Æthelred I of Northumbria

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Coin of Æthelred

Æthelred (/ˈæθəlrɛd/; c. 762  – 18 April 796), was the king of Northumbria from 774 to 779 and again from 790 until he was murdered in 796. He was the son of Æthelwald Moll and Æthelthryth and possibly became king while still a child after Alhred was deposed.

Family and early life[edit]

The origin of Æthelred's family isn't recorded, but his father Æthelwald, who was also called Moll, seems to have come from a noble background. Æthelwald first appears in the historical records in a letter written by Pope Paul I to king Eadberht, ordering him to return lands taken from an Abbot Fothred, which were given to his brother Moll. After the abdication of king Eadberht in 758, his son Oswulf took his place but despite his father's long reign and his powerful uncle Ecgbert, he was murdered just a year later in 759 at Market Weighton by his own bodyguards. The murder was probably ordered by Æthelwald as he became king soon after. In 761 Oswulf's brother Oswine met Æthelwald in battle but Oswine was killed in the fighting at Eildon Hill on 6 August.

After his victory, Æthelwald married Æthelthryth at Catterick on 1 November 762. Æthelwald was deposed as king on 30 October 765, apparently by a council of noblemen and prelates, and replaced by Alhred, the brother-in-law of Oswulf and Oswine. According to Irish sources i.e. the Annals of Tigernach he was tonsured.

First Term[edit]

After ruling for nearly ten years, the Northumbrians drove out King Alhred from York in 774. They then chose Æthelred as their king and, according to Symeon of Durham, he was “crowned with such great honour”. In the year after his accession Æthelred, who may have been influenced by his father Æthelwald, ordered the killing of an Ealdorman, Eadwulf. A similar event happened three years later when the princes Æthelbald and Heardberht, by the command of Æthelred, killed three ealdormen: Ealdwulf son of Bosa, at Coniscliffe and Cynewulf and Ecga at Helathirnum.

Æthelred may have authorised these assassinations to strengthen his hold on the Northumbrian throne. However, soon after the killings of Ealdwulf, Cynewulf and Ecga, Æthelred was deposed as king and the throne passed back to the Eatingas in the person of Ælfwald,[1] probably a grandson of Eadberht Eating.


Æthelred lived in exile during the reign of Ælfwald and his successor Osred II. However, in 788 or 789, Osred was deposed, forcibly tonsured and exiled and Æthelred was restored to the throne.

During Æthelred's second reign, in 790 the ealdorman Eardwulf was ordered to be killed by Æthelred but survived and later became king. Ælfwald's sons Ælf and Ælfwine were killed, probably on Æthelred's orders, in 791. The next year Osred attempted to regain the throne, but was defeated, captured and killed on 14 September 792. A year later, Lindisfarne was sacked by the Vikings with Alcuin's letters to Æthelred blaming this event on the sins of Æthelred and his nobility.

In 792 on the 29 September Æthelred married Ælfflæd the daughter of Offa, the king of Mercia, at Catterick.

In 793 the first major Viking attack occurred in Northumbria. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle states: "In this year dire forewarnings came over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably terrified the people: these were excessive whirlwinds and lightnings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these tokens; and a little after that, in the same year, on the 6th of the Ides of June (8th June), the havoc of heathen men miserably destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne, through rapine and slaughter." Symeon of Durham also stated that in the year 793: "the pagans from the Northern region came with a naval armament to Britain, like stinging hornets, and overran the country in all directions, like fierce wolves, plundering, tearing, and killing not only sheep and oxen, but priests and Levites (i.e. deacons), and choirs of monks and nuns. They came, as we before said, to the church of Lindisfarne, and laid all waste with dreadful havoc, trod with unhallowed feet the holy places, dug up the altars, and carried off all the treasures of the holy church. Some of the brethren they killed; some they carried off in chains; many they cast out, naked and loaded with insults; some they drowned in the sea."

In 794 the Vikings ravaged Jarrow, but their chief was killed and very many of them speedily slain without mercy.

Death and Succession[edit]

The ancient Roman fortress at Corbridge where Æthelred was slain.

While Æthelred was in Corbridge a group led by ealdormen Ealdred and Wada murdered him on 18 April 796. As a result, Osbald, an ealdorman and a friend of Alcuin, Æthelred's former adviser, became king, but within 27 days he abdicated.

In a letter from Alcuin to Æthelred's father-in-law Offa, the king of Mercia, Alcuin said that Charlemagne had sent gifts to Æthelred and his bishoprics, but when he heard of Æthelred's overthrow and death he:

took his generous gifts back, he was so angry with the people, “that treacherous, perverse people,” as he called them, “who murder their own lords,” for he thought them worse than pagans. If I had not interceded for them, he would have deprived them of every advantage and done them every harm he could.


  1. ^ Swanton, Michael (1996). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: Phoenix. pp. 52–53. 

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]

Preceded by
King of Northumbria
Succeeded by
Ælfwald I
Preceded by
Osred II
King of Northumbria
790 – April 18, 796
Succeeded by