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Æthelhere of East Anglia

Æthelhere (died November 15, 655) was a King of East Anglia (653/654–655). He succeeded his brother King Anna.

Æthelhere's family and origins

Æthelhere was probably the third of the sons of Eni (brother of Raedwald), of whom four are certainly known. They are Æthilric (father of Ealdwulf), Anna, Æthelhere and Æthelwold, the last of whom succeeded Æthelhere. His three brothers all appear to have been firmly committed to Christian rule. Æthilric made a Christian marriage to Hereswith, grand-niece of Edwin of Northumbria, and his son Ealdwulf was shown Raedwald's temple of two altars (pagan and Christian) in his childhood as something of a curiosity. Anna is described by Bede as almost a saintly figure and the father of a most religious family, and brought about the conversion of Cenwalh of Wessex, and Æthelwold did the same for Swithelm of Essex.

Æthelhere's kingdom

King Anna, probably older than Æthelhere as he ruled before him, began his family in or before 630. Æthelhere was likely at least in his forties when he ruled and had therefore witnessed the fortunes of his House since the time of Raedwald. At the time of his accession, c 653/4, the Wuffing rulers of East Anglia had maintained Christian rule continuously since the accession of Sigebert (c 629), but had received Christian teaching during the reign of Raedwald (before 616) and in the time of Eorpwald (624-7). Four Christian East Anglian rulers had died at the hands of heathen enemies, namely Eorpwald (627), Sigebert (c 636), Ecgric (c 636) and Anna (c 653), the last three facing the armies of Penda of Mercia. Through this the succession of the East Anglian see of Dommoc was unbroken, in the episcopacies of Saint Felix (c 630-647), Thomas (a Fenman) (c 647-652) and Berhtgisl (called Boniface) of Kent (c 652-669).

Mercian destabilisation of East Anglia

Throughout Anna's reign the hostility of Penda had been felt in East Anglia. In c 644-47 Anna had been strong enough not only to offer protection to Cenwalh of Wessex (who had divorced Penda's sister following the death of Oswald) but actually to help reinstate him as a Christian ruler in Wessex. Lindsey was at this time under Northumbrian protection, and East Anglia's sympathies with Kent and Northumbria left the kingdom exposed as a Mercian neighbour opposed to Penda's intentions.

During the late 640s Saint Fursey, having spent a year as a hermit, left East Anglia for Gaul because the kingdom was disturbed by heathen incursions and the monasteries were threatened by danger. He had left the parent monastery of Cnobheresburg (?Burgh Castle) in the hands of his brother Saint Foillan. The threat he had foreseen became a reality a year or two after his departure from East Anglia when Foillan and his community were driven out by Penda with an invading force in 651. King Anna was present at that encounter but was driven into exile.

In the aftermath of this event, Penda's creation of the Middle Anglian Kingdom for his son Peada, the conversion of Peada through his marriage to the treacherous Alhflaed (daughter of Oswiu), and the mission from Northumbria to Mercia of the Irishman Diuma and his English followers, enabled Penda to form a Christian buffer state against any resurgence of East Anglian power. At the same time Oswiu made overtures to King Sigebert in Essex, a kingdom formerly not in the Christian alignment, and was his sponsor at baptism.

The emergence of Æthelhere's power

During this period of Anna's exile, it is likely that Æthelhere emerged as the interim leader of East Anglia, either as a Wuffing representative installed by Penda, or simply by default and heredity in his brother's absence. But Penda's influence in, and access to, East Anglia remained direct, for in 653 or early 654, when Anna had returned to East Anglia, the Mercian and East Anglian armies met in pitched battle at Bulcamp (near Blythburgh, Suffolk), Anna and his son were slain, and the East Angles were slaughtered in large numbers. Æthelhere then became his formal successor.

Æthelhere's patronage

The short term of Æthelhere's reign, during which Berhtgils remained bishop of Dommoc, witnessed the construction of the estuarine island monastery at Iken, Suffolk by Saint Botolph. Botolph, who may formerly have been a chaplain at Faremoutiers Abbey (where two of Anna's daughters lived), had received the promise of foundation grants some time before but, owing to the disturbances, had been obliged to wait for a suitable opportunity. He began to build his monastery in the year that Anna was killed, and among the fragmentary sources relating to him both Æthelhere and Æthelwold are mentioned as his patrons. The site lay closely within the sphere of Rendlesham, near to the earlier dynastic centre surrounding Sutton Hoo, and in around 660 actually identified as the vicus regius of the Wuffing House. It must also have been necessary for Æthelhere to arrange the funeral of Anna, and the reputed burial-site at Blythburgh probably witnessed an act of dedication during his reign.

The invasion of Northumbria

During 655 Æthelhere became involved in Penda's massive assault upon Northumbria. Given the context of his rule it is unlikely that this represented any political sympathy for Penda (of which there can have been little in East Anglia), but was more likely demanded by the Mercian leader to ensure the strategic disempowerment of his former enemy, while directing his attention to the north. Bede (Historia Ecclesiastica iii.24) appears to state that Æthelhere was the cause of this war, which might be intended if he meant that by coming into allegiance to Penda he had made the assault possible. However it is argued by J.O. Prestwich that an issue of punctuation in Bede's text has confused the meaning, and that the expression auctor ipse belli actually refers to Penda himself.

Penda led a great force (including Welsh armies) under the command of thirty royal ealdormen into Northumbria and laid siege to King Oswiu at a place called Iudeu. Oswiu offered him a great ransom of treasure which, according to Bede, was refused (or, according to the Historia Brittonum, was accepted and distributed). In either case Penda resolved on battle and the destruction of the Northumbrians. Oswiu had a much smaller force, but in the event the Welsh armies of Cadfael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd decamped on the eve of battle, and Œthelwald of Deira (who was with Penda) stood aside to await the outcome.

The Battle of the River Winwaed: Æthelhere's death

The battle took place on September 15, 655 beside the River Winwaed, which was in spate owing to the autumnal rains. This was possibly near Leeds in Yorkshire. The Northumbrians were victorious, the Mercian forces were slaughtered, and very many of them drowned in flight. Penda himself was killed, together with nearly all of the thirty royal leaders including Æthelhere of East Anglia. So, according to a saying recorded by Henry of Huntingdon, the slaughter of Anna, of Sigebert and Ecgric, and of Oswald and Edwin were avenged in the River Winwaed.

See also


  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
  • Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, Ed. B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford 1969).
  • E.O. Blake (ed.), 1962, Liber Eliensis (Camden 3s, 92).
  • Henry of Huntingdon's Chronicle
  • D.P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings (London 1991).
  • J. Morris, Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals (Phillimore, London and Chichester 1980).
  • S. Plunkett, Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times (Tempus 2005).
  • J.O. Prestwich, 1968, King Æthelhere and the battle of the Winwaed, English Historical Review 83, No. 326 (January 1968), 89–95.
  • S.E. West, N.Scarfe and R.J. Cramp, 1984, Iken, St Botolph, and the Coming of East Anglian Christianity, Proc. Suffolk Institute of Archaeology 16.
  • D. Whitelock, 1972, The Pre-Viking Age Church in East Anglia, Anglo-Saxon England I, 1-22.
  • B. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London 1990).

Preceded by:
King of East Anglia Succeeded by:

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