Ethelbald: First Great King of Mercia


So much has been said recently about Northumbria. Let us turn for awhile to the lands south of the Humber River: Southumbria, if you will. (Northumbria can be; so can be Southumbria.)

The largest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by the 8th Century was Mercia. Its great king Penda had struck a blow for the Southern lands by helping to slay Northumbrias King Edwin on the field of battle. But Penda himself was killed not long after. Mercia trotted along after this, trying to keep pace with Northumbria and with other brethren southern lands. But it wasnt until Ethelbald came to the throne in 716 that Mercia began to go in a direction its ambitious people wanted to go: to the top. And go to the top it did, remaining there for a good long time indeed.

Not much is known of Ethelbald. He was a good soldier, a great one, in fact, given that he fought his way to the throne in a land as large as Mercia, with its built-in stable of devastatingly effective warriors and warlords. And in doing so, he fulfilled the prophecy of Guthlac. What we do know is this:

Ethelbald took the throne in 716 and set about gaining power for himself and for Mercia. When he was done, in 731, he was telling his subjects and other heads-of-state to refer to him as the rex Britanniae, the “King of the Britons.” (It will be remembered that Uther and Arthur Pendragon have been referred to as such.)

Now, this wasn’t entirely true, especially given Northumbria’s remaining strength. But Mercia was, by 731, in control over all lands south of the Humber River (thus the validity of the term Southumbria.) Could Ethelbald have been “King of the Southern Britons”? Probably.

Ethelbald continued his supremacy for several years after that, solidifying Mercias place atop the South Saxons heap and paving the way for his successor, Offa. Yet these were not necessarily years free from strife. A battle always seemed to be on the horizon. The soldiers of Sussex and Wessex and Kent surely were invariably struggling to put their best man forward. Yet Ethelbald held firm in his sway over them.

Until 752, that is, when Cuthred of Wessex finally defeated Ethelbald and Mercia at Burford. The Mercian King lost much of his prestige after this battle. His people lost faith in him. He was murdered by his own thanes in 756.

The reign of Ethelbald was over, but the ascendancy of Mercia was just getting going.