The natural reaction to the name at the head of this article is KING WHO? King Æthelred of East Anglia is indeed an obscure person, and I would be very surprised if you had ever heard of him. ÆTHELRED the UNREADY you might have heard of, but he was King of England a hundred years after the kingdom of East Anglia had been absorbed. The ÆTHELRED of East Anglia I am taking about appears in no historical documents; he is only known from the inscriptions on a handful of coins that have been found by archaeologists.
The best known king of East Anglia is King Edmund, and he is the only one most people will have heard of. The king (probably) commemorated in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Redwald, runs him a distant second, but apart from those two kings the rulers of East Anglia are a pretty obscure bunch, and Æthelred is one the most obscure. He was the king who came immediately after Edmund. Until recently it was believed universally that Edmund was the last Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia, being followed by a victorious Dane. However it now seems that there were not one but two locally born kings in Norfolk and Suffolk before the Danish king Guthrum came to power after 878. Besides Æthelred the other king was called Oswald, and his existence too is only known from his coinage.
Very little is known about this period in the history of our part of the world; not that much is known about East Anglia at all before the Norman Conquest. The decade following the death of king Edmund is particularly dark. For all of our knowledge we have to rely on archaeology and particularly on numismatics. To those experts with a deep knowledge of coins those produced by Oswald and Æthelred suggest that they might have been rival kings. The significant differences between the coins of the two monarchs may point in this direction. Especially significant in this regard is the fact that the mint that produced Oswald’s coins concealed its identity – perhaps to avoid reprisals from his rival?
My reason for this suggestion also arises from the confused conditions of the time, which favoured the creation of competing factions. It is generally agreed that king Edmund was still unmarried at the time of his death, and therefore had no son as his obvious heir. Moreover, the Danish army which was camped at Thetford at the time of Edmund’s death was busy laying waste the land, which would also have led to extreme political instability. In other words it was not a time when you could expect a smooth transition to a new king.
It had been usual for historians to assume that upon killing Edmund a Danish king took overall sovereignty of East Anglia, but who would this Dane have been? The natural choice would be Ivar the boneless, the king who was not only the pre-eminent Dane at the time, but also the leader responsible for the death of Edmund. But having killed the king, Ivar seems to have taken no more interest in East Anglia. He left almost immediately and returned to York. This was probably because his modus operandi required a recognised under-king to govern on his behalf and grant him tribute. With Edmund dead there was no one to fill his place; the land almost certainly descended into anarchy, at least for a time.
Almost our only historical source for East Anglia in this period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and although it states that the Danes ‘laid waste to the country’ it nowhere says they made peace with the Danes. This is significant, as the Chronicle records that both the Northumbrians and Mercians made peace treaties following their defeat at Ivar’s hands. I suggest that following Edmund’s death East Anglia became ungovernable, and that the Danes found no one to negotiate a peace treaty with. Ivar himself went north, and the Danish Army turned their attentions to the south – to Wessex. East Anglia appears to have descended into chaos.
Was there eventually a move to re-establish the monarchy in East Anglia among the natives? There was certainly enough of a functioning government left to produce at least one mint, which could issue a small number of coins; so the position was not utterly desperate. Numismatic experts have suggested the coinage of Oswald in particular has features that suggest the moneyer was unsure how fully he should stand behind the coinage he was issuing. It is this which leads me to suggest that OSWALD was a rival to ÆTHELRED; on the other hand he may just have been Æthelred’s successor. There was a greater similarity between Æthelred’s coinage and that of Edmund than is the case with Oswald, and this would suggest that he was closer both in time and in royal connections with Edmund.
The period of the kingship of these last Anglo-Saxon kings of East Anglia was brought to an end not by a Dane as you might expect, but by king Alfred. In the Peace of Wedmore he gave the kingdom to the Danish leader Guthrum; never mind that it was not his to give, and that there was already an English ruler in place. No wonder the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that great piece of propaganda produced at Alfred’s behest, does not mention either Æthelred or Oswald. In the eyes of Wessex the Treaty of Wedmore was a triumph; it must have looked very different in East Anglia.