Early Britain eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 210 pages of information about Early Britain.

The final supremacy of the West Saxons was mainly brought about by the Danish invasion.  But the man who laid the foundation of the West Saxon power was Ecgberht, the so-called first king of all England.  Banished from Wessex during his youth by one of the constant dynastic quarrels, through the enmity of Offa, the young aetheling had taken refuge with Karl the Great, at the court of Aachen, and there had learnt to understand the rising statesmanship of the Frankish race and of the restored Roman empire.  The death of his enemy Beorhtric, in 802, left the kingdom open to him:  but the very day of his accession showed him the character of the people whom he had come to rule.  The men of Worcester celebrated his arrival by a raid on the men of Wilts.  “On that ilk day,” says the Chronicle, “rode AEthelhund, ealdorman of the Huiccias [who were Mercians], over at Cynemaeres ford; and there Weohstan the ealdorman met him with the Wilts men [who were West Saxons:] and there was a muckle fight, and both ealdormen were slain, and the Wilts men won the day.”  For twenty years, Ecgberht was engaged in consolidating his ancestral dominions:  but at the end of that time, he found himself able to attack the Mercians, who had lost Offa six years before Ecgberht’s return.  In 825, the West Saxons met the Mercian host at Ellandun, “and Ecgberht gained the day, and there was muckle slaughter.”  Therefore all the Saxon name, held tributary by the Mercians, gathered about the Saxon champion.  “The Kentish folk, and they of Surrey, and the South Saxons, and the East Saxons turned to him.”  In the same year, the East Anglians, anxious to avoid the power of Mercia, “sought Ecgberht for peace and for aid.”  Beornwulf, the Mercian king, marched against his revolted tributaries:  but the East Anglians fought him stoutly, and slew him and his successor in two battles.  Ecgberht followed up this step by annexing Mercia in 829:  after which he marched northward against the Northumbrians, who at once “offered him obedience and peace; and they thereupon parted.”  One year later, Ecgberht led an army against the northern Welsh, and “reduced them to humble obedience.”  Thus the West Saxon kingdom absorbed all the others, at least so far as a loose over-lordship was concerned.  Ecgberht had rivalled his master Karl by founding, after a fashion, the empire of the English.  But all the local jealousies smouldered on as fiercely as ever, the under-kings retained their several dominions, and Ecgberht’s supremacy was merely one of superior force, unconnected with any real organic unity of the kingdom as a whole.  Ecgberht himself generally bore the title of King of the West Saxons, like his ancestors:  and though in dealing with his Anglian subjects he styled himself Rex Anglorum, that title perhaps means little more than the humbler one of Rex Gewissorum, which he used in addressing his people of the lesser principality.  The real kingdom of the English never existed before the days of Eadward the Elder, and scarcely before the days of William the Norman and Henry the Angevin.  As to the kingdom of England, that was a far later invention of the feudal lawyers.

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Early Britain from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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