Benedict Biscop

I’ve gained a new appreciation for Benedict Biscop this week after rereading the History of the Abbots and the Life of Ceolfrith, along with Ian Woods’ contribution to the new Cambridge Companion to Bede. What follows is a little musing on Biscop and questions his life open up.

I used to think of Biscop as a restless retired warrior who spent his time seeking ecclesiastical treasures. The History of the Abbots reminded me first that Biscop was not an old or retired warrior but in his mid-twenties when he left the king’s service to explore the church. When King Oswiu made him a thane and gave him land it was recognition that it was time for him to begin the life of an active adult male. His warrior days were not expected to be over. In any major campaign the thegns would be expected to participate along with what ever men they could bring. The kings retinue that Biscop would have left were mostly teenagers in various levels of training and responsibility. Biscop was a young man in his prime when he began his first trip to Rome.

Biscop’s contacts

He must have been a very charismatic person. Just think about all the contacts he made across England and the continent. Setting out on his first trip with young Wilfrid (future bishop of York) he knew well enough not to get bogged down in Lyon with Wilfrid. After his visit to Rome he made his way to Lérins, one of the most influential monasteries of the late antique world, where he stayed for two years, learned their rule and was tonsured. We all probably way underestimate the influence of Lérins on Biscop and ultimately Bede. It was probably at Lérins that he took the name Benedict. He must have been good with languages, speaking at least fluent Latin and probably learned Frankish. He must have known Latin before he left Britain, or he couldn’t have been Theodore of Tarsus’ translator, much less navigated his way to Rome or had a meaningful stay at Lérins.

Thinking of Theodore, Biscop just happened to be handy to the Pope in Rome for an assignment to escort Theodore to Britain. While Biscop may have sought out the English group in Rome when the grapevine brought him news of their arrival, it is still significant that he was chosen to be Theodore’s escort rather than a survivor of Wighard’s party. Theodore liked and trusted Biscop enough to make him Abbot of St Peter’s monastery in Canterbury for his first two years, until Hadrian arrived from Gaul. When Biscop then returned to Northumbria (after a detour to Wessex), he told King Ecgfrith of his travels and his close relationship with the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Ecgfrith then gave him 70 hides of land, a large grant, at Wearmouth. We shouldn’t underestimate Biscop’s connections with Canterbury through Archbishop Theodore and the monks at St Peter’s whom Biscop worked with for two years. Biscop’s dedication of his new monastery to St Peter may not only be due to his dedication to Rome, but also because he had just ended his tenure as abbot of St Peter’s monastery in Canterbury. We need to see Bede’s connections to Canturbury and admiration for Theodore through the lens of Biscop and his personal connections.

Biscop’s secular contacts were impressive too. It is well-known that Biscop received land from two Bernician kings, more on that below. He  had a close relationship with King Alchfrid of Deira who wanted to accompany Biscop to Rome but was stopped by his father. (This is the same trip that Wilfrid did accompany Biscop on.) Like Wilfrid, he also had a close relationship with King Cenwealh of Wessex, but apparently not with his successor. He only goes home to Bernicia/Northumbria because King Cenwealh has died.

What are the underlying connections? An obvious connection between Northumbria/Deira and Wessex is King Oswald’s widow, who was the sister of Cenwealh. Both Biscop and Wilfrid were too young to be associated with King Oswald, but his widow and children may have continued on in Northumbria, possibly Deira specifically, even under Oswald’s cousin King Oswine.  (I remember reading somewhere that Oswine may have been sheltered in Wessex during Oswald’s reign.) If Oswald had his main seat at York, where he completed the cathedral, then his widow and sons may have continued to live in York. Given that Oswald himself was the son of Acha of Deira, sister of Edwin, he may have spent his childhood more in York than Bamburgh. The continued presence of Oswald’s widow and children in Deira could explain how Bishop Aidan was welcomed so warmly by Oswine (but that is another topic). If Oswine was given refuge from Oswald in Wessex, then he could hardly have retaliated against Oswald’s sons because they were also the grandsons of King Cynegisl and nephews of King Cenwealh of Wessex. This could explain how Oswald’s son Oethelwald, nephew to both King Oswiu of Bernicia and possibly king Cenwealh of Wessex, became king of Deira. If he did not have an adult heir, King Oswine could have made King Cenwealh of Wessex’s sister’s son  Oethelwald son of Oswald his heir in Deira. After Oethelwald’s death/disappearance, his successor Oswiu’s son Alchfrith also had a close relationship with King Cenwealh of Wessex specifically on ecclesiastical issues.

The relationship between Deira and Wessex was longstanding. It seems likely that King Edwin of Deira, Oswald’s maternal uncle, was instrumental in Cynegisl becoming the sole (or primary) king of Wessex after Edwin drove out previous kings in c. 625. King Oswald’s role in standing as godfather to Cenwealh’s father Cynegisl and confirming the land grant to Bishop Birinus, Apostle to Wessex, could have provided a way in for Wessex to play a role in bringing first Deira and then all of Northumbria into the sphere of Rome. Recall that Birinus’ mission was part of the Roman church but sponsored from Gaul, initially independent from Canterbury. As part of the Roman church, Bishop Birinus accepted the authority of Canterbury, although Gaulish influence is strongly felt for another two generations. Birinus’ successor, the Frankish bishop Agilbert was very influential on Wilfrid.

Biscop was part of the relationship between Deira/Northumbria and Wessex not only in his early travels. As the familial relationship between the house of Cyngisl and Edwin eventually faded they were renewed by another royal marriage, between King Aldfrith and the sister of King Ine of Wessex, a probable cousin of Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Significantly, not only were Aldfrith and Aldhelm friends, but this marriage likely occurred during a time when Biscop was an adviser to King Aldfrith.

Biscop’s land

Benedict Biscop (Source: Wikipedia commons)

In his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Bede, Ian Wood demonstrates that the land ownership for Wearmouth and Jarrow are not as simple as Bede or the Anon. Life of Ceolfrith claim. Like much hagiography on founders, there is reason to believe that Bede wrote the History of the Abbots to establish land claims, even though he didn’t list specific pieces of property. I want to come back to this in another post someday but just to point out one of the discrepancies:  in the History of the Abbots, Bede writes that King Oswiu gives Biscop land due a thane, but he never says that land is at Wearmouth or part of the monastery’s holdings. Bede writes in the introduction and later in the work that Wearmouth was given to Biscop from his own (Ecgfrith’s) royal land. So we have to consider the claims of Biscop’s blood family to his lands and the monastery’s desires to keep as much land as possible. Did Biscop’s brother have a claim to his thane land, or did that thane land intended to be familial land give him a claim to more of Biscop’s property? The land ownership discrepancies are food for further thought.

Biscop as founder

I suppose I also have a renewed appreciation for Biscop as an ideal monastic founder, perhaps in no small part to Bede’s skills. Biscop did the two things that a founder must do: provided their rule with careful consideration from the best of what he learned in his many travels, and provided a physical space with all the supplies in enviable quantities. His many connections outside of Northumbria also established ecclesiastical ties that the monastery could build upon over the next two generations. Without Biscop there would not have been a scholar of Bede’s quality in Britain because Bede’s skills were only honed with the library Biscop built.

So this is what I have been pondering this week. I hope to be able to blog on a more regular basis this fall on a variety of topics.


The History of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow and the Anonymous History of Ceolfrith. in  The Age of Bede, trans. DH Farmer. Penguin Classics, 1998.

Ian Wood. “The foundation of Bede’s Wearmouth-Jarrow” in Cambridge Companion to Bede, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

The Realm of Humbria

Humbria is a hypothetical proto-over-kingdom in the extreme. The area discussed under the term Humbria seems to be the region around the Humber River, not surprisingly. This region includes the kingdoms of Deira, Elmet, Lindsey, and proto-Mercia. In effect, references to Humbria suggest that it was the core of Deira’s hegemony. While Edwin had extended his power far beyond this core of principalities, this may have been the core of hegemony under previous Deiran kings, particularly Edwin’s father Ælle who is reputed to have reigned for 30 years. Deiran hegemony over ‘Humbria’ also explains why Northumbrian kings tried to exert rights over land south of the Humber until 679. Think of Humbria being something like the Thames river hegemony group early on being usually dominated by Kent. Around the Thames the kingdoms seem to have more parity preventing one from controlling all, and the kings of Kent don’t seem to have the same military skills as any of the Humbrian (or East Anglian) kings. Mercia developed as an offshoot of the Humbrian group, perhaps largely as Wessex developed as an upriver offshoot of the Thames group. I believe this is what the Historia Brittonum means when its says that Penda first separated Mercia from the northern king. Compared to the kingdoms of the two main hegemony groups (Humbrian and Thames), both Mercia and Wessexare frontier kingdoms in that the both expand away from the two main river systems. Bernicia begins so far out on the fringe that they are almost an island thathas tobe reconnected to the other English by conquest.

Drainage zone of the Humber Estuary

Drainage zone of the Humber Estuary. York is on the River Ouse and the kingdom of Elmet was between the River Warfe and River Don.

Defining Humbria

Æthelfrith’s movement southward was not only a conquest of the Anglican kingdom of Deira but also the realm of Humbria. When Æthelfrith had taken Deira, Ælle’s grandson Hereric fled only to neighboring Elmet, part of the hegemony group where he might expect assistance to expel an invader, even if Elmet was British. Around the same time, Ælle’s younger son Edwin (about the same age as Hereric) fled to king Ceorl of Mercia where the exiled prince married Ceorl’s daughter, probably part of a formal agreement between exile and host. That both Ceredig of Elmet and Ceorl of Mercia cooperated by initially giving refuge to the exiled Deirans probably suggests that Humbria was a well established regional hegemony group and though Deira had recently been dominant, it may not have always been so. It is possible that the British were major players in this hegemony group in the recent past. Also the rival I know, who is now beholding to me, is better than an invader any day. Soon Æthelfrith had contrived to have Hereric assassinated by poison in Elmet, no doubt securing Elmet’s alligiance, and had driven Edwin’s family out of Mercia, where Ceorl is heard from no more. Whether Edwin fled to the British first before finally arriving in East Anglia is uncertain, but suggested by British lore.

Either way, we could interpret Æthelfrith’s next two battles as defending or defining his hegemony over Humbria. In 613 Æthelfrith destroys Powysian forces at the battle of Chester, breaking coordinated Powysian power for a generation and in effect probably enlarging Humbria’s western flank. Æthelfrith’s last battle on the River Idle is exactly at the crossroads on the Roman road system between Lindsey, Mercia and East Anglia. He is traveling without all his forces, according to Bede, expecting to be on a diplomatic mission to collect a troublesome exile from the East Anglian king who is expected to take payment for him and probably acknowledge Æthelfrith’s power. Of course, boldness was rewarded when Rædwald of East Anglia ambushed Æthelfrith and slew him and his bodyguard. The point here is not so much Æthelfrith’s career as to look at the territory he is defending or defining.

So after Æthelfrith falls, Edwin of Deira seems to immediately take control of all of Humbria. His first action is to depose Ceredig of Elmet, presumably for killing his nephew Hereric, and he seems to have direct control over Elmet during his reign. Paulinus of York takes part in the consecration of a new Archbishop of Canterbury at Lincoln where the highest ranking official is a reeve.

Wetlands of the Humber estuary

Low lands of the Humber estuary. Around the Lincoln edge was the Isle of Axholme in early medieval times. Lindsey was a virtual island surrounded by marshes and rivers.

Humbrian names

Then there is the importance of Humbria in all names for the northern Anglian kingdom. Before Bede’s time there were a number of names for what we now consider Northumbria, but they all involved “Humbria” — Ultra humbria (above the Humber), Transhumbria (across the humber, Northumbria (north of the humber). While the Humber is surely an important estuary (and much more important then when there were more wetlands), once they were restricted north of the Humber there is much less of a reason for it to be retained in their name. It seems clear that for much of the long seventh century, northern Anglian kings insisted on being called kings of a version of Humbria. If we compare to Mercia, the name of the original core kingdom of the ruling dynasty was extended for the new swollen kingdom. Yet, the ruling dynasty of Northumbria was with a 17 year exception for Edwin’s reign, a Bernician dynasty but the whole kingdom never incorporated the name of Bernicia.

One State, Multiple Nations

Northumbria was essentially a state composed of several nations that each kept their identity too much to adopt the Bernician name. They sought a new name, Northumbria, that is different than any other Anglo-Saxon kingdom — geographic, north, and regional, Humbria. In taking the name Humbria they adopted a regional name that clearly enclosed two (or more) nations, two ethnicities. Elmet and Craven clearly retained some of their British characteristics through Bede’s lifetime. Lindsey and Deira both were both Anglo-Saxon kingdoms but they also were capitals of Roman provinces and likely had significant Romano-British influence. Recall that the British kings Gwrgi and Peredur of York were the sons of Eliffer Great Retinue and that ‘great retinue’ at York may have had English mercenaries or immigrants. Its interesting that Edwin only seems to have brought his court to York after Bishop Paulinus arrived. The English may have preferred to stay where they had been settled in toward the peninusla by the British and let the former Roman captial remain ruins. Moving into the ruins of York no doubt fueled by Bishop Paulinus also gave Edwin dreams of grandure and empire. Britons continued to be a reality as long as Northumbria existed as they expanded into Cumbria and west of the Humbria, as Britons melded into a Northumbrian English existence in the oldest areas around Humbria.

Kingdom of Mercia showing its constituant parts.

Kingdom of Mercia showing its constituant parts.

Mercia is clearly the late developing entitiy in Humbria. North Merica, cradled in the River Trent, is typically believed to be the original Mercia. Its royal genealogy is not as well developed and Penda is really the first king to be more than a name. Based on name evidence, it seems likely that South Mercia was an area added by Penda and his immediate predecessors. Outer Mercia may have been only added at the height of Penda’s career along with Middle Anglia where he placed his son Peada. Its interesting that Penda is also open to working with British allies, and that they are open to working with him, pagan and all.

In the end the peoples of the Humbrian hegemony group dominated Britain until the Norse invasions. Ultimately Humbria was split nearly in two: Deira and most of Elmet to Northumbria, while Mercia,Humbria’s fringe territory, breaks free taking part of Elmet and Lindsey with it. Eventually, Mercia will in turn take control of the Thames group as well. In the end, both Northmbria and Mercia crumbled in the face of the new Norse invader faster than the Romano-British had gave way before their invasions/immigration 400 years earlier. Unlike the Romano-British, the Engish never learned to defend themselves from sea-bourne threats and it seemes didn’t learn to defend against land based threats that were not states who behaved by the rules of war they established among themselves.

Three British Chieftains of Bernicia and Deira

I was browsing through Rachel Bromwich’s Triodd Ynys Prydein (The Welsh Triads) today and I came across the triad of the Three Chieftains of “Deiuyr a Brennych”, Deira and Bernicia, that reminds me of some of the usual nearly lost material among the ‘Men of the North’ lore.  The variant triad 10W combines it with the three fortunate slayings and is a glimpse at the stories these fleshed out triads contain.

Triad 10W: Three Chieftains of Deira and Bernicia, and they were three bards, and three sons of Dissynyndawd, who performed the Three Fortunate Slayings;

  • Diffeidell son of Dissynyndawd, who slew Gwrgi Garwlwyd (Rough-Grey). That man used to slay every day one of the Cymry, and two every Saturday so as not to slay one on the Sunday;
  • Snagfnell son of Dissynyndawd who slew Edelfled Ffleisawg (‘Twister’) king of Lloegr;
  • Gall son of Dissnyndawd who slew the two Birds of Gwenddolau, who were guarding his gold and silver: two men they used to eat for dinner, and as much again for supper. (p. 10-11)

Another variant of the triad calls them all three the sons of a bard, suggesting that Dissynyndawd was the bard. It is possible that we have an old bard singing songs about his ‘sons’ who fell heroically. There are stories behind all these victims though not much is found among the chieftains.

I understand that Gwrgi Garwlwyd means Rough-Grey Dog and it has been speculated that he was a werewolf, or someone disliked so much that werewolf stories grew up around him. He may reappear in these lines from the Arthurian poem Pa Gur:

On the heights of Eidyn

He fought with champions [or dog-heads].

By the hundreds they fell


To Bedwyr’s four-pronged spear [or Bedwyr the Perfect],

On the shores of Tryfrwyd,

Combating with Garwlwyd

Furious was his nature

Both with sword and shield.

Eidyn here would be Caer Eidyn, or Edenburgh. Tryfrwyd is usually interpreted as one of several rivers in Lothian. Dogs may have been important symbols in Lothian.

The second victim, Edelfled Ffleisawg king of Lloegr is Æthelfrith of Bernicia. His epithet ffleisawg (or sometimes flesaur) is based off of the Latin word for flexible. The translation ‘twister’ was made long ago, and though I’ve never particularly liked that translation it does seem to have stuck. Personally I’d like something like flexar or flexor. What exactly it means  has also been controverisal. Pro-British interpretations have always claimed this meant he could twist out of the British grasp. This really seems at odds with the historical record of Æthelfrith being a dominating king who conquored more Britons than any previous king. It could also mean cleaver or a flexible stratagist. Lloegr is a general British name for the English that means something like borders. It is the typical word used for the English in Arthurian literature.

[On a side note, it just occurred to me looking at the British Edelfled for Æthelfrith that the female name element -fled/-flæd found in names like Eanflæd could be the feminine version of the male -frith names. Consider that Eanflæd had two brothers named Osfrith and Eadfrith. Likewise three of Oswiu’s sons have -frith names Ecgfrith, Alchfrith, and Aldfrith and one of his daughters is Ælfflæd.]

The third victim is some kind of watchman or watch animal for Gwenddolau who fell at the battle (or seige) of Arthuret (Arfderydd) listed in the Annals Cambriae in 573. It may be one of a couple stories about what provoked the battle. Archaeological investigations at the Mote of Liddel which is were the siege is believed to have taken place near Carwannok (Caer Gwenddolau) showed signs of high status metal working. This is the battle where Mryddin (Merlin) went mad.

One of the interesting things about this triad and a few others like it is that some events can be dated to within a reasonable lifespan of brothers. The battle of Arfderydd is dated to 573, Æthelfrith died in 616 and Edenburgh was in British hands during this period. Craig Cessford wrote a paper some time ago exploring the possibility that a British chieftain from the north was part of Edwin’s retinue when he slew Æthelfrith. I suppose that safest interpretation is that these events would be within the lifetime of one bard and it is not unusual in British poetry for a bard to use exploits of a reputed son as a device (also used in the Llywarch Hen cycle).


Rachel Bromwich, trans. (1978) Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Criag Cessford (1994) ‘The Death of Aethelfrith of Lloegr’ Northern History 30: 179-183

PW: Abbot Berhthun of Beverly

You might be wondering, who is Abbot Berhthun and why should we care about him? First of all, he was someone known and respected by Bede and second, we owe practically everything we know about St John of Beverly to Berhthun. According to Bede, Berhthun was John’s deacon while he was Bishop of Hexham and in the 730s he was the Abbot of Inderauuda (‘in the woods of the men of Deira’), known to us today as Berverly. I think the detail and almost chattiness of these accounts suggests that Bede knew Berhthun well, as we might suspect for John’s former deacon, recalling that John ordained Bede to the deaconate and priesthood. Indeed, for some time Bede and Berhthun would have been fellow deacons in the diocese of Hexham.

Berhthun recalled John’s oratory of St Michael in the woods 1.5 miles from Hexham across the River Tyne where John retreated for solitude particularly during Lent. It seems that Berhthun was one of those who accompanied him and recorded healings done there that Bede considered miracles. What makes healing of the dumb boy with the scabby head unusual is Bede describes the long process of speech therapy and treatments John ordered for the boy. This was no instantaneous miracle but a healer at work. Berhthun’s account also has a ring of realism when Bede notes that Bishop John offered the boy a place in his household, but the boy refused and went home to his people. Hard to imagine Wilfrid allowing his invitation to be refused.

Berhthun’s served John in the diocese of York as well. He related the story of the healing of Abbess Hereberga’s daughter Coenberg. In that story, he has John refer to medical teaching by Archbishop Theodore in a way that suggests that John may have studied healing under Theodore.

We might also wonder about what other events Berhthun told Bede about. Berhthun would have obviously been privy to many of Bishop John’s opinions on Wilfrid’s return to Northumbria and John’s reassignment from Hexham to York.

As the abbot of John’s monastery of Beverly, where John retired to and was buried the chapel of St Peter in the church of Beverly in 721, Berhthun would have been one of John’s chosen successors and the caretaker of his memory. John did choose one of his men, Wilfrid (II), to be his successor as Bishop of York. He ordained him before retiring to Beverly. Wilfrid II was later deposed in 732 as part of a wholesale replacement of Northumbrian bishops. His successor was the king’s cousin Egbert, who became archbishop only three years later. John’s successor, who may have come to retire at Beverly, did not die until 745. Bede’s record that Wilfrid was still Bishop of York is one of the means to date the completion of his history to 731. As this Wilfrid would have almost certainly been another longstanding member of John’s house, Bede probably knew him as well.

Abbot Berhthun and Bishop Wilfrid II would have been among the last of the old order who remembered the effects of 664. No doubt they retained good relationships with the other monasteries of like history, Whibty and Lastingham in particular in the diocese of York, but a new order came in with Bishop Egbert.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book V chapters 2-5 and Bede’s chronological continuer for the fate of Wilfrid II.

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.

PW: King Ecgfrith of Northumbria

On May 20th, 685 King Ecgfrith of Northumbria fell deep in Pictland at Dunnichen to King Bridei, who was somehow his cousin. As far as we know, Ecgfrith’s death at Dunnichen marked the deepest incursion into Pictland that we know of in the Anglo-Saxon period. Given that Ecgfrith invaded to prevent loosing hegemony, it is quite possible that Northumbrian kings, perhaps even Ecgfrith himself, had penetrated further, but we have no record of it.

Major advances were not new to Ecgfrith. Just one year earlier Ecgfrith became the only Anglo-Saxon king to send a raiding party to Ireland bringing back hostages, seemingly boatloads. Ecgfrith’s strikes north and west in Ireland have always struck me as a bit of panic on his part. After 679 his ambitions south of the Humber had been thwarted by Deira’s failure to prevent the conquest of Lindsey by Mercia steaming from the battle on the Trent that year. The loss of his younger brother and heir Ælfwine left Ecgfrith very vulnerable.

Ecgfrith’s state on the eve of his death was an unfortunate end for a king we know more about than perhaps any other before Alfred. We first hear of Ecgfrith when he is only about seven years old; he is a hostage in the care of Cynewise, Queen of Mercia, while Penda campaigns in Northumbria. His father had risked Ecgfrith’s life by defying Penda and then following him back down Northumbria to attack Penda on his way home. It all came out famously since Oswiu managed to kill Penda. Bede doesn’t tell us how Oswiu got his son back but we can imagine since Bede mentions Queen Cynewise we might imagine that she was involved. At the same time, the surviving nobles of Mercia were hiding Penda (and probably her) sons from Oswiu. Cynegisl’s daughter is one of the few women of her generation to be mentioned in the historical record and must have been quite formidable. Ecgfrith isn’t mentioned again until he was about 15 when he was married to the widowed daughter of King Anna of East Anglia; she is of course Æthelthryth. It seems highly likely that Æthelthryth was significantly older than Ecgfrith and we know that she held out for 12 years without consummating the marriage. The marriage was surely an important alliance but she was surely not a first class bride. As treasured an ally as King Anna had been, Æthelthryth was the widow of a minor local lord and the daughter of a dead king. Like all his siblings, Oswiu had disposed of his middle son for political purposes.

Ecgfrith owed his eventual rise to power to the political prowess of his mother. His mother Eanflaed was the second wife of Oswiu, who already had several children when she married him. His son Alchfrith was clearly this favored son until the 660s. He had kept Alchfrith by his side throughout the campaigns of 655 and had earlies married him to Penda’s daughter. After Penda’s death and Œthelwald’s fall, Alchfrith became King of Deira, while Ecgfrith was married to Æthelthryth. Queen Eanflaed successfully used to the church to support herself and her children. Both Queen Eanflaed and her step son Alchfrith realized that Northumbria would have to ally itself with Rome if it were to become a major player in the south and with the continent. To make a long story short, Queen Eanflaed managed to get her way with Oswiu agreeing to accept Rome at the Synod of Whitby, thwarting his sons ambitions to come to power in opposition to his father. Alchfrith later rose in rebellion against his father and disappears from history within two years while his favorite abbot, Wilfrid of Ripon, was in Gaul getting a grand ordination as bishop of York. Ecgfrith’s activity during this time is unknown, but it is quite possible that he became King of Deira after his brother, or at least became his father’s presumptive heir. Some have suggested that Alchfrith’s rebellion had been for fear that his brother would succeed over him, but this really doesn’t feel right.

In 670 Ecgfrith’s father Oswiu died peacefully and he succeeded to the throne. His lack of a heir was on his mind early. As he pushed his new Queen Æthelthryth to consummate their marriage (and give him a heir), he tried to bribe his bishop for support with no success. The young king was clearly in trouble, and he eventually was allowed to divorce her. At her divorce Æthelthryth gave Bishop Wilfrid the prime family estate at Hexham, probably received at her marriage, to Wilfrid for a monastery. This estate was particularly important because it included the site of Heavenfield associated with Ecgfrith’s saintly uncle Oswald and his miracle working cross. The Tyne river valley where Hexham is located was the primarly area of Ecgfrith’s economic development where he planted his primary monastery at Wearmouth and Jarrow and a prime port. Prior to Ecgfrith’s succession, the area between the rivers Tyne and Tees may have been an unstable frontier zone between Bernicia and Deira. Now that both Bernicia and Deira were in the hands of Eanflaed daughter of Edwin’s sons, it was save to begin real economic development there. Prior to Ecgfrith’s reign, only the monasteries of Tynemouth (Deira?) and Gateshead (Bernicia) may have been along the Tyne, but as their names suggest they were gate keepers to their respective kingdoms. Tynemouth has been associated with King Oswine of Deira and obviously controls access to the River Tyne, the primary river along Hadrian’s Wall. It is near the Roman forts that anchored the end of Hadrian’s Wall. On the otherhand, Gateshead controls the former Roman bridge over the River Tyne and access into Bernicia by inland waterways.

Eventually King Ecgfrith remarried to a well connected woman named Irmenburgh. All we know of her is that her sister was an abbess at Carlyle and another sister was Queen of Wessex, but we don’t know the names of either of them. Her name suggests that she may have been related to Kent, but the presence of her sister in Carlyle is odd given that women were usually involved with convents in their home kingdom. Her presence there makes me wonder if she could have been a member of a dynasty that lost power, particularly since Queen Irmenburgh herself also became an abbess within Northumbria during her widowhood. We know that she was astute enough to recognize that Bishop Wilfrid was a threat to King Ecgfrith’s power and became his constant enemy. After Wilfrid’s death she was a powerful enough abbess for Stephan of Ripon to complement her on her transformation as an abbess in his Life of Bishop Wilfrid. Her name is also mentioned the Durham Liber Vitae, even though is first wife St Æthelthryth is not mentioned. Her omission can not simply be because she was on a list of saints somewhere else. St Oswald, a more widely accepted saint when the list was compiled, is listed. It seems more likely to me that St Æthelthryth had powerful enemies in Northumbira, Ecgfrith’s family members bitter over her behavior as queen, which his family probably thought shameful, and of course his second wife who was herself both a queen and abbess within Northumbria. It is now disputed whether the Durham Liber Vitae began at Lindisfarne or Wearmouth-Jarrow, but neither of them are likely to have supported Æthelthryth before c. 705 when Bishop Wilfrid returned to Northumbria and supported her cause as a saint at Wearmouth-Jarrow at least. Trained in the style of Iona, Lindisfarne is unlikely to have supported her ability to leave her marriage or her failure to do her duty in her marriage. We may overestimate how popular St Æthelthryth was in Northumbria because Bede was obviously a fan, but there is no other indication that anyone else in Northumbria really supported her cause for sainthood. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid refers to her in a positive and saintly way, but fails to mention that Bishop Wilfrid was present at her translation and an actual witness to her incorrupt state! The abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, who knew how important a heir for Ecgfrith was, may have viewed Æthelthryth’s behavior rather differently than Bede. These abbots would have been keenly aware of what it cost them that Ecgfrith did not have a bodily heir for them to champion and gain the rewards.

King Ecgfrith was also extensively involved in the church within his kingdom. I’ll save this topic for another day. For now, its easy to say that he was an opponent of Bishop Wilfrid of York, and a supporter of St Cuthbert who personally persuaded Cuthbert to accept the position as Bishop of Lindisfarne. He was also critical in splitting Northumbria’s huge diocese into at least three — Lindisfarne, Hexham, and York. He also had a mutually helpfully relationship with Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. This relationship may have been fostered by Theodore’s old guide to England and Ecgfrith’s trusted counselor, Abbot Benedict Biscop of Wearmouth-Jarrow. Recall that Theodore had Benedict Biscop as his abbot in Canterbury for his first year or so in England.

As a warrior Ecgfrith was aggressive but with the exception of his odd invasion of Ireland, he only attacked to hold what was already his. I think he would have been very stressed to maintain the huge hegemony of his father Oswiu. Ecgfrith was clearly very concerned to prevent the usual pattern of hegemony collapsing with the death of a major king. Early in his career he won a major victory over King Wulfhere of Mercia to retain Lindsey and presumably keep Mercia under his hegemony. The loss along the River Trent may have been primarily led by his teenage brother King Ælfwine whose territory of Deira may have been responsible for the Mercian border and control of Lindsey. The history of warfare between these kingdoms and the fact that they both must have retrained substantial power caused Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury to intervene and broker a peace treaty that set the border between the two kingdoms permanently. Ecgfrith lost control of Lindsey, a mighty blow, but was given a large weregeld for the death of his brother that allowed him to save face and perhaps compensate the families of the warriors who were lost in the battle. After Ælfwine’s death Ecgfrith appears to have seized direct control over Deira and this would have allowed him to reward loyal retainers with prize appointments in Deira. Ecgfrith’s lack of a heir now became acute and his retainers would have begun positioning themselves to reap the rewards normally reserved for the king’s kin.

Over his fifteen year regin, Ecgfrith personally led three campaigns into Pictland. The first two were early in his reign to establish his hegemony after his father’s death. It is possible that after the last one of these victories that he helped his cousin Bridei son of Beli come to the throne of the Picts. Its unclear exactly how Ecgfrith and Bridei were related but the Historia Brittonum clearly calls them cousins, specifically sister’s sons. Alex Woolf’s suggestion that Bridei’s mother may well have been an older daughter of Edwin of Deira by his first wife, Cwenburg of Mercia makes sense. Legend claims that Bridei was the son of King Beli of Strathclyde and a marriage between a king or prince of British Strathclyde and Edwin of Deira would have been a likely method of ensuring Edwin’s hegemony over the north and they may have been eager allies intent on preventing Æthelfrith of Bernicia’s sons from returning to the throne of Bernicia. Either way, Bridei compiled a string of military victories in Pictland before he rebelled against his cousin Ecgfrith. They met at Dunnichen deep in Pictland and Bridei used his knowledge of the terrain to lead Ecgfrith into a trap where the Northumbrians were slaughtered. The battle scene on the stone shown is believed to refer to the battle of Dunnichen with Ecgfrith’s death in the last scene.

Bridei retained hegemony over the North for the rest of his life, possibly including over Northumbria. Ecgfrith was succeeded by his half-brother Aldfrith who was residing on Iona at the time of the battle. This brings up a very important point, that Abbot Adomnan of Iona was a connection between the two winners of Dunnichen, Bridei of Pictland and Aldfrith. Both were considered good friends of Adomnan. It is quite possible that they knew each other through Adomnan and possibly not a coincidence that late sources (Simeon of Durham, if I recall correctly) record that Ecgfrith was buried on Iona. This is a most unlikely place for Ecgfrith to be buried, unless his body was taken there by Bridei — to the place where Ecgfrith’s half-brother Aldfrith was living a life of scholarship.

As long as this post has gotten, this is only a surface sketch of Ecgfrith. He is a fascinating king worthy of a more purposeful biography. Ecgfrith had been a very successful king with a fifteen year reign, only 40 years old when he died in battle. He had inherited a near impossible task at about age 25 and died with his expansive hegemony basically intact until the day of his death.

PW: Bishop Trumhere of Mercia, Middle Anglia & Lindsey

Trumhere is an interesting fellow and another glimpse into King Oswine’s church. Trumhere first appears on the scene in the days following Oswine’s death in August 651 when King Oswiu founds the monastery of Gilling to pray for both kings. Bede describes Trumhere as a close kinsman of King Oswine who was made abbot over the new monastery.

“The third bishop [of Mercia] was Trumhere, an Englishman but educated and consecrated by the Irish. He was abbot of the monastery called Gilling, the place where King Oswine was killed… Queen Eanflaed, his kinswoman, had asked King Oswiu to expiate Oswine’s unjust death by granting God’s servant Trumhere, also a near relative of the murdered king, a site at Gilling to build a monastery; in it prayer was continually to be said for the eternal welfare of both kings, for the one who planned the murder and for his victim.” (Bede, HE III.24; McClure and Collins, p. 152)

This makes the second of Oswine’s close kin (along with Hild) who entered the church under Aidan. Trumhere had clearly been in the church long enough to be suitable to found a monastery on his own. He is also only the second of Aidan’s students to be known to found a monastery; the other one being Eata at Melrose. We can expect that Gilling would have been founded within days or months of the deaths of Oswine and Aidan. It is even possible that it was arranged before the death of Aidan 12 days after Oswine.

In 658 the Mercians throw off the Northumbrian yoke and raise Penda’s young son Wulfhere to the throne. According to Bede, Trumhere of Gilling is his first bishop. It is unclear if Trumhere became bishop with the Mercian revolt or if he had become bishop very shortly before. His epsicopate in Mercia and Middle Anglia is tentatively dated from c. 658 to 662 when he is succeeded by Jaruman. There is no reason given for the succession of Jaruman so we are left to suppose that Trumhere had died. The Mercian bishops do have a surprisingly short episcopates: Diuma started in c. 653 and died in office; Ceollach left for Ireland; Trumhere began in c. 658 and had 4 years; Jaruman had about 5 years and died in office; vacancy of about 3 years; Chad had three years and died in office in 672; Wynfrith had about 3 years and was deposed before Wulfhere’s death in 675. Two bishops in only about 20 years were deposed or abdicated (Ceollach and Wynfrith).

As the first bishop of King Wulfhere, who had been in hiding until then, it is likely that Trumhere baptized Wulfhere. Unfortunately and unusually, there is no record of Wulfhere’s baptism. The only reference I can recall is in Kentish/East Anglian hagiography that states something to the effect that he wasn’t baptized until his Kentish queen arrived, but Kent doesn’t take credit for his baptism. Therefore it is most likely that it occurred after his queen arrived but was done by the local bishop. We do know that the Mercia church was under the hegemony of Lindisfarne until 664.

Trumhere’s successor at Gilling was Cynefrith, brother of Bede’s Abbot Ceolfrith. We know that he was abbot only for a short while before leaving his post to retire to Ireland where he died, probably during the plague of 664. He was succeeded by Tunberht who lead the community to join Ripon after the plague of 664 reduced their numbers. It also seems possible that King Oswiu no longer had the support such an embarrassing enterprise after he decided for Rome in 664. Tunberht later became Bishop of Hexham during Wilfrid’s exile as a concession to Wilfrid’s monasteries. At the time that Tunberht was elevated to the episcopate Archbishop Theodore consecrated a man named Trumwine as the first bishop of Abercorn for the Picts. The similarity of the names Trumhere, Tunberht and Trumwine makes me wonder if we don’t have a set of Oswine’s kinsmen who were promoted in within the church in part because they were from the Deiran royal family. Trumhere appears to have been fairly close to King Ecgfrith as he was the one person specifically named has going to Lindisfarne with Ecgfrith to convince Cuthbert to accept his election to the episcopate replacing the deposed Tunberht.

Everything we know of Trumhere comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.