Æthelbald of Mercia

The first mention of our man in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E version) is under 716: ‘And then Æthelbald succeeded to the kingdom in Mercia and held it 41 years’. That’s right, we’re keeping it local again because I feel personally affronted by everyone’s obsession with Wessex over my home team.

So why have I chosen Æthelbald? Well its because under his rule Mercia regained its position of dominance among the other English kingdoms that it had enjoyed under the subject of my last post, Penda, some 60 years prior. Coming from a distant branch of the royal family that was in exile during the reign of Ceolred, Æthelbald gained the throne in 716 following his second cousin’s death (Ceolred was a grandson of Penda).

As already mentioned, I chose Æthelbald because his reign marked a resurgence in Mercian power that would last until the end of the 8th century. While his Ceolred’s death might have enabled Æthelbald to become king, arguably it was the death of Wihtred of Kent (725), then the abdication of Ine of Wessex (726), that allowed him to emerge as the most powerful of the ‘southern’ English kings. This re-emergence of Mercian royal authority lead to Bede writing, in his penultimate chapter, that ‘all these kingdoms and the other southern kingdoms which reach right up to the Humber, together with their various kings, are subject to Æthelbald, king of Mercia’ (Chapter 23 of Ecclesiastical History of the English People).

This comment by Bede may reflect or even have inspired statements of authority that can be seen in some of Æthelbald’s own charters. The most famous example is the ‘Ismere Diploma’ of 736 in which Æthelbald is styled ‘king not only of the Mercians but also of all the provinces which are called by the general name “South English” [Sutangli]’, while in the witness list he is modestly styled ‘king of Britain’. Whether or not evidence like this confirms Bede’s assertion of a south Humbrian overlordship, or more specifically a southern Anglian one, such royal styles are rare during his reign. In fact they only occur in texts originating from Worcester, so he must have had a very dedicated fan in the city.

We get an unusual impression of the reign of a supposed overlord though. Æthelbald chiefly attempted to exercise concerted control over a relatively restricted area. He had direct control over the Hwicce, and he exercised similar levels of control over Middlesex and London, the latter of which is traceable through toll exemptions granted to various religious institutions. Some territorial expansion took place, particularly into the frontier regions of Berkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset, at the expense of the West Saxon kings. His annexation of Middlesex and London on the other hand was at the expense of the East Saxon kings. Aside from this though, Æthelbald must have been at most a distant overlord whose authority impinged little on the existing kings.

We have more evidence for Æthelbald’s relationship with Wessex by virtue of the West Saxons being prolific record keepers. Cuthred of Wessex(r.740-56) fought against Æthelbald on numerous occasions, but the two also mounted at least one joint campaign together in 743 against the Britons – probably the Welsh.

Contemporary assessments of his reign then suggest periodic violence lapsing into despotism. He once granted land to a Mercian abbess in recompense for murdering her kinsman. Infamously, the continental missionary Boniface sent a letter in 746 that, while noting Æthelbald was ‘very liberal in almsgiving’ and ‘famed as a defender of widows and of the poor’ was mostly just a sustained attack on his moral failings and ill-treatment of the church. It must be noted however that we are sorely lacking comparable Mercian sources, and as such Boniface’s perspective and others like it have won the day.

The charges levelled against Æthelbald do show us that his rule was divisive and aspects of his power resented, and such an impression is confirmed by the manner of his death. In a continuation of Bede from the Moore MS, it is recorded under the year 757 that ‘Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, was treacherously killed at night by his bodyguard in shocking fashion…’ He was laid to rest in Repton, Derbyshire, perhaps in the crypt constructed during his reign and which subsequently served as a royal mausoleum. The reason for his murder is unknown, perhaps he became a victim of his own lengthy reign: the witness lists for his charters suggest that he outlived all of his own supporters. We similarly have no idea whether his successor Beornred was implicated. At any rate Beornred only ruled one year before being driven out by Offa (yes, that Offa, the one who had the dyke, who I will probably do the next post about at some point).

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