Æthelred of Mercia - The forgotten man who helped build England

Michael McComb

Æthelred of Mercia remains an obscure figure

Æthelred of Mercia remains an obscure figure who suffers from being overshadowed by the more impressive figures of the Anglo-Saxon period: his father-in-law, Alfred the Great and his wife, Æthelflæd. However, there has been more interest in him recently, primarily as he features in Bernard Cornwell's The Saxon Stories novels and the subsequent Netflix series, The Last Kingdom, which tell the story of English unification from 865-937. While there are problems regarding the historical inaccuracy of Æthelred's character, it has nevertheless made readers and viewers aware of him as a historical figure. In this article, we will examine the real Æthelred, showing that while he had both successes and failures, he was a crucial figure in the unification of England. We will also analyse his relationships with his 'more impressive' father-in-law, Alfred and Alfred's son, Edward the Elder. England was divided into four kingdoms in the mid-ninth century: East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. Mercia had once been the most powerful kingdom in Southern Britain, but its power was greatly diminished after a series of military defeats in the 820s. Now unable to dominate their neighbours, Mercia began collaborating with its old enemy, Wessex. This period of collaboration began under King Burgred of Mercia (852-874), who in 853 married a West Saxon Princess and campaigned in Wales alongside King Æthelwulf of Wessex (839-858). Both kingdoms also adopted the same style of coins. However, the Viking invasion of 865, later known as the invasion of 'The Great Heathen Army', permanently changed England's political arrangements. This army conquered Northumbria and East Anglia and, in 874, forced Burgred into exile. Burgred's successor Ceolwulf II held a weakened position in Mercia and was forced to give up the eastern half of his kingdom in 877 to the Viking leader, Guthrum. A pivotal change to Southern England's political settlement came in 878 when Alfred, who had become king of Wessex seven years earlier, won a decisive victory over Guthrum at the Battle of Ethandun in Wiltshire. As a result, Guthrum accepted baptism and retreated to East Anglia, where he ruled as king for the next decade. Guthrum’s influence in Mercia was thus, greatly diminished.
Æthelred of Mercia – The forgotten man who helped build England
Map of England in 865 and The Great Heathen Army’s campaigns from 865-878

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Æthelred of Mercia – The forgotten man who helped build England
Alfred’s ‘kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’ in dark yellow.

Æthelred first appeared in the historical record in 866

Æthelred first appeared in the historical record in 866, being recorded at Burgred's court. Assuming he was a young man at the time, we might guess that he was born around 840-845. While we have no information regarding his parentage, he was likely from one of Mercia's most prominent noble families. Given that Gloucester later became his capital, several historians have suggested that he belonged to the family of the Ealdormen of the Hwicce (a region covering most of modern-day Gloucestershire and Worcestershire). By 881, Æthelred re-emerged in the historical record, leading a Mercian army to fight the Welsh, implying he was now the leader of English (Western) Mercia. We have no information regarding the handover of power from Ceolwulf to Æthelred. However, it likely occurred between 879 and 881 and seemed to be a purely Mercian affair rather than a result of West Saxon or Viking intervention. Ceolwulf was thought to have had 'three heirs', implying he had brothers or sons next in line to the Mercian throne. Assuming Æthelred was not one of these 'three heirs', his succession likely involved violence between himself and Ceolwulf or Ceolwulf’s heirs. The defining aspect of Æthelred political career was his relationship with Alfred. However, their relationship first came to light when they were in dispute regarding the status of the Welsh kingdoms of Glwywsing and Gwent. Mercia had always had a troubled relationship with the Welsh kingdoms but saw themselves as the rightful overlords of the Welsh. However, Glwywsing and Gwent, perhaps due to Alfred's victory at Ethandun, now preferred West Saxon overlordship, which Alfred was only too happy to give. This weakened Æthelred's position and portrayed Alfred as the rising power in Southern Britain, in contrast to a declining Mercia. Æthelred eventually came to terms with Alfred, who was already well connected in Mercia, as his wife was from a powerful Mercian family and his sister, Æthelswith, Burgred’s wife, had previously been Queen of Mercia. By 883, Æthelred was titled 'Ealdormen of Mercia' and recognised Alfred's overlordship. We have no information as to why Æthelred decided to do this or if he even had a choice; he may well have been under pressure from a pro-Alfredian faction in Mercia, from Alfred himself, or perhaps he decided that working with Alfred was the best way to protect his subjects from his Welsh and Viking neighbours. The terms agreed between Alfred and Æthelred and what this meant for Wessex and Mercia, in the beginning, seem rather vague. However, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary account, in 886, reads: ‘King Alfred fortified the city of London; and the whole English nation turned to him, except that part of it which was held captive by the Danes. He then committed the city to the care of Ealdormen Æthelred, to hold it under him.’ The passage suggests a grand ceremony in London, likely a formal and public declaration of Æthelred and Mercia's loyalty to Alfred. In return, Æthelred received 'the city of London' and married Alfred's daughter, Æthelflæd. This marriage was a powerful message demonstrating both leaders' confidence in their alliance and their willingness to make long-term dynastic commitments to it. It also brought the two men closer together, as Æthelred was now Alfred's son-in-law. How, then, should we define Æthelred's status in Mercia? Although he is most commonly referred to as ‘Lord of Mercia’, he used a series of titles, such as Ealdormen, Chief, and Principatus of Mercia. Historian Tim Clarkson viewed him as a 'king in all but name'. Indeed, the Irish called him the 'King of the Saxons'. While Æthelred certainly enjoyed several privileges of traditional Mercian kingship, such as holding his own Mercian councils and commanding the Mercian army, he never used the title 'king of Mercia'. Nor did he mint his own coins, a traditional sign of Anglo-Saxon kingship. At a London council in 889 led by both Alfred and Æthelred, Alfred bestowed upon his son-in-law the title of 'Subregulus of Mercia'. This title recognised Æthelred's quasi-royal status but also demonstrated his and Mercia's subordination to Alfred. At the same council, Alfred also began using a new title, 'king of the Anglo-Saxons', (Angles representing Mercia and Saxons representing Wessex). Alfred was not merely claiming overlordship over Mercia; this title expressed that he had now come to think of Wessex and Mercia as a single kingdom ruled by a single king. At the same time, Æthelred's new title demonstrated his semi-independent role within Alfred's new kingdom.
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Mercia was increasingly dominated by 'Alfred's men'

Another compelling development in the 880s was the rise of Alfred's relatives in Mercia. Alfred's brother-in-law, Æthelwulf and his kinsmen, Æthelfrith, both became Ealdormen in Mercia in the 880s. Thus, Mercia was increasingly dominated by 'Alfred's men'. However, thinking of Æthelred as an Alfredian puppet would be inaccurate. While accepting Alfred's elevated status, Æthelred also stood up for Mercian sensibilities, negotiating for Mercia to receive London (a traditionally Mercian town) and to be recognised as a semi-independent ruler of Mercia, rather than merely being another of Alfred's several Ealdormen. This was Æthelred making the most out of the declining Mercia he had inherited while overseeing its transition into what he believed was the best way forward for Mercia. Æthelred’s belief in the Alfredian project for unity was demonstrated in the 890s, as Wessex faced a Viking invasion, perhaps larger than any it had previously faced. In 892, the Viking leader Hastein landed in Kent with 80 ships, while another allied Viking crew of 250 ships landed nearby in support of him. The larger army was swiftly defeated by Alfred’s son, Edward, at the Battle of Farnham, after which Æthelred led a Mercian force in aid of Edward as they chased the weakened invasion force out of Wessex. Hastein then led a second invasion, this time into Mercia. Alfred was defending Exeter at the time; in his absence, Æthelred led not only his Mercian army but also West Saxon armies from Somerset and Wiltshire. He met Hastein at the Battle of Butingdon, and the Vikings were defeated again. Æthelred had thus proven his loyalty to the alliance during its first real test and his ability as an organiser and commander of military forces. However, this fruitful relationship between Æthelred and his father-in-law was not to last, as Alfred died in 899, leaving a sword to Æthelred in his will, perhaps in recognition of his military prowess. Yet while some may have viewed Alfred’s death as the opportunity for Mercia to break away and become independent from Wessex, Æthelred remained committed to collaboration and unity, as he appeared at the court of Alfred’s successor, Edward, in 903 and 904, in both circumstances recognising Edward’s status as equal to the status Alfred held. Around this time, Edward also gave his eldest son, Æthelstan, to Æthelred, entrusting him to act as his guardian and foster father; thus, dynastically Æthelred remained closely tied to Wessex. By the standards of the time, Æthelred was now an old man, probably in his late 50s by 900, and was recorded as often being ill and thus unable to always perform his leadership duties. However, in the immediate years after Alfred’s death, Æthelflæd began to play a more prominent role in Mercian politics, hosting councils alongside her husband, negotiating with invaders and building fortresses. She appears to have become Æthelred’s co-ruler, rather than just his consort, as he aged and became increasingly ill. The Anglo-Saxons and Vikings were again at war in 909 when both began raiding one another's territory, culminating in the Battle of Tettenhall (911), where a Viking army was ambushed and routed by a combined Mercian and West Saxon army. This marked a critical turning point for the Anglo-Saxons, in which they transitioned from defending their territory to expanding it. Æthelred, however, would not live to see this period of expansion, as he died in 911, perhaps, from battle wounds at Tettenhall, although sources are divided as to whether he or Æthelstan led the Mercians at Tettenhall. Æthelred was buried at St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester. St Oswald was an early Christian Anglo-Saxon king who died in the battle to convert Mercia from paganism to Christianity. Æthelred had also previously sent an expedition into Viking territory to recover St Oswald's remains, returning them to Gloucester. In choosing St Oswald's Priory as his burial place, he could be portrayed as part of a long lineage of Anglo-Saxon rulers that fought for Christianity against paganism, beginning with Oswald. Æthelred was a transformational figure. He ruled Mercia for over 30 years, overseeing its transformation from a divided, weakened and insecure kingdom into a vital part of an aggressive, stable and expansionary kingdom which was built upon Mercian and West Saxon unity. His wife, Æthelflæd, succeeded him, becoming Lady of Mercia in 911. With her ties to both Mercia and Wessex, she was ideally suited to this role. She quickly proved herself a strong and energetic ruler as she worked alongside her brother, Edward, to re-conquer much of the land the Mercians had previously lost to the Vikings. Æthelstan would eventually inherit both Mercia and Wessex in 924, after the deaths of Æthelflæd and Edward. The polity that Alfred, Æthelred, Edward and Æthelflæd had worked to construct would serve as a springboard for him to launch his northern invasions and become England’s first king in 927. A year into his reign, Æthelstan granted privileges to St Oswald's Priory, Æthelred's burial site, in accordance with a 'pact of paternal piety' he had sworn to Æthelred. Thus, there is a sense that, in his foster son, Æthelstan, who was an adopted Mercian, Æthelred's legacy continued. While Æthelred is not the hero in the story of English unification, he remains a key figure in the unification process, as he collaborated with Alfred and Edward, married and ruled alongside Æthelflæd and acted as a father figure to Æthelstan.
Æthelred of Mercia – The forgotten man who helped build England
Æthelflæd’s statue at Tamworth, the boy in the statue is her nephew, Æthelstan.
Æthelred of Mercia – The forgotten man who helped build England

Michael McComb

Michael McComb is an aspiring writer, historian and recent History MA graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University. He specialises in Anglo-Saxon History and recently wrote his dissertation on the relationship between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex in the 9th and early 10th century.
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