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Æthelbald, King of Wessex (Old English: Æþelbald meaning “Noble and Bold”) was the second of the five sons of King Æthelwulf of Wessex and Osburh. He was king of Wessex from 858 to 860.
He witnessed his father’s charters as a kings’ son in the 840s, and in 850 he received the rank of Ealdorman. In 855 he became regent of Wessex while his father, Æthelwulf, visited Rome, his elder brother Æthelstan having died in 851 or shortly after. His younger brother Æthelberht became king of Kent.
Æthelwulf returned a year later, having taken as his second wife, the Carolingian King Charles the Bald’s thirteen-year-old daughter Judith. According to Alfred the Great’s biographer, Asser, during Æthelwulf’s absence there may have been a plot hatched to prevent the king’s return either by Æthelbald, or by Ealhstan, Bishop of Sherborne and Eanwulf, Ealdorman of Somerset, or by all three. It is probable that Æthelbald was involved in such a plot because of his father’s marriage to Judith. The marriage to a Frankish princess who had her own royal lineage could have produced heirs more throne-worthy than Æthelbald.
To avoid a civil war, Æthelwulf allowed Æthelbald to continue to rule Wessex itself (or the western part of Wessex) while he took Kent and the other eastern parts of the kingdom. Ann Williams dates the start of Æthelbald’s reign to 855, regarding father and son as joint kings from Æthelwulf’s return from Rome in 856 until his death in 858. The absence of any coins in Æthelbald’s name during this period suggests the coinage continued to be in Æthelwulf’s name until his death. Æthelbald then became the king of Wessex, while Æthelberht again became king of Kent.
Judith’s charisma as a Carolingian princess was so great that rather than lose the prestige of the connection Æthelbald then married her, in spite of strong clerical opposition, as marriage to a widowed stepmother was considered incestuous. Little is known of his reign and only one charter survives, witnessed by king Æthelbald, king Æthelbert and Judith, suggesting that he was on good terms with his brother.
Æthelbald died at Sherborne in Dorset on 20 December 860. Asser, who was hostile to Æthelbald both because of his revolt against his father and because of his uncanonical marriage, described him as “iniquitous and grasping”, and his reign as “two and a half lawless years”.
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