Who was King Aethelbert of Wessex? Discover his Short Life and Reign

King Aethelbert (Æthelbert or ‘Magnificent Noble’) was the second eldest surviving son of Aethelwulf, and King of Wessex from 860-866. He, like his brother before him, had a short reign and life, having only lived into his early 30s when he died. During his reign, Aethelbert is most famous for not sending an army to engage the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of Vikings, led by Ragnar Lodbrok’s sons, who landed at Thanet in 864.

Facts about King Aethelbert

  • Born. c.834.
  • Parents. Aethelwulf of Wessex and Osburh.
  • Married. Unknown.
  • Children. 2, Aldhelm and Aethelweard.
  • Acceded. 20 December 860.
  • Crowned. 860, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey.
  • Reign. 6 years.
  • Died. 866, aged c.32. Buried in Sherborne Abbey.
  • Successor. Aethelred, brother of Aethelbert.

5 things you may not know about King Aethelbert

  1. Duty. When his brother, Aethelbald refused their father entry to western Wessex, Aethelbert did the opposite. He allowed Aethelwulf and Judith into eastern Wessex and Kent, and co-ruled the kingdom together.
  2. Kent. After the death of his father, Aethelbert became king of Kent and eastern Wessex. His older brother remained king of western Wessex.
  3. Heathen Army. King Aethelbert did not rally an army to face the Great Heathen Army, that had landed on Thanet, in 864. Instead, the men of Kent paid them off, and the Vikings left to seek a bigger prize to the north in 865. The Vikings were led by Ragnar Lodbrok’s sons, Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless.
  4. Consolidation. Athelbert consolidated the kingdom of Kent into Wessex, to form one large kingdom. The charter received signatures from both Wessex and Kent, which was very rare.
  5. Trust. Aethelbert and his younger brother, Aethelred agreed to entrust their property inherited from their father to the new king, in return for later grants. This would help prevent disagreements among future aethelings.

Battles and Skirmishes

  • Skirmish at Winchester. 861. Victory against a small Viking army, who had marched all the way inland to Winchester.

Timeline for King Aethelbert

– 834 –
Aethelbert is born, to Aethelwulf of Wessex and Osburh.
– 855 –
Aethelbert and his older brother are left in control of Wessex, while their father goes on a pilgrimage to Rome.
– 856 –
Aethelbert allows his father entry to eastern Wessex, unlike his brother.
– 858 –
King Aethelbert becomes king of Kent and eastern Wessex.
– 860 –
King Aethelbert becomes king of Wessex and Kent.
– 864 –
The Great Heathen Army land at Thanet. Kent locals paid them to leave in spring 865.
– 866 –
King Aethelbert dies and is buried at Sherborne Abbey.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was King Aethelbert? He was the Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex from 860-866. Son of King Aethelwulf and older brother to Alfred the Great.
Who led the Great Heathen Army? The Great Heathen Army of 864/5 was led by Ragnar Lodbrok’s sons, Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless.
When did the Great Heathen Army invade England? The army arrived at Thanet in 864 and left for the north in the spring of 865.
How big was the Great Heathen Army? The army was estimated to be between 1000 – 3500 strong.

Related Video

The ‘Great Heathen Army’ from the Vikings series.

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