The Makers of Scotland

Tim Clarkson, The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2012. 224 pg.

In his third book, Tim Clarkson takes on the first thousand years of recorded Scottish history. It’s a huge task, but Tim was more than up to the challenge. I really enjoyed it. I tend to focus so much on my narrow time period that it’s really good to properly put it all in context. For example, I was struck while reading this the parallels between the Anglo-Saxon adventus and the Scandinavian contact and migration to Britain. Both begin as raiders seeking only loot from soft targets (villas vs monasteries), then both are either offered payments or mercenary positions to protect Britain from their fellows, and lastly by military and other permanent migration to the isles.  All food for thought and I do wonder by these parallels aren’t talked about more. By usually constraining most of my reading to the pre-Viking period I can often miss such important contextual associations.

Do the math, to cover a thousand years in 225 pages, you can only expect so much depth. I think Tim covers as much chronological detail as possible in a book this length. He managed to untangle the Scottish and Pictish families and succession clearly and briefly. I wish I could talk him into writing a Men of the North style book on Dál Riata! By choosing not to delve into academic controversies, Tim swept aside discredited theories, replacing them with well received  new paradigms, and sometimes making a choice where the there isn’t consensus. Countless updates and choices brings out the clear and consistent voice of the historian I have gotten to know so well over so many years. Tim doesn’t write much about historical theory but his historical paradigms are deftly woven through The Makers of Scotland, just as with his other books. In some ways his voice has more clarity here because of the expanse of time covered – and that is a good thing!  I highly recommend The Makers of Scotland as an ideal, comfortable read whether you want a contextual refresher  or are coming to Scottish history for the first time.

Tim Clarkson is a generous and accessible author. He can be found at his blog Senchus (highly recommended) and on twitter at @EarlyScotland.

Plague in a time of war

One of the oddities of the plague in Britain and Ireland is the absence of any visible impact on political history. The few kings who died of plague were apparently replaced peacefully from within their kingdom, if not their dynasty. The effects of the plague on the church, particularly in the loss of bishops, may suggest that the effects of the plague on political history have not been appreciated enough, though the infrastructure of the early medieval kingdoms was significantly stronger than the fledgling church in Britain. While churchmen were mourned in Ireland, it doesn’t seem to have caused a crisis.

The Northumbrian plague of c.684-688 gives us an opportunity to look at the effect of a specific wave on plague on politics and particularly warfare. We don’t know exactly when this round of plague began in Northumbria. We know that it began at least a year before Cuthbert became bishop, so at least 683-684.  So this means that the plague was present in the kingdom, indeed at Lindisfarne, when King Ecgfrith sent ealdorman Berht with an “army” to Ireland to wreck devastation and perhaps more importantly take many hostages. We know that they attacked several churches and monasteries and took clerical hostages. We can probably assume that they took secular hostages as well. These hostages, perhaps including secular exiles, living in the monasteries were probably Ecgfrith’s real goal. Regardless of King Ecgfrith’s motivation, the plague did not stop him from sending an army far from home. Indeed, this is the only known English war band to be sent on a campaign by sea to Ireland or anywhere else in the early Anglo-Saxon period.

This attack on Ireland was roundly condemned by churchmen including within Northumbria. King Ecgfrith had apparently been in contact with the wandering English bishop Egbert who urged him not to attack Ireland. Egbert was either living in Ireland or Pictland at the time, so King Ecgfrith’s Irish campaign was discussed long distance for some time before it was undertaken. Given that the Northumbrians were not known for having a navy it would have taken some time to build the ships necessary to take the warband there. This raid was no impulse by a rash king. Perhaps the planning that went into the raid made it more likely that it would proceed even during the plague.

The Pictish rebellion just a year after the successful raid on Ireland doesn’t seem very wise. King Ecgfrith had brutally put down the previous Pictish rebellion about a decade earlier. After such a display of power in Ireland, why would King Bridei ap Beli have thought now was a good time to rebel? Although Berht brought back over 20 hostages, they still may have lost many of their warriors in Ireland, potentially weakening their army. They could have lost more warriors to the sea or battle injuries. Perhaps after such a victory Ecgfrith’s tribute demands went up so high that Bridei couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. The plague, of course, is another factor. If the plague wasn’t in the north, as Adomnan implies, then perhaps Bridei thought that Northumbria had been weakened enough by the plague that he could not field a typical Northumbrian army. I don’t think the plague has been considered before as a factor in the Pictish rebellion or in Ecgfrith’s unexpected defeat before.

King Bridei did have a plan. He had been waging war on his other borders for several years, racking up victory after victory. Presumably his warband was at its peak in size and experience. Even so he planned an ambush for Ecgfrith’s war band that was a critical part of his success.  It is believed that the campaign is memorialized on the stone to the right with ravens picking on Ecgfrith in the lower right corner.

We will never really know what effect the plague had on events in 684-685. It didn’t stop King Ecgfrith from launching two major campaigns. If the plague did weaken Ecgfrith’s forces or give Bridei the belief that this time he could win, then it played a significant role in the unexpected death of Ecgfrith. In turn, the death of Ecgfrith in battle was one of the most significant events in the history of the Northumbrian kingdom. It was from that point that Bede marked the deminishing of Northumbrian power.

In an era when warfare is so frequent and local, it is difficult to to discern the role the plague may have played. It is likely that plague weakened regions were more vulnerable to attack, if the attacker would venture into a plague stricken area. Of course, it takes more than a few years for the population to recover a plague. The plague would also lower a regions ability to produce crops as workers are lost and crops go unharvested. It may have played a role in the smaller independent regions ultimately being incorporated into the larger kingdoms. They would be unable to resist incorporation and would have wanted the protection. It may not be a coincidence that many of the smaller independent regions listed in the tribal hinge disappear shortly after the plague of 664.

Primary Sources:

Bede, Life of Cuthbert

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Fostering Princes on Iona

A while back I mentioned that Michael Lapidge has placed Aldhelm on Iona, making him the second Anglo-Saxon prince to study there. This has made me wonder if Iona wasn’t running a school for princes and other nobles. There is one other possible example. Stephan of Ripon seems to indicate in his Life of Bishop Wilfrid that Bishop Wilfrid traveled with a retinue of young nobles who were being educated under his eye but who were not necessarily bound for the church. As kingdoms became complicated enough to need nobles who knew more than war, the church was ideally suited to educate them in basic reading, writing, math, basic theology, etc. In the church’s favor, these young noble men would grow into the nobles of the future who became civilized and pious men, who respected abbots and bishops, and understood the needs of the church (and its politics).

This would be true in Ireland as well as England and on the continent. Recall that exiled prince Dagobert had also been sent to an Irish monastery while in exile. Its also quite possible that pious King Sigebert of East Anglia had spent part of his exile in Burgundy in a monastery, perhaps associated with Bishop Felix. We might even suspect that Oswald and Oswiu had spent time on Iona while in exile among the Scots a generation earlier. Oswiu in particular since he was only about 4 years old when his father Æhtelfrith died, and this could explain how he met Aldfrith’s mother, Fin sister of Finnan (his future bishop). A child raised in the monastic system would have gotten to know male and female members of the monastic system and their families but lets get back to firmer ground a generation later with Aldhelm and friends.

If Aldhelm was on Iona in the 660s, as Lapidge postulates, then it was before Adomnan was abbot. He didn’t become abbot until 679. Cummene Find (d. 669) would have been the likely abbot when Aldhelm was there in the 660s. We know that Cummene Find was involved in scholarly activity. He was the first person to collect and write down miracles of St Columba. Cummene’s successor Failbe (669-679) had been on Iona since at least the time of King Oswald, so may have been there since he entered the church. We know that Failbe had a good and perhaps long relationship with Adomnan (abbot 679-704). Failbe would have also probably been well known to both Aldhelm and Aldfrith. Lapidge argues that Adomnan was a teacher of Virgil while Aldhelm was there and, if so, then Adomnan had been on Iona for many years before he became abbot.

How did Aldhelm make his way to an Irish house first rather than Canterbury? First, Malmesbury is named for an Irish abbot named Maildub and William of Malmesbury claims that Aldhelm was educated by Maildub (Yorke). It seems likely that Maildub may have been an abbot of an original monastery or a hermit who began Aldhelm’s education and then forwarded him to Iona for more complete training. Prior to 664, Iona was the mother house for most of England. Iona would be preferable to Whitby or Lindisfarne in Northumbria as the Irish would be more neutral territory than another English kingdom. We also know that Aldhelm was eventually educated in Canterbury also. Wessex was keeping its usual position of maintaining good contacts with both Ireland and Canterbury. Perhaps as importantly, Wessex was retaining good contacts with Northumbria who until 664 saw Iona as its mother house. We know that King Cenwealh, Aldhelm’s uncle was on good terms with Aldfrith’s half brother Alchfrith, son of Oswiu and Cenwealh’s successor Centwine, Aldhelm’s father, married a sister of King Ecgfirth’s second wife Irminburgh, though this was long after Aldhelm’s time on Iona.

We know that Aldhelm wrote King Geraint of Dumnonia shortly after the Council of Hertford in 672, so he was home in Wessex by then. We should also remember that Aldhelm was the godfather or confirmation sponsor of Aldfrith son of Oswiu. It makes the most sense that he had been Aldfrith’s confirmation sponsor while they were both studying on Iona. On the other hand, Yorke postulates that Aldhelm was indeed Aldfrith’s godfather in a conditional rebaptism that would have made him acceptable to Rome. If this is the case, then it probably would have occurred in northern Ireland, perhaps within the circle of the Englishman Ecgberht (who would send Willibrord to Frisia in the 670s and convert Iona to Rome in c. 719). We also have to wonder where among the Irish that Bishop , later bishop of Paris and one of Bishop Wilfird’s mentors.

Study at places like Iona would have been ideal meeting grounds for young nobles who were keeping their options open between the church and royal duties. Aldhelm was the nephew of the sonless King Cenwealh of Wessex and therefore a prospect for the throne. His father eventually did become a short reigning king in his old age. Regardless, Aldhelm seems to have thought that his chances were best in the church, possibly protecting family lands as an abbot. Cenwealh is bound to have had many nephews and cousins who could have made succession very messy indeed.

We know that Aldfrith spent a considerable amount of time on Iona. Bede tells us he was there when his brother Ecgfrith was killed by Pictish king Bridei son of Beli. We know that Abbot Adomnan considered both Aldfrith and King Bridei of Pictland to be his friends. It is quite possible that Bridei, another multi-ethnic prince, could have spent time on Iona as well. Bridei is the son of the British king of Strathclyde, became a Pictish king and yet was a cousin of King Ecgfrith, so he was part British, Pictish and even English.  While matrilines did not give them rights under the law, those ties would be exploited whenever they could use them. Another possible candidate for the prince’s school is Nechtan mac Derlei, the Pictish philosopher king about a generation after Aldfrith and Adomnan.

As Iona became more and more isolated over their stance over the date of Easter and Roman authority, the school of Iona would have become politically unusable to the royal families in Britain and even Ireland. Further as the churches in respective kingdoms developed each would have developed schools for training nobles. York and Canterbury each hosted a famous school, though we don’t have records of nobles attending theses schools. It is likely though that each major kingdom: Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex would have a favored monastic school or schools to send their young nobles and this could have changed with the personality and interests of the abbots or bishops. Bishop Wilfrid and Abbot Adomnan were surely not the only abbots/bishops intersted in training the nobility.


Michael Lapidge. (2007). The career of Aldhelm. Anglo-Saxon England. p. 15-69.

Barbara Yorke (1994) Wessex in the Early Middle Ages.