Ecgfrith’s Heir

During a fall when I’ve been too busy for blogging, I got a great medieval surprise in my snail mailbox. For the first time I can remember the Jarrow Lecture has been published in the year it was given! Kudos to Barbara Yorke! She gave a very interesting and thought provoking lecture. So thought provoking that I’ll divide my comments up into three or four posts. So without further ado, here is the citation:

Barbara Yorke. Rex Doctissimus: Bede and King Aldfrith of Northumbria, Jarrow Lecture 2009.

One of the more thought-provoking theories advanced by Yorke is that Cuthbert, then prior of Lindisfarne, arranged for the Aldfrith to be embraced as Ecgfrith’s heir  by Ecgfrith and the family for a year or so before his death. Yorke sees Cuthbert’s prophetic announcement to Abbess Ælfflaed that Ecgfrith would be succeeded by a brother that she should love as much this one as a hagiographic method of recording Cuthbert’s involvement.

Yorke notes that of all existing sources on Aldfrith only Bede questioned Aldfrith’s paternity, though she doesn’t doubt that he had an Irish mother. The Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, written in the last years of Aldfrith’s reign, implies that he is a brother to Ælfflaed equal to the first. Indeed, if only paternity counts in determining the royal family, than Aldfrith was Ecgfrith’s equal. In this sense, other writers may have seen Aldfrith as a rightful successor and as many have written before, it is likely that there had been many Anglo-Saxons kings before Aldfrith born from irregular unions or at least marriages not recognized by the church. Oddly though, Yorke believes that Aldfrith had never been to Northumbria or been officially declared by Oswiu making his succession more difficult. She believes that if Symeon of Durham is correct, that Ecgfrith was buried on Iona, that his personal retinue knew that Ecgfrith’s heir was on Iona and fetched him. Aldfrith returning at the head of Ecgfrith’s personal retinue would have been the best argument, along with Bishop Cuthbert’s support, for Aldfrith being accepted as king.

She sees Cuthbert’s rise to the episcopate and his ability to demand Lindisfarne as his see, forcing his mentor elderly Bishop Eata to relocate to Hexham, was due to his assistance in this matter. Yorke notes that to make Cuthbert a bishop, King Ecgfrith had to depose Bishop Tunbert of Hexham (cousin to Abbot Coelfrith of Jarrow).  King Ecgfrith managed to have three Northumbrian bishops who were friendly with the Irish in the year after his invades Ireland – Eata at Hexham, Cuthbert at Lindisfarne and Bosa at York. She believes that Wearmouth-Jarrow may have opposed all of these changes beginning with Tunbert’s removal through Aldfrith’s succession. She notes that Bede’s slurs on Aldfrith’s parentage would be typical if the monastery opposed succession. Of course, it should be noted that Ecgfrith was at Jarrow personally planning the church there after Cuthbert’s consecration, only weeks before his death. So what ever Ecgfrith’s reasons for deposing Tunbert, he was at the same time endowing a new monastery for Tunbert’s cousin Abbot Coelfrith.

As for Cuthbert being a protector of Ecgfrith’s family, it may not be a coincidence that Bede records that Bishop Cuthbert was with Queen Iurminberg when news of Ecgfrith’s death reaches her and she follows Cuthbert’s directions to seek sanctuary in a monastery. Cuthbert is portrayed again as her protector, Ecgfrith’s family’s protector. Was Cuthbert promoted to bishop to protect Ecgfrith’s family, his wife, his mother and sister, and perhaps most of all his son? Yes, possibly his very young son. If Oslac son of Ecgfrith in the Historia Brittonum really was Ecgfrith’s son then he would have a very young heir who needed a protector. There would be few actual kinsmen he could trust with  a very young son. Most would try to keep the throne in their own line once they succeed. However, a childless clerical brother might be just the ticket especially if heavily promoted and supported by Lindisfarne. At least with Aldfrith, Ecgfrith would know that his own son would have no rivals older than the boy. Ecgfrith would not have been planning on his brother succeeding so soon or living for so long, perhaps longer than Oslac. The succession crisis that occurred on Aldfrith’s death could have been because Oslac died before his uncle. While Yorke mentions Ecgfrith’s reputed young son in note 54, she doesn’t seem to have considered that Aldfrith could have been caretaker of the boy. Without any children of his own in c. 684 it would have been easy for Aldfrith to have promised Ecgfrith that he would make Ecgfrith’s young son is own heir. As it was, after a 19 year reign Aldfrith’s oldest son was still only age 8.

As for Ecgfrith’s reasons for acknowledging Aldfrith (or anyone else) as a formal heir when he did, I think we can point to the battles he fought in his last two years. King Ecgfrith did not personally go on the invasion of Ireland in 684, perhaps because he did not have a heir lined up at home. Ecgfrith must have had nephews and plenty of cousins. Oswiu was reputed to have six brothers who surely had surviving sons and by the 680s grandsons. Indeed ambitious grandsons of Æthelfrith may have been getting desperate because their chances of succeeded where becoming more dim the stronger the children of Oswiu clung to the throne. In 684 only one son of Oswiu had succeeded to all of Northumbria, so that his first cousins were viable successors. It must have galled Ecgfrith greatly that he had to stay home from such an important military expedition as the invasion of Ireland had been in 684. It was a glorious success bringing back many (probably royal) clerical hostages. For Ecgfrith to lead the invasion of Pictland in 685 he must have lined up a heir and made it widely known enough that he was comfortable going.

If Yorke is correct in Cuthbert’s role in Aldfrith’s succession, then this shows how well Lindisfarne was connected with its old Columban network. Bede inadvertently tells us as much when he says that Ecgfrith had been warned against his 684 invasion of Ireland by wandering Bishop Ecgberht in Pictland. We also know from writings on Cuthbert that he traveled to Pictland, at least once during the winter. Of course, Ecgberht’s best claim to fame is that he eventually converted Iona to Rome over 25 years later. Could Lindisfarne and Iona have been nurturing Aldfrith for his succession to the Northumbrian throne for decades? He would have been well known in both monasteries not only as the son of King Oswiu but as the sister’s son of Lindisfarne’s Bishop Finian, son of Irish King Colman Rimid. He had long been educated on Iona where he became good friends with Adomnan, Abbot of Iona and probably there also Aldhelm of Wessex. Although Lindisfarne must have continued to prosper during Aldfrtih’s reign, the illness and death of Cuthbert and their confrontations with Bishop Wilfrid for the next year must have tempered their success a great deal. Given the power that Lindisfarne may have demonstrated in Aldfrith’s succession, it makes Bishop Wilfrid’s hard line with them after Cuthbert’s death more understandable.

How ironic it is that many, perhaps even a majority of depictions of St Cuthbert show him holding the head of Ecgfrith and Aldfrith’s saintly uncle King Oswald. Cuthbert may have had no ties to King Oswald in his lifetime but, if Yorke is correct, he could have been a king maker who kept Oswald’s family on the throne for another twenty years and made Aldfrith’s transformation of Northumbrian society possible. I’ll save discussion of Aldfrith’s influence for the next post.