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Æthelwulf’s reign was cursed with many Danish raids and accompanying slaughter. I will spare you the details of the battles, pausing only to mention that one particular battle, led jointly by Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald, was said (by the English) to have led to more Danish casualties than there had ever been in any other battle against the Danes.

Being preoccupied, Æthelwulf turned over the rule of Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Essex to his eldest son, Æthelstan. Æthelstan was the oldest of six, the youngest being the future Alfred the Great. According to some reports, Æthelwulf sent young Alfred, then about five, to Rome to be consecrated and anointed as king by the Pope. Not that Æthelwulf had any intention of giving up his throne; this, apparently, if it took place at all, was a time-saving device.

Two years later, Ethelwulf went on a pilgrimage to Rome with Alfred. Ethelwulf spent a year in Rome, praying, sight-seeing, scattering largesse to the multitudes, and giving the Pope many impressive and valuable gifts. While there, Ethelwulf persuaded the Pope to issue an edict saying that no Englishman should be put in irons outside England. Ethelwulf also restored the Saxon school, which had just burned down for the second time, and set up a foundation for the saving of his soul with a yearly payment of 300 mancuses.

On his way home, Ethelwulf stopped in France at the court of Charles the Bald, and, after a three month courtship, married Charles’s twelve year old daughter Judith. The most notable event in Æthelwulf's reign was his second marriage. His first was to one Osburh, who bore him several sons, among them Alfred the Great. When Alfred was seven, his father took him on a pilgrimage to Rome. On the way they stopped by Charles of France's place, and again on their way back. On the second visit, Æthelwulf married Charles's twelve year old daughter, Judith. Once back in England, Osburh faded out of the picture and Æthelwulf was free to devote his besotted attention entirely on Judith. He insisted on having her crowned Queen, and this was done. To us this seems only fair and natural, but Judith was, as it happens, the first woman crowned queen of England.

Crowning the wife of the king and granting the title queen was in fact illegal. The law went back to the time of Beorhtric, king of Wessex immediately before Egbert (the one whose attempts to do away with Egbert had led to Egbert’s self-imposed exile). Beorhtric's wife, Eadburga, took dislikes to people. These dislikes she carried to the king, and usually he would punish them according to her desires. Those whom he did not punish, Eadburga poisoned. It happened that Beorhtric accidentally drank one of Eadburga's concoctions, leading to Egbert's accession and Eadburga's utter disgrace. She sought sanctuary with Charlemagne, but legend has it that when he asked her to choose between himself and his son for a husband, Eadburga unwisely, but candidly at least, chose the son, as he was younger, upon which Charlemagne would have no more to do with her. As he married five times, Henry VIII-style, one would think he would have had his fill, but apparently not. As punishment, Charlemagne placed Eadburga in a convent, from which she was speedily kicked out for what the authors delicately call indecent behaviour. She died begging for her bread on the streets of Paris, her legacy being a new rule, that in memory of her, no other woman would ever be called Queen. Even the crowning of Judith, however, only modified this rule; to this day, the King decides whether or not to award his wife the title of Queen, as also the Queen Regnant decides whether or not to award her husband the title of Prince Consort. (Interestingly, both Victoria and Elizabeth II delayed a bit before awarding this title to their respective husbands.)

On his return to England, Ethelwulf did not exactly receive a glowing welcome. The king’s nobles supported him, but his family and the Church did not. This was of course largely due to Ethelwulf’s new marriage, partly, perhaps, to the ominous honours and perhaps powers Judith held, and partly to the preference of most leaders and nobles for Ethelbald as a ruler. Ethelstan had died while Ethelwulf was in Rome, so the it was Ethelbald, along with the Bishop of Sherborne and the alderman of Somerset, who represented the family’s wishes by trying to prevent Ethelwulf from so much as stepping foot back in England. To prevent civil war, and perhaps feeling a bit guilty, Ethelwulf gave most of England to Ethelbald, keeping only Surrey, Sussex, Essex, and Kent. Ethelwulf died two years later. In his will, he left his territories to his third son, Ethelbert. The throne was to pass from Ethelbald to Ethelred to Alfred.