FROM DOT TO DOMESDAY Early Medieval
Supplement
 
Addenda to East Anglia
Ælfwald's letter of encouragement to the ecclesiastical reformer Boniface was apparently written between 742 and 749:
“To the most glorious lord, deserving of every honour and reverence, Archbishop Boniface, Ælfwald, by God's gift endowed with kingly sway over the Angles, and the whole abbey with all the brotherhood of the servants of God in our province who invoke Him, throned on high, with prayers night and day for the safety of the churches, greetings in God who rewards all.
First of all we would have thee know, beloved, how gratefully we learn that our weakness has been commended to your holy prayers; so that, whatever your benignity by the inspiration of God commanded concerning the offering of masses and the continuous prayers, we may attempt with devoted mind to fulfil. Your name will be remembered perpetually in the seven offices of our monasteries;* by the number seven perfection is often designated. Wherefore, since this has been well ordered and by God's help the rules for the soul have been duly determined and the state of the inner man is provided for, the external aids of earthly substance, which by the bounty of God have been placed in our power, we wish to be at your will and command, on condition, however, that through your loving kindness you have the assistance of your prayers given to us without ceasing in the churches of God. And just as the purpose of God willed thee to become a shepherd over His people, so we long to feel in thee our patron. The names of the dead and of those who enter upon the way of all flesh, will be brought forward on both sides, as the season of the year demands, that the God of Gods and the Lord of Lords, who willed to place you in authority over bishops, may deign to bring His people through you to a knowledge of the One in Three, the Three in One. Farewell, until you pass the happy goal.
P. S. – Besides, holy father, we would have thee know that we have sent across the bearer of the present letter with a devout intention; just as we have found him faithful to you, so wilt thou find that he speaks the truth in anything relating to us.”
Translation by Edward Kylie
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In 794: “Offa, king of the Mercians, commanded the head of King Æthelberht to be struck off”.  So says the earliest extant report of Æthelberht's demise, in Manuscript A of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, written about a century after the event. The statement has something of the ring of hagiography about it. Also, though written in Old English, Æthelberht is titled rex (king in Latin), which might tend to suggest that the annalist's source was a Latin ‘Life’. If true, it would mean that Æthelberht was considered a martyr by the late-9th century. A half-century later Æthelberht was certainly being venerated as a saint. Theodred, bishop of London (and also of a diocese based on Hoxne in Suffolk), willed estates “to God's community at St Æthelberht's church at Hoxne” (S1526).  Theodred died around 951. Another will, drawn up for one Wulfgeat of Donnington (S1534), shows that Hereford Cathedral was dedicated to St Æthelberht by around 1000.
The earliest source purporting to provide details of Æthelberht's fatal encounter with Offa is a ‘Life’ (or strictly speaking ‘Passion’, since he was seen as a martyr) dating from the early-12th century (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 308). In a nutshell, the story it tells is that Æthelberht, king of the East Angles, sought to marry a daughter of Offa, king of Mercia. He travelled to Offa's palace at Sutton (it is supposed, Sutton Walls near Hereford) to make his proposal. Offa, however, had heard a rumour that Æthelberht was intending to invade his kingdom. He was persuaded by his wife, Cynethryth, that the rumours were indeed true, and to offer a handsome reward to anyone who would kill Æthelberht. One Winberht volunteered for the task. Æthelberht was taken captive, tortured, and finally beheaded with his own sword. Offa had his remains dumped in a marsh by the River Lugg. With the assistance of miraculous lights, the remains were recovered and buried at Fernley, which became Hereford, where, in due course, a monastery, precursor of the cathedral, was built by Milfrith, an otherwise unknown king of an unnamed distant region.
It seems strange, since both Æthelberht and Offa were Christian kings, that Æthelberht was regarded as a martyr. The early-12th century historian William of Malmesbury comments (‘GP’ IV, 170): “He was killed, for no just cause, by Offa king of the Mercians, to strengthen (as he thought) and advance his own kingdom, a wicked piece of plotting against the wooer of his own daughter. On his death, Offa straightway invaded his eastern realm, and he was to pass on the tradition of such invasions to his successors. But the unprovoked death of Æthelberht is believed to have been avenged by Offa's own death soon afterwards and by the brevity of his son's reign. What is more, God made his [Æthelberht's] sanctity known to his people by such manifest signs that this grand bishopric [Hereford] is consecrated in his name. He is therefore a martyr, belief being accorded to miracles from God rather than to human arguments.”
The abbey of St Albans claimed to have been founded by Offa. They developed their own version of Æthelberht's martyrdom, in which their founder is shown to be an innocent party. The early-13th century chronicler Roger of Wendover, a monk at St Albans, writes, s.a. 792: “Æthelberht, king of the East-Angles, son of King Æthelred, left his territories, much against his mother's remonstrances, and came to Offa, the most potent king of the Mercians, beseeching him to give him his daughter in marriage. Now Offa, who was a most noble king, and of a most illustrious family, on learning the cause of his arrival, entertained him in his palace with the greatest honour, and exhibited all possible courtesy, as well to the king himself as to his companions. On consulting his queen Quendritha, and asking her advice on this proposal, she is said to have given her husband this diabolical counsel, “Lo”, said she, “God has this day delivered into your hands your enemy, whose kingdom you have so long desired; if, therefore, you secretly put him to death, his kingdom will pass to you and your successors forever.” The king was exceedingly disturbed in his mind at this counsel of the queen, and, indignantly rebuking her, he replied, “Thou hast spoken as one of the foolish women; far from me be such a detestable crime, which would disgrace myself and my successors”; and having so said, he left her in great anger. Meanwhile, having by degrees recovered from his agitation, both the kings sat down to table, and, after a repast of royal dainties, they spent the whole day in music and dancing with great gladness. But in the meantime, the wicked queen, still adhering to her foul purpose, treacherously ordered a chamber to be adorned with sumptuous furniture, fit for a king, in which Æthelberht might sleep at night. Near the king's bed she caused a seat to be prepared, magnificently decked, and surrounded with curtains; and underneath it the wicked woman caused a deep pit to be dug, wherewith to effect her wicked purpose. When king Æthelberht wished to retire to rest after a day spent in joy, he was conducted into the aforesaid chamber, and, sitting down in the seat that has been mentioned, he was suddenly precipitated, together with the seat, into the bottom of the pit, where he was stifled by the executioners placed there by the queen; for as soon as the king had fallen into the pit, the base traitors threw on him pillows, and garments, and curtains, that his cries might not be heard; and so this king and martyr, thus innocently murdered, received the crown of life which God hath promised to those that love him. As soon as this detestable act of the wicked queen towards her son-in-law was told to the companions of the murdered king, they fled from the court before it was light, fearing lest they should experience the like fate. The noble king Offa, too, on hearing the certainty of the crime that had been wrought, shut himself up in great grief in a certain loft, and tasted no food for three days. Nevertheless, although he was counted guiltless of the king's death, he sent out a great expedition, and united the kingdom of the East-Angles to his dominions. St Æthelberht was ignominiously buried in a place unknown to all, until his body, being pointed out by a light from heaven, was found by the faithful and conveyed to the city of Hereford, where it now graces the episcopal see with miracles and healing powers.”
Translations:
Roger of Wendover ‘Flores Historiarum’ by J.A. Giles
William of Malmesbury ‘Gesta Pontificum Anglorum’ by M. Winterbottom
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Richard Hoggett, ‘The Archaeology of the East Anglian Conversion’ (2010), Chapter 2: “In response to a request for support from Boniface, Ælfwald wrote to assure him that his name was being remembered ‘in septenis monasteriorum nostorum sinaxis’ and suggested that they exchange the names of their dead so that mutual prayers could be said. It is clear from this letter that Ælfwald had a sound understanding of Latin grammar, but the quote has caused difficulties for those trying to understand the early East Anglian church. Dorothy Whitelock's view [in a paper entitled ‘The pre-Viking age church in East Anglia’, 1972] was that the phrase meant that prayers were being said for Boniface in seven East Anglian monasteries; this reading has percolated through a number of other works, the authors of which all acknowledge that by this time there must have been more than seven monasteries in East Anglia and are at pains to explain this reference. However, their efforts were unnecessary, since the various pieces of this puzzle have been in print for a long time ... Rather than referring to seven monasteries, as many have supposed, Ælfwald was in fact referring to the manner in which Boniface's name and those of others were to be praised during the monastic day.”
The notice of Æthelberht's death is misplaced s.a. 792 in all extant manuscripts of the ‘Chronicle’.
In 1999 the television archaeology programme Time Team attempted, and failed, to find evidence of Offa's palace in the vicinity of Sutton Walls.
Quendritha is a form of Cwoenthryth, but the name of Offa's wife was actually Cynethryth.
‘Gesta Pontificum Anglorum’ (Deeds of the Bishops of England).