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Preceded by ?
Succeeded by Eowils and Halfdan
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Died December 13, 902(902-12-13)

Æthelwold (died 13 December 902)[lower-alpha 1] was the younger of two known sons of Æthelred I, King of Wessex from 865 to 871. Æthelred ended his reign fighting a Viking invasion. His sons were still young when he died, and so he was succeeded by his younger brother, Alfred the Great, who carried on the war against the Vikings and won a vital victory at the Battle of Edington in 878.

After Alfred's death in 899, Æthelwold disputed the throne with Alfred's son, Edward the Elder. Æthelwold attempted to raise an army to support his claim, but he was unable to get sufficient support to meet Edward in battle, and he fled to Viking controlled Northumbria, where he was accepted as king. In 901 he sailed with a fleet to East Anglia, which was also then part of the Danelaw. The following year he persuaded the East Anglian Danes to launch an attack on Edward's territory in Wessex and Mercia. Edward retaliated by a raid on East Anglia, but when he retreated the men of Kent lingered and met the Danes at the Battle of the Holme on 13 December 902. The Danes were victorious, but suffered heavy losses, including the death of Æthelwold, ending the challenge to Edward's rule.

England in the late ninth century, when the east and north were ruled by the Vikings


In the eighth century Mercia was the most powerful kingdom in southern England, but in the early ninth Wessex under King Egbert became dominant. His reign saw the beginning of Viking attacks, but Egbert and his son Æthelwulf, who succeeded in 839, were successful in resisting them.[6] Æthelwulf died in 858, and he was succeeded by four sons in succession. Æthelwold's father, Æthelred, succeeded after brief reigns by two elder brothers in 865, the year that the Viking Great Heathen Army invaded England. Within five years they had conquered Northumbria and East Anglia and forced Mercia to buy them off. In late 870 the Vikings invaded Wessex, and in early 871 they fought Æthelred and Alfred in four battles in quick succession, the last two of which Wessex lost. Æthelred then died shortly after Easter,[7] and as it was believed in Wessex that kings should be adults,[8] he was succeeded by Alfred.

By 878 the Vikings had nearly conquered Wessex and Alfred was reduced to being a fugitive in the Somerset marshes, but he then fought back and won a crucial victory at the Battle of Edington. This was followed by a period of peace, and in the late 880s he concluded a treaty with Guthrum, king of the East Anglian Vikings, setting the boundary between Wessex and English Mercia on the one hand, and the Danelaw on the other. A further Viking assault in the mid 890s was unsuccessful.[9]


Early life

Very little is known of Æthelwold's family. His mother was probably the Wulfthryth who witnessed a charter in 868.[10] She is described there as regina, whereas Edward's mother was only the king's wife, and Æthelwold's status as the son of a queen may have given him an advange over Edward.[lower-alpha 2] In the only surviving charter which recorded Æthelwold, he is listed above Alfred's eldest son, Edward, implying that he ranked above him. The only record of Æthelwold's older brother Æthelhelm is as a beneficiary of Alfred's will in the mid-880s, and he probably died soon afterwards.[12][lower-alpha 3] Æthelred and Alfred had agreed that the bulk of their property should go to the survivor, an arrangement which left Æthelhelm and Æthelwold at a disadvantage when Æthelred died first, and Alfred's will makes clear that they complained that he had denied them their property. He left the bulk of his estate to Edward, while Æthelhelm was left eight estates, and Æthelwold only three at Godalming and Guildford in Surrey, and Steyning in Sussex.[16] Alfred also favoured his own son by giving him opportunities for command in battle once he was old enough. Æthelwold's revolt was probably partly motivated by a belief that he had been denied his rights in his uncle's will.[17]

Revolt against Edward

After Alfred's death in 899, Æthelwold, as the senior ætheling (prince of the royal dynasty eligible for kingship), had a strong claim to succeed him, and made a bid for the throne. According to the 'A' version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Æthelwold seized a nun from her convent and married her without the permission of King Edward and against the command of the bishop. Her identity is not known, but it must have been intended to strengthen his claim, and in the view of historian Pauline Stafford, the Chronicle's account is biased in favour of Edward and may have been intended to delegitimize a politically important marriage.[18][19] Æthelwold took her to the royal manors of Twynham (now Christchurch) and then to Wimborne Minster, symbolically important as his father's burial place, where he declared that "he would live or die". However, when Edward's army approached and camped nearby at Badbury Rings, he was unable to gain sufficient support to meet them in battle. Leaving behind his wife, he fled to the Danes of Northumbria. According to one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Northumbrians accepted him as king, but within a year he had been driven out.[18][20] Northumbrian coins were issued at this time in the name of a king called 'Alwaldus', who is thought to have been Æthelwold.[21][lower-alpha 4] Norse sagas record traditions of a Danish king Knútr, who briefly ruled Northumbria around 900. He is said to have been at first repulsed by an English king called Adalbrigt north of Cleveland, but then defeated him at Scarborough. Historian Alfred Smyth suggested that Adalbrigt may have been Æthelwold.[23] However, Smyth later put forward the alternative idea that the Northumbrian Danes may have accepted Æthelwold's claim to be king of the West Saxons rather than as their own king.[24]

Holme, Cambridgeshire, the possible location of the Battle of the Holme

In 901, he sailed with a fleet to Essex. In 902 he persuaded the Danes in East Anglia to wage war against Edward and joined them in a raid on Mercia, reaching as far as Cricklade on the border with Wessex. He then crossed the Thames into Wessex itself to raid Braydon. Edward retaliated by ravaging Danish Essex and East Anglia, but when he withdrew, the men of Kent lingered, and the Danes caught up with them on 13 December to fight the Battle of the Holme. Its location is unknown but may be Holme in Huntingdonshire (now part of Cambridgeshire). The Danes were victorious but suffered the heavier losses, Æthelwold was amongst the leaders on the Danish side who were killed, together with Eohric, the Viking King of East Anglia,[25] and Beorhtsige, son of the ætheling Beornoth, who was probably a kinsmen of the former king of Mercia, Burgred.[26] Kentish losses included Sigewulf, probably an ealdorman of Kent, and an Abbot Cenwulf.[27]


According to historian Martin Ryan: "For a time Æthelwold had a claim to be the most powerful ruler in England. Edward's apparent reluctance to engage him in battle may have been well founded."[28] In the view of the historian James Campbell, had Æthelwold not been killed at the Holme, he might have united England with much less warfare than ultimately proved to be necessary: "Had it not been for the chances of battle and war Æthelwold might very well have been regarded as one of the greatest figures in our island's story".[29] Ryan Lavelle has argued that "it is important to acknowledge the audacity of Æthelwold's actions" and that he "well deserves to be ranked amongst the 'Nearly Men' of early Medieval Europe".[30] It is not known whether he had any descendants, but the chronicler Æthelweard claimed descent from King Æthelred, and this may have been through Æthelwold.[12] Richard Abels refers to Æthelweard as a descendant of Æthelwold,[31] and in the view of Nick Higham, Æthelweard shows a "lack of empathy" for Edward the Elder in his chronicle, which Higham attributes to Edward's victory over Æthelweard's ancestor.[32] Æthelweard was Ealdorman of the Western Provinces in the late tenth century, showing that Æthelred's descendants held on to land and power in the century after his death.[33]


  1. Sean Miller gives Æthelwold's date of death as 13 December 902,[1] but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle shows it in 903[2] (and Alfred the Great's death in 900) according to a calendar which starts the year in the autumn.[3] Some historians correct the date to 902, such as Miller and Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge,[4] while others, such as Ann Williams[5] and James Campbell,[2] accept the Chronicle date of 903.
  2. However, Keynes and Lapidge appear to be sceptical whether she was Æthelred's wife, referring to a "mysterious Wulfthryth regina".[11]
  3. Æthelwold is often described as Æthelred's elder son, but according to Barbara Yorke his brother Æthelhelm was the elder.[10] Æthelhelm is listed above Æthelwold in Alfred's will.[13] Æthelwold may have had another older brother called Oswald (or Osweald),[14] and Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge suggest that Osferth, who is mentioned in King Alfred's will as a relative, might have been Oswald's son.[15]
  4. The Silverdale Hoard includes a coin of Alwaldus.[22]


  1. Miller, "Edward the Elder"
  2. 2.0 2.1 Campbell, "What is not known about the reign of Edward the Elder" p. 17
  3. Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p. 291, n. 3
  4. Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p. 292, n. 11
  5. Williams, "Æthelwold"
  6. Edwards, "Ecgberht"; Nelson, "Æthelwulf"
  7. Miller, "Æthelred I"
  8. Williams, "Some notes", pp. 145–146
  9. Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 18–43, 311
  10. 10.0 10.1 Yorke, "Edward as Ætheling", p. 35
  11. Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p. 235, n. 28
  12. 12.0 12.1 Yorke, "Edward as Ætheling", p. 31
  13. Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p. 177
  14. Dumville, "The ætheling", p. 11
  15. Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p. 322, n. 79
  16. Yorke, "Edward as Ætheling", pp. 29–31, 37; Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 177, 322
  17. Yorke, "Edward as Ætheling", pp. 31-32; Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p. 292, n. 6
  18. 18.0 18.1 Woolf, "View from the West", pp. 98–99
  19. Stafford, "Myth, Rulership", p. 110
  20. Campbell, "What is not known about the reign of Edward the Elder", p. 21; Williams, "Æthelwold"
  21. Blunt, "Northumbrian coins"
  22. British Museum Press Office, Important Viking hoard
  23. Smyth, Scandinavian York and Dublin, vol. 1, pp. 47–52
  24. Smyth, Alfred the Great, p. 436
  25. Miller, Edward the Elder; Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 321–22; Smyth, Alfred the Great, p. 136; Keynes, "England, c.900–1016", p. 461 n.7
  26. Williams, "Burgred"
  27. Smyth, Alfred the Great, pp. 81, 422
  28. Ryan, "Conquest, Reform and the Making of England", p. 297
  29. Campbell, "Concluding", p. 21
  30. Lavelle, "The Politics of Rebellion" p. 79
  31. Abels, "Concluding", p. 249
  32. Higham, "Edward the Elder's reputation", pp. 5–6
  33. Smyth, Alfred the Great, p. 196


External links

English royalty
Preceded by
King of Northumbria
? 900– 901
Succeeded by
Eowils and Halfdan