Medieval biological weapons

I picked up a book the other day about ancient biological and chemical weapons. I was a little surprised that it has a chapter on insect weapons. It not that I don’t think insects can be a weapon, as we saw in my recent post on the defense of Chester, it’s just that I didn’t think of them as a biological weapon.

In the case of Chester, its seems as though the bee hives are a last-ditch method to repel the Vikings. On the other hand, bee hives would have been common in medieval cities and monasteries.  Bees are about the only insect that I can think of in northern Europe that could be used as intentional weapons. I doubt wasps could be found in high enough numbers to use as a weapon.

Can anyone think of other examples of biological weapons used in early medieval Britain? More bees, wasps, venom, or intentional spread of disease? Poisoning wells is one of the oldest tricks in the book but I can’t think of any examples of it off-hand, can you? Poisoning wells is, I think, usually considered an act of biowarfare because the most common way to poison a well (or spring) is to dump dead bodies or animal carcases in it.

Oswine the Anti-Hero

(A post from the archive on the anniversary of King Oswine’s death.)

King Oswine of Deira (Yorkshire) 20 August 651

Modern Eastern Orthodox icon of King Oswine of Deira

Today is the anniversary of the execution of King Oswine of Deira, considered by some to be a saint. All we know of Oswine is included in Bede’s History (Book III:14). Bede writes a curious tale for Oswine.

“King Oswine was tall and handsome, pleasant of speech, courteous in manner, and bountiful to nobles and common alike; so it came about that he was beloved by all because of his royal dignity which showed itself in his character, his appearance, and his actions; and noblemen from almost every kingdom flocked to serve him as retainers. Among all the other graces of virtue and modesty with which, if I may say so, he was blessed in a special manner, his humility said to have been the greatest” (McClure and Collins, ed; 1994:132)

This all seems well and good. Bede proceeds to narrate an example of Oswine’s great humility to St. Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, at the end of the episode, Aidan turns to an Irish colleague and says “I know that the king will not live long; for I never before saw a humble king. Therefore I think that he will very soon be snatched from this life; for this nation does not deserve to have such a ruler.” (p. 133). Oswine death follows and Aidan himself dies only 12 days “after the murder of the king he loved”. The implication is that Aidan dies of a broken heart.

Bede actually begins his tale with Oswine’s murder/execution. Oswine has gathered his army to meet King Oswiu (who would later rule at the Synod of Whitby) in battle near Catterick. When Oswine realized how outnumbered he was by Oswiu, he disbanded his army and went into hiding with a retainer he believes is his friend. This retainer betrayed him to Oswiu who had his rival executed. There is no doubt that this murder caused an outrage in the church. Oswiu’s queen, Eanflaed, was the cousin of Oswine and demanded a weregeld (blood price) paid by the founding of the monastery of Gilling where prayer was to be offered daily for the soul of King Oswine and his murderer King Oswiu.

The question is why does Bede include the story in his History. There is no evidence that he sees Oswine as anything other than a sad victim. Bede provides no evidence that Oswine was considered to be a saint by his day. Oswine was much later reported to be buried at Tynemouth, not the new monastery of Gilling.

The usual explanation is that Bede includes the story because his beloved Abbot Coelfrith came from Gilling, Coelfrith’s family monastery (meaning that Coelfrith was also a kinsman of Oswine). This isn’t really a very satisfying answer. Gilling had ceased to exist before Bede was born and Coelfrith is not mentioned in the story. An interesting side note is that Gilling seems to disband as a monastery after the plague of 664 when all the surviving monks joined Abbot Wilfrid at Ripon (victor of the synod of Whitby the same year). Thus within months of deciding for Rome, the monastery Oswiu had to found as weregeld/penance was allowed to disappear.

Another explanation is that it was part of Aidan’s death story. This isn’t very satisfying either because Aidan’s death is not elaborated on, as it is in a later chapter (which doesn’t mention Oswine at all). These look like two reports of Aidan’s death.

The chapter begins with an assessment of Oswiu’s reign and the next chapter records a miracle of Aidan’s in assisting in the arrival of Eanflaed to her marriage to Oswiu. The context of the story places it within Oswiu’s story as Oswald’s successor. Miracles of St. Aidan and Aidan’s death are then inserted. After Aidan comes the life and death of pious King Sigeberht of East Anglia who had entered a monastery, but his people pulled him out of the monastery to lead them into battle against Penda, the evil pagan of Bede’s History. Sigeberht refused to carry a weapon in to battle and rode to his death carrying only his royal scepter.

Bede has set up a story of three example kings

  • Oswald: Bede’s ideal king: brave, victorious in battle, supporter of the church and evangelist, humble enough to translate Aidan’s sermons before his people, but not too humble to loose their respect, protector of his people up to his death.
  • Oswine: too humble to be a king. A perfect picture of a king, but when it came down to it, not brave enough to ride in to battle and die. He is an anti-hero.
  • Sigebert: a pious king, but nevertheless Bede did not favor kings who retired to monasteries. The fact that his people came to him to lead them in battle suggests that he once was victorious in battle and was still young and healthy enough to do so again. He did not protect his people. Penda destroys the army, Sigebert’s co-king, and then ravages the monasteries and people of East Anglia.

Bede believed that people should live up to the position in life they were given: king, bishop, monk, commoner. A king should be a good king: protector of the people, patron of the church, obedient to the bishop. He offers Oswine as an example to his readers of how a king should not behave.

Perhaps he was also eager to ensure that King Oswiu would not be too glorified. He tallied plenty of pious attributes during his 28 year reign. He may have been the greatest patron of the church of his age, judge at the synod of Whitby, and slayer of Northumbria’s worst enemy (Penda of Mercia), but he was also capable of murdering his rivals and having his own kinsmen, his nephew Oethelwald son of Oswald and his own son Alhfrith, rebel against him. His rebellious kinsmen are never heard from again. Bede does make sure to casually mention these rebellions in the beginning of the chapter before he narrates Oswine’s story. The execution of Oswine may be Bede’s way of indicating the fates of Oethelwald and Alhfrith by implication in a way that would not offend the contemporary rulers of Northumbria.

The 300 (or 303)

When you think of ‘the 300′ you probably think of the recent movie on the famous Spartan-Persian battle of antiquity. Considered by historians all around as a pivotal battle in antiquity, the number 300 either spawned a legend that spread all the way to the British Isles or was such a common symbolic number that the Greek numbers are pure legend as well. If you look at the old Welsh legends and literature nearly every famed retinue, accounting of war dead, or size of an army is listed as 300 (or 303). When you look at it in a source like the Welsh Triads it is obvious that it’s a legendary motif (or meme?). If I recall correctly, the famed collection of elegies, Y Gododdin, refers to either an army of 300 or 300 dead (or both).

This all came to mind this afternoon as I continue to read Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland (2009) where he writes on the battle of Miathi that

“Here it is said that 303 men were slain in Aidan’s service, which must represent a substantial proportion of his fighting strength. The point of the hagiographical story about this battle was probably to emphasize c. 640 the (former) efficacy of Columba’s patronage and protection of the family of Domnall Brecc, Aidan’s grandson. None the less, that a precise number of casualties was remembered suggests that the battle was famous and widely known to be very bloody. Columba’s hagiographer probably chose it from a list of Aedan’s several battles because a narrow victory illustrated his point best.” (p. 137)

Setting aside the importance of the battle of Miathi and Adomnan’s choice of it for the moment, we can have no confidence in the 303 tally. Whether Adomnan got the account of this battle from the Cummine Find’s collection of Columba’s miracles or directly from oral legends of Aedan, the earliest is could have been written was 30 years later and perhaps nearly a hundred years. What the 303 deaths tell me is that the hagiographical writer, Adomnan or Cummine, got it from oral history. Yes, it must have had the reputation as an important and/or bloody battle. However, probably what made the battle important is that two of Aidan’s sons fell in the victory, and it was a costly victory. Reports of an army of 300 or 300 (303) casualties are worthless. The number 303 does come up elsewhere so this exact number does not give any more confidence than 300. The importance of these numbers goes back to ancient symbolic use of the number 3. I don’t study the meaning given to numbers enough to be able to explain why multiples of 3 are found so often in folklore and mythology but they are.

Getting back to the battle of the Maithi in Fraser’s quote above: When Adomnan was writing in c. 700, the Scots had long lost control of Manu/Miathi territory to the Picts and Bernicians, so it was a reminder of territory now lost. Domnall Brecc, whose behavior is credited with loosing  St Columba’s protection, fell near Miathi territory and his death may have been the final Dalriadan effort to control the area. Adomnan may also be saying that St Columba provided Aedan with a victory over the Maithi but Domnall Brecc lost Columba’s protection and his life in territory possibly controlled by the Miathi. I suspect it was the region of Manu/Miathi territory that made this battle Adomnan’s choice rather than because it was a narrow victory. In the Life of Columba, Adomnan narrates Columba’s prediction that Domnall Brecc’s father  Eochiad will succeed King Aedan, and that Eochiad’s  two elders brothers will die before Aedan in the battle against the Maithi. In a later chapter he shows Columba prophecizing that Aedan is about to loose the battle against the Maithi unless they all pray for him, which they do and a costly victory is won.

So Adomnan’s scheme is:

  • Columba’s prayerful intervention gives Aedan victory over the Maithi perhaps consolidating some of his furthest won territory (that gives them a border with both the Picts and Bernicians),
  • Columba prophecizes that two of Aedan’s sons will die before him and they do in this battle
  • prophecizes that Eochaid will succeed, making Domnall’s eventual succession possible.
  • says that Columba’s protection of Aedan (and Eochaid’s) line will last as long as they do not cross Columba’s family in Ireland

We know from Cummine’s information inserted into the Life of Columba that Aedan’s grandson Domnall did make an alliance and fight againt Columba’s kin in Ireland and that since that time Dalriada had been dominated by outsiders. We know from the annals that Domnall died in battle at Strathcarron, which is very near Miathi territory.  Indeed, Fraser places Strathcarron within an enlarged Maithi region. It is possibly within the area that his grandfather Aedan had won control over after his battle against the Miathi. Adomnan ties up Domnall Brecc’s betrayal to the familia of St Columba (monastic and blood family) and its consequences in a nice little package that would have been obvious to anyone who read it at the time. The insertion of Cummine Find’s text into a later copy of the Life of Columba (preserving an otherwise lost text for us) is proof that Adomnan’s contemporaries understood exactly what he was saying and added these notes proof from Cummine’s text.

FB: The Mystery of Urbs Iudeu

James Fraser has written an interesting article on a very important seventh century English fortress called Urbs Iudeu. Fraser notes that the Urbs Iudeu is unlikely to be one of the better known named places on the Firth of Forth, this fortress gave its name to the firth itself, or took its name from the firth. In effect a modern translation would be Fortress of the Forth or Forth Fortress. Urbs means fortified place, but that does not mean it was not a fortress like Bamburgh or Dunbar. Bede also used the term urbs for Dumbarton/Clyde Rock.

Stirling is often assumed to be the location of urbs Giudi.

Stirling is often assumed to be the location of Urbs Iudeu (urbs Giudi).

Fraser asks where did Bede get his information on Urbs Iudeu and the Firth of Forth. He goes through a through discussion and I think correctly concludes that it came through Bishop Trumwine and/or Abercorn. All of the information for that region is therefore in relation to Abercorn. I think this makes a lot of sense.

A few things that Fraser didn’t mention: If Bishop Trumwine was a kinsman of Abbot Trumhere of Gelling (and probably later Abbot of Hexham), then he was probably also a kinsman of Bede’s Abbot Ceolfrith (whose brother Cynefrith succeeded Trumhere as abbot of Gelling). If Bishop Trumhere was the kinsman of Abbot Ceolfrith, it is likely that Wearmouth-Jarrow would have been closely connected to Bishop Trumwine and Abercorn. It is likely, for example, that Bishop Trumhere would have sought to place some of his monks in his kinsman monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow after 685. Consider that Wearmouth-Jarrow had also been closely associated with its founding patron King Ecgfrith (who would have also been a kinsman of Abbot Ceolfrith through Queen Eanflaed) and also the founding patron of Abercorn. As part of a small circle of churchmen close to King Ecgfrith, it seems like that Abbot Ceolfrith would have been well informed of Bishop Trumwine’s activities even if he wasn’t his kinsman. All of this means that Bede would have good contacts with men from Abercorn who could inform him on the geography and events around Abercorn.

Fraser easily dismisses Striling as a possible site for Urbs Iudeu. I admit that I had accepted it as conventional, but there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think it was there (or that any fortress was there in the seventh century).

I think one of the key points in identifying Urbs Iudeu is the realization that the Niurdui Picts are Picts of Iudeu (nIurdu). This does not appear to be just a geographic description but a name they were known by so these people shared their name with the Firth of Forth. I also think at the very edge of the British-Pictihs frontier, terms like Pict and Brit don’t mean much especially from an English point of view.  Fraser notes that Bede uses the term urbs for native fortresses rather than Roman forts. Here it is interesting to note that he also refers to Dumbarton/Alt Clyde as an urbs. Fraser also mentions that truly massive native hillforts have been discovered and dated to the early medieval period without being mentioned at all in period or later documents. He points to Burghhead in Moray as an example of an undocumented major ‘promontory fortification’.

Fraser discusses several possible sites put forward by others including Inveresk, Carriden, Crammond Island (a tidal island), Carlingnose Battery in North Queensferry, and Blackness. He goes through great detail in discussing each of these candidates and three really jump out. Fraser’s own preference if pushed is for Carlingnose Battery, interestingly on the Pictish side of the forth if we truly hold the firth to be the boundary. He also holds open a possibility for Crammond Island and Blackness. All of these except Carlingnose Battery are far closer to known Bernician territory than Stirling. If Caer Eden fell in 638, any of these places could have easily have been taken by Oswiu in successive years, while Stirling would be a major push into British territory.

In favor of the fortress on a tidal island, consider that this is the opposite of what is found at Bamburgh-Lindisfarne, where the bishop and his monastery is on the tidal island and the king on a very close hillfort. I think that a full island like Inchkeith would be too hard to supply and move troops back and forth from, its too isolated. Crammond Island is pretty far from Abercorn, but we do know that Bernicians may have learned the value of a tidal island as defense in Urien’s seige of Theodoric on Lindisfarne in the 57os. I’ve also wondered about Urbs Iudeu being a very large crannog, actually in the firth that gave it its name.

If we just consider that Abercorn was founded close to Urbs Iudeu for its protection, then Blackness would seem to be the most logical choice. On the other hand, if we consider that Urbs Giudi may be in the land of the Niurdu Picts, then Carlingnose Battery that juts out into the firth is possible. However, being across the firth from Abercorn would make its protection of the bishop and his people more difficult.

The one thing we do know is that Oswiu of Bernicia was in control of Urbs Iudeu by 654-655. It is possible that it fell to Oswiu in a series of battles after the death of Oswald in 642-643. First Domnall Brecc of Dalriada is killed by Owen of Strathclyde at Strathcarron in December 642. Y Gododdin tells us that in Owen’s time, survivors of Caer Eden were in Owen’s court. The annals then record that Oswiu ravages the Britons and it may be 643 when the entire southern coast of the firth of Forth transfer into Osiwu’s hands. Ultimately, Urbs Iudeu must be a place where Penda can realistically besiege Oswiu in 655 with his full army. British sources claim that some of them, persumably from Gwynedd, got home with considerable loot handed over by Oswiu to Penda.  As Fraser concludes it is likely that only archaeology can solve this conundrum and so the mystery of Urbs Iudeu remains.


James Fraser. (April 2008) “Bede, the Firth of Forth and the Location of Urbs Iudeu Scottish Historical Review. 87 (1), p. 1-25.

Urien, Lord of Catraeth

I’ve been thinking today about the claim that Urien is Lord of Catraeth. Wherever Catraeth is doesn’t matter for the moment. What has struck me as strange is that the British attacked Catraeth. The point of the battle of Catraeth was to take it away from its Lord, and the Britons lost. Other references to Catraeth in British poetry make the hero one of the attackers at Catraeth.

The great early Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin is a series of eulogies to the men who died failing to take Catraeth. John Koch in his modern edition of Y Gododdin has hypothesized that Urien, Lord of Catraeth and ally of Deira, was the target of the battle of Catraeth. We know that Urien fell to a coalition of British kings/warlords while besieging Lindisfarne. Poetry claims that many British heroes hunted down Urien’s sons. This speaks of great resentment from Urien’s neighbors and perhaps vassels. What does it really mean that Urien is called Lord of Catraeth?

Ecgfrith’s Burial

St Orans Chapel and the earliest cemetery of Iona

St Oran's Chapel and the earliest cemetery of Iona

I was reading more of Clarkson’s The Picts today and came across his references to the burial of King Ecgfrith on Iona after the battle of Dunnichen. Ecgfrith’s burial is only mentioned by Symeon of Durham, which is quite late but its so unusual and nonchilant that it is believable. No other English king was buried on Iona, and as far as we know, he was the first king from anywhere buried there, so its not as if Symeon just chose a traditional burial ground.

As Bridei was the victor of a battle where a major king fell – and therefore the overwhelming number of his forces also fell – he would have control over the battlefield and its dead. One interesting survivor might be the ealdorman/duke Berht (/Berhtred) who had led Ecgfrith’s forces to Ireland the year before and was certainly still around during the time of Ecgfrith’s successor. Assuming that Berht was with Ecgfrith in Pictland then he must have been captured by Bridei after the battle. Once King Ecgfrith was killed, Berht may have negotiated a truce for the survival of the remainder. He would have then been at King Bridei’s mercy.

Nevertheless, we can be sure that Pictish King Bridei would have taken Ecgfrith’s body to Iona for burial. This was not an easy trip. The battle of Dunnichen was fought in southeastern Scotland. Iona is on the far western isles. We should imagine a royal baggage train bearing the body of Ecgfrith out in the open for all to see snaking through the hamlets and fortresses of southern Scotland. King Bridei wanted everyone to see that Ecgfrith was dead, and in his possession. The great English foe whose kingdom had enslaved Pictland for so long was slain by the Picts. We can expect some noble English captives coming along.

Can it be a coincidence that on Iona Ecgfrith’s half-brother waited with Bridei and Aldfrith’s common friend, Abbot Adomnan of Iona? No doubt both the Dalriadans and the Picts, who all looked to Iona as thier mother church, relished the death of Ecgfrith and his burial there under their control was a political statement. We must remember that Iona at the time was a school for princes, like Aldfrith and perhaps Aldhelm (see here), and possibly Irish nobles as well. Adomnan was perhaps the most political of all of the abbots of Iona, at least as political as Columba. At the enactment of Cain Adomnan (Adomnan’s Law / Law of the Innocents) marshalled every king in Ireland and Scotland were guaranteers of the law. So the dead English king is laid on Adomnan’s doorstep and his pupil Aldfrith becomes his successor… A year later after Aldfrith is installed – undoubtably with the aid of Duke Berht – Abbot Adomnan arrives at Bamburgh to bring Irish hostages from Ecgfriht’s attack on Ireland (684), by then two years later. Adomnan is successful acquiring some, but not all, hostages. He returns several years later and redeems more hostages. A few years later Adomnan sits in grief next to the body of his friend King Bridei, which is also brought to Iona for burial. We don’t know how Bridei dies but it is several years later.

Clarkson notes that there is no way that the burial of Ecgfrith’s burial on Iona could have been acceptable to the Northumbrians. Ecgfrith, like his mother, had been an opponent of the Irish church. Ecgfrith did support Lindisfarne but by his time it was devoted to Rome. Ecgfrith’s insistence that his friend Cuthbert become Bishop of Lindisfarne may have had more to do with Lindisfarne’s proximity to the royal fortress of Bamburgh where the king would have ready access than any support for the formerly Irish church. Lindisfarne was also Ecgfrith’s ally in breaking Bishop Wilfrid’s power. Clarkson suggests that Whibty would have been the preferred site for Ecgfrith’s burial where his mother and sister were co-abbesses. He is probably correct. It has been suggested that Ecgfrith intended Wearmouth or Jarrow to be his burial church, and that is probably true, but he died before Jarrow would have been barely begun. Another possibility would have been the monastery at Carlisle where his sister-in-law was abbess and his queen would later be abbess. This was probably a monastery founded by Ecgfrith for his sister-in-law in newly conquored territory.  If his queen had any say in his burial, then he may have been there. None of these family members were consulted and Bridei’s will would prevail. As a long time student of Iona, Aldfrith is unlikely to have objected and by the time the body got to Iona, quick burial would have been a necessity as decomposition would have been well under way.

Symeon’s one line entry that Ecgfrith was buried on Iona tells us a great deal about the aftermath of the battle of Dunnichen.

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.