Bernicia or Bryneich?
We know that the name of the kingdom was British and their name for it was Bryneich. No one has put forth a compelling translation for Bryneich. It appears to have been the southern part of Votandini (Gododdin) territory under the Romans, although it may have been independent then just without its name being recorded. It is a very fertile district with numerous hill forts including Bamburgh and Coldingham, the tidal island of Metcaut/Lindisfarne, and the great administrative complex of Yeavering (and the prehistoric Yeavering Bell). The original district of Bryneich may have run from mouths of the River Tweed to the River Aln and perhaps west to around Melrose. It may have originally been centered around the Tweed valley and the fertile plain to the south of the river. It has been hypothesized that the original Anglican settlement may have been along the River Aln and this fits with their later addition of Bamburgh to their territory (and the coincidence of the first Englishman to add Bamburgh to his territory being the first king). The Anglicized version of Bryneich appears to be Bernicia.
Bryneich was incoroporated into the mythology of Anglican Bernicia in two ways — by adding an ancestor named Beornec to the mythical portion of the royal dynasty and by possibly adding a sovereignty goddess in the form of Queen Bearnoch, wife of the dynastic founder. I have written about Bearnoch before here. Its ironic that those who study the English pedigrees seem to agree that Beornec represents the land but have ignored Queen Bearnoch.
An Anglo-British Kingdom
Archaeological evidence of Anglican settlement is extremely thin on the ground in the area of Bernicia. More sites are being found all the time, though most are 7th century or later. What early Anglican remains are found in archaeology are focused on former Roman military sites particularly along Hadrian’s Wall, but it is unclear if they were affiliated with Bernicia or Deira. It is quite possible that all of the Angles in the northern Roman province administered from York were later organized around Deira. David Dumville believed that the story in the Historia Brittonum that Angles were recruited from Kent to settle along the wall or just north of it to protect the former Roman territory from the Picts, and led by Hengest’s son Ocha and his cousin Ebusa (HB ch.38) are a confused reference to Ossa/Osla and his son Eoppa, founders of the Bernician royal dynasty. The linkage to Kent is almost certainly fictional in an attempt to link all the English to Hengest’s arrival, focusing the adventus story on Hengest which speaks volumes for Hengest in both British and English folklore. For Bernicia, it still suggests that they were recruited by someone to occupy those former military sites. It is possible that they were recruited by the Britons south of Hadrian’s wall. Eventually becoming independent,they became enemies of both Romano-Britons south of the wall, Britons/Picts north of the wall who they were recruited to defend against, and the English of York whose pedigree suggests they may go back to the end of Roman Britian (possibly as federate troops). If the English pedigree is any indicator, the Bernicians arrived about two generations before 547, which would place them at about 500-525 keeping the generations fairly short. This is far too late for them to be associated with the Romans, although Bede placed the English arrival at about 450 though this may not refer to his own Bernician people. It is interesting that although Deira has a longer pedigree in Britain, Bernicia is recorded first with Bede recording Ida’s reign starting in 547.
Excavations at Bamburgh’s late antique-early medieval cemetery on the beach confirms that Bamburgh was a fortress of kings back to the iron age. The visible Anglo-British transition is seen in the graves and discussed here. Toward the edge of the cemetery, I’m told there are pre-historic barrows that have not been excavated yet. Regardless it suggests that there was a hillfort here going back through Roman times, if not before. Bamburgh has been a place of power longer than we can determine and with views like in the photo above, it is no wonder. Bamburgh rises above a large fertile plain with a commanding view of the plains and sea alike (photo above). I’ve been told that Bamburgh also has one of the best beaches for beaching ships in all of Britain. Today the shallow water is a disadvantage to our boats that anchor at sea and rely on docks to get to land, but in late antique/early medieval times this was ideal to beach ships like the one found at Sutton Hoo. Bamburgh’s wide white sandy beaches (visible in the distance in the photo above) are also ideal for beachfront markets. It is noteworthy that the cemetery lays on a beachfront ridge 300 meters south of Bamburgh where is would have been clearly visible to all who came north by sea.
Although the Bernicians are universally written about as the enemies of the British, archaeology and social history tells us another story. It should also be mentioned that the Bernician use of British hillforts was unique up through the seventh century. Examples of Bernician hillforts include Bamburgh and Dunbar (where King Ecgfrith has Bishop Wilfrid imprisoned). Elsewhere, ruins of Roman fortresses were occasionally used for monasteries but not for military sites. Abandoned British hillforts like South Cadbury were left abandoned by the southern English in up to the 8th century. Likewise there are more British placenames, like Melrose, Dunbar, and Carlisle, that survive in Bernicia.
However the English of Bernicia arrived they were oriented north until at least the reign of Ecgfrith. This is best shown by where they sought exile. Both Herring son of Hussa and the sons of Æthelfrith head to Dalriada (western scotland) for refuge rather than southern England. On the other hand Deiran exiles are associated exclusively with the southern English and maybe Edwin sought refuge among the British in Wales. The point is Deirans never looked north for aid; the Bernicians seem to look north for both aid and as their primary political concern first until the mid-670s.
Core and Waves of Expansion
The core of the kingdom is in the upper cluster of balloons on the map. This cluster includes Bamburgh, Lindisfarne, Yeavering and then Coldingham is the royal monastery of Oswiu’s sister Æbbe to the north. The westernmost point is Melrose, perhaps on the trail between Lindisfarne and Iona. This tight core remains the heartland of Bernicia until really after 570, after they no longer really had to fear that Bernicia would be conquored.
The expansions discussed below refer to just the kingdom of Bernicia and not to the annexation of the kingdom of Deira and creation of Northumbria. As early as 604, Bernician king Æthelfrith conquorered the neighboring kingdom of Deira, which returned the favor during Edwin of Deira’s subsequent reign.
The first expansion is really the conquest of Lothian which takes Bernicia to the shore of the Firth of Forth. They must really secure Lothian for Coldingham to be secure enough for a convent. The first suggestion of northern movement is a single annal entry listing a seige of Edenburgh in 638, during the middle of Oswald’s reign but the besieger is unlisted. We know that Oswiu was besieged in a fortress near Stirling (north of Edinburgh) in modern Scotland in 655. This says that Bernicia secured Lothian enough that they could withstand Penda’s seige. Abercorn also became the seat of a northern see from Lothian. After 685 the district north of the Firth of Forth between Stirling and Abercorn was a buffer zone that was probably English but not safe enough to actually occupy or invest in royal building programs.
The second expansion of Bernician sites are the lower cluster along Hadrian’s Wall. The earliest Bernician site here is really Heavenfield/Hexham, the westernmost balloon. The tight cluster in the east are the monasteries that are founded primarily during Ecgfrith’s time, although Tynemouth appears to have been operational when Oswiu excuted Oswine in 651. The monastery of Gateshead is also between Wearmouth and Hexham and was probably as old as Tynemouth. It really looks like this group was intentional foundations to stitch together Bernicia and Deira. Gateshead sits on a Roman bridge guarding entry into Bernicia and Tynemouth may have served a similar function for Deira, controlling access to the River Tyne along Hadrian’s Wall. (Tynemouth is where Deiran king Oswine was reputed to have been born and where he was buried.) The area between the rivers Tyne and Tees appears have been heavily contested between Bernicia and Deira during the reigns of Oswiu and Oswine. It is possible that the Tyne valley was first seized by Bernicia after the death of Oswald. It is not impossible that much of the conflict between Bernicia and Deira in the first half of the seventh century was over the Hadrian’s wall/Tyne valley zone. The diocese of Hexham is basically the northern origins of the diocese of Durham.
The third expansion of Bernicia specifically (rather than Northumbria) is westward. Bede is very specific that Carlisle and Whithorn are within Bernicia. Bernician kings continued to chip away at the west into the Viking age but the British kingdom of Strathclyde seated at Dumbarton never fell to the English. The westward expansion was never as solid as the first two expansions. This area was completely lost to the Danes/Norse.
The Idling Dynasty of Bernicia
- Ossa or Osla Big-knife: According to a continental annals found by David Dumville, the annal claimed that Osla was the first of dynasty to come to Britain. He is found in British legend as one of Arthur’s heroes and sometimes his main enemy. He is mentioned in the Bonedd y Sant (Pedigrees of the Saints) as the ultimate ancestor of St Oswald and as Arthur’s opponent at the battle of Badon (see a post on this pedigree here). He is also mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen and the Historia Brittonum. His epithet big-knife probably refers the Saxon saex.
- Eoppa: nothing is known about Eoppa other than as Osla’s son and Ida’s father. All of the adventus stories seem to be of partners, father and son or brothers.
- Ida son of Eoppa: (r. 547-560) Considered by Bede to be the founder of the Bernician dynasty. He dated the beginning of his 12 year reign to 547, which suggests he had a kinglist like those that survive. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle claims that he was the first king of Bernicia and the Historia Brittonum claims that he “added Caer Guori/Bamburgh to Bernicia”.
- [Glappa (r. 560-561): followed Ida for just one year. We don't know how he was related to the Idlings but the form of his name may suggest that he was another son of Eoppa, a brother of Ida.]
- Adda son of Ida (r.561-569): Nothing specific is known of his 8 year reign.
- Æthelric son of Ida (r. 569-572) is known in British lore as Æthelric “the king”. He is a figure who is often confused with others. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and elsewhere Ætehlric father of Æthelfrith is confused with Æthelric of Deira, successor of Ælle (and possible father of Hereric father of St Hild). The British epithet, the king, suggests that he may be getting confused with his son Æthelfrith, who was king for 24 years.
- Theodoric son of Ida (r. 572-579) followed his brother Æthelric and is best known for being the opponent of Urien Rheged, Rhydderch Hael of Strathclyde, Morcant (of Gododdin?) and other British kings. It was Theodoric who was beseiged by Urien Rheged on the isle of Metcaut/Lindisfarne, but survived. He is the most likely candidate for “the flame-bearer” who is referred to in the poetry of Taliesin and who is credited with slaying Owain ap Urien.
- [Frithuwald r. 579-585) We know nothing of Frithuwald except that he ruled after Theodoric. His name elements fit with the Idling dynasty but he could be an intruder.]
- [Hussa (r. 585-592): Hussa is almost certainly from a rival lineage of the Idlings. His son Herring led the Dalriadans through English territory to attack Æthelfrith at the battle of Degsastan in 604 (ASC-E). Herring son of Hussa had apparently been in exile in Dalriada during the first half of Æthelfrith's reign.]
- Æthelfrith son of Æthelric (r. 592-616): Northumbria is the house that Æthelfrith built. He is the real transformational king. He was the first to be truly independent of the regionally dominant king, in his day Dalriada. This suggests that previous Northumbrian kings gained in independence by either allying with a stronger king or the kingdom was too small to gain the attention of regional powers. Bede holds out Æthelfrith’s victory at Degsastan in 603 as being a truly immense victory and pivotal moment in Bernician/Northumbrian history. Æthelfrith was the first Bernician king to conquor a neighboring kingdom, Deira, and apparently rule it directly. He fought at least two major southern battles at Chester and the battle where he fell on the River Idle in 616. His sons were forced into exile in Dalriada and Pictland upon his death.
- [Deiran Intruder Edwin son of Ælle (r. 616-633): his sister Acha had been Æthelfrith's queen. He forced Æthelfrith's sons into exile.]
- Eanfrith son of Æthelfrith (r. 633-634): Apostate king of Bernicia upon Edwin’s death. He was executed by Cadwallon of Gwynedd when he tried to sue for peace.
- Oswald son of Æthelfrith (r. 634-August 5, 642): Succeeded his brother Eanfrith. He first enters history with his faithful erection of a cross at Heavenfield and unexpected victory at the battle of Denisesburna in 634 over Cadwallon of Gwynedd. He invited Irish missionaries to Northumbria. He was the royal partner of Bishop Aidan and patron of Lindisfarne. He sponsored Christian missions throughout his extended domain that Bede claims included all of Britain. He was slain by Penda of Mercia at the battle of Maserfelth on 5 August 642. He is the earliest native English saint and was considered a saint within a decade of his death.
- Oswiu son of Æthelfrith (r. 642-February 670): Oswiu succeeded Oswald almost immediately but only to Bernicia and not Oswald’s extensive domain. The first half of his reign was in near constant conflict with Penda of Mercia. Oswiu extended his reach by marrying Eanflaed daughter of Edwin of Deira who was under the guardianship of her uncle King Eadbald of Kent. Oswiu built an alliance of Christian kings against Penda. Religion and conversion were active factors of Oswiu’s foreign policy. He eventually married two of his elder children to children of Penda, but it did not bring even short-term peace. Penda led a great campaign into Bernicia in 655 and beseiged Oswiu near Edinburgh. After Penda gave up (or was given satisfaction) Oswiu gathered an army and found the perfect place to ambush Penda and drive his army into a flood swollen river. Oswiu’s slaying of Penda made him the short term overlord of southern Britain.
- Ecgfrith son of Oswiu (r. 670-May 20, 685): Ecgfrith lived up to his ancestors reputations for being transformational kings. His greatest achievement was the final unification of Northumbria after the death of his brother Ælfwine. He also set Northumbria with its modern dioceasen system, repariing the relationship with Canterbury and preventing the bishops of York from becoming a line of prince-bishops. He was a warrior king with mixed success who died in battle, also in keeping with his ancestors.
- Aldfrith son of Oswiu the wise (r. 685-December 705): Oswiu’s bastard was a caretaker king, a scholar king. He gave Northumbria its first 20 years of peace and prosperity. It is during Aldfrith’s peaceful reign that Ecgfrith’s unified kingdom would have cemented its unification with the development of a stable system of nobles.
- Osred son of Aldfrith (r. 706-716): the only child king of Northumbria, he came to the throne at age 8. His reign would have been a time where the nobles of Northumbria really developed, because in part of the lack of a strong king. It is likely that the real power behind Osred was Berhtfrith who would have been analogous to a Frankish Mayor of the Palace. Osred doesn’t survive long after he comes into his own as a teenager. With Bishop Wilfrid and Ealdorman Berhtfrith dead and trying to assert his own authority, he is murdered by his countrymen. He is universally written of badly but then again a teenager trying to exert control with teenage impulses would be. He is said to be slain “south of the border”, which I tend to think means the northern border. There is no word that he tried to attack Mercia. Perhaps he was seeking to show his royal authority by attacking the Picts and one of his men stopped him short of a dangerous provocation of the current peace. Raids led by new kings were traditional and although he had been king for ten years, he was really new to power.
- Osric son of Aldfrith or Alchfrith son of Oswiu (r. 718-629) — It has been disputed whether his father was Aldfrith or his half-brother Alchfrith son of Oswiu, King of Deira. Either way he seems to have been the grandson of Oswiu and was probably the last Æthelfrithing (unless a later king could trace his lineage to Æthelfrith through is mother). If he was a younger brother of Osred, he could not have been born before 698 and would have been about 30 when he died and only about 20 when he became king. He succeeded Coenred/Cenred who John of Fordun later says he murdered. Osric was succeeded by Coelwulf brother of Coenred. Coenred may have been the kinsman of Eadwulf who succeeded Aldfrith for only a few months.
The Bernician Church
Lindisfarne was the mother church for all of Bernicia and its daughter house was Melrose, founded along the route between Lindisfarne and Iona. Lindisfarne was both primary monastery and bishop’s seat, while Melrose seems to have functioned as the training center for Lindisfarne. Until c. 700, Bishop Aidan was the primary saint of Lindisfarne, and he remained important within the community. After 700, Bishop Cuthbert became more politically acceptable surrogate for Aidan. Cuthbert eventually became one of the primary saints of all England.
The primary Bernician convent was at Coldingham, founding by King Oswiu’s uterine sister Æbbe. There are no other specifically Bernician convents known well enough to have thier name remembered. The importance of Coldingham is shown by Queen Æthelthryth’s entry into this convent. While she may have wanted to avoid Whitby because it was ruled by King Ecgfrith’s sister and mother, who are unlikely to have approved of her behavior, Coldingham was run by Ecgfrith’s aunt. It is also possible that she entered Coldingham because it seems to have been more friendly and perhaps lenient for noble women than Whitby.
The development of monasteries along Hadrian’s wall at Hexham, Wearmouth and Jarrow are all tied to Ecgfrith’s reign. It seems likely that the development of the valley into an ecclesiastical zone was part of King Ecgfrith’s policy to unite Bernicia and Deira into one kingdom while opening a new economic zone that could be controlled by his surrogates in the church. Ecgfrith’s reign also saw the conquest of land to the west, bringing new churches into Bernicia. It seems likely that many churches in Cumbria and Galloway were existing British churches taken over by the English. We know there were churches and a convent at Carlisle and Whithorn came into Bernicia in this time. Ecgfrith’s reign also saw the huge Northumbrian see then ruled from York divided into two Bernician diocese (Lindisfarne and Hexham), one for Deira ( York), one for Pictland (Abercorn) and one for Lindsey (Lincoln). Eventually Lindisfarne’s diocese would be divided again to provide for another diocese at Whithorn. Such was the state of Bernicia at the time of Bede’s death.
When Norse raiding in the early 9th century made Lindisfarne unusable, the community collected their relics in St Cuthbert’s coffin and began to travel. These relics included the coffin of Cuthbert and its contents, bones of Aidan, Oethelwald, the head of Oswald, and possibly other bishops. They settled at Durham in 995 where the Bishop of Durham served Bernicia and his own diocese. In the years between all of the monasteries had been raided, wrecked, and eventually abandoned. The Cathedral of Durham is best known today for being an excellent and largely undamaged pre-Reformation Cathedral with the relics of St. Cuthbert, the head of St Oswald (entombed with Cuthbert), and the bones of St Bede relocated to its Galilee Chapel. Ironically, Bede’s tomb is the only elevated/above ground tomb today.
Early saints of Bernicia include Aidan of Lindisfarne, King Oswald, Boisil of Melrose, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Eata of Hexham, Wilfrid of Ripon/Hexham, Acca of Hexham, John of Beverly, Æthelthryth (Audrey) of Ely, Æbbe of Coldingham, Oethelwald of Farne, Bede of Jarrow, Benedict Biscop and Coelfrith of Wearmouth-Jarrow, and Ninian of Whithorn (adopted by Bernicia). Although a few of these are associated with Deira or further south, all had a connection to Bernicia and personal patronage/admiration from at least Bede!
Bernicia Re-established in Danelaw
The Viking incursions that began with an attack on Lindisfarne in the 790s eventually led to the re-establishment of a semi-independent Bernicia under the overlordship of the Danes of York. Bernicia during the Danelaw compromised the diocese of Durham and the heartland of Bernicia/Northumbria including Lothian. It stretched from Durham north to Edinburgh. The English Earls of Bamburgh remained a force to be reconed with by the Normans. A feud between the Earls of Bamburgh and men loyal to Cnut and the later kings of England is chronicled in the well recieved book Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England by Richard Fletcher (2002) and Earl Uchtred of Bamburg is the focus of Bernard Cromwell’s The Saxon Chronicles series of novels.
From the time of King Æthelfrith (r. 592-616) through to the Earls of Bamburgh in the twilight of Anglo-Saxon England, Bamburgh and Bernicia was a place of power and influence. Ælfred didn’t manage to unite all of the Anglo-Saxon nobles under his banner, the Earls of Bamburgh stood alone in thier dealings with the Danes. Earl Osulf II, descendent of Earl Uchtred of Bamburgh, managed to gain control of the reconstituted Earldom of Northumbria until his death in 1067. He was succeeded by a half-Scottish cousin Gospatrick who secured the earldom from William I seeing Bamburgh into the Norman period in English hands. His descendents ruled as earls in parts of Bernicia into the 1400s.