Saint of the Day – 20 May – Saint Ethelbert (died 794) Martyr – also known as Albert or Albrigh), King of East Anglia – Patronages – Hereford, England, Hereford Cathedral where a portion of his remains lie.
He was most probably born in 779 to a Christian family belonging to the ancient royal lineage of East Anglia. His father’s name was Aethelred and his mother bore the name Leofruna. He was brought up in the Christian tradition and obtained an education at the monastery in Bury St Edmunds. From his childhood Ethelbert was very serious, polite, kind-hearted and friendly and was filled with the desire to imitate Christ in everything. At that time most of England was under the control of King Offa of Mercia, who had a great ambition to place all the lands of England and part of Wales under his control and wanted the Church to be subordinated to the State.
When Ethelbert was 14, his father died and the young man was crowned king and started to rule his kingdom. It was in the year 793 or 794 that Ethelbert was offered marriage but the devout king first declined, wishing to keep his virginity. But as he needed an heir, Ethelbert finally agreed. His adviser, Oswald, suggested as a candidate the daughter of King Offa and his Queen Cynethryth of Mercia, Alfreda (also called Etheldritha). Ethelbert and all the court consented; only the saint’s mother, Leofruna, was hesitant as she feared the Mercian family and their dishonesty. Nevertheless, it was decided that Ethelbert would set out for Mercia.
As soon as the young king mounted his horse, a sudden earthquake occurred that made all his companions panic. Leofruna saw in this a sign from the Lord that her son would never return home alive. “Let the will of God be done!” exclaimed Ethelbert. But another sign followed. The sun darkened and such a dense fog rose around, that all who accompanied the king could not see each other or anything near them. Seeing this solar eclipse, the king commanded everybody to kneel and pray together – “May the Lord give us His mercy!” he said. As soon as they offered up a prayer, the fog dispersed.
On their way to Mercia, Ethelbert was filled with spiritual joy and asked his companions to sing joyful songs, promising to give his bracelet to the most skilful singer. They started singing spiritual hymns and songs relating his royal lineage. The king took off his bracelet immediately and promised other gifts on his return. Eventually, they reached Mercia, deciding to stop at Sutton in present-day Herefordshire. The following night Ethelbert had a strange vision – his palace was in ruins and his mother, weeping, was coming up to him, meanwhile, he himself, turned into a beautiful bird with golden wings which flew very high to the heavens, where it finally heard the angelic choir glorifying the Most Holy Trinity. Waking up, he asked his adviser Oswald to explain the dream to him. Oswald kept silence for a few moments and then replied – “Oh, king! Whatever happens to you, by the mercy of God all will be for the good”.
Thus, the trusting Ethelbert sent his messengers with gifts to King Offa while he followed behind. Offa, however, believed the wicked false rumours spread by his impious wife Cynethryth that the young king was allegedly coming with the hostile intent to invade the kingdom. As pious Ethelbert was approaching the royal palace, young Alfreda, his would-be betrothed, spotted him from the window. The young princess at once ran to her mother, exclaiming – “Dear mother! King Ethelbert has come! Such a pleasant young man! I would surely marry him!” These words enraged Cynethryth—she hurried to her husband Offa and said to him – “The rumors are true. If this marriage takes place, you will lose your kingdom very soon. So go and offer half of your riches to him who agrees to kill him”.
Ethelbert was welcomed near the palace by Wimbert, the court officer, who (after a conversation with the king) was treacherously going to murder the unsuspecting King of the East Angles. Ethelbert got down from his horse and said he wished to speak with King Offa. Wimbert slyly responded that the king was aware of his arrival and was waiting for him but, he must remove his sword, as it was not proper to appear before the king with a weapon in peacetime. The ingenuous Ethelbert gave up his sword and, accompanied by several nobles, proceeded to the king. He came to Offa. The doors were closed. The innocent Ethelbert was then seized, tied and beaten severely. After that Wimbert beheaded Ethelbert with his (the saint’s) own sword. The young Alfreda mourned the loss of her fiancé very bitterly and, unable to endure the callousness of her parents, retired to Crowland in the Lincolnshire marches where she lived as anchoress for 40 years. Famous for her prophecies, Alfreda reposed in c. 835 and afterwards was locally venerated as saint.
Since then Ethelbert has been known and venerated by English people as a martyr, a saint of God who gained abundant divine grace. Although Ethelbert did not die for Christ, he fell victim to evil, being personally very pious, so he is regarded as a martyr. King Offa, who arranged his murder, did not repent (according to most of the sources) and is remembered as a cruel king with a lust for power. It is supposed, that the scene of St Ethelbert’s martyrdom was the royal villa at or near Sutton. His body was buried like rubbish but a heavenly light identified it and it was eventually relocated.
Ethelbert was locally canonised by the Church. (Local canonisation took place before official papal canonisation had been established. The individual was ‘locally venerated’) He became the subject of a series of vitae that date from the eleventh century and he was venerated in religious cults in both East Anglia and at Hereford. 12 ancient churches and several chapels were dedicated to him, besides the Cathedral, together with the Blessed Virgin, in which he lies. During one of the moves of his body, the head fell off the body, fell off the cart it was being carried in, touched a pedestrian who had been blind for eleven years and cured him. The head is now enshrined at Westminster Abbey, London.