King of Mercia 716-757
Born ? Died 757
Aethelbald1 was the son of one Alwih2 and a descendant of Pybba, the reputed founder of Mercia and therefore a member of the Mercian royal family but not of the 'main line'. As a result Aethelbald appears to have been viewed as a threat by Ceolred during the early years of the eighth century and was forced to flee into exile and go into hiding as he was pursued by agents of Ceolred.
According to Felix in his of Life of Saint Guthlac, Aethelbald visited the saint at Crowland3 during his exile. Guthlac is later said to have appeared to Aethelbald in a vision foretelling that he would one day become king4 . This prophecy became true when Ceolred died in the year 716 and was briefly replaced by his brother Coelwald for a few months. Almost nothing is known of Coelwald or indeed of how Aethelbald came to be king soon after; the usual violence is to be presumed.
By the time that the Venerable Bede sat down to finish his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum some fifteen years later, Aethelbald had succeded in subjugating all of southern England as Bede was to write that all the,
southern provinces, as far as the boundary formed by the river Humber, with their several kings, are subject to king Aethelbald.5
Little further detail is known regarding the methods that Aethelbald employed to achieve this degree of influence or indeed of any of the events of the early part of his reign. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains only a few brief references to his activities; in the year 733 he took Somerton (in Wessex) and in 737 he "ravaged the land of the Northumbrians" presumably taking advantage of the absence of Eadberht who was busy fighting the Picts.
In 740, Cuthred became king of Wessex and felt sufficiently motivated to challenge Aethelbald. Although they joined forces to attack the British (i.e. Welsh) in 743, the Chronicle indicates that Cuthred fought many hard battles with Aethelbald culminating with Aethelbald's defeat at the battle of Burford in 752.
Cuthred's victory must have brought an end to Aethelbald's hegemony in the south as well as weaken his authority within Mercia itself. In 757 he fell victim to an internal Mercian power struggle. According to Bede he "was treacherously and miserably murdered, in the night, by his own guards" at Seckington in modern Warwickshire and buried at Repton. The instigator of the assassination appears to have been the enigmatic Beorhrted who replaced him as king of Mercia.
There survives a letter written by one Saint Boniface to Aethelbald that provides an interesting insight into his private life. In the letter Boniface, who addresses Aethelbald as 'king of the English' praises him for his generosity in the giving of alms and his vigorous suppression of robbery and crime but also brings to his attention a number of his more serious sins.
These included an accusation that he had violated the privileges of churches and monasteries and filched away their revenues, but also as Boniface notes;
We have learned from several sources that you have never taken a lawful wife
And perhaps more to the point, Boniface
complains that Aethelbald has;
been driven by lust into the sins of fornication and adultery...And what is much worse, those who told us add that you have committed these sins, to your greater shame, in various monasteries with holy nuns and virgins vowed to God.
Fornicating with nuns seems to have been something of a habit for the rulers of Mercia as this was the very crime of which his predecessor Ceolred had also been accused and for which God punished him by driving him insane. There is no record of whether Aethelbald took any heed of Boniface's letter and its dire warnings of divine retribution.
1 Technically 'æþelbald' in Old English variously rendered as Æthelbald or Ethebald etc.
2 Or sometimes Alweo son of Eowa son of Pybba who was ruler of Mercia from around to 593 to 606.
3 Also known as Croyland hence both Crowland Abbey and the Abbey of Croyland appear to be 'correct'.
4 Saint Guthlac died in 714.
5 Bede ended his Historia in the year 731 so this description is an exactly contemporary account of the political situtation in England at or shortly before that year.
Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica at
Quotations from Saint Boniface's letters from