FF: Ida Great Knee and Bearnoch

Continuing to flesh out the folklore ancestry of St Oswald from the Bonedd y Sant discussed last Friday takes us to his great grandfather Ida Great Knee. The Welsh author got him in the right generation, but made him the son of his brother and omits his father. Regardless, Ida was St. Oswald’s great grandfather and considered by Bede to be the founder of the Bernician royal dynasty, sometimes called the Idlings. Ida’s epithet does strangely refer to his role as a dynastic founder. The knee is considered to be symbolic of fertility and so great knee refers to great fertility, presumably refers to many children sitting on his knee. It might refer to a ceremony when kings in particular acknowledged paternity of their children. The Historia Brittonum (c 825) credits Ida with twelve sons, six by his queen Bearnoch and six by others.

Bearnoch is an interesting figure. She is only mentioned in the Historia Brittonum, where she is specifically called Ida’s queen and listed as the mother of six (out of twelve) of his sons. David Dumville and others seem confident that the figure Beornec, higher up in the pedigree, represents the land of Bernicia. If so, I see no reason why Bearnoch can’t be the feminine form of the same name. A woman representing the land, Bernicia, who is the mother of children of the dynastic founder might be the tiniest trace of the loathly lady motif. Ida’s relationship with a woman representing sovereignty over the land gives him the right to rule that land. Significantly, it also gives the descendants of her sons symbolic rights that the others would lack. There is reason to believe that the pedigree in the Historia Brittonum was constructed to support a man of otherwise unknown history at the end of the Bernician-Deiran pedigree section. He claimed descent from Ecgfrith son of Oswiu, which brings up all kinds of questions that will have to wait for another day.

The Bernician pedigree in the Historia Brittonum stands out as just plain odd primarily because it lists three sets of brothers and four queens. The four queens are Bearnoch (Ida’s queen), Bebba (Æthelfrith’s queen), and both of Oswiu’s queens, Rhienmellt and Eanflaed. This is the last generation and explains how the Bernician and Deiran genealogies fused to form a single Northumbrian genealogy. Oswiu’s queens are there for dynastic purposes. Bebba is listed because Bamburgh is named after her. (Bebba was the person of the week a while ago.) If I am correct, then Bearnoch gives them sovereignty over the land.

The three sets of brothers are also significant. Oswiu’s sons are the last of the pedigree. Up to c. 716, it was the Æthelfrithings were the royal family. The seven sons of Æthelfrith are were the essential kinship ties that defined the noble class. When Æthelfrith’s dynasty fails, by either lack of heirs or is edged out by their rivals, then a new dynastic founder is needed and it must be further back in history. Ida becomes that founder to whom all the various noble families claim linkage to justify their claims to the throne or even just to maintain their holdings. The fiction is needed because the tradition of a royal bloodline was so very strong. I think they probably also recognized that the royal bloodline (even if fictional) was necessary to limit the number of contenders for the throne. Otherwise English society would be a risk to devolving into a large number of feuding warlords where the kingdom was once again based on the military power of a single person as it was in the fifth to seventh century. The Æthelfrithings became the royal family because they were the first who were able to pass their areas of direct rule and hegemony between brothers and sons.

Ida’s twelve sons are symbolically greater than Æthelfriht’s seven sons. Seven usually represents completeness, the basis for the seven day week of creation. The twelve sons of Ida represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples. This scheme probably didn’t come into being until the eighth century, not long after Bede cast the Northumbria as an English Israel. If Bede cast Æthelfrith as Saul, then Ida becomes Jacob. [Incidently, Oswiu is given three sons : Alchfrith, Ecgfrith and Æfwine, slighting the long reigning but possible bastard Aldfrith. Three is of course also a symbolic number.]

Ida is remembered as more than just the dynastic founder. He is credited as the first Bernican king. Bede dates the beginning of his twelve year reign to the year 547. Unfortunately, Bede doesn’t tell us any more about Ida, mentioning him only in the summary chronicle in the Ecclesiastical History. The Historia Brittonum adds that Ida added Bamburgh (called by its British name) to Bernicia and may list a British warlord named Outigern as the opponent of the English in Ida’s time. Outigern is otherwise unknown and really can’t be intended as Vortigern. (In Old Welsh the names are more distinctive.) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle repeats the same pedigree as the Historia Brittonum and claims that Ida’s first built Bamburgh with a hedge and later a wall. This last part is complete fiction as Bamburgh was a British fortress before it was captured by the English. In fact as far as I know, the Bernicians were the only Anglo-Saxons to inhabit an hill fort in the sixth to seventh century. The English usually left British hillforts in captured territory abandoned. According to the Historia Brittonum, Ida was succeeded by three of his sons in succession: Adda, Æthelric (father of Æthelfrith) and Theodoric. One of these sons is probably the figure known in British poetry only as “the flamebearer”.

Interestingly, Ida Great Knee is also mentioned in the Welsh Triads. In triad 30, it is Ida who kills Gwrgi and Peredur sons of Eliffer of the Great Retinue when their retinue abandons them on the eve of battle at Caer Greu. The Annals Cambriae date their deaths to 580. As Bartrum notes, this does not fit with the reigns of Ida (d. 559) or his son Adda (d. 568). Peredur and Gwrgi were also reputed to have fought in the battle of Arderydd in the 573. Although these two dates seem reasonable, the pair may not be correctly placed in the annals.

The Historia Brittonum also gives the epithet Great Knee to Eata father of King Eadbert and Archbishop Egbert. This is probably a mistake due to the similarity between the names Ida and Eata, but it could also be because Eata was the father of both a long reigning king and the first Archbishop of York. Therefore his sons had a monopoly on secular and ecclesiastical power for about 20 years.


PC Bartrum, ed and trans. 1966. Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

PC Bartrum, 1993. A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about AD 1000. National Library of Wales.

4 thoughts on “FF: Ida Great Knee and Bearnoch

  1. I’ve often wondered which Bernician king is most likely to be the ‘Flamebearer’. Could there be a possible clue in the alliteration of names? The Britons gave Aethelfrith the nickname ‘Flesaurs’ (‘Twister’). Maybe they had previously given his father Aethelric the nickname ‘Flamdwyn’. This would produce alliteration of Aethel-/Fl- across two generations. Or maybe the Flamebearer was Theodoric’s alleged successor Freodwald whose name alliterates nicely with Flamdwyn.

  2. Yes, Taliesin says Owain slew Flamdwyn in a battle, so if it was Aethelric then the battle happened in c.572 if we accept the HB reign lengths as a chronology.

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