Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Ethelred I

Ethelred was the third son of Ethelwulf of Wessex, and the third to himself become King.

He was born in 840, and succeeded in 865 when his brother Ethelbert died. The brothers had made an arrangement between themselves that they would succeed each other, irrespective of whether there were any children, but as it happens Ethelbert died childless anyway. Ethelred was crowned at Kingston-on-Thames.

From the outset of Ethelred’s reign, the Danish invasions and raids became more of a problem. In particular, the fearsome brothers Ivarr the Boneless and Halfdan, from their base in Dublin, swore vengeance for the death of their father Ragnar Lodbrok, who had himself been attacking Northumbria and East Anglia for some time.

Ragnar had been spectacularly killed by Aelle of Northumbria, who at York had thrown him while captive into a snake pit.

The brothers attacked and took over York, setting up the Kingdom of Jorvik, and then went on to conquer Nottingham. It was this campaign, when Ivarr and Halfdan brought much terror to all England, that saw the formation of what came to be known as the Great Army.

They attacked East Anglia, where King Edmund stood up to them at the Battle of Thetford but was killed. He is remembered in the place name Bury St. Edmunds, where he was interred after his bones had rested at Greenstead-juxta-Ongar, and was regarded as patron saint of England until supplanted by St. George.

Ivarr and Halfdan were joined by another Viking leader, Guthrum, and the combined army marched on Wessex. Initially, the Wessex ealdorman Ethelwulf led the defence. The Danes won a battle at Reading, and Ethelwulf then defeated them at Englefield, but he was killed soon after.

Ethelred and his brother Alfred arrived to join battle at this point. There was a battle at Ashdown, which was fairly inconclusive, but regarded by the Saxons as a victory as many prominent Danes were killed. Shortly after, the Danes were victorious at Basing.

Then in 871, a battle was fought at Martin in Hampshire. This was the battle which caused Alfred much frustration, as at one point Ethelred, an intensely religious man, was seen to be praying when fighting might have seemed a more sensible option.

The battle was again inconclusive, with much slaughter on both sides, but the most significant aspect was the serious wounding of Ethelred. He died of his wounds a few weeks later, at Witchampton near Wimborne, and was buried at Wimborne Minster.

Ethelred had, while King, married Wulfrida and had two small sons, Ethelwald and Ethelhelm. He was however succeeded as King, in accordance with the brothers’ agreement, by his brother Alfred.

Ethelwald disputed the succession after his uncle Alfred’s death, while Ethelhelm died towards the end of Alfred’s reign.

Ethelred was, after his death, widely regarded as a saint. His death brought to the throne one of the most significant of English Kings. Alfred is still the only English King to be called “the Great”.