Berht of Dunbar?

Dunbar fortress at its height before it was intentionally dismantled.

Dunbar fortress at its height c.1400 before it was intentionally dismantled. Painting of Dunbar castle from the Marie Stuart Society Website.

I was reading Tim Clarkson’s The Picts: A History (2008) last week and I came across the following:

The sources credit him [Cinead mac Alpin] with six campaigns in Northumbria, during which he seized the coastal fortress of Dunbar and burned the monastery of Old Melrose on the River Tweed. Dunbar was an important stronghold of the hereditary guardians of Northumbria’s Pictish frontier. Among the family’s renowned ancestors was the warlord Berht — who led Ecgfrith’s ill-fated attack on Ireland in 684 — as well as other key figures in the Anglo-Pictish wars of the the late seventh and early eighth century. Cinead’s capture of Dunbar was of great symbolic importance for his Pictish subjects in the troubled border zone around the Firth of Forth. Not since the mighty victory at Dunnichen in 685 had an army from the old Pictish heartland inflicted so much damage upon the English. (p. 162)

I know Cinead is probably most people’s focus in this passage, but my interest is in Ealdorman/Duke Berht who also led the ill fated Northumbrian campaign into Pictland that ended at Dunnichen. Do we really know that Dunbar was the base of the hereditary guardians of the Northumbrian frontier?

Just a review of Berht’s claims to fame. First to attach this family to the Pictish frontier, Bede mentions two Berhts leading Northumbrian troops against the Picts in his chronilogical summary: Berhtred is killed by the Picts in 698 and Berhtfrith fought the Picts in 711. Both references suggest that Berhtred and Berhtfrith were leaders of the Northumbrian army and therefore, second only to the king. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid specifically calls Berhtfrith second only to the king. There is a Berctred listed in the Durham Liber Vitae immediately before Altfrid who is almost certainly King Aldfrith, exactly where he should be. There is no Berhtfrith listed but Eadwulf is, and as Eadwulf was Berhtfrith’s enemy in the succession of the child king Osred, which may explain why Berhtfirth isn’t listed.  We know that Berhtfrith was allied with Bishop Wilfrid, which may have also caused him to be left off of Lindisfarne’s Liber Vitae. It has been hypothesized that Berhtred and Berhtfrith were father and son, although of course they could be brothers or other kinsmen.

There are three specific traditions of these Berhts. First and foremost, a duke Berht (presumably Berhtred) led King Ecgfrith’s forces in an invasion of the Brega region of Ireland carrying off many hostages, at least several boat loads full. Adomnan brought back hostages from two trips to Northumbria and we don’t know that he got them all. Over years that it took Adomnan to negotiate the release of his hostages, it is likely that some had died and others were integrated into the monasteries of Northumbria and did not want to leave. Given Berht’s prominence in this successful invasion, it is almost certain that he was with Ecgfrith at the battle of Dunnichen against the Picts in the very next year. This also means that Berhtred may have been present when King Bridei took Ecgfrith’s body to Iona for burial, where Ecgfrith’s half-brother Aldfrith was waiting with Abbot Adomnan. If he was second only to the king and was apparently effective during Aldfrith’s reign, he must have supported Aldfrith and indeed, his support may have been vital for the succession of Ecgfrith’s half-Irish brother who had been gone from Northumbria for so long. His role as the Norhtumbrian king’s warlord appears to have been maintained judging by his death in battle against the Picts in 698, the middle of Aldfrith’s reign.

It is probably not a coincidence that Duke Berhtfrith was the critical figure supporting Aldfrith’s eight year old son Osred for the throne in 705 against Eadwulf who initially succeeded for three months. According to Duke Berhtfrith’s account of Eadwulf’s seige of Bamburgh in early 705 at the synod of Nidd, he was both young Osred’s protector and chief supporter for the throne against Eadwulf and credited their success to God’s support for Bishop Wilfrid who they vowed they would support if they were successful. Berhtfrith’s support for the boy may also reflect his families reliance on the descendents of Oswiu for their power. I do have to wonder if we don’t have a royal princess somewhere among the maternal ancestors of the Berhts (perhaps a daughter of Oswald or Oswiu, or Aebbe’s husband?). Berhtfirht is last heard from in a record of a Pictish battle in 711, the middle of Osred’s reign. It is likely that he was gone from the scene before young Osred takes power on his own and ultimately dies at the hands of his men in 716. I tend to think of Berhtfrith as being like a Mayor of the Palace. Like so many young Frankish kings, Osred didn’t survive coming in to his majority for long dying at age 18. Any survivors of Berhtfrith’s family were probably invovled in the political chaos that followed Osred’s death and may have seen some support in Osred’s reputed brother Osric. Ironically, the throne eventually passed to Eadwulf’s lineage in his cousins Cenred and Coelwulf.

Had Bede not written the Historia in the reign of King Coelwulf, we might know much more about these powerful dukes, but with their rivals in power Bede barely mentions them. Their inclusion in the chronilogical summary suggests that were was much more known about them somewhere in Bede’s sources. He either excised material about them, leaving the summary entries or they were in one of his chronical sources and got copied into the summary. While the latter may be true, I suspect Bede picked his entries in the chronilogical summary more carefully. Given that King Coelwulf had been deposed earlier in the year that Bede finished the Historia, Bede may initially included more on the Berhts only to later excise almost all contemporary information.

So coming back to Dunbar, it is mentioned only once that I know of in Bede’s time. It is the site of another miracle of Bishop Wilfrid. King Ecgfrith sends Wilfrid to Dunbar to be imprisoned in its dungon by its sheriff Tydlin. Whether Tydlin is the highest ranking official in Dunbar or not is unknown but it seems likely. Tydlin’s failure to imprison Wilfrid may have led to his loss of Dunbar and it being turned over to Berhtred, but then again Berhtred is higher up the food chain than a sheriff, so this makes me wonder how high status Dunbar was in the 680s. It makes sense for Dunbar to eventually become the seat of the march warden but was it all the way back to Berhtred’s time?

The real question though is if not Dunbar, then where would Berhtred’s fortress have been? Surely such a warlord would have controlled a hillfort, given the Northumbrian’s fondness for British style hillforts. Edenburgh is possible, but like Stirling it may have been far too close to the border. Tim may be right that after the battle of Dunnichen in 685, Dunbar may have been the fortress of the frontier guardian. It is interesting that Cinead also hit Old Melrose in the same campaign that ravaged Dunbar. Given the importance of Old Melrose to Northumbria, it is likely that there was protection nearby. Edenburgh keeps coming to mind as Berht’s fortress though maybe because I can’t imagine that it was sitting empty. It is likely that Berht’s fortress would have been on the coast though given that the sea-road was still dominate (as seen in all Northumbrian hillforts — Bamurgh, Dunbar, Edenburgh, Stirling…). Although old Roman fortresses that were particularly prominent in Northumbria  along both walls and inland as well, but the English haven’t been particularly associated with any of them. Dunbar may have been the best compromise position for a march warden who was as heavily involved in the politics of the kingdom as the Berhts. Dunbar was close enough to the Firth of Forth to keep tabs on the Picts and respond, while closer by sea to Bamburgh. Dunbar also has the added advantage of being an ideal spot to monitor naval activity along the coast.

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