Oswine the Anti-Hero

(A post from the archive on the anniversary of King Oswine’s death.)

King Oswine of Deira (Yorkshire) 20 August 651

Modern Eastern Orthodox icon of King Oswine of Deira

Today is the anniversary of the execution of King Oswine of Deira, considered by some to be a saint. All we know of Oswine is included in Bede’s History (Book III:14). Bede writes a curious tale for Oswine.

“King Oswine was tall and handsome, pleasant of speech, courteous in manner, and bountiful to nobles and common alike; so it came about that he was beloved by all because of his royal dignity which showed itself in his character, his appearance, and his actions; and noblemen from almost every kingdom flocked to serve him as retainers. Among all the other graces of virtue and modesty with which, if I may say so, he was blessed in a special manner, his humility said to have been the greatest” (McClure and Collins, ed; 1994:132)

This all seems well and good. Bede proceeds to narrate an example of Oswine’s great humility to St. Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, at the end of the episode, Aidan turns to an Irish colleague and says “I know that the king will not live long; for I never before saw a humble king. Therefore I think that he will very soon be snatched from this life; for this nation does not deserve to have such a ruler.” (p. 133). Oswine death follows and Aidan himself dies only 12 days “after the murder of the king he loved”. The implication is that Aidan dies of a broken heart.

Bede actually begins his tale with Oswine’s murder/execution. Oswine has gathered his army to meet King Oswiu (who would later rule at the Synod of Whitby) in battle near Catterick. When Oswine realized how outnumbered he was by Oswiu, he disbanded his army and went into hiding with a retainer he believes is his friend. This retainer betrayed him to Oswiu who had his rival executed. There is no doubt that this murder caused an outrage in the church. Oswiu’s queen, Eanflaed, was the cousin of Oswine and demanded a weregeld (blood price) paid by the founding of the monastery of Gilling where prayer was to be offered daily for the soul of King Oswine and his murderer King Oswiu.

The question is why does Bede include the story in his History. There is no evidence that he sees Oswine as anything other than a sad victim. Bede provides no evidence that Oswine was considered to be a saint by his day. Oswine was much later reported to be buried at Tynemouth, not the new monastery of Gilling.

The usual explanation is that Bede includes the story because his beloved Abbot Coelfrith came from Gilling, Coelfrith’s family monastery (meaning that Coelfrith was also a kinsman of Oswine). This isn’t really a very satisfying answer. Gilling had ceased to exist before Bede was born and Coelfrith is not mentioned in the story. An interesting side note is that Gilling seems to disband as a monastery after the plague of 664 when all the surviving monks joined Abbot Wilfrid at Ripon (victor of the synod of Whitby the same year). Thus within months of deciding for Rome, the monastery Oswiu had to found as weregeld/penance was allowed to disappear.

Another explanation is that it was part of Aidan’s death story. This isn’t very satisfying either because Aidan’s death is not elaborated on, as it is in a later chapter (which doesn’t mention Oswine at all). These look like two reports of Aidan’s death.

The chapter begins with an assessment of Oswiu’s reign and the next chapter records a miracle of Aidan’s in assisting in the arrival of Eanflaed to her marriage to Oswiu. The context of the story places it within Oswiu’s story as Oswald’s successor. Miracles of St. Aidan and Aidan’s death are then inserted. After Aidan comes the life and death of pious King Sigeberht of East Anglia who had entered a monastery, but his people pulled him out of the monastery to lead them into battle against Penda, the evil pagan of Bede’s History. Sigeberht refused to carry a weapon in to battle and rode to his death carrying only his royal scepter.

Bede has set up a story of three example kings

  • Oswald: Bede’s ideal king: brave, victorious in battle, supporter of the church and evangelist, humble enough to translate Aidan’s sermons before his people, but not too humble to loose their respect, protector of his people up to his death.
  • Oswine: too humble to be a king. A perfect picture of a king, but when it came down to it, not brave enough to ride in to battle and die. He is an anti-hero.
  • Sigebert: a pious king, but nevertheless Bede did not favor kings who retired to monasteries. The fact that his people came to him to lead them in battle suggests that he once was victorious in battle and was still young and healthy enough to do so again. He did not protect his people. Penda destroys the army, Sigebert’s co-king, and then ravages the monasteries and people of East Anglia.

Bede believed that people should live up to the position in life they were given: king, bishop, monk, commoner. A king should be a good king: protector of the people, patron of the church, obedient to the bishop. He offers Oswine as an example to his readers of how a king should not behave.

Perhaps he was also eager to ensure that King Oswiu would not be too glorified. He tallied plenty of pious attributes during his 28 year reign. He may have been the greatest patron of the church of his age, judge at the synod of Whitby, and slayer of Northumbria’s worst enemy (Penda of Mercia), but he was also capable of murdering his rivals and having his own kinsmen, his nephew Oethelwald son of Oswald and his own son Alhfrith, rebel against him. His rebellious kinsmen are never heard from again. Bede does make sure to casually mention these rebellions in the beginning of the chapter before he narrates Oswine’s story. The execution of Oswine may be Bede’s way of indicating the fates of Oethelwald and Alhfrith by implication in a way that would not offend the contemporary rulers of Northumbria.


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.

Random thoughts on St Oswald at Prayer

From Bede’s History III.12 (McClure and Collins, p. 129)

“It is related, for example, that every often he [King Oswald] would continue in prayer from matins to daybreak; and because of his frequent habit of prayer and thanksgiving, he was always accustomed, whenever he sat, to place his hands on his knees with the palms turned upwards. It is also a tradition which has become proverbial, that he died with a prayer on his lips. When he was beset by the weapons of his enemies and saw that he was about to perish he prayed for the souls of his army. So the proverb runs, ‘May God have mercy on their souls, as Oswald said when he fell to the earth'”

This passage has attracted the most attention for his palms up posture. I’ve read here and there some odd talk about it reflecting pre-Christain postures. Nonsense… look around your local church and then look at ancient murals and art and you will see palms up postures throughout.

What has attracted my attention is the claim that he prayed continually from matins to daybreak. This is one sleep deprived king! Did he have insomnia? Matins is supposed to be the midnight office and daybreak is lauds. Obviously, matins can’t be really midnight. In reality various monasteries and churches set matins at various times of the night. It is likely that each monastic system had a schedule set for daily prayer, and it was practiced by members of the house(s) where ever they were. It seems likely that Oswald followed the schedule from Lindisfarne, led by a personal priest. This also suggests that the hours of the office were done somewhere within Bamburgh’s enclosure so that it was easily accessible to Oswald.

It is one of the mysteries of Oswald’s reign that his personal priest is not mentioned. We know that his brother Oswiu had personal priests — Utta, later Abbot of Gateshead, and Eadhead, later Bishop of Lindsey– and his son Oethelwald had Caelin, brother of bishops Cedd and Chad, as his personal priest. All of these priests were from the Lindisfarne family, and as the founder of Lindisfarne it is almost certain that Oswald would have had an Irish priest by his side. There wouldn’t have been any English priests trained until at the very earliest late in Oswald’s reign. Given that Bede is promoting the close relationship between Oswald and Bishop Aidan I suppose its not surprising that his personal priest, who really couldn’t be Aidan, isn’t mentioned.

One of the things this calls to mind is that first of all, Oswald was surely, remarkably pious. After an evening in the hall with his court, getting up before dawn for prayer is impressive. It may also be the only time during the day when a king could quietly think. Once the rest of the court awakes, the day’s business will begin and by evening his hall will be full of his retainers. It also occurs to me that this formal position, with palms turned up, indicates that Oswald was a rather impressive, kingly figure otherwise these odd details would not have been remembered.

This also brings up Oswald’s understanding of Latin. How many kings would go daily to hear the office if they couldn’t understand it. Granted, he may have just wanted to be present when what he considered to be sacred rites were preformed and to pray silently to himself. Still it all suggests quite a lot of formation on Oswald’s behalf done by Iona before he returned and afterwards fostered by the monks of Lindisfarne.

Lindisfarne’s Long Century

Over to the left you will notice another new web page. They seem to be really proliferating. So what is Lindisfarne’s Century? Well, its a place to collect posts on Lindisfarne.

Lindisfarne’s Century refers to their short period of dominance or high influence from about 635 to 750. Lindisfarne continued, of course, into at least the ninth century but after the 750s their influence significantly fell. In 750, King Aldfrith’s son Offa was forcefully removed from Lindisfarne and executed. Interestingly, abdicated king Ceolwulf was in Lindisfarne when Offa was dragged out of the monastery and killed. It is possible that Offa went to Lindisfarne hoping to get protection from Ceolwulf (who was the hand picked successor of his reputed brother Osric). The recording of King Ceolwulf’s death in the Irish annals under the name Eochaid also suggests that Ceolwulf and by extension Lindisfarne did keep contacts with the Irish. After Offa’s death and the later obit of Ceolwulf little is heard from Lindisfarne until the Norse raid it in 793. Eventually they abandoned the island and began their exodus to Durham. They wandered in their wilderness for much longer than 40 years but the community of St Cuthbert stayed together. The wandering community of St Cuthbert and the Prince Bishops of Durham are fascinating but beyond my scope. By then they have moved from innovation to preservation.

So anyway, there is now a page to collect posts on Lindisfarne and sphere of influence (Whibty, Lastingham, Melrose, etc).

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.

Clashing models: Latin-Mediterranean vs Celtic

Another topic in William Trent Foley’s article “Imitatio Apostoli: St Wilfrid of York and the Andrew Script” (1989, Am Benedictine Rev) that I found very interesting is his discussion of Cuthbert and Wilfrid following different and indeed clashing life scripts.

“The difference between Aidan and Cuthbert, on the one hand, and Wilfrid on the other can be traced to their different scripts. Aidan and Cuthbert received their scripts exclusively through the Celtic Christian meliu of northern Britain. In that melieu, sanctity has long been bound up in the ideal of martyrdom that centered on ascetic self-control. Wilfrid had taken more of his script, however, from the Latin-Mediterranean cities of Rome and Lyon … both… had been drenched with the blood of Christian martyrs who stood firm against persecution from secular authorities. …In both places, Wilfrid encountered through legend and witnessed in person this ancient ideal which understood martyrdom as the holy person’s struggle against the secular ruler who is hostile to God’s people and purposes. …the Hexham church’s dedication to Andrew is owing to more than simply some general devotion that Wilfrid had for the Roman Gregorian tradition which Andrew supposedly symbolized; it can be traced more specifically to Wilfrid’s recognition that Andrew’s story was also his own. The Hexham church thus stands as a memorial not only to Andrew’s ordeal, but to Wilfrid’s as well.

…In the final chapter of Wilfrid’s Life, Eddius [Stephan] writes the following in loving admiration of his late master: ‘But now it is for us to believe fully and perfectly that our intercessor [Wilfrid] by the sign of the holy cross has been made equal to the apostles of God, Peter and Andrew, who he specifically loved.” … I suspect that by so ending his Life in ascribing to Wilfrid an apostle-martyr status equal to Andrew’s, Eddius was remembering his old abbot to the world in exactly the way that Wilfrid would have wanted.” (p. 29-31)

I think Foley’s identification of the Latin-Mediterranean model for Wilfrid’s life is a very important one. We often write/talk about authors modeling their subjects on this or that, but it is also probable that people really did model their lives on their heroes. Remember that a saint is a hero; a more important hero to a true monastic than any secular hero, real or fictional. Its also not surprising that these two different religious lifestyles would each choose a local model saint that exemplified those ideas, Wilfrid for the Mediterranean model and Cuthbert for the Anglo-Celtic/Celtic model. I think it may be better to talk of Wilfrid in this Mediterranean mode because the term Romanist (which I admit that I use all the time) is charged with many post-Reformation feelings and images that are not relevant for the seventh century.

I wonder if it is likely that two such polar examples of piety could have only developed in direct opposition to one another. Both living in the same kingdom at the same time. Cuthbert is the student of Eata, who was the bishop in most direct contact and conflict with Wilfrid (previously discussed here), and Eata was the oldest and perhaps most trusted English pupil of Aidan of Lindisfarne. Wilfrid was the student of Bishop ‘Dalphinus’ of Lyon and Bishop Agilbert (later of Paris, originally of somewhere in Gaul).

I think we also sometimes get into this mode of considering Cuthbert to be all goodness and light and Wilfrid to be nasty and political, but that is a trap. Each followed their own model and teacher. I don’t doubt Wilfrid’s faith, sincerity, or belief that it was right — and he usually was! Contemporary kings gave him plenty of reason to feel persecuted. I’m sure they did prefer the quiet monks who, as far as we know, very rarely interfered in politics and didn’t want their wealth. Yet, Wilfrid’s practical approach to politics and endowments to his monasteries got results. Endowments are a necessary thing when your king dies and the throne passes from his lineage, as no doubt Jarrow knew full well. Their endowments ended abruptly with the death of King Ecgfrith. From then on they have to barter with King Aldfrith for additional lands and there are no royal building programs at Wearmouth-Jarrow. I really have to wonder how monasteries like Lastingham survived when their founder was branded a traitor. They must have got help from the episcopal sees of Cedd and Chad. Their political position would have made establishing veneration of Cedd even more important than usual.