April 18, 796: Murder of King Æthelred of Northumbria

It is not clear whether Æthelred was killed on April 18th or 19th. The core Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records only that in 796 King Æthelred was killed by his own people. Additions in some (but not all) manuscripts of the Chronicle that may go back to a northern version produced in the early eleventh century note that he was killed on April 19. Simeon of Durham, a northern historian writing in the twelfth century, records the date as April 18, along with a location (on the river Cover), and the name of the murderer (the ealdorman Ealdred). An ealdorman was one of the top nobles of the kingdom, though the word comes down in modern times as "alderman" to mean a local government official. Simeon adds further that in 799, Ealdred was himself killed by another ealdorman, Torhtmund. Since it cannot be determined when the date was added to the Chronicle tradition, Simeon's more circumstantial account is normally preferred.

In fact, there is contemporary confirmation for part of Simeon's tale, in a letter written by Alcuin of York to the emperor Charlemagne in 801. Alcuin was one of the foremost Northumbrian scholars of his day, and when he was travelling on the Continent in 781 he caught the attention of Charlemagne, king (later emperor) of the Franks, and was invited to join Charlemagne's court school. Alcuin became one of Charlemagne's chief advisers and ended his career as abbot of Tours (794-804). His extant works include basic "textbooks" in a wide variety of fields, a large corpus of verse, and a wide-ranging correspondence, with friends in England and on the Continent. The letter to Charlemagne in question is an introduction for three Englishmen who wish to visit the Frankish court: Alcuin implores the emperor to treat them kindly, as they are close friends of his. He introduces one of them as Torhtmund, faithful servant of King Æthelred, who avenged the blood of his lord. Given the savage nature of Northumbrian politics in the second half of the eighth century, it is no surprise to find that shortly after killing Ealdred to avenge Æthelred, Torhtmund found it advisable to leave the country.

Review the history, 757-806.