LKM: Deira

Its not too difficult to do little known kingdoms. Its possible to seem comprehensive when you don’t have a lot of information. I could keep to those practically forgotten kingdoms, but I think a regional approach is more fair. So there is no dancing around it, Deira is one of the two giants of the Humbrian region. I suspect that in the beginning, as Rome pulled out of Britain and new Germanic immigrants arrived, Deira was the dominant region. Deira is essentially a more controllable portion of the land controlled by the Roman colony and province campital Ebrauc /York.

According to British poetry and legend, the city state of Ebrauc was controlled by a Romano-British warlord called Eliffer of the Great Retinue. We really know nothing about him except his epithet — well, it would take a large retinue to man the fortress at York, wouldn’t it? — and that he was the father of Peredur Steel Arms and Gwrgi who were opponents of both Gwenddolau (Mryddin’s lord at the battle of Arthuret) and Ida of Bernicia. Eliffer’s wife was the sister of Urien Rheged and his grandson Gwrgant Gwron (Hero) was one of the lords who lost the lands he had a right to. Now, if there is even a hint of truth that Eliffer’s sons died fighting Ida of Bernicia who died in the 540s, it only one generation until we have our first recorded Anglican king of Deira, Aelle who is said to have begun his reign in about 569. A big problem here is that Peredur and Gwrgi are said to have taken part in the battle of Arfderydd in 573 (AC) and are among those who descend upon Urien Rheged’s sons after his death in the 570s. Obviously this is rather mixed up…but it suggests that Eliffer’s family fought the early English. We also have to keep in mind that we can’t take Aelle’s 30 years too seriously either; 30 years is another way of saying that he ruled for a generation (or more). It is interesting that their opponents are Bernicians (and mostly other Britons). John Koch has suggested that the English of Deira were allied with the Britons, Urien specifically.

What is most interesting here though is that Eliffer, his sons Peredur and Gwrgi, and grandson Gwrgant are all listed in the sixth century when the transition to English rule occurred. Makes me wonder if Eliffer’s Great Retinue could have included English federates. The deaths of Eliffer’s sons when their retinue abandoned them in a battle with the English (Welsh traids) could mark the struggles for power between the Romano-British elites and the English soldiers, but that is purely speculative. The Welsh Triads claim that they were fighting Ida of Bernicia really doesn’t match their other literary opponents, so Ida may be standing in for his dynasty. It’s a natural part of the mythmaking process for a dynastic founder to stand in for unspecified or less known members of his dynasty.

Of this dynasty Peredur survives as a literary hero, becoming incorporated in a late section of Y Gododdin and the Arthurian story, particularly in the Mabinogion story Peredur son of Efrawg. Efrawg is the Romano-British name for York. His use in Peredur son of Efrawg is probably only because of the similarity of his name to Perceval. Peredur Steel-Arm survives in Welsh poetry as one of the many heroes who names are dropped in poetry. It seems likely that there were once more stories about him and his family, as the triads also suggest. There is no doubt that he was a prominent hero in the stories of the battle of Arthuret which his alliance won and where Mryddin went mad.

With the passing of Eliffer’s dynasty, Yorkshire was left open for the English. The Deiran genealogy in the Historia Brittonum claims that they had been in Britain for at least five generations before Ælle. His fifth ancestor Soemil ‘first separated Deira from Bernicia’ (Historia Brittonum), what ever that means. The name Deira probably derives from the British word for waters, Deifr, and we know that the main population center for the English at Goodmanham was closer to the marshy areas of the Humber. Further, the upper reaches of the Derian royal genealogy seems to have more sea-related names like Seawulf (Zegulf) and Soemil is the British form of a name that may incorporate Sea-, maybe Seamael? or Seamall? If they were primarily located east of York, then they were in a triangle of land surrounded on two sides by the Humber estuary and North Sea.

Kings of Deira

  1. Aelle son of Yffi son of Usfrea, King of Deira c. 597 (30 years, reputed to be 569 to 599): It is possible that Ælle’s reign began during the time of Peredur and Gwrgi and that one of Ælle’s big advances was to incorporate York’s territory into the English kingdom but still didn’t inhabit York. Gaining York’s hegemony may have given Ælle some control over Elmet, Craven and Lindsey. Deira’s territory is believed to have extended all the way to the River Tyne with north of the Tees being a dangerous frontier zone. It is likely that Deira would have relied on a mixture of English and British warlords to hold the territory. It held the entire eastern half of the former Roman province making it the northern prize. Although its long western flank looks exposed, it was butted up against the mountains that would have meant that controlling a few mountain passes like Catterick would have controlled the flank from large forces. The fact that Catterick is such a critical place for Deiran security and also is the likely site of the battle of Catraeth is significant.
  2. Aethelric (5 years, reputed to be 599-604): We don’t know how Æthelric was related to Ælle but it seems mostly likely that he was Ælle’s son and the father of Ælle’s grandson Hereric, father of St. Hild. It is clear that Ælle had older children and that Edwin and Acha were younger children probably of a second wife. Edwin and his nephew Hereric were very close in age. His short reign probably means that he was killed by Æthelfrith. He may have married his probable sister Acha to Æthelfrith in an earlier attempt to make peace between the kingdoms.
  3. Æthelfrith of Bernicia rules Deira c. 604-616: There have been many guesses how Æthelfrith took Deira but it was almost certainly by conquest. This has been muddled because his father was named Æthelric and from an early date he was confused with Æthelric of Deira, and because his wife was Acha daughter of Ælle of Deira. There is no reason to think that Æthelfrith came to the throne in any way other than conquest and he spent most of the rest of his time hunting the Deiran princes Hereric and Edwin (and probably others).
  4. Edwin son of Aelle 616-633: The most successful Deiran king in the historical record. He extended his direct rule over Bernicia, Lindsey and Elmet and his hegemony over the rest of the former Roman Britain territory. He was the first to move the capital of Deira to York, and only then under the influence of Bishop Paulinus. As far as we know, he made no attempt to control beyond the Antonine wall and perhaps didn’t care to. He clearly liked to take on the mantle of Rome perhaps encouraged by Bishop Paulinus of York, who accompanied his second wife Ætehlburgh to their marriage in c. 625. Bishop Paulinus began the evangelization of Northumbria. Bishop Paulinus and King Edwin baptized hundreds if not thousands and built many churches, but no monasteries. It seems that Bishop Paulinus preferred to be a metropolitan bishop without monastic ties. Edwin faced continual rebellions most prominently led by Cadwallon of Gwynedd, who he drove into exile at least once. Cadwallon spent his exile in Ireland and returned to lead an alliance, who second most important member was an English noble named Penda of Mercia. After a long campaign they managed to kill Edwin and his eldest son at Hatfield Chase in October 633. Edwin’s second son was captured by Penda of Mercia who later executed him. Edwin’s infant son Usfrea and his grandson Yffi were sent to Dagobert of Gaul where they died of disease. His daughter Eanflaed, who had been the first Deiran to be baptized, was his only child to live a long life. She married Oswiu of Bernicia and two of her sons became kings over Deira. Edwin’s remains where moved to Whitby by his daughter Eanflaed or granddaughter Ælfflaed about 50 years after his death.
  5. Osric son of Aelfric brother of Aelle 633: Immediately after Edwin’s death his first cousin Osric appears to have been chosen to lead the resistance against Cadwallon who was pillaging Deira. Cadwallon chose to spend the winter in the North and Osric attempted to lay seige to the fortified city (perhaps Leeds? or Catterick?) where Cadwallon was but Cadwallon sallied forth and destroyed the Derians. Osric’s reign lasted less than a year.
  6. Cadwallon of Gwynedd 633-634: According to Bede, Cadwallon occupied Deira for a full year before he was killed by Oswald at Denisesburn in the next summer or fall. He would have been viewed as an occupier, though its uncertain how differently the peasants may have viewed him. It is known that he pillaged what he could find and burned what churches Edwin had built. Sometime before his death in the summer of 634, Cadwallon executed Eanfrith of Bernicia who had returned from exile and retaken his homeland of Bernicia. Eanfrith reputedly came to sue for peace and Cadwallon executed him. There is some suggestion in the Irish annals that Eanfrith’s request for peace may have come after a battle, which would make more sense of his execution.
  7. Oswald son of Aethelfrith and Acha daughter of Aelle 634-642: After Oswald killed Cadwallon he seems to have been genuinely accepted as king of Bernicia and Deira in ways that neither Æthelfrith in Deira or Edwin in Bernicia probably were. Unlike either of them, he did have a blood tie to both royal dynasties as his mother was the sister of Edwin. Under normal circumstances distaff links would not qualify him for the Deiran throne, but these were not normal times. Two members of the Deira royal dynasty had been killed in the previous year, Edwin appears to have no other available heirs (Eadfrith in Penda’s ‘care’ and the others children), and Osric had been such a disaster his sons seem to have fled and been out of favor. Under these circumstances, Oswald who had managed to get vengeance for his uncle, was successful. There is some suggestion in Bede that Oswald made a lot of out his kinship with his uncle Edwin. Oswald’s eventual completion of York cathedral and its enshrinement of Edwin’s head was almost certainly part of his efforts to show himself as Edwin’s heir. After Oswald’s death on 5 August 642, there are no Deiran kings listed for the next two years. It seems that either Oswald’s slayer Penda took control of Deira or his successor Oswiu managed to keep Deira for two years.
  8. Oswine son of Osric 644-651 Two years after Oswald’s death, his second cousin Oswine son of Osric came to the throne, probably with the help or at least approval of Penda of Mercia. It seems likely that he went into exile during Oswald’s reign. Its not sure who protected him. Where ever he was, he accepted Aidan of Lindisfarne as his bishop rather than trying to import a bishop from where ever he was in exile. He also seems to have allowed Penda to travel through Deira to attack Bamburgh in Bernicia at least once before his death in 651. In the end, he backed out of a battle with Oswiu of Bernicia, was captured and executed. The monastery of Gilling was founded to pray for the souls of Oswiu and Oswine. Oswine’s death ended all hope for the desendents of males from the Deiran dynasty. Now only those with blood ties to Bernicia would be allowed.
  9. Œthelwald son of Oswald c. 651-655. Oswine was succeeded by Oswiu’s nephew Œthelwald son of Oswald. It is unclear if he was placed there by his uncle or was raised in opposition. All went well initially. He got along very well with churchmen from Lindisfarne, and gives Lastingham to Bishop Cedd to found a monastery. This would have given Cedd a place to stop over between his work in Essex and Lindisfarne. In the end, he cooperated with Penda of Mercia against his uncle Oswiu and although he did not take part in the battle of Winwæd, he is not heard from again.
  10. Alchfrith son of Oswiu son of Aethelfrith c. 655-c. 665 After the battle of Winwæd, Oswiu of Bernicia was at his height in control of Deira, Lindsey, Mercia and Middle Anglia. He rewarded his eldest son Alchfrith with the throne of Deira. In time, Alchfrith came to favor Roman rites. He was an early supporter of the Roman cause, Wilfrid to whom he gave the monastery of Ripon, and was one of those demanding the Synod of Whitby. After his cause won, he convinced his father to have Wilfrid made Bishop of York. While Wilfrid was gone he rebelled against his father and disappears from history. There is then about a 5 year gap in the rule of Deira and it is unclear if Oswiu rules it directly or places his other son Ecgfrith there.
  11. Ælfwine son of Oswiu c. 670-679. We actually don’t know when Ælfwine’s became king of Deira. he was only about 18 when he died in 679. If he did succeed to Deira in 670 he would have only been about 9 years old and the first child king (rather than his nephew Osred). He seems to have had a good life up to his last days. He had visited his sister Osthryth who was Queen of Mercia and apparently a favorite at court there and he had been in his brothers court (or perhaps his brother was in his) when Bishop Wilfrid of York was exiled. Æthelred of Mercia’s decision to attack along the Trent, probably the Mercian-Deiran border, in 679 to regain Lindsey may have been influenced by the youth of the king and probably most of his retainers. It is unclear if Ecgfrith and his forces were there or not. Ælfwine’s death had nearly caused a major Northumbrian-Mercian war until Archbishop Theodore intervened and brokered the peace. I personally believe that the foundation of St. Oswald’s cult at Bardney was weregeld (formal or not) from King Æthelred to his wife Queen Osthryth. If he pays her brother King Ecgfrith it is likely she could demand something for her brother as well. Lastly, Ælfwine was probably buried at Whitby with his father and grandfather. He (and possibly his brother Alchfrith) are probably the other royals that Bede refers to as being buried with Oswiu and Edwin at Whitby.
  12. Ecgfrith son of Oswiu and Eanflaed daughter of Edwin unifies the country for the last time. With Ælfwine’s death Ecgfrith takes direct control of Deira and it never has its own king again. See Ecgfrith’s recent person of the week post for more on him. Ecgfrith’s successor was his half-Irish brother Aldfrith who had no Deiran blood but retained a unified kingdom.

Deiran Women

Deira is unusual in that we know as much or more about some of the Deiran women as any early kingdom. As important as kings Oswald and Ecgfrith were to uniting Northumbria, much of their claims came through their mothers Acha daughter of Ælle and Eanflaed daughter of Edwin. We don’t know much about Acha and we have to keep in mind that Æthelfrith would have almost certainly been polygamous, weakening the importance of individual wives during his reign. In a polygamous situation, most of their honor would have come as the mothers of their children. Eanflaed was a critically important queen who played a role in uniting Northumbria and a major role in calling the Synod of Whitby. She later retired to Whitby where she was co-abbess with her daughter Ælfflaed and was likely instrumental in establishing the family sepulcher in the church of Whitby where Edwin and Oswiu were both buried. Her daughters both played important roles in Northumbrian politics as Abbess of Whibty (Ælfflaed) and Queen of Mercia (Osthryth). Eanflaed’s cousin Hild was also a very critical player in the church of all England, not just Northumbria, and was a major ally of Archbishop Theodore, proving that those trained by Lindisfarne could have a good relationship with Canterbury very early after the Synod of Whitby.

Bishops of York

There is quite a bit known about the bishops of York as well. The first bishop was Paulinus of York who focused on rebuilding former Roman churches, particularly in York and Lincoln. He also built churches at or near royal palaces. He focused on baptizing but it is unclear how much teaching he did. There is no evidence that Paulinus was a monastic or established any monasteries for his church. This also has important implications for training clergy. Paulinus seems to be relying entirely on clergy supplied from Rome. With all that being said, the more we study Deira, the more we see of influence of Paulinus’ mission. After the death of Edwin, Paulinus fled to Kent with the wealth of the church, leaving behind only one deacon.

Thereafter Deira was primarily under the influence of Lindisfarne until the turn of the century. From c. 635-664, Deira was under the care of the Bishops of Lindisfarne until the synod of Whitby in 664. It was not until Archbishop Theodore arrived in 669 that the Romanist Wilfrid actually got control of the church of York that he had been consecrated for. His pro-Roman tenure only lasted about 9 years until he was expelled and the vast see of York divided into three dioceses. From then on the monastery of Whitby, Deria’s primary monastery, had been trained by Abbess Hild through the lifetime of her protege Ælfflaed and Wilfrid never regained York. Wilfird II was trained by John of Beverly, who was trained by Hilda. His deposition was probably political to allow the king’s brother Egbert to become Bishop of York, set to be the first Archbishop of York since Paulinus. By then, Deira had been merely a territorial unit within Northumbria that it can no longer be considered a kingdom. Indeed it would soon York will be controlled primarily by Archbishop separately from the rest of Deira.

The bishops of York were:

  1. Paulinus of York c. 626-633
  2. Bishops of Lindisfarne : Aidan, Finian, Colman, Tuda c. 635-664
  3. Chad c. 665-669
  4. Wilfrid of York c. 666, 669-678.
  5. Bosa of Whitby 679-705
  6. John of Beverly 705-718
  7. Wilfrid II 718-732
  8. Ecgbert, first Archbishop 735-766
  9. Lists of the Archbishops of York

Major Deiran monasteries

  • Tynemouth, pre-651: We know nothing of the details of Tynemouth except that it is the place were King Oswine was buried.
  • Hartlepool, 648-650: Given to Abbess Hild by Bishop Aidan before the death of King Oswine.
  • Gilling, 651: Founded to pray for the souls of King Oswine and King Oswiu. It was the family monastery for some of King Oswine’s family including Ceolfrith of Jarrow. It is quite likely that the church provided a safe space for Oswine’s male kin, who otherwise may have needed to go into exile.
  • Lastinhgam, c. 653: Given by King Œthelwald to Bishop Cedd to be Œthelwald’s family monastery where they would be buried.
  • Whitby, c. 658: Given by King Oswiu along with five other monasteries in Deira and six more in Bernicia in thanksgiving for victory over Penda of Mercia. It was also a better home for King Oswiu’s young daughter Ælfflaed who initially was given to Hild in 655 at Hartlepool. From the first exile of Bishop Wilfrid in 678 through the death of Abbess Ælfflaed in c. 714, Whitby managed to retain bishops of their own training and probably bishops friendly to them until at least 732.
  • Ripon, c. 660: Given by King Alchfrith to Abbot Eata of Melrose; he later took it away from Eata when he refused to convert to Roman rites and gave it to the young monk Wilfrid
  • Beverly, c. 710: Possibly the last major monastery founded by Bishop John of Beverly as his personal monastery where he retired to in 718. John of Beverly was a more popular saint that his biography might suggest.

Deiran Missionaries

The last topic I’m going to cover is the existence of specifically Deiran missionaries. There are only two who really stand out — Willibrord and his younger cousin Alcuin. Willibrord grew up in his father’s small monastery and went to Ripon at age 7. He was initially trained under Bishop Wilfrid but when Wilfrid was exiled, Willibrord seemed to seize his opportunity to join other Deirans/Northumbrians in Ireland. He remained there 12 years with St Egbert until he was sent to Frisia as a missionary. His mission was approved by the Pope who made him Archbishop of Utrecht. He is considered the Apostle to Frisia (Low Countries).

About a generation later, his younger cousin Alcuin who had been trained by Bishop Egbert of York was recruited to the court of Charlemagne’s court. Alcuin was brought in to personally oversee the remodeling of the educational system in Charlemagne’s kingdom. He was personally known to the king and most of the major church leaders. He became Abbot of Tours and wrote copiously. He wrote a prose and verse Life of Willibrord among many other things. It appears that Alcuin inherited the monastery of Willibrord’s father and the abbot of Willibrord’s major monastery Echternach was also another cousin. Alcuin was also the primary advocate of Bede’s work in Gaul and responsible for much of its popularity on the continent in later centuries.


Although the kingdom of Deira only existed for less than a century in the historic record, it left a lasting impression on Northern England and its heartland is mostly enshrined in the diocese of York and the Yorkshire counties (one county until the 1970s). The presence of four kings – Oswald and his son Œthelwald, Ælfwine and Ecgfrith – with blood ties to royal Deiran women allowed the kingdom to eventually be assimilated into the greater kingdom of Northumbria.

2 thoughts on “LKM: Deira

  1. I am intrigued and pleased to see here a first mention of the possible allied status between Ebrauc and Deira. Nearly everything I have read to date assumes adverserial relations between the two, from Soemil to Aelle. As someone who knows the area well, topographical and strategic logic would place the boundary between Deira and Ebrauc along the edge of wolds or the at R.Derwent. The Deiran palaces at Buttercrame, Bossal and Londesborough all straddle this possible border. You simply don’t put your royal family on the front line of a hostile border, there is no strategic logic in this at all unless this was a non-hostile border. there is no evidence of any significant earthworks or defensive structures on these lines that I am aware of, unlike the more obvious border between Elment and Ebrauc/Deira. Also interested to read the possible link between Elmetian involvement in the death of Urien. Does that explain then the survival of Elment under Athelfrith? It becomes more compelling to argue for a Deiran/Ebrauc alliance and an adverserial relationship between Deria and Bernicia. I’m thinking however whether that means hostility between Ebrauc and Elmet. Ebrauc with Urien, Elmet against? Any thoughts? Thanks for this page, couple of points here that made me think.

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