Æthelberht II, of East Anglia, also called Saint Ethelbert the King (died 20 May 794 at Sutton Walls, Herefordshire), was an eighth-century saint and a king of East Anglia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom which today includes the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Little is known of his reign, which may have begun in 779, according to later sources, and very few of the coins issued during his reign have been discovered. It is known from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that he was killed on the orders of King Offa of Mercia in 794.
One of the four known coins depicting Æthelberht II
Little is known of Æthelberht’s life or reign, as very few East Anglian records have survived from this period. Mediaeval chroniclers have provided dubious accounts of his life, in the absence of any real details. According to Richard of Cirencester, (Richard of Cirencester c.1340–1400, was a cleric and minor historian of the Benedictine abbey at Westminster) who was writing in the fifteenth century, states Æthelberht’s parents were Æthelred I of East Anglia and Leofrana of Mercia.
Richard narrates in detail a story of Æthelberht’s piety, election as king and wise rule. Urged to marry against his will, he apparently agreed to wed, Ælfthyth, the daughter of King Offa of Mercia, and set out to visit her, despite his mother’s forebodings and his experiences of terrifying events (an earthquake, a solar eclipse and a vision).
As mentioned above, Æthelberht’s reign may have begun in 779, the date provided for the beginning of his reign on the uncertain authority of a much later saint’s life. The absence of any East Anglian charters prevents it from being known whether he ruled as a king or a sub-king under the power of the ruler of another kingdom.
Æthelberht was put to death by Offa of Mercia under unclear circumstances; the site of his murder was apparently the royal villa at Sutton Walls.According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was beheaded. Mediaeval sources tell how he was taken captive while visiting his future Mercian bride Ælfthyth and was then murdered and buried.
In Richard of Cirencester’s account of the murder, which cannot be substantiated, Offa’s evil queen Cynethryth poisoned her husband’s mind until he agreed to have his guest killed. Æthelberht was then bound and beheaded by a certain Grimbert and his body was unceremoniously disposed of.
The mediaeval historian John Brompton’s Chronicon describes how the king’s detached head fell off a cart into a ditch where it was found, before it restored a blind man’s sight. According to the Chronicon, Ælfthyth subsequently became a recluse at Crowland and her remorseful father founded monasteries, gave land to the Church and travelled on a pilgrimage to Rome.
The execution of an Anglo-Saxon king on the orders of another ruler was very rare, although public hanging and beheading did occur at this time, as has been discovered at the Sutton Hoo site. Æthelberht’s death at the hands of the Mercians made the possibility of any peaceful union between the Anglian peoples (including Mercia) less likely than before. It led to Mercia’s domination of East Anglia, whose kings ruled over the kingdom for over three decades after Æthelberht’s death.