Æthelbald of Mercia

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Æthelbald (also spelled Ethelbald, or Aethelbald)[1] (died 757) was the King of Mercia, in what is now the English Midlands, from 716 until 757. During his long reign, Mercia became the dominant kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons, and recovered the position of pre-eminence it had enjoyed during the seventh century under the strong Mercian kings Penda and Wulfhere. Mercian domination of England continued until the end of the eighth century; Offa, the grandson of Æthelbald's cousin Eanwulf, ruled for an additional thirty-nine years, starting shortly after Æthelbald's murder.

Æthelbald came to the throne on the death of his cousin, King Ceolred. Both Wessex and Kent were ruled by strong kings at that time, but within fifteen years the contemporary chronicler Bede describes Æthelbald as ruling all England south of the river Humber. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not list Æthelbald as a bretwalda, or "Ruler of Britain", though this may be due to the West Saxon origin of the Chronicle.

St Boniface wrote to Æthelbald in about 745, reproving him for various dissolute and irreligious acts. The subsequent 747 council of Clovesho, and a charter Æthelbald issued at Gumley in 749—which freed the church from some of its obligations—may have been responses to Boniface's letter. Æthelbald was killed in 757 by his bodyguards. He was succeeded briefly by Beornrad, of whom little is known, but within a year Offa had seized the throne.

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Early life and accession

Æthelbald came of the Mercian royal line, although his father, Alweo, was never king. Alweo’s father was Eowa, who may have shared the throne for some time with his brother, Penda of Mercia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not mention Eowa; though it does date Penda’s reign as the thirty years from 626 to 656, when Penda was killed at the battle of the Winwaed. However, two later sources name Eowa as king as well: the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae. The Annales Cambriae is the source for Eowa's death in 644 at the battle of Maserfield, where Penda defeated Oswald of Northumbria. Details on Penda’s reign are scarce, and it is a matter for speculation whether Eowa was an underking, owing allegiance to Penda, or if instead Eowa and Penda had divided Mercia between them. If they did divide the kingdom, it is likely that Eowa ruled northern Mercia, as Penda’s son Peada was established later as the king of southern Mercia by the Northumbrian Oswiu, who defeated the Mercians and killed Penda in 656. It is possible that Eowa fought against Penda at Maserfield.[2]

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