King of Wessex

Ethelbert, the second surviving son of Ethelwulf and Osburh, who was of Jutishdescent, was born circa 835. The grandson of Egbert, first King of the English, he succeeded his brother Ethelbald on 20th December, 860. The name Ethelbert, in Anglo-Saxon Æþelberht, meant 'magnificent noble'. 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.

King Ethelbert from Lichfield CathedralKing Ethelbert from Lichfield Cathedral

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.

Remains of a Viking ship from Roskilde Viking Museum in DenmarkRemains of a Viking ship from Roskilde Viking Museum in Denmark

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 army landed in East Anglia in 865, the Great Heathen Army, known to the Anglo-Saxons as 'mycel heathen here', commanded by Halfdan and the curiously named Ivar the Boneless, who was for some time the driving force behind the Viking attacks on England.

Ivar's army remained in East Anglia for a while, garnering its resources for a major invasion. The city of Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex was burned to the ground. In 866 the Vikings took York establishing the Viking kingdom of Jorvik in the north of England. Halfdan, son of the Viking leader Ragnar Lodbrok by Aslaug, and a commander in the Viking army became the first King of York.

Memorial to Ethelbert and his brother Ethelbald, Sherbourne Abbey, DorsetMemorial to Ethelbert and his brother Ethelbald, Sherbourne Abbey, Dorset

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 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.

Although the chronicles celebrate the military prowess of Ethelbert, none of the events of his short reign has been recorded.

Ethelbert died in 866 at around the age of thirty-five, although he left a son Æthelwold and other children, he was succeeded on the throne of Wessex by his younger brother, Ethelred. He had reigned for only five years.

Ethelbert's body was interred at Sherborne Abbey in Dorset, beside his elder brother Ethelbald.