded the kingdom as peculiarly his own. Bestowed it on his son Æthelwulf, probably in 828 (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 223, 224), and it remained attached to the heir to the West-Saxon throne until it was united with the rest of the south of England on the succession of Æthelberht to the kingdom of Wessex (Comstitutional Hist. i. 172). There is some uncertainty as to the date at which Ecgberht made his son king of Kent, and it is further questioned (Eccl. Documents, iii. 557) whether the subjugation of the country took place before 827, the date assigned to it in the St. Albans compilation (Wendover). There seem, however, sufficient grounds for the dates given here. Ecgberht's 'charters' record a few personal incidents, such as his presence at the war of 825, and his grants, not many in number, to churches, and especially to Winchester (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 1033, 1035 sq.) In a charter of 828 (ib, 223) he is styled 'rex Anglorum;' this, however, must not be taken as signifying more than the over-lordship of East Anglia; the same style was used by Offa in 772 (ib, 102); and in 830 he is described simply as 'king of the West-Saxons and Kentishmen,' and in 833 as 'king of the West-Saxons' (ib. 224, 232). His description as 'king of Kent and other nations' in another charter of 833 (ib, 234) does not necessarily imply any termination of Æthelwulf 's authority; Ecgberht was presiding over a meeting of the Kentish witan, and naturally used the style of the kingdom; it is, however, curious that Æthelwulf's name does not occur among the witnesses (Eccl. Doctinients, iii. 557). Coins of Ecgberht are rare, though specimens are extant struck by about nineteen different moneyers. On some of these, besides his name and title of 'rex,' there is 'Saxo,' on others 'M,' and on others 'A,' signifying respectively his kingship over the West-Saxons, Mercians, and East Anglians (Kenyon;Stubbs). Nothing is known certainly as to Ecgberht's administrative work in his immediate kingdom of Wessex. It has, however, been conjectured with great probability that he brought the shire organisation to its completion there, both as regards the relations of the bishop with the shire and the appointment of the ealdorman as the leader of the shire force or 'fyrd,' an arrangement which enabled the West-Saxons to offer a spirited resistance to the Scandinavian invaders (Conquest of England, pp. 47, 68-70, 233). His dealings with the church of Canterbury are of peculiar importance. The Mercian kings had attempted to depress the power of the archbishops; Ecgberht made it a means of strengthening his own position. He probably procured the election of Ceolnoth in 832, who may have been a West-Saxon (Robertson). At all events he was in full accord with him, and in 838, at an ecclesiastical council held at Kingston, he and his son Æthelwulf entered into an agreement of perpetual alliance with the archbishop and church of Canterbury, the archbishop promising for himself, his church, and his successors unbroken friendship to the kings and their heirs, and the kings giving assurances of protection, liberty of election, and peace. A charter containing a similar agreement with the bishop and church of Winchester is, if genuine, an imitation of that drawn up at Kingston (Eccl. Documents, iii. 617-20).
The restoration of Wiglaf was probably caused by some hostile movement of the Welsh on the Mercian border, which rendered it advisable to secure the fidelity and provide for the defence of the kingdom; for in that year (831) Ecgberht led an army against the 'North Welsh' (the people of the present Wales) and compelled them to acknowledge his over-lordship. In 834 his dominions were invaded by the Scandinavian pirates, who plundered the isle of Sheppey. The next year they came to Charmouth in Dorsetshire with thirty-five ships and landed there. Ecgberht fought a fierce battle with them there and was defeated. Two years later, in 837, a great fleet of northmen, probably from Ireland (Conquest of England, p. 67), sailed over to Cornwall, and the West Welsh rose against the West-Saxon dominion and joined the invaders. Ecgberht met the allies at Hengestdune, immediately to the west of the Tamar, and routed them completely. He died in 839 (A.-S.Chron, sub an. 836), after a reign of thirty-seven years and seven months, and was succeeded by his son Æthelwulf.