Questioning Egbert's Edict

John Gillingham challenges an idea, recently presented in History Today, that the Anglo-Saxon King Egbert was responsible for the naming of England.

Depiction of Egbert from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, a late 13th century manuscript in the British Library.In an ingenious article in the February issue George T. Beech argued that Egbert, the early ninth-century king of the West Saxons, established a kingdom of England almost 200 years before anyone had previously believed that such a place could have existed. He did this on the basis of the entry for 828 in a work known as the Winchester Annals. According to this entry, after defeating the Mercians in battle at Ellendun, Egbert was crowned king of all Britain in Winchester and then, on that same day, ‘issued an edict that henceforth the island should be called England and that the people, whether Jutes or Saxons, should be called by the common name, English’.

Beech acknowledged that the author of these ‘annals’ was a late 12th-century Winchester monk, but disputed the long-established orthodoxy holding that this passage was a later fabrication made some 350 years after the event. Instead Beech argued that this monk had at his disposal a now lost source, which he calls the lost annals of Winchester (Annales Wintonienses deperditi).

He suggested that the monk was probably ‘simply copying, perhaps literally, a passage he had read in the source from which he was making his compilation’; that the original entry for 828 might even have been written down by a man who may have been ‘a contemporary observer in Winchester‘ and then later ‘incorporated into the now lost chronicles’ (p.43).

That Egbert’s kingdom of England went unnoticed by any later ninth or  tenth-century observer Beech explained in terms of a Mercian ‘fight-back’ beginning in the 830s, which meant that Egbert’s achievement turned out to be an extremely ephemeral one. Had Egbert ever issued such an edict then Beech’s explanation for the near invisibility of this embryonic kingdom would be a plausible one. But had he?

There is no doubt that some annalistic compilations were put together long ago that no longer survive today. But in this particular case the claim that the late 12th-century monk (whom Beech chose not to name) was copying from a set of lost Winchester annals is thoroughly implausible. To start with, he gave a very inaccurate description of the surviving ‘Winchester Annals’. It is not, as he wrote, ‘a short, anonymous chronicle with entries from the sixth century to the Norman Conquest’ (p. 38), but rather a set of annals which continues well into the 12th century and, more troublingly, begins more than 2,000 years earlier. What is true is that in the printed edition the annals begin in the sixth century. But, although in his article Beech referred to one of the extant manuscripts (Corpus Christi Cambridge, MS 339), he makes no mention of the fact that in this manuscript the annals go back as far as Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain, who was supposed to have lived long before the birth of Christ and who on this version of history arrived at an island inhabited only by giants (an event dated 1,200 years after the Flood).

Because the entries on the first eight manuscript pages were culled from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legendary history of the deeds of Britons, H.R. Luard, the Victorian editor of the Winchester Annals, chose not to print anything before the year 519. If Luard had printed the full text, it would have been obvious that this particular 12th-century monk was anything but a mere compiler. On the contrary he was an extraordinarily creative historian, who even out-Geoffreyed Geoffrey of Monmouth by daring to invent a decisive confrontation between King Arthur and Cerdic, the first West Saxon king. The fact that not even the thousands of enthusiasts for the legends of King Arthur seem to know of the supposed struggles between the great British hero-king and the founding father of the West Saxon royal dynasty suggests that the unprinted entries remain largely unread.

The inventive monk in question was in fact Richard of Devizes, already well-known to historians as the author of a chronicle of the early 1190s, described by its modern editor as ‘one of the most amusing products of the Middle Ages’. (I have discussed his bold reinterpretation of Geoffrey of Monmouth in a forthcoming essay, ‘Richard of Devizes and a rising tide of nonsense’ in The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past, edited by M. Brett and D.A. Woodman.)

In the Winchester Annals, Richard described (in the entries for 499 and 504) how King Arthur granted Hampshire and Somerset to Cerdic, who then gave the name Wessex to his new territory and made his capital at Winchester. The entry for 508 reports that Arthur’s treacherous nephew Modred granted seven more shires (Sussex, Surrey, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall) to Cerdic, who was then crowned king at Winchester. The entry for 828 (though not commented upon by Beech) takes the manipulation of the past a step further by inventing an ancestor for Egbert not known in any of the earlier West Saxon genealogies – or indeed anywhere else. This was Phillida, a woman whom Richard represented as being in the direct line of descent from Brutus and the crucial link in a dynastic chain linking the British and West Saxon kings. Why make a woman the key figure in a claim of dynastic continuity? Perhaps this is a graceful acknowledgment of the place of Henry II’s mother, the Empress Matilda, in legitimising the rule of the kings of England in his own day.

By the standards of entertainment provided by Richard’s account of the making, naming and legitimising of the kingdom of Wessex his invention of the edict of 828 was very small beer. Even so, that most remarkable Winchester monk might have been amused by the notion of his fanciful creation of Egbert’s England being resurrected in 2013.

John Gillingham is emeritus professor of medieval history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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