Saint Ethelbert, King of the East-Angles, Martyr

May 20

Today is the feast day of Saint Ethelbert.  Ora pro nobis.

King of the East Angles, was, according to the “Speculum Historiale” of Richard of Cirencester (who died about 1401), the son of King Ethelred and Leofrana, a lady of Mercia. Brought up in piety, he was a man of singular humility. Urged to marry, he declared his preference for a life of celibacy.

He came to the throne very young, at the time that the powerful Offa was King of Mercia. Offa was, in many things, a good and just ruler, but he was guilty of a single act of treachery towards Ethelbert, apparently prompted by his wife, Cwendreda.

The young prince, disregarded the forebodings of his mother. To secure the tranquillity of his kingdom by an heir, he was persuaded to marry; and having heard much of the virtue of Alfreda the daughter of Offa the powerful king of the Mercians. In this design he paid a visit to that king, who resided at Sutton-Wallis, on the river Lugg, four miles from the place where Hereford now stands.

He was courteously entertained, but, after some days, treacherously murdered by Grimbert an officer of King Offa, through the contrivance of Queen Cwendreda, that his kingdom might be added to their own. This happened in 793. He was privately buried at Maurdine or Marden; but his body being glorified by miracles it was soon after removed to a fair church at Fernley, that is, Heath of Fern, now called Hereford; which town had its rise from this church, which bore the name of St. Ethelbert when Wilfrid king of Mercia much enlarged and enriched the same. Quendreda died miserably within three months after her crime.

The body was buried ignominiously, but, revealing itself by a heavenly light, was translated to the cathedral at Hereford, where many miracles attested Ethelbert’s sanctity. The head was enshrined at Westminster Abbey.

St. Ethelbert figures largely in the Missal, Breviary, and Hymnal of the Use of Hereford. His feast is on 20 May. Thirteen English churches, besides Hereford cathedral, are dedicated in honour of Ethelbert; and one of the gateways of Norwich cathedral bears his name.

Image: St. Ethelbert with Christ, from St. Ethelbert’s Church, Alby, Norfolk (5)



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