Died At Age: 24
Also Known As: Æthelred I, Æthelred I, King of Wessex
Born Country: England
Born in: Wessex
Famous as: King of Wessex and Kent
Emperors & Kings
Spouse/Ex-: Wulfthryth of Wessex
children: Æthelhelm, Æthelwold ætheling
Died on: April 23, 871
place of death: Wimborne Minster, United Kingdom
Who was Æthelred of Wessex?
Æthelred of Wessex or Æthelred I was the King of Wessex and Kent from 865 to 871. Born as the fourth son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex, he initially had little chance of ascending the throne. However, all his older brothers died young following which, he inherited the throne, becoming the King of Wessex and Kent at the age of 18. Little is known about the initial years of his reign except the fact that shortly after becoming the king, he established common currency in Wessex and Mercia, which was ruled by his brother-in-law at that time. Other than that, his ruling period can be described as a long struggle against the Danes, who had descended upon England and were determined to conquer the country the year Æthelred ascended the throne. In 870, he faced his first major invasion by the Danes, fighting frequent wars with them. He died at the age of 24 in 871, possibly from wounds sustained in his last battle.
Childhood & Early Life
Æthelred I, sometimes rendered as Ethelred, was born in Circa 847 in Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom located in the south of Great Britain. His father, King Aethelwulf of Wessex, reigned over the kingdom from 839 to 856. The area had been under the rule of that dynasty since 519 AD.
His mother Osburh or Osburga was his father's first wife and the mother of all his children. She has been described as "a most religious woman, noble in character and noble by birth".
Ethelred was born fifth of his parent’s six children. He had three elder brothers, namely Æthelstan, Æthelbald, Æthelberht; and an elder sister called Æthelswith, who later married King Burgred of Mercia. Younger to him was a brother that history remembers as Alfred the Great.
In 453 AD, he accompanied his younger brother to Rome, where he was invested with the "belt of consulship," while Alfred was confirmed by Pope Leo IV. In the following year, he witnessed his father's charters as an Ætheling, after which he was officially recognized as a prince.
In 855, his father left for a pilgrimage and things began to change rapidly in Wessex. Before leaving on his journey, King Aethelwulf appointed his second son Æthelbald as the under-king of Wessex and his third son Æthelberht as the under-king of Kent. Ethelred’s eldest brother Æthelstan had already died in 852.
When Aethelwulf returned to Wessex, Æthelbald refused to step down. To avoid a civil war, the king gave up the western part of Wessex and continued to rule over the south east. Following the king’s death in Circa 858, Æthelbald and Æthelberht continued to rule over their respective kingdom.
According to his father’s will, Æthelred was meant to inherit the kingdom of Wessex in case of his second brother Æthelbald’s death. But when Æthelbald passed away in 860, Æthelred was only 13 years old; therefore, Æthelberht became the king of both Wessex and Kent.
It is assumed that Æthelberht, who was childless, appointed Æthelred as an under-king because in 862 and 863, we find Æthelred issuing charters as King of the West Saxons. Other than that, he continued to witness king’s charters as an Ætheling.
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Kingship & Viking Assault
In the autumn of 865, King Æthelberht died and following that, Æthelred became the King of Wessex and Kent. It was not an easy time for him because in the same year, the Great Danish Army under the leadership of Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless had descended on England.
In spite of the ensuing chaos, Æthelred continued to rule over his kingdom. He adopted the Mercian type of currency and had it minted at London and Canterbury. Later, he had them circulated both in Wessex and Mercia, thus establishing a common currency by 867.
In 868, the kingdom of Mercia, which was ruled by Æthelred’s brother-in-law, King Burgred, was attacked by the Danes. When Burgred appealed to Æthelred for help, he set off for Mercia. However, he did not have to face any serious battle because King Burgred decided to buy off his enemy, handing over Nottingham to them.
War With the Danes
In December 870, the Danish Army decided to invade Wessex, establishing a camp at Reading, located in the present day Berkshire. The area was secured by the Thames and Kennet rivers on two sides, and by a rampart on the western side.
On 31 December 870, the Danes, led by two earls, met the Wessex force under the command of Æthelwulf of Berkshire at Englefield. In the ensuing battle, many Danes, including one of the earls, Sidrac, lost their lives. The rest were driven back.
When King Æthelred of Wessex heard about it, he along with his loyal brother, Prince Alfred, joined Æthelwulf of Berkshire at Englefield with a huge army. On 4 January 871, the entire Wessex army marched towards Reading with the intention of routing the Danish.
As the Danish camp was protected on two sides by the rivers, King Æthelred directed the assault mainly at the gateway of the western rampart. A violet battle ensued with a number of soldiers being killed on both sides. Æthelwulf too lost his life. Eventually, the Saxon attack was repulsed.
After their attack was subdued, the Saxons retreated towards the Berkshire Downs in order to regroup. Eventually, they waited for the Danish army at Ashdown, located somewhere near the border of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. On this front, Æthelred divided his army into two halves, positioning them on either sides of a ridge..
On 8 January 871, two armies met on the field of Ashdown. Æthelred was commanding the Saxons on one side, while Alfred was holding the fort on the other side of the Wessex army. In the bloody war that followed, King Bagsecg and five other Danish earls were killed. Eventually, the Danes were forced to retreat.
On 22 January 871, the two adversaries met once again at Basing (now Hampshire). While King Æthelred commanded the Saxon army, the Danes were led by King Halfdan Ragnarsson. However, this battle proved indecisive, leading to another battle two months later.
On 22 March 871, King Æthelred fought his last battle, meeting the Danes at Merton, located either in modern day Wiltshire or Dorset. It was another bloody battle, in which both sides lost many warriors. Ultimately, the Danish side won the battle, while the Saxons had to retreat.
Family & Personal Life
According to available sources, King Æthelred was married to a woman known as Wulfthryth. Little is known about her except that she witnessed a charter in 868 as regina (queen). She is believed to have been the mother of his two children, Æthelhelm and of Æthelwold.
On 23 April 871, shortly after the Battle of Merton ended, King Æthelred succumbed to his wounds and was buried at the nearby Wimborne Minster. He was 24 years old at the time of his death. Since his children were still very young, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Alfred the Great.