Æthelberht, King of Wessex
gigatos | March 13, 2022
Æthelberht was king of Wessex from 860 to his death in 865.
He was the third son of king Æthelwulf. His date of birth is unknown, but he begins to appear on his father”s charters in 854. The following year, Æthelwulf went on a pilgrimage to Rome. He entrusted the regency of Wessex proper to Æthelbald, the eldest of his surviving sons, while Æthelberht was given custody of the regions of south-east England (Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Essex) conquered by the house of Wessex in the early ninth century. It is possible that he returned these regions to his father on his return from Rome in 856.
After Æthelwulf”s death in 858, Æthelberht became (or remained) ruler of southeast England. His elder brother Æthelbald, who had become king of Wessex, died two years later. Æthelberht then brought all the possessions of the house of Wessex under his authority, ending the practice of giving the southeast to a younger member of the royal house. The only known events of his brief reign were two Viking raids in 860 and 864. When he died in the autumn of 865, he was buried next to Æthelbald at Sherborne Abbey in Dorset. His younger brother Æthelred succeeded him.
In 802, Æthelberht”s grandfather, Ecgberht, ascended the throne of Wessex. This distant descendant of Cerdic, the legendary founder of the Wessex royal line, became the first ruler in over a century to bequeath the kingdom to his son upon his death. England was at this time almost entirely controlled by the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the most powerful of which was that of Mercy, based in the Midlands, until 825. In that year, Ecgberht inflicted a decisive defeat on King Beornwulf of Mercy at the Battle of Ellendun, which marked the end of Mercian supremacy over southern England. The former kingdoms of the south-east of the island (Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex) thus came under the authority of Ecgberht, who entrusted them to his son Æthelwulf. Wessex itself and the south-eastern regions remain two distinct entities, even if Æthelwulf occupies a subordinate position vis-à-vis his father.
The 830s were marked by Viking raids on the English coast. The Isle of Sheppey was ravaged in 835, and the following year Ecgberht suffered a defeat against the Vikings at Carhampton in Somerset. He won a battle against the Vikings allied with the Cornish in 838 at Hingston Down, reducing Cornwall to the status of a client kingdom. Upon his death in 839, his son Æthelwulf became king of Wessex and left the southeastern sub-kingdom to his eldest son Æthelstan. In 843, Carhampton was again the scene of a defeat against the Vikings, but Æthelstan managed to defeat a Danish fleet off Sandwich in 850. The following year, Æthelwulf and his second son Æthelbald won the battle of Aclea (unidentified place) over the Vikings.
Æthelberht was the third of five sons of king Æthelwulf. The only known wife of Æthelwulf, Osburga, is generally considered to be the mother of all his children, but some historians believe that only the last two, Æthelred and Alfred, are his sons, as they are much younger than the three eldest, who would in this case be the result of Æthelwulf”s otherwise unknown first marriage. Æthelwulf”s eldest son, Æthelstan, died before his father in the early 850s, but the other four survived and succeeded each other on the throne of Wessex: Æthelbald from 855 to 860, Æthelberht from 860 to 865, Æthelred from 865 to 871 and Alfred from 871 to 899. Æthelwulf also had a daughter, Æthelswith, who married King Burgred of Mercy in 853.
The first appearance of Æthelberht in the sources is in 854, when he appears in the list of witnesses to a charter. The following year, his father went on a pilgrimage to Rome and divided his estates between his two eldest sons, entrusting Wessex proper to Æthelbald and the kingdoms of southeast England (Kent, Essex, Sussex and Surrey) to Æthelberht. His intention seems to have been that this division should be permanent if he were never to return from pilgrimage. Thus, while he bore only the title of ealdorman (dux) in 854, it is as king (rex) that Æthelberht appears on the charters of 855.
Æthelwulf returned to England in 856 with a new wife, Judith, daughter of the Carolingian king Charles the Bald. He was confronted with the rebellion of Æthelbald, who refused to give him back the throne of Wessex and was supported by the bishop of Sherborne Eahlstan and the ealdorman of Somerset Eanwulf. In order to avoid a civil war, Æthelwulf agrees to share power with his eldest son. According to Asser, Æthelwulf retained “the eastern districts” for himself, but the exact terms of this division are not certain. For Simon Keynes and Richard Abels, Æthelbald retains Wessex and Æthelberht returns the south-eastern kingdoms to his father, but D. P. Kirby considers that the division between father and son concerns only Wessex proper, with Æthelbald reigning west of the Selwood Forest and Æthelwulf in the east.
At the end of his life, Æthelwulf confirmed his intention to divide the domains of the house of Wessex between his two sons, Wessex to Æthelbald and the south-eastern kingdoms to Æthelberht. These arrangements were respected at his death, which occurred on 13 January 858: Æthelbald remained (or became) king of the whole of Wessex, while Æthelberht recovered (or remained) as head of the south-east. Although Æthelbald incurred the wrath of Asser for rebelling against his father and marrying his widow, Æthelberht seems to have been on good terms with him, judging by the few surviving charters from Æthelbald”s brief reign. In 858, Æthelbald issued a charter (S 1274) concerning an estate in Surrey, an area under the authority of his brother. Two years later, he was listed as a witness to another charter (S 326) of Æthelbald.
A kentish charter of 858 (S 328) suggests that Æthelberht proceeded to an important renewal of his vassals. Indeed, among the twenty-one thegns on the witness list, fourteen never appeared on a charter of his father. One of these is Eastmund, later named ealdorman of Kent by Æthelberht. It is also a significant charter for defining the obligations associated with folcland (a type of land whose transmission is defined by unwritten custom, as opposed to bocland which is transmitted by written will). S 328 makes it clear that the king has the right to collect a food annuity and to demand traditional services from folcland owners.
The separation of Wessex and the south-eastern kingdoms ended with the death of Æthelbald in 860. He left no children and Æthelberht succeeded him as sole king of all the estates of the house of Wessex. Unlike his father and grandfather, he did not appoint anyone to rule the kingdoms of the southeast. Æthelred and Alfred were excluded from the succession because of their young age and the Viking threat to England. The tightening of the union between Wessex and the other kingdoms can be seen in a charter from the first year of Æthelberht”s reign which records a donation to the bishop of Rochester (S 327). It concerns lands in Kent, which explains the presence of the archbishop of Canterbury Ceolnoth and ealdormen from that region in the list of witnesses, but it is also countersigned by bishops and ealdormen from Wessex and Sussex, as well as by the bishop of London Deorwulf. It is a significant document: even if the following charters of Æthelberht do not reproduce the same diversity, it is the first time that a list of witnesses presents such a mixture. According to Simon Keynes, “this charter seems to reflect an assembly of a type never before seen, a type which in itself reflects the new arrangements for the unification of Wessex and the south-east.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Æthelberht reigns “in good harmony and great peace”. He seems to have had good relations with his younger brothers. In a charter of 861 (S 330), he offered land to St. Augustine”s Abbey in Canterbury in exchange for the abbot”s loyalty to him, but also to Æthelred and Alfred. According to some historians, the three brothers agreed to succeed each other on the throne. Two charters from 862 and 863 (S 335 and S 336) show donations from Æthelred as king of the West Saxons, without mentioning Æthelberht, which might indicate that Æthelberht delegated some of his authority to his younger brother, perhaps during an absence. On another charter of 863 (S 333) issued by Æthelberht, Æthelred appears as a mere filius regis, “son of a king”.
Æthelberht exempts Sherborne Abbey from all royal and judicial obligations to honor the souls of his father and older brother. Unlike most charters, this one is not written in Latin, but in Old English. This choice may reflect an increased use of the vernacular in legal documents, or it may reflect the decline in Latin learning in England that Alfred lamented after he came to power in 871.
The reign of Æthelberht began and ended with Viking raids. In 860, an army from the Bay of Somme crossed the English Channel and plundered the town of Winchester before being defeated by the men of Hampshire and Berkshire. Another Viking army settled on the Isle of Thanet, probably in the autumn of 864. They agreed to a truce in exchange for payment, but broke their promise and ravaged the eastern half of Kent. These two incursions were, however, mere skirmishes compared to what happened after Æthelberht”s death, when a large Viking army nearly conquered all of England.
In the ninth century, the only coins minted in southern England were silver pennies. The location of the Wessex mint is not identified, but its activity was very limited during this period, and no coins minted in this kingdom during the reign of Æthelberht have been found. Kent, on the other hand, has two active workshops, at Canterbury and Rochester, which minted coins in the name of Æthelwulf until 858, and then in that of Æthelberht. The absence of Æthelbald”s coins in this sequence proves that he had no authority over his younger brother.
Æthelberht died of unknown causes in the fall of 865. He was buried in Sherborne Abbey, Dorset, alongside his older brother Æthelbald. The antiquary John Leland, who visited the abbey in 1542, reported that the tombs of both kings had disappeared before that date. His younger brother Æthelred succeeded him on the throne of Wessex.
No children of Æthelberht are known. He could be the father of a certain Oswald, who appears on two charters of 868 and one of 875 as filius regis, “son of a king”.
Asser, who relies primarily on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to relate events prior to 887, concludes his account of Æthelberht”s reign in this way:
“Thus Æthelberht, after having held the helm of the kingdom for five years in peace, friendship and honor, took to the great sorrow of his own people the path that all take; he rests with honor in Sherborne, buried beside his brother.”
This judgment is taken up by the chroniclers after the Norman conquest of England. John of Worcester reuses the same words as Asser, while William of Malmesbury describes him as “a vigorous but benevolent ruler. The historian Alfred Smyth points out that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which begins under Alfred the Great, mentions only two events during Æthelberht”s reign, neither of which involves the king personally. For Smyth, this reflects the chroniclers” desire to enhance Alfred”s prestige by downplaying the role of his brothers and predecessors on the throne.