PW: Rhun ap Urien of Rheged

Rhun (Rum) ap Urien figures prominently in the Historia Brittonum, where he is mentioned three times. This suggests that he or his court may have supplied a source text for the Historia Brittonum. If Rheged was successfully integrated into Northumbria with its British aristocrasy or at least clerics largely intact, it is possible that Rheged played a role in the transmission of the primary Northumbrian document to Gwynedd.

Rhun’s mentions in the Historia Brittonum include:

  • Rhun is mentioned in the preface of the Historia Brittonum in some (but not all versions) versions as a source of some of the information.
  • Rhun is claimed to be the bishop who baptized Edwin of Deira. It essentially replaces the name of Bishop Paulinus with that of Rhun.

“Edwin, son of Alla, reigned seventeen years, seized on Elmete, and expelled Cerdic, its king…. The following Easter Edwin himself received baptism, and twelve thousand of his subjects with him. If any one wishes to know who baptized them, it was Rum Map Urbgen: he was engaged forty days in baptizing all classes of the Saxons, and by his preaching many believed on Christ.”(HB 63)

  • Oswiu of Northumbria’s first wife is listed as Rheinmellt daughter of Royth son of Rhun. This Rhun is usually assumed to be Rhun ap Urien. “But Oswy had two wives, Riemmelth, the daughter of Royth, son of Rum; and Eanfled, the daughter of Edwin, son of Alla.” (HB 57)

Caitlin Corning published an interesting paper years ago suggesting that Rhun’s baptism of Edwin, repeated specifically also in the Annals Cambriae, came from a confused record of Rhun standing as Edwin’s godfather. She noted that contemporary records of godfathers used very similar language to claims of baptizers. The question of godfathers and Edwin’s relationship with the the Britons is an interesting one. Who else but a British king could have stood as Edwin’s godfather? Bede makes no claim for another English king or even for Bishop Paulinus himself and its questionable if Paulinus can be both baptizer and godfather. It is interesting that the baptism of Edwin of Deira by Rhun ap Urien is the only mention of a figure from Rheged in the Annals Cambriae. Otherwise, Urien of Rheged’s enemies are featured in the Annales Cambriae.

There have been suggestions over the years that Rheged and Deira were allied against Bernicia. Æthelfrith had so devistated the Britons that they may have been willing to negotiate with Edwin. Edwin and the Britons had one thing in common; both of their peoples may have evolved out of the former Roman provice. The Britons were descendants of British tribes and perhaps Romano-British military families, while the Deiran dynasty may have ties to English federate troops in the Vale of York. On the other hand, the Bernicians were settled outside the former Roman province and may have been seen by Britons and southern English alike as more barbarian.

Rhun’s grandaughter Rheinmellt’s marriage to Oswiu would have been part of the dynasty’s realignment after the fall of Cadwallon. We should remember that the new Bernician king Oswald was not only Christian, but part of an Irish church that was in commonion with the British church. It is interesting that Rheinmellt’s probable son Alchfrith was King of Deria and an 8th century cross in the Carlisle area bears the name of Alchfrith’s wife. If they had children, then the line of Rhun of Rheged may have continued among the Northumbrian nobles. According to legend, the child saint St Rumwold was the son of Cyneburgh and a Northumbrian prince, undoubably Alchfrith son of Oswiu, her husband. This child Rumwold was born after the death of his father, but it is not unlikely that after over ten years of marriage they had other children.

PW: Abbot Berhthun of Beverly

You might be wondering, who is Abbot Berhthun and why should we care about him? First of all, he was someone known and respected by Bede and second, we owe practically everything we know about St John of Beverly to Berhthun. According to Bede, Berhthun was John’s deacon while he was Bishop of Hexham and in the 730s he was the Abbot of Inderauuda (‘in the woods of the men of Deira’), known to us today as Berverly. I think the detail and almost chattiness of these accounts suggests that Bede knew Berhthun well, as we might suspect for John’s former deacon, recalling that John ordained Bede to the deaconate and priesthood. Indeed, for some time Bede and Berhthun would have been fellow deacons in the diocese of Hexham.

Berhthun recalled John’s oratory of St Michael in the woods 1.5 miles from Hexham across the River Tyne where John retreated for solitude particularly during Lent. It seems that Berhthun was one of those who accompanied him and recorded healings done there that Bede considered miracles. What makes healing of the dumb boy with the scabby head unusual is Bede describes the long process of speech therapy and treatments John ordered for the boy. This was no instantaneous miracle but a healer at work. Berhthun’s account also has a ring of realism when Bede notes that Bishop John offered the boy a place in his household, but the boy refused and went home to his people. Hard to imagine Wilfrid allowing his invitation to be refused.

Berhthun’s served John in the diocese of York as well. He related the story of the healing of Abbess Hereberga’s daughter Coenberg. In that story, he has John refer to medical teaching by Archbishop Theodore in a way that suggests that John may have studied healing under Theodore.

We might also wonder about what other events Berhthun told Bede about. Berhthun would have obviously been privy to many of Bishop John’s opinions on Wilfrid’s return to Northumbria and John’s reassignment from Hexham to York.

As the abbot of John’s monastery of Beverly, where John retired to and was buried the chapel of St Peter in the church of Beverly in 721, Berhthun would have been one of John’s chosen successors and the caretaker of his memory. John did choose one of his men, Wilfrid (II), to be his successor as Bishop of York. He ordained him before retiring to Beverly. Wilfrid II was later deposed in 732 as part of a wholesale replacement of Northumbrian bishops. His successor was the king’s cousin Egbert, who became archbishop only three years later. John’s successor, who may have come to retire at Beverly, did not die until 745. Bede’s record that Wilfrid was still Bishop of York is one of the means to date the completion of his history to 731. As this Wilfrid would have almost certainly been another longstanding member of John’s house, Bede probably knew him as well.

Abbot Berhthun and Bishop Wilfrid II would have been among the last of the old order who remembered the effects of 664. No doubt they retained good relationships with the other monasteries of like history, Whibty and Lastingham in particular in the diocese of York, but a new order came in with Bishop Egbert.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book V chapters 2-5 and Bede’s chronological continuer for the fate of Wilfrid II.

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.