Wicked Queens and Martyred Kings – the 794 Beheading of S. Æthelberht of East Anglia

Murdered (or executed) by Offa of Mercia in 794, the passio of King Æthelberht of East Anglia is an obscure tale that has so many twists and turns in its narrative transmission that divining a plausible account of the event is near-impossible. Indeed, even apart from his death, Æthelberht remains an elusive character in eighth-century Anglo-Saxon history and, were it not for some few coins he minted having survived the centuries, his kingship would be difficult to locate historically.

Fortunately, on the matter of Æthelberht’s death, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides us a likely historically accurate and succinct, if dull, summary of the event: ‘in this year Offa, King of the Mercians, had Æthelberht beheaded.This is in distinct contrast to the narrative put forward by Roger of Wendover in the thirteenth century, over four-hundred years after Æthelberht’s death. In this account Æthelberht, an innocent, came seeking an alliance with Offa through a proposed marriage to Offa’s daughter. A little unsure of whether to give his daughter’s hand in marriage, Offa consulted his wife Cynethryth. Cynethryth suggested that instead of marrying Æthelberht to their daughter, they should murder him. Apparently Cynethryth was not keen on the marriage. When Offa refused to sanction such an idea, the queen took matters into her own hands, and I will let Roger take it from here…

But in the meantime, the wicked queen, still adhering to her foul purpose, treacherously ordered a chamber to be adorned with sumptuous furniture in which King Æthelberht might sleep at night. Near the king’s bed she had a seat prepared, magnificently decked, and surrounded with curtains; and underneath it the wicked woman caused a deep pit to be dug to affect her evil purpose. When King Æthelberht wished to retire to rest … he was suddenly precipitated, together with the seat, into the bottom of the pit, where he was stifled by the executioners of 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, innocently murdered, received the crown of life which God promised to those that love him.

                               Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History 792(4).

Quite the tale. Quite the fabrication. But not one without supporting narratives. John of Worcester in the twelfth century painted a similar picture of Æthelberht’s death in which a pious, if naïve, Offa was deceived by the political machinations of his wife Cynethryth, resulting in Æthelberht’s execution (though unlike Roger, John does not give her a personal role in the execution). Yet as fun as these accounts are, the Anglo-Norman histories are difficult sources. They reflect the end-point of hagiographical traditions under development in the late Anglo-Saxon period, transformed through religious, social, and political lenses over centuries. The character of the wicked queen herself does not appear in any extant account of the martyrdom until the early twelfth-century Passio S. Æthelberhti, and this unheralded appearance three centuries after the event does not provide the narrative with a veneer of historicity.

For those who have read my articles on Edward the Martyr and Kenelm of Mercia, the other two ‘martyred’ Anglo-Saxon boy-kings that take up much of my research time, the core details of Æthelberht’s death will seem a pretty familiar tale. A young king, innocent in his trust of others, is murdered as a result of political intrigue, through the agency of a female antagonist – here again is that seemingly ubiquitous trope within the tradition of Anglo-Saxon royal martyrs – the ‘wicked stepmother.’ Edward was reported as having been murdered through the devices of his stepmother, Kenelm by the plotting of his sister, and Æthelberht through the advice, or actions, of Offa’s wife. The characterisation of these women is not subtle, and the deliberate and obvious juxtaposition between these anti-saints, who are presented without redeeming features, and the saint, who is presented without blemish, often leads to the construction of a shallow antagonist who is little more than a narrative device.  But it is an interesting narrative device. So in this article, along with my examination of the narrative of Æthelberht’s martyrdom and the literary transmission of that tale, I will also be looking at the trope of the treacherous woman in late Anglo-Saxon/early Anglo-Norman hagiography.

Cynethryth’s evolution as a character in Æthelberht’s passio is an excellent example of the narrative changes that occur as stories are transmitted across generations and cultures, and altered by that process to reflect differing social and political values. It is an effect I previously noted in account of Edward the Martyr’s death, in which his step-mother went from being entirely absent in that tale of treachery, to being the primary motivator of his murder. In the case of Æthelberht’s martyrdom, the event is purported to have occurred in 794 and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle account, written in the ninth century, indicates that Æthelberht was beheaded by Offa of Mercia, with no mention of the queen.  There is then literary silence until the early twelfth century when the anonymous Passio S. Æthelberhti established a narrative to explain the execution and cast Cynethryth as complicit to the murder. The Passio is the first written account that puts forth the idea that Æthelberht’s entry into Mercia was mission of peace in which he was to seek marriage with Offa’s daughter. In this narrative Cynethryth succeeded in poisoned Offa’s mind against the East Anglian king, setting in train a series of events leading to the beheading.  From this point Cynethryth was always implicated in the murder, with two later twelfth-century vitae following the narrative of the Passio, and John of Worcester’s declaration that the crime was perpetrated at ‘the most wicked urging of … Queen Cynethryth.’ While in the early thirteenth century attitudes to Cynethryth continued to harden, as exemplified by Roger of Wendover hyperbolic narrative absolving Offa of all guilt.

There is, however, an interesting political aspect to the evolving nature of Æthelberht’s passio – we are not dealing with the transmission of a single narrative tradition, but two separate traditions. That represented by the Passio S. Æthelberhti is born of a saint’s cult based in Hereford, while Roger’s porky-pies are developed out of a St Albans tradition with a vested interest in exonerating Offa.

In the Passio, and even going back to the Chronicle, Offa is an active player in the execution. In a purely political context, this is a narrative that makes a great deal of sense. Offa was the dominant Anglo-Saxon King of his era, and executing a neighbouring king to gain control over the territory as an overlord would not have been out of character. However, though he may have been an active participant, the Passio does not necessarily portray him as a willing one – in this text and its derivatives, it is Cynethryth that convinces him to act. Bearing in mind that we are talking here about hagiography, it should come as little surprise that there are some biblical parallels and, within the Passio tradition, they are quite blatant. Indeed, the Passio’s record of the East Anglian king’s death reflects nothing so much as the death of John the Baptist. Both John and Æthelberht were purported to have been executed on the orders of a seemingly reluctant king, as a result of the machinations of his malignant wife. Even the supporting characters of the daughter who acts as the medium for her mother’s plotting, and the executioner who beheads the saint, have migrated from the gospel narrative into the Passio. For Æthelberht’s hagiographer to equate the East Anglian king with Christianity’s first saint was a bold statement of the royal saint’s godliness, and served to enhance the debasement of those who affected his martyrdom, foremost amongst these Cynethryth, the treacherous woman.

As a twelfth century document, the anonymous Passio S. Æthelberhti is late within the context the late Anglo-Saxon hagiographical tradition. Yet the manuscript only represents the earliest written version of the Passio that has survived, and there is evidence that the cult of Æthelberht had existed at Hereford from a significantly earlier period. The Passio records a translatio narrative in which the murdered king appeared in visions giving instructions as to the recovery of his body after which, once Æthelberht’s body was recovered, it was translated to Hereford. The detail the hagiographer provides in this passage displays a personal knowledge of Hereford, yet it records name forms that are anachronistic with the time of its recording. This means that the place names in the Passio show a familiarity with the Hereford region at an earlier time and that, in form, alongside personal names, they seem to display a linguistic authenticity that preserves a tradition predating the written text. Our treacherous woman is an ideal example of this – her name in the Passio, Cynethryth, is late eighth-century in form, but in later versions, such as the Vita S. Æthelberhti by Gerald of Wales, written only fifty-years after the Passio, her name is rendered the same as that of Kenelm’s traitorous sister, Cwoenthryth.

(There is some research needed here – the identical names of the two female antagonists, and the regional proximity of the two martyrdoms seem to me to indicate some significant contact between the traditions. But I digress…)

However, we do not need to rely on the internal evidence of the Passio alone to prove the existence of an established cult of Æthelberht in Hereford prior to the twelfth-century. A ninth-century entry on a list of saint’s burial places and a will of c. 1000 both attest to the cathedral being dedicated to Æthelberht two centuries before the recording of the Passio.  When this evidence for an established cult in Hereford is considered alongside the narrative’s local flavour, it would seem to indicate that the saint’s long residence at Hereford maintained an active vernacular tradition into the twelfth century. As such, the extant version of the Passio is a scribal copy of a pre-existing tradition that had its genesis in the native traditions of Hereford. But I am tempted to take that a step further and suggest that, with a traceable process of transmission, the Passio retains a believable cultural memory of Offa’s wife.

However, Hereford was not the only ecclesiastical centre to preserve the story of Æthelberht’s martyrdom, and the effect of local political concerns on narrative transmission is clearly on display in the characterisation of Cynethryth as she come through from the Abbey of St Albans. The deployment of the treacherous woman as a fabricated story element is rarely so evident as in the comparison between the Cynethryth of the Passio S. Æthelberhti and that of the Vitae duorum Offarum.  The Vitae duorum Offarum is an early thirteenth century document that eulogises Æthelberht’s murderer for his foundation of the abbey at St Albans. Though Offa was never canonised, the Vitae is written in the tradition of hagiography and, as such, the protagonist cannot be a part of a plot to murder a saint. To resolve this conflict, the Vitae author strengthens the role of the traitorous queen and it is from this same tradition that Roger of Wendover received the narrative that has been previously noted. Offa is absolved of any evil intent with Cynethryth overseeing and personally partaking in the plot that ends Æthelberht’s life. It’s a cracking story with no supporting evidence to indicate that it is anything but the product of a scribe with an overactive imagination.  Here Cynethryth is constructed as a mere foil to both kings, motivated only by narrative necessity. Any truth there may be in the characterisation of the wicked queen in the Passio S. Æthelberhti is subordinated to local interest in the St Albans tradition.

So what have we learned from the martyrdom of the rather obscure Æthelberht of East Anglia? Not a great deal about Æthelberht himself, whose reign, while historically grounded, is best known for his execution, and even then, does not received the same attention as either Edward the Martyr or Kenelm of Mercia. Yet the variation and quantity of extant accounts of Æthelberht’s death, and the existence of two separate traditions are useful for the examination of processes of narrative transmission and construction. In the contrast between the Hereford and St Albans accounts of Æthelberht’s martyrdom, the influence of regional politics and local tradition can be seen defining the narrative. In turn, in the person of the treacherous woman religious archetypes and societal concerns reflecting an inherent distrust of female agency can be seen to shape the narrative.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Offa holding St. Albans Abbey, BL Cotton Nero D VII f.3 v.
  2. Catherine Cubitt, ‘Sites and Sanctity: Revisiting the Cult of Murdered and Martyred Anglo-Saxon Royal Saints,’ Early Medieval Europe 9, no. 1 (2000): 53 – 83.
  3. R. R. Darlington and P. McGurk (eds.), The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450 – 1066, translated by Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk. 3 vols. Vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
  4. J. A. Giles (ed. and trans.), Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History. 2 vols. Vol. 1. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849.
  5. M. R. James, ‘Two Lives of St. Ethelbert, King and Martyr,’ English Historical Review 32, no. 126 (1917): 214 – 44.
  6. Felix Liebermann (ed.), Die Heiligen Englands: Angelsächsisch und Lateinisch (Hanover: Hahn’sche Buchhandlung, 1889).
  7. Charles Plummer (ed.), Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892).
  8. D. W. Rollason, ‘The Cults of Murdered Royal Anglo-Saxon Saints,’ Anglo-Saxon England 11 (1982): 1- 22.
  9. Alan Thacker, ‘Kings, Saints, and Monasteries in Pre-Viking Mercia,’ Midlands History 10 (1985): 1 – 25.
  10. Dorothy Whitelock (ed. and trans.), Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930).
  11. R. M. Wilson, The Lost Literature of Medieval England, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1970).
  12. C. E. Wright, The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1939).

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Wicked Queens and Martyred Kings – the 819 Murder of S. Kenelm of Mercia

Wicked Queens and Martyred Kings – the 978 Assassination of Edward the Martyr

See our bibliographies on Hagiography and Chronicle Editions.

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