19 November 2009

Events during King Ecgbert's reign (802-39)

802 On the same day that Ecgbert acceded to the kingdom of Wessex (after an exile for 3 or 13yrs at Charlemagne’s court, scribal error, though sources confirm 3), the Mercians continued to oppose Egbert: the day of his accession, the Hwicce (who had originally formed a separate kingdom, but by that time were part of Mercia) attacked, under the leadership of their ealdorman, Æthelmund.

Weohstan, a Wessex ealdorman, met him with men from Wiltshire: according to a fifteenth-century source, Weohstan had married Alburga, Egbert's sister, and so was Egbert's brother-in-law.

The Hwicce were defeated in the ensuing battle, though Weohstan was killed as well as Æthelmund. This battle probably influenced that the river Avon would be the boundary between Western Wessex and Mercia.

Charlemagne(who died in 814) and his Frankish troops and money almost certainly helped Ecgbert achieve his aims.

803 - The Synod of Clofeshoh (possibly Brixworth) is held, at which the Archbishopric of Lichfield is demoted to an ordinary Bishopric, with Papal permission obtained by King Coenwulf I of Mercia. 806 - King Eardwulf of Northumbria is expelled from his kingdom by one Aelfwald who takes the throne as King Aelfwald II. Eardwulf flees to the Imperial Frankish Court of Charlemagne and later visits Pope Leo III in Rome. 807 - Death of King Cuthred of Kent. Kent possibly under direct Mercian rule. 808 - With the active support of Emperor Charlemagne of the Franks and Pope Leo III, the exiled King Eardwulf of Northumbria is able to return to his kingdom and oust the usurper, King Aelfwald II. 809 - The Papal Legate is kidnapped by Vikings while sailing for Northumbria. c.810 - Death of King Eardwulf of Northumbria. He is succeeded by his son, Eanred. Canterbury Cathedral is probably demolished by Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury and rebuilt on a more extravagant basilican scale c.812 - King Sigered of Essex is reduced to the rank of Dux by his Mercian overlords.

815 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Egbert ravaged the whole of the territories of the remaining British kingdom, Dumnonia, known to the author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the West Welsh; their territory was about equivalent to what is now Cornwall.

818 - King Coenwulf of Mercia raids Dyfed.

823 Galford A charter dated 19 August this year indicates that Egbert was campaigning in Dumnonia again; this may have been related to a battle recorded in the Chronicle, between the men of Devon and the Britons of Cornwall. First written record of the county of Devon in the Saxon form of the name.

Powys, The Mercians invade but are beaten back by King Cyngen. They also destroy the Gwynedd capital, Degannwy. Death of King Ceolwulf I of Mercia. He is succeeded by Beornwulf, a descendant of the late King Beornred. Rise of King Baldred of Kent. His allegiance is uncertain, but he was propbably a relative of King Beornwulf of Mercia. Athelstan of East Anglia attempts to claim the East Anglian throne again.

825 Battle of Ellandun. A huge earthwork called ‘Wansdyke’ had separated the rival kingdoms of Wessex/Mercia- of varied height and 60miles long, it ran from Portishead in the Bristol Channel to the Inkpen Beacons in Berks- maybe built by King Ecgbert.

Mercian chief Beornwulf had gained power from a coup in 824 and in an attempt to defeat Wessex, he launched a pre-emptive strike this year.

Ecgbert had been building his own huge army during the past 20yrs, for his own defence, but was busy campaigning in Cornwall (crushing revolts against his neighbouring power), just as he had been recently and in 815, when he brutally crushed a huge revolt there.

Beornwulf marched his huge, but smaller, army to the border and along the ridgeway, observed Wessex from Silbury Hill and sent a decoy to try to deceive Ecgbert’s border scouts whilst he feinted his main force towards Wansdyke and further dangerously steep and uneven earthworks.

Informed by his spies within the Mercian camp close to their leader, Ecgbert- back from having crushed the Cornish Britons, marches his honed army from the downs in the summer heat into the low ground near Swindon and somewhere along the ancient trackway’s higher ground.

Here, he met Beornwulf’s army below him.

A contemporary Chronicler said that Ecgbert’s men of Wessex were “wan and thin” due to summer warring (hard to believe having fought hard recently?), whereas the Mercians looked “ healthy and ruddy of the soil” (maybe unfit?)

The battle began with Ecgbert’s advance upon Beornwulf- shieldwall to shieldwall- into the flanking slopes and deceptive hollows, and a hard, vicious battle raged.

“more soldiers were blinded by sweat than blood”.

But finally, after hours of fighting uphill into a barbed wall of spears and fierce missiles, the Mercians broke into a vicious rout and slaughter.

Ecgbert quickly expanded upon this great victory by sending his son Athelwulf, earldorman Wulfherd and Bishop of Sherborne with a huge Wessex army, into Kent and ousted King Baldred. They then brutally subdued and absorbed Surrey, Essex, Sussex into Wessex.

826 Beornwulf’s power was seriously weakened, but he turned his attention to E.Anglia, where a revolt had arisen against fading Mercian rule there, under Athelstan ‘half-king’ (Ecgbert’s son? Which may explain his near-autonomy here). Appealing to his father for aid, a West Saxon and E.Anglian army crushed Beornwulf’s army, and he himself was slain.

A Mercian earldorman, Ludeca, took command of Mercia after Beornwulf was killed, and a few months later led a similar campaign against E.Anglia, but he too was also killed in battle.

829 During the vacuum left by the deaths of Beornwulf and Ludeca, another Mercian nobleman in his 40’s called Wiglaf took charge.

In a pre-emptive strike, the all-powerful Ecgbert now invaded the crisis-hit Mercia, chasing out Wiglaf and driving any enemies aside. Ecgbert faced the Northumbrians in battle (led by Eanred, their king?), defeated them and accepted their submission at Dore.

According to a later chronicler, Roger of Wendover, Egbert invaded Northumbria and plundered it before Eanred submitted: "When Egbert had obtained all the southern kingdoms, he led a large army into Northumbria, and laid waste that province with severe pillaging, and made King Eanred pay tribute." Roger of Wendover is known to have incorporated Northumbrian annals into his version; the Chronicle does not mention these events. However, the nature of Eanred's submission has been questioned: one historian has suggested that it is more likely that the meeting at Dore represented a mutual recognition of sovereignty.

830 This year Egbert led a successful expedition against the Welsh, almost certainly with the intent of extending West Saxon influence into the Welsh lands previously within the Mercian orbit. This marked the high point of Egbert's influence.

Ecgbert failed to hold onto Mercia and, because Frankish support was drying up due to their own internal problems (revolt against Luois the pious, king of Franks) , Wiglaf was able to fight back and re-gain some of his lost Mercian power and land.

He also did so effectively with Essex and thus London, reducing Ecgbert’s area of power somewhat. But he had other things to consider- the renewed Viking raids.

Charters indicate Wiglaf had authority in Middlesex and Berkshire, and in a charter of 836 Wiglaf uses the phrase "my bishops, duces, and magistrates" to describe a group that included eleven bishops from the episcopate of Canterbury, including bishops of sees in West Saxon territory.

It is significant that Wiglaf was still able to call together such a group of notables; the West Saxons, even if they were able to do so, held no such councils.

In East Anglia, King Æthelstan minted coins, possibly as early as 827, but more likely c.830 after Egbert's influence was reduced with Wiglaf's return to power in Mercia.

836 Carhampton Ecgbert gathered an army and faced the “25 ships” of raiding Danes here (25x maybe 30 men in each= 750 vikings).

It was a long and bitter battle and Ecgbert almost won, but at dusk the Danes held the field.

838 Battle of Hingston Down “A great pirate host” came to Cornwall in an attempt to recruit the local Cornishmen against Ecgbert’s power. On this scale it was clear that the Vikings aimed to invade Wessex and drive Ecgbert out/kill him.

But Ecgbert was not only re-armed, but ready for the allies- he had spent time studying their tactics and ways.. He advanced to the River Tamar at the Cornish-Devon border and gave battle, defeating them in a hard-fought struggle. As Ecgbert was now in his 60’s, he probably didn’t fight directly, but led his men and inspired them, maybe giving field command to son Aethelwolf?

In a brutal display of superior power, Ecgbert subdued the unstable area viciously until he had sapped their will to resist so much so that, even in Alfred’s reign, they were reluctant to fight the Saxons.

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