Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ethelbert (d.794)

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ÆTHELBERHT, ÆTHELBERHT, ÆGELBRIGHT, or ALBERT, Saint (d. 794), king of the East-Angles, was beheaded in 794 by the command of Offa, king of the Mercians (A.-S. Chron. sub an. 792). To this simple announcement of the chronicler Florence of Worcester adds that he was the son of King Æthelred and his queen Leofrana; that he was dear to Christ and beloved by all men, that Offa slew him treacherously, being stirred up to do so by his queen Cynethryth, and that he was received in heaven as a martyr (Flor. Wig. i. 62, 262). His life was written by Giraldus Cambrensis, who, as a canon of Hereford, was anxious to do honour to the patron of his church (Giraldi Opera, i. 415, 421. The manuscript in the Cotton Library, Vitell. E. vii., was copied by Dugdale, and has now perished. Dugdale sent his copy to the editors of the ‘Acta Sanctorum,’ but they did not believe that the life was the work of Giraldus de Barri, but of some other and later canon of Hereford called Giraldus, and accordingly inserted in their collection the life from the Brompton compilation, with some additions from the work of Giraldus; Brewer, Preface to Giraldi Camb. Opera, p. 111; Anglia Sacra, ii. pref. xxii; Acta SS. Maii v. 71*). William of Malmesbury says that Offa slew Æthelberht in order to gain his kingdom (Gesta Regum, sec. 86), that he wooed Offa's daughter, that his sanctity was attested by evident signs after his death, that his relics adorned the cathedral of Hereford, of which he was the patron, and that Dunstan held him in reverence (Gesta Pontificum, p. 305). In the lives of the two Offas, ascribed to Matthew Paris, Æthelberht, or Albert as he is there called, is said to have been invited by Offa to come to his court to marry his third daughter, Ælflæd; the queen advised her husband to slay him, and when Offa indignantly rejected her counsel, determined to slay him herself. Accordingly she prepared a seat in her chamber over a pit, invited the young man to come in and talk with her daughter, and when he came in bade him sit down and await her arrival. The seat fell with him into the pit, and he was there slain by the guards whom she had stationed for the purpose (Vita Offæ Secundi, p. 980). The same story appears, with some slight variations, in the work of the St. Albans compiler of the first part of the ‘Chronica Majora’ (i. 354). St. Albans writers, however, had good reason to adopt a version of the story that took the blame off their founder. Richard of Cirencester gives the legend in its fullest form: only the main points of his long narrative need be given here. Æthelberht, the son of Æthelred and Leoveronica, was brought up religiously and succeeded to his father's throne. When urged by his counsellors to marry, he declared his preference for a virgin life, but at last yielded, and agreed to woo Altrida (Ælfthryth), the daughter of Offa. Although his mother was against this plan, he left his capital, Baderogi (Bedrichesworth, afterwards St. Edmunds Bury), and after a journey, during which an earthquake and an eclipse in vain warned him of his fate, came to ‘Villa Australis,’ where Offa resided. When Altrida saw her lover she broke into warm expressions of admiration, and declared that her father ought to acknowledge his supremacy. This displeased her mother, who thought that there was some danger lest Offa should be supplanted by his intended son-in-law. She therefore poisoned Offa's mind against him, so that he accepted the offer of a certain Grimbert to slay him. Æthelberht was invited to an interview with the king, and when he came was bound, and beheaded by Grimbert. His body was buried dishonourably, but revealed itself by a light, and was conveyed to Hereford, where it received honourable burial; his head was placed in a shrine in St. Peter's at Westminster (Speculum Historiale, i. 262 sq.). The compilation known as Brompton's ‘Chronicle’ has much the same story, with a few additional particulars about the saint's burial: the body with the head was first buried in one of the banks of the Lugg. On the third night the saint bade a certain noble named Brithfrid to take it up and carry it to a place named Stratus-way. As he and one of his friends were taking it to this place, the head fell out of the cart and healed a blind man. Finally they buried the body at Fernley, the present Hereford. Æthelberht's intended bride became a hermit. Offa repented of his sin, gave much land to the martyr, ‘which the church of Hereford holds to the present day,’ founded and endowed St. Albans and other monasteries, and finally sought expiation by making his historic pilgrimage to Rome (Brompton, cols. 748–54). St. Æthelberht's day is 20 May. His memory was held in great honour, especially at Hereford. Besides the cathedral there, several churches were dedicated to him, and his name is borne by one of the gateways leading to the cathedral at Norwich. His life was written by Osbert of Clare (MS. C. C. C. Cambr. 308; Coll. Univ. Oxf. 135; see Hardy, Cat. of Materials, i. 495–6). The MS. Cott. Tiber. E. i. is either an abridgment from the ‘Speculum’ of Richard of Cirencester, or the foundation of his narrative; it was adopted by Capgrave. Another unimportant manuscript is Cott. Nero E. i.

[Anglo-Saxon Chron. sub an. 792; Florence of Worcester, i. 62, 262 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, sec. 86 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Gesta Pontificum, p. 305 (Rolls Ser.); Vita Offæ Secundi, p. 980, ed. Watts; Chron. Majora, i. 354 (Rolls Ser.); Richard of Cirencester, Speculum Historiale, i. 262 sq. (Rolls Ser.); Chron. of Brompton, cols. 748–54, Twysden; Capgrave's Nova Legenda, 136 b; Dict. of Christian Biog. art. ‘Ethelbert, St.,’ by Bishop Stubbs; Brewer's Preface to Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, v. p. xlv and p. 407, where the Life from Brompton is given with the annotata gathered from the lost Life by Giraldus; Wharton's Anglia Sacra, ii. pref. p. xxii; Acta SS. Bolland. Maii v. 71*; Hardy's Cat. of Materials, i. 495–6 (Rolls Ser.).]

W. H.