Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ethelred (d.871)

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1150902Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 18 — Ethelred (d.871)1889William Hunt

ETHELRED or ÆTHELRED I (d. 871), king of the West-Saxons and Kentishmen, the fourth son of Æthelwulf and Osburh, should, by his father's will, have succeeded to the West-Saxon kingship on the death of his eldest surviving brother, Æthelbald, but this arrangement was set aside in favour of Æthelberht, king of Kent. Æthelred came to the throne on the death of Æthelberhtin 866. His reign saw a change in the character of the Scandinavian invasions which had so long troubled England. Up to this time these invasions had been undertaken simply for the sake of booty, and the pirates had at first merely landed at some convenient spot, plundered, and sailed away, though of late years [see under Ethelwulf] they had begun to winter in the islands of Sheppey and Thanet. Now they began to conquer and set up kingdoms, and they would have succeeded in conquering the whole country had it not been for the stout resistance they met with from the West-Saxons first under Æthelred, and then under his younger brother, Alfred or Ælfred. In the first year of Æthelred's reign they landed in East Anglia, and after seizing horses rode into Northumbria, slew the two kings who opposed them [see under Ælla, d. 867], and set up a tributary king. They then entered Mercia and took up their winter quarters (867–8) at Nottingham. Burhred, the Mercian king, sent to his West-Saxon brothers-in-law, to Æthelred his overlord, and his brother, Ælfred, to come to his help. Throughout the reign Ælfred is described as ‘secundarius,’ which must not be taken to mean that he held any kingdom under his brother, for the kingdom of Kent was now united to the rest of southern England [see under Ethelberht], but that he was recognised as his brother's helper or lieutenant [see under Ælfred]. When they received Burhred's message, Æthelred and his brother marched to Nottingham with a West-Saxon army. The Danes refused to meet them in battle and stayed behind their fortifications, and the West-Saxons were not able to force entrance. While, however, Æthelred's expedition ended without much fighting, it saved Mercia, for a peace was made between the Danes and the Mercians, and the invaders returned to Northumbria. In 870 they marched across Mercia into East Anglia, desolated the country, slew the king, Eadmund [q. v.], and made the land their own. Wessex was now the only part of England that was capable of resistance, and in 871 it was invaded by a large Danish host. The invaders, led by two kings and many jarls, encamped at Reading, a frontier town on the Mercian border, and probably occupied ‘the bank of gravel in the angle formed between the Kennet and the Thames,’ where Reading Abbey was afterwards built (Parker). Æthelred and his brother gathered an army to fight with them, but before they could bring it against them a division of the Danish host under two jarls left their position between the rivers and rode westwards to Englefield, perhaps with the intention of gaining a position on the Berkshire hills. Here, however, they were met by the ealdorman, Æthelwulf, evidently at head of a local force, were defeated and driven back to their encampment. Four days later Æthelred and Ælfred came up, joined forces with Æthelwulf, and attacked the Danish position. They were defeated, and Æthelwulf was slain. The defeat of the West-Saxons enabled the invaders to leave their cramped and somewhat perilous position and gain the heights, and they formed their camp on Æscesdune, or Ashdown. Four days after his defeat Æthelred again led his army against them. The Danish host was drawn up in two divisions, one commanded by the two kings, the other by the jarls. Æthelred was to attack the one and Ælfred the other. The Danes, who were on the higher ground, pressed hard on Ælfred's division, for he did not return their attacks because Æthelred was not ready; he was kneeling in his tent while a priest celebrated the mass, and he declared that he would not come forth until the mass was ended, nor serve man first and God after. Ælfred could no longer keep his men standing on the defensive and charged with them up the hill like a boar against the hounds (Asser). When the mass was over, Æthelred joined in the fray, attacked the Danish kings, and slew one of them (Henry of Huntingdon). The fight was fiercest round a stunted thorn-bush that was pointed out in after days to those who visited the field. Asser tells us that he saw it. The battle lasted till nightfall. Æthelred's army was completely victorious, and the Danes were driven back to their camp at Reading with the loss of one of their kings, of five jarls, and of ‘many thousands’ of men. This battle is supposed to be commemorated by the ‘White Horse’ at Uffington, which is spoken of in the ‘Abingdon History’ (i. 477, ii. 125), and was perhaps originally cut in memory of some far earlier victory. Such a victory ought to have delivered Wessex, but it is evident that according to the English custom the larger part of Æthelred's force departed to their homes after the battle. He was therefore unable to follow up his success; the Danish camp was not stormed, and the invading army marched southward into Hampshire. A fortnight after their victory at Ashdown, Æthelred and his brother again met them at Basing. The English were defeated, but were not routed; for the Danes took no spoil (Æthelweard), and instead of advancing on Winchester appear for a while to have been checked. They were now reinforced by a fresh body of invaders from beyond sea, and two months later marched into Surrey. Æthelred and Ælfred fought with them at Merton (Merton near Bicester and Marden near Devizes have also been suggested). The victory was for a while doubtful; at first the Danes gave way, but in the end the English were defeated. Soon after this, on 23 April, Æthelred died, probably from the effects of a wound received at Merton (A.-S. Chron. Winchester, an. 871; Florence, i. 85). He was buried at Wimborne in Dorsetshire. He was regarded as a saint and a martyr, and an inscription cut about 1600 on a brass which bears the effigy of a king in Wimborne Minster records the reverence which was paid to ‘St. Ethelred, king of the West-Saxons.’ He left a son named Æthelwald, who rebelled against Eadward the Elder. The ealdorman, Æthelweard the historian, was descended from him, but whether through the male or female line does not appear.

[Anglo-Saxon Chron.; Florence of Worcester (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Asser, Æthelweard, Henry of Huntingdon, Mon. Hist. Brit.; Parker's Early History of Oxford, p. 114 (Oxford Hist. Soc.); Green's Conquest of England, pp. 85–103; Chron. de Abingdon, i. 477, ii. 125 (Rolls Ser.); Hutchins's Hist. of Dorset, ii. 544, 2nd edit., where the brass with royal effigy and inscription with the name of St. Ethelred is figured; the date of death given as 873 would alone be sufficient to expose the forgery.]

W. H.