Celtic and Old English Saints 20 May
* St. Ethelbert of East Anglia
St. Ethelbert of East Anglia, Martyr & King
Died near Hereford, England, c. 793-794. King Ethelbert had a
considerable cultus as a wonder worker and martyr during the middle
ages. However, some, such as William of Malmesbury, have misgivings
about the continuance of his veneration. He cited the authority of
Saint Dunstan (f.d. May 19) and the witness of miracles as reasons to
allow the cultus to continue. Ethelbert was murdered at Sutton Walls in
Herefordshire, apparently for dynastic reasons at the instigation of the
wife of Offa of Mercia.
His pious "vita," written by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales),
tells us that Ethelbert was a man of prayer from his childhood. While
still very young, he succeeded his father Ethelred as king of East
Anglia and ruled benevolently for 44 years. It is said that his usual
maxim is that the higher the station of man, the humbler he ought to be.
This was the rule for his own conduct.
Desiring to secure stability for his kingdom by an heir, he sought the
hand of the virtuous Alfreda (Aelfthryth), daughter of the powerful King
Offa. With this in mind, he visited Offa at Sutton-Walls, four miles
from Hereford. He was courteously entertained, but after some days,
treacherously murdered by Grimbert, an officer of King Offa, through the
contrivance of Queen Quendreda who wanted to add his kingdom to their
His body was secretly buried by the river Lugg at Maurdine of Marden,
but miracles revealed its hiding place. Soon it was moved to a church
at Fernley (Heath of Fern), now called Hereford. The town grew around
the church bearing Ethelbert's name after King Wilfrid of Mercia
enlarged and enriched it. Hereford became the second most important
pilgrimage site (next to Canterbury) in medieval England. The body was
burned by the Danes in 1050, but Ethelbert's head was buried at
Westminster. Ethelbert's feast is kept in the dioceses of Cardiff and
Northampton. He is titular patron of the cathedral at Hereford, and the
churches at Marden (Herefordshire), Little Dean (Gloucestershire), and
eleven others in East Anglia.
Quendreda died miserably within three months after her crime. Her
daughter Alfreda became a hermit at Croyland. Offa made atonement for
the sin of his queen by a pilgrimage to Rome, where he founded a school
for the English. Egfrid, the only son of Offa, died after a reign of
some months, and the Mercian crown was translated into the family
descended of Penda (Attwater, Attwater2, Benedictines, Coulson, Farmer).
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