Posted by: anna | June 2, 2010

St Ethelbert King and Martyr

Today (20 May) we commemorate St. Ethelbert (AEthelberht), King of East Anglia and Martyr (ca. 793). Not to be confused with Ethelbert, King of Kent (d.616). From Dr Baring-Gould:

S. ETHELBERT, K. (A.D. 794.)
[Cologne and Lubeck Martyrology of 1490. Greven in his additions to Usuardus. Anglican Martyrologies, and the Bollandists. Authorities : Mention in the Saxon Chronicle, the Chronicle of John of Brompton, Matthew of Westminster, Florence of Worcester, William of Malmesbury, &c.]

Ethelbert was the son and successor of Ethelred, king of the East Angles. He came to the throne very young, at the time that the powerful Offa was king of the Mercians. Offa was in many things a good and just ruler, but he was guilty of a signal act of treachery to Ethelbert, prompted thereto by his wife Quendritha (Wendreda). The young prince, disregarding the forebodings of his mother, came to the court of Offa at Sutton Wallis, in Herefordshire, to seek the hand of his beautiful and pious daughter Alfreda. Offa received him with great respect and hospitality. But the queen, Quendritha, was full of ambitious schemes, and she said to the king, “Behold, God has this day given your enemy into your hands, whose kingdom you have so long and daily coveted ; now destroy him secretly, and his kingdom will be yours and for your heirs for ever.” The king hesitated. It was the old storyof Jezebel and Ahab coveting Naboth’s vineyard over again.

How it ended is not clear. The Saxon Chronicle says that Ethelbert’s head was struck off, but Matthew of Westminster tells another tale, on what authority is doubtful. He says that the queen placed a richly adorned chair in the bedroom of the young king over a trap door in the floor, and on the chair placed silk cushions. The young man, on reaching his room after a banquet, flung himself into the chair, when the trap gave way, and he was precipitated into a vault where some of the servants of the queen were stationed, and they suffocated him with the silk cushions.

It can hardly be doubted that Offa was privy to the commission of the murder. He certainly lost no time in taking advantage of it, for he sent troops into East Anglia and annexed it at once to his own possessions. Then, as usual, he built churches and monasteries to atone for his wickedness, especially Hereford Cathedral, which was dedicated to S. Ethelbert, and where he was buried. Some say that he went a pilgrimage to Rome ; at any rate he gave much to churches at Rome, and especially to the English school there. Alfreda, abhorring the crime that had been committed by her parents, retired to Croyland, where she spent forty years in seclusion, and died in the odour of sanctity.


John Caldwell. ‘St Ethelbert, King and Martyr: his cult and office in the West of England’ Plainsong and Medieval Music (2001), 10:1:39-46 Cambridge University Press. The abstract says ‘The music for the Office of St Ethelbert, king and martyr, survives uniquely in the thirteenth-century Hereford Noted Breviary. While some of the chants are contrafacta, others appear to be unique to this office and even in some cases to be influenced by the content of their texts, which are based on the vita of the sainted king by Gerald of Wales. The form in which the office was performed depended on its position in relation to the Easter Cycle (the feast fell on 20 May), and this in turn raises issues for the editing of such offices in modern times.

Ethelbert is commemorated at Hereford Cathedral, the site of his wonderworking medieval shrine.

Holy royal martyr Ethelbert, pray to God for us.

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