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Earl Aethelred of Mercia

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Title: Earl Aethelred of Mercia  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: City of London, History of London, Wessex, 886, Hwicce, Ceolwulf II of Mercia, List of state leaders in 883, List of state leaders in 884, List of state leaders in 885, List of state leaders in 886
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Earl Aethelred of Mercia

For other people named Æthelred, see Æthelred (disambiguation).
Lord of the Mercians
Reign c.881 - 911 AD
Predecessor Ceolwulf II (as king)
Successor Æthelflæd
Consort Æthelflæd
House Mercia
Died 911 AD
Burial St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester

Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians (or Ealdorman Æthelred of Mercia) (died 911) became ruler of Mercia shortly after the death of its last king, Ceolwulf II in 879.[1] Æthelred's descent is unknown, and he does not appear to have been closely related to his immediate predecessors.[2] He is first recorded in 883, when he made a grant to Berkeley Abbey with the approval of King Alfred of Wessex, showing that he acknowledged Alfred's lordship.[3] Æthelred married Alfred's eldest daughter Æthelflæd between 882 and 887, and they had one child, a daughter called Ælfwynn.[2] After Æthelred's death, Æthelflæd ruled as Lady of the Mercians until her own death in 918.


In 865 the Great Heathen Army a force of Vikings landed in East Anglia and used it as a starting point for an invasion. The East Anglians made peace with the invader by providing them with horses. The Vikings stayed in East Anglia for the winter before setting out for Northumbria towards the end of 866, establishing themselves at York. In 867 the Northumbrians paid them off, and the Viking Army established a puppet leader in Northumbria before setting off for Mercia, where in 867 they captured Nottingham. Burgred the king of Mercia requested help from Æthelred the king of Wessex to help fight the Vikings. A combined army from Wessex and Mercia besieged the city of Nottingham with no clear result, so the Mercians settled on paying the Vikings off. The Vikings returned to Northumbria in autumn 868 and overwintered in York, staying there for most of 869. They returned to East Anglia and spent the winter of 869–70 at Thetford. There was no peace agreement between the East Anglians and the Vikings this time. When the local king Edmund fought against the invaders, he was captured and killed.

In 871, the Great Summer Army arrived from Scandinavia, led by Bagsecg. The reinforced Viking army turned its attention to Wessex, but where defeated by an army led by King Æthelred's brother Alfred who defeated them on 8 January 871 at the Battle of Ashdown, slaying Bagsecq in the process. Three months later Æthelred died and was succeeded by Alfred (later known as Alfred the Great), who was at first content to buy the Vikings off to gain time. During 871–72, the Great Heathen Army wintered in London before returning to Northumbria to quell a rebellion, They then established their winter quarters for 872-73 at Torksey. The Mercians again paid them off in return for peace, and at the end of 873 the Vikings took up winter quarters at Repton, but despite paying them off the Vikings in 874 attacked Tamworth so Burgred fled to Rome and was succeeded by Ceolwulf, described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as "a foolish king's thegn" who was a puppet of the Vikings. However, historians regard this view as partial and distorted. He was accepted as a true king by the Mercians and by King Alfred. In 877 the Vikings divided Mercia, taking the eastern part for themselves and leaving Ceolwulf with the west.[4][3] However, the Vikings went on to attack Wessex, leaving Ceolwulf free to renew Mercian claims of hegemony in Wales. At almost the same time as Alfred's victory over the Vikings in 878 at the Battle of Edington, Ceolwulf defeated and killed Rhodri Mawr, king of the north Welsh territory of Gwynedd.[5] A regnal list gives Ceolwulf a reign of five years from his accession in 874.[6]

Early rule

Although Æthelred is not recorded until 883, historians believe that he was "Edryd Long-Hair", the leader of a Mercian army which invaded Gwynedd in 881, and was defeated by Rhodir Mawr's sons at the battle of the Conwy. This was described by Welsh annals as "revenge by God for Rhodri". The battle of Conwy forced Æthelred to abandon his ambitions in north Wales, but he continued to seek overlordship over the south-eastern Welsh kingdoms of Glywysing and Gwent. According to Alfred's Welsh biographer Asser, Æthelred's "might and tyrannical behaviour" forced these kingdoms to seek the protection of King Alfred's lordship. Alfred was happy to accept, and the defeat at Conwy may have forced Æthelred to accept Mercian submission to Wessex in 883, an important step in creating a single English kingdom.[7][8]

In 886, Æthelred was given control of London by Alfred. As Alfred had conquered the southern Danelaw, it was useful to place the ruler of the divided Kingdom of Mercia in control of its former eastern region. In 892 the Vikings launched the last invasion of Wessex in Alfred's reign, and the following year the main army marched from Essex through Mercia to the Welsh border, where it was defeated by a joint Mercian and Welsh army under Æthelred at the Battle of Buttington, in the most decisive victory of the war.[9] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Æthelred spent much of the 890s leading military campaigns in eastern England.[10]

Æthelred's status

Æthelred's status is unclear, and this is reflected in the varying titles given to him by different historians. He is sometimes called 'ealdorman',[11] but also 'Lord of the Mercians',[12][1] 'subking'[13] and in the Handbook of British Chronology he is given the designation (described by Simon Keynes as "delightfully provocative") 'K. [King] Æthelred II'.[14] Coinage issued in English Mercia named the West Saxon king,[15] yet Æthelred issued charters in his own name, implying royal authority.[12] West Saxon sources refer to him as an ealdorman, emphasising Mercian subordination to the West Saxon monarchy, whereas Mercian ones describe him as Lord of the Mercians, and Celtic ones sometimes as king of Mercia. The chronicler Æthelweard, writing in the late tenth century, called him 'King of the Mercians'.[10][16]

Pauline Stafford commented that "Alfred's dominance in the 890s over Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, was as debatable at the time as it still is."[17] Simon Keynes takes the West Saxon view, arguing that Alfred created the 'kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons', inherited by his son Edward the Elder in 899, and Æthelred ruled Mercia under the king.[18] Most historians disagree. Ann Williams stated that "though he accepted West Saxon overlordship, Æthelred behaved rather as a king of Mercia than an ealdorman".[12] To the Welsh and Irish looking east, Mercian rulers still kept all their old regality until Æthelflæd's death in 918, and Nick Higham argued that: "Celtic visions of Æthelred and Æthelflæd as king and queen certainly offer a different, and equally valid, contemporary take on the complex politics of this transition to a new English state."[19]

In the last years of the ninth century three sub-ealdormen ruled Mercia under Æthelred and Æthelflæd. Her uncle, Æthelwulf, covered western and possibly central Mercia, Æthelfrith, the father of Æthelstan Half-King, the south and east, while Alhhelm was responsible for the lands bordering the northern Danelaw. Æthelwulf and Alhhelm are not recorded after the turn of the century, and Æthelfrith may have been Æthelflæd's chief lieutenant when Æthelred's health collapsed soon afterwards.[20]

Later life

Most historians believe that at some time in the decade after Alfred's death in 899, Æthelred's health collapsed and Æthelflæd became the effective ruler of Mercia.[3] Cyril Hart and Maggie Bailey believe that it occurred by 902. She cites Mercian Register entries from 902 showing Æthelflæd acting alone or in conjunction with Edward in military operation.[20][10] Irish annals called the Three Fragments also suggest that he was unable to take an active part in government from about 902,[21] although he did attend a meeting in 903 with King Edward, Æthelflæd and Ælfwynn.[22] However, Michael Livingston stated that he campaigned with Edward in Northumbria in 909 and may have died as a result of wounds sustained at the Battle of Tettenhall in 910,[23] and Simon Keynes appears to take a similar view, stating that Æthelred and Æthelflæd cooperated with Edward in campaigns against the Vikings.[1]

Æthelred died in 911 and Æthelflæd succeeded him as 'Lady of the Mercians', but she did not inherit the Mercian territories of London and Oxford, which were taken by Edward. Æthelflæd died in 918, and their daughter Ælfwynn briefly ruled Mercia until deposed by Edward the Elder, who took the territory under his direct control.[24]

St Oswald's Priory

Æthelred and Æthelflæd founded a new minster at Gloucester in the late ninth century, and in 909 the bones of St Oswald were translated to the foundation which was renamed St Oswald's Priory in his honour. Both Æthelred and Æthelflæd were buried there.[25]

See also




Further reading

Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Ceolwulf II
King of Mercia
Lord of the Mercians
c. 882–911
Succeeded by
Lady of the Mercians
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