After working on the previous sister’s son post on Acha of Deira, I thought I would choose Æthelfrith’s other queen, Bebba, as my person of the week. Queen Bebba must have been quite a famous character in Bede’s time. He twice refers to the royal city as being named after “Queen Bebba” (Bebbanburg/Bamburgh) in his History (HE III:6, III:16). Unfortunately he doesn’t give us the story behind the placename.
The Historia Brittonum (ch. 63) fills in part of the story:
“Eadfered Flesaurs [Aethelfrith the Flexer] reigned twelve years in Bernicia, and twelve others in Deira, and gave to his wife Bebba, the town of Dynguoaroy, which from her is called Bebbanburg.”
So as the British heard the story in c.825, Bebba had been Æthelfrith’s wife. You might think that Æthelfrith was just a handy early major king to attach the legend to, and you could be right. But, the Historia Brittonum has other stories of how Ida captured Dynguoaroy, adding it to Bernicia, and his queen Bearnach (probably apocryphal) is listed in the genealogy along with her sons. The British and Irish consistently refer to Bamburgh as Dún Guaire (Irish) or Din-Guaïroï (Old Welsh), except for this one reference in the Historia Brittonum where the name change is recorded. It is clear that the name Bebbanburg was acceptable to the Æthelfrithings in that it stayed attached to their main royal fortress and still does.
Aethelfrith and his sons really made Bernicia into a kingdom. Prior to Aethelfrith, Bernicia was little more than an English outpost surrounded by Britons. It makes sense that Bebba was the queen of Aethelfrith and critically, I believe, for the name to have stuck on the fortress her son must have been a long and foundational king. Now, we know that Oswald’s mother was Acha of Deira, so it can’t be him. This really leaves us with King Oswiu, who reigned for 28 years. Oswiu is an ideal candidate for a son of Bebba who fixed her name to the fortress permanently. We know from the Anon. Life of Cuthbert that Æbbe was Oswiu’s uterine sister, so they shared the same mother. The similarity in the names Bebbe and Æbbe is striking. All the way back in 1938 Henry Bosley Woolf showed that Old English female names have a high probability of alliteration with their father’s name, and that is what we have here. Æbbe essentially has Bebba’s name modified to alliterate with Aethelfrith. We know that Oswiu was one of Aethelfrith’s youngest children; he was only 4 years old when Aethelfrith died in 616. I think it is highly likely that Æbbe was his daughter and probably even younger since she was still alive in the 680s. It is possible that she was the product of a second husband for Bebbe, but I think this is much less likely.
When Ætethelfrith was killed by Rædwald of East Anglia on the River Idle, his sons including Oswiu fled to Dalriada. It is likely that Bebbe went with her minor children. If Æthelfrith was polygamous, as is likely, then Bebbe and Acha of Deira would have been rivals. It would not have been safe for Bebbe’s children in a kingdom ruled or controlled by Acha’s brother, just as it wasn’t safe for Acha’s son Oswald near his uncle Edwin.
If Bebbe married Æthelfrith late in his reign, as I suspect, and was young, she might have returned to Northumbria in 634. Seventeen years in exile in a foreign land is a long time but not impossible. Her return to where she had been queen, now as queen mother after 642, might have helped establish her name permanently on the fortress. If she had returned, she would have been a potent reminder of Æthelfrith’s reign even more than his sons who had their own accomplishments and a new religion to promote.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, c. 731
Henry Bosley Woolf (1938) “The Naming of Women in Old English Times” Modern Philology 36(2): 113-120.