Plague in a time of war

One of the oddities of the plague in Britain and Ireland is the absence of any visible impact on political history. The few kings who died of plague were apparently replaced peacefully from within their kingdom, if not their dynasty. The effects of the plague on the church, particularly in the loss of bishops, may suggest that the effects of the plague on political history have not been appreciated enough, though the infrastructure of the early medieval kingdoms was significantly stronger than the fledgling church in Britain. While churchmen were mourned in Ireland, it doesn’t seem to have caused a crisis.

The Northumbrian plague of c.684-688 gives us an opportunity to look at the effect of a specific wave on plague on politics and particularly warfare. We don’t know exactly when this round of plague began in Northumbria. We know that it began at least a year before Cuthbert became bishop, so at least 683-684.  So this means that the plague was present in the kingdom, indeed at Lindisfarne, when King Ecgfrith sent ealdorman Berht with an “army” to Ireland to wreck devastation and perhaps more importantly take many hostages. We know that they attacked several churches and monasteries and took clerical hostages. We can probably assume that they took secular hostages as well. These hostages, perhaps including secular exiles, living in the monasteries were probably Ecgfrith’s real goal. Regardless of King Ecgfrith’s motivation, the plague did not stop him from sending an army far from home. Indeed, this is the only known English war band to be sent on a campaign by sea to Ireland or anywhere else in the early Anglo-Saxon period.

This attack on Ireland was roundly condemned by churchmen including within Northumbria. King Ecgfrith had apparently been in contact with the wandering English bishop Egbert who urged him not to attack Ireland. Egbert was either living in Ireland or Pictland at the time, so King Ecgfrith’s Irish campaign was discussed long distance for some time before it was undertaken. Given that the Northumbrians were not known for having a navy it would have taken some time to build the ships necessary to take the warband there. This raid was no impulse by a rash king. Perhaps the planning that went into the raid made it more likely that it would proceed even during the plague.

The Pictish rebellion just a year after the successful raid on Ireland doesn’t seem very wise. King Ecgfrith had brutally put down the previous Pictish rebellion about a decade earlier. After such a display of power in Ireland, why would King Bridei ap Beli have thought now was a good time to rebel? Although Berht brought back over 20 hostages, they still may have lost many of their warriors in Ireland, potentially weakening their army. They could have lost more warriors to the sea or battle injuries. Perhaps after such a victory Ecgfrith’s tribute demands went up so high that Bridei couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. The plague, of course, is another factor. If the plague wasn’t in the north, as Adomnan implies, then perhaps Bridei thought that Northumbria had been weakened enough by the plague that he could not field a typical Northumbrian army. I don’t think the plague has been considered before as a factor in the Pictish rebellion or in Ecgfrith’s unexpected defeat before.

King Bridei did have a plan. He had been waging war on his other borders for several years, racking up victory after victory. Presumably his warband was at its peak in size and experience. Even so he planned an ambush for Ecgfrith’s war band that was a critical part of his success.  It is believed that the campaign is memorialized on the stone to the right with ravens picking on Ecgfrith in the lower right corner.

We will never really know what effect the plague had on events in 684-685. It didn’t stop King Ecgfrith from launching two major campaigns. If the plague did weaken Ecgfrith’s forces or give Bridei the belief that this time he could win, then it played a significant role in the unexpected death of Ecgfrith. In turn, the death of Ecgfrith in battle was one of the most significant events in the history of the Northumbrian kingdom. It was from that point that Bede marked the deminishing of Northumbrian power.

In an era when warfare is so frequent and local, it is difficult to to discern the role the plague may have played. It is likely that plague weakened regions were more vulnerable to attack, if the attacker would venture into a plague stricken area. Of course, it takes more than a few years for the population to recover a plague. The plague would also lower a regions ability to produce crops as workers are lost and crops go unharvested. It may have played a role in the smaller independent regions ultimately being incorporated into the larger kingdoms. They would be unable to resist incorporation and would have wanted the protection. It may not be a coincidence that many of the smaller independent regions listed in the tribal hinge disappear shortly after the plague of 664.

Primary Sources:

Bede, Life of Cuthbert

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People


8 thoughts on “Plague in a time of war

  1. Maybe the plague weakened a kingdom’s military strength if it ravaged the weapon-bearing class just as much as, or more than, the weaponless classes. Here I’m thinking along the lines of aristocratic warbands, composed entirely of noblemen, rather than a mass-mobilisation of all and sundry. One small kingdom might lose a high percentage of its nobility to the plague, thereby depleting its warband, while a neighbouring kingdom might lose mostly peasants whose demise would not directly affect troop numbers (although the production of food surpluses for the upper class would take a hit).

    1. I think most of the warriors would be thegn level (like Biscop) and their sons which I don’t think of as being that elite. A unit of 300 hides = 300 thegns or less – land for 300 1 hide thegns. Anyway what I’m try to get to is that I think an average thegn or son of a thegn would be close enough to the land to have similar exposure as peasants. A wooden hall is not that much less likely to have rodents than a peasants hut. An elites hall might also have more crowding than a peasants hut and crowding is always important in disease transmission.

      You are of course correct that uneven damage by the plague would make some regions more vulnerable than others.

  2. My understanding is that Bridei may have resisted the extra tribute following the irish campaign which he is unlikely to have supported. Bridei would have had alliances in Ireland as well as with Northumbria. And as you note his army was strong. Although there were later battles Pictland was no longer tributary to Northumbria. Ecgfrith’s defeat severely diminished English influence north of the River Forth.

  3. would not a rural area be less susceptible to plague than the King’s court -density and all that? So that warriors attendant on the King and living in “town” would be more likely to be affected by plague than a rural farming community with lower population density.

    BTW – I throughly enjoy reading this blog –

    1. In the 7th century there were few towns, more the size of later medieval villages. The king and his retinue were always on the move between estates. Monasteries would have the highest densities. Plague would have depleted resources throughout the kingdom by lost agriculture and labor.

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