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Æthelbald of Mercia: 716-757

The English spurn lawful wedlock and live a foul life in adultery and licence like the people of Sodom: from such intercourse with harlots, a people degenerate, unworthy, mad with lust, will be born…” – Pope Boniface, c. 746


Figure 1 This is the “Repton Stone” a very important find, being part of a broken Anglo-Saxon cross shaft, showing on one side a kilted warrior on a horse. It is believed to represent King Ethelbald of Mercia and, if so, it is the earliest pictorial representation of a King of England




Æthelred was followed on the throne by a nephew, Coenred, who also followed him into religion, abdicating in 709; he died on pilgrimage to Rome. (11) Coenred was succeeded by Ceolred, (709–16). (11) Anarchy ruled (4) in his reign: (9) Mercia’s hold over the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Essex, Sussex and Kent seems to have been tenuous. (5) In such circumstances any member of an extended royal family had an accepted chance to capture the throne. (9) This is the background to the situation of (9) young Æthelbald (3,9) also spelled Ethelbald or Æthelbald (10) a distant kinsman (11) OR his second (4) cousin (4,9) who claimed descent from (10,11) King Eowa, (10,13) a brother of Penda (3,11) because he was the son of Alweo. (10,13) It is not known for certain when Æthelbald was born. (7) Æthelbald was driven into exile by King Ceolred (4,9) who was troubled by his lurking presence. (11)

Exile in Crowland

The monk Felix wrote his Latin (13) Life of St Guthlac (11,13) which was commissioned (11) and written about 730–740 (13) soon after his death by a king of East Anglia and two Old English poems, ‘Guthlac A’ and ‘Guthlac B’ also tell his story. (11) Æthelbald found sanctuary on the desolate island of (11) Crowland in the Middle Anglian Fens (11,13), in modern Lincolnshire (13) where Guthlac, by this time a noted holy man, (11) had made his retreat. (11,13) This St Guthlac was of Mercian royal descent with a military background (11,13) having won renown in a former life as a warband leader on Mercia’s western frontier. (11) He had often sheltered Æthelbald, and is said to have advised him to be patient because God would help him gain the kingdom. (13) Conditions on his island were ideal for the solitary soldier of Christ in battle against the demons of temptation, but hardly for a king-to-be. (11) Guthlac dressed in skins and, by way of nourishment, indulged himself daily with a small piece of barley bread and a beaker of muddy fen water. (11) On the other hand, the place was pretty secure; few, other than the saint and favoured pilgrims seeking the blessing of the holy man (and presumably the baker), knew the way through the treacherous, boggy terrain. (11) The hermit saint prophesied that Æthelbald would become king, and the pretender vowed to build an abbey on the hermit’s island should that happen. (11) Guthlac died in 714 and was buried in his chapel. (13) A year later, his body, when it was being transferred to a new tomb, was found to be incorrupt (a sure sign of saintliness). (13) Subsequently, Guthlac is purported to have appeared to Æthelbald in a vision, prophesying his succession to the throne within the year – “and now, built around it [Guthlac’s tomb], we behold wonderful structures and ornamentations put up by King Æthelbald in honour of the divine power: here [at Crowland] the triumphant body of the great man rests in blessedness until this present time” (§LI). (13) He may have honoured his promise – eighth-century timber piling, adequate as the foundations of a wattle and daub structure, have been unearthed. (11) 5 Centuries later the Croyland/Crowland Chronicle would claim he had made extensive land grants. (11) What little we know about Æthelbald indicates that an act of piety would have been out of character. (11) On the other hand, keeping faith with the deity might have seemed simple commonsense. (11) Æthelbald eventually came to the throne after Ceolred’s death. (9,10)


Re-establishment of Mercian power

He was king of (2,3) the west Saxon kingdom of (7) Mercia (2,3) in what is now the English Midlands (10) from 716. (2,3) He was a strong (3,4) cruel and oppressive (11) ruler, (3,4) During his reign, Mercia was restored as the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom in England (4,5) for over forty years (5) as it had been under Penda (4,5) and Wulfhere between about 628 and 675. (10)

Aethelbald and Wessex

When Æthelbald came to the throne, both Wessex and Kent were ruled by stronger kings. (10) Both Wihtred of Kent and Ine of Wessex had reigned for over thirty years. (13) In the 720s, (11) the Cornish Britons beat the West Saxons at Hehil. (13) By 731 Æthelbald was ruler of most of England: his predominance was made possible by the death of the strong king Wihtred of Kent (725) and the abdication of Ine of Wessex (6,11) (726) (10) to go on pilgrimage to Rome. (11) Bede doesn’t give any indication of the means by which Æthelbald achieved such pre-eminence, but the messy successions after the disappearances of Wihtred and Ine probably provided the opportunity. (12,13) it is possible that it was his support that enabled Æthelheard to defeat Oswald and secure his position, though at the cost of accepting Æthelbald as his overlord. (12) The boundary between Mercia and Wessex was, in effect, marked by the rivers Thames and Avon. (12,13) For a time in the 730s he occupied the West Saxon royal vill at Somerton. (11,13) The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, s.a.733, notes that “Æthelbald captured Somerton”. (11,13) Somerton, now in Somerset, was then in West Saxon territory, (11,13) Somerset wasn’t the only area where Æthelbald appropriated territory from the West Saxons – he gave the monastery of Cookham, in Berkshire, to the church of Canterbury (S1258). (13) When Æthelheard died, (12) in 740, he was succeeded by Cuthred (12,13) – who was “his brother”, according to Symeon of Durham (‘HR’). (12) And records, s.a.750, that Cuthred: “fought against Æthelhun, the proud ealdorman.” (12) Once more, Henry of Huntingdon fleshes out the story: “In the 11th year of his reign Cuthred fought against Æthelhun, a proud chief, who fomented a rebellion against his sovereign, and although he was vastly inferior to his lord in number of troops, he held the field against him for a long time with a most obstinate resistance, his exceeding caution supplying the deficiency of his force. (12) But when victory had well nigh crowned his enterprise, a severe wound, the just judgement of his traitorous intentions, caused the royal cause to triumph.” (12) The ‘Chronicle’, s.a. 748, makes the rather enigmatic comment: “Cynric, ætheling of the West Saxons, was slain”. … Henry of Huntingdon expands the above statement, though whether he is drawing on anything more substantial than his own imagination is impossible to say: “In the 9th year of Cuthred, Cynric, his son, was slain, a brave warrior and bold hunter, tender in age, but strong in arms, little in years, but great in prowess; who, while he was following up his successes, trusting too much to the fortune of war, fell in a mutiny of his soldiers, suffering the punishment of his impatient temper.” (12) Cuthred, however, was not content to be subject to Æthelbald – the ‘Chronicle’, during its report of his accession, had commented that: “he warred boldly against Æthelbald, king of the Mercians.” (13) In 752, Cuthred: “fought at Beorhford [unidentified] against Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, and put him to flight.” (13) For Battle of Beorhford (see Appendix 2) Wessex was apparently independent of Mercia until Cuthred’s death four years later. (13)

After Beorhford

It seems likely that Wessex remained independent for the remainder of Cuthred’s reign. (12) His last recorded exploit appears s.a.753 in the ‘Chronicle’, when he: “fought against the Welsh.” (In this instance, “the Welsh” would be the Cornish Britons. (12) Cuthred died in 756, and was succeeded by one Sigeberht, (12,13) but he ruled for only a year before he was overthrown and Cynewulf took the West Saxon throne. (12,13)

Cynewulf and the West Saxon witan deprived Sigeberht, his kinsman, of his kingdom, for his unrighteous deeds, except Hampshire; and that he held until he slew the ealdorman who had longest remained with him. And then Cynewulf drove him into Andred [the Weald]; and he there abode until a herdsman stabbed him at Pryfetesflodan [Privett]; and [thus] he avenged the ealdorman Cumbra.” (12)

It may be that Cynewulf owed his position to Æthelbald’s support, (12,13) since he immediately appears as witness to a charter in which Æthelbald grants land in Wiltshire to a certain Abbot Eanberht (S96) – Æthelbald is styled: “king, not only of the Mercians but also of the neighbouring peoples”. (12) Clearly, Æthelbald was Cynewulf’s overlord. (12,13) However, later the same year, 757, Æthelbald was assassinated, and Mercia underwent a period of instability as Offa established his authority. (12) Cynewulf capitalized on the situation. (12,13) He evidently recovered territory previously lost to Mercia – he could grant land freely in Wiltshire (as demonstrated by S260, dated 758), and in 760 he took the monastery of Cookham, Berkshire, which Æthelbald had given to the church of Canterbury, into his own ownership. (12) He also annexed land from the Mercian sub-kingdom of the Hwicce – in S265, Cynewulf grants land at North Stoke, Somerset, to the monastery at Bath (both North Stoke and the monastery being north of the Avon, in the territory of the Hwicce). (12)

Aethelbald and the Welsh

Felix calls the Britons: “the implacable enemies of the Saxon race”. (13) Aethelbald enlisted the West Saxons against the Welsh. (7,11) Indicating the year 722, the ‘Annales Cambriae’ record: “the battle of Hehil among the Cornish, the battle of Garth Maelog, the battle of Pencon among the south Britons, and the Britons were the victors in those three battles.” (13) Clearly, it was the English who were defeated in all the battles (the site of none of them is known with certainty). (13) Around 743 (3,7) he joined forces with (7,12) Cuthred (12) OR Ceolred of (7) Wessex to invade (7,12) Powys and Gwent (7) in South East (3) Wales (7,12). It seems reasonable to suppose that Cuthred was obliged to accompany Æthelbald, his overlord, on this campaign. (12) The Hwicce acknowledged him as ‘king of the Southern English’ (‘rex Sutanglorum’) and also marched under his banners against the Welsh. (11) The “south Britons” are the natives of southern Wales, and the English beaten at Pencon and Garth Maelog would have been the Mercians. (13) Meanwhile, in 740, Cuthred had succeeded to the West Saxon throne. (13) In 743 Æthelbald and Cuthred, together, “fought against the Welsh” – no further detail is provided by the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’. (13) Possibly Cuthred was duty-bound to accompany Æthelbald, his overlord, on campaign. (13)

Aethelbald Essex and East Anglia

In East Anglia, where King Aelle had first wielded the obscure powers of bretwalda, the once royal house now barely exercised the authority of a district governor. (11) In ‘The Earliest English Kings’ (Second Edition, 2000, Chapter 6), D. P. Kirby suggests: “Perhaps an alliance with the East Angles was the cornerstone of Æthelbald’s ascendancy.” (13)

Aethelbald and Northumbria

He led an expedition into Northumbria in 740. (3,13) He ‘cruelly and wrongfully wasted’ (13) it (11,13) while the Northumbrian king, Eadberht, was away with his army, fighting the Picts. (13) He made opportunistic alliances with the king of the Picts (11) to make territorial gains at the expense of his neighbour. (13)

Aethelbald and minor kingdoms; Hwicce; London

Æthelbald also exercised authority to his south east. (11) The freedom with which his charters show Æthelbald operating in the province of the Middle Saxons and London, show that (13) the kings of the East Saxons (Essex) (11) surrendered control of London to Mercia. (6,11) In 748 a Mercian royal council was held there. (11) Æthelbald’s agents collected tolls from the shipping in London’s emporium Lundenwic, and he disposed of lands in the territories of the Middle Saxons (Middlesex), formerly the preserve of the kings of Essex. (11) The Hwicce were subject to him, though in 767 and 770 we find grants of land being made by its under-king. (11) Proving that his under-kings could exercise local authority. (11)

Relations with the Church


Political superiority was reflected in the way the Mercian kings treated the church. (8) They ruled or dominated the entire ecclesiastic province of the archbishops of Canterbury, and thus exercised a great influence on how it was run. (8) In the days of Æthelbald, (11) his relations with the church were forceful. (9) Mercian candidates were elected archbishop, even though Kent still retained some independence at the time. (8) Previously, the bishops had run their own meetings independently of monarchs. (8) Æthelbald was also able to act as the president of a church council of the province of Canterbury in 746/7. (8) He made grants of Wessex land to the cathedral church at Canterbury; although, like many other medieval kings, he sometimes regretted the pious generosity of his predecessors in giving away royal lands and rights. (8)


He seems to have established a firm exploitation of monasteries. (9)

The Papacy

St. Boniface (3,10) and other Anglo-Saxon missionary bishops (3) OR Continental bishops (13) in Germany (3) wrote a joint letter (q.v Appendix 1) to Æthelbald (13) in about 745 (10) OR 746 or 747 (3) It begins innocuously enough, with compliments: (13) the Pope praises him as an upholder of law and order who kept ‘a firm peace in [the] kingdom’. (11) They then went on to lecture Æthelbald (3,10) on sexual mores. (11) They reproved him (3,10) for various dissolute acts: (6,10) they expressed disgust with him because he lived life in the fast lane. (2) Boniface reports that he had heard ‘about your excellency’s private life’, which not only breached the laws of God but damaged the king’s standing ‘among the people’. (11) He was a notorious lecher and adulterer, violating not only other men’s wives (11) but also misconducted himself with nuns. (9,11) If Boniface is to be believed, Æthelbald was unmarried and so, presumably, had yet to father a legitimate heir (in fact he was to be succeeded by a cousin). (11) They also accused him of irreligious acts: (10) violating ecclesiastical prerogatives. (6)

The Synod of Gumley

Æthelbald may have been stung by this criticism. (13) He called a (7,10) council at Clovesho in 747 (10) OR a special Synod, or church summit, (7) or issued a charter (10) at Gumley, (7,10) in 749, at which he freed churches from all public financial responsibilities (6,7) This concession freed the church from some of its obligations, and may have been in response to Boniface’s letter. (10) He still found it necessary to insist that whatever grants had been made in the past, (8) all lands had to contribute men to the army and labour towards the building and maintenance of bridges and fortresses. (6,8) Was Æthelbald’s active role applauded or resented by the churchmen? Probably both. (8) Boniface credits him with generous charitable donations and as a friend to widows and the poor. (8)


By 731 (3,7) In about 732, (11) Bede describes Æthelbald as (10,11) the chief king (6,7) Bretwalda, or overlord, (7,11) controlling all England S of the Humber River. (3,7) including the East Saxons, East Angles, the West Saxons, the ‘people who dwell to the west of the River Severn’, the kingdoms of the Hwicce, and Lindsey, the Isle of Wight and the South Saxons. (11) OR The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not list Æthelbald as a Bretwalda, though this may be due to the West Saxon origin of the Chronicle. (10) A Mercian royal charter of 736 describes Æthelbald as ‘king’ of all the ‘provinces’ known as the Sutangli; (9,11) and in a charter of this same year he features as ‘Rex Britanniae’ (11,13) ‘king of Britain’. (6,9) presumably a Latin equivalent for ‘Bretwalda’. (11,13) In 752 he lost the Battle of Burford to Cuthred of Wessex and thus lost his claim to overlordship of Mercia. (7)


Though his reign was (unusually for that time period) a time of somewhat relative peace, (7) his sins caught up with him when, (2) in 757, he was (2,3) treacherously and miserably (13) murdered (2,3) in the night (13) possibly (4) by his own bodyguard. (2,3) This happened at Seckington, (7,11) near the royal palace of Tamworth (11) in England. (6) Their motives are not known (4) OR they were probably under instructions from one or other party of the royal kin, perhaps Offa, the eventual beneficiary in his overthrow. (11) Æthelbald was buried at Repton. (13) Our fragments of knowledge suggest the creative authority of a mighty ruler. (9)

After Æthelbald

Æthelbald’s killing precipitated (10,13) a brief civil (10) war in Mercia. (10,13) He was succeeded by Beornred, (4,7) of whom little is known. (10) He was quickly (7,10) overthrown (7,10) by Æthelbald’s cousin Offa (4,7) probably the greatest of all the Mercian kings, (7) who reigned from 716 to 757. (4) Offa’s accession in 757 heralded the beginning of a golden age for Mercia. (5,10) Some historians have suggested that it was Offa’s defeat of the Welsh and the West Saxons of Wessex that established the Mercian Supremacy, which remained unchallenged until 825 when Egbert of Wessex supported an East Anglian rebellion against Beornwulf of Mercia, whose death at Ellandun effectively brought the Supremacy to an end. (5) With him we reach the most powerful of England’s many kings before the reign of King Alfred of Wessex. (11) Mercia had already overtaken Northumbria as England’s dominant power. (11)

Appendix I: Boniface’s letter

We have heard that thou givest many alms, and upon this we congratulate thee …We have heard too that thou dost strongly check theft and iniquity, perjury and rapine, and art known to be a defender of widows and the poor and hast peace established in thy kingdom. (13) And in this too, praising God we have rejoiced”. (13) However, this is just a preamble to the main reasons for the letter: “But among these reports one rumour of evil character concerning your highness’ life has come to our hearing; we were cast down by it, and wish that it were not true. (13) From many sources we have learned that thou hast never taken a wife in lawful marriage…If thou hast determined to act thus because of chastity and abstinence, that thou mayst abstain from intercourse with a wife for the love and fear of God, and hast shown this to be something truly accomplished for God’s sake, we rejoice thereat; such a course deserves not blame, but praise. (13) If, however, as many say – God forbid – thou hast never taken a lawful wife nor preserved a chaste abstinence for God’s sake, but, under the sway of lust, thou hast destroyed by licence and adultery thy glory and renown before God and men, we are greatly grieved: such conduct must be regarded as criminal in the sight of God and destructive of your reputation before men. (13) And what is worse, those who tell us this, add that this crime of deepest ignominy has been committed in convents with holy nuns and virgins consecrated to God. (13) There can be no doubt that this is a twofold sin…Fornication is more grave and repellent than almost any other sin and can truly be called a noose of death and a pit of hell and an abyss of perdition…If indeed the race of the English – as is noised abroad through these provinces, and is cast up to us in France and in Italy, and made a reproach even by the heathen – spurn lawful wedlock and live a foul life in adultery and licence like the people of Sodom, from such intercourse with harlots, a people degenerate, unworthy, mad with lust, will be born, and in the end the whole nation, turning to lower and baser ways, will cease to be strong in war or steadfast in faith, or honourable before men or beloved of God …Besides, we have been told that thou hast violated many privileges of churches and monasteries, and taken from them many revenues. (13) And this, if it be true, must be regarded as a great sin …And it is said that thy prefects and counts use greater violence and oppression towards monks and priests, than other Christian kings have ever done before…And so, beloved son, putting forth just counsel, we beg and pray through the living God and through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit, that thou mayst remember, how fugitive is this present life, and how short and momentary is the delight of the impure flesh, and how ignominious it is for a man with his short life to leave an evil example for ever to posterity. (13) Begin, therefore, to order thy life by better laws and to correct the past errors of youth, so that here thou mayst have praise before men and for the future rejoice in glory eternal. (13) That thy highness may fare well and advance in good morals is our wish.”

Appendix 2: Battle of Beorhford 752

Cuthred was evidently not content to let Wessex remain under Mercian suzerainty. (12) In its report of Cuthred’s accession, the ‘Chronicle’ comments: “and he warred boldly against Æthelbald, king of the Mercians”, then s.a.752: “Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, in the 12th year of his reign, fought at Beorhford [unidentified] against Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, and put him to flight.” (12) Henry of Huntingdon goes to town: “Cuthred, in the 13th year of his reign, being unable to submit any longer to the insolent exactions and the arrogance of King Æthelbald, and preferring liberty to the hope of life, encountered him at Beorhford with bannered legions. (12) He was attended by Æthelhun, the aforesaid chief, with whom he was now reconciled, and, supported by his valour and counsels, he was able to try the chances of war. (12) On the other side, Æthelbald, who was king of kings, had in his army the Kentish men, the East Saxons and Angles, with a numerous host. (12) The armies being drawn up in battle array, and, rushing forward, having nearly met, Æthelhun, who led the West Saxons, bearing the royal standard, a golden dragon, transfixed the standard bearer of the enemy. (12) Upon this, a shout arose, and the followers of Cuthred being much encouraged, battle was joined on both sides. (12) Then the thunder of war, the clash of arms, the clang of blows, and the cries of the wounded, resounded terribly, and a desperate and most decisive battle began, according to the issue of which, either the men of Wessex, or the men of Mercia, would for many generations be subject to the victors. (12) Then might be seen the troops with rustling breastplates and pointed helmets and glistening spears, with emblazoned standards shining with gold; but a short time afterwards stained with blood, bespattered with brains, their spears shattered, and their ranks broken, a horrible spectacle. (12) The bravest and boldest on both sides gathering about their standards, rank rushed desperately on rank, dealing slaughter with their swords and Amazonian battle-axes. (12) There was no thought of flight, confidence in victory was equal on both sides. (12) The arrogance of their pride sustained the Mercians, the fear of slavery kindled the courage of the men of Wessex. (12) But wherever the chief before mentioned fell on the enemy’s ranks, there he cleared a way before him, his tremendous battle-axe cleaving, swift as lightning, both arms and limbs. (12) On the other hand, wherever brave King Æthelbald turned, the enemy were slaughtered, for his invincible sword rent armour as if it were a vestment, and bones as if they were flesh. (12) When, therefore, it happened that the king and the chief met each other, it was as when two fires from opposite quarters consume all that opposes them. (12) Each of them, to excite terror in the other, came on with threatening mien, thrusting forth the right hand, and gathering themselves up in their arms struck furious blows, the one against the other. (12) But the God who resists the proud, and from whom all might, courage, and valour proceed, made an end of his favour to King Æthelbald, and caused his wonted confidence to fail. (12) Since then he no longer felt courage or strength, Almighty God inspiring him with terror, he was the first to flee while yet his troops continued to fight.” (12)

















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