Æthelwold of East Anglia

Æthelwold was King of East Anglia from c. 654 until his death in 664. He was probably the fourth of the sons of Eni, Rædwald's brother, to hold that authority. His rule spanned the last decade in which the Roman rite and the Celtic rite of Christianity coexisted in England, the former centred at Canterbury in Kent and the latter in Northumbria at Lindisfarne, where Finan, the successor of Saint Aidan, was bishop.

654: Powers of Northumbria and Mercia

In the aftermath of the Battle of Winwaed (near Leeds, Yorkshire), 655, in which Aethelwold's brother King Aethelhere of East Anglia was slain fighting beside King Penda of Mercia, a new political situation existed. Peada of Mercia, Penda's son, had been ruling the Mercian province of the Middle Angles as a Christian king during his father's lifetime and now became King of Mercia. However his wife Alhflaed, daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria, poisoned him on Easter Day 656 and Mercian aspirations to dominion suffered a setback. Oswiu's son Alhfrith, a sub-king in Northumbria, was married to Cyneburga, a sister of Peada's. At this point Oswiu's authority remained superior to Mercia. His recent marriage to Eanfled (daughter of Edwin of Northumbria and Aethelburga) supplied an important link of kinship to the Kentish royal house.

Wuffing dynastic and monastic interests

At the onset of his reign, Aethelwold held East Anglia by dynastic right. East Anglia's dynastic alliances bound it strongly to Kent (where Seaxburh, Aethelwold's niece, was queen of King Eorconbert) and its western stronghold in the Fen (bordering on Peada's Kingdom of Middle Angles) was held under Seaxburga's sister Etheldreda, also devoutly attached to the Roman church. There remained the important Northumbrian connection with Saint Hilda, whose sister Hereswith had married Aethelwold's brother Aethilric. Early in Aethelwold's reign Hilda established the monastery of "Streonaeshealh" (Whitby) in Northumbria, which became the burial-place of Edwin and other Northumbrian kings.

The influence of the Celtic rite in East Anglia had been felt strongly while the monastery of Saint Fursey and Saint Foillan had existed, but after the despoliation of 651 its later condition is not known. The authority of East Anglian Christianity still resided in Bishop Berhtgisl Boniface of Dommoc, obedient to Canterbury. Saint Botolph was now establishing his (later famous) monastery at Iken, a tidal island site in the river Alde, Suffolk. If the legend that he came to East Anglia through contact with King Anna's daughters at Faremoutiers is true, he may have received Celtic teaching there since abbess Burgundofara was reputedly instructed herself by Saint Columbanus, the Irish missionary to Burgundy. Anna's daughter Saint Ethelburga succeeded Fara as abbess at Faremoutiers at about this time.

Aethelwold's patronage of Swithelm of Essex

The politics of church and dynasty coloured Aethelwold's reign intensely. Oswiu had successfully persuaded King Sigeberht II of Essex, ("the Good"), to receive baptism, and Cedd, a Northumbrian disciple of Aidan's, was diverted from the Northumbrian mission to the Middle Angles under Peada to become Bishop of the East Saxons. Cedd built monasteries at Tilbury in the south and at Ythancaestir (Othona), the old Roman fort at Bradwell-on-Sea, in north-east Essex. Sigebert was assassinated by his own thegns and was succeeded by Swithelm of Essex, not yet a Christian. Cedd persuaded him to accept the faith, and his baptism by Bishop Cedd took place not in his own kingdom but at Rendlesham, the royal dwelling (vicus regius) of the Wuffinga house beside the river Deben, Suffolk, in East Anglia. King AEthelwold was Swithelm's sponsor at baptism. These facts were recorded by Bede (Ecclesiastical History, iii.22).

Diplomatic marriages with Northumbria and Mercia

At much the same time, c. 660 and soon after, two important marriages took place. Ecgfrith of Northumbria, son of Oswiu and brother of Alhfrith, at the age of fifteen married Etheldreda of Ely, and she went north to live at the Northumbrian court. She was then about twenty-nine and had remained a virgin for Christ during her first marriage. She continued in this resolve, with the result that Ecgfrith could not father an heir. Etheldreda retained Ely as her own possession during this marriage.

Meanwhile a brother of Peada's, Wulfhere of Mercia, emerged from safe retreat and was proclaimed king. He was not yet Christian, but was soon converted and married Eormenhilda, daughter of King Eorconbert of Kent and his queen Seaxburh. Soon afterwards he founded the monastery of "Medeshamstede" (Peterborough) under abbot Seaxwulf. Thus the Fen frontier became significantly aligned between Etheldreda's estate and Peterborough, embodying the dynastic alliances of Kent, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, under the religious authority of Canterbury. Though East Anglia was perhaps the least powerful as a kingdom, its policy was fully invested in these alignments.

The sphere of Rendlesham

The royal seat of Rendlesham in the east, specified by Bede, seals the evident importance of the Deben estuary headwaters as a royal centre, demonstrated for an earlier period by the royal cemetery of Sutton Hoo. Rendlesham is a short distance from Iken, site of Botolph's monastery, and stands at a strategic point between the rivers Deben and Alde at the headwaters of the Butley river estuary, which intersects the peninsula between the two major rivers. The dedication of Rendlesham church to St Gregory the Great suggests its early, perhaps primary connection with the royal dwelling mentioned by Bede. If the Dommoc bishopric was at Walton, Felixstowe (as Rochester, Kent claimed in the thirteenth century) then this was also immediately within the sphere of Rendlesham. Archaeology reveals that the quay of Gipeswic (Ipswich), at a ford of the River Orwell estuary, was then growing in importance as a centre of seaborne trade to the continent, no doubt under direct royal patronage.

The Council of Whitby

Following the death of Bishop Finan of Lindisfarne, Alhfrith of Northumbria, in collusion with Wilfrid, Bishop Agilbert of Wessex and others, determined to persuade Oswiu to rule in favour of the Roman rite of Christianity as universal within the realms over which he had dominion. The case was debated in Oswiu's presence at the Council of Whitby, with Bishop Colman (Finan's successor), Hild and Cedd defending the Celtic rite and the tradition inherited from Aidan. The Roman cause prevailed and the former division of ecclesiastical authorities was set aside. Those who could not accept it, including Colman, departed elsewhere.

At that time a severe plague swept through Europe and England. Among its victims were Bishop Cedd, Archbishop Deusdedit of Canterbury, and King Eorconbert of Kent. AEthelwold of East Anglia also died in 664.

ee also

*Wuffing dynasty family tree


*Bede, "Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum", Ed. and Trans. B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford 1969).
*S.J. Plunkett, Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times (Stroud 2005).
*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 35 Part 4, 279-301.
*D. Whitelock, 1972, 'The Pre-Viking Age Church in East Anglia', "Anglo-Saxon England" 1, 1-22 (Cambridge)
*B. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London 1990).

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