Æthelred I of Wessex
gigatos | February 17, 2022
Æthelred or Ethelred was king of Wessex from 865 until his death in 871. He is sometimes called Æthelred I to distinguish him from the English king Æthelred the Misguided.
The fourth son of king Æthelwulf, Æthelred succeeded his elder brother Æthelberht on the throne. His short reign was mainly marked by the fight against the Vikings of the Great Army, who invaded Wessex in 870. Æthelred and his younger brother Alfred were defeated at the battle of Reading in January 871, but they won the battle of Ashdown four days later. Two other defeats followed for the English, at Basing in late January and at Meretun two months later. Æthelred also collaborated with the neighboring kingdom of Mercy, over which his brother-in-law Burgred reigned, by aligning its currencies with his own. This was the first common coinage in the whole of southern England.
Æthelred died shortly after Easter Day in the year 871, when he was not yet thirty years old, and was buried at Wimborne Minster in Dorset. Although he left two sons, Æthelhelm and Æthelwold, he was succeeded by Alfred because of their young age. Æthelwold attempted to seize power after Alfred”s death in 899, but failed and the throne was subsequently passed down through Alfred”s descendants. The line of Æthelred continued at least until the beginning of the 11th century.
In 802, Æthelred”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 more than 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. This supremacy came to an end in 825, when Ecgberht inflicted a decisive defeat on King Beornwulf of Mercy at the Battle of Ellendun. The ancient 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. On the death of Ecgberht in 839, Æthelwulf became king of Wessex and entrusted the southeastern sub-kingdom to his eldest son Æthelstan. Æthelstan disappears from the sources after his victory over the Vikings at Sandwich in 850; the following year, Æthelwulf won the battle of Aclea (unidentified place) against the Vikings with his second son Æthelbald. During his reign, relations with the Mercy of kings Beorhtwulf and Burgred improved, as they were also confronted with the Vikings. Burgred married Æthelswith, the daughter of Æthelwulf, in 853.
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Æthelred is the fourth of five sons of the Wessex king Æthelwulf and his first wife Osburga. He has three older brothers, Æthelstan, Æthelbald and Æthelberht, a younger brother, Alfred, and a sister, Æthelswith. His date of birth is not recorded in the sources. Sean Miller considers him to be a year older than Alfred, which would make him born around 847-848. Richard Abels sees him as slightly older, estimating him to be about eight years old in 853.
In the year 853, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the young Alfred was sent to Rome by his father and that he was crowned king by Pope Leo IV. In reality, no coronation took place, as explained in a letter from Leo to Æthelwulf in which the pope explains that he had granted Alfred the insignia of the consulship. The liber vitae of the abbey of St. Saviour in Brescia records not only Alfred”s name, but also that of Æthelwulf, which implies that both brothers made the journey to Rome in 853. It is likely that the pope also conferred the consular insignia on him. The account in the Chronicle, produced at Alfred”s court in the 890s, logically seeks to exalt the king of the time at the expense of his older brother.
Æthelred appears on his father”s charters from 854 (S 308), with the title “son of the king” (filius regis). This title remained associated with him during the reigns of his older brothers Æthelbald (858-860) and Æthelberht (860-865). However, he began issuing charters as king of the West Saxons as early as 862-863 (S 335). Insofar as he continues to testify on his older brother”s charters (e.g. S 333 in 864) and the sources do not mention any conflict between them, it seems that some form of power-sharing between the two brothers is in place, with Æthelred perhaps reigning in the absence of Æthelberht.
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Æthelred became king on the death of Æthelberht, in 865. His charters give him different titles: “king of the West Saxons” in five of them, “king of the West Saxons and the men of Kent” in two, “king of the Saxons” and “king” in one each. He also appears as “king of the West Saxons” in the list of witnesses to a charter (S 1201) issued by his sister, the Mercian queen Æthelswith, in 868. The charters of Æthelred and his brothers show a unity of style that suggests that they were issued by a single workshop.
A charter of Æthelred dated 868 (S 340) mentions a “queen Wulfthryth” (Wulfthryth regina) who must be his wife. She is probably the mother of his two sons Æthelhelm and Æthelwold. She could be of Mercian origin, unless she is the sister of the Wiltshire ealdorman Wulfhere. The latter was deprived of all his lands around 878 for having deserted King Alfred. It is possible that he sought Viking support to place his nephew Æthelhelm on the throne. The title attributed to Wulfthryth in the charter S 340 is remarkable, as the wives of the West Saxon kings of the ninth century (admittedly poorly attested for the most part) are almost never described as queens. In his History of King Alfred, the monk Asser justifies the reduced status of the king”s wife in Wessex by relating the story of Eadburh, a queen of the late eighth century with detestable behavior. Whether this is the cause or an ex post facto explanation of this peculiarity, the fact is that Wulfthryth and Judith (second wife of Æthelwulf and great-granddaughter of Charlemagne) are the only known women to have held the title of queen in Wessex in the ninth century.
In his will, Alfred reports that his father Æthelwulf bequeathed several estates jointly to his three sons Æthelbald, Æthelred and Alfred, with the stipulation that this inheritance should ultimately go to the last surviving son. When Æthelbald died in 860, his two brothers agreed to entrust their share of the inheritance to their brother Æthelberht, who was supposed to return it intact. When Æthelberht came to the throne, Alfred asked for his share of the inheritance at a meeting of the witan. The new king replies that he has tried several times to divide their inheritance, but that the task is too complex, and pledges to give him the whole of it when he dies. The meaning to be given to this story is debated by historians. For some, Æthelwulf”s inheritance corresponds to his entire bocland, i.e., the lands that belong to him in his own right (as opposed to folcland, the lands that were to finance the operations of the crown, which were transmitted according to custom), and that his provisions reflect his desire to see his sons succeed to the throne. Other historians consider that inheritance has nothing to do with the transmission of power. For Alfred Smyth, Æthelwulf simply sought to provide for his youngest sons, with the eldest Æthelbald acting as proxy and beneficiary in the event of their premature death. Upon Æthelred”s death, his sons” supporters demanded that Alfred share his inheritance with them, but Alfred had his father”s will read publicly before the witan to defend his rights to the entire inheritance. This dispute suggests that the two brothers had a bad relationship, which the scarcity of Alfred”s appearances on Æthelred”s charters may confirm. According to Pauline Stafford, Æthelred gave Wulfthryth the rank of queen to strengthen their sons” claim to the throne.
In the ninth century, the only coins minted in southern England were silver pennies. In a 2007 article, numismatists Adrian W. Lyons and William A. Mackay count 152 coins bearing the name of Æthelred, minted by 32 different mints, plus 10 coins bearing the name of Archbishop of Canterbury Ceolnoth, who died in 870. In their view, Æthelred”s reign was a pivotal time in the development of English coinage. His first coins had a design similar to the Floriate Cross penny series of his predecessor Æthelberht. He soon abandoned this design in favor of the one used by his brother-in-law Burgred of Mercie, of the lunette (eyeglass) type. This was the first time that a common coinage was issued in the whole of southern England. Lyons and Mackay see in this decision the beginning of a process that leads to the great monetary reform of Edgar, in the second half of the tenth century, and presages the unification of England under a single king.
This alignment of the West Saxon coinage with that of Mercy gave rise to a sort of monetary union in the whole of southern England and reinforced the interweaving of the economic interests of the two kingdoms, as well as their alliance against the Vikings. In the West Saxon treasures buried before this alignment, coins that did not come from Wessex were rare. The situation is reversed after the alignment: treasures that contain Æthelred coins always contain more from Mercy. Several factors help explain Æthelred”s decision: the longevity of the bezel design, which had been in use for more than twelve years; its simplicity, which made it easy to copy; and the superior strength of the Mercian economy.
Most of the known coins of Æthelred belong to the regular bezel series. This represents 118 coins struck by 21 mints, of which at least 6 also worked for Burgred. They come mainly from the workshops of Canterbury; a few were struck in the Mercian city of London, and only one comes from Wessex. They are distinguished by the regularity and quality of their design. A few coins deviate from this standard. A particularly clumsy strike may reflect a loss of quality control at the end of Æthelred”s reign caused by Viking attacks. The bezel series continued briefly into Alfred”s reign, but this design disappeared from the buried treasures beginning in the mid-870s.
The year 865 was marked by the arrival in England of the Great Army, which marked a new phase of Viking raids, more frequent and more intense. The kingdom of Northumbria was conquered in the space of a few years by the invaders, who then turned their attention to Mercy, the northern neighbor of Wessex. In 868, the Mercian king Burgred called upon the West Saxons against the Vikings, who had seized the city of Nottingham. Æthelred and Alfred came to his aid with a large army, but they besieged Nottingham in vain. In the end, the departure of the Vikings had to be bought by the English.
In December 870, after conquering East Anglia, the Great Army, led by kings Bagsecg and Halfdan Ragnarsson, crossed the Thames and entered Wessex. They set up camp at Reading, in Berkshire, and sent a detachment to reconnoiter. While Æthelred raised an army to confront them, the local ealdorman, Æthelwulf, led local troops to intercept the enemy detachment at Englefield, a few miles west of Reading. The battle of Englefield, which took place on December 31, 870, ended in an English victory.
Four days later, on January 4, 871, the army gathered by Æthelred and Alfred joined Æthelwulf”s forces to attack Reading. The battle of Reading began in favor of the West Saxons, who managed to reach the gates of the royal residence, but the Vikings pushed them back and remained in control of the battlefield, causing heavy losses to the English. The ealdorman Æthelwulf was killed, while Æthelred and Alfred managed to escape. According to the twelfth-century chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar, their only saving grace was their knowledge of the terrain, which enabled them to ford the Loddon at Twyford before taking refuge at Whistley Green, seven kilometers east of Reading.
A new confrontation between the two armies occurred four days later, on January 8, at an undetermined location on the Berkshire Downs, but this time it was the West Saxons who emerged victorious from the battle of Ashdown. The Vikings lost five counts, as well as Bacsecg, one of their two kings. According to Asser, Alfred the Great”s biographer, Æthelred was still praying in his tent when the battle began, so Alfred had to fight the Vikings alone at the head of half his army. It is only when he has finished his prayers that the king comes to the aid of his younger brother, allowing the English to win. Historian Richard Abels suggests that this may have been his intention from the beginning and that Asser sought to glorify Alfred by giving him most of the credit.
A fourth battle took place on January 22 at Old Basing, a royal estate located about 20 km south of Reading. This time, it was the Vikings who won the battle of Basing. It was the last major confrontation for two months: both armies probably needed to rebuild their forces, and winter was not a good time for major campaigns. Towards the end of March, the English were again defeated at the Battle of Meretun (location uncertain) and suffered heavy losses, including the Bishop of Sherborne Heahmund. Their situation was further complicated by the arrival of Viking reinforcements: a “great summer army” went up the Thames to join Halfdan”s forces at Reading.
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Death and Succession
Æthelred died at an unknown date in 871, “after Easter” according to Asser, which fell on April 15 that year. He may have succumbed to wounds received at the battle of Meretun. Asser also states that he is buried at Wimborne Minster in Dorset. Wimborne Abbey is closely related to the House of Wessex, having been founded by Cuthburh, sister of King Ine, in the early 8th century. While Alfred was attending his brother”s funeral, the West Saxons suffered another defeat against the Vikings at Reading. Defeated in his turn at Wilton, Alfred had to buy the departure of the Vikings, who withdrew to London. They went on the offensive again in 876 and forced Alfred to take refuge in the swamps of Athelney, from where he led the English in guerrilla operations until his decisive victory at the battle of Ethandun in 878.
Although Æthelred left two sons, it was Alfred who ascended the throne in 871, an adult ruler being better able to defend the kingdom. While Æthelhelm disappeared from the sources in the mid-880s, Æthelwold tried unsuccessfully to seize the throne after Alfred”s death in 899 and died in battle at the Battle of Holme in 902. Æthelred”s line is still represented in the 10th and 11th centuries by the ealdorman Æthelweard, who describes himself as a descendant of king Æthelred in his Latin translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, his son Æthelmær Cild, also an ealdorman, and his grandson Æthelnoth, who was archbishop of Canterbury from 1020 to 1038.
Æthelred appears in Bernard Cornwell”s Saxon Histories, a series of historical novels set during the reign of Alfred the Great and his successors, as well as in the television series The Last Kingdom, adapted from them.
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