King Egbert and the Naming of England

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By George T. Beech | Published in History Today Volume: 63 Issue: 2 2013


George T. Beech investigates whether a King of Wessex adopted a new name for his country in 828, but failed to implement the change.

John Speed's 17th-century map, 'Britain as it was Dividied in the Tyme of the Englishe Saxons especially during their Heptarchy'. Click to enlarge.

John Speed's 17th-century map, 'Britain as it was Dividied in the Tyme of the Englishe Saxons especially during their Heptarchy'.

In the October 2007 edition of History Today I proposed that people first began to call England by that name early in the 11th century. It was the foreign-born Cnut (r.1016-35) and his advisers who almost certainly promoted this move in an attempt to end the fighting between native English peoples and the Danes by creating a unified country under a single monarch. After having finished that project I was startled to come across the statement of an early 17th-century historian, John Speed, who in his History of Great Britain (1625) wrote:

King Egbert … who by his Edict dated at Winchester an. 819 commanded the same to be called Angle-lond according to the name of the place from whence his ancestors, the Anglo-Saxons, came, which was out of the continent part of Denmarke, lying betwixt Iuitland and Holsatia, where to this day the place retaineth the name Engloen.

Intrigued, I set about looking for this story’s origins. My search led me to an entry for the year 828 in an anonymous Latin chronicle called the Winchester Annals. After describing Egbert’s victory over the Mercians at the battle of Ellendun, the entry reads:

Returning to Winchester he ordered all the leaders of the kingdoms he had conquered to come together with him on a certain day in the city. The people and the clergy came there and with the consent of all groups Egbert was crowned king of all Britain. On that same day Egbert 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.

Finding out how Speed had learned of this story required uncovering its history from the time of the Winchester Annals down to the beginning of the 17th century. The findings were surprising. Not a single other author from the ninth to the early 14th century cites the story. Then it appears in a Welsh history, the Kings of the Saxons, and in Rannulf Higden’s Polychronicon, or Universal Chronicle (c. 1350). Similarities in wording suggest that both had taken it from the Winchester Annals. After the publication of an English translation of Higden’s work in 1482 a wide variety of authors took up the story, including Robert Fabyan, John Rastell, Polydore Vergil, Richard Grafton and Raphael Holinshed in his Chronicles. This trend continued in the 17th century with William Camden’s Britannia and works by John Clapham and, of course, Speed himself. In the 18th century historians began to question it; 19th-century English historians barely mentioned it; and the story disappeared completely in the 20th century.

Sharon Turner, in his 1799 History of the Anglo-Saxons, is the only previous historian to have investigated the Egbert story. The central questions are: first, where does the story come from, what are its sources? Second, is it factual, truthful, reliable?

The Winchester Annals is a short, anonymous, undated chronicle with entries from the sixth century to the time of the Norman Conquest. It survives today in just two manuscripts, the late 12th-century Corpus Christi College Cambridge 339 and the BL Cotton Ms. Domitian A XIII, the latter a copy of the former. It is now believed that Cambridge 339 is a compilation, the work of a late 12th-century monastic historian in Winchester. What were his sources of information for Egbert’s reign (802-839)?

Earlier writings that would have been available to him and which treat the reign of Egbert start with the ‘A’ manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This section was begun in Winchester at the end of the ninth century and continued with the late tenth-century history of the Anglo-Saxons by a West Saxon nobleman, Aethelweard. The compiler would also be familiar with several histories written in the 12th-century by William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, Symeon of Durham, John of Worcester and Geoffrei Gaimar.

A comparison of the Winchester Annals’ treatment of Egbert with that of these other historians reveals many similarities between them. All present successive episodes in his life and reign: his exile into the Carolingian kingdom as a youth, his accession in 802; his military campaigns, especially his victory over the Mercians at the battle of Ellendun in 825; then his death in 839. The compiler could well have taken much of his information on these subjects from one or other of those earlier writers, from the ‘A’ manuscript, and from William of Malmesbury, in particular. The general agreement between all of these histories on the main outlines of Egbert’s reign points to their overall reliability.

In two respects, however, the Winchester Annals differs noticeably from all the earlier histories. First, in introducing new scenes and developments not mentioned by any of them: Egbert’s enthusiasm for military discipline while in exile in France; his training of young Wessex soldiers after becoming king; its detailed account of Egbert’s battle with Beornwulf at Ellendun; the mocking manner of that Mercian king; the numerical inferiority of the Wessex army; the ghastly slaughter in battle; and Beornwulf’s flight afterwards. Above all there is Egbert’s organisation of his coronation at Winchester in the presence of the princes under his rule and his proclamation of the changing of the names of the people and the country to English and England. Finally it tells how, prior to his death, Egbert made gifts of lands to the church at Winchester. None of these stories, often told in considerable detail, are found in either the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or the 12th-century historians.

A second distinctive trait is the absence in the Winchester Annals of a number of scenes and events described in the ‘A’ manuscript and copied from it by William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon and other 12th-century historians: for example, Egbert’s invasion of Wales in 813, his battles with the Danes at Carhampton in 833 and his victory over them at Hingston Downs in 835. The Winchester Annals likewise makes no reference to the ‘A’ manuscript’s comment identifying Egbert as the eighth Bretwalda, who ruled all of Britain south of the Humber, or as William of Malmesbury put it: ‘The sole ruler of almost the whole island, the master of the whole of Britain.’

These differences show that the author of the Winchester Annals used a different source, or sources, which both contained the unique incidents he adds to his account and lacked the ones found in the others. Unfortunately no such earlier history survives, yet modern scholars working from different perspectives have long been convinced that a now-lost work by the same author – often called the Annales Wintonenses deperditi – was an important source of information for a number of early annals such as the ‘A’ manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which are still in existence today. This could well have been the source of the unique elements in the Egbert story as presented in Cambridge 399, but it is impossible to verify this hypothesis.

Painted stone mural from Old Minster, Winchester, where Egbert was crowned

Painted stone mural from Old Minster, Winchester, where Egbert was crowned

The inability to uncover the source for the England story does not, however, end all inquiry into its reliability. Another approach is to ask whether the story is consistent with contemporary conditions in Wessex during Egbert’s reign. Is there, for instance, evidence which casts doubts on the likelihood that such a naming change ever took place? To begin with, Sharon Turner noted that no other English historian from the ninth to the 14th centuries, starting with the ‘A’ manuscript, ever mentioned it. Could an event of that nature have passed without comment for so long a period of time? Second, if Egbert had had himself crowned king of England one would assume that he would have taken this title in his official documents. In fact his charters and coins always refer to him as King of the West Saxons, never of England. Turner’s arguments that the story is in effect a fabrication must be considered.

If the story is simply an invention the question arises: who could have invented it, when and for what reasons? I find it hard to believe that the compiler of Cambridge 339, writing three and a half centuries after the event, could have concocted such a story. What could have given him the idea of trying to persuade his readers that the king had made such changes? At best he could have had only a limited knowledge of Egbert’s reign, nothing more than the few lines that he could have read in the histories written about him in the ‘A’ manuscript and by the handful of other earlier historians such as William of Malmesbury. Yet he comes up with a story in striking detail about Egbert’s moves in the days after the victory at Ellendun; his return to Winchester; his calling of the assembly of princes he had conquered, as well as the people and clergy of the town; his having himself crowned; his changing of country names. With regard to the coronation, how could he have thought up the idea that Egbert, who had already been crowned King of Wessex at the time of his accession in 802, could then have had a second crowning as king of all of Britain? A similar question concerns Egbert’s supposed introduction of the names England and English after his coronation. I consider it much more plausible that the complier was simply copying, perhaps literally, a passage he had read in the source from which he was making his compilation, the Annales Wintonenses deperditi.

Another approach to the evaluation of the Egbert naming story is to ask whether there is any evidence favouring its authenticity. As stated earlier the naming story is but one of a number of events or scenes unique to the Winchester Annals and found in none of the other earlier sources such as the A manuscript. Yet directly after telling the naming story the Winchester Annals reports that Egbert made gifts in, or of, six towns and villages in the Winchester region and on the Isle of Wight. This incident occurs only in the Winchester Annals; none of the other earlier histories mentions it. Recently, the historian Heather Edwards pointed to five 12th-century charters extant today in the Winchester cartulary (a roll related to the foundation of institutions), which record precisely these donations by Egbert, leaving no doubt that the compiler had based this part of his history on these very documents. This does not, of course, prove that he also based his naming story on other historical documents, but it warns against assuming that the unique incidents in his account are fabrications.

Then there is a marginal entry in the Cambridge 339 manuscript to the left of the beginning of the Egbert naming story. The main text reads:

Returning to Winchester he [Egbert] ordered all the great people he had conquered to assemble on a given day in Winchester.

The marginal entry (the only one of its kind in the Westminster Annals’ account of Egbert’s reign) is in the same handwriting as that of the main text. It is thus an insertion by the compiler himself and reads as follows:

King Egbert, believing it to be more glorious to be the king of kings rather than of peasants, did not kill the conquered kings but, receiving their homage, made them his tributaries [subjects].

There can be no doubt that this statement is the compiler’s explanation of what has just happened in the story after Egbert’s victories and then his return to Winchester. He wants readers to know that, rather than disregarding – or killing – the princes he had conquered, Egbert preferred to have them present at his coronation so that his people in Winchester would see that these conquered rulers accepted his authority over their countries. Since this was the compiler’s own comment on the story he did not integrate it into the narrative but put it into the margin to the left. This strongly suggests that the Egbert naming story was not his invention, but was part of an account he was copying into his annals from another source. He would hardly have made a comment of this kind if he had himself fabricated the story.

The most basic reason for doubting the authenticity of the naming story is its apparent inconsistency with what is known about Egbert’s reign as a whole. How could a ruler of Egbert’s stature have conceived a project to call himself king of all of Britain and then rename it as England? To be sure, Egbert’s recent conquest of Mercia, Wales, Kent and East Anglia had made him ‘the ruler of everything south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king who was Bretwalda’ (overlord). Yet the chronicler of the ‘A’ manuscript, who wrote this in his anal for 829, said nothing about Egbert changing the name of his kingdom to England. Where could such an idea have come from? One possible answer is the influence of one of the most famous coronations and political moves in the history of early medieval Europe. On Christmas Day 800 in the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, two years before the beginning of Egbert’s reign, Charlemagne had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor in his attempt to revive the Roman Empire of antiquity in his kingdom in western Europe. In certain respects the story of Egbert’s coronation and renaming his people and country resemble Charlemagne’s actions. In both cases a reigning king had himself recrowned and changed his title: Egbert, previously King of Wessex, now became King of Britain and changed its name to England.

No explicit evidence of such mimicking survives, yet a number of factors suggest this possibility. Charlemagne had contact with several English monarchs, some of whom visited him at his court in Aachen. As a youth, Egbert, heir apparent to the throne of Wessex, was forced into exile for several years in Charlemagne’s kingdom and may well have stayed at the Carolingian court. If so, he may have witnessed Charlemagne’s coronation in 800. During that exile he was so impressed by ‘the art of government … (of) … the Franks’ (from William of Malmesbury), that he adopted Frankish military customs and discipline for himself, then later, after becoming King of Wessex in 802, he trained his own soldiers in this way. Charlemagne, whom Egbert may have known personally, could have had a role in Egbert’s return to England and in his accession to power as king in 802. In 839 Egbert may have sent a legation to the court of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son and successor and in 856 Aethelwulf, Egbert’s son and successor, married the daughter of Charles the Bald, Charlemagne’s grandson and Carolingian emperor at the time. Nothing proves that Egbert modelled his behaviour of 828 on that of Charlemagne in 800, yet relations must have existed between the two royal courts and the possibility that Egbert might have been influenced in this way casts his reign and the naming story in a new light.

The most compelling reason for rejecting the Egbert naming story is certainly the fact that, as Sharon Turner pointed out in 1799, no English historians or documentary sources from the ninth to the early 14th-centuries ever mention it. If Egbert had indeed changed the name in a public ceremony, how could it be that no one other than the Winchester Annals reports it? The only possible explanation is that the change lasted only briefly and never took permanent effect and there are reasons for believing that this is what may have happened. In the 830s, shortly after the coronation and name change according to the Winchester Annals, a resurgence of Mercian power under King Wiglaf (d.839) ended Egbert’s control of that kingdom and at the same time his rule over Essex and Wales also came to an end. In 835 Viking raids threatened the west coast of Wessex. In 830 Louis the Pious may have withdrawn his support due to internal troubles in his kingdom and that may have further weakened Egbert’s cause. These developments would have put an end to Egbert’s hope to be the ruler over the entire country. Consequently the name change, which had been in effect for only three or four years, may have been abandoned and later forgotten. Forgotten, that is, by all save the author of the naming story as we know it today. This man, possibly a contemporary observer in Winchester, could have written it down and it could subsequently have been incorporated into the now lost chronicles from which the late 12th-century compiler brought it into the Winchester Annals as it survives today in the Cambridge 339. That the story survived in only two manuscripts, both probably kept in monastic archives of limited access, may explain why no English historians for five centuries knew of it or referred to it.

I am inclined to believe that this name-changing incident as recounted in the Winchester Annals in fact occurred in Winchester in the late 820s when Egbert, inspired by Charlemagne’s creation of the Holy Roman Empire, sought to create a new monarchy of England on this model, but that unanticipated defeats cut short his project. Thus the name change never took hold and subsequently all memory of it was lost until the 14th century. What I am proposing lacks proof, yet this theory explains why the country’s name did not change from Britain to England, despite Egbert’s order.

This had no effect on the story’s spectacular rise to prominence among the English people from the 15th to the 17th centuries. After Higden discovered and promoted it in the 14th century, it became the standard account for the origins of the name England among educated people. Then in the 18th and 19th centuries it was rejected and fell into oblivion. There are doubtless other stories connected with the English/British past that similarly came to prominence and then were cast aside, but do any of them match the trajectory of the Egbert story?

If my analysis has solved the problem of the Egbert naming story, this finding modifies only slightly our knowledge of the origins of the naming of England. It is not Cnut in the early 11th century, but Egbert of Wessex two centuries earlier who will have been the first person to attempt to introduce the name. Egbert’s failure to enforce this renaming means that my earlier argument about this having been brought about by Cnut between c.1014-20 remains valid. Of greater interest is what this story reveals about Egbert’s conception of the royal office in the early ninth century: that he saw himself as the ruler of a single English people of a unified nation at a significantly earlier time than was previously thought.

George T. Beech is Professor Emeritus of Medieval History at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo.

King Egbert and the Naming of England | History Today

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