In 855 Ethelbert had been appointed sub-king of Kent, the traditional title given to the early heirs to the throne of Wessex. He held this position while his father, Ethelwulf, visited Rome on pilgrimage. His older brother Ethelbald was left in charge of the West Saxons. After his father's death in 858 he succeeded him as king of Kent and the other eastern parts of the kingdom. When Ethelbald died childless in 860, the kingship of the West Saxons also passed to Ethelbert. He was crowned at Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey. Almost immediately, the savage Viking invasions on Wessex were renewed. Raids on Northumbria were led by Ragnar Lodbrok.
The 'Fury of the Northmen'
The Vikings merciless raids of pillage, slaughter and rape struck abject terror into Saxon hearts, leaving destruction, desolation and smoking ruins in their wake. The people had good cause to utter the much repeated prayer "From the fury of the Northmen , O Lord, deliver us." The Vikings who harried Wessex at this time were Danish.
A huge Viking fleet landed in East Anglia in 865, under the curiously named Ivar the Boneless, who was for some time the driving force behind the Viking attacks on England. His army remained there for a while, garnering it's resources for a major invasion. The city of Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex, was burned to the ground. One of the most significant developments of these raids was the merging of Wessex and its south-eastern vassal states into a single kingdom. Equally unheard of was a charter issued during the first year of Ethelbert's reign that contained a full complement of both Saxon and Kentish signatures.
A Viking ship from Gokstad. Click to enlarge
A minor victory over the raiding Vikings was achieved by the Saxons of Hampshire and Berkshire under Aldermen Athelwulf and Osric. The Vikings occupied the Isle of Thanet, where they spent the Winter. They were bought off by the men of Kent, but characteristically, did not keep the agreement and began to ravage England with renewed force shortly thereafter.
Unlike his predecessors, Æthelberht did not appoint another member of his family as under-king of Kent. Ethelbert died, unmarried and childless, in 866 at around the age of thirty-five and was succeeded by his younger brother, Ethelred I. He had reigned for only five years. His body was interred at Sherborne Abbey in Dorset, beside his elder brother Ethelbald.