Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


Fourteenth Archbishop of Canterbury, England, date of birth unknown; d. May 12, 805

Click to enlarge

Ethelhard (AETHELHEARD, ETHELHEARD), fourteenth Archbishop of Canterbury, England, date of birth unknown; d. May 12, 805. Much obscurity surrounds the details of his life previous to his election. He is described by Symeon of Durham as “Abbas Hludensis Monasterii”, but it is uncertain what monastery is thus designated. It has been variously located at Louth in Lincolnshire (the most probable identification), Lydd, and Luddersdown in Kent, and at Malmesbury. William of Malmesbury is certainly mistaken in identifying him with Ethelhard, ninth Bishop of Winchester.

The rise of Offa, King of the Mercians (757-796), had divided England into three great states: Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. The king sought to consolidate his kingdom by giving it an independent ecclesiastical organization; for although Northumbria had its own archbishopric at York, Mercia, after conquering Kent, was still ecclesiastically subject to the powerful see of Canterbury, then ruled over by Jaenbert (766-791). Offa‘s scheme was to weaken Canterbury’s influence by dividing the southern province, and creating a Mercian archbishopric at Lichfield: this he successfully accomplished when on the occasion of the Legatine visit of George and Theophylact, sent by Pope Hadrian I (772-795) in 786-788, Higbert received the pallium as Archbishop of Lichfield, and Canterbury was left with only London, Winchester, Sherborne, Rochester, and Selsey as suffragan sees. On the death of Jaenbert (August 12, 791), Ethelhard was raised to the see through the influence of Offa, which makes it likely that he was a Mercian abbot. Although he was elected in 791, his consecration only took place on July 21, 793: the delay being probably due to the unwillingness of the Kentish clergy and people to receive a Mercian archbishop, and to his being consecrated by the Archbishop of Lichfield. Had Offa‘s policy of separate ecclesiastical organization prevailed, it would have impeded the attainment of national unity, and its defeat by Ethelhard is an event of the greatest importance in the history of the making of the English nation. During Offa‘s lifetime little could be done to restore Canterbury’s rights and prestige. The year 796 was full of incident: the nobles of Kent rose in arms, and rallying round Eadbert Praen, a cleric and a member of their royal house, endeavored to shake off the yoke of the Mercian Offa. As Ethelhard’s difficulties increased Alcuin exhorted him not to desert his Church; but after taking severe ecclesiastical measures against the recalcitrant cleric he was obliged to flee. Offa died on July 26. His successor Egfrith died after a very short reign, about December 13; Cenwulf succeeded in Mercia, but the struggle continued in Kent until the capture of Eadbert in 798.

The cooperation of Ethelhard and Cenwulf in deposing Eadbert, and in upholding the Mercian cause in Kent, increased the importance of Canterbury, and the archiepiscopal authority of Higbert waned. Cenwulf restored an estate taken from Canterbury by Offa, and wrote in 798 to Pope Leo asking him to examine into the question of the diminution of the rights of that see, and enclosing a letter from Ethelhard and his suffragans. Ethelhard meanwhile had returned to his see, and Alcuin wrote exhorting him to do penance for having deserted it. The success of Abbot Wada’s mission to Rome, the tone of the letter of Leo III to Cenwulf, and the successful conference with Eanbald II of York, with reference to the restoration of the rights of his see, determined Ethelhard to set out for Rome in 801. Alcuin‘s friendship once more stood him in good stead; he sent a servant to meet him at St. Josse-sur-mer, and furnished him with letters of recommendation to Charles the Great. Success attended his efforts in Rome. Pope Leo III (795-816) granted his request, and ended the dispute between Canterbury and Lichfield by depriving Lichfield of its recently acquired honors and powers. The pope’s decision was officially acknowledged by the Council of Clovesho on October 12, 803, in presence of Cenwulf and his Witan, and Higbert was deprived of his pallium, in spite of Alcuin‘s plea that so good a man should be spared that humiliation.

It is during Ethelhard’s occupancy of the See of Canterbury that we first meet with official records of the profession of faith and obedience made by the English bishops-elect to their metropolitan. The first document of that type is the profession of obedience to the See of Canterbury made in 796 by Bishop Eadulf of Linsey, who, as a suffragan of Lichfield, ought to have been consecrated by Higbert: it would appear to coincide with the collapse of Higbert’s archiepiscopal authority at the death of Offa.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!