Virtually nothing is known about Cenred and Osric. The Moore Memoranda allocate Cenred a reign of 2 years and Osric 11. Genealogies show Cenred to be a descendant, by a previously unknown line, of Ida, the mid-6th century king of Bernicia. Osric is identified as Aldfrith’s son, and hence the brother of Cenred’s predecessor, Osred, by Symeon of Durham (LDE I, 13).[*]
Bede notes (HE V, 22) that, in 716: “Osred was slain, and Cenred took upon him the government of the kingdom of the Northumbrians”. And (HE V, 23) in 729: “on the 7th of the Ides of May [9th May], Osric, king of the Northumbrians, departed this life, after he had reigned 11 years, and appointed Ceolwulf, brother to Cenred who had reigned before him, his successor”. A misplaced entry in some manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims that Osric: “was slain”.[*]
Bede completed writing his Historia Ecclesiastica in 731, just a couple of years into Ceolwulf’s reign, and the work begins with a dedication: “To the most glorious King Ceolwulf.”[*] In the penultimate chapter (HE V, 23), however, Bede writes:
… the beginning and progress of whose reign have been so filled with many and great commotions and conflicts, that it cannot yet be known what is to be said concerning them, or what end they will have.
The first of the four annals which form a Continuation of the Historia Ecclesiastica in the Moore Bede, which seems to be the earliest extant copy of the work, reports that: “In the year 731 King Ceolwulf was captured and tonsured”, i.e. he was deposed and forced to become a monk, but then he was “returned to his kingdom”. No further illumination concerning the “great commotions and conflicts” that marked the start of Ceolwulf’s reign is available.
Despite Ceolwulf’s problems, Bede, in a summary of “the state of all Britain” at the time he was finishing the Historia Ecclesiastica, was able to write that:
The nation of the Picts also at this time has a treaty of peace with the English nation, and rejoices to partake in the Catholic peace and truth of the universal Church. The Scots that inhabit Britain, content with their own territories, devise no plots nor hostilities against the English nation. The Britons, though they, for the most part, oppose the English nation from their inherent hatred, and the whole state of the Catholic Church by their incorrect Easter and their wicked customs;[*] yet, inasmuch as both Divine and human power withstand them, they can in neither purpose prevail as they desire; for though in part they are their own masters, yet part of them are brought under subjection to the English. In these favourable times of peace and calm, many of the Northumbrians, as well of the nobility as private persons, laying aside their weapons and receiving the tonsure, desire rather both for themselves and their children to take upon them monastic vows, than to practise the pursuit of war.HE V, 23
Previously, Bede had mentioned:
… Bishop Nynia, a most reverend and holy man of the nation of the Britons, who had been regularly instructed at Rome in the faith and mysteries of the truth; whose episcopal see, named after St Martin the bishop [of Tours, d.397], and famous for a church dedicated to him, wherein he [Nynia] and many other saints rest in the body, is now in the possession of the English nation. The place belongs to the province of the Bernicians, and is commonly called At the White House [Whithorn], because he there built a church of stone, which was not usual among the Britons.[*]HE III, 4
Whithorn is now in Dumfries & Galloway, south-western Scotland. In 731 it had only recently become the seat of a Northumbrian bishop.
… in the province of the Northumbrians, where King Ceolwulf reigns, four bishops now preside; Wilfrid [Wilfrid II] in the church of York, Æthelwald in that of Lindisfarne, Acca in that of Hagustald [Hexham], Pehthelm in that which is called the White House, which, as the number of the faithful has increased, has lately become an episcopal see, and has him for its first prelate.HE V, 23
In fact, later in 731: “Bishop Acca was driven from his see”, says the Continuation annal in the Moore Bede. Whether Acca’s expulsion had anything to do with the crisis that Ceolwulf faced about the same time is not known.
Wilfrid II (Wilfrid the Younger) resigned the bishopric of York in 732. Egbert (who was a cousin of Ceolwulf, and the brother of Ceolwulf’s successor, Eadberht) was his replacement.[*] Bede wrote a letter (more of a lecture) to Egbert, in 734,[*] advising him how he, Bede, believed Egbert should conduct himself and what he, Bede, thought needed to be done:
In making a few recommendations with regard to the sad state in which our nation [Northumbria] miserably labours, I sedulously implore your Holiness, most beloved bishop, to contend as much as you can to bring back to a right rule of life the things which you perceive to be done most amiss. For you have, as I believe, a very ready helper in so just a work, namely King Ceolwulf, who will both take care through his inborn love of religion constantly and with a firm intent to assist whatever belongs to the rule of godliness, and will especially help you, since you are his most beloved kinsman, to perfect those good things which you shall undertake. Therefore I would like you to admonish him prudently to attend to the restoration in your days of the ecclesiastical condition of our nation, better than it has been hitherto. And this, as it seems to me, cannot be carried out better by any other arrangement than by consecrating more bishops for our people … For also the holy Pope Gregory, when he treated in a letter sent to the most blessed Archbishop Augustine of the faith of our nation, which was still in the future and needed to be preserved in Christ, decreed that twelve bishops were to be ordained there, after the faith had been accepted, among whom the bishop of York should receive the pallium from the Apostolic See, and be metropolitan [i.e. archbishop].[*] I should now like you, holy father, supported by the help of the aforesaid king, most pious and beloved of God, wisely to endeavour to complete that number of bishops, so that in the abundant number of leaders the Church of Christ may be more perfectly established in those things which belong to the practice of holy religion.
In 735, Egbert did, indeed, receive a pallium, and York became an archbishopric. Also in 735, Bede died.[*]
… Ceolwulf resigned the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and became a monk in the island of Lindisfarne; and Eadberht, his uncle’s son, succeeded in his stead.
Eadberht succeeded Ceolwulf, his cousin (their paternal grandfather was Leodwald, a descendant of, the mid-6th century king of Bernicia, Ida), when Ceolwulf became a monk at Lindisfarne, in 737. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes:
In this year Eadberht, son of Eata – Eata was son of Leodwald – succeeded to the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and held it 21 winters; and his brother was archbishop Egbert, son of Eata; and they both rest at York city, in one porch.[*]
Precious little is known about Eadberht’s, comparatively long, reign, but the few disconnected, and somewhat cryptic, snippets of information that there are suggest he was a strong leader, a warrior-king. An entry in the Continuation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica states:
In the year 740 … Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, through wicked deceit, wasted part of Northumbria, their king, Eadberht, with his army, being employed against the Picts.
… Earnwine the son of Eadwulf was slain, on Saturday, the 10th of the Kalends of January [23rd December].[*]
Eadwulf had ruled for two months in the winter of 705/6, before being expelled from Northumbria. Eadwulf may well have found refuge with the Picts, and it is tempting to join up the dots, and raise the possibility that his son, Earnwine, attempted to overthrow Eadberht with Pictish aid. Presumably Æthelbald’s attack was opportunistic. Symeon notes that, in 741: “The monastery of the city of York was burnt, on Sunday, the 11th of the Kalends of May [23rd April].” Whilst the entry for 741 in Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is: “This year York was burnt.” Once again, dot-joining might suggest that it was Æthelbald who was responsible, but the Continuation of Bede reports that “a great drought came upon the country” in 741, so there must be a strong likelihood that the devastation was caused by an accidental fire that ran out of control.
At this time, the eastern side of what is now southern Scotland was in Northumbria – the Forth separating the Northumbrians from the Picts. In the western side of this region, Northumbrian ownership seems to have only encompassed (roughly) the area of modern Dumfries & Galloway (there was a Northumbrian bishop with his see at Whithorn). North of here were the Strathclyde Britons, ruled from the stronghold of Dumbarton Rock. Symeon of Durham mentions that a “battle was fought between the Picts and the Britons” in 744, whilst the Annals of Ulster place a battle “between Picts and Britons” in 750. Eadberht, perhaps taking advantage of their preoccupation with the Picts, attacked the Britons’ southern territories – the Continuation of Bede notes that: “In the year 750 … Eadbert added the plain of Kyle [in modern Ayrshire] and other places to his dominions.”
King Eadberht, in the 18th year of his reign,[*] and Unust [i.e. Oengus], king of the Picts, led an army to the city of Alcwith [i.e. Dumbarton Rock]; and the Britons accepted terms there, on the first day of August. But on the tenth day of the same month, nearly the whole army perished, which he led from Ouania to Niwanbirig; that is, to the New City.Historia Regum s.a. 756
Ouania has plausibly been identified as Govan. Niwanbirig is an English name, but it isn’t certainly identified – Newbrough, near Hexham, has been proposed. Presumably Eadberht’s army was ambushed on its way home from Dumbarton – but, if so, by whom? The Strathclyde Britons would seem the obvious candidates, but the Continuation of Bede, recording the death of Oengus, in 761, observes that: “from the beginning to the end of his reign, [Oengus] continued to be a blood-stained and tyrannical butcher”. So maybe Oengus double-crossed Eadberht.[*]
Meanwhile, in 750, Eadberht had evidently acted to neutralize a potential challenge to his position. Symeon of Durham reports the incident twice. Firstly, in the Historia Regum:
King Eadberht led Bishop Cynewulf captive to the city of Bebba [Bamburgh], and besieged the church of St Peter in Lindisfarne. And Offa, the son of Aldfrith, an innocent man, was compelled to take refuge with the relics of St Cuthbert the bishop; almost dead with hunger, he was dragged unarmed from the church.HR s.a. 750
Symeon provides further information in his History of the church of Durham (LDE):
During the reign of Eadberht … the bishopric of the church of Lindisfarne was held by Cynewulf for some considerable length of time, but under many annoyances and misfortunes. One of the royal family, named Offa, in order to escape from the persecutions of his enemies, fled to the body of St Cuthbert, but having been forcibly dragged away from it, he was wickedly put to death. Hereupon, King Eadberht, highly displeased, laid hold upon Bishop Cynewulf, and commanded him to be imprisoned in Bebbanburh [Bamburgh], and in the meantime the bishopric of Lindisfarne was administered by Frithuberht, bishop of Hexham, until the king becoming appeased, released Cynewulf from his confinement, and permitted him to return to his church.LDE II, 2
Symeon begins the next chapter of the LDE:
At this point I interrupt the progress of my history of the bishops, since it appears fitting that I should make a few brief remarks upon King Eadberht. He was the son of Eata, the uncle of King Ceolwulf, as I have already stated, who when he had mounted the throne gave proof that he was fully competent to fill it, and to retain it with energy and success. When at length he had either reduced to subjection or overcome in battle all who opposed him, not only did all the neighbouring kings of the English, Picts, Britons, and Scots keep peace with him, but were happy in showing him marks of deference. So wide did the reputation of his good deeds extend, that they reached even to Pepin the king of the Franks, who, in consequence, entered into a friendly correspondence with him, and sent him many different kinds of royal gifts. In the 21st year of his reign, whilst he was flourishing in peace and dignity, beloved and favoured by all, he surrendered his kingdom to his son, named Oswulf, and subjected himself to the service of Almighty God as a cleric, notwithstanding that the kings of the English had previously urged him with much importunity not to take this step, and were willing even to have resigned to him a part of their kingdoms as an addition to his own realm. But he preferred the service of God to all the riches and sovereignty, and in that service he continued for ten years, even to the end of his life, when he was buried at York, in the same porch as his brother Egbert, who had died three years before himself.LDE II, 3
In the Historia Regum, Symeon places Eadberht’s abdication in 758, Egbert’s death on 19th November 766, and Eadberht’s death on 20th August 768.
Eadberht, king of the Northumbrians, of his own accord, gave up the kingdom bestowed upon him by God, to his own son named Oswulf; who during one single year held, parted from, and lost, the kingdom: for he was wickedly put to death by his household, on the 9th of the Kalends of August [24th July], near Methel Wongtun [unidentified].
Symeon of Durham (HR), s.a. 759: “Æthelwald, who was also called Moll, began to reign on the Nones of August [5th August].” Æthelwald’s lineage is not recorded. Pope Paul I (757–767) had written to King Eadberht,[*] castigating him for taking three monasteries, “by force”, from one Abbot Forthred and giving them: “to a certain patrician, his [Forthred’s] brother, Moll by name.” It seems likely that this “patrician” was the future king, Æthelwald Moll.
The annals that comprise the Continuation of the Historia Ecclesiastica of Bede report that: “In the year 759, Oswulf was wickedly murdered by his own thegns; and Æthelwald, being chosen the same year by his people, entered upon the kingdom; in whose second year there was great tribulation by reason of pestilence, which continued almost two years, divers grievous sicknesses raging, but more especially the disease of dysentery.”
The next Continuation annal, which is for the year 761, concludes: “and Oswine was slain.” Symeon of Durham (HR s.a. 759) provides some detail: “At the commencement of his [Æthelwald’s] third year, a severe battle was fought on the 8th of the Ides of August [6th August], beside Eldunum, near Melrose.[*] In which, after three days, Oswine was slain, on Sunday. King Æthelwald, who is called Moll, obtained the victory in the battle.” Presumably Oswine, of whom nothing is known (although his name suggests he was a relative, perhaps brother, of Oswulf), was intent on overthrowing Æthelwald and taking the throne for himself.
Symeon notes, HR s.a. 762, that: “The aforesaid King Æthelwald took Æthelthryth [unknown] as his queen at Catterick, on the Kalends [i.e. the 1st] of November.” In 765, however: “on the 3rd of the Kalends of November [30th October], Æthelwald lost the kingdom of the Northumbrians at Wincanheale”. Wincanheale was evidently a meeting-place (synods are reported to have been held there), so Æthelwald would appear to have been, in effect, voted out of office. The Irish Annals of Tigernach note: “Moll, king of the Saxons, becomes a cleric.”
Genealogies show Alhred to be descended from Ida, the mid-6th century king of Bernicia, by a hitherto unknown line.[*] Symeon of Durham, HR s.a. 765, is sceptical: “a descendant, as some say, of King Ida”.
Symeon mentions that, in 768, Alhred got married – his wife, Osgifu, was, evidently, the daughter of Oswulf (who had reigned 758–759)[*] – and in the following year, 769: “Catterick was burnt by the tyrant Earnred; and by the judgement of God, he himself miserably perished by fire in the same year.” Of which incident, nothing more is known.
Alhred was a supporter of English missionary work on the Continent. Symeon reports that one Aluberht was consecrated “bishop for the Old Saxons” at York in 767, and, round about 770, according to a mid-9th century Vita of St Willehad, it was Alhred who convened the synod that gave Willehad permission to travel to Frisia as a missionary.[*] In 773, Alhred and Osgifu were corresponding with the bishop of Mainz, Lul (an Englishman, from Wessex). A letter, from the king and queen, survives, which shows that Alhred was trying to establish cordial relations with “the most glorious King Charles” of the Franks (i.e. Charlemagne). The letter also refers to: “the disturbances in our churches and people”.
The next year, 774: “the Northumbrians drove their king Alhred from York at Eastertide”, announce Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Symeon of Durham:
… King Alhred, by the design and consent of all his connections, being deprived of the society of the royal household and princes, exchanged the majesty of empire for exile. He went with a few companions of his flight, first to the city of Bebba [Bamburgh], and afterwards to the king of the Picts, Cynoht [Kenneth, 763–775] by name... Moreover, Æthelred, the son of Æthelwald, in the place of this person, received the kingdom …HR s.a. 774
Æthelred was, says Symeon of Durham, HR s.a. 774: “crowned with such great honour”. However, if he was Æthelwald’s legitimate son by Æthelthryth, Æthelred could hardly have been any older than eleven at the time of his accession.
Æthelred (or the power behind his throne) appears to have ruthlessly suppressed any opposition. In 775, reports Symeon (HR):
Ealdorman [dux] Eadwulf, taken by cunning treachery, was in a short space of time killed, buried, and forgotten.
In the 4th year of king Æthelred, that is the year 778, three ealdormen, namely, Ealdwulf, Cynewulf, and Ecga, at the command of the same king, were treacherously put to death by the princes Æthelbald and Heardberht, on the 3rd of the Kalends of October [29th September]. What happened in the year 779 the following narrative will declare.
HR s.a. 779:
Æthelred, expelled from his royal throne, and driven into exile, was forced to undergo sad changes, and experience much wretchedness. Ælfwald, the son of Oswulf, on the expulsion of Æthelred, obtained the kingdom of the Northumbrians …
Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 778, tell the story rather differently:
In this year Æthelbald and Heardberht slew 3 high-reeves, Ealdwulf son of Bosa, at King’s cliff [Coniscliffe], and Cynewulf and Ecga at Helathirnum [unidentified], on the 11th of the Kalends of April [22nd March]; and then Ælfwald succeeded to the kingdom, and drove Æthelred from the country[*] …
Ælfwald “was a pious and upright king” according to Symeon of Durham (HR s.a. 779), but, nevertheless, in 780:
Ealdormen [duces] Osbald and Æthelheard, having gathered an army, burnt Beorn, a patrician [patricius] of king Ælfwald, in Seletun [possibly Silton, North Yorkshire], on the 9th of the Kalends of January [24th December].[*]
In 786 two papal legates arrived in Britain: “renewing amongst us the ancient friendship, and the catholic faith which St Gregory taught by blessed Augustine”, says Symeon. They arrived in Kent, and then travelled to Mercia, where they separated. One of the legates, George, bishop of Ostia, visited Northumbria. The text of his report on the mission has survived.[*] When Bishop George arrived in Northumbria, Ælfwald “was dwelling far to the north”, and Eanbald, archbishop of York, had to send messengers to contact him. The king promptly called a synod, “at which assembled all the chief men of the region, both ecclesiastical and secular”. Preliminary discussions revealed that there were “vices requiring correction there”. A number of canons (ecclesiastical laws) were composed – amongst them is one that states: “Let no one dare to conspire to kill a king, for he is the Lord’s anointed” – and accepted by the assembled dignitaries. The senior secular magnate present was the patricius Sicga.
Symeon of Durham reports, HR s.a. 788:
King Ælfwald, a conspiracy being formed by his patrician, Sicga by name, was miserably slain on the 9th of the Kalends of October [23rd September], at a place called Scythlescester [possibly Chesters], near the Wall [Hadrian’s Wall]. The body of this excellent king was brought to Hexham with a great company of monks, and with the chanting of clergy, and was honourably buried in the church of St Andrew the apostle … On the spot where the just King Ælfwald was slain, light sent down from heaven is said to have been seen by many.[*]
Æthelred, the son of Æthelwald Moll (r.759–765), had first come to power in 774, after Alhred, Osred’s father, had been deposed and exiled. Æthelred, in turn, had been deposed and exiled in 779, at which point Ælfwald had become king. In 790, however:
Æthelred was freed from banishment, and again, by Christ’s favour, seated on the throne of the kingdom. But King Osred, overreached by the treachery of his nobles [principes], having been taken prisoner, and deprived of his kingdom, assumed the tonsure in the city of York, and afterwards, driven by necessity, went into exile.HR s.a. 790
Actually, Osred took refuge on the Isle of Man.
During his first reign Æthelred had been ruthless towards potential opponents; and he continued to be so. Symeon of Durham (HR s.a. 790) reports a singular happening:
In his second year , Ealdorman [dux] Eardwulf was taken prisoner, and conveyed to Ripon, and there ordered by the aforesaid king to be put to death without the gate of the monastery. The brethren carried his body to the church with Gregorian chanting, and placed it out of doors in a tent; after midnight he was found alive in the church.
Eardwulf went into exile, but not all of Æthelred’s victims were so lucky:
The sons of King Ælfwald, having been carried from the city of York by force, and drawn from the principal church by deceitful promises, were miserably slain by King Æthelred in Wonwaldremere [unidentified]; their names were Ælf and Ælfwine.HR s.a. 791
In 792, says Symeon (HR):
… Osred, induced by the oaths and pledges of certain nobles, came secretly from his exile in Eufania [Isle of Man], and there his soldiers deserting him, he was captured by the aforesaid King Æthelred, and put to death by his order, at a place called Aynburg [unidentified], on the 18th of the Kalends of October [14th September]. His body was brought to the mouth of the river Tyne, and buried in the church of the noble monastery there. In the same year, King Æthelred took as his queen Ælflæd, daughter of Offa, king of the Mercians, at Catterick, on the 3rd of the Kalends of October [29th September].
In 793, the Vikings make their first, dramatic, appearance in Northumbrian history. Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle report:
In this year dire forewarnings came over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably terrified the people: these were excessive whirlwinds and lightnings,[*] and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these tokens; and a little after that, in the same year, on the 6th of the Ides of January [8th January], the ravaging of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne, through rapine and slaughter.
… [in 793] pagans from the northern regions came with a naval armament to Britain, and rushing hither and thither, and plundering as they went, they slew not only cattle, but even priests and deacons, and choirs of monks and nuns. They came to the church of Lindisfarne on the seventh of the Ides of June [7th June], and laid all waste with dreadful plundering, trod with unhallowed feet the holy places, dug up the altars, and looted all the treasures of the church. Some of the brethren they slew; some they carried off with them in chains; many they cast out, naked and loaded with insults; some they drowned in the sea.
The above passage appears almost identically in HR s.a. 793, though in HR the raid on Lindisfarne is not given a precise date. The date given in LDE is, obviously, at odds with the date given in the Chronicle manuscripts. In another work attributed to Symeon of Durham, the, so called, Annales Lindisfarnenses et Dunelmenses (Annals of Lindisfarne and Durham), the raid is dated the 6th of the Ides of June, i.e. 8th June, 793. June makes much more sense than January, given all that is said to have occurred in 793 beforehand, and also the likelihood of favourable weather for making ship-borne raids. It is generally accepted that the correct date is 8th June 793.
Symeon of Durham, HR s.a. 794:
The aforesaid pagans, ravaging the harbour of King Ecgfrith [r.670–685], plundered the monastery at the mouth of the river Don.[*] But St Cuthbert did not allow them to depart unpunished; for their chief was there put to a cruel death by the English, and a short time afterwards a violent storm shattered, destroyed and broke-up their vessels, and the sea swallowed up very many of them; some, however, were cast ashore, and speedily slain without mercy. And these things befell them justly, since they heavily injured those who had not injured them.
This was by no means an isolated incident. The Annals of Ulster, s.a. 794, record:
Devastation of all the islands of Britain by gentiles [i.e. heathens]. V ►
Despite the Viking threat, the Northumbrian nobility continued to fight amongst themselves. Symeon of Durham, HR s.a. 796:
… King Æthelred was slain at Cobre [possibly Corbridge], on the 14th of the Kalends of May [18th April], in the 7th year of his reign;[*] Osbald the patrician was appointed to the kingdom by some chiefs of that nation …
Symeon later (s.a. 799) names Æthelred’s killer as Ealdorman Ealdred.
Symeon of Durham, HR s.a. 796:
… Osbald the patrician was appointed to the kingdom by some chiefs of that nation, and 27 days after, forsaken by the whole company of the royal household and princes, having been put to flight and expelled from the kingdom, he, with a few followers, retired to the island of Lindisfarne, and thence went by ship, with some of the brethren, to the king of the Picts. Eardwulf, of whom we have before spoken, —
— the son of Eardwulf,[*] recalled from exile, was raised to the crown, and was consecrated on the 7th of the Kalends of June [26th May], in York, in the church of St Peter, where that nation first received the grace of baptism.[*]
Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle preserve some extra snippets of information:
… Eardwulf succeeded to the kingdom of the Northumbrians, on the 2nd of the Ides of May [14th May]; and he was afterwards blessed for king, and raised to his throne on the 7th of the Kalends of June [26th May], at York, by Archbishop Eanbald, and Æthelberht [bishop of Hexham] and Hygebald [bishop of Lindisfarne] and Baldwulf [bishop of Whithorn].[*]
It would appear that, in 798, there was an attempt to reinstate Osbald. Symeon of Durham (HR) reports:
Ealdorman Wada, entering into a conspiracy formed by the murderers of King Æthelred, fought a battle against King Eardwulf, in a place called by the English Billingahoth [Billington Moor], near Walalege [Whalley, Lancashire]; and many on both sides being slain, Ealdorman Wada, with his men, was put to flight, and king Eardwulf royally gained the victory over his enemies.
Once again, Manuscripts D and E of the Chronicle bring some other details to the story:
… there was a great fight in the land of the Northumbrians, in Lent, on the 4th of the Nones of April [2nd April], at Hwealæge [Whalley]; and there Alric, the son of Heardberht, was slain, and many others with him.
Symeon’s entry for the following year (HR, 799) states:
… Ealdorman Moll was slain by the urgent command of King Eardwulf. Also, at the same time, Osbald, once ealdorman and patrician, and for a time king, after that abbot, breathed his last; his body was buried in the church of the city of York. Ealdorman Ealdred, the murderer of King Æthelred, was slain by Ealdorman Torhtmund, in revenge of his lord, the same king.
And, in 800:
… Ealhmund, son, as some say, of King Alhred [r.765–774], was seized by the guards of King Eardwulf, and by his order put to death with the companions of his flight.
The Northumbrian nobility were occupied with their own internal power struggle, but the external threat, the Vikings, had not disappeared. Roger of Wendover:
In the year of our Lord 800, a band of impious pagans cruelly wasted the churches of Hartness and Tynemouth, and retired with the spoils to their ships.
Nevertheless, Symeon (HR) reports s.a. 801:
At this time, Eardwulf, king of the Northumbrians, led an army against Cenwulf, king of the Mercians, because he had given an asylum to his enemies. He [Cenwulf] collected an army, and led many forces from other provinces with him. When there had been a long campaign between them, they finally made peace, by the advice of the bishops and chiefs of the English on either side, through the kindness of the king of the English.[*] An agreement of sure peace was made between them, which both kings confirmed by an oath on the gospel of Christ, calling God as a witness and surety, that as long as they retained this life, and bore the crown of government, a firm peace and true friendship should exist between them, unshaken and inviolate.[*]
Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 806, simply state:
And Eardwulf, king of the Northumbrians, was driven from his kingdom.
At this point the narrative thread of Northumbrian history becomes very thin indeed. The sequence of Northumbrian annals surviving in Symeon’s Historia Regum and Manuscripts D and E of the Chronicle, which picked-up from the end of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, i.e. from 731, have now finished. In his History of the church of Durham (LDE II, 5), Symeon notes:
… in the tenth year of his reign he [Eardwulf] was expelled from the province, and Ælfwald held it for two years …
Roger of Wendover evidently had access to some Northumbrian annals. He writes:
… Eardwulf, king of the Northumbrians, was driven from his kingdom, and was succeeded by Ælfwald, who reigned two years. Now the same Ælfwald had driven him out and had seized on his kingdom.
Unfortunately, Roger muddies the chronological water by placing this report s.a. 808.[*] Manuscripts D and E (and F) of the Chronicle date a lunar eclipse to the 1st of September in the same year that Eardwulf was overthrown, i.e. 806. The Annales Regni Francorum (Royal Frankish Annals) confirm the year of the eclipse. In short, it is highly likely that Manuscripts D and E are correct – Ælfwald replaced Eardwulf in 806.
The Annales Regni Francorum (composed during the 8th and 9th centuries) record, s.a. 808:
… the king of the Northumbrians, from the island of Britain, Eardwulf by name, came to the emperor [Charlemagne] while he was still at Nijmegen; he had been driven from his kingdom and native land.[*] After explaining the matter which had brought him, he set out for Rome; and on his return from there he was conducted back into his kingdom by legates of the Roman pontiff and the lord emperor.
The legates returned to the Continent in 809 (not without incident – one of them, having been captured by pirates, had to be ransomed by a representative of the Mercian king, Cenwulf).
It is clear from extant letters sent by Pope Leo III to Charlemagne, that both men were in contact with Northumbria. (It is, indeed, just possible that Eardwulf had married a daughter of Charlemagne.[*]) One of Leo’s letters reveals that Eanbald, archbishop of York, Wada, the ealdorman, and Cenwulf, king of the Mercians, had written to Charlemagne, who forwarded their letters to the pope. Leo seems to imply that he thought these three were behind Eardwulf’s expulsion.[*]
It is generally supposed that the wording of the Frankish annal means that Eardwulf recovered the throne, but no suggestion of that appears in English sources. It does, though, seem likely that his return in 808, with the support of Charlemagne and Pope Leo III, precipitated Ælfwald’s downfall. Both Symeon of Durham (LDE II, 5) and Roger of Wendover say that Ælfwald was succeeded by Eardwulf’s son, Eanred, so perhaps Eardwulf stood down in favour of his son.[*]
… led an army to Dore [on the Mercia/Northumbria border, near Sheffield] against the Northumbrians, and they there offered him obedience and concord; and thereupon they separated.[*]
Roger of Wendover (s.a. 829) claims that Egbert actually invaded Northumbria – his: “mighty army … committing terrible ravages in that province, and putting King Eanred under tribute.” However, the Mercian king, Wiglaf, recovered his throne the next year (830), and it is unlikely that Egbert had any influence in Northumbria after that.
Roger of Wendover:
In the year of our Lord 840, died Eanred, king of the Northumbrians, and was succeeded by his son Æthelred, who reigned 7 years.
In the Annales Lindisfarnenses et Dunelmenses, s.a. 841, Æthelred is allotted 9 years.[*]
Roger of Wendover, s.a. 844:
Æthelred, king of the Northumbrians, was driven from his kingdom, and was succeeded by Rædwulf —
— who was no sooner invested with the diadem than he fought a battle with the pagans at Alutthelia [unidentified], in which himself and his ealdorman [consul] Alfred fell, with the greatest part of their forces, on which Æthelred again obtained the kingdom.
Roger of Wendover is the only written source to have preserved a record Rædwulf’s brief reign, but his existence is confirmed by coinage issued in his name. V ►
Roger of Wendover:
In the year of our Lord 848, Æthelred, king of the Northumbrians being slain, Osbert succeeded him …
According to Roger of Wendover, s.a. 848, Osbert reigned for 18 years, but according to ALD, s.a. 850, he reigned for 13 years. Roger has apparently taken no account of the reign of Ælla, to whom ALD, s.a. 863, assigns a reign of 4 years. As will be seen, it, perhaps, does seem more likely that Ælla’s reign lasted for less than a year.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 866: “In this year … came a great heathen army to the land of the English,[*] and took winter quarters among the East Angles”. To better reflect the modus operandi of the “heathen army”, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle evidently adopts the convention of starting its annalistic year in the previous autumn.[*] This large Viking army arrived in England, therefore, in the autumn of 865.[*] The East Angles “made peace with them”, which, in this context, means ‘bought them off’. The following autumn: “the army went from the East Angles, over the mouth of the Humber, to the city of York in Northumbria.”
… the cruel army of Danes migrated out of the country of the East Angles to the city of York on All Saints’ day [1st November 866]. —
— At this time too there was the greatest dissension among the Northumbrians, for the people had expelled their lawful king Osbert from his kingdom, and had raised to the throne a usurper named Ælla, who was not of the royal lineage; but by divine providence, on the advance of the Danes, Osbert and Ælla, for the good of the commonwealth, made peace among themselves, and then with united forces approached the city of York; on which the Danes straightway fled, and determined to defend themselves within the city walls. The Christian kings pursued, made a very fierce attack on the enemy, and cast down the city walls. At length they entered the city, and engaged in battle with the pagans to their own exceeding loss; for in that fight, which was fought on Palm Sunday [23rd March 867], there fell the kings Osbert and Ælla, and with them eight ealdormen, with an immense multitude of inferior rank. —
— The most cruel victors after this ravaged the entire country of the Northumbrians as far as the mouth of the river Tyne, and subdued it to themselves.
Roger of Wendover concludes his report:
The kings of the Northumbrians being slain, a certain man of the English nation named Egbert next governed that kingdom, for six years, in subjection to the Danes.
In the autumn of 867, the Viking army moved to Nottingham, in Mercia. V ►
Symeon (LDE II, 6) asserts that Osbert and Ælla:
… paid the penalty for the injuries which they had previously inflicted on the church of St Cuthbert [Lindisfarne]; for Osbert had dared with sacrilegious hand to wrest from that church Warkworth and Tillmouth, and Ælla had done the like for Billingham, Cliffe, and Wycliffe, and Crayke.
Symeon qualifies the year of their deaths, 867, as “the fifth of the reign of Ælla, king of the Northumbrians”. HSC (§10) says:
… King Osbert stole from St Cuthbert two vills, Warkworth and Tillmouth. But after the space of one year, God took from him [his] life and kingdom. He was succeeded by King Ælla, who made good promises to the holy confessor but acted badly. For he stole from him Billingham and Cliffe and Wycliffe and Crayke.
The implication of this statement would seem to be that Ælla had only recently become king when the Danes arrived in Northumbria. According to HSC:
When this news [of the Danes’ approach to York] reached Ælla who, out of hatred for St Cuthbert, was then staying at Crayke, he rose with great arrogance, gathered an army with his brother Osbert, and rushed upon the enemy; but soon, terrified by the wrath of God and St Cuthbert, [his] army having been struck down, he fled and fell, and lost his life and kingdom …
So, were King Osbert and King Ælla, literally, brothers? It hardly seems likely, since the general consensus of the sources is that, whilst Osbert was a legitimate king, Ælla was not of royal blood.
Having killed rival Northumbrian kings, Osbert and Ælla, in March 867, the Danes appointed one Egbert, an Englishman, to rule on their behalf. In the autumn, the Viking army moved on to Mercia. A combined force of Mercians and West Saxons besieged them in Nottingham, but no battle took place and the Mercians were eventually obliged to buy peace.
In the autumn of 868: “the army went again to the city of York, and sat there one year.”[*] So says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Symeon of Durham asserts (HR Chronicle One, s.a. 869) that they spent that year: “raging and storming, killing and destroying a multitude of men and women.” And in autumn 869 (HR Chronicle One, s.a. 870):
An enormous multitude of Danes and, so to speak, troops of legions were assembled, so that many thousands seemed to be present, as if they had increased from one thousand to twenty myriads. They came after this through Mercia to the East Angles. V ►
The Danes killed the East Anglian king, “and subdued all that land”. In late-870, “the army” moved on again, this time to Wessex. The following year saw a great deal of fighting, but, despite being reinforced by a “great summer-force”, and generally having the upper-hand, the Danes failed to land a knockout punch on the West Saxons. Having agreed, for a price, to leave Wessex, “the army” set up winter quarters at London in the autumn of 871. The Mercians bought peace.
Roger of Wendover writes that, in 872:
… the Northumbrians expelled from the kingdom their king Egbert and archbishop Wulfhere, who thereupon betook themselves to Burgred, king of the Mercians, by whom they were honourably entertained.[*]
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that at the start of its 872–3 campaigning cycle: “the army went into Northumbria”[*]. Presumably the Danes were reacting to the overthrow of the regime they had set-up there. They can only have been in Northumbria a few weeks, since before the end of 872 “the army” had returned to Mercian territory – establishing winter quarters at Torksey (about 10 miles north-west of Lincoln). Roger of Wendover, s.a. 873:
… Egbert, king of the Northumbrians, ended his days, and was succeeded in the kingdom by Ricsige, who reigned three years. In this year also Wulfhere, archbishop of York, was recalled to his see.[*]
It would appear that the Danes had recovered the situation, but Egbert having died, he was replaced on the throne by Ricsige, a similarly compliant Englishman. However, in LDE (II, 6), Symeon of Durham says otherwise:
… the Northumbrians had expelled out of the province their king Egbert and archbishop Wulfhere; and had appointed as their king a person named Ricsige.[*]
According to LDE, then, Ricsige was an independent Northumbrian king, who had come to power in the revolt against the Danes’ imposed regime. In short, it is not clear whether Ricsige was a Viking puppet or an independent English ruler. V ►
Having overthrown Burgred, king of the Mercians, and installed an Englishman of their own choosing in his stead, the Viking forces split into two groups. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that, in autumn 874, one group, led by “the three kings, Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend“ moved on to Cambridge “with a great army”, but:
… Halfdan went with a part of the army into Northumbria, and took winter quarters by the river Tyne; and subdued the land, and often harried on the Picts and on the Strathclyde Welsh …[*]
Symeon of Durham (HR Chronicle Two), s.a. 875:
Eardwulf, bishop of Lindisfarne, and Abbot Eadred, taking the body of St Cuthbert from the island of Lindisfarne, wandered about for 7 years.[*]
In LDE (II, 6), Symeon tells how Halfdan made his winter quarters on the Tyne: “purposing in the spring to pillage the whole of the district lying towards the north of that river, which hitherto had enjoyed peace.” Bishop Eardwulf, anticipating that Lindisfarne would be destroyed, consulted with Eadred, abbot of Carlisle, about what should be done. They decided to gather together Lindisfarne’s collection of relics, the main item being “the holy and uncorrupt body” of Cuthbert (erstwhile bishop of Lindisfarne, d.687), and leave.
Thus, then, no sooner had the bishop abandoned the island and its church, carrying away with him the relics which we have specified, than a fearful storm swept over that place, and indeed over the whole province of the Northumbrians, for it was cruelly ravaged far and wide by the army of the Danes, under the guidance of King Halfdan. Everywhere did he burn down the monasteries and the churches; he slew the servants and the handmaidens of God, after having exposed them to many indignities; and, in one word, fire and sword were carried from the eastern sea to the western. Whence it was that the bishop and they who with him accompanied the holy body [St Cuthbert], nowhere found any place of repose, but going forwards and backwards, hither and thither, they fled from before the face of these cruel barbarians.LDE II, 6
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 876 states:
And in that year Halfdan divided the Northumbrians’ lands; and they [the Danes] were ploughing and providing for themselves.[*]
To which Roger of Wendover adds:
… which so affected Ricsige, the king of that province, that he died of a broken heart, and was succeeded by Egbert.
Whilst Symeon of Durham (HR Chronicle Two) says:
Ricsige, king of the Northumbrians, died, and Egbert the second reigned over the Northumbrians beyond the river Tyne.
Egbert II is allotted a 2 year reign in two anonymous texts associated with Durham in the time of Symeon, De Primo Saxonum Adventu and Series Regum Northymbrensium. These sources, like Roger of Wendover, give no indication that Egbert’s powers were confined beyond the Tyne. However, Halfdan’s division of Northumbrian lands marks the beginning of a Scandinavian kingdom centred on York (Jorvik) – place-name evidence and later history indicates it was roughly the area that would become the county of Yorkshire that was settled by the Danes – and it is not remotely likely that Egbert II would have had any jurisdiction over the Danes. Seemingly, outside ‘Yorkshire’ government of the various regions of Northumbria continued under an English hierarchy.
Halfdan himself – Asser, biographer of, the West Saxon king, Alfred (the Great), refers to him (§50) as: “king of one part of the Northumbrians” – did not hang-around for long. According to HSC (§12):
… soon the wrath of God and of the holy confessor fell upon him. For he began to rave and to reek so badly that his whole army drove him from its midst, and he was chased far across the sea and was never seen again.
In LDE (II, 13), Symeon of Durham notes that Halfdan:
… fled away in three ships from the Tyne, and shortly afterwards he and all his followers perished.
In both HR chronicles, Symeon misdates and misinterprets material given by Asser and Florence of Worcester. The latter two sources say that, in 878, “the brother of Ivar and Halfdan” was killed in Devon. Symeon, though, says that, in 877, it was Ivar and Halfdan themselves who were killed. It is, however, generally believed that Halfdan was indeed killed in 877 – that he is “Albann, chief [dux] of the Black Gentiles”, reported killed, by the Annals of Ulster, fighting against another Viking faction, “the White Gentiles”,[*] at Strangford Lough in 877. V ►
Meanwhile, in the autumn of 875 the “great army” that had been at Cambridge invaded Wessex. The Danes’ forces were unable to gain the upper-hand, and after suffering the loss of 120 ships in a storm off Swanage, they were obliged to come to terms with King Alfred. In late-summer 877 they returned to Mercia, which they partitioned. Roughly speaking, the western half of Mercia was left to the English, whilst the Danes settled in the east. They had not, however, abandoned the idea of conquering the West Saxons. In early January 878, a Danish army, evidently led by the previously mentioned Guthrum, launched a surprise attack on Wessex from Gloucester. After initial success, the Danes were decisively defeated by King Alfred and forced to accept his terms. In the autumn of 878, Guthrum’s forces withdrew to Cirencester, in Mercian territory, and a year later they settled in East Anglia.
Following the departure of Halfdan from Northumbria, “the army, and such of the inhabitants as survived, being without a king, were insecure”, says Symeon of Durham (LDE II, 13). Symeon then proceeds to tell how St Cuthbert’s miraculous intervention led to the accession of a king acceptable to both English and Danes. The story in LDE was developed from material found in HSC (§13 and §20). Symeon presents another, brisker but further developed, version in HR Chronicle Two s.a. 883 (the story appears s.a. 883 because Symeon sets it after the community of St Cuthbert had been wandering for seven years since they had left Lindisfarne[*]):
… St Cuthbert, aiding by a vision, ordered Abbot Eadred (who because he lived in Luel [Carlisle] was surnamed Lulisc) to tell the bishop and the whole army of English and Danes, that by paying a ransom, they should redeem Guthred, the son of Harthacnut, whom the Danes had sold as a slave to a certain widow at Whittingham, and should raise him, then redeemed, to be king; and he reigned over York, but Egbert over the Northumbrians. This took place in the 13th year of the reign of King Alfred.[*]HR Chronicle Two s.a. 883
Eadred, abbot of Carlisle, and Eardwulf, displaced bishop of Lindisfarne, were the custodians of St Cuthbert’s body. Guthred son of Harthacnut was, of course, a Dane himself, though presumably(?) he had converted to Christianity. The assertion that he ruled “over York” and Egbert “over the Northumbrians” is only in HR.[*] In fact, Egbert, who seemingly became king in 876, would have been dead by 883 – the two anonymous texts, De Primo Saxonum Adventu and Series Regum Northymbrensium, allot Guthred a 14 year reign, following on from Egbert’s 2 years. De Primo says Guthred was “a royal youth sold into slavery by the Danes”. Returning to Symeon’s narrative (HR Chronicle Two s.a. 883):
Guthred, therefore, being by consent of all from a slave promoted to be king,[*] the episcopal see, which was formerly in the island of Lindisfarne, was restored in Chester [Chester-le-Street, on the river Wear], anciently called Cunecestre, 7 years after its removal from the island of Lindisfarne. This is a place between Durham and Hexham, six miles distant from Durham.[*] There also King Guthred, as well as King Alfred, established, to be for ever preserved, the right of sanctuary which St Cuthbert had enjoined by the aforesaid abbot; namely, that whoever took refuge at his body should have sanctuary, to be infringed by no one for 37 days.[*] And if any one in any way violated this privilege, they decreed that he be fined ninety-six pounds, as if he had broken the king’s peace. Besides this, in augmentation of the former bishopric, the two kings aforesaid, with the consent of all, added the whole land between the Tyne and the Tees, as a perpetual possession of St Cuthbert. They delivered over, by a perpetual anathema, to the pains of hell, whoever should attempt by any device to infringe these statutes. Long before this the bishopric of the church of Hexham had ceased to exist.[*]
At some stage, Guthred evidently formed an alliance with Anarawd ap Rhodri, who ruled Gwynedd with the assistance of his brothers. Asser, writing in 893, notes that:
… Anarawd, son of Rhodri, with his brothers, at length abandoning the friendship of the Northumbrians, from whom he had received no good, but rather harm, came into King Alfred’s presence, and eagerly sought his friendship.§80
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle announces, s.a. 886: “all the English race turned to him [Alfred] that were not in the bondage of the Danish men”. It seems reasonable to suppose that an extant treaty agreed by Alfred and Guthrum, the Danish king of East Anglia, which famously defines the border between their territories, dates from this time[*].
In 892, two new Viking armies arrived in Kent. Alfred secured the word of the Northumbrian Danes and the East Anglian Danes that they would not get involved, but at the earliest opportunity they broke their promises and joined the invaders[*].
Æthelweard (IV, 3) provides some snippets of information. In 893:
… Sigeferth the pirate arrived from the land of the Northumbrians with a large fleet, ravaged twice along the coast [of Wessex?] on that one expedition, and afterwards sailed back to his own land.
And then in 894, it would appear (Æthelweard’s meaning is obscure) that Northumbrian Danes were ravaging the area of Mercia corresponding to Rutland. Seemingly, Alfred’s lieutenant, Æthelnoth, ealdorman of Somerset, went to York and “contacted the enemy”, but whether his mission was diplomacy or combat is impossible to conclude with any degree of certainty.
Symeon of Durham, HR Chronicle Two s.a. 894:
Guthred, king of the Northumbrians, died.[*]
And in LDE (II, 14):
In the year eight hundred and ninety-four from our Lord’s incarnation king Guthred died, after having reigned no short time in prosperity, leaving behind for the protection of others the inviolable privileges of the church of father Cuthbert. Those of them which related to the security and liberty of that church, and to the protection of such persons as fled to his sepulchre for safety, together with such other statutes as had reference to the security of the church, Guthred bequeathed in trust to the kings, bishops and people of succeeding times; and they are preserved until this present day. No one who has ventured to infringe them, has escaped unpunished.
In the Annales Lindisfarnenses et Dunelmenses, another text that has been attributed to Symeon of Durham,[*] Guthred’s obit is placed s.a. 893. Æthelweard notes (IV, 3) that, in the implied year of 895:
… Guthfrith, king of the Northumbrians, died on the nativity of St Bartholomew, the apostle of Christ [24th August]. And his body is entombed in the city of York in the high church.
Æthelweard back-refers to Guthfrith as “the above-mentioned hateful king”. It is generally accepted that Æthelweard’s Guthfrith is one and the same as Guthred.
In LDE, Symeon says that, after Guthred’s death, “the kingdom of the Northumbrians” was taken-over by King Alfred. This is untrue, but who actually did succeed Guthred isn’t documented. However, in 1840 a large hoard of silver treasure was found at Cuerdale (near Preston). The hoard was buried around 905, in a lead-lined chest, and comprised over 8,500 objects – mostly coins. Many of the coins were struck for two, otherwise unknown, kings with Viking names: Siefred and Cnut. It appears that Siefred reigned before Cnut – though there are issues which bear the names of both men, the implication of which is a matter of debate. Those coins of Siefred which name a minting-place were produced at York, whilst Cnut’s name two mints: York and, ostensibly, Quentovic (on the river Canche, a few miles inland from the Channel, in Northern France). There are suspicions, however, that these latter coins are imitations produced in Danish England. It is widely supposed that Siefred was Guthred’s immediate successor, and that he was none other than Æthelweard’s “Sigeferth the pirate”.
In the summer of 896, the remnants of the Viking forces that had invaded in 892 dispersed. Wessex, though, continued to be harassed by pirate raids from Northumbria and East Anglia. Alfred built a fleet of large ships, apparently to his own design, to counter the nuisance. It proved to be a successful tactic. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle boasts: “In the same summer no less than 20 [pirate] ships, with men and everything, perished on the south coast.”[*]
Alfred the Great died in 899. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states: “He was king over all the English race, except the part that was under the dominion of the Danes”.[*] Immediately before his notice of Alfred’s death, Æthelweard (IV, 3) makes the somewhat enigmatic comment:
… there was a disturbance on a very great scale among the English, that is the bands who were settled in the territories of the Northumbrians.
Anyway, Alfred was succeeded by his son, Edward (known as Edward the Elder).