Egbert finally gets to be king of Wessex in 802. By the end of his reign, Wessex is the most powerful English nation. Is this, for the first time, a united England? The History of England podcast looks at how Wessex took over from Mercia to become the leading kingdom of England.
Click and play podcast: 5 Egbert - and Almost England
Egbert, king of Wessex (902-839)
Egbert had to fight for his throne - and at first was beaten to the punch by Beohtric, who had Mercian support from Coenwulf, Offa's successor. It's very clear throughout the first Anglo Saxon centuries that there is no tradition of primogeniture - i.e. the pass of rule to the eldest son. Instead, it chose the best Atheling (member of the royal house) for the job.
But the years Egbert spent at Charlemagne's court probably did him good - and also probably gave him the support of Europe's most powerful leader. in 802 Egbert returned when Beohtric died and claimed his throne - and beat off an invasion from Mercia at the same time.
In Mercia, Coenwulf was having his own problem's maintaining Offa's empire, and this left Egbert free to extend Wessex still further into Dumonia. In 838, Wessex probably finally took over Cornwall - though that's a matter of some debate.
For 20+ years Egbert ruled with almost no comment from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle - no indication that here was a man who would transform the political map of England. And indeed the crisis was probably precipitated by Mercia, not Egbert, when in 825 they invaded Wessex, while Egbert struggled with his own problems in the South West.
The battle of Ellendun was a massive defeat for Mercia from which they never fully recovered. After his victory, Egbert went on the offensive, and established a hegemony over all the kingdoms of the southern English. And the submission of the Northumbrians at Dore in 829 gave him a (tenuous) claim to be the first king of all the English.
But Mercia soon established their independence, though not their former dominance.
Egbert's son was an intensely religious man. He may well have been a reluctant sucessor to his father, and later in his reign he took time off to visit reign - cand came back to find that his sone, Aethelbald, had tried to take over his kingdom. A rather remarkable accommodation was reached that allowed them both to stay in power.
Also during his time the intensity of Viking raid increased - and despite his reputation as a religious rather than warlike man, Aethelwulf won a big victory at Acleah Heath.
Aethelwulf's reign came right on the edge of the Viking Great Heathen Army. And at the end of his reign the writing was on the wall when the Vikings occupied the Isle of Sheppey - but that challenge was to belong to his 5 sons.