ETHELBERT, OFFA AND SUTTON WALLS
A longer and more authoritative account of St Ethelbert's life can be found in an essay entitled "ST. ETHELBERT OF EAST ANGLIA, KING AND MARTYR". Translated from Russian to English by Dmitri Lapa and originates from the Russian Orthodox Church.
Although there is no first hand account of the infamous story of King Offa of Mercia (born AD740; King from AD757; died AD796) and King Ethelbert of East Anglia whose reign lasted from about AD779 until AD794, it is the main story of Sutton Walls. According to chroniclers it was suggested bachelor King Ethelbert and King Offa's daughter (Alfreda or Etheldritha) were to be married at Offa's Palace at Sutton (this Palace was presumed to be on Sutton Walls a prominent Iron Age Hillfort). Ethelbert's journey from East Anglia was said to be overshadowed by an earthquake and other disasters which left the King wary of his encounter with the mighty King Offa. It would be likely that Offa had ambition of claiming or having influence over East Anglia through this marriage of his daughter with the King of the East Anglia.
It is said by historians that Offa's wife Cynethryth poisoned her husband's mind saying that Ethelbert had hostile intentions to claim Mercia and that Ethelbert should be killed. King Ethelbert was welcomed to the palace and some point before the marriage ceremony his courtiers were imprisoned and murdered. Ethelbert was beheaded and his remains buried by the River Lugg near Marden. At the point where the body lay, a spring of water rose up and is allegedly the site of a well that survives to this day in Marden Parish Church.
Later Ethelbert's body was carried on a cart towards Hereford. On route, at a village named Lyde, his head fell from the cart and landed close by to a blind man whose sight was miraculously restored. Later in the journey the cart stopped again and a fresh well gushed from the ground. This is now known as St. Ethelbert's Well on Castle Green.
Offa suffered great remorse for the murder and built churches, and monasteries on the instruction of the Pope in expiation, following his visit to Rome.
Posthumously Ethelbert was canonised and a small stone church dedicated to Ethelbert is said to have replaced a simple timber one at the site of Hereford Cathedral in about 830. Saint Ethelbert’s shrine can be visited in Hereford Cathedral which is still dedicated to his name and that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
At Sutton Walls archaeological digs in the late 1940's to early 1950's by the eminent archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, revealed Iron Age and Roman remains including a number of skeletons. A group of twenty-four skeletons found near the base of the ramparts show battle wounds and possible beheadings, and there is ongoing debate whether these are Iron Age people slain by the Romans as they moved westward to subjugate the inhabitants of the west and Wales in AD49-79 or the murdered courtiers of King (later Saint) Ethelbert.
A ninth century Celtic bell of a form usually associated with a Saint’s shrine, was dredged from a pond adjacent to Marden Church in 1848. There are a number of local legends about a missing bell including a mermaid myth story, but the bell is undoubtedly linked to Saint Ethelbert and where he was laid following his murder. The bell is displayed at Hereford Museum.
The mosaic in front of the High Altar in Hereford Cathedral.
Shrine to St. Ethelbert the King in Hereford Cathedral.