PW: Queen Bebba of Bebbanburg

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.

8 thoughts on “PW: Queen Bebba of Bebbanburg

  1. The surname Bebb turns up in mid Wales from about 1550. From this time it scarcely exists in this form outside of mid Wales (Montgomeryshire and Shropshire), but in the earliest reference I have its owner describes himself as English.
    It would appear from various sources to have a Saxon root (Bebbanburgh/Northumbria; Bebington (Cheshire/Mercia) and Bebbingminster (Beaminster) in Dorset.
    But there is a vacuum between the seventh century and the sixteenth. Did Bebba’s descendants keep the name, or is there another source?


  2. Bebba’s importance seems to be overlooked most of the time. She certainly deserves to be brought out of the shadows to receive a bit of scholarly attention. Reading this post again today, Michelle, I started musing on your theory of Bebba residing at Bamburgh after 634 and being a queen mother there after 642 (and hence giving her name to the fortress). That got me wondering if maybe she didn’t go into exile in 617 but simply stayed put in the old palace at Din Guairoi, as a kind of stubborn relic of Aethelfrith’s reign. Perhaps she was of Deiran stock, like Acha, and in no immediate danger from Edwin? Or maybe she just told Edwin to shove off? If she never moved out of Din Guairoi during Edwin’s reign, but just carried on living there while he held court 16 miles away at Yeavering, her old royal abode might have become known as ‘Bebba’s Fort’ because she was its most senior resident – a dowager queen who ruled the roost for seventeen years until her sons returned from exile.

    1. I think she was Mercian. Her name fits in well with the pre-Penda levels of the Mercian pedigree. If she was Acha’s rival then I don’t know how she could stay within Edwins reach. Perhaps treatment of Bebba played a role in the Mercian ‘rebellion’ against Edwin.

      PS: Nice new avatar. 🙂

  3. I guess it depends on her relationship with Acha. Even though they were both married to Aethelfrith they might have been friends (or friendly rivals for his affection and patronage). I was unaware of a possible Mercian link, which does put an interesting slant on things.

    I’m glad you like the avatar. I figured it was high time to upload one of my own making, instead of relying on those auto-generated ones.

  4. Interesting article and discussion, The whole situation with Acha and Bebba is confusing. I have certainly read accounts and books which assume that Bebba was the FIRST of Aethelfrith’s Queens and Acha the second.
    But I have been finding articles that suggest the other way around.

    I wondered upon what you base the assumption that Aethelfrith married Bebba later in his reign?

    WE know that Acha married Aethelfrith either JUST before or just after the conquest/ absorption of Deira by Bernicia. IE it is possible it was an alliance forged by marriage and then Aethelfrith takes over either by aggression or because Aethelric of Deira died. OR Aethelfrith invades and forces Acha to marry by way of authenticating his assumption of power. What ever happened that all occurs circa 603 to 604.
    Oswald is born about 604 to 605.

    So the chronology of all that is “fairly” clear.

    What is much vaguer is the timing of the marriage to Bebba.
    That marriage produced one child – Eanfrith who, after Edwin’s death briefly seizes power in Bernicia and died in battle before Heavenfield.

    Do you think people assume that because Eanfrith became king BEFORE Oswald that that made him older and so Bebba must be the first Queen. Is that the logic?

    Trying to get a better understanding of whatever evidence there is for the order of these marriages. Can you shed a light?

    1. We know that Æthelfrith married Acha before 604 but we don’t know how much earlier. I think it is likely that he had married her years earlier.

      Bede tells us that Eanfrith was the eldest son.

      I believe that Bebbe was the mother of Oswiu and his uterine sister Æbbe. For her name to remain attached to the fortress I think her son had to be a major king from there. She can not have been Oswald’s mother because we know he was Acha’s son.

  5. Sorry for a very late comment.
    Having read this and doing research on this period, I wondered if you thought the consanguinity problem of Edwin and Acha and therefore if Oswy and Elanafled if Acha was his mother. Basically it would have prevented the marriage or at least made it difficult. After all Elanfled was of the Roman persuasion. Consanguinity was a straight take from Roman law and therefore in play at that point. Certainly Bede would have known about it and the fact that he doesn’t mention a dispensation implies that that particular kinship did not exist.
    Was there a third unnamed queen (ie Acha the second one? and then Bebba) given Aethelfirth’s age and the problem of Eanfirth being the eldest.

  6. As I understand it, Oswiu went into exile with Oswald in Dalriada after his fathers death with the other “Os-” sons of Aethelfrith. Eanfrith, on the other hand, went into exile in Pictland, and indeed his son Talorgen would later become king of the Picts. It seems likely to me that Oswald and Oswiu were full brothers, and along with the other Iona exiles were the children of Acha of Diera. Eanfrith on the other hand had Pictish contacts, and it must be a real possibility that his mother Bebba was a Pict, possibly a sister of King Nechtan. Certainly the name Bebba isn’t Anglo-Saxon. Perhaps the marriage of Bebba to Aethelfrith around 590 was an attempt by the Picts of Fortriu to buy peace with the expansionist Bernicians. After Aethelfrith annexed Diera around 603, he married Acha Yffing and fathered Oswald. After this point, the focus of his reign shifted to the south, as he pursued his Dieran rivals Hereric and Edwin, and presumably took up residence in the York area. Perhaps he left his first wife Bebba, and her son, in the north to govern Bernicia from Dunguardi. Henceforth, Dunguardi became known as Bebba’s fort or Bebbanburh. One imagines that after the Battle of the River Idle, she fled to her native Pictland with Eanfrith. Whether she ever returned to Bebbanburh isn’t recorded but I think it unlikely, as her descendants might have been seen as rivals to those of Acha.

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