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Art. 18, Incipit vita sancti Ethelberti: Introduction

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CCC: Corpus Christi College (Cambridge); CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); IMEV Suppl.: Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse (Robbins and Cutler); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

Saint Ethelbert [Æthelberht], martyred king of the East Angles (d. ca. 792–94), is the patron saint of the city of Hereford. The cathedral there is formally known as “The Cathedral Church of St. Mary the Virgin and Saint Ethelbert the King.” Ethelbert’s martyrdom is intertwined with the history of the cathedral because his body was brought to its site soon after he died, as explained in this legend. His murder occurred in a palace of King Offa at Sutton, near Marden, four miles north of Hereford. By legend, a well sprang up at the martyrdom site; Ethelbert’s feast day on May 20 commemorates the event. The saint’s body was buried at Hereford, but centuries later his head was exhumed and reburied at Westminster. Eventually his original tomb at Hereford was destroyed; a shrine was reerected there in 2007.

According to the legend (which merges with history), Ethelbert is the young king of East Anglia who intends to marry Alfrida, daughter of the powerful King Offa of Mercia. Offa holds an ambition to rule all of England. Another daughter, royal hieress, is first considered, for she already has her inheritance, but Ethelbert prefers Alfrida. The desire seems mutual, for when Ethelbert is murdered, Alfrida declares herself unsuited for marriage and departs the court to live as an anchoress in Croyland. Initially, Offa’s position regarding the alliance is presented as uncertain, but he grows strongly opposed when his queen Cynethryth meddles to have Ethelbert treacherously destroyed. She does this because Ethelbert spurns her own illicit, lustful advances. Offa goes along with this plot perhaps because the marriage could threaten his own dominance if Ethelbert were to secure a claim as his successor. When Ethelbert enters Offa’s palace in suit of Alfrida, an ally of Offa named Gwinbert beheads him, betraying a long-standing trust that had existed between himself and Ethelbert. In penance for this deed — and to retain power — Offa sponsors the canonization of Ethelbert.

This Harley 2253 vita of an Anglo Saxon martyr-king is an abridged version of the oldest form of the story. The source legend — represented here and in CCC MS 308 — comes from Hereford. As James notes, it appears to be the work of a local churchman composed for reading on St. Ethelbert’s Day (pp. 218–19). Later accounts by Gerald of Wales (a canon of Hereford) and John Capgrave derive from Osbert of Clare’s more prolix expansion of the source legend. In the twelfth century Osbert was a prior and eventually abbot of Westminster, where Ethelbert’s head was a relic.

The Harley text has not been previously edited. It contains several passages that deviate from the longer version found in CCC MS 308. For further details on the legend in its various forms, see James, pp. 214–22; Jones, pp. 125–29; Blair 2002a, pp. 505–06, and 2002b, pp. 480, 483–84; Finberg, pp. 221–23; and Murder of King Ethelbert. On the depiction of kingship in this text and in MS Harley 2253 in general, see Corrie 2003, pp. 67–73. There are two other Latin tales of Anglo-Saxon saints in the Harley manuscript: The Legend of Saint Etfrid, Priest of Leominster and The Martyrdom of Saint Wistan (arts. 98, 116); on their presence, see Kuczynski 2000, pp. 138–40. The translation printed here is by Jan Ziolkowski, prepared for this edition.

[Fols. 53ra–54vb. Hardy 1:494–95 (no. 1054). Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 6. Layout: Double columns; large initials mark the beginning of each new section. Editions: None. Other MS: A longer version appears in CCC MS 308, fols. 1r–8r (ed. James, pp. 236–44). Analogue: Capgrave’s fifteenth-century adaptation of Osbert’s expansion (ed. Horstmann 1901, 1:412–19). Translations: None.]

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