Burgred became king of Mercia in 852, and may have been related to his predecessor Beorhtwulf. After Easter in 853, Burgred married Æthelswith, daughter of Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons. In 853 Burgred sent messengers to Æthelwulf seeking his help to subjugate the Welsh, who lived between Mercia and the western sea, as they were rebelling against his rule. Immediately King Æthelwulf advanced with Burgred against the Welsh, and successfully repressed the rebellion.
Twelve years after Burgred's success against the Welsh, in 865, the Great Heathen Army arrived. Following its successful campaigns against East Anglia and Northumbria it advanced through Mercia, arriving in Nottingham in 867. Burgred then appealed to his brothers-in-law King Æthelred of Wessex and Alfred for assistance against them. The armies of Wessex and Mercia did no serious fighting as Burgred paid them off. In 874 the march of the Vikings from Lindsey to Repton drove Burgred from his kingdom after they sacked Tamworth. After Burgred left, the Vikings appointed a Mercian, Ceolwulf, to replace him, demanding oaths of loyalty to them. Burgred retired to Rome and died there. He was buried, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "in the church of Sancta Maria, in the school of the English nation" (now Santo Spirito in Sassia) in Rome.
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