It seems odd to us today that a powerful leader would leave all of his wealth, power, and prestige behind and retire to a monastery. Yet that is just what Ethelred, King of Mercia, did in 704. And this action is even more remarkable when put under the light of evidence, which reveals that Ethelred had huge amounts of wealth, power, and prestige at the time. Why did he do it? Only he knows for sure. History, however, can give us a little insight into his decision-making.
(It should be pointed out at this point that this is NOT Ethelred the Unready, who struggled famously against the Scandinavian invaders a few centuries later. No, this Ethelred took the throne of Mercia in 675, devastated Kent the very next year, then settled in to repeat the pattern of his predecessors: seize whatever you can get and hold it as long as you can.)
Ethelred had married Osthryth, niece of King Oswald of Northumbria. Oswald, it will be remembered, met his fate at the hands of the combined forces of Penda (Ethelred’s father) and Cadwalla in 642. After a few years, Osthryth and Ethelred set about financing and dedicating churches in Oswald’s honor and memory. The first monastery at Bardney housed a shrine to Oswald, whose body was later brought there.
Churches, monasteries, nunneries, and cathedrals followed, all with the backing and approval of Ethelred. His own sister, Werburga, was abbess at a nunnery in Trichingham, founded in 680. Sadly, this nunnery decayed after her death three years later. Other examples include Pershore and Worcester.
An extraordinary example of Ethelred’s generosity toward the furthering of the church’s message is that of Osric, King of the Hwicce. In 679, Ethelred gave Osric the entire city of Gleawecesore. Osric, in turn, founded a church dedicated to Saint Peter. This city later became Gloucester, and the site of the church is home to today’s Gloucester Cathedral.
And yet, Ethelred was firmly in control of Mercia. The struggles against other Saxon kings continued.
A hint of what was to come came in 697, when Guthlac, a dedicated soldier, left Ethelred’s service and entered a monastery, at what is now Crowland. Guthlac was a good fighter and a loyal servant to his king. Yet he gave it all up to serve his God.
A mere seven years later, King Ethelred-his wife several years dead at the hands of ruffians-took the holy vows himself and entered Bardney Abbey. He was later elected abbot and died in 716.