Technically 'æþelred' in Old English a name that literally means 'noble counsel' or 'well advised' that is also rendered into modern English as Æthelred, Athelred and Ethelred.
This was a popular name amongst the pre-Conquest English and there are consequently a number of historical Aethelreds:-
- There are two Northumbrian kings who bore the name; an Aethelred I who ruled in the years 774-779 and 790-796 and an Aethelred II that ruled between the years 841-844 and 844-848.
- As well as an Aethelred king of Wessex who ruled between 866 and 871 and one king of England, 'Aethelred Unraed', more commonly known as Ethelred the Unready.
- In addition there were two Mercian rulers, firstly the late seventh century king Aethelred (see below) and secondly an Ealdorman Aethelred often known as the 'Lord of the Mercians' a contemporary of Alfred the Great.
King of Mercia 675-704
Born ? Died 716
Aethelred was the son of Penda and younger brother of Wulfhere who preceeded him on the throne of Mercia. Brother Wulfhere had successfully re-established Mercia as the dominant kingdom in the south of England but his grip had slackened somewhat towards the end of his reign.
It was probably for this reason that Aethelred began his reign with a demonstration of power; as Bede wrote for the year 676, Bede, Aethelred;
ravaged Kent with a powerful army, and profaned churches and monasteries, without regard to religion, or the fear of God, he among the rest destroyed the city of Rochester
Naturally enough conflict with Northumbria also followed, and three years later in 679 fought a battle against Ecgfrith of Northumbria at the river Trent, and as a result won control of Lindsey back from Northumbria. (Which Wulfhere had lost in the 670s.)
In this same battle Aelfwine, the younger brother of king Ecgfrith was killed. As this might well have provoked a tit-for-tat blood feud the Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus intervened and negotiated a settlement whereby Aethelred paid Ecgfrith the required wergild or blood price for the killing of Aelfwine. As Bede explained "peace continued long after between those kings and their kingdoms"
He married Osthryth, a daughter of king Oswiu of Northumbria - an alliance which incidentally made little difference to Aethelred's attitude to Northumbria. But Osthryth appears to have been a particularly devout Christian and was particularly devoted to her uncle Oswald, himself regarded as something of a saint. Of course Oswald had in fact been killed by Aethelred's father Penda (a devoted pagan it must be said) on the battlefield of Maserfield in 642, after which Oswald's body had been generally hacked into pieces and mutilated.
It was at Osthryth's urgings that Aethelred made the effort to establish the whereabouts of Oswald's body, and arrange for its reinternment at Bardney Abbey in Lindsey which Aethelred had himself founded and endowed.
Osthryth was, for reasons that are not fully understood, murdered by some Mercian nobles on the 5th August 697, a possible indication that there was a more militant anti-Northumbrian faction at work in the kingdom. No indication is given of what, if anything, was Aethelred's response to this crime.
Aethelred followed his brother's policy of expansion in the south and began to exert furth pressure against the Gewissae of the Thames valley. It was
in the year 685 that king Caedwalla began to 'struggle for a kingdom' and was forced to move his operations south and west against the Jutish kingdoms of Kent and the Isle of Wight.
For whatever reason, and no doubt the earlier death of his wife was a factor, Aethelred grew tired of being king and in 704 he abdicated the throne in favour of his nephew Coenred and retired to Bardney Abbey where he served as abbot until his death in 716.
Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum