Æthelbald of Mercia

Æthelbald of Mercia

Infobox Monarch
title=King of Mercia

date of birth=unknown
date of death=757
place of death=Seckington, Warwickshire
place of burial=Repton, Derbyshire

Æthelbald (also spelled Ethelbald, or Aethelbald) [The spelling "Æthelbald" uses the Anglo-Saxon alphabet, and so can be considered the most authentic; however, it has occasionally been modernized in secondary sources to "Ethelbald" or "Aethelbald".] (died 757) was the King of Mercia, in what is now the English Midlands, from 716 until 757. During his long reign, Mercia became the dominant kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons, and recovered the position of pre-eminence it had enjoyed during the seventh century under the strong Mercian kings Penda and Wulfhere. Mercian domination of England continued until the end of the eighth century; Offa, the grandson of Æthelbald's cousin Eanwulf, ruled for an additional thirty-nine years, starting shortly after Æthelbald's death.

Æthelbald came to the throne on the death of his cousin, King Ceolred. Both Wessex and Kent were ruled by strong kings at that time, but within fifteen years the contemporary chronicler Bede describes Æthelbald as ruling all England south of the river Humber. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not list Æthelbald as a bretwalda, or "Ruler of Britain", though this may be due to the West Saxon origin of the Chronicle.

St Boniface wrote to Æthelbald in about 745, reproving him for various dissolute and irreligious acts. The subsequent 747 council of Clovesho, and a charter Æthelbald issued at Gumley in 749—which freed the church from some of its obligations—may have been responses to Boniface's letter. Æthelbald was killed in 757 by his bodyguards. He was succeeded briefly by Beornrad, of whom little is known, but within a year Offa had taken the throne.

Early life and accession

Æthelbald came of the Mercian royal line, although his father, Alweo, was never king. Alweo’s father was Eowa, who may have shared the throne for some time with his brother, Penda of Mercia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not mention Eowa; though it does date Penda’s reign as the thirty years from 626 to 656, when Penda was killed at the battle of the Winwaed. However, two later sources name Eowa as king as well: the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae. The Annales Cambriae is the source for Eowa's death in 644 at the battle of Maserfield, where Penda defeated Oswald of Northumbria. Details on Penda’s reign are scarce, and it is a matter for speculation whether Eowa was an underking, owing allegiance to Penda, or if instead Eowa and Penda had divided Mercia between them. If they did divide the kingdom, it is likely that Eowa ruled northern Mercia, as Penda’s son Peada was established later as the king of southern Mercia by the Northumbrian Oswiu, who defeated the Mercians and killed Penda in 656. It is possible that Eowa fought against Penda at Maserfield.Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p. 91.]

During Æthelbald's youth, Penda's dynasty ruled Mercia; Ceolred, a grandson of Penda and therefore a second cousin of Æthelbald, was king of Mercia from 709 to 716.See the genealogy in figure 8 of the appendix, in Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p. 227.] An early source, Felix's "Life of Saint Guthlac", reveals that it was Ceolred who drove Æthelbald into exile.Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p. 129.] Guthlac was a Mercian nobleman who abandoned a career of violence to become first a monk at Repton, and later a hermit living in a barrow at Crowland, in the East Anglian fens.Campbell, "The Anglo-Saxons", p. 82.] During Æthelbald's exile he and his men also took refuge in the Fens in the area, and visited Guthlac. Guthlac was sympathetic to Æthelbald's cause, perhaps because of Ceolred's oppression of the monasteries., "Anglo-Saxon England", p. 203–204.] Other visitors of Guthlac's included Bishop Haedde of Lichfield, an influential Mercian, and it may be that Guthlac's support was politically useful to Æthelbald in gaining the throne. After Guthlac's death, Æthelbald had a dream in which Guthlac prophesied greatness for him, and Æthelbald later rewarded Guthlac with a shrine when he had become king.Campbell, "The Anglo-Saxons", p. 94.]

When Ceolred died of a fit at a banquet,cite book |last= Whitelock|first= Dorothy|title= English Historical Documents: Vol. 1 c500–1042|pages=755|year= 1968|publisher= Oxford University Press] Æthelbald returned to Mercia and became ruler. It is possible that a king named Ceolwald, perhaps a brother of Ceolred, reigned for a short while between Ceolred and Æthelbald. [cite book |last= Yorke|first= Barbara|title= Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England|pages=111|year= 1990|publisher= Seaby|isbn=1-85264-027-8] Æthelbald's accession ended Penda's line of descent; Æthelbald's reign was followed, after a brief interval, by that of Offa, another descendant of Eowa.

Mercian dominance

Æthelbald's reign marked a resurgence of Mercian power, which would last until the end of the eighth century.Hunter Blair, "Roman Britain", p. 168.] With the exception of the short reign of Beornrad, who succeeded Æthelbald for less than a year, Mercia was ruled for eighty years by two of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kings, Æthelbald and Offa.Beornrad was "put to flight" by Offa in one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; according to another, he held the kingdom for "a little while, and unhappily". Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. 46–50.] These long reigns were unusual at this early date; during the same period eleven kings reigned in Northumbria, many of whom died violent deaths.Hunter Blair, "An Introduction", p. 755.]

By 731, Æthelbald had all the English south of the Humber under his overlordship.Bede, p. 324, translated by Leo Sherley-Price.] There is little direct evidence of the relationship between Æthelbald and the kings who were dependent on him. Generally, a king subject to an overlord such as Æthelbald would still be regarded as a king, but would have his independence curtailed in some respects. Charters are an important source of evidence for this relationship; these were documents which granted land to followers or to churchmen, and were witnessed by the kings who had power to grant the land.Hunter Blair, "Roman Britain", pp. 14–15.] Campbell, "The Anglo-Saxons", pp. 95-98.] A charter granting land in the territory of one of the subject kings might record the names of the king as well as the overlord on the witness list appended to the grant; such a witness list can be seen on the Ismere Diploma, for example. The titles given to the kings on these charters could also be revealing: a king might be described as a "subregulus", or underking.For an account of the progression from Offa's overlordship of the Hwicce to suppression of the ruling dynasty, and consequent absorption of the kingdom into Mercia, see Campbell, "The Anglo-Saxons", p.123.]

Enough information survives to suggest the progress of Æthelbald's influence over two of the southern kingdoms, Wessex and Kent. At the start of Æthelbald's reign, both Kent and Wessex were ruled by strong kings; Wihtred and Ine, respectively. Wihtred of Kent died in 725, and Ine of Wessex, one of the most formidable rulers of his day, abdicated in 726 to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ine's successor, Aethelheard, fought that year with an ealdorman named Oswald, whom the Chronicle provides with a genealogy showing descent from Ceawlin, an early king of Wessex.Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. 42–43.] Aethelheard ultimately succeeded in this struggle for the throne, and there are subsequent indications that he ruled subject to Mercian authority. Hence it may be that Æthelbald helped establish both Aethelheard and his brother, Cuthred, who succeeded Aethelheard in 739.Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p. 133.] There is also evidence of South Saxon territory breaking away from West Saxon dominance in the early 720s, and this may indicate Æthelbald's increasing influence in the area, though it could have been Kentish, rather than Mercian, influence that was weakening West Saxon control.Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p. 131.]

As for Kent, there is evidence from Kentish charters that shows that Æthelbald was a patron of Kentish churches.Campbell, "The Anglo-Saxons", p. 95.] There is, however, no charter evidence showing Æthelbald's consent to Kentish land grants; and charters of Aethelberht and Eadberht, both kings of Kent, survive in which they grant land without Æthelbald's consent.Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p.132.] It may be that charters showing Æthelbald's overlordship simply do not survive, but the result is that there is no direct evidence of the extent of Æthelbald's influence in Kent.

Less is known about events in Essex, but it was at about this time that London became attached to the kingdom of Mercia rather than that of Essex. Three of Æthelbald's predecessors—Æthelred, Coenred, and Ceolred—had each confirmed an East Saxon charter granting Twickenham to Waldhere, the bishop of London. From Kentish charters it is known that Æthelbald was in control of London, and from Æthelbald's time on, the transition to Mercian control appears to be complete; an early charter of Offa's, granting land near Harrow, does not even include the king of Essex on the witness list. For the South Saxons, there is very little charter evidence, but as with Kent, what there is does not show any requirement for Æthelbald's consent to land grants. The lack of evidence should not obscure the fact that Bede, who was after all a contemporary chronicler, summarized the situation of England in 731 by listing the bishops in office in southern England, and adding that "all these provinces, together with the others south of the river Humber and their kings, are subject to Æthelbald, King of the Mercians."

There is evidence that Æthelbald had to go to war to maintain his overlordship. In 733 Æthelbald undertook an expedition against Wessex and captured the royal manor of Somerton. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also tells how when Cuthred succeeded Aethelheard to the throne of Wessex, in 740, he "boldly made war against Aethelbald, king of Mercia".Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp 44–45.] Three years later, Cuthred and Æthelbald are described as fighting against the Welsh. This could have been an obligation placed on Cuthred by Mercia; earlier kings had similarly assisted Penda and Wulfhere, two strong seventh-century Mercian rulers. In 752, Æthelbald and Cuthred are again on opposite sides of the conflict, and according to one version of the manuscript, Cuthred "put him [Æthelbald] to flight" at Burford.Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", 46–47.] Æthelbald seems to have reasserted his authority over the West Saxons by the time of his death, since a later West Saxon king, Cynewulf, is recorded as witnessing a charter of Æthelbald at the very beginning of his reign, in 757. [cite web | url = http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=seek&query=S+96 | title = Anglo-Saxons.net: S 96 | accessmonthday=28 April | accessyear = 2007]

In 740, a war between the Picts and the Northumbrians is reported. Æthelbald, who might have been allied with Óengus, the king of the Picts, took advantage of Eadberht's absence from Northumbria to ravage his lands, and perhaps burn York. [Anderson, "Scottish Annals", pp. 55–56.]

Titles and Bretwaldaship

Earlier in Bede's "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" chronicle, he lists seven kings who governed the southern provinces of the English, with reigns dating from the late fifth to the late seventh century. Subsequently, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle—another important source for the period—describes these seven as "bretwaldas" or "brytenwaldas", a title translated as "Britain-ruler" or "Wide-ruler".The different versions of the title, "bretwalda" and "brytenwalda", are in the A and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the entry for 827. Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. 60–61.] The Chronicle adds just one king to the list: Egbert of Wessex, who reigned in the ninth century. The resulting list of eight "bretwaldas" omits several strong Mercian kings. It is possible that the chronicler was merely adding Egbert's name to Bede's original list of seven, rather than claiming that no other kings achieved similar powers in England. The chronicler was almost certainly a West Saxon, and since neither Æthelbald nor Offa were kings of Wessex it is possible the chronicler does not mention them out of regional pride.See comment and footnote 2 in cite book |last= Keynes|first= Simon|coauthors=Lapidge , Michael|title= Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources|pages=pp. 11, 210|year= 2004|publisher= Penguin Classics|isbn=0-140-44409-2] Hunter Blair, "An Introduction", p. 201.] The meaning of the term "bretwalda", and the nature of the power that these eight kings wielded, has had much academic scrutiny. One suggested interpretation is that since Bede was writing during Æthelbald's reign, the original seven he listed were essentially those kings who could be seen as prototypes of Æthelbald in their domination of England south of the Humber.Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p. 19.]

Further evidence of Æthelbald's power, or at least his titles, is provided by an important charter of 736, the Ismere Diploma, which survives in a contemporary (and possibly original) copy. It starts by describing Æthelbald as "king not only of the Mercians but also of all the provinces which are called by the general name South English"; in the witness list he is further named "Rex Britanniae", "King of Britain". [cite web | url = http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=charter&id=89 | title = Anglo-Saxons.net: S 89 | accessmonthday=27 April | accessyear = 2007] Fletcher, "Who's Who", pp. 98-100.] One historian described this title as "a phrase which can only be interpreted as a Latin rendering of the English title "Bretwalda"; but it may be that at that time these titles would not have been acknowledged much beyond Worcester, where this and other documents from the 730s that use similar titles were written.Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p.130.]

Relations with the church

In 745–746, the leading Anglo-Saxon missionary in Germany, St Boniface, along with seven other bishops, sent Æthelbald a scorching letter reproaching him for many sins—stealing ecclesiastical revenue, violating church privileges, imposing forced labour on the clergy, and fornicating with nuns. The letter implored Æthelbald to take a wife and abandon the sin of lust:

We therefore, beloved son, beseech Your Grace by Christ the son of God and by His coming and by His kingdom, that if it is true that you are continuing in this vice you will amend your life by penitence, purify yourself, and bear in mind how vile a thing it is through lust to change the image of God created in you into the image and likeness of a vicious demon. Remember that you were made king and ruler over many not by your own merits but by the abounding grace of God, and now you are making yourself by your own lust the slave of an evil spirit. [Emerton, "Letters", p. 105.]

Boniface first sent the letter to Ecgberht, the archbishop of York, asking him to correct any inaccuracies and reinforce whatever was right; and he requested Herefrith, a priest whom Æthelbald had listened to in the past, to read and explain it to the king in person. [Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p. 135; Emerton, "Letters", pp. 108-109.] Though Boniface's letter praises Æthelbald's faith and alms-giving, its criticisms have strongly coloured subsequent opinion of Æthelbald. A claim made in a ninth-century list of donations from the abbey of Gloucester that Æthelbald had "stabbed—or smitten" to death the kinsman of a Mercian abbess has also contributed negatively to his reputation.Kirby ("Earliest English Kings", p.134) cites two documents: Birch CS 535 (Sawyer 209), and Sawyer 1782. The CS 535 text can be seen in the original Latin at cite web | url = http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=charter&id=209 | title = Anglo-Saxons.net: S 209 | accessmonthday=28 April | accessyear = 2007. See also: , F.M (1970). "Anglo-Saxon England". Oxford University Press; 3Rev Ed edition, 205. ISBN 0198217161.]

Æthelbald may have influenced the appointment of successive archbishops of Canterbury in Tatwine, Nothelm, and Cuthbert, the latter probably the former bishop of Hereford; and despite Boniface's strong criticisms, there is evidence of Æthelbald's positive interest in church affairs. A subsequent letter of Boniface's to Cuthbert, Archbishop of Canterbury, provided a good deal of information about Frankish synods, especially one held in 747, the decrees of which Boniface included in the letter. Boniface does not explicitly suggest to Cuthbert that he, too, should hold a synod, but it seems clear that this was Boniface's intent.Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p. 135–136.] A council was, in fact, subsequently held at Clovesho (the location of which is now lost); Æthelbald attended and perhaps presided. The council was concerned with the relationship between the church and the secular world, and it condemned many excesses on the part of the clergy.Richard Fletcher ("Who's Who", p. 100) says that Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury presided, though he adds that the council could not have been convened without royal sanction; James Campbell ("The Anglo-Saxons", p. 78) says that Aethelbald presided.] The council limited relations between monks and laymen and ruled that secular activities were impermissible for monks: secular business and secular songs were both forbidden, especially "ludicrous songs".

Two years after this, in 749, at the synod of Gumley, Æthelbald issued a charter that freed ecclesiastical lands from all obligations except the requirement to build forts and bridges—obligations which lay upon everyone, as part of the trinoda necessitas. This charter was witnessed only by Mercian bishops, and it is possible it had no effect outside Mercia, but it is also possible that it was essentially part of a reform programme inspired by Boniface and instigated at Clovesho. [cite web | url = http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=charter&id=92 | title = Anglo-Saxons.net: S 92 | accessmonthday=28 April | accessyear = 2007] Campbell, "The Anglo-Saxons", p. 100.]


In 757, Æthelbald was killed at Seckington, Warwickshire, near the royal seat of Tamworth. According to a later continuation of Bede's "Ecclesiastical History", he was "treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards", though the reason why is unrecorded.The "continuation of Bede" is by other hands than Bede's, though the first few entries may be by Bede himself. See cite web | url = http://www.ccel.org/ccel/bede/history.v.v.xxiii.html| title = Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England: Christian Classic Ethereal Library | accessmonthday=3 June | accessyear = 2007] He was succeeded, briefly, by Beornrad. Æthelbald was buried at Repton, in a crypt which still can be seen; a contemporary is reported to have seen a vision of him in hell, reinforcing the impression of a king not universally well-regarded.Kirby, "Earliest English Kings", p. 134.] The monastery church on the site at that time was probably constructed by Æthelbald to house the royal mausoleum; other burials there include that of Wigstan.Swanton, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", pp. 48–49.] Fletcher, "Who's Who", p. 116.]

A fragment of a stone cross survives at Repton which includes on one face a carved image of a man which, it has been suggested, may be a memorial to Æthelbald. The figure is of a man wearing mail armour and carrying a sword and shield, with a diadem bound around his head.cite book |last=Lapidge|first=Michael|title=The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England|pages=392|year=1999|publisher=Blackwell Publishing|isbn=0631224920]

ee also

*Kings of Mercia family tree



Primary sources

*cite book |last=Anderson |first=Alan Orr |year=1908 |title=Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers A.D. 500–1286. |location=London |publisher=D. Nutt |oclc=1248209 (1991 edition: ISBN 1-871615-45-3)
*Bede, "Ecclesiastical History of the English People." Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, revised R.E. Latham, ed. D.H. Farmer. London: Penguin, 1990. ISBN 0-14-044565-X
*cite book |last=Emerton |first=Ephraim |editor=Noble, Thomas F.X (ed.) |year=2000| origyear=1940 |title='The Letters of St.Boniface: With a New Introduction and Bibliography |location=New York |publisher= Columbia University Press |isbn=0-231-12093-1
*cite book |last= Swanton|first= Michael|title= The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle|year= 1996| location=New York|publisher= Routledge|isbn=0-415-92129-5

Secondary sources

*cite book |last= Hunter Blair|first= Peter|title= An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England|year= 1960|location=Cambridge|publisher= Cambridge University Press (2003 edition: ISBN 0-521-83085-0)
*cite book |last= Hunter Blair|first= Peter|title= Roman Britain and Early England: 55 B.C. - A.D. 871|year= 1966|publisher= W.W. Norton & Company|isbn=0-393-00361-2
*cite book |last= Campbell|first= James|title= The Anglo-Saxons|coauthors=John, Eric & Wormald, Patrick|year= 1991|location=London|publisher= Penguin Books|isbn=0-14-014395-5
*cite book |last= Fletcher|first= Richard|title= Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England|year= 1989|location=London|publisher= Shepheard-Walwyn|isbn=0-85683-089-5
*cite book |last=Hill |first=David |coauthors=Margaret Worthington |year=2005 |title=Aethelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia |location=Oxford |publisher=Archaeopress |isbn=1-84171-687-1| series=British Archaeological Reports, British series, "383"
*cite book |last= Kirby|first= D.P.|title= The Earliest English Kings|year= 1992 |location=London |publisher= Routledge |isbn=0-415-09086-5
*cite book |last=Stenton |first= Frank M.| authorlink = Frank Stenton |title= Anglo-Saxon England|year= 1971| location=Oxford|publisher= Clarendon Press|isbn=0-19-821716-1

External links

*PDFlink| [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/bede/history.pdf Bede's Ecclesiastical History and the Continuation of Bede] , at [http://www.ccel.org CCEL] , tr. A.M. Sellar
* [http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=show&page=Charters Anglo-Saxon charters] , at [http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/ Anglo-Saxons.net] .

NAME = Æthelbald
ALTERNATIVE NAMES = Ethelbald; Aethelbald
PLACE OF DEATH = Seckington, Warwickshire

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