“In the year from the Lord's incarnation 969, in the reign of Æthelred, king of the English, Malcolm, king of the Scots, son of King Kenneth, collected the army of the whole of Scotland and ravaging with slaughter and fire the province of the Northumbrians, invested Durham with a siege.”
So begins a short treatise known as ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’. The date, however, is impossible for the characters involved (and why it became attached to this event is not easily explained).* Æthelred came to the throne of England in 978, whilst Malcolm II (son of Kenneth II) did not secure the Scottish throne until 1005.
“A battle between the men of Alba [i.e. the Scots] and the Saxons [i.e. the English], and the men of Alba were defeated and a great number of their nobles left dead.”
It is generally accepted that the battle reported by the ‘Annals of Ulster’ and the consequences of Malcolm's assault on Durham are one and the same.* ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’ continues:
“At this time Ealdhun ruled the bishopric there [i.e. at Durham] ....
.... and Waltheof, who was earl of Northumbria, had shut himself up in Bamburgh. For he was of extreme age, so that he could display no valour against the enemy.”*
In this context, the term Northumbria refers only to the northern province of Northumbria, governed from Bamburgh. Waltheof's son, Uhtred, “a youth of great vigour and the highest military aptitude”, who was, at this time, married to Bishop Ealdhun's daughter:
“... seeing that the land was ravaged by the enemy and Durham invested by a siege, and that his father did nothing to prevent it, united the army of the Northumbrians and of the men of York [i.e. the southern province of Northumbria] in no small band; and slew nearly the whole host of the Scots, while their king scarce escaped with a few by flight. And the heads of the slain, ornamented as was the fashion at that time with braided hair, he caused to be conveyed to Durham; and caused them to be well washed by four women, and set on stakes around the walls. And to each of the women who had washed them they gave a cow as wage....
C.R. Hart writes: “The correct date for this siege of Durham is probably 1006, as given in the Annals of Ulster”. As already mentioned, Symeon of Durham makes no mention of a siege at this time. He does, however, report (‘Libellus de Exordio’ III, 9) that, in 1039, the Scottish king Duncan unsuccessfully besieged Durham: “a great part of his cavalry was slain by those who were besieged; and he fled away in confusion, and in his flight lost all his infantry killed. And their heads were carried into the market-place, and hung up on stakes.”* C.R. Hart cites Dorothy Whitelock, who noted a ‘suspicious’ resemblance between this siege reported by Symeon of Durham and the story in ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’, and continues: “but there would seem to be nothing suspicious about this: Durham would be the natural objective for a Scottish army raiding across the border.” Bernard Meehan, who dissociates the battle placed in 1006 by the ‘Annals of Ulster’ from the siege reported in ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’, reckons there was a “Durham tradition of an encounter between Uhtred and Malcolm” that was “undated and imprecise”, and that the author of ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’ appropriated the later siege to turn the tradition “into a picturesque victory for a man [i.e. Uhtred] Durham might be expected to remember with affection.” Mr Meehan also reckons that in Symeon's ‘Historia Regum’ this same nebulous tradition was attributed (s.a. 1018) to another Scottish/Northumbrian clash: the Battle of Carham. In the very same journal, A.A.M. Duncan is at pains to point out that he “remained unconvinced” by Mr Meehan's argument. In his book ‘Scotland: The Making of the Kingdom’ (Chapter 4), published the previous year (1975), Professor Duncan writes: “in 1006 Malcolm ravaged widely in Northumberland, besieging Durham for the treasures of St Cuthbert until soundly defeated by northern levies under Uhtred of Bamburgh”.
.... When King Æthelred heard these things he called to him the aforesaid youth and, although his father Waltheof still lived, for the merit of his vigour and for the war which he had so manfully carried through he gave him his father's earldom, adding to it also the earldom of York.”
The neat sequence of events described above is apparently flawed. Symeon of Durham (‘Libellus de Exordio’ III, 2) tells how Uhtred helped Bishop Ealdhun to clear dense woodland, so the community of St Cuthbert could settle at Durham, in 995. Uhtred is already accorded the title ‘earl (comes) of Northumbria’ (i.e. the northern province). At this time, the earl of York, i.e. the southern province of Northumbria, was one Ælfhelm. His murder, seemingly by order of King Æthelred, is recorded in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ s.a. 1006.* For Uhtred to have led a force drawn from both the north and south of Northumbria, he must, surely (?), have already been made earl of both provinces.* At any rate, according to ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’, on his return from Æthelred's court, Uhtred repudiated Bishop Ealdhun's daughter and married the daughter of a wealthy gent called Styr:
“But afterwards when he, that is, Uhtred, advanced more and more in the art of war, King Æthelred gave to him as wife his daughter Ælfgifu.”*
“Ealdhun, bishop of Durham, died. A great battle was fought at Carham between the Scots and the English, between Uhtred son of Waltheof, the earl of Northumbria, and Malcolm son of Kenneth [Malcolm II], king of the Scots. With him [Malcolm] was Owain the Bald [Eugenius Calvus], king of the men of Strathclyde.”*
“In the year of the Lord's incarnation 1018, while Cnut controlled the kingdom of the English, a comet appeared for 30 nights to the people of Northumbria, and with dread presage foreshowed the province's future disaster.* For shortly after – that is, after thirty days – while they fought at Carham against an endless host of Scots, the entire people, from the river Tees to the Tweed, with their nobility, almost wholly perished. The bishop [Ealdhun], hearing of the lamentable slaughter of St Cuthbert's people, was smitten to the heart with deep grief ... after a few days, caught by disease, he died, after passing twenty-nine years in the episcopate.”*
1018, the date which Symeon of Durham attaches to the battle of Carham (which is some 15 miles upriver from Berwick-upon-Tweed), presents something of a difficulty, in that the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ apparently places Earl Uhtred's death in the Spring of 1016. There seems to be no convincing reason to doubt Symeon's date for the battle,* so it could be that the identification of Uhtred as leader of the English forces, made only in the ‘Historia Regum’, is wrong, or perhaps Uhtred was not, in fact, killed in 1016. Both views have their advocates.
Uhtred's death is reported thus in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ (Manuscripts C, D and E) s.a. 1016: “[Uhtred] from necessity submitted [to Cnut's army], and all the Northumbrians with him; and he gave hostages; and, notwithstanding, they slew him^, and Thurcytel son of Nafena with him. And then, after that, King Cnut appointed Eric as his earl in Northumbria, as Uhtred had been+”. This is placed before King Æthelred's death on 23rd April 1016. The sequence of annals covering the years 983 to 1016, preserved in Manuscripts C, D and E of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, are the main source for Æthelred's reign, and they were evidently composed after 1016 and before 1023 – “no later than the end of 1019”, reckons A.A.M. Duncan. Professor Duncan argues that the italicized words in the ‘Chronicle’ entry above: “are parenthetic ... They were a comment by the author of the 1016 annal (writing between 1016 and 1019), who knew of the recent death of Uhtred and who wished to stress bitterly the faithlessness of Cnut.” In other words: “though remarked upon under 1016, it [Uhtred's death] occurred in 1018.”
Writing in the very same publication as Professor Duncan, Bernard Meehan maintains that: “The weight of evidence does suggest that Carham was fought in 1018, that it was probably fought by Malcolm, but that Uhtred, having died two years earlier, could not have taken part.”*
In his piece on Uhtred in the ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’ (2004), William M. Aird avers: “Although a comparatively late source puts Uhtred at the battle of Carham leading the English to defeat by the Scots in 1018, it is now generally accepted that this was an error and that his death occurred in 1016.” Whilst, in the piece about Malcolm II in the ‘ODNB’, Dauvit Broun writes: “He won a famous and decisive victory over Uhtred, earl of Northumbria, at Carham on the Tweed in 1018.”
The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ says, s.a. 1016, that Cnut replaced the deceased Earl Uhtred with Earl Eric, a Norwegian; and s.a. 1017, when describing how Cnut divided the rule of his newly acquired kingdom, says he gave: “to Eric Northumbria.” The situation wasn't quite so straightforward however. Uhtred's father had governed the northern province of Northumbria only. King Æthelred had promoted Uhtred – making him earl of both the northern and southern provinces. According to the anonymous tract ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’:
“When [Uhtred] was slain his brother Eadwulf, surnamed Cudel [Cuttlefish], succeeded him in the earldom; a man very cowardly and timorous.”*
But when Eadwulf died, Uhtred's son, Ealdred, is said to have succeeded only to the northern province. In a digression on the earls of Northumbria, s.a. 1072 in the ‘Historia Regum’, Symeon of Durham reports that Ealdred was succeeded by his brother, another Eadwulf. Cnut's appointee, Eric, is not mentioned at all.
It would seem that Earl Eric never had direct control of the northern province. He disappears from history in 1023. At some stage between then and 1031, the earldom of York passed to one Siward, who was probably Danish.* In the ‘Historia Regum’, s.a. 1072, Symeon reports that Eadwulf was killed by Siward (an event dated 1041 by the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’), who then took:
“... the earldom of the whole province of the Northumbrians; that is, from the Humber as far as the Tweed.”
‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’ poses another conundrum. It says that Eadwulf Cudel:
“... fearing that the Scots would avenge on him the death of their men whom, as has been said above, his brother [i.e. Uhtred] had killed [at the siege of Durham – the battle of Carham is not mentioned], he granted to them the whole of Lothian, for amends and steadfast peace. In this way was Lothian added to the kingdom of the Scots.”
The problem being that Æthelred's father, Edgar, is reported to have already granted Lothian – the land between the rivers Tweed and Forth – to Malcolm II's father, Kenneth II.* That the English forces at Carham were drawn from between the Tees and the Tweed would seem pretty strong evidence that Lothian was, indeed, already in Scottish hands.*
Bernard Meehan, though, disagrees – suggesting that the battle reported by the ‘Annals of Ulster’: “more probably took place further west, closer to the Ulster ambit.”
The title ‘earl’ comes from Scandinavian usage (Old Norse jarl). The Anglo-Saxon equivalent is ‘ealdorman’, and Ælfhelm is so titled by the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ s.a. 1006. Uhtred appears in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ s.a. 1013 and s.a. 1016, and is titled ‘earl’ (Old English eorl). In charters both men are titled dux, a term that, like comes, is used by Latin writers in lieu of the vernacular titles.
The anonymous author, writing in Latin, uses the term comes in lieu of the vernacular title ‘earl’.
A.A.M. Duncan certainly believes this to be the case. In a footnote, he states, unequivocally: “Uhtred was already earl of all Northumbria (both provinces) if he led the men of both provinces against the Scots.”
Bernard Meehan suggests there may be a twofold error. Firstly, that a scribal slip-up has converted 949 (DCCCCXLIX) into 969 (DCCCCLXIX), and, secondly, that Malcolm son of Kenneth (Malcolm II) has been confused with Malcolm son of Donald (Malcolm I): “It is just possible that the scribe intended to write DCCCCXLIX (949), when King Malcolm I is recorded as having plundered the English as far as the Tees.” Malcolm I's raid is recorded in the ‘Scottish Chronicle’ preserved in the Poppleton Manuscript. It is not absolutely dated, but placed in “the 7th year of his reign”, and the ‘Annals of Ulster’ place an event dated to his 10th year in 952.
Uhtred's marriage to Styr's daughter is said to have been conditional on Uhtred killing Styr's enemy, Thurbrand. What became of the daughter isn't mentioned, but Uhtred would appear to have failed to keep his side of the bargain, since it was a Thurbrand (presumably the same man) who would eventually be the agent of Uhtred's death (see: Ironside).
The formula Symeon uses to date this siege is: Cnut died in 1035; it occurred in the 5th year of the reign of his son, Harold, which was also the 20th year of Bishop Edmund at Durham. Symeon later mentions that Edmund died during his 23rd year in the bishopric. In the ‘Historia Regum’, Edmund's elevation to the bishopric is placed in 1020, and his death in 1042.
Ealdhun became bishop in 990 – recorded by Florence of Worcester, as well as Symeon in the ‘Historia Regum’ and the ‘Libellus de Exordio’ (II, 20).
The ‘Annals of Ulster’ s.a. 1018: “A comet appeared this year for the space of a fortnight in the autumn season.”
Thietmar of Merseburg (VIII, 29): “In the month of August , a new star appeared next to the Plough and terrified all who saw it, with its distant rays... This shining star was visible for more than 14 days.” (Thietmar died on 1st December 1018.)
The circumstantial detail Symeon provides in the ‘Libellus de Exordio’ – that “Cnut controlled the kingdom of the English”, which couldn't possibly be applicable before the death of Edmund Ironside on 30th November 1016; the, independently attested, appearance of a comet; the link with the death of Bishop Ealdhun – supports the date 1018. Frank Stenton, however, writes: “Symeon states [in the ‘Historia Regum’] that the English leader was Earl Uhtred, who is known to have been killed in 1016 [well, that may not be the case]. As names are better remembered than dates, this statement outweighs any argument for 1018 founded on the chronological details given above [i.e. in the ‘Libellus de Exordio’].” By this (unconvincing) reasoning, from what is known of Uhtred's movements in 1016 (see: Ironside), the battle of Carham could not really be later than 1015.
Mr Meehan suggests that there was a “Durham tradition of an encounter between Uhtred and Malcolm” that was “undated and imprecise”, and that in the ‘Historia Regum’ it was attributed to the battle of Carham, but in the tract ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’ this same vague tradition was applied to details of a siege of Durham that took place in 1039, to produce, in effect, a phantom siege involving Uhtred and Malcolm. (See: The Siege of Durham.)
In Manuscript C only there is an additional phrase, saying that the infamous ealdorman Eadric Streona had advised the killing, at this point.
“King Cnut” in Manuscript E.
“the king” in Manuscripts C and D.
Symeon's piece on the earls of Northumbria s.a. 1072 is very similar to a section of an anonymous early-12th century Durham tract, ‘De Primo Saxonum Adventu’. In the place where Symeon defines the Tyne as the southern boundary of the northern earldom, the ‘De Primo Saxonum Adventu’ version has Tees.
Earl Eric (Yrik dux) last appears in the witness list of a charter of 1023 (S960). Earl Siward (Siward dux) first appears in the witness list of a charter of 1031 (S968).
Dux is another term employed by Latin-writers in lieu of the vernacular title ‘earl’.
The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ and Florence of Worcester, who provides extra detail, report Uhtred's death s.a. 1016 before Æthelred's death (23rd April), but ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’, though mentioning no dates, places it after Æthelred's death.*William F. Skene and Edward A. Freeman both accept that Uhtred was killed in 1016, and assume that it was Uhtred's brother, Eadwulf Cudel, who was defeated at Carham in 1018.
Incidentally, the anonymous author of ‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’, like Symeon of Durham, uses the Latin comes to represent the vernacular ‘earl’.
Symeon of Durham, writing in Latin, uses the term comes in lieu of the vernacular title ‘earl’.
A.A.M. Duncan, though, argues that the Scots had lost control of “some or all of Lothian” in the decades since Edgar had granted it to Kenneth II: “It was recovered by the Scots in or just after 1018 when Malcolm II, hoping to take advantage of the uncertain position of Northumbria, launched an attack which met the levies of the land from Tees to Tweed under Earl Uhtred at Carham and thoroughly defeated them.”
On the other hand, Alfred P. Smyth reckons: “Malcolm's victory at Carham can have had little bearing on the Scottish occupation of Lothian, which had been an accomplished fact for half a century, but it could have had everything to do with more ambitious Scottish claims on the overlordship of Bernicia [i.e. the northern province of Northumbria]. If we seek a reason for the slaying of Uhtred after his visit to Cnut's court, it must surely be in part at least for his apparent disloyalty in recognizing Malcolm (after Carham) as his overlord in Bernicia.”
The section of the ‘Historia Regum’ that covers this period comprises Florence of Worcester's chronicle regurgitated, with the odd unique entry slotted in at the appropriate place. Therefore, s.a. 1016 appears the report of Uhtred's death à la Florence, but s.a. 1018 is the unique report of Uhtred's involvement at Carham.
s.a. = sub anno = ‘under the year’.
‘De Obsessione Dunelmi’ (On the Siege of Durham) was written, almost certainly at Durham, in the late-11th or early-12th century. A 16th century addition to the sole surviving, later-12th century, copy (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 139) claims the author was Symeon of Durham, but the text itself provides no reason to believe this late attribution.
‘The Siege of Durham, the Battle of Carham and the Cession of Lothian’, in ‘Scottish Historical Review’ Vol. 55.1 (1976).
‘The Early Charters of Northern England and the North Midlands’ (1975), Chapter 9.
‘The Dealings of the Kings of England with Northumbria in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries’, in ‘The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of Their History and Culture Presented to Bruce Dickins’ (1959).
‘The Battle of Carham, 1018’, in ‘Scottish Historical Review’ Vol. 55.1 (1976).
‘Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius hoc est Dunhelmensis Ecclesie’ (Tract on the Origins and Progress of this the Church of Durham).
Sir Frank Stenton, ‘Anglo-Saxon England’, Third Edition (1971), Chapter 12 (p.418, footnote 2).
‘Celtic Scotland: A History of Ancient Alban’ Vol. 1 (1876), Chapter 8.
‘The History of the Norman Conquest of England, Its Causes and Its Results’ Volume I, Third Edition, Revised (1877), Chapter 6.