Aetheling, also spelt Ætheling, Atheling or Etheling, was an Old English term (æþeling) used in Anglo-Saxon England to designate princes of the royal dynasty who were eligible for the kingship. Aetheling is an Old English and Old Saxon compound of "aethele", "æþele" or "(a)ethel", meaning "noble family", and "-ing", which means "belonging to." [cite web |url= |title="Atheling " etymology |accessdate=2008-07-03 |last=Harper |first=Douglas |work= |publisher=Online Etymology Dictionary |date=November 2001] It is etymologically related to the modern German words "Adel", "nobility", and "adelig" or "adlig", "noble." It was usually rendered in Latin as "clito".


During the earliest years of the Anglo-Saxon rule in England the word was probably used to denote any person of noble birth. Its use was, however, soon restricted to members of a royal family. It was occasionally used after the Norman Conquest. The earlier part of the word formed part of the name of several Anglo-Saxon kings, e.g. Ethelbert, Ethelwulf, Ethelred, and was used obviously to indicate their noble birth. According to a document which probably dates from the 10th century, the wergild of an aetheling was fixed at 15,000 thrymsas, or 11,250 shillings, which is equal to that of an archbishop and one-half of that of a king.

The "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", in the annal for 728, refers to a certain Oswald as "aetheling" due to his great-great-grandfather being king of the West Saxons. From the ninth century, however, the designation was used in a much narrower context and came to refer exclusively to members of the house of Cerdic, the ruling dynasty of Wessex, most particularly sons or brothers of reigning kings. Unusually, Edgar Ætheling receives this appellation due to being the grandson of King Edmund Ironside.

"Aetheling" was also used in a poetic sense to mean "a good and noble man". Old English verse often uses aetheling to describe Christ, prophets and saints, for example. The hero of the Old English saga Beowulf (8th century) is introduced as an aetheling (æþeling), possibly in the sense of a relative of the King of the Geats (Goths), though some translators render aetheling as "retainer". Since many early Scandinavian kings were chosen by competition or election rather than primogeniture, an "æþeling" may have been the term for a person qualified to compete for the kingship.

After the Norman Conquest the term was used only occasionally to designate members of the royal family. The Latinised Germanic form, "Adelin(us)", was used for William Adelin, the only legitimate son and heir of king Henry I, who died in the White Ship disaster of 1120.

It has been proposed, although the question remains an open one, that the idea of the tanáise ríg in Early Medieval Ireland was adopted from the Anglo-Saxon, specifically Northumbrian, concept of the aetheling. The earliest use of tanaíste ríg was of an Anglo-Saxon prince c. 628, and many subsequent ones relate to non-Irish rulers before the term attaches to Irish kings-in-waiting.

ources and references

* Miller, S., "Ætheling" in "The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England", ed. M. Lapidge, J. Blair, S. Keynes & D. Scragg. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. ISBN 0-631-22492-0
* Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí, "Early Medieval Ireland: 400–1200." London: Longman, 1995. ISBN 0-582-01565-0

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