Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ethelbald (d.757)

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ETHELBALD or ÆTHELBALD (d. 757), king of the Mercians, the son of Alweo, the son of Eawa, a younger brother of the Mercian king Penda, was in early life driven from Mercia by Ceolred, the grandson of Penda, and took refuge in the fen-country. While there he often visited at Crowland the hermit Guthlac, who also belonged to the royal house of Mercia. Guthlac comforted him in his exile, and is said to have prophesied that he would one day become king not by violence but by the act of God; and so it was that when Ceolred died in 716 he succeeded quietly to the throne of Mercia (Acta SS. April. ii. 37; the story is also told in the romance of the pseudo-Ingulf, ed. Savile, p. 850 sq.; the date of Æthelbald's accession is fixed by Bæda, Hist. Eccl. v. 24, and A.-S. Chron. sub an.) Æthelbald, who is described as a brave and impetuous warrior, carried on the extension of the Mercian power with such energy and success, that in 731 he was acknowledged as overlord by all the kings and peoples of southern England as far north as the Humber (Bæda, v. 23), and in a charter of about this time styles himself ‘king not only of the Mercians, but also of all the provinces that are called by the common name of South-English’ (Kemble, Codex Dipl. p. 83). Many wars had been waged between the Mercians and the West-Saxons, each people striving to advance their boundary at the expense of the other. The resignation of Ine, and the civil discord that had followed it, had given Æthelbald the opportunity for compelling the West-Saxons to acknowledge his superiority, and he further took advantage of embarrassments of Æthelheard, Ine's successor, to invade his kingdom. In 733 he took ‘Sumertun,’ which it seems reasonable to identify with Somerton in Somersetshire (A.-S. Chron. sub an.; Making of England, p. 394. It has, however, been contended that it was Somerton, near Oxford. This theory has been refuted satisfactorily by Mr. J. Parker; but on the strength of a notice of the extent of Æthelbald's power given by Henry of Huntingdon, which he fails to see is merely a version of the passage in Bæda referred to above, and transferred from 731 to 733, he proposes to identify the town taken by Æthelbald with Somerton on the borders of Lincolnshire. Early History of Oxford, p. 108). The town is said to have sustained a regular siege, and to have been surrendered by its defenders when it was evident that no succour would be sent to them (Henry of Huntingdon, p. 725). With its surrender the war seems to have ended, the West-Saxon king doubtless renewing his profession of subjection. Æthelbald seems next to have endeavoured to extend his dominion beyond the Humber; for while Eadberht of Northumbria was engaged in a war with the Picts in 740 he ravaged his land (ap. ad Bædam). In 743 he carried on a successful war against the Welsh, in alliance with the West-Saxon king, Cuthred [q. v.], who owned him as his overlord. Cuthred, however, found the Mercian yoke intolerable, for Æthelbald is said to have oppressed the West-Saxons with exactions, and to have treated them with insolence (Henry of Huntingdon, p. 728). Accordingly, after he had brought his kingdom to order, Cuthred made war on Æthelbald in 752. He crossed the Thames and advanced to Beorgford or Burford, about fifteen miles to the north-west of Oxford (Parker). The war had probably begun some time before this, for the army which Æthelbald led against him was composed not merely of Mercians but also of troops from the other countries that were subject to the Mercian king, from Kent, Essex, and East Anglia. The battle was fierce and obstinate, for both armies alike were animated with the hope of victory. Attacks were made by both. Wherever Æthelbald fought his weapon crashed through the armour and the bones of his enemies; at whatever point the West-Saxon ealdorman Æthelhun the Proud attacked the Mercian square, his battle-axe opened a path through their ranks and strewed it with corpses. At last the two met face to face, and fought a while together in single combat. Then the king's spirit failed, and he turned and fled, leaving his army still engaged (Henry of Huntingdon). The Mercians were utterly routed; Æthelbald lost his superiority over Wessex, and his power sustained a blow from which it never recovered, for from that day nothing prospered with him (ib.)

Æthelbald was a liberal benefactor to the church, making grants to Evesham (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 65, 66, 68; Monasticon, ii. 14), to Worcester (Kemble, 67), and other ecclesiastical bodies in Mercia, and he extended his gifts to monasteries in the lands under his overlordship, to Christ Church, Canterbury (ib. 1019), to Rochester (ib. 78), and to St. Mildred's Abbey in the Isle of Thanet (ib. 84; Monasticon, i. 448); he made a grant to Abingdon in conjunction with Æthelheard (Kemble, 81), and gave a charter to Glastonbury, which was confirmed by Cuthred in 744 (ib. 93; Gesta Regum, i. 55). He also made a general grant in 749 freeing monasteries and churches from all toll and service except the obligation of building bridges and defending fortresses (Kemble, 99; Eccl. Documents, iii. 386; Gesta Regum, i. 55). Accompanied by his ealdormen and other nobles he presided over the council of Clovesho, which was held by Archbishop Cuthberht in 747 and attended by bishops from every kingdom south of the Humber (Eccl. Documents, iii. 360). The influence of his overlordship in church matters is also illustrated by the election of three Mercians to the see of Canterbury (Stubbs, Dict. of Christian Biography). Nevertheless, he was a man of scandalously evil life. Between 744 and 747 Boniface, the English archbishop of Mentz, and five German bishops, wrote him a letter in which, while acknowledging his liberality, they strongly remonstrated with him on the immoral connections he formed while neglecting to enter into lawful marriage, on his violation of nuns, and the general iniquity of his conduct, and Boniface sent letters to a priest named Herefrith and to Ecgberht, archbishop of York, praying them to urge the king to comply with the advice that had been given him and amend his ways. A letter from Boniface to Æthelbald shows that they were on friendly terms; the king had obliged the archbishop, who in return sent him presents (Eccl. Doc. iii. 350–60). A letter from ‘Ædilwald’ to Aldhelm [q. v.] while abbot of Malmesbury ascribed to Æthelbald (Monumenta Moguntina, p. 35) was certainly not written by him (Stubbs). After a reign of forty-one years Æthelbald was slain at Secandune or Seckington in Warwickshire, in 757 (Introd. to Hoveden, i.), by his own guards, who fell upon him at night (ap. ad Bædam), or in battle there (Henry of Huntingdon, p. 729), or by Beornræd, who made himself king in his stead (Florence, i. 266). The three versions are not necessarily conflicting; a war with the rebel Beornræd, and a night attack upon the king's camp in which his own men, or perhaps Beornræd himself, if a king's thegn, slew him, would give an incident of which each writer referred to relates a part. Æthelbald was buried at Repton. A letter from an unknown writer describes a vision in which Æthelbald was seen in torments after his death (Mon. Mogunt. p. 275).

[Bædæ Hist. Eccles., Appendix, Mon. Hist. Brit.; Anglo-Saxon Chron. (Rolls Ser.); Henry of Huntingdon, Mon. Hist. Brit.; Florence of Worcester (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Kemble's Codex Dipl. (Engl. Hist. Soc.); William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Haddan and Stubbs's Eccles. Doc. iii.; Dugdale's Monasticon; Vita S. Guthlaci, Acta SS. Bolland. Ap. ii. 37; Monumenta Moguntina, pp. 35, 275, ed. Jaffé; Bishop Stubbs's art. ‘Ethelbald’ in Dict. of Christian Biog.; Parker's Early Hist. of Oxford (Oxford Hist. Soc.); Green's Making of England.]

W. H.