Oswiu’s Bad Luck

I’ve been reading Marilyn Dunn’s The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons and just thinking about King Oswiu’s bad luck after the Synod of Whitby. He is celebrated by Bede and the Church of England ever after for choosing to accept the authority of Rome over the independent tradition of Iona, the mother house of the Irish missionaries to the Angles (and it was primarily to Angles, not Saxons north of the Thames).

So let’s look at the grace bestowed on Oswiu after his admittance into the Roman fold: first the plague arrives in his lands for the first time in at least English memory taking his new Archbishop of Lindisfarne Tuda, whose gentile nature and Romano-Irish ways were to heal his torn kingdom; then Bishop Cedd (one of beloved Adain’s disciples and an effective missionary bishop) died of the plague,  and his son sub-king Alhfrith of Deira either dies in a rebellion against his father or dies of the plague (never on the scene again) but not before he send Wilfrid to Bishop Agilberht in Paris for consecration as bishop of York (a new see for Deira). Meanwhile, Oswiu chooses Cedd’s brother, currently resident in Ireland, as the next Bishop of Lindisfarne/York, ie. bishop of his kingdom. His choice of Chad studying in Ireland is likely an indication of his esteem for Chad’s brother Bishop Cedd (and perhaps the counseling of Abbot Eata of Lindisfarne) and probably means that Cedd’s other two priestly brothers were dead of the plague at Lastingham or were too closely associated with his traitorous nephew Oethelwald to be bishop. King Oethelwald (son of Oswald) had given Lastingham to Cedd on the advise of Cedd and Chad’s brother who was his personal priest. So, back to Chad, who is now sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury for consecration, but upon arriving he finds out that the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Eorcenberht of Kent (cousin of Oswiu’s queen) had died on the same day probably of plague and they were waiting on a replacement from Rome. The bishop of Rochester had also died, leaving only Bishop Wine of Wessex who called on the help of two British bishops to finally get Chad consecrated. So far this new thing with Rome is not looking so good…

By the Fall of 664, Oswiu had conferred with the new king of Kent to select Wigheard as the next (and first native English) Archbishop of Canterbury and sent him on to Rome to be consecrated. Yet, up pops the plague again and kills Wigheard in Rome (confirmed by a letter from the Pope to the two kings), and the Pope reluctantly send Theodore of Tarsus, a refugee Eastern monk from the Eastern empire to Britain as Archbishop with his own elderly Abbot Hadrian from North Africa to prevent Theodore from introducing any questionable Eastern practices in Britain (hardly a vote of confidence). So not only does Oswiu get an odd Archbishop from the East finally in 670, but one of his first actions is to take a hard-line on the formerly Irish trained clergy, re-consecrate all the Irish founded churches, and declare Chad’s consecration as invalid. Oswiu is now stuck with Wilfrid as bishop of York.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey

Nothing has gone according to plan…. by now news will have come to Oswiu at Bamburgh that the plague stopped near his northern border. According to Adomnan of Iona, it never made it St Columba’s lands.

Theodore does eventually soften his stance on the Irish trained clergy and will re-consecrate Chad as bishop of Mercia. We don’t hear much more about Oswiu and the church until his final sickness. He vowed if he recovered from that illness to have Bishop Wilfrid escort him to Rome. That didn’t work out either. Oswiu never recovered and was buried at the (no doubt re-consecrated) Church of St Peter at Whitby Abbey where his deal with Rome was struck. Perhaps Oswiu wanted to go to Rome to see if it was all worth it.


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.

FB: The Mystery of Urbs Iudeu

James Fraser has written an interesting article on a very important seventh century English fortress called Urbs Iudeu. Fraser notes that the Urbs Iudeu is unlikely to be one of the better known named places on the Firth of Forth, this fortress gave its name to the firth itself, or took its name from the firth. In effect a modern translation would be Fortress of the Forth or Forth Fortress. Urbs means fortified place, but that does not mean it was not a fortress like Bamburgh or Dunbar. Bede also used the term urbs for Dumbarton/Clyde Rock.

Stirling is often assumed to be the location of urbs Giudi.

Stirling is often assumed to be the location of Urbs Iudeu (urbs Giudi).

Fraser asks where did Bede get his information on Urbs Iudeu and the Firth of Forth. He goes through a through discussion and I think correctly concludes that it came through Bishop Trumwine and/or Abercorn. All of the information for that region is therefore in relation to Abercorn. I think this makes a lot of sense.

A few things that Fraser didn’t mention: If Bishop Trumwine was a kinsman of Abbot Trumhere of Gelling (and probably later Abbot of Hexham), then he was probably also a kinsman of Bede’s Abbot Ceolfrith (whose brother Cynefrith succeeded Trumhere as abbot of Gelling). If Bishop Trumhere was the kinsman of Abbot Ceolfrith, it is likely that Wearmouth-Jarrow would have been closely connected to Bishop Trumwine and Abercorn. It is likely, for example, that Bishop Trumhere would have sought to place some of his monks in his kinsman monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow after 685. Consider that Wearmouth-Jarrow had also been closely associated with its founding patron King Ecgfrith (who would have also been a kinsman of Abbot Ceolfrith through Queen Eanflaed) and also the founding patron of Abercorn. As part of a small circle of churchmen close to King Ecgfrith, it seems like that Abbot Ceolfrith would have been well informed of Bishop Trumwine’s activities even if he wasn’t his kinsman. All of this means that Bede would have good contacts with men from Abercorn who could inform him on the geography and events around Abercorn.

Fraser easily dismisses Striling as a possible site for Urbs Iudeu. I admit that I had accepted it as conventional, but there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think it was there (or that any fortress was there in the seventh century).

I think one of the key points in identifying Urbs Iudeu is the realization that the Niurdui Picts are Picts of Iudeu (nIurdu). This does not appear to be just a geographic description but a name they were known by so these people shared their name with the Firth of Forth. I also think at the very edge of the British-Pictihs frontier, terms like Pict and Brit don’t mean much especially from an English point of view.  Fraser notes that Bede uses the term urbs for native fortresses rather than Roman forts. Here it is interesting to note that he also refers to Dumbarton/Alt Clyde as an urbs. Fraser also mentions that truly massive native hillforts have been discovered and dated to the early medieval period without being mentioned at all in period or later documents. He points to Burghhead in Moray as an example of an undocumented major ‘promontory fortification’.

Fraser discusses several possible sites put forward by others including Inveresk, Carriden, Crammond Island (a tidal island), Carlingnose Battery in North Queensferry, and Blackness. He goes through great detail in discussing each of these candidates and three really jump out. Fraser’s own preference if pushed is for Carlingnose Battery, interestingly on the Pictish side of the forth if we truly hold the firth to be the boundary. He also holds open a possibility for Crammond Island and Blackness. All of these except Carlingnose Battery are far closer to known Bernician territory than Stirling. If Caer Eden fell in 638, any of these places could have easily have been taken by Oswiu in successive years, while Stirling would be a major push into British territory.

In favor of the fortress on a tidal island, consider that this is the opposite of what is found at Bamburgh-Lindisfarne, where the bishop and his monastery is on the tidal island and the king on a very close hillfort. I think that a full island like Inchkeith would be too hard to supply and move troops back and forth from, its too isolated. Crammond Island is pretty far from Abercorn, but we do know that Bernicians may have learned the value of a tidal island as defense in Urien’s seige of Theodoric on Lindisfarne in the 57os. I’ve also wondered about Urbs Iudeu being a very large crannog, actually in the firth that gave it its name.

If we just consider that Abercorn was founded close to Urbs Iudeu for its protection, then Blackness would seem to be the most logical choice. On the other hand, if we consider that Urbs Giudi may be in the land of the Niurdu Picts, then Carlingnose Battery that juts out into the firth is possible. However, being across the firth from Abercorn would make its protection of the bishop and his people more difficult.

The one thing we do know is that Oswiu of Bernicia was in control of Urbs Iudeu by 654-655. It is possible that it fell to Oswiu in a series of battles after the death of Oswald in 642-643. First Domnall Brecc of Dalriada is killed by Owen of Strathclyde at Strathcarron in December 642. Y Gododdin tells us that in Owen’s time, survivors of Caer Eden were in Owen’s court. The annals then record that Oswiu ravages the Britons and it may be 643 when the entire southern coast of the firth of Forth transfer into Osiwu’s hands. Ultimately, Urbs Iudeu must be a place where Penda can realistically besiege Oswiu in 655 with his full army. British sources claim that some of them, persumably from Gwynedd, got home with considerable loot handed over by Oswiu to Penda.  As Fraser concludes it is likely that only archaeology can solve this conundrum and so the mystery of Urbs Iudeu remains.


James Fraser. (April 2008) “Bede, the Firth of Forth and the Location of Urbs Iudeu Scottish Historical Review. 87 (1), p. 1-25.

FB: Din-Guaïroï /Bebbanburg/Bamburgh

Bamburgh castle from the beach. Wikipedia Commons.

Bamburgh castle from the beach. Wikipedia Commons.

You knew I couldn’t wait too long to do Bamburgh. 🙂 Thanks to Bernard Cromwell it may be the best known Anglo-Saxon fortress site in England today anyway.


Din Guaïroï is the name given to Bamburgh in the Historia Brittonum, which then later tells us that it was renamed Bebbanburgh for Æthelfrith’s queen. The name is British in the same form as Dunbarton, Dunbar, DunEden (Edenburgh). Dun meaning a fortified place or dwelling while the second half is a British name. The site was originally known to the Irish as Dún Guaire, their version of the same name.

Din Guairoi was occupied by Britons from the Iron Age through the Roman period. Occupation of a hillfort with such a commanding position over the surrounding area during the Roman occupation is significant and may suggest that these Britons had made positive accomodation with the Romans. According to the Bamburgh Archaeology Project, there are finds suggesting occupation in both the Early and Late Roman period. The Bowl Hole cemetery shown in the video below holds graves from Britons dating back to before the Anglian occupation. I have also been told that there are prehistoric barrows near that cemetery which are expected to have graves of Iron Age or earlier rulers. Din Guairoi should have been ruled by some of the wealthiest Britons because the Tweed valley that it overlooks is some of the best agricultural land in northern Britain.

There is no specific information on the Britons of Din Guairoi in the written record. The Historia Brittonum may give us one hint when it says that a leader called Outigern fought against the northern English in the time of Aneirin, Taliesin, and several other bards.

Ida, the son of Eoppa, possessed countries on the left-hand side of Britain, i.e. of the Humbrian sea, and reigned twelve years, and united Dynguayth Guarth-Berneich

62. Then Dutigirn [Outigern] at that time fought bravely against the nation of the Angles. At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin [Aneirin], and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.

The great king, Mailcun [Maelgwn], reigned among the Britons, i.e. in the district of Guenedota [Gwynedd], because his great-great-grandfather, Cunedda, with his twelve sons, had come before from the left-hand part, i.e. from the country which is called Manau Gustodin [Gododdin], one hundred and forty-six years before Mailcun reigned, and expelled the Scots with much slaughter from those countries, and they never returned again to inhabit them.

Historia Brittonum section 61-62

Given that Ida’s reign is dated to 547 and Maelgwn’s death to the 540s, it suggests that Outigern was active in fighting against Ida. This suggests that Outigern may have been from the last British group that ruled from Bamburgh. Presumably at least some of the bards listed after his name sung about Outigern in poetry that lasted until at least 825 when the Historia Brittonum was written but has since been lost. This corpus of lost poetry, in addition to the surviving poetry, could help explain how the Men of the North became such a major theme in Welsh literature.

All sources we have for Ida of Bernicia claim that he took the hillfort today called Bamburgh. He would have known it as Dun Duairoi and presumably it was known by that name for some time afterwards. Keeping the British name, or some Anglian translation of it, may have assisted in the process of amalgamation that must have happened in Bernicia between the Anglian rulers and the common people, who in Bede’s day, were still recognized as British. It took some time for English names to slowly replace or exist dually with British names.  Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims that Ida built the first walls around the castle, these were almost certainly of British origin.

We don’t hear much about the fortress for the next three generations, until the Historia Brittonum claims that King Æthelfrith grandson of Ida gives it to his Queen Bebba.


The naming of the royal fortress for Queen Bebba appears to be confirmed by Bede, although he doesn’t note who her husband was. It is possible that the author of the Historia Brittonum noted Bede’s reference to Queen Bebba and credited her to Æthelfrith, but I don’t think this is what happened. If it were a fictional link then she would more likely be said to be the queen of Ida than Æthelfrith.

Personally, I think renaming the fortress for a queen could only have been solidified during the reign of a long reigning son. In this case, I think it has to be Oswiu. A story that the family fortress had been given to his mother may have helped him succeed over his brothers after Oswald’s death. We know that Oswald was the son of Acha of Deira and this may partially explain why Oswald’s brother wasn’t acceptable to the Deirans, although Oswald’s son Oethelwald apparently was acceptable enough for him to rebel against Oswiu’s hegemony. We can’t assume that because Oswiu supported Oswald’s sainthood that they were allies in life, or at least it doesn’t mean that Oswald would have supported Oswiu as his heir. Indeed marrying Oswiu off to a British woman from Rheged may suggest that Oswiu wasn’t very highly placed in Oswald’s court. Presumably he made more advantagous marriages for some of his other brothers. (Both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum name six brothers of Oswald, two of which were Oswiu and Eanfrith.) Of course, its unlikely that all of the other four were still alive after the violent deaths of Eanfrith and Oswald. It seems likely that one or more could have been among the twelve men executed along with Eanfrith by Cadwallon, and it seems likely that some brothers died beside Oswald in battle.

Of the events that took place at Bamburgh, we know quite a bit (relatively speaking). It was the personal home of the ruler of Bernicia, Northumbria and then the Earldom of Bernicia. We know of two sieges that took place there neither of which succeeded. The first occurred before 651 when Penda attempted to burn down the wooden gates of Oswiu’s fortress. The change in the wind that drove the fire back on Penda’s forces was credited to the prayers of St Aidan who was watching and praying from Farne isle. The second siege or uprising occurred during the succession of Aldfrith’s son Osred. In the Life of Bishop Wilfrid, Duke Berht reports that he vowed to support Bishop Wilfrid while clinging to a small ledge at Bamburgh when Eadwulf’s forces were trying to force them out, if the royal boy, Osred, succeeded his father. This sounds to me like Aldfrith’s sons hadn’t surrendered Bamburgh to his successor Eadwulf, who was trying to take the royal fortress from the children and their supporters. Interesting… it is possible that the descendants of Oswiu (or Æthelfrith) considered Bamburgh their personal property, not necessarily property of the king.

Of all the kings associated with Bamburgh — Ida, Æthelfrith, Oswiu — it is Oswald whose name is most reflected at Bamburgh. His legend would have dominated the castle from the time of his death. Lasting reminders come in St Oswald’s gate and St Oswald’s chapel, where his arm relic was kept for over 500 years. This arm relic would have been considered to be a personal relic for all the rulers of Bamburgh and, with Oswald’s sword arm enshrined in the chapel, perhaps a divine right to rule for those who now sat on Oswald’s throne. Oswald had great symbolic importance as the first Christian king to rule Bernicia from Bamburgh. We have no clue if Edwin or his men used Bamburgh during their rule over Bernicia, but if they did they left no physical or legendary trace. Given that the Deirans and Edwin really don’t show any inclination towards hillforts or fortresses of any kind, its possible that they did not, perhaps preferring lowland halls like Yeavering.

Bamburgh Today

Here is Bamburgh today on Google Maps. You don’t get the feeling of its elevation in the map but you can zoom in or go out. Look at that beautiful white beach that would be ideal for beaching ships.

The Bowl Hole cemetery excavation by the Bamburgh Research project is on the fortress cemetery. It is located on the edge of the beach near some dunes. It contains graves of Late Roman Christians, Saxon pagans, and then Saxon Christians. They note in the video that it phases out of use when the church yard of St Aidan’s church in Bamburgh comes into use in the 650s.

This is a long (8 min) video of Bamburgh and Millfield. This is a black spot in the second video so wait for the second half.  Millfield, mentioned in the second half of the video, is near Yeavering. Millfield is where Bede reports that Yeaverings administrative functions were moved after Yeavering was no longer in use.


I forgot to mention that Bamburgh has been suggested to be the site of Joyous Gard, the castle of Lancelot, in the Arthurian cycle. It is reputed to be the site of Lancelot’s burial.  Its been suggested that Thomas Mallory’s Joyous Gard was suggested by its original name Din Guairoi.


See Bamburgh Research Project

An Anglo-British Cemetery at Bamburgh: An E-Interview with Graeme Young of the Bamburgh Research Project The Heroic Age, Issue 4, 2001.

LKM: Bernicia/Bryneich

Bamburgh from the BBC

Bamburgh from the BBC

Bernicia or Bryneich?

We know that the name of the kingdom was British and their name for it was Bryneich. No one has put forth a compelling translation for Bryneich. It appears to have been the southern part of Votandini (Gododdin) territory under the Romans, although it may have been independent then just without its name being recorded. It is a very fertile district with numerous hill forts including Bamburgh and Coldingham, the tidal island of Metcaut/Lindisfarne, and the great administrative complex of Yeavering (and the prehistoric Yeavering Bell). The original district of Bryneich may have run from mouths of the River Tweed to the River Aln and perhaps west to around Melrose. It may have originally been centered around the Tweed valley and the fertile plain to the south of the river.  It has been hypothesized that the original Anglican settlement may have been along the River Aln and this fits with their later addition of Bamburgh to their territory (and the coincidence of the first Englishman to add Bamburgh to his territory being the first king). The Anglicized version of Bryneich appears to be Bernicia.

Bryneich was incoroporated into the mythology of Anglican Bernicia in two ways — by adding an ancestor named Beornec to the mythical portion of the royal dynasty and by possibly adding a sovereignty goddess in the form of Queen Bearnoch, wife of the dynastic founder. I have written about Bearnoch before here. Its ironic that those who study the English pedigrees seem to agree that Beornec represents the land but have ignored Queen Bearnoch.

An Anglo-British Kingdom

Archaeological evidence of Anglican settlement is extremely thin on the ground in the area of Bernicia. More sites are being found all the time, though most are 7th century or later.  What early Anglican remains are found in archaeology are focused on former Roman military sites particularly along Hadrian’s Wall, but it is unclear if they were affiliated with Bernicia or Deira. It is quite possible that all of the Angles in the northern Roman province administered from York were later organized around Deira. David Dumville believed that the story in the Historia Brittonum that Angles were recruited from Kent to settle along the wall or just north of it to protect the former Roman territory from the Picts, and led by Hengest’s son Ocha and his cousin Ebusa (HB ch.38) are a confused reference to Ossa/Osla and his son Eoppa, founders of the Bernician royal dynasty. The linkage to Kent is almost certainly fictional in an attempt to link all the English to Hengest’s arrival, focusing the adventus story on Hengest which speaks volumes for Hengest in both British and English folklore. For Bernicia, it still suggests that they were recruited by someone to occupy those former military sites. It is possible that they were recruited by the Britons south of Hadrian’s wall.  Eventually becoming independent,they became enemies of both Romano-Britons south of the wall, Britons/Picts north of the wall who they were recruited to defend against, and the English of York whose pedigree suggests they may go back to the end of Roman Britian (possibly as federate troops). If the English pedigree is any indicator, the Bernicians arrived about two generations before 547, which would place them at about 500-525 keeping the generations fairly short. This is far too late for them to be associated with the Romans, although Bede placed the English arrival at about 450 though this may not refer to his own Bernician people. It is interesting that although Deira has a longer pedigree in Britain, Bernicia is recorded first with Bede recording Ida’s reign starting in 547.

Excavations at Bamburgh’s late antique-early medieval cemetery on the beach confirms that Bamburgh was a fortress of kings back to the iron age. The visible Anglo-British transition is seen in the graves and discussed here. Toward the edge of the cemetery, I’m told there are pre-historic barrows that have not been excavated yet. Regardless it suggests that there was a hillfort here going back through Roman times, if not before. Bamburgh has been a place of power longer than we can determine and with views like in the photo above, it is no wonder. Bamburgh rises above a large fertile plain with a commanding view of the plains and sea alike (photo above). I’ve been told that Bamburgh also has one of the best beaches for beaching ships in all of Britain. Today the shallow water is a disadvantage to our boats that anchor at sea and rely on docks to get to land, but in late antique/early medieval times this was ideal to beach ships like the one found at Sutton Hoo. Bamburgh’s wide white sandy beaches (visible in the distance in the photo above) are also ideal for beachfront markets. It is noteworthy that the cemetery lays on a beachfront ridge 300 meters south of Bamburgh where is would have been clearly visible to all who came north by sea.

Although the Bernicians are universally written about as the enemies of the British, archaeology and social history tells us another story. It should also be mentioned that the Bernician use of British hillforts was unique up through the seventh century. Examples of Bernician hillforts include Bamburgh and Dunbar (where King Ecgfrith has Bishop Wilfrid imprisoned).  Elsewhere, ruins of Roman fortresses were occasionally used for monasteries but not for military sites. Abandoned British hillforts like South Cadbury were left abandoned by the southern English in up to the 8th century. Likewise there are more British placenames, like Melrose, Dunbar, and Carlisle, that survive in Bernicia.

However the English of Bernicia arrived they were oriented north until at least the reign of Ecgfrith. This is best shown by where they sought exile. Both Herring son of Hussa and the sons of Æthelfrith head to Dalriada (western scotland) for refuge rather than southern England. On the other hand Deiran exiles are associated exclusively with the southern English and maybe Edwin sought refuge among the British in Wales. The point is Deirans never looked north for aid; the Bernicians seem to look north for both aid and as their primary political concern first until the mid-670s.

Core and Waves of Expansion

Key locations in Bernicia. Upper group is Coldingham, Melrose and the tight group of Bamburgh, Yeavering and Holy Isle. The lower cluster is Tynemouth, Wearmouth, Jarrow on the coast and Heavenfield to the west.

Key locations in Bernicia. Upper group is Coldingham, Melrose and the tight group of Bamburgh, Yeavering and Holy Isle. The lower cluster is Tynemouth, Wearmouth, Jarrow on the coast and Heavenfield to the west.

The core of the kingdom is in the upper cluster of balloons on the map. This cluster includes Bamburgh, Lindisfarne, Yeavering and then Coldingham is the royal monastery of Oswiu’s sister Æbbe to the north. The westernmost point is Melrose, perhaps on the trail between Lindisfarne and Iona. This tight core remains the heartland of Bernicia until really after 570, after they no longer really had to fear that Bernicia would be conquored.

The expansions discussed below refer to just the kingdom of Bernicia and not to the annexation of the kingdom of Deira and creation of Northumbria. As early as 604, Bernician king Æthelfrith conquorered the neighboring kingdom of Deira, which returned the favor during Edwin of Deira’s subsequent reign.

The first expansion is really the conquest of Lothian which takes Bernicia to the shore of the Firth of Forth. They must really secure Lothian for Coldingham to be secure enough for a convent. The first suggestion of northern movement is a single annal entry listing a seige of Edenburgh in 638, during the middle of Oswald’s reign but the besieger is unlisted. We know that Oswiu was besieged in a fortress near Stirling (north of Edinburgh) in modern Scotland in 655. This says that Bernicia secured Lothian enough that they could withstand Penda’s seige. Abercorn also became the seat of a northern see from Lothian. After 685 the district north of the Firth of Forth between Stirling and Abercorn was a buffer zone that was probably English but not safe enough to actually occupy or invest in royal building programs.

The second expansion of Bernician sites are the lower cluster along Hadrian’s Wall. The earliest Bernician site here is really Heavenfield/Hexham, the westernmost balloon. The tight cluster in the east are the monasteries that are founded primarily during Ecgfrith’s time, although Tynemouth appears to have been operational when Oswiu excuted Oswine in 651. The monastery of Gateshead is also between Wearmouth and Hexham and was probably as old as Tynemouth. It really looks like this group was intentional foundations to stitch together Bernicia and Deira. Gateshead sits on a Roman bridge guarding entry into Bernicia and Tynemouth may have served a similar function for Deira, controlling access to the River Tyne along Hadrian’s Wall. (Tynemouth is where Deiran king Oswine was reputed to have been born and where he was buried.) The area between the rivers Tyne and Tees appears have been heavily contested between Bernicia and Deira during the reigns of Oswiu and Oswine. It is possible that the Tyne valley was first seized by Bernicia after the death of Oswald. It is not impossible that much of the conflict between Bernicia and Deira in the first half of the seventh century was over the Hadrian’s wall/Tyne valley zone.  The diocese of Hexham is basically the northern origins of the diocese of Durham.

The third expansion of Bernicia specifically (rather than Northumbria) is westward. Bede is very specific that Carlisle and Whithorn are within Bernicia. Bernician kings continued to chip away at the west into the Viking age but the British kingdom of Strathclyde seated at Dumbarton never fell to the English. The westward expansion was never as solid as the first two expansions. This area was completely lost to the Danes/Norse.

Village along Hadrians Wall in southern Bernicia

Gilsland Village along Hadrian's Wall in south western Bernicia (bordering Cumbria). It is near the Roman fort of Banna (Birdoswald).

The Idling Dynasty of Bernicia

  • Ossa or Osla Big-knife: According to a continental annals found by David Dumville, the annal claimed that Osla was the first of dynasty to come to Britain. He is found in British legend as one of Arthur’s heroes and sometimes his main enemy. He is mentioned in the Bonedd y Sant (Pedigrees of the Saints) as the ultimate ancestor of St Oswald and as Arthur’s opponent at the battle of Badon (see a post on this pedigree here). He is also mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen and the Historia Brittonum. His epithet big-knife probably refers the Saxon saex.
  • Eoppa: nothing is known about Eoppa other than as Osla’s son and Ida’s father. All of the adventus stories seem to be of partners, father and son  or brothers.
  • Ida son of Eoppa: (r. 547-560) Considered by Bede to be the founder of the Bernician dynasty. He dated the beginning of his 12 year reign to 547, which suggests he had a kinglist like those that survive. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle claims that he was the first king of Bernicia and the Historia Brittonum claims that he “added Caer Guori/Bamburgh to Bernicia”.
  • [Glappa (r. 560-561): followed Ida for just one year. We don’t know how he was related to the Idlings but the form of his name may suggest that he was another son of Eoppa, a brother of Ida.]
  • Adda son of Ida (r.561-569): Nothing specific is known of his 8 year reign.
  • Æthelric son of Ida (r. 569-572) is known in British lore as Æthelric “the king”. He is a figure who is often confused with others. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and elsewhere Ætehlric father of Æthelfrith is confused with Æthelric of Deira, successor of Ælle (and possible father of Hereric father of St Hild). The British epithet, the king, suggests that he may be getting confused with his son Æthelfrith, who was king for 24 years.
  • Theodoric son of Ida (r. 572-579) followed his brother Æthelric and is best known for being the opponent of Urien Rheged, Rhydderch Hael of Strathclyde, Morcant (of Gododdin?) and other British kings. It was Theodoric who was beseiged by Urien Rheged on the isle of Metcaut/Lindisfarne, but survived. He is the most likely candidate for “the flame-bearer” who is referred to in the poetry of Taliesin and who is credited with slaying Owain ap Urien.
  • [Frithuwald:(r. 579-585) We know nothing of Frithuwald except that he ruled after Theodoric. His name elements fit with the Idling dynasty but he could be an intruder.]
  • [Hussa (r. 585-592): Hussa is almost certainly from a rival lineage of the Idlings. His son Herring led the Dalriadans through English territory to attack Æthelfrith at the battle of Degsastan in 604 (ASC-E). Herring son of Hussa had apparently been in exile in Dalriada during the first half of Æthelfrith’s reign.]
  • Æthelfrith son of Æthelric (r. 592-616): Northumbria is the house that Æthelfrith built. He is the real transformational king. He was the first to be truly independent of the regionally dominant king, in his day Dalriada. This suggests that previous Northumbrian kings gained in independence by either allying with a stronger king or the kingdom was too small to gain the attention of regional powers. Bede holds out Æthelfrith’s victory at Degsastan in 603 as being a truly immense victory and pivotal moment in Bernician/Northumbrian history. Æthelfrith was the first Bernician king to conquor a neighboring kingdom, Deira, and apparently rule it directly. He fought at least two major southern battles at Chester  and the battle where he fell on the River Idle in 616. His sons were forced into exile in Dalriada and Pictland upon his death.
  • [Deiran Intruder Edwin son of Ælle (r. 616-633): his sister Acha had been Æthelfrith’s queen. He forced Æthelfrith’s sons into exile.]
  • Eanfrith son of Æthelfrith (r. 633-634): Apostate king of Bernicia upon Edwin’s death. He was executed by Cadwallon of Gwynedd when he tried to sue for peace.
  • Oswald son of Æthelfrith (r. 634-August 5, 642): Succeeded his brother Eanfrith. He first enters history with his faithful erection of a cross at Heavenfield and unexpected victory at the battle of Denisesburna in 634 over Cadwallon of Gwynedd. He invited Irish missionaries to Northumbria. He was the royal partner of Bishop Aidan and patron of Lindisfarne. He sponsored Christian missions throughout his extended domain that Bede claims included all of Britain. He was slain by Penda of Mercia at the battle of Maserfelth on 5 August 642. He is the earliest native English saint and was considered a saint within a decade of his death.
  • Oswiu son of Æthelfrith (r. 642-February 670): Oswiu succeeded Oswald almost immediately but only to Bernicia and not Oswald’s extensive domain. The first half of his reign was in near constant conflict with Penda of Mercia. Oswiu extended his reach by marrying Eanflaed daughter of Edwin of Deira who was under the guardianship of her uncle King Eadbald of Kent. Oswiu built an alliance of Christian kings against Penda. Religion and conversion were active factors of Oswiu’s foreign policy. He eventually married two of his elder children to children of Penda, but it did not bring even short-term peace. Penda led a great campaign into Bernicia in 655 and beseiged Oswiu near Edinburgh. After Penda gave up (or was given satisfaction) Oswiu gathered an army and found the perfect place to ambush Penda and drive his army into  a flood swollen river. Oswiu’s slaying of Penda made him the short term overlord of southern Britain.
  • Ecgfrith son of Oswiu (r. 670-May 20, 685): Ecgfrith lived up to his ancestors reputations for being transformational kings. His greatest achievement was the final unification of Northumbria after the death of his brother Ælfwine. He also set Northumbria with its modern dioceasen system, repariing the relationship with Canterbury and preventing the bishops of York from becoming a line of prince-bishops. He was a warrior king with mixed success who died in battle, also in keeping with his ancestors.
  • Aldfrith son of Oswiu the wise (r. 685-December 705): Oswiu’s bastard was a caretaker king, a scholar king. He gave Northumbria its first 20 years of peace and prosperity. It is during Aldfrith’s peaceful reign that Ecgfrith’s unified kingdom would have cemented its unification with the development of a stable system of nobles.
  • Osred son of Aldfrith (r. 706-716): the only child king of Northumbria, he came to the throne at age 8. His reign would have been a time where the nobles of Northumbria really developed, because in part of the lack of a strong king. It is likely that the real power behind Osred was Berhtfrith who would have been analogous to a Frankish Mayor of the Palace. Osred doesn’t survive long after he comes into his own as a teenager. With Bishop Wilfrid and Ealdorman Berhtfrith dead and trying to assert his own authority, he is murdered by his countrymen. He is universally written of badly but then again a teenager trying to exert control with teenage impulses would be. He is said to be slain “south of the border”, which I tend to think means the northern border. There is no word that he tried to attack Mercia. Perhaps he was seeking to show his royal authority by attacking the Picts and one of his men stopped him short of a dangerous provocation of the current peace. Raids led by new kings were traditional and although he had been king for ten years, he was really new to power.
  • Osric son of Aldfrith or Alchfrith son of Oswiu (r. 718-629)  — It has been disputed whether his father was Aldfrith or his half-brother Alchfrith son of Oswiu, King of Deira. Either way he seems to have been the grandson of Oswiu and was probably the last Æthelfrithing (unless a later king could trace his lineage to Æthelfrith through is mother). If he was a younger brother of Osred, he could not have been born before 698 and would have been about 30 when he died and only about 20 when he became king. He succeeded Coenred/Cenred who John of Fordun later says he murdered. Osric was succeeded by Coelwulf brother of Coenred. Coenred may have been the kinsman of Eadwulf who succeeded Aldfrith for only a few months.

The Bernician Church

Young Cuthbert has a vision of Bishop Aidan's soul being carried to heaven by angels. From the margin of a copy of Bede's Life of Cuthbert.

Young Cuthbert has a vision of Bishop Aidan

Lindisfarne was the mother church for all of Bernicia and its daughter house was Melrose, founded along the route between Lindisfarne and Iona. Lindisfarne was both primary monastery and bishop’s seat, while Melrose seems to have functioned as the training center for Lindisfarne. Until c. 700, Bishop Aidan was the primary saint of Lindisfarne, and he remained important within the community. After 700, Bishop Cuthbert became more politically acceptable surrogate for Aidan. Cuthbert eventually became one of the primary saints of all England.

The primary Bernician convent was at Coldingham, founding by King Oswiu’s uterine sister Æbbe. There are no other specifically Bernician convents known well enough to have thier name remembered. The importance of Coldingham is shown by Queen Æthelthryth’s entry into this convent. While she may have wanted to avoid Whitby because it was ruled by King Ecgfrith’s sister and mother, who are unlikely to have approved of her behavior, Coldingham was run by Ecgfrith’s aunt. It is also possible that she entered Coldingham because it seems to have been more friendly and perhaps lenient for noble women than Whitby.

The development of monasteries along Hadrian’s wall at Hexham, Wearmouth and Jarrow are all tied to Ecgfrith’s reign. It seems likely that the development of the valley into an ecclesiastical zone was part of King Ecgfrith’s policy to unite Bernicia and Deira into one kingdom while opening a  new economic zone that could be controlled by his surrogates in the church. Ecgfrith’s reign also saw the conquest of land to the west, bringing new churches into Bernicia. It seems likely that many churches in Cumbria and Galloway were existing British churches taken over by the English. We know there were churches and a convent at Carlisle and Whithorn came into Bernicia in this time. Ecgfrith’s reign also saw the huge Northumbrian see then ruled from York divided into two Bernician diocese (Lindisfarne and Hexham), one for Deira ( York), one for Pictland (Abercorn) and one for Lindsey (Lincoln). Eventually Lindisfarne’s diocese would be divided again to provide for another diocese at Whithorn. Such was the state of Bernicia at the time of Bede’s death.

When Norse raiding in the early 9th century made Lindisfarne unusable, the community collected their relics in St Cuthbert’s coffin and began to travel. These relics included the coffin of Cuthbert and its contents, bones of Aidan, Oethelwald, the head of Oswald, and possibly other bishops. They settled at Durham in 995 where the Bishop of Durham served Bernicia and his own diocese. In the years between all of the monasteries had been raided, wrecked, and eventually abandoned. The Cathedral of Durham is best known today for being an excellent and largely undamaged pre-Reformation Cathedral with the relics of St. Cuthbert, the head of St Oswald (entombed with Cuthbert), and the bones of St Bede relocated to its Galilee Chapel. Ironically, Bede’s tomb is the only elevated/above ground tomb today.

Early saints of Bernicia include Aidan of Lindisfarne, King Oswald, Boisil of Melrose, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Eata of Hexham, Wilfrid of Ripon/Hexham, Acca of Hexham, John of Beverly, Æthelthryth (Audrey) of Ely, Æbbe of Coldingham, Oethelwald of Farne, Bede of Jarrow, Benedict Biscop and Coelfrith of Wearmouth-Jarrow, and Ninian of Whithorn (adopted by Bernicia). Although a few of these are associated with Deira or further south, all had a connection to Bernicia and personal patronage/admiration from at least Bede!

Bernicia Re-established in Danelaw



The Viking incursions that began with an attack on Lindisfarne in the 790s eventually led to the re-establishment of a semi-independent Bernicia under the overlordship of the Danes of York. Bernicia during the Danelaw compromised the diocese of Durham and the heartland of Bernicia/Northumbria including Lothian. It stretched from Durham north to Edinburgh. The English Earls of Bamburgh remained a force to be reconed with by the Normans. A feud between the Earls of Bamburgh and men loyal to Cnut and the later kings of England is chronicled in the well recieved book Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England by Richard Fletcher (2002) and Earl Uchtred of Bamburg is the focus of Bernard Cromwell’s The Saxon Chronicles series of novels.

From the time of King Æthelfrith (r. 592-616) through to the Earls of Bamburgh in the twilight of Anglo-Saxon England, Bamburgh and Bernicia was a place of power and influence. Ælfred didn’t manage to unite all of the Anglo-Saxon nobles under his banner, the Earls of Bamburgh stood alone in thier dealings with the Danes.  Earl Osulf II, descendent of Earl Uchtred of Bamburgh, managed to gain control of the reconstituted Earldom of Northumbria until his death in 1067. He was succeeded by  a half-Scottish cousin Gospatrick who secured the earldom from William I seeing Bamburgh into the Norman period in English hands. His descendents ruled as earls in parts of Bernicia into the 1400s.

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.

LKM: Lindsey

[Updated 27 March 2008]

This month’s lost kingdom is Lindsey, which makes up most of what is considered Lincolnshire. The kingdom of Lindsey is a hypothetical kingdom because it never appears in the historical record as such. It is based on the Roman city of Lincoln and its environs. Lindsey apparently means Isle of Lincoln. Cut off by rivers and marshes, in the early medieval period, Lindsey was a large island or set of islands with the district of Hatfield to its northwest along with the Isle of Axholme.

A Conflict Zone

From the earliest period, Lindsey appears to be under the control of her neighbors. The highest ranking secular figure in Lindsey that Bede lists is a reeve. A series of battles were fought on Lindsey’s western flank with control over the Isle of Lindsey being the major prize.

This northwestern corner near Lindsey (but perhaps outside of it) was a conflict zone for 6th and 7th century kings. The first battle located in this area was on the east bank of the River Idle on the Mercian boder in 616 when Aethelfrith of Bernicia was slain by Redwald of East Anglia on behalf of Edwin of Deira. This was at a fork in the Roman road system on Lindsey’s western flank that may have marked a boundary between petty kingdoms and the extent of each kings hegemony over those petty kingdoms. Aethelfrith’s death there without his full army suggests that he felt comfortable traveling in this region with just his normal retinue/body guard. It is possible that Lindsey passed to Aethelfrith with his conquest of Deira, and that he felt secure there.

Edwin is the only northern king we see actually active in Lindsey. Bede tells us that Bishop Paulinus of York was particularly active in Lincoln. The reeve of Lincoln Blaecca and his family are converted (apparently he is the highest ranking man in Lindsey) and Paulinus builds a stone church there (HE II.16). Now this is strange as the stone church in York was still incomplete when Edwin died. It seems more likely that Paulinus refurbished a Roman building, perhaps a church. Bede says that in his time the roof has fallen in from neglect but that miracles still occur there so apparently the current Bishop of Lincoln did not use the same church. It was in this church in Lincoln rather than in York that Paulinus consecrated Archbishop Honorius of Canterbury in about 627. Bede goes on to relate a story told to him by Abbot Deda of Partney about Bishop Paulinus’ preaching in Littleborough (Tiowulfingacaestir) that unusally describes the appearance of Bishop Paulinus as “tall, with a slight stoop, black hair, a thin face, a slender aquiline nose, and at the same time he was both venerable and awe-inspiring in appearance”(HE II.16, McClure and Collins, p. 100). This account also apparently mentioned James the Deacon who survived up to the synod of Whitby in 664. Added on to this is Bede’s discussion of Edwin’s royal standard (tufa/thuf). I wonder if this addition was inspired by the place name Tiowulfingacaestir?

Lindsey also figures in the death of King Edwin of Deira whose death is located at Hatfield Chase just northwest of Lindsey on 12 October 633. His body was miraculously found there sometime after 679 and relocated to the church at Whitby.

When Queen Osthryth sent her uncle Oswald’s body to Bardney the monks initially tried to reject it because they said that he had once conquered them. This suggest that the men of Lindsey had met Oswald in battle and lost. The Irish record a southern uprising against Oswald in 637 [rec 641?] that appears to be independent of his last campaign against Penda. (The Annals of Tigernach give this as being one year before it records his death in 638 [rec 642], placing the siege of Edinburgh in between.) Given the importance of this conflict zone it is possible that the uprising was focused in the region of Lindsey and that Lindsey had sided with Oswald’s opponents. If so, it would appear that Oswald successfully put down this revolt. It makes me wonder if Oswald was chasing the ring leader of the revolt in 642 when he fell at Maserfelth. The sentiment that Lindsey may have preferred Mercian rule over Bernician could even go back to the apparent Deiran cooperation with Mercia against Bernicia seen in Edwin’s marriage in exile, and Oswine’s and even Oethelwald’s later cooperation with Mercia. This fits well into ideas I have been developing about the “Humbrian” region that I will have to save for another day.

The next the battlefield shifts slightly north to near Leeds, where Penda of Mercia is killed by Oswiu in 15 November 655. The location of Penda’s death is not specifically known. Somewhere in the marshy fenlands around the upper Humber River in the region of Loidis (Leeds). From the time of Penda’s death in 655, Lindsey appears to have passed securely into Northumbrian hands under King Oswiu.

The fate of Lindsey from the revolt against Oswiu in Mercia that placed Wulfhere on the throne in 658 is unknown. We know that Wulfhere granted land to Chad before 672 and that Chad’s deposed successor Wynfrith retired there. Yet, Oswiu died in 670 so it is still possible that Northumbria/Bernicia retained control of Lindsey until the death of Oswiu and it wasn’t disputed until the time of Ecgfrith (670-685). We know that Wulfhere attacked Northumbria in 674 but was defeated. Lindsey was the usual conflict zone between these kingdoms but the exact time and location of this battle is lost. The Life of Wilfrid suggests that Lindsey passed back to the Northumbrians after this defeat. But it Wulfhere was attacking Northumbria, how did he loose Lindsey? How did Northumbria on the defense gain Lindsey for their victory?

Again in 679 a battle is fought due west of Lindsey again on the River Trent when King Æthelred of Mercia invaded Northumbria. King Ælfwine of Deira was slain in the battle. It is significant to know that the River Trent was considered an invasion of Northumbria. This last battle seems to be specifically over control of Lindsey. After Ælfwine’s death the border skirmishes threatened to turn into a blood feud until Archbishop Theodore stepped in and mediated a settlement that allowed Mercia to keep Lindsey but pay weregeld for Ælfwine’s death.

Monastic Networks

The primary means of controlling the region of Lindsey appears to have rested in its monastic network. The kings of Mercia in particular invested heavily in monasteries that controlled key fords or bridges over the main rivers that provided access to Lindsey.

The monasteries of Bardney and Partney both fall into this category and were at one time, along with a convent, controlled by one family who also provided Lindsey with an early bishop, Aethelwine Bishop of Lindsey 680-692. His brother was Abbot Eadlwine of Partney and their sister was Abbess Aethelhild, whose monastery was somewhere near Partney. Although the early monks of Bardney may have favored Merican rule, this family does seem to have been well entrenched with the church of Lindisfarne. Another brother of this family, Aethelhun, died in Ireland with Egbert in about 664 and another monk of Lindsey, Higebald, later visited Egbert in Ireland.

We know that Bardney was heavily invested in by King Aethelred of Mercia, who became its abbot after his abdication. It was at Bardney that Aethelred and his queen Osthryth established the shrine of her uncle King Oswald and where both were later themselves buried. His burial of Queen Osthryth there after her murder (also by Mercian rebels), which when placed next to her martyred uncle, must have further enhanced the prestige of the site. St Oswald’s shrine at Bardney seems to have been the most major shrine in Lindsey during the Anglo-Saxon period, although St Guthlac’s Croyland and St Audrey’s Ely, and Peterborough (Medeshampstead) where not that far away in the fen lands bordering Lindsey.

It is interesting to note that unlike in other regions, Lindsey’s monasteries are along inland waterways, but I don’t know of any on the seaward side. This suggests that their placement was to control internal trade and travel, but not to be part of a port as we find near Whitby, Jarrow, Whithorn, St David’s Menevia and other monasteries.

Lindsey’s Pseudo-Royal Family

Only one instance of a royal genealogy for Lindsey has survived. It is in an Anglican Collection of genealogies that are believed to have come from Offa’s Mercia. By this time Lindsey was securely under Mercian control and probably had been for all of living memory. We know that King Offa gave the shrine of St Oswald at Bardney expensive gifts, as mentioned in Alcuin’s poem on the Bishops, Kings and Saints of York.

The Lindsey genealogy is obviously non-royal. It is probably a noble who is being particularly honored by Offa, perhaps one who rose to sub-king, but not from a royal family. Just as Offa killed off his son’s rivals, he would have boosted those who he expected to help his son. Offa may have considered this sub-king/ealdorman to have been important in helping secure the succession of his son Ecgfrith. This lineage disappears after its single mention in Offa’s genealogical collection, so it is possible that this family fell from power with the death of Offa’s son. Its last member Aldfrith is a witness to one charter in Offa’s time. However, given that it isn’t that long before the arrival of the Danes it is not surprising that the fate of this family is a mystery.

If we look at the genealogy in detail there is just enough alliteration and common naming patterns to believe that it could be real back to Winta, the last man before Woden. Winta may reflect the placename Winteringham (homestead of Winta’s people) (Wikipedia). His son Cretta looks like a reasonable name for a son of Winta so they may come from local Lindsey lore. Note that most of the kingdoms are founded by duos, father and son (Ida and Eoppa), or brothers (Hengest and Horsa). It does not follow any other pattern to show linkage between royal houses, but neither does Mercia. (For example, Wessex and Bernicia claim to be descended from the same son of Woden.) The genealogy is noticeably shorter than the others in the collection (ie. it reaches Woden sooner) and then unlike the others extends beyond Woden to Geot (Geat) to make it as long as the others in the collection. This all adds up to suggest it is probably a fairly recent act of creative writing.

Medieval Legends

In early medieval legends, Lindsey/Lincoln is often mentioned in Arthurian stories. The earliest mention is the Historia Brittonum where Arthur fights three of his twelve battles over the ‘district of Linnis’, usually interpreted as Lindsey. This section of the Historia Brittonum (written in c. 825) is widely accepted to be a battle listing poem that has been incorporated as a bridge in the historical narrative. Whether or not the poet originally intended Linnis to be Lindsey, it is likely that by 825 the author of the Historia Brittonum would have been thinking of Lindsey when he compiled that work. Even in legend, Lindsey is an area of conflict.

Modern Legends

As far as I can tell the early antiquarian guess that the name and people of Lindisfarne are somehow linked to Lindsey is just that, a guess based on the name. I don’t think there is any real connection between the two place names.


I owe my knowledge of conflict zones to the PhD thesis of Tim Clarkson and many conversations over the years.

Clarkson, Tim. 2001. Warfare in early historic northern Britain. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Manchester: University of Manchester.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People

“The Kingdom of Lindsey” at Wikipedia.