PW: King Ecgfrith of Northumbria

On May 20th, 685 King Ecgfrith of Northumbria fell deep in Pictland at Dunnichen to King Bridei, who was somehow his cousin. As far as we know, Ecgfrith’s death at Dunnichen marked the deepest incursion into Pictland that we know of in the Anglo-Saxon period. Given that Ecgfrith invaded to prevent loosing hegemony, it is quite possible that Northumbrian kings, perhaps even Ecgfrith himself, had penetrated further, but we have no record of it.

Major advances were not new to Ecgfrith. Just one year earlier Ecgfrith became the only Anglo-Saxon king to send a raiding party to Ireland bringing back hostages, seemingly boatloads. Ecgfrith’s strikes north and west in Ireland have always struck me as a bit of panic on his part. After 679 his ambitions south of the Humber had been thwarted by Deira’s failure to prevent the conquest of Lindsey by Mercia steaming from the battle on the Trent that year. The loss of his younger brother and heir Ælfwine left Ecgfrith very vulnerable.

Ecgfrith’s state on the eve of his death was an unfortunate end for a king we know more about than perhaps any other before Alfred. We first hear of Ecgfrith when he is only about seven years old; he is a hostage in the care of Cynewise, Queen of Mercia, while Penda campaigns in Northumbria. His father had risked Ecgfrith’s life by defying Penda and then following him back down Northumbria to attack Penda on his way home. It all came out famously since Oswiu managed to kill Penda. Bede doesn’t tell us how Oswiu got his son back but we can imagine since Bede mentions Queen Cynewise we might imagine that she was involved. At the same time, the surviving nobles of Mercia were hiding Penda (and probably her) sons from Oswiu. Cynegisl’s daughter is one of the few women of her generation to be mentioned in the historical record and must have been quite formidable. Ecgfrith isn’t mentioned again until he was about 15 when he was married to the widowed daughter of King Anna of East Anglia; she is of course Æthelthryth. It seems highly likely that Æthelthryth was significantly older than Ecgfrith and we know that she held out for 12 years without consummating the marriage. The marriage was surely an important alliance but she was surely not a first class bride. As treasured an ally as King Anna had been, Æthelthryth was the widow of a minor local lord and the daughter of a dead king. Like all his siblings, Oswiu had disposed of his middle son for political purposes.

Ecgfrith owed his eventual rise to power to the political prowess of his mother. His mother Eanflaed was the second wife of Oswiu, who already had several children when she married him. His son Alchfrith was clearly this favored son until the 660s. He had kept Alchfrith by his side throughout the campaigns of 655 and had earlies married him to Penda’s daughter. After Penda’s death and Œthelwald’s fall, Alchfrith became King of Deira, while Ecgfrith was married to Æthelthryth. Queen Eanflaed successfully used to the church to support herself and her children. Both Queen Eanflaed and her step son Alchfrith realized that Northumbria would have to ally itself with Rome if it were to become a major player in the south and with the continent. To make a long story short, Queen Eanflaed managed to get her way with Oswiu agreeing to accept Rome at the Synod of Whitby, thwarting his sons ambitions to come to power in opposition to his father. Alchfrith later rose in rebellion against his father and disappears from history within two years while his favorite abbot, Wilfrid of Ripon, was in Gaul getting a grand ordination as bishop of York. Ecgfrith’s activity during this time is unknown, but it is quite possible that he became King of Deira after his brother, or at least became his father’s presumptive heir. Some have suggested that Alchfrith’s rebellion had been for fear that his brother would succeed over him, but this really doesn’t feel right.

In 670 Ecgfrith’s father Oswiu died peacefully and he succeeded to the throne. His lack of a heir was on his mind early. As he pushed his new Queen Æthelthryth to consummate their marriage (and give him a heir), he tried to bribe his bishop for support with no success. The young king was clearly in trouble, and he eventually was allowed to divorce her. At her divorce Æthelthryth gave Bishop Wilfrid the prime family estate at Hexham, probably received at her marriage, to Wilfrid for a monastery. This estate was particularly important because it included the site of Heavenfield associated with Ecgfrith’s saintly uncle Oswald and his miracle working cross. The Tyne river valley where Hexham is located was the primarly area of Ecgfrith’s economic development where he planted his primary monastery at Wearmouth and Jarrow and a prime port. Prior to Ecgfrith’s succession, the area between the rivers Tyne and Tees may have been an unstable frontier zone between Bernicia and Deira. Now that both Bernicia and Deira were in the hands of Eanflaed daughter of Edwin’s sons, it was save to begin real economic development there. Prior to Ecgfrith’s reign, only the monasteries of Tynemouth (Deira?) and Gateshead (Bernicia) may have been along the Tyne, but as their names suggest they were gate keepers to their respective kingdoms. Tynemouth has been associated with King Oswine of Deira and obviously controls access to the River Tyne, the primary river along Hadrian’s Wall. It is near the Roman forts that anchored the end of Hadrian’s Wall. On the otherhand, Gateshead controls the former Roman bridge over the River Tyne and access into Bernicia by inland waterways.

Eventually King Ecgfrith remarried to a well connected woman named Irmenburgh. All we know of her is that her sister was an abbess at Carlyle and another sister was Queen of Wessex, but we don’t know the names of either of them. Her name suggests that she may have been related to Kent, but the presence of her sister in Carlyle is odd given that women were usually involved with convents in their home kingdom. Her presence there makes me wonder if she could have been a member of a dynasty that lost power, particularly since Queen Irmenburgh herself also became an abbess within Northumbria during her widowhood. We know that she was astute enough to recognize that Bishop Wilfrid was a threat to King Ecgfrith’s power and became his constant enemy. After Wilfrid’s death she was a powerful enough abbess for Stephan of Ripon to complement her on her transformation as an abbess in his Life of Bishop Wilfrid. Her name is also mentioned the Durham Liber Vitae, even though is first wife St Æthelthryth is not mentioned. Her omission can not simply be because she was on a list of saints somewhere else. St Oswald, a more widely accepted saint when the list was compiled, is listed. It seems more likely to me that St Æthelthryth had powerful enemies in Northumbira, Ecgfrith’s family members bitter over her behavior as queen, which his family probably thought shameful, and of course his second wife who was herself both a queen and abbess within Northumbria. It is now disputed whether the Durham Liber Vitae began at Lindisfarne or Wearmouth-Jarrow, but neither of them are likely to have supported Æthelthryth before c. 705 when Bishop Wilfrid returned to Northumbria and supported her cause as a saint at Wearmouth-Jarrow at least. Trained in the style of Iona, Lindisfarne is unlikely to have supported her ability to leave her marriage or her failure to do her duty in her marriage. We may overestimate how popular St Æthelthryth was in Northumbria because Bede was obviously a fan, but there is no other indication that anyone else in Northumbria really supported her cause for sainthood. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid refers to her in a positive and saintly way, but fails to mention that Bishop Wilfrid was present at her translation and an actual witness to her incorrupt state! The abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, who knew how important a heir for Ecgfrith was, may have viewed Æthelthryth’s behavior rather differently than Bede. These abbots would have been keenly aware of what it cost them that Ecgfrith did not have a bodily heir for them to champion and gain the rewards.

King Ecgfrith was also extensively involved in the church within his kingdom. I’ll save this topic for another day. For now, its easy to say that he was an opponent of Bishop Wilfrid of York, and a supporter of St Cuthbert who personally persuaded Cuthbert to accept the position as Bishop of Lindisfarne. He was also critical in splitting Northumbria’s huge diocese into at least three — Lindisfarne, Hexham, and York. He also had a mutually helpfully relationship with Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. This relationship may have been fostered by Theodore’s old guide to England and Ecgfrith’s trusted counselor, Abbot Benedict Biscop of Wearmouth-Jarrow. Recall that Theodore had Benedict Biscop as his abbot in Canterbury for his first year or so in England.

As a warrior Ecgfrith was aggressive but with the exception of his odd invasion of Ireland, he only attacked to hold what was already his. I think he would have been very stressed to maintain the huge hegemony of his father Oswiu. Ecgfrith was clearly very concerned to prevent the usual pattern of hegemony collapsing with the death of a major king. Early in his career he won a major victory over King Wulfhere of Mercia to retain Lindsey and presumably keep Mercia under his hegemony. The loss along the River Trent may have been primarily led by his teenage brother King Ælfwine whose territory of Deira may have been responsible for the Mercian border and control of Lindsey. The history of warfare between these kingdoms and the fact that they both must have retrained substantial power caused Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury to intervene and broker a peace treaty that set the border between the two kingdoms permanently. Ecgfrith lost control of Lindsey, a mighty blow, but was given a large weregeld for the death of his brother that allowed him to save face and perhaps compensate the families of the warriors who were lost in the battle. After Ælfwine’s death Ecgfrith appears to have seized direct control over Deira and this would have allowed him to reward loyal retainers with prize appointments in Deira. Ecgfrith’s lack of a heir now became acute and his retainers would have begun positioning themselves to reap the rewards normally reserved for the king’s kin.

Over his fifteen year regin, Ecgfrith personally led three campaigns into Pictland. The first two were early in his reign to establish his hegemony after his father’s death. It is possible that after the last one of these victories that he helped his cousin Bridei son of Beli come to the throne of the Picts. Its unclear exactly how Ecgfrith and Bridei were related but the Historia Brittonum clearly calls them cousins, specifically sister’s sons. Alex Woolf’s suggestion that Bridei’s mother may well have been an older daughter of Edwin of Deira by his first wife, Cwenburg of Mercia makes sense. Legend claims that Bridei was the son of King Beli of Strathclyde and a marriage between a king or prince of British Strathclyde and Edwin of Deira would have been a likely method of ensuring Edwin’s hegemony over the north and they may have been eager allies intent on preventing Æthelfrith of Bernicia’s sons from returning to the throne of Bernicia. Either way, Bridei compiled a string of military victories in Pictland before he rebelled against his cousin Ecgfrith. They met at Dunnichen deep in Pictland and Bridei used his knowledge of the terrain to lead Ecgfrith into a trap where the Northumbrians were slaughtered. The battle scene on the stone shown is believed to refer to the battle of Dunnichen with Ecgfrith’s death in the last scene.

Bridei retained hegemony over the North for the rest of his life, possibly including over Northumbria. Ecgfrith was succeeded by his half-brother Aldfrith who was residing on Iona at the time of the battle. This brings up a very important point, that Abbot Adomnan of Iona was a connection between the two winners of Dunnichen, Bridei of Pictland and Aldfrith. Both were considered good friends of Adomnan. It is quite possible that they knew each other through Adomnan and possibly not a coincidence that late sources (Simeon of Durham, if I recall correctly) record that Ecgfrith was buried on Iona. This is a most unlikely place for Ecgfrith to be buried, unless his body was taken there by Bridei — to the place where Ecgfrith’s half-brother Aldfrith was living a life of scholarship.

As long as this post has gotten, this is only a surface sketch of Ecgfrith. He is a fascinating king worthy of a more purposeful biography. Ecgfrith had been a very successful king with a fifteen year reign, only 40 years old when he died in battle. He had inherited a near impossible task at about age 25 and died with his expansive hegemony basically intact until the day of his death.

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One comment on “PW: King Ecgfrith of Northumbria

  1. [...] takes direct control of Deira and it never has its own king again. See Ecgfrith’s recent person of the week post for more on him. Ecgfrith’s successor was his half-Irish brother Aldfrith who had no Deiran [...]

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