757. Sigeberht of Wessex deposed by Cynewulf and the counsellors of the West Saxons
Cynewulf succeeds to Wessex
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates how Cynewulf and the counsellors of the West Saxons deprived Sigeberht of the kingdom because of his unjust acts, all except for Hampshire. Sigeberht remained in Hampshire until he killed Cumbra, the ealdorman who had been most loyal to him, and then Cynewulf drove Sigeberht into the Weald, where he was slain by a swineherd. Cynewulf then ruled for 29 years, until he was himself slain by Sigeberht's brother Cyneheard (see entry under 786).
The Chronicle adds that Cynewulf often fought great battles against the Britons. This keeps up the tradition of his predecessor Cuthred (in 743 and 753), though Cynewulf's battles against the Britons are not individually recorded.
Cynewulf's relations with the Mercians are more difficult to follow. In the first couple of years of his reign, Cynewulf witnesses a charter of Æthelbald of Mercia in 757 (S 96), and his own earliest charter is confirmed by Offa of Mercia in c.758 (S 265); this may imply some West Saxon dependence on the Mercians. Another charter of Offa's of 772 (S 108) is witnessed both by Cynewulf of the West Saxons and by Ecgberht of Kent. However, Cynewulf's other five charters (S 260-4, from 758 to 778) make no mention of Mercian overlordship, and Cynewulf fought Offa at Bensington in 779. Cynewulf attended the meeting with the papal legates with Offa in 786, but the report of the legates gives us no hint as to the relations between Offa and Cynewulf at that point. It seems likely that Cynewulf maintained West Saxon independence after the first couple of years of his reign, but his appearance in a charter of Offa of 772 suggests how precarious and hard-fought that independence may have been.
757. Æthelbald of Mercia killed
Beornred succeeds to Mercia, briefly
Offa succeeds to Mercia
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Æthelbald was killed at Seckington and that his body was buried at Repton. It adds that Beornred succeeded to the kingdom but ruled only for a short time and unhappily, and that in the same year Offa came to the throne. Offa's descent is given through Penda's brother Eowa. Simeon of Durham in the 12th century adds the detail that Æthelbald was killed by his own bodyguard.
While earlier kings of Mercia expanded beyond the borders of Mercia proper (e.g. Penda, Wulfhere, Æthelbald), it was under Offa that this expansion reached its greatest extent, involving not just overlordship but direct control over many of the other English kingdoms and marriages with daughters of Offa for the kings of the two kingdoms (Wessex and Northumbria) that lay outside of Mercian rule.
Already in 757 Offa was confirming the charters of the rulers of the neighbouring Hwicce, and by the 790s that ruling family seems to have vanished altogether (see entry on c.670-c.790). Offa may also have had some control of Wessex early on, but Cynewulf seems to have ruled freely for much of his reign (see entry on Cynewulf's accession in 757); the two clashed at Bensington in 779. Offa took control of Kent in 764, lost it again at the battle of Otford in 776, and regained it in 784/5. It was probably shortly after Offa took Kent that he introduced a reformed coinage based on the Frankish model (see entry on c.765); a second coinage reform was made probably in 792. Offa took control of Sussex in about 771, and his control of East Anglia, though it cannot be precisely dated because it is recorded only in the coins, probably dates to the 760s or early 770s (see entry on 749-74). When the East Anglian king Æthelberht tried to declare independence in about 794, Offa had him beheaded.
Offa was married to Cynethryth, who is the only Anglo-Saxon queen to have coins issued in her own name, apparently following the model of the contemporary Byzantine empress Irene (see Grierson and Blackburn, pp.279-80). They had at least three daughters: Eadburh, who married Beorhtric of Wessex in 789, Ælfflæd, who married Æthelred of Northumbria in 792, and Æthelburh, an abbess. The later legends of Æthelberht of East Anglia note that he had hopes of marrying a fourth, Ælfthryth, and an uncertain charter mentions three more daughters (S 127). Only one son is known, Ecgfrith: Offa worked strenuously to ensure that Ecgfrith should succeed him, going so far as to have Ecgfrith consecrated as king while he (Offa) was still alive, following the recent Frankish precedent. It may have been the unwillingness of the archbishop of Canterbury in occupied Kent to oblige Offa on this point which resulted in Offa's scheme to create a third English archbishopric, at Lichfield within Mercia (see entry on 787). Doubtless the papal legates who visited in 786 were involved in negotiations on this point.
Offa enjoyed good relations with the great Frankish king Charlemagne: gifts were exchanged, and in one letter Charlemagne calls Offa "brother" (the only time he uses the term for another western king; see Wormald, p.101). Relations were nearly broken off c.790, probably because Charlemagne was harbouring Offa's political enemies, but were restored later.
P. Grierson and M. Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, 1: The Early Middle Ages (5th-10th centuries) (Cambridge: 1986)
P. Wormald in J. Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons (London: 1982), pp.101-28
758. Eadberht of Northumbria retires to a monastery
Oswulf, Eadberht's son, succeeds to Northumbria
July 25, 759. Oswulf of Northumbria slain by his household
August 5, 759. Æthelwold Moll succeeds to Northumbria
The 8th-century annals appended to Bede note that Eadberht retired to a cloister in 758 and resigned the throne to his son Oswulf, and that in 759 Oswulf was treacherously killed by his thegns and Æthelwold was elected by the people and began to rule. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle adds that Oswulf was killed on July 24/25 (some manuscripts give "24", some "25"). Simeon of Durham in his Historia Regum under 759 adds that Æthelwold Moll began to reign on August 5. (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Eadberht's death on August 20, 769; Simeon of Durham adds that it was at York.)
Nothing more is known of Oswulf's short reign. His successor Æthelwold seems to have been the first member of his family to achieve power: no genealogy showing his descent back to Ida or other early kings has survived. That this innovation was bitterly contested is shown in a severe battle of 761, where Æthelwold kills one Oswine (perhaps related to Oswulf?), in Æthelwold's own expulsion in 765, and in the expulsion of his son in 778. Northumbrian politics were not notably peaceful earlier in the 8th century -- Osred may have been murdered in 716, and Ceolwulf was captured and tonsured in 731 -- but the killings and quick reverses of fortune do seem to escalate out of all control in the second half of the 8th century. A similar fluidity is seen in the mid-10th century, when York seems able to choose and expel rulers -- King Eadred, Erik Bloodaxe, Olaf Cuaran -- with what to the rest of the country probably looked like alarming ease and rapidity (see entry on 947-54).
Simeon of Durham records that Æthelwold married an Æthelthryth on November 1, 762, at Catterick. There are four Æthelthryths in the list of queens and abbesses in the Durham Liber Vitae, and Æthelwold's queen is very likely one of them.
760. Battle at Hereford between Britons and Saxons
The Annales Cambriae record this battle (probably but not explicitly involving Offa of Mercia, given the location), and note the death of Dyfnwal son of Tewdwr.
August 6, 761. Battle of Eildon (or "Edwin's Cliff"): Æthelwold of Northumbria kills Oswine
The 8th-century annals appended to Bede note that Oswine died in 761, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Moll (Æthelwold) killed Oswine at "Edwin's cliff" on August 6, and Simeon of Durham adds in his Historia Regum that a very severe battle was fought at Eildon on 6 August, that after three days Oswine fell, and that Æthelwold obtained the victory in battle.
We do not know who Oswine was, but in light of the strong probability that Æthelwold was involved in the killing of King Oswulf in 759, that Oswulf's kinsman Alhred would drive out Æthelwold in 765, and that Oswulf's son Ælfwold would drive out Æthelwold's son Æthelred in 779, it seems reasonably likely that the battle in 761 was part of this continuing civil war, and from the similarity of names it may well be that Oswine was a kinsman of the murdered Oswulf, seeking revenge.
764. Offa of Mercia takes direct control over Kent
A charter of 764 (S 105) gives the earliest direct evidence of Mercian control over Kent, in which Offa of Mercia grants an estate to the bishop of Rochester which had previously been granted by an earlier Kentish king. Kings of Kent were issuing charters without reference to Mercia earlier in the 760s (S 25, 27, 32, 33), so the takeover can probably be dated fairly closely to 764, though the circumstances are unclear. For the next twelve years, the only charter issued by a Kentish king (S 34 of 765) is confirmed by Offa. It also seems clear that Offa lost control of Kent after the battle of Otford in 776.
c.765. Offa of Mercia introduces reformed silver coinage
October 30, 765. Battle of Pincanheale: Æthelwold driven from Northumbria
Alhred, descended from Ida, succeeds to Northumbria
The 8th-century annals appended to Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle note only that Alhred began to rule in 765; Simeon of Durham's Historia Regum adds the details of the battle of Pincanheale (unidentified) and the expulsion of Æthelwold Moll. A genealogy of Alhred survives which traces descent back to Ida but none of the other names are known from earlier sources so it is impossible to say how closely related Alhred was to Æthelwold's predecessor Oswulf. Alhred was exiled in turn and replaced by Æthelwold's son in 774.
Alhred is best known for his involvement in Continental affairs. There is a surviving letter (EHD 197) from Alhred and his wife Osgifu requesting the prayers of Lul, archbishop of Mainz (but English by birth and a kinsman of Boniface), and asking him to forward their embassy to the Frankish king Charlemagne. Simeon of Durham records the marriage of Alhred and Osgifu in 768. It was also from an assembly summoned by Alhred that the mission of St Willehad set out, which led to the foundation of the Continental archbishopric of Bremen. And it was in Alhred's reign that the most famous Northumbrian scholar of them all, Alcuin, took his place as master at the school in York (in 767); he would go on to join Charlemagne's court in 781/2 (see Godman).
P. Godman (ed.), Alcuin: The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York (Oxford: 1982)
Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: 1971), pp.92-3
769. Catterick burnt by the tyrant Earnred
This reference appears only in Simeon of Durham, who adds that Earnred himself perished miserably by fire in the same year. It is mentioned mainly because an even more cryptic note in the annals appended to Bede says that in 741 Earnwine and Eadberht were killed. There may then have been a family of some importance in mid-8th-century Northumbria which favoured names beginning Earn-, at least one of whom (the "tyrant" Earnred) was in a position of authority, which has now almost entirely vanished. Anglo-Saxon history is full of puzzles like this: sometimes, as in the case of Offa, Aldfrith's son, being dragged from sanctuary in 750, enough pieces remain that the picture can be recovered, but sometimes, as with Earnred and his family, only fleeting glimpses remain.
771. Offa of Mercia conquers the people of Hastings (Sussex)
This conquest is first mentioned by Simeon of Durham in the 12th century. The "people of Hastings" referred not merely to the town but to a district of eastern Sussex. The fall of the South Saxons to Offa is also neatly demonstrated in the fact that an Osmund, king of the South Saxons, issued his own charter in 770 (S 49) but was reduced to witnessing a charter of Offa as ealdorman in 772 (S 108).
Easter, 774. Alhred of Northumbria driven out
Æthelred, son of Æthelwold Moll, chosen as king of Northumbria
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that at Easter 774 the Northumbrians drove their king Alhred from York and took as their king Æthelred, son of Æthelwold Moll. Simeon of Durham adds that Alhred fled with a few companions, first to Bamburgh, and then to the land of the Picts.
This is the first of Æthelred's two reigns. His father Æthelwold reigned from 759 until 765, when he was exiled. Æthelred reigned from 774 until 778/9, when he was exiled in his turn; he was was reinstated in 790, and finally killed in 796. Nothing is known of the earlier history of the family before Æthelwold, but it seems likely that Æthelwold was involved in the killing of the previous king, Oswulf. The killing of three Northumbrian high-reeves in 778 at Æthelred's orders looks like Æthelred pre-emptively removing threats to his reign, and reaction to this may have caused his first expulsion. In his second reign he was much more thorough about removing the opposition from the beginning.
776. Battle of Otford: Offa of Mercia loses control of Kent until 784/5
Kings Ecgberht, then Ealhmund, rule Kent
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes only that the Mercians and the people of Kent fought at Otford, without giving the outcome. It is from the four charters issued by independent kings of Kent in the years after 776 (S 35-8) that we can deduce that Otford was a Kentish victory. S 35 (dated 778), S 36 (dated 779) and S 37 (not precisely dated) are in the name of King Ecgberht, while S 38 (dated 784) is in the name of King Ealhmund. (For more on Ealhmund, see entry on 825.) The changeover between Ecgberht and Ealhmund cannot be dated more precisely than 779?784.
778. Offa of Mercia raids Dyfed in Wales
This raid is recorded only in the Annales Cambriae, which note "The devastation of the Southern Britons [i.e. Dyfed in South Wales] by Offa".
778/9. Æthelbald and Heardberht kill three Northumbrian high-reeves
Æthelred of Northumbria driven out
Ælfwold, Oswulf's son, succeeds to Northumbria
December 25, 779. Northumbrian ealdorman Beorn burnt alive
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that in 778 Æthelbald and Heardberht killed three high-reeves, Ealdwulf, son of Bosa, at Coniscliffe (Durham), and Cynewulf and Ecga at Helathirnum (unidentified), on 22 March. Simeon of Durham dates these events to 29 September (perhaps the killings at Coniscliffe were in March and those at Helathirnum in September, or vice versa), and adds that it was done on the orders of Æthelred. Contemporary sources neither confirm nor deny this, but the fact that Ælfwold then succeeded to the kingdom and drove Æthelred from the country suggests that he was seen to be responsible. The Chronicle reports Ælfwold's accession under 778, while Simeon places it under 779, adding the information that Ælfwold was the son of Oswulf, who had been killed (probably at the instigation of Æthelred's father Æthelwold) in 758.
That Ælfwold's accession did not end the disputes is suggested from the fact that on December 25, 779, the ealdorman Beorn was burnt at Seletun (unidentified). This is all the information reported by the Chronicle; Simeon adds that Beorn was one of Ælfwold's nobles, and burnt by the ealdormen Osbald and Æthelheard, who led an army against him as well. This Osbald may well be the same as the one who was king of Northumbria for about a month in 796 after the death of Æthelred, and based on a letter from Alcuin he might have been involved in Æthelred's death as well (see under 796). The Ealdorman Æthelheard noted here may be the one whose death on August 1, 794, is reported in the Chronicle.
The Chronicle reports no more of the secular events of Ælfwold's reign, though we know from the report of the papal legates in 786 that they met with Ælfwold and his archbishop (see entry on 786), and the emphasis in the legatine canons on loyalty to the king should have been a welcome boost to Ælfwold's safety. Unfortunately he was killed two years later (see entry on 788).
779. Battle of Bensington: Offa of Mercia defeats Cynewulf of Wessex
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Cynewulf and Offa fought over Bensington and Offa captured the town.
784. Offa of Mercia raids Wales
This raid is recorded only in the Annales Cambriae, which note "The devastation of the Britons by Offa in the summer".
784/5. Offa of Mercia regains control of Kent
As with Offa's earlier conquest of Kent in 764, there is no narrative account of how Offa took over, but the fact is clear from the documentary sources. From a charter (S 38) and a late manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, we known that a King Ealhmund reigned in Kent in 784. In 785, however, Offa was granting land in Kent with no reference to a Kentish king (S 123), and this continued into the 780s and 790s (e.g. S 125, 128, 134). On Offa's death, Kent regained its independence for two years under Eadberht Præn before returning to the Mercian yoke.
786. Papal legates visit England
In 786, Pope Hadrian sent his legates George, bishop of Ostia, and Theophylact, bishop of Todi, to England, apparently to investigate the state of the English church and root out any heresy that might be found there. A report of the legates survives (EHD 191), and from it we can see that they first visited Jænberht, archbishop of Canterbury, then the court of Offa, then on to a joint council with Offa of Mercia and Cynewulf of Wessex, at which both English kings promised to make needful reforms. Then Theophylact continued his visits in Mercia and Wales, while George went up to Northumbria, where he was joined by Alcuin for his meeting with King Ælfwold and Archbishop Eanbald of York. In Northumbria George produced a set of twenty canons, dealing with both religious and secular affairs. These were witnessed by the Northumbrians, and then taken back to Offa's court and witnessed there also. The following year saw synods both in southern England and in Northumbria.
From a letter of Pope Leo to Offa's successor Coenwulf in 798 (Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, III.523-5), we learn that Offa vowed before a synod including the papal envoys and all the bishops and nobles of Britain that he would send each year 365 mancuses (a mancus was a coin worth 30 pence) to Rome as a sign of thanksgiving to St Peter. One suspects that Offa was giving thanks not merely for the legates' efforts in suppressing heresy, but also for the papal approval he had secured for his moves in the following year, when he would establish a third English archbishopric at Lichfield, and have his son Ecgfrith anointed (see entries for 787). There is no direct evidence that the legates concerned themselves with this, but it seems a reasonable assumption given that papal approval would certainly be necessary for the creation of a new archbishopric. The several references in the twelfth canon to the king as the lord's anointed would be interpreted by Offa's circle as referring to Ecgfrith's anointing the following year, whether that was the original intention or not.
Catherine Cubitt has recently argued that the canons were partly the work of Alcuin of Northumbria, and so more closely related to Northumbrian affairs: certainly the emphasis on loyalty to the king in canons eleven to fourteen addresses a severe shortcoming in contemporary northern affairs, as the entries on 758/9, 765, 774, 778/9, 788, make quite clear. One might also remember Alhred of Northumbria's mission to Charlemagne as a point of contact between Northumbria and the Continent (see entry on 765).
A letter from Pope Hadrian to Charlemagne written probably a year or two before the visit of the legates mentions a rumour that Offa had proposed to dethrone the Pope (Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, III.440-3), and although Charlemagne reassured the Pope that the rumour was completely untrue, curiosity as to how it came about may have been another reason for sending Roman envoys to Britain, the first since the mission of Augustine back in 597. (For a possible explanation of the rumour, see entry on 787.)
786. Cynewulf of Wessex killed by Cyneheard
Beorhtric succeeds to Wessex
The story of the fight of Cyneheard and Cynewulf in 786, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is a set-piece of Anglo-Saxon loyalty and courage. This is the way of it.
After Cynewulf had ruled for nearly 30 years, he wanted to drive out the ætheling Cyneheard, who was the brother of the deposed Sigeberht (see entry on 757). Cyneheard discovered that King Cynewulf was at Merton visiting a woman with only a small following, and overtook him there and surrounded him before Cynewulf's guards were aware of him. The king discovered this, and went to the doorway and defended himself there until he saw Cyneheard the ætheling, whereupon he rushed out and wounded him severely, but the others were able to surround him and kill him. The king's men were alerted by the woman's cries and armed themselves for battle and ran to the spot. The ætheling told them that he would give them money and spare their lives if they backed down, but all refused, and they continued to fight until all (the king's men) were killed except for one British hostage, and he was sorely wounded.
The next morning the rest of the king's men, who had not accompanied him to Merton, including his ealdorman Osric and his thegn Wigfrith, rode thither and discovered that the ætheling held the fort and had barred the doors against them. The ætheling offered them money and land on their own terms, if they would accept him as king, and pointed out that kinsmen of theirs (the king's men) were with him (the ætheling). The king's men replied that no kinsman was dearer to them than their lord, and they would never follow his slayer. And then the king's men told their kinsmen within that they might leave unharmed. But the kinsmen who were with the ætheling said that the same offer had been made to the men who had been with the king, and that they would not accept the bargain, any more than the men who had been slain with the king had. Then there was fighting at the gates until the king's men broke in, and killed the ætheling and all who were with him, save one, who was Ealdorman Osric's godson, and saved by Osric, though he was often wounded.
It has long been assumed that tales of loyalty to the point of refusing to outlive one's slain lord were dear to the hearts of the Anglo-Saxons, from their appearance both here and (much more explicitly) in the poem celebrating the battle of Maldon in 991. Rosemary Woolf has pointed out, however, that these are the only two surviving examples, and even in the poem Beowulf characters take a more pragmatic view (Hengest saw the death of his lord as something which required vengeance, not a heroic death); she also noted that Cynewulf's men are not refusing to live on after the death of their lord so much as refusing to help their lord's killer become the next king. This does not make it any the less a tale of loyalty and courage, and as Woolf remarks, "any king would wish to have followers such as Cynewulf had" (p.71), but it does change the emphasis.
Another possible point of confusion is the word here translated as "visiting a woman", which appears only this once in Old English and which Æthelweard in the 10th century translated into Latin as "residing with a certain whore". Don Scragg has recently pointed out that Æthelweard misunderstood other parts of the annal and there is no reason to assume sexual misdemeanors, nor for that matter any reason why the "woman" should not be Cynewulf's wife: elsewhere in the Chronicle, Cynewulf is always portrayed in a good light (witness the way he deposes Sigeberht in 757 with the assent of the council rather than on his own), and the brothers Cyneheard and Sigeberht are only seen engaging in "unjust acts" (be it killing loyal ealdormen or trying to buy the kingship).
After both Cynewulf and Cyneheard were dead, Beorhtric succeeded to the kingdom. Nothing is known of his lineage, save the claim that it goes back to Cerdic. In 789 he married Offa's daughter Eadburh, and it was perhaps with Offa's assistance that he was able to exile his rival Ecgberht. It was also early in Beorhtric's reign that the first Vikings ships came to the land of the English (see entry on c.790). Beorhtric died in 802.
D. Scragg, "Wifcyþþe and the Morality of the Cynewulf and Cyneheard Episode in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", Alfred the Wise: Studies in honour of Janet Bately (Cambridge: 1997), pp.179-85
R. Woolf, "The ideal of men dying with their lord in the Germania and in The Battle of Maldon", Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976), pp.63-81
787. Synod of Chelsea: Lichfield established as third archbishopric
Ecgfrith, son of Offa of Mercia, consecrated king
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that there was a contentious synod at Chelsea, and Archbishop Jænberht lost part of his province, and Hygeberht was chosen by King Offa, and Ecgfrith was consecrated king.
The third archbishopric at Lichfield existed from the Synod of Chelsea in 787 until it was demoted back to a bishopric at the Synod of Clofesho in 803. Hygeberht was the first and only archbishop. Most of what we know about the see comes from letters written in the five years before it is abolished. Alcuin writes to Æthelheard, archbishop of Canterbury, in 798 (EHD 203), suggesting that it would be good if the unity of the (southern English) church could be restored, given that it was apparently torn asunder not out of reasonable motives but out of a desire for power. In the same year Offa's successor Coenwulf wrote to Pope Leo III (EHD 204), noting that Offa had divided the southern archdiocese in two because of his enmity against Archbishop Jænberht and the people of Kent. Pope Leo replied (EHD 205) that Offa had told the previous pope that it was the united wish of all the English people that there should be a new southern archbishopric, both because of the vast size of the country and of the expansion of the Mercian kingdom. (Pope Leo incidentally quashed Coenwulf's suggestion that the southern archdiocese be placed in London rather than restored to Canterbury; this had been a clever ploy of Coenwulf's, because while he claimed that he was trying to restore Pope Gregory's original choice for the southern see, his more pragmatic reason would be that London was much more under Mercian control than Canterbury had been.) The Pope wrote to Æthelheard of Canterbury on January 18, 802 (EHD 209), confirming the ancient privileges of the see of Canterbury, and this ruling was confirmed by the 803 Synod of Clofesho.
It seems clear then that Offa convinced Pope Hadrian that the division of the see was because Southumbrian England was too large for a single archbishopric, but that he misrepresented this as a unanimous view, and that his underlying reasons included enmity with Jænberht and the people of Kent. The fact that the Chronicle notes that Ecgfrith was consecrated king immediately after it notes the new archbishopric may suggest that the Kentish archbishop, Jænberht, refused to consecrate Ecgfrith. Jænberht might well have feared that the anointing of a Mercian prince by the archbishop of Canterbury might be seen as conferring hereditary rule over all of southern England, including Kent which had been independent until Offa re-occupied it two years previously (see Brooks, pp.119-20).
The enmity between Offa and Jænberht raises the possibility that it was Jænberht who started the rumour that surfaced in about 784 that Offa planned to dethrone the pope, as part of a plan to discredit Offa in the Papal Curia and ensure that any suggestion from the Mercian king about changing the arrangement of bishoprics should fall on deaf (or enraged) ears. (See entry on 786 for the background to this rumour, which may have helped prompt the dispatch of the papal legates to England.)
Ecgfrith was the first Anglo-Saxon whom we know to have been anointed as king (Eardwulf of Northumbria in 796 is the next known case). This anointing of the son of a reigning king during the king's lifetime follows the example of Charlemagne, who in 781 sent his two sons to be anointed by the pope (see Brooks, p.117). Offa's own example shows that the Mercian kingship was not always handed down in the immediate family (the closest common ancestor of Offa and his predecessor Æthelbald was Eowa, Penda's brother and Offa's great-great-grandfather), and he may well have felt that his son needed as much support as he could give him. After his anointing, Ecgfrith often witnesses at least two of Offa's charters as "Ecgfrith king" or even "Ecgfrith king of the Mercians" (S 129, 131) after his father's attestation, another clear sign that Offa associated his son with the royal power and intended to pass the kingship to his son. Alcuin implied in a letter written after Offa and Ecgfrith were both dead that Offa also killed many other claimants to ensure his son's succession (EHD 202), and it is clear that Alcuin regarded Ecgfrith's short reign as divine vengeance for the deaths compassed by his father.
N. Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (Leicester: 1984)
September 2, 787. Northumbrian synod at Pincanheale
This synod is noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; nothing is known of the proceedings, but they very probably centred on the twenty canons drawn up by the papal legate the previous year.
September 23, 788. Ælfwold of Northumbria killed by Sicga
Osred, Alhred's son and Ælfwold's nephew, succeeds to Northumbria
The Chronicle notes that on September 23 Ælfwold of Northumbria was killed by Sicga, and a heavenly light was seen where he was killed, and he was buried at Hexham, and that Osred, Alhred's son and Ælfwold's nephew, succeeded to the kingdom. Simeon of Durham adds that Sicga had formed a conspiracy to kill Ælfwold, that the death took place at Scythlescester (probably Chesters, a station by Hadrian's Wall), and that because of the light from heaven seen in that place a church was built there by the local faithful, in honour of God, St Cuthbert and St Oswald (another murdered Northumbrian king).
Sicga was probably the most important secular Northumbrian nobleman after the king: he is the first lay witness after the king to the legatine canons of 786, somewhat ironically since these emphasize loyalty to one's lord so strongly. The Chronicle notes that he died on February 23, 793, while Simeon adds that he died by his own hand and was conveyed to Lindisfarne on April 23. One has to wonder if any thoughtful Northumbrians saw a message in the sacking of Lindisfarne by Vikings a little over a month after they took in the body of a man who killed his king in defiance of the legatine canons he had sworn to uphold. A letter of Alcuin written after the sack suggests that the connection might have been drawn, though Alcuin was writing in very general terms (EHD 194: Alcuin suggests the sins of the community at Lindisfarne may have called the disaster upon them; but see further the entry on Æthelred's accession in 790).
789. Beorhtric of Wessex marries Eadburh, daughter of Offa of Mercia
Ecgberht of Wessex into exile in France
From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (839) we learn that Beorhtric and Offa had driven Ecgberht of Wessex into exile in France for three years after Beorhtric married Offa's daughter (so presumably in 789).
c.790. Conflict between Offa of Mercia and Charlemagne
From a letter of Alcuin to Colcu (EHD 192), we learn that dissension had lately arisen between Offa of Mercia and Charlemagne, such that each ruler refused landfall to the ships and merchants of the other. Alcuin had heard rumours that he would be sent back to England to help negotiate a peace.
The Acts of the Abbots of Fontenelle (EHD 20), written some forty years later, explain that the cause of the conflict was that Charlemagne had sought Offa's daughter as a wife for his son, and that Offa had replied that this might only be if Offa's son might wed Charlemagne's daughter Bertha. Charlemagne apparently grew furious, and ordered that no English ships be allowed to land on the coast of Gaul, but was restrained by the wise counsel of the abbot of Fontenelle.
Another possible cause of the conflict might be that Charlemagne was harbouring enemies of Offa who had been driven from England. That this did happen we know from letters Charlemagne wrote to the archbishop of Canterbury and to Offa himself (EHD 196 and 197). Ecgberht of Wessex, who was exiled to France in about 789 (see entry), might have sheltered at Charlemagne's court. With the hindsight that comes from our knowledge that Ecgberht conquered all of southern England including Mercia in the 820s, we can see that Ecgberht was potentially Offa's most dangerous foe. If this was at all apparent in the young Ecgberht of 789, Offa might well have hoped that Charlemagne would kill Ecgberht instead of succouring him, and this would be a further reason for the cooling of relations in about 790.
Whatever the reasons behind the breach, it had healed by 796 at the latest, when Charlemagne wrote a very cordial letter to Offa (EHD 197), making provisions that English merchants should be protected by the laws while in Frankish territory, and enjoining that Offa similarly protect Frankish merchants in English territory.
c.790. Earliest Viking raid on England (Portland, Dorset)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that some time in the reign of Beorhtric of Wessex (786-802) three ships of Northmen arrived (at Portland in Dorset), and when the local reeve (Beaduheard of Dorchester) came and tried to lead them to the royal estate, thinking that they were traders, they killed him. And "those were the first ships of Danish men which came to the land of the English": they were by no means the last, as the spectacular raid on Lindisfarne in 793 was to demonstrate. Raids may have been sporadic for the first forty years or so, but they intensified in the 830s (as we can see from more frequent references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle): great armies landed in the 860s and proceeded to carve up whole Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, until the 870s and 880s when Alfred of Wessex was the last English king and the only one to successfully see off the invaders. Alfred's defensive workings meant the country was better-prepared when the Vikings returned in the 890s, and over the first half of the 10th century Alfred's descendents won back the rest of the country from Viking lords. Viking raiders would return in the 980s, however, to trouble the kingdom of Æthelred, and finally conquer it in the person of the Cnut the Dane, who became king of England in 1016.
S. Keynes, "The Vikings in England", The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford: 1997), pp.48-82
790. Osred of Northumbria exiled (flees to Isle of Man)
Æthelred, Æthelwold Moll's son, again succeeds to Northumbria
The Chronicle notes only that Osred was betrayed and driven out of the kingdom and that Æthelred succeeded. Simeon of Durham adds that Osred was deceived by his nobles, taken prisoner and deprived of the kingdom, tonsured at York, and forced into exile. (That from his Historia Regum; in his History of the Church of Durham he adds that Osred fled to the Isle of Man.) The nobles are not named, but it would be interesting to know whether Sicga was still among them (we know nothing of him between his killing of Ælfwold in 788 and his own death in 793).
The first couple of years of Æthelred's second reign (his first reign was 774-778/9) show him moving quickly to eliminate opposition, killing the sons of King Ælfwold in 791 (Ælfwold himself had been killed in 788), and killing King Osred on his return in 792. His attempt to kill Ealdorman Eardwulf was unsuccessful, and it might have been seen as poetic justice that it was this same Eardwulf who eventually succeeded him in 796. His marriage to a daughter of Offa of Mercia in 792 gained him a strong southern ally, who incidentally favoured the same approach to getting rid of superfluous rivals, as his beheading of Æthelberht of East Anglia in 794 makes clear. Almost nothing is known of Æthelred's domestic affairs after 792: it is the Viking onslaughts of 793 and 794 which attract the attention of the chroniclers.
That at least one contemporary observer thought things were pretty dire in the state of Northumbria can be seen from a letter Alcuin wrote to Æthelred and his nobles after the sack of Lindisfarne (EHD 193), suggesting that the Vikings might be divine punishment for the manifold sins of the English. Alcuin is politic enough not to limit his criticism to Æthelred's reign, saying things had been bad since King Ælfwold's day (778/9-788). Since his visit in 786 for the council with Ælfwold and the papal legate was the last occasion before this letter that we know Alcuin was in Northumbria, it would be unwise to use the letter as an indication that things were worse in Æthelred's reign. It is also clear that Alcuin was well aware of scriptural explanations of foreign invasions allowed as divine vengeance for the sins of a chosen people: in following this model he stands four-square in a literary tradition that in Britain goes back to Gildas in the 6th century and forward to King Alfred in the 9th and Wulfstan in the 11th. This is not necessarily to deny the truth of Alcuin's observations, but to point out that he was collecting facts to back a particular thesis, and like Wulfstan's long catalogue of the sins of the English in the reign of another King Æthelred troubled by Viking invasions (see entry on 978), he was looking with a dark-adapted eye.
791. Æthelred of Northumbria kills the sons of King Ælfwold
Ælfwold was an earlier king of Northumbria (778/9-788). Simeon of Durham reports that his sons, Ælf and Ælfwine, were in the principal church in York (presumably in sanctuary), but were brought from it by false promises, taken by force and miserably killed.
791/2. Æthelred of Northumbria orders Ealdorman Eardwulf killed, but he survives
Ealdorman Eardwulf would emerge in 796 as king of Northumbria. These earlier events come down to us only in the account of Simeon of Durham, who notes that in Æthelred's second year Eardwulf was captured and brought to Ripon, and ordered to be killed outside the gate of the monastery. The brethren carried his body to the church, and placed it outside in a tent, and after midnight he was found in the church, alive. The details are not clear, but it seems that Eardwulf survived an attempted execution, in circumstances which were seen as miraculous. These are probably "the perils from which the divine mercy freed you" which Alcuin notes in a letter written to Eardwulf after 796 (EHD 199).
September 14, 792. Osred, former king of Northumbria, killed on his return from exile
The Chronicle notes that Osred was captured on his return from exile, and killed on 14 September, and buried at Tynemouth. Simeon adds that he returned in secret, relying on the oaths and good faith of certain nobles (Sicga again, perhaps?), who deserted him in the event so that he might be killed on Æthelred's orders.
September 29, 792. Æthelred of Northumbria marries Ælfflæd, daughter of Offa of Mercia (at Catterick)
This marriage, mentioned in the Chronicle and located at Catterick by Simeon of Durham, can be seen from Æthelred's point of view as part of his efforts to ensure his security on the throne. He was already killing potential rivals at home, and a marriage with the Mercian king's daughter would make raids from the south less likely (such as plagued Eadberht in 740, when he raided the Picts and Offa's predecessor Æthelbald raided Northumbria). It would also give him a strong ally to call on if he were threatened.
c.792. Offa of Mercia's second coinage reform
June 8, 793. "Fiery dragons over Northumbria": Vikings sack Lindisfarne
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle includes under 793 its famous reference to dire portents appearing over Northumbria, taking the form of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and "fiery dragons were seen flying in the air". These portents were followed by a great famine, and then the sack of Lindisfarne on June 8.
794. Vikings sack Donemutha (Jarrow?)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that the Vikings plundered Ecgfrith's monastery at Donemutha, which is unidentified though Simeon of Durham in the twelfth century identified it as Bede's house of Jarrow.
794. Offa of Mercia has Æthelberht of East Anglia killed
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes, without explanation, that Offa had Æthelberht beheaded. This was probably Offa's response to a renewed bid for East Anglian independence (see entry on 749-94). Æthelberht came to be revered as a saint, and Hereford Cathedral was dedicated to him by the 11th century (see Rollason, p.9). According to post-Conquest lives of St Æthelberht, Offa had him killed at Sutton, near Hereford, where he had come to ask for the hand of Offa's daughter in marriage. It would be interesting to know whether such a match had been seriously considered: the marriages of other daughters of Offa to Beorhtric of Wessex in 789 and Æthelred of Northumbria in 792 suggest the possibility.
S. Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults (Cambridge: 1988) [see p.224 n.20 and references there]
D. Rollason, "The cults of murdered royal saints in Anglo-Saxon England", Anglo-Saxon England 11 (1982), pp.1-22
C. Wright, The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (London: 1939)
795. Offa of Mercia raids Wales (Brycheiniog?)
This raid is noted only in the Annales Cambriae, which record "The devastation of Reinuch by Offa". For the identification of Reinuch with Brycheiniog in this somewhat ambiguous annal, see Sims-Williams, p.53. The date given in the annal corresponds to 796, but since the death of Offa is recorded under the following annal, the raid should probably be dated to 795.
P. Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England, 600-800 (Cambridge: 1990)
April 18, 796. Æthelred of Northumbria killed by Ealdred
April 19 - May 13, 796. Osbald succeeds to Northumbria
May 14, 796. Eardwulf succeeds to Northumbria
May 26, 796. Eardwulf consecrated king of Northumbria at York
The Chronicle notes that there was an eclipse of the moon on 28 March, that Eardwulf succeeded to Northumbria on 14 May, and that he was afterwards consecrated and enthroned on 26 May at York by Archbishop Eanbald and the bishops Æthelberht, Higbald and Badwulf. This is the second recorded consecration of a king in Anglo-Saxon England, after that of Ecgfrith of Mercia in 787. The violence that had attended the Northumbrian succession over the previous forty years showed that it needed all the additional sanctification it could get.
Simeon of Durham adds that Æthelred was killed near the Cover (a river in Yorkshire) on 18 April, and that the nobleman Osbald (perhaps the same as the one involved in the burning of Beorn in 779) was appointed by some nobles of the nation and after 27 days was deserted and banished, fleeing to Lindisfarne and then to the Pictish court. Alcuin wrote a letter to Osbald (EHD 200) which shows that he was suspected of being a party to Æthelred's death, and urged him to turn from secular to religious affairs. This he seems to have done, for Simeon notes that he was an abbot when he died in 799, and was buried at York.
While Osbald may have helped to plan the deed, it was one Ealdred who actually killed King Æthelred, and one of Æthelred's followers, Torhtmund, killed Ealdred in vengeance for his slain lord. We learn this from a letter of Alcuin to Charlemagne of 801 (EHD 206), in which Alcuin provides introductions for several Englishmen who wished to visit Charlemagne's court, Torhtmund among them. Simeon records Torhtmund's killing of Ealdred in his annal for 799.
Eardwulf had been an ealdorman in Æthelred's reign, and narrowly escaped execution in 791/2. In his own reign (796-806), Eardwulf faced a battle with some of his nobles in 798, ordered the deaths of what might have been rival claimants in 799 and 800, went to war with Coenwulf of Mercia in 801, and was driven into exile in 806.
Alcuin seems initially optimistic about Eardwulf's reign, or at least hopeful that Eardwulf will avoid making the mistakes of his predecessors (see Alcuin's letter to Eardwulf, EHD 199), but he soon returns to the gloom he showed in earlier reigns (see entry on 790). In a letter of 797 (EHD 202) Alcuin notes that Eardwulf dismissed his wife and took a concubine and that he might expect to lose his kingdom soon as a result; in a letter of 801 (EHD 207) Alcuin sympathises with the archbishop of York about his tribulations and makes dark hints about the death of kings who opposed the church.
July 29, 796. Offa of Mercia dies
Offa's son Ecgfrith is king for only 141 days
Coenwulf (Centwine's great-great-grandson) succeeds to Mercia
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes Offa's death and the fact that Ecgfrith died in the same year. The precise figure of 141 days comes from the Mercian regnal list, which would put Coenwulf's accession in mid-December at the earliest. Almost nothing is known of Ecgfrith's reign: four charters appear to survive (S 148-51), but at least two of these are later fabrications, which may be based on genuine documents but cannot themselves be trusted.
Coenwulf does not appear in charters of Offa, which may be because he was in exile in Offa's reign, much as Æthelbald had been in the reign of Ceolred (see entry on 716). Given the amount of blood which Offa is said to have shed to secure the succession of his son (see Alcuin's letter, EHD 202), it is likely that being out of the country was the only safe option for someone other than Offa's son who hoped one day to be king of the Mercians. Coenwulf was the great-great-grandson of King Centwine (676-85), and traced his descent farther back through Penda; somewhat ironically, given Offa's efforts to ensure the kingship descended in direct family lines, the nearest common ancestor of Coenwulf and Offa is Penda's father Pybba.
After Offa's death, Kent (q.v.), East Anglia (q.v.), and the East Saxons (q.v.) became independent, but Kent was recaptured by 798, East Anglia probably within another few years after that, and the East Saxons definitely by 814. Coenwulf faced an invasion from Eardwulf of Northumbria c.801, cancelled the controversial archbishopric of Lichfield in 803, and famously quarelled with the archbishop of Canterbury, Wulfred, in 816. He raided into Dyfed in 818, and may have been planning another raid when he died at Basingwerk in 821.
D. Dumville, "The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists", Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976), pp.23-50 [p.31 for genealogies of Offa and Coenwulf; p.33 for Mercian regnal list]
796. On Offa's death, Kent becomes independent
Eadberht Præn succeeds to Kent
Æthelheard, Archbishop of Canterbury, flees Kent
Eadberht Præn's accession to Kent in 796 is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and also by the coins bearing Eadberht's name struck at Canterbury in this period (see Grierson and Blackburn, p.283). It is probable that Eadberht of Kent, like Ecgberht of Wessex was another of the exiles sheltered at Charlemagne's court: in a letter to Offa written in 796 (EHD 197), Charlemagne mentions an Eadberht (using the Frankish form Odberht) who had taken refuge with him.
Archbishop Æthelheard's flight is mentioned in a surviving letter of Alcuin (EHD 203), which refers to an earlier letter of Æthelheard in which he said that the clerics of Canterbury asked him to leave. Alcuin nonetheless chastises Æthelheard for deserting his post, reminding him that Archbishop Laurence, faced with the hostile King Eadbald back in 616, stayed put. It may be though that Æthelheard, as the archbishop who helped diminish the primacy of Canterbury by collaborating in the elevation of Lichfield, was concerned to draw Kentish anger away from the cathedral. Nicholas Brooks has suggested that the absence of Christ Church documents before 798, compared with the profusion afterwards, might be attributed to an attack on Æthelheard in newly-independent Canterbury (Brooks, p.121). In any event, another letter of Alcuin (Allott, no. 50), written in 797, imploring the people of Kent to take back their archbishop, makes it clear that they did not want him back.
S. Allott, Alcuin of York, c. A.D. 732 to 804 -- His Life and Letters (York: 1974)
N. Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (Leicester: 1984)
796. On Offa's death, East Anglia becomes independent
Eadwald succeeds to East Anglia
The independence of East Anglia can be deduced from the fact that East Anglian moneyers start minting coins in the name of Eadwald after Offa's death (see Grierson and Blackburn, p.293). This coinage is the only evidence of East Anglia's independence, and since the coin types cannot be precisely dated it is impossible to say when Eadwald's reign ended and Coenwulf's reign in Mercia began (two East Anglian moneyers struck coins for Offa, Eadwald, and Coenwulf in turn). Grierson and Blackburn note that the first East Anglian type of Coenwulf features a bust of Coenwulf which probably makes it later than c.805 (when the portrait type was introduced at Canterbury), but caution that since late 8th-century East Anglian coins are so rare, there may have been an earlier East Anglian issue of Coenwulf which has not survived.
P. Grierson and M. Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, 1: The Early Middle Ages (5th-10th centuries) (Cambridge: 1986)
796. On Offa's death, East Saxons becomes independent
Sigeric, son of Selered, succeeds to East Saxons
The independence of the East Saxons after Offa's death is assumed from a reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Sigeric, king of the East Saxons, going to Rome in 798. This King Sigeric may be the Sigeric who witnessed one of Ecgfrith's charters of 796 (S 151) as an ealdorman, in which case he presumably ruled independently from late 796 until 798. It may be that Coenwulf resumed control over the East Saxons in 798, as he did over the people of Kent and shortly after that over the East Angles, but from charters we learn of another East Saxon king, Sigered, in 811. Sigered may have succeeded his father in 798, or he may have rebelled from Coenwulf's overlordship at some point in the first decade of the 9th century. Unfortunately there was no royal mint in Essex, so East Saxon independence is much more difficult to track than that of Kent and East Anglia, which produced coins of the local rulers who arose after Offa's death.
April 2, 798. Battle at Whalley: Eardwulf of Northumbria defeats a conspiracy of his enemies
This battle, like the Battle of Edwin's Cliff fought by Æthelwold of Northumbria in 761 shortly after his accession, shows that being elected king of the Northumbrians in this age was not enough to ensure the loyalty of the people. In this context, while Æthelred's killings of his enemies in 791 and 792 look brutal from our vantage point, there were doubtless contemporaries who thought them simply well-judged pre-emptive strikes, avoiding the battles to establish effective supremacy that would otherwise be inevitable.
The Chronicle notes only that there was a great battle in Northumbria, on April 2, at Whalley (Lancs.) and that Alric, Heardberht's son, was killed, along with many others. Simeon of Durham as usual adds more details, suggesting that the battle was the result of a conspiracy formed by the murderers of King Æthelred, and joined by one Ealdorman Wada, and that after many had been killed on both sides Wada took to his heels, and Eardwulf royally won the victory. Wada may have fled to Coenwulf of Mercia, because he appears in connection with Coenwulf in a papal letter of 808 discussing the exile of Eardwulf (Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, III.563).
798. Coenwulf of Mercia ravages and regains control of Kent
Eadberht Præn of Kent captured and killed
Coenwulf appoints his brother Cuthred king of Kent
The Chronicle notes that Coenwulf ravaged the people of Kent, and had Eadberht Præn seized and brought in fetters into Mercia; one of the manuscripts adds that they had his eyes put out and his hands cut off, a detail repeated by Simeon of Durham.
Though Cuthred was appointed as king of Kent, from the charters it appears that Coenwulf kept power to himself for several years. Coenwulf granted land in Kent without reference to Cuthred in 798-9 (S 153, 155), and with Cuthred in 801-5 (S 157, 159-61). It is not until the last years of his reign that we see Cuthred independently issuing charters in Kent (S 39-41, of 805?807).
A charter of 798 issued by Æthelheard as archbishop (S 1258) shows that the return of Mercian rule in Kent also brought the return of the Mercian archbishop to Canterbury.
799. Eardwulf of Northumbria orders the killing of Ealdorman Moll
This item, though first reported by Simeon of Durham, fits plausibly into the pattern of earlier 8th-century Northumbrian politics. Simeon gives no details of the identity of Moll, but the name suggests a connection with Æthelwold Moll (king 759-65) and his son Æthelred (king 774-778/9 and 790-6), and one who was descended or claimed descent from that family (Æthelwold's grandson, perhaps?) might well have been seen as a threat to the throne, or have been in the process of trying to claim it when Eardwulf ordered his death.
800. Eardwulf of Northumbria orders the killing of Alhmund, son of King Alhred
Simeon of Durham notes that Alhmund, the son of King Alhred (765-74), was seized by the guards of King Eardwulf, and killed along with his fellow fugitives. It is not clear where Alhmund had fled to; in 801 Eardwulf would pursue more fugitives into Coenwulf's Mercia. It was perhaps as a result of the battles of 801 that a cult of St Alhmund was encouraged at Derby where his body rested: Coenwulf may have used the cult to emphasize the guilt of Alhmund's murderer and so encourage dissatisfaction with Eardwulf (see Rollason, p.20). If Wada had fled to Coenwulf immediately after the battle of 798, the Mercian / Northumbrian antipathy might have begun a few years earlier.
D. Rollason, "The cults of murdered royal saints in Anglo-Saxon England", Anglo-Saxon England 11 (1982), pp.1-22
c.801. Eardwulf of Northumbria attacks Coenwulf of Mercia
Simeon of Durham notes in his annal for 801 that in these times Eardwulf of Northumbria led an army against Coenwulf of Mercia, because Coenwulf harboured Eardwulf's enemies. There was a long campaign between Eardwulf and Coenwulf, with Coenwulf leading many forces from other provinces, but finally, by the advice of the English bishops and nobles on both sides, they made a peace and swore to hold by it in their lifetimes.
This harbouring of enemies seems to have been a common complaint in the period: see the entry on c.790 for the dispute between Offa and Charlemagne, probably caused by Charlemagne harbouring Offa's enemies, and the entry on 798 for the possibility that Wada was one of the fugitives Eardwulf was trying to recover. Other Northumbrian nobles might have thought Mercia a good refuge because Eardwulf's predecessor, Æthelred, had been married to a daughter of Offa of Mercia. A letter of Alcuin suggests that other Northumbrian refugees took refuge with the archbishop of York (EHD 207).
802. Beorhtric of Wessex dies (poisoned accidentally by his wife Eadburh?)
Mercian ealdorman Æthelmund raids into Wessex
Ecgberht succeeds to Wessex
The story of the accidental poisoning of Beorhtric of Wessex by his queen Eadburh appears in chapter 14 of Asser's Life of King Alfred, where it is used to explain the low status of the king's wife in 9th-century Wessex. Asser notes that Beorhtric's wife Eadburh was daughter of the tyrannical Offa, and like her father in her tyrannical ways and misuse of power. She is supposed to have hated Beorhtric's friends, and to have denounced them before the king; if she failed to make him kill or imprison them, she killed them herself with poison. On one occasion, when Eadburh meant to kill one of the king's friends, Beorhtric himself took some of the poison unawares, and died.
Asser goes on in the following chapter to explain that, not surprisingly, Eadburh had to leave the country, and she fetched up with many treasures at the court of Charlemagne. Charlemagne apparently gave her the choice of marrying him or his son; she chose the son because he was younger, and was doubtless chagrined to hear the king reply that had she chosen him, he would have given her his son, but as she had not, she would have neither of them. She was granted charge of a large convent as abbess, but expelled a few years later for reckless and debauched behaviour, and ended her days as a beggar in Pavia.
One cannot help comparing this with the more obviously legendary tale of how Rowenna killed Vortigern's son Vortimer with a poisoned glove, or wondering how much truth there may be in either. Asser tells us that he has the story from the truthful King Alfred, and adds that Alfred had it from many reliable witnesses, most of whom remembered the story in all its particulars -- this unusual emphasis on the veracity of the story might suggest that Asser was worried his audience would think it unlikely. It should be remembered that the marriage of Eadburh and Beorhtric was part of an alliance as a result of which Alfred's grandfather Ecgberht was forced to leave the country: it would not be surprising if stories to the discredit of Offa, Beorhtric and Eadburh began to circulate once Ecgberht was back and in power. The story of Eadburh's antics should perhaps be treated with the same caution as the vituperation heaped on King Eadwig by the author of the first Life of St Dunstan, which is probably the result not of a truthful and sober assessment of Eadwig's character, but of spite that Eadwig exiled Dunstan towards the beginning of his reign.
No other source mentions the accidental poisoning: of the death, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says only that Beorhtric died and Ecgberht succeeded to the kingdom. It is probably safest to leave it at that, and treat the story of Eadburh as an example of later 9th-century propaganda rather than early 9th-century fact.
The Chronicle adds that on the same day (as Beorhtric's death or Ecgberht's succession), the (Mercian) ealdorman Æthelmund rode from the territory of the Hwicce across the border at Kempsford, and was repulsed in a great battle by ealdorman Weohstan and the people of Wiltshire. This shows the importance of quickly establishing the succession in Anglo-Saxon times, since at least on this occasion nobles of bordering kingdoms were ready and waiting to take advantage of any weakness or confusion in the aftermath of a king's death.