This week we head way back in time, as far back as the year of our Lord 794. Our story tells of the young King Ethelbert patron saint of Hereford Cathedral.
King Ethelbert wasn’t your usual King, hot headed and ready for battle with his enemies. Seemingly he was young, studious, keen on books and education. To some he was perfect, young, pliable and apparently easily manipulated. Certainly he was inexperienced and a vulnerability to the Kingdom.
The Alliance with King Offa’s Daughter
Those around him decided it would be a good idea to encourage the young King to marry and produce an heir and King Ethelbert looked favourably on this idea. His thoughts drifting back to a recent feast where he had been mesmerised and entranced by a beautiful young woman. This woman was Elfrida none other than the daughter of Offa of the Mercians. He therefore asked his advisers to begin talks to arrange their union.
They were as you can imagine wary of the alliance and discouraged it, Offa was known to be dangerous and unpredictable. Furthermore they did not want their King travelling into territories where he would be unprotected. Certainly no amount of cajoling would change King Ethelbert’s mind and after agreements were made he set off to marry Offa’s daughter.
The Warnings of Treachery
It was told that right from the off occurrences deemed as evil omens dogged his journey. He continued on even though the earth shook beneath his feet and the sky turned black. He was plagued with bad dreams on the eve of his arrival, vivid scenes of death and destruction invaded his sleep but onward he continued.
A conspiracy that led to death
Little did he know that Queen Quendrida, Offa’s Queen had too taken an interest in him at the recent feast but had failed to garner any interest from him. Deep down she knew her looks were fading and felt envious of Elfrida’s youthfulness and slighted by King Ethelbert which had fuelled a bitterness towards him.
It is told that Queen Quendrida set about orchestrating the death of King Ethelbert and blackmailed one of Offa’s trusted advisers into trapping him and killing him. Upon his arrival King Ethelbert strode into the big hall filled with excitement and expectation only to find death a moment away. This terrible tragedy was witnessed by Elfrida and King Ethelbert’s consort returned back to East Anglia with the grim news that their King had been murdered.
Saint Ethelbert’s Well
Offa ordered the body to be disposed of in marshes near the River Lugg, Marden to be precise. But Elfrida retrieved the King’s body, arranging for a boatman to transport it up the River Wye to Hereford so that it could be buried in the monastery there. Folklore records that where the body rested overnight a spring flowed forth which is now the site of St Ethelbert’s Well in Castle Green, Hereford. A similar well can be found in Marden Church, marking the spot where his body had originally been buried. There are many tales of miracles and healing connected to St Ethelbert.
It was said that although Offa became one of the most powerful Kings ever, he felt cursed. King Ethelbert’s death was to haunt him forever. Perhaps this was the curse of his daughter. Within a generation his kingdom in Mercia was destroyed by the rising power of Wessex.
There are many stories told of St Ethelbert’s life and death with variations on the theme, but the overall tale of a life cruelly cut short is undisputed. A wonderful memorial can be found in Hereford Cathedral and his life is celebrated every 20th May on his feast day.
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