Oswald’s father, Æthelfrith, king of Bernicia, had, by some means, secured control of Deira, and by so doing became the first to rule Bernicia and Deira as a single kingdom, Northumbria. Æthelfrith had married Acha, daughter of the erstwhile king of Deira, Ælle, and exiled Edwin, Ælle’s son. In 616, with the backing of Rædwald, king of the East Angles, Edwin succeeding in supplanting Æthelfrith as king of all Northumbria. Æthelfrith’s sons were expelled, and found refuge with the Scots and Picts. During their exile they adopted Christianity. Bede reports that Edwin went on to acquire the overlordship of “all the inhabitants of Britain, both English and Britons, except only the people of Kent” (HE II, 5), and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle grants him the title Bretwalda.
In 627 Edwin had converted to Christianity and been baptized. On 12th October 633, Cadwallon, the Christian king of Gwynedd, aided by Penda, a pagan prince of Mercia, defeated and killed Edwin. Edwin’s wife, Æthelburh, taking with her a daughter, a son and a grandson of Edwin, fled to Kent, where her brother Eadbald was king. Northumbria fractured – Osric, Edwin’s cousin, succeeded to the throne of Deira, whilst Æthelfrith’s sons returned from exile, and the eldest, Eanfrith, became king of Bernicia. Both Eanfrith and Osric renounced Christianity on their accession. Bede takes up the story:
But soon after, the king of the Britons, Cædwalla [i.e. Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd], the unrighteous instrument of rightful vengeance, slew them both.[*] First, in the following summer [i.e. of 634], he put Osric to death; for, being rashly besieged by him in the municipal town [presumably York is meant], he sallied out on a sudden with all his forces, took him by surprise, and destroyed him and all his army. Then, when he had occupied the provinces of the Northumbrians for a whole year, not ruling them like a victorious king, but ravaging them like a furious tyrant, he at length put an end to Eanfrith, in like manner, when he unadvisedly came to him with only 12 chosen soldiers, to sue for peace. To this day, that year is looked upon as ill-omened, and hateful to all good men; as well on account of the apostasy of the English kings, who had renounced the mysteries of the faith, as of the outrageous tyranny of the British king. Hence it has been agreed by all who compute the dates of kings, to abolish the memory of those faithless monarchs, and to assign that year to the reign of the following king, Oswald, a man beloved of God. This king, after the death of his brother Eanfrith, advanced with an army, small, indeed, in number, but strengthened with the faith of Christ; and the impious commander of the Britons, in spite of his vast forces, which he boasted nothing could withstand, was slain at a place called in the English tongue Denisesburna, that is, the brook of Denise [identified as Rowley Burn, near Hexham, Northumberland].
HE III, 1
The place is shown to this day, and held in much veneration, where Oswald, being about to engage in this battle, erected the symbol of the Holy Cross, and knelt down and prayed to God that he would send help from Heaven to his worshippers in their sore need. Then, we are told, that the cross being made in haste, and the hole dug in which it was to be set up, the king himself, in the ardour of his faith, laid hold of it and held it upright with both his hands, till the earth was heaped up by the soldiers and it was fixed. Thereupon, uplifting his voice, he cried to his whole army, “Let us all kneel, and together beseech the true and living God Almighty in His mercy to defend us from the proud and fierce enemy; for He knows that we have undertaken a just war for the safety of our nation.” All did as he had commanded, and accordingly advancing towards the enemy with the first dawn of day, they obtained the victory, as their faith deserved. In the place where they prayed very many miracles of healing are known to have been wrought, as a token and memorial of the king’s faith; for even to this day, many are wont to cut off small splinters from the wood of the holy cross, and put them into water, which they give to sick men or cattle to drink, or they sprinkle them therewith, and these are presently restored to health. The place is called in the English tongue Hefenfeld, which may be rendered in Latin Caelestis campus [Heavenly field], which name it undoubtedly received of old as a presage of what was afterwards to happen, denoting, that the heavenly trophy was to be erected, the heavenly victory begun, and heavenly miracles shown forth to this day. The place is near the wall to the north, which the Romans formerly drew across the whole of Britain from sea to sea, to restrain the onslaught of the barbarians, as has been said before. Hither also the brothers of the church of Hagustald [Hexham], which is not far distant, long ago made it their custom to resort every year, on the day before that on which King Oswald was afterwards slain, to keep vigils there for the health of his soul, and having sung many psalms of praise, to offer for him in the morning the sacrifice of the Holy Oblation. And since that good custom has spread, they have lately built a church there, which has attached additional sanctity and honour in the eyes of all men to that place; and this with good reason; for it appears that there was no symbol of the Christian faith, no church, no altar erected throughout all the nation of the Bernicians, before that new leader in war, prompted by the zeal of his faith, set up the standard of the Holy Cross when he was about to fight his most savage enemy.[*]
HE III, 2
Having disposed of Cadwallon, Oswald appears to have been readily accepted as king of Deira as well as Bernicia.
The same Oswald, as soon as he ascended the throne, being desirous that all the nation under his rule should be endued with the grace of the Christian faith, whereof he had found happy experience in vanquishing the barbarians, sent to the elders of the Scots, among whom himself and his followers, when in exile, had received the sacrament of baptism, desiring that they would send him a bishop, by whose instruction and ministry the English nation which he governed might learn the privileges and receive the sacraments of the faith of our Lord.
HE III, 3
“It is said”, writes Bede, that the first bishop sent to Northumbria by the Scots fared badly:
… after preaching for some time to the English and meeting with no success, not being gladly heard by the people, [he] returned to his country, and in an assembly of the elders reported, that he had not been able to do any good by his teaching to the nation to whom he had been sent, because they were intractable men, and of a stubborn and barbarous disposition.
HE III, 5
The elders held a council, to decide on a course of action. Having impressed the council by his reasoning, Aidan, a monk of Iona, was consecrated and despatched to Northumbria.
On the arrival of the bishop, the king appointed him his episcopal see in the island of Lindisfarne, as he desired. Which place, as the tide ebbs and flows, is twice a day enclosed by the waves of the sea like an island; and again, twice, when the beach is left dry, becomes contiguous with the land. The king also humbly and willingly in all things giving ear to his admonitions, industriously applied himself to build up and extend the Church of Christ in his kingdom; wherein, when the bishop, who was not perfectly skilled in the English tongue, preached the Gospel, it was a fair sight to see the king himself interpreting the Word of God to his ealdormen and thegns, for he had thoroughly learned the language of the Scots during his long exile. From that time many came daily into Britain from the region of the Scots, and with great devotion preached the Word to those provinces of the English, over which King Oswald reigned, and those among them that had received priest’s orders administered the grace of baptism to the believers. Churches were built in divers places; the people joyfully flocked together to hear the Word; lands and other property were given of the king’s bounty to found monasteries; English children, as well as their elders, were instructed by their Scottish teachers in study and the observance of monastic discipline. For most of those who came to preach were monks. Bishop Aidan was himself a monk, having been sent out from the island called Hii [Iona], the monastery of which was for a long time the chief of almost all those of the northern Scots and all those of the Picts, and had the direction of their people.[*]
HE III, 3
In 635, Oswald, whom Bede (HE III, 7) refers to as “the most holy and victorious king of the Northumbrians”, stood as the godfather of Cynegils, the West Saxon king,[*] and subsequently married Cynegils’ daughter. (In 626, Cynegils’ son, Cwichelm, who evidently reigned alongside his father, had engineered an attempt to murder Edwin.) The Historia Brittonum (§57) reports that Oswald’s brother, Oswiu, married Riemmelth, the granddaughter of a certain Rhun. This Rhun is generally accepted as being the son of Urien – ruler of the British kingdom of Rheged (the lands of which may have spread north and south of the Solway Firth) celebrated in poems attributed to the bard Taliesin. Oswiu had two children who were, themselves, of marriageable age by 653, so his marriage to Riemmelth presumably occurred early in Oswald’s reign,[*] and should probably be seen in the same light as Oswald’s marriage to Cynegils’ daughter – cementing relations between an independent (for the time being anyway) Rheged and the dynasty of Æthelfrith.[*]
Northumbrian rule of Lindsey (northern Lincolnshire) had evidently been lost on Edwin’s death, but Oswald retook it.[*]
The Annals of Ulster place “the siege of Etin” in 638. Etin is normally identified as Din Eidyn, i.e. ‘Fort of Eidyn’, which is more familiar in the Anglicized form: Edinburgh. It is generally supposed that this brief notice marks the capture of Edinburgh and the conquest of the British kingdom of Gododdin (south-east Scotland) by Oswald.
Æthelfrith, Oswald’s father, was Bernician, and Oswald may have used his political clout to engineer the removal of potential rivals from the Deiran dynasty of his mother, Edwin’s sister, Acha. Bede notes (HE II, 20) that, during the war in which Edwin was killed, Edwin’s son, Eadfrith: “compelled by necessity, went over to King Penda, and was by him afterwards slain in the reign of Oswald, contrary to his oath.” Bede doesn’t accuse Oswald of demanding Eadfrith’s murder, but he mentions that Edwin’s wife, Æthelburh, who was in Kent, where her brother Eadbald was king, had: “for fear of the kings Eadbald and Oswald, sent Uscfrea [Edwin’s son] and Yffi [Edwin’s grandson] over into Gaul to be bred up by King Dagobert [of the Franks], who was her friend; and there they both died in infancy”, so, clearly, Æthelburh believed Oswald was capable of, and had the power to order, the killing of Edwin’s heirs in Kent.
King Oswald, with the English nation which he governed, being instructed by the teaching of this bishop, not only learned to hope for a heavenly kingdom unknown to his fathers, but also obtained of the one God, Who made heaven and earth, a greater earthly kingdom than any of his ancestors. In brief, he brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain, which are divided into four languages, to wit, those of the Britons, the Picts, the Scots, and the English. —
— Though raised to that height of regal power, wonderful to relate, he was always humble, kind, and generous to the poor and to strangers. To give one instance, it is told, that when he was once sitting at dinner, on the holy day of Easter, with the aforesaid bishop [Aidan], and a silver dish full of royal dainties was set before him, and they were just about to put forth their hands to bless the bread, the thegn [minister] whom he had appointed to relieve the needy came in on a sudden, and told the king that a great multitude of poor folk from all parts was sitting in the streets begging alms of the king; he immediately ordered the food set before him to be carried to the poor, and the dish to be broken in pieces and divided among them. At which sight, the bishop who sat by him, greatly rejoicing at such an act of piety, clasped his right hand and said, “May this hand never decay.” This fell out according to his prayer; for when he [Oswald] was slain in battle, his hands with the arms were cut off from the rest of his body, and they remain uncorrupted to this day. In fact they are preserved in a silver casket in St Peter’s church, in the royal city which has taken its name from a former queen called Bebba [i.e. Bamburgh], and are venerated with due honour by all.[*]
HE III, 6
… Oswald was killed in a great battle, by the same pagan nation and pagan king of the Mercians [i.e. Penda], who had slain his predecessor Edwin, at a place called in the English tongue Maserfelth, in the 38th year of his age, on the fifth day of the month of August . How great his faith was towards God, and how remarkable his devotion, has been made evident by miracles even after his death; for, in the place where he was killed by the pagans, fighting for his country, sick men and cattle are frequently healed to this day. Whence it came to pass that many took up the very dust of the place where his body fell, and putting it into water, brought much relief with it to their friends who were sick. This custom came so much into use, that the earth being carried away by degrees, a hole was made as deep as the height of a man. Nor is it surprising that the sick should be healed in the place where he died; for, whilst he lived, he never ceased to provide for the poor and the sick, and to bestow alms on them, and assist them. Many miracles are said to have been wrought in that place, or with the dust carried from it [Bede proceeds to give a couple of examples] …
HE III, 9
… the king who slew him commanded his head, and hands, with the arms, to be cut off from the body, and set upon stakes. But a year later, Oswiu, the successor to his kingdom, coming thither with an army, took them away, and buried the head in the cemetery of the church of Lindisfarne, and the hands and arms in the royal city [i.e. Bamburgh].
HE III, 12
Nor was the fame of this renowned man [i.e Oswald] confined to Britain, but, spreading rays of healing light even beyond the sea, reached also to Germany and Ireland.
HE III, 13
642 – 670 Oswiu
Son of Æthelfrith.
Oswald being translated to the heavenly kingdom, his brother Oswiu, a young man of about 30 years of age, succeeded him on the throne of his earthly kingdom, and held it 28 years with much trouble … Oswiu, during the first part of his reign, had a partner in the royal dignity called Oswine, of the stock of King Edwin, that is, the son of Osric of whom we have spoken above, a man of wonderful piety and devotion, who governed the province of the Deirans seven years in very great prosperity, and was himself beloved by all men.
HE III, 14
Osric, Oswine’s father and a cousin of Edwin, had ruled Deira for less than a year after Edwin’s death. Oswald, of the Bernician royal line (though his mother was Edwin’s sister), had subsequently reunited Bernicia and Deira. Oswiu succeeded to a united Northumbria, but his hold on Deira would appear to have been tenuous, and, presumably to bolster his claim to rule, he arranged for Edwin’s daughter, Eanflæd, to be brought from Kent to be his wife.[*] In 644, however, Oswine somehow managed to acquire the throne of Deira.
But Oswiu, who governed the other, northern, part of the nation beyond the Humber, that is, the province of the Bernicians, could not live at peace with him; and at last, when the causes of their disagreement increased, he murdered him most cruelly. For when each had raised an army against the other, Oswine perceived that he could not maintain a war against his enemy who had greater forces than himself, and he thought it better at that time to lay aside all thoughts of engaging, and to reserve himself for better times. He therefore disbanded the army which he had assembled, and ordered all his men to return to their own homes, from the place that is called Wilfaræsdun, that is, Wilfar’s Hill, which is about 10 miles distant from the village called Cataract [Catterick, North Yorkshire], towards the north-west. He himself, with only one trusty thegn [miles], whose name was Tondhere, withdrew and lay concealed in the house of Hunwold, a nobleman [comes], whom he imagined to be his most assured friend. But, alas! it was far otherwise; for that same nobleman betrayed him, and Oswiu, by the hands of his reeve [praefectus], Æthelwine, foully slew him and the thegn aforesaid. This happened on the 13th of the Kalends of September [i.e. on the 20th of August], in the ninth year of his reign [i.e. in 651], at a place called Ingetlingum [probably Gilling West, North Yorkshire], where afterwards, to atone for this crime, a monastery was built, wherein prayers should be daily offered up to God for the redemption of the souls of both kings, to wit, of him that was murdered, and of him that commanded the murder.[*]
HE III, 14
King of Deira
644 – 651 Oswine (St Oswin)
Son of Osric.
King Oswine was of a goodly countenance, and tall of stature, pleasant in discourse, and courteous in behaviour; and bountiful to all, gentle and simple alike; so that he was beloved by all men for the royal dignity of his mind and appearance and actions, and men of the highest rank came from almost all provinces to serve him. Among all the graces of virtue and moderation by which he was distinguished and, if I may say so, blessed in a special manner, humility is said to have been the greatest …
HE III, 14
651 ? – 655 ? Œthelwald
Son of Oswald.
Following the murder of Oswine, by Oswiu, Oswald’s son, Œthelwald, emerges as ruler of Deira, but later events tend to suggest that he owed his position to the support of Penda, who had killed his father in 642, rather than the benevolence of his uncle Oswiu.
At some point after his victory over Oswald in 642, and before 651, Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, had campaigned deep into Northumbrian territory:
… during the time that he [Aidan] was bishop, the hostile army of the Mercians, under the command of Penda, cruelly ravaged the regions of the Northumbrians far and near, even to the royal city which has its name from Bebba, a former queen [i.e. Bamburgh]. Not being able to take it by storm or by siege, he endeavoured to burn it down; and having pulled down all the villages in the neighbourhood of the city, he brought thither an immense quantity of beams, rafters, partitions, wattles and thatch, wherewith he encompassed the place to a great height on the land side, and when he found the wind favourable, he set fire to it and attempted to burn the city. At that time, the most reverend Bishop Aidan was dwelling in the Isle of Farne, which is about two miles from the city; for thither he was wont often to retire to pray in solitude and silence; and, indeed, this lonely dwelling of his is to this day shown in that island. When he saw the flames of fire and the smoke carried by the wind rising above the city walls, he is said to have lifted up his eyes and hands to heaven, and cried with tears, “Behold, Lord, how great evil is wrought by Penda!” These words were hardly uttered, when the wind immediately veering from the city, drove back the flames upon those who had kindled them, so that some being hurt, and all afraid, they forebore any further attempts against the city, which they perceived to be protected by the hand of God.
HE III, 16
Aidan was at a royal residence, not far from the city of which we have spoken above, at the time when death caused him to quit the body, after he had been bishop 17 years; for having a church and a chamber in that place, he was wont often to go and stay there, and to make excursions from it to preach in the country round about, which he likewise did at other royal residences, having nothing of his own besides his church and a few fields about it. When he was sick they set up a tent for him at the west end of the church, so that the tent touched the wall of the church. Hence it happened that he breathed his last, leaning against a prop that was set up on the outside of the church to strengthen it. He died in the seventeenth year of his episcopate, on the day before the Kalends of September [31st August, 651].[*] His body was thence presently translated to the isle of Lindisfarne … Finan, who had likewise been sent thither from Hii [Iona], the island monastery of the Scots, succeeded him, and continued no small time in the bishopric.
HE III, 17
During the early 650s, however, there was evidently a period of peace between the Mercians and the Northumbrians. Bede says that, in 653, Penda’s son, Peada:
… came to Oswiu, king of the Northumbrians, requesting to have his daughter Alhflæd given him to wife; but he could not obtain his desire unless he would receive the faith of Christ, and be baptized, with the nation which he governed.
HE III, 21
Peada ruled the Middle Angles on behalf of his father. It now becomes apparent that a son of Oswiu had already married a daughter of Penda:
When he [Peada] heard the preaching of the truth, the promise of the heavenly kingdom, and the hope of resurrection and future immortality, he declared that he would willingly become a Christian, even if he did not obtain the maiden; being chiefly prevailed on to receive the faith by King Oswiu’s son Alhfrith, who was his brother-in-law and friend, for he had married his sister Cyneburh, the daughter of King Penda. Accordingly he was baptized by Bishop Finan, with all the nobles and soldiers, and their servants, that came along with him, at a famous township of the king [Oswiu] called At the Wall. And having received four priests, who by reason of their learning and good life were deemed proper to instruct and baptize his nation, he returned home with much joy.
HE III, 21
Sigeberht, king of the East Saxons, was, says Bede (HE III, 22), “a friend to King Oswiu”. He used to visit Northumbria regularly, and Oswiu persuaded him to become a Christian. Sigeberht and his entourage were, like Peada, baptized by Bishop Finan at At the Wall.
Despite the marriage links that now existed between Oswiu and Penda, the latter once more renewed his assault on the Northumbrians.
At this time, King Oswiu was exposed to the cruel and intolerable invasions of Penda, king of the Mercians, whom we have so often mentioned, and who had slain his brother; —
— at length, compelled by his necessity, he promised to give him countless royal ornaments and gifts, greater than can be believed, to purchase peace; provided that he would return home, and cease to waste and utterly destroy the provinces of his kingdom. The pagan king refused to grant his request, for he had resolved to blot out and extirpate all his nation, from the highest to the lowest; whereupon King Oswiu had recourse to the protection of the Divine pity for deliverance from his barbarous and pitiless foe, and binding himself by a vow, said, “If the pagan will not accept our gifts, let us offer them to Him that will, the Lord our God.” He then vowed, that if he should win the victory, he would dedicate his daughter to the Lord in holy virginity, and give 12 pieces of land whereon to build monasteries. After this he gave battle with a very small army; indeed, it is reported that the pagans had an army thirty times larger; for they had 30 legions, drawn up under most noted commanders. King Oswiu and his son Alhfrith met them with a very small army, as has been said, but trusting in Christ as their Leader; his other son, Ecgfrith, was at that time kept as a hostage in the province of the Mercians, at the court of Queen Cynewise. King Oswald’s son Œthelwald, who ought to have helped them, was on the enemy’s side, and led them on to fight against his country and his uncle; although at the very time of fighting he withdrew from the battle, and awaited the outcome in a place of safety. The engagement began, the pagans were put to flight or killed, the 30 royal commanders, who had come to Penda’s assistance, were almost all of them slain; among whom was Æthelhere, brother and successor to Anna, king of the East Angles. He [Penda] had been the occasion of the war, and was now killed, having lost his army and auxiliaries.[*] The battle was fought near the river Winwæd, which then, owing to the great rains, was in flood, and had overflowed its banks, so that many more were drowned in the flight than destroyed in battle by the sword.
HE III, 24
King Oswiu concluded this war in the region of Loidis [Leeds], in the thirteenth year of his reign, on the 17th of the Kalends of December [i.e. 15th November, 655], to the great benefit of both nations; for he delivered his own people from the hostile depredations of the pagans, and, having made an end of their heathen chief, converted the Mercians and the adjacent provinces to the grace of the Christian faith.
HE III, 24
King Oswiu ruled over the nation of the Mercians, as well as the people of the other southern provinces, for three years after King Penda was killed; and he likewise subdued the greater part of the nation of the Picts to the dominion of the English.
HE III, 24
During the three years following Penda’s death, Oswiu was at the height of his powers. Bede names him as the seventh, and final, king in his list of overlords of the south-Humbrian English kingdoms (HE II, 5), adding that he: “for the most part subdued and made tributary the nations of the Picts and Scots, who occupy the northern parts of Britain”.[*] Taking its lead from Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle names Oswiu as the seventh Bretwalda.
King of Deira
655 ? – 664 ? Alhfrith
Son of Oswiu.
Œthelwald disappears from history after Winwæd. Having opposed Oswiu he, presumably, would have, at the least, been exiled, and it was probably at this point, with Deira firmly in his grasp, that Oswiu appointed his son Alhfrith, who had supported him at Winwæd, to rule Deira on his behalf.
At first Oswiu allowed his son-in-law, Peada, to govern the Southern Mercians (“divided by the river Trent from the Northern Mercians”), but Peada was assassinated, “as is said”, writes Bede (HE III, 24), through the treachery of “his wife” (i.e. Oswiu’s daughter, Alhflæd), at Easter 656. All Mercia was then ruled directly by Oswiu. In 658, however, Mercian rebels set-up Peada’s brother, Wulfhere, as king, and: “they bravely recovered at once their liberty and their lands”. Oswiu’s hold over the south-Humbrian English kingdoms was broken, and Wulfhere began to extend his own authority.
In about 660, Oswiu’s son, Ecgfrith, married Æthelthryth, daughter of Anna, the late king, and niece of Æthelwald, the incumbent king, of the East Angles.
Broadly speaking, there were two Christian doctrines prevalent in the British Isles at this time: that of the indigenous Churches, often lumped together under the umbrella-term ‘Celtic Church’, as exemplified by Bishop Aidan and the monks of Iona; and that of the Catholic Church of Rome, as promoted amongst the English by the mission of Pope Gregory the Great, which had landed in Kent in 597. When Oswiu’s wife, Eanflæd, had returned to Northumbria from Kent, she and her entourage had continued to follow Roman practices, whilst Oswiu and his courtiers followed the teachings of Aidan and his Scottish (i.e. Irish) successors at Lindisfarne. The major difference between the doctrines concerned the formula used to calculate Easter.
Thus it is said to have sometimes happened in those times that Easter was twice celebrated in one year; and that when the king, having ended his fast, was keeping Easter, the queen and her followers were still fasting, and celebrating Palm Sunday.… Now Oswiu, having been instructed and baptized by the Scots, and being very perfectly skilled in their language, thought nothing better than what they taught; but Alhfrith, having for his teacher in Christianity Wilfrid, a most learned man – for he had formerly gone to Rome to study ecclesiastical doctrine, and spent much time at Lyons with Dalfinus, archbishop of Gaul, from whom also he had received the crown of ecclesiastical tonsure[*] – knew that this man’s [i.e. Wilfrid’s] doctrine was rightly to be preferred to all the traditions of the Scots.
HE III, 25
In 664 a synod was convened at Abbess Hild’s monastery at Whitby,[*] attended by Oswiu, Alhfrith and clerics of both doctrines.
King Oswiu first made an opening speech, in which he said that it behoved those who served one God to observe one rule of life; and as they all expected the same kingdom in heaven, so they ought not to differ in the celebration of the heavenly sacraments; but rather to inquire which was the truer tradition, that it might be followed by all in common.
HE III, 25
Colman, bishop of Lindisfarne, put the case for the ‘Celtic’ method of calculating Easter, whilst Wilfrid argued for the Catholic method. Wilfrid’s argument won the day – Oswiu decided in favour of the Roman doctrine. Colman and other ‘Celtic’ clergymen who would not adopt the Catholic Easter, nor, indeed, the Roman style of “tonsure in the form of a crown” – Bede (HE III, 26) notes “there was no small dispute about that also” – retired to Iona, and thence to Ireland. One Tuda was appointed bishop in Colman’s stead. He was the only bishop in Northumbria. Lindisfarne, the bishop’s seat, was in Bernicia. Alhfrith decided that Deira should have its own bishop, and so he, with Oswiu’s agreement, sent Wilfrid off to Gaul to be consecrated[*].
In the same year, 664, a devastating plague swept through the British Isles. Bishop Tuda was a victim.
Oswiu sent Chad (Ceadda), brother of Bishop Cedd, to Canterbury to be consecrated bishop, but of York, not Lindisfarne. York was evidently the see that Alhfrith had intended for Wilfrid, who, says Bede: “stayed some time in the parts beyond the sea” (HE III, 28). Nothing more is heard of Alhfrith. In his introduction to Oswiu’s career (HE III, 14), Bede remarks that he ruled: “with much trouble, being attacked by the pagan nation of the Mercians, that had slain his brother, and also by his own son Alhfrith, as well as by his nephew Œthelwald, that is, the son of his brother who had reigned before him.” Bede’s meaning is obvious regarding the Mercians and Œthelwald, but his reference to Alhfrith is mysterious. It may be that Alhfrith rebelled against his father in 664, and came to an untimely end – hence Wilfrid’s dalliance across the Channel. At any rate, when Chad got to Canterbury, he found that Archbishop Deusdedit, who died in July 664 (probably of the plague), had not been replaced. Chad travelled on to Wessex, where he was consecrated by Wine, bishop of the West Saxons, who was the only Catholically ordained bishop in Britain at the time. Wine was, however, assisted by two British, that is ‘Celtic Church’, bishops.
When Wilfrid eventually returned to Northumbria, in 666, he found Chad occupying the seat intended for him. Wilfrid withdrew to his monastery at Ripon, which had been previously gifted to him by Alhfrith. Stephen the Priest says (Ch.14) that Wilfrid: “humbly dwelt once more in Ripon for 3 years, except for the frequent occasions when Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, out of sincere affection for him, invited him into his realm to fulfil various episcopal duties.” And, since the post of archbishop of Canterbury was still vacant: “Egbert too, the pious king of the people of Kent, summoned our bishop to his presence, and there he ordained many priests … and not a few deacons.”
King of Deira
664 ? – 670 ? Ecgfrith ?
Son of Oswiu.
The anonymous, late-12th century, compiler of the Liber Eliensis alleges: “Ecgfrith, a younger son for whom he had felt a deep love, he appointed as his sharer in the kingship over the province of York, since, being oppressed by bodily illness, he was finding difficulty in maintaining secure jurisdiction over the kingdom.” (I, 8).
Following the death of Deusdedit, in July 664, the see of Canterbury had been “vacant for no small time”, says Bede (HE IV, 1).
At this time the most noble kings of the English, Oswiu of the province of the Northumbrians and Egbert of the people of Kent, consulted together to determine what ought to be done about the state of the English Church, for Oswiu, though educated by the Scots, had rightly perceived that the Roman was the Catholic and Apostolic Church. They selected, with the consent and by the choice of the holy Church of the English nation, a priest named Wigheard, one of Bishop Deusdedit’s clergy, a good man and fitted for the episcopate, and sent him to Rome to be ordained bishop, to the end that, having been raised to the rank of an archbishop, he might ordain Catholic prelates for the churches of the English throughout all Britain.
HE III, 29
Sadly, Wigheard, along with most of his party, fell ill and died at Rome (in 667?) before he was ordained. Pope Vitalian eventually (on 26th March 668) ordained a monk called Theodore, who, though he was in Rome, hailed from Tarsus (in modern Turkey), in Wigheard’s stead.[*]
Archbishop Theodore took-up his position at Canterbury on 27th May 669.[*]
Soon after, he visited all the island, wherever the English peoples dwelt, for he was gladly received and heard by all … Theodore, journeying through all parts, ordained bishops in fitting places, and with their assistance corrected such things as he found faulty.
HE IV, 2
Theodore judged that Chad’s position at York was illegitimate – non-Catholic British bishops had participated in his ordination – and he had to relinquish it to Wilfrid. Chad was properly re-ordained, and, since Mercia was without a bishop, he was sent off to King Wulfhere to act as bishop of the Mercians, and also of Lindsey, which was then a Mercian possession.[*]
… Wilfrid administered the bishopric of York, and of all the Northumbrians, and likewise of the Picts, as far as King Oswiu was able to extend his dominions.
HE IV, 3
In the year of our Lord 670, which is the second year since Theodore came to Britain, Oswiu, king of the Northumbrians, fell sick, and died, in the 58th year of his age.[*] He at that time bore so great affection to the Roman Apostolic usages, that he had designed, if he recovered from his sickness, to go to Rome, and there to end his days at the holy places, having asked Bishop Wilfrid, with a promise of no small gift of money, to conduct him on his journey. He died on the 15th of the Kalends of March [i.e. on 15th February], leaving his son Ecgfrith heir to the kingdom.
HE IV, 5
670 – 685 Ecgfrith
Son of Oswiu.
Stephen the Priest, biographer of Wilfrid (Wilfrid was at the time bishop of York[*]), says that in the “early years” of Ecgfrith’s reign:
… while the kingdom was still weak, the bestial tribes of the Picts had a fierce contempt for subjection to the Saxon and threatened to throw off from themselves the yoke of slavery; they gathered together innumerable tribes from every nook and corner in the north, and as a swarm of ants in the summer sweeping from their hills heap up a mound to protect their tottering house. When King Ecgfrith heard this, humble as he was among his own people and magnanimous towards his enemies, he forthwith got together a troop of horsemen, for he was no lover of belated operations; and trusting in God like Judas Maccabaeus and assisted by the brave sub-king, Beornhæth, he attacked with his little band of God's people an enemy host which was vast and moreover concealed. He slew an enormous number of the people, filling two rivers with corpses, so that, marvellous to relate, the slayers, passing over the rivers dry foot, pursued and slew the crowd of fugitives; the tribes were reduced to slavery and remained subject under the yoke of captivity until the time when the king [i.e. Ecgfrith] was slain.
Thereupon after this victory King Ecgfrith, ruling the people with the bishop of God, in righteousness and holiness, strong like David in crushing his enemies yet humble in the sight of God, breaking the necks of the tumultuous tribes and their warlike kings, emboldened as he was by the help of God, in all things always gave thanks to God.
Wilfrid built a splendid stone church at Ripon. Stephen the Priest:
… when the building had been finished, he invited to the day of its dedication the two most Christian kings and brothers, Ecgfrith and Ælfwine, together with the abbots, the reeves [praefecti] and the sub-kings [subreguli];[*] dignitaries of every kind gathered together; like Solomon the wise, they consecrated the house and dedicated it to the Lord in honour of St Peter the chief of the Apostles … St Wilfrid the bishop stood in front of the altar, and, turning to the people, in the presence of the kings, read out clearly a list of the lands which the kings, for the good of their souls, had previously, and on that very day as well, presented to him, with the agreement and over the signatures of the bishops and all the chief men, and also a list of the consecrated places in various parts which the British clergy had deserted when fleeing from the hostile sword wielded by the warriors of our own nation. It was truly a gift well pleasing to God that the pious kings had assigned so many lands to our bishop for the service of God; these are the names of the regions: round Ribble and Yeadon and the region of Dent and Catlow and other places.[*]
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.17
King of Deira
670 ? – 679 Ælfwine
Son of Oswiu.
Ælfwine is titled ‘king’ by both Bede and Stephen the Priest, but of where neither of them says. Circumstantial evidence, however, suggests it was Deira. Presumably Ecgfrith installed his young brother in Deira when he, Ecgfrith, succeeded to the overall kingship of Northumbria – Ælfwine would have only been about nine years old at the time. It is possible that Ecgfrith had, himself, previously ruled Deira on behalf of Oswiu, and it may be that Ælfwine was appointed to mark him out as the childless Ecgfrith’s nominated successor.
Meanwhile, Wulfhere, king of Mercia, had become the most powerful king south of the Humber. Bede does not include him in his list of overlords of the southern English kingdoms, but it seems likely that by 674, when he turned his attention to Northumbria, he was in that position. Stephen the Priest:
Now Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, proud of heart and insatiable in spirit, roused all the southern nations against our kingdom, intent not merely on fighting but on compelling them to pay tribute in a slavish spirit. But he was not guided by God. So Ecgfrith, king of Deira and Bernicia, unwavering in spirit and true-hearted, on the advice of his counsellors trusted God, like Barak and Deborah, to guard his land and defend the churches of God even as the bishop taught him to do, and with a band of men no greater than theirs attacked a proud enemy, and by the help of God overthrew them with his tiny force. Countless numbers were slain, the king [of the Mercians] was put to flight and his kingdom laid under tribute, and afterwards [in 675], when Wulfhere died through some cause, Ecgfrith ruled in peace over a wider realm.[*]
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.20
The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (History of St Cuthbert – an anonymous, apparently mid-11th century, compilation):
… King Ecgfrith fought against the king of the Mercians, Wulfhere son of Penda, and having cut down [his] army he vanquished him and put him to flight with only one small boy accompanying [him]. And he [Ecgfrith] obtained this through the aid of St Wilfrid, who was with him, but especially through the prayers of St Cuthbert, who was absent.[*] After this battle King Ecgfrith gave Carham and whatever pertains to it to St Cuthbert and held him in the highest veneration as long as he lived …
At some stage before 679, Wulfhere’s brother and successor, Æthelred, married Ecgfrith’s sister, Osthryth.
Wilfrid built another magnificent church, at Hexham[*], on land given to him by Ecgfrith’s wife, Æthelthryth. In 660, Ecgfrith, aged fifteen, had married Æthelthryth, saintly daughter of Anna, late king of the East Angles. Æthelthryth was older, and had been married before. Bede asserts that:
Though she lived with him [i.e. Ecgfrith] 12 years, yet she preserved the glory of perfect virginity, as I was informed by Bishop Wilfrid, of blessed memory, of whom I inquired, because some questioned the truth thereof; and he told me that he was an undoubted witness to her virginity, forasmuch as Ecgfrith promised to give him many lands and much money if he could persuade the queen to consent to fulfil her marriage duty, for he knew the queen loved no man more than [Wilfrid] himself.
HE IV, 19
Eventually, in 672, Æthelthryth persuaded Ecgfrith to allow her to become a nun, and:
… she entered the monastery of the Abbess Æbbe, who was aunt to King Ecgfrith, at the place called the city of Coludi [Coldingham, Berwickshire], having received the veil of the religious habit from the hands of the aforesaid Bishop Wilfrid …
HE IV, 19
A year later Æthelthryth became founding abbess of Ely[*].
In the year of our Lord 678, which is the 8th year of the reign of King Ecgfrith, in the month of August, appeared a star, which is called a comet, and continuing for three months, it rose in the morning, sending forth, as it were, a tall pillar of radiant flame. The same year a dissension broke out between King Ecgfrith and the most reverend prelate, Wilfrid, who was driven from his see,[*] and two bishops substituted for him, to preside over the nation of the Northumbrians, namely, Bosa, to govern the province of the Deirans; and Eata that of the Bernicians; the former having his episcopal see in the city of York, the latter either in the church of Hagustald [Hexham] or of Lindisfarne; both of them promoted to the episcopal dignity from a community of monks. With them also Eadhæd was ordained bishop for the province of Lindsey, which King Ecgfrith had but newly acquired, having defeated Wulfhere and put him to flight; and this was the first bishop of its own which that province had … Eadhæd, Bosa and Eata were ordained at York by Archbishop Theodore …
HE IV, 12
Ecgfrith had remarried, and, according to Stephen the Priest, it was his new wife, Iurminburh, who stoked-up Ecgfrith’s hostility towards Wilfrid:
She eloquently described to him all the temporal glories of St Wilfrid, his riches, the number of his monasteries, the greatness of his buildings, his countless army of followers arrayed in royal vestments and arms. With such shafts as these the king’s heart was wounded. They both sought skilfully to humiliate the holy head of the Church to their own destruction and boldly to defraud him of the gifts which the kings had given him for God’s sake.
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.24
Stephen accuses Archbishop Theodore of accepting bribes (“for bribes blind the eyes even of wise men”) to further their plot against Wilfrid. On being replaced by Eadhæd, Bosa and Eata, Wilfrid decided to travel to Rome, to seek justice from the pope.
In the ninth year of the reign of King Ecgfrith [in 679], a great battle was fought between him and Æthelred, king of the Mercians, near the river Trent, and Ælfwine, brother to King Ecgfrith, was slain, a youth about 18 years of age, and much beloved in both provinces; for King Æthelred had married his sister, who was called Osthryth. There was now reason to expect a more severe war, and more lasting enmity between those kings and their fierce peoples; but Theodore, the prelate beloved of God, relying on the Divine aid, by his wholesome admonitions wholly extinguished the dangerous fire that was breaking out; so that the kings and peoples on both sides were appeased, and no man’s life was given for the killing of the king’s brother, but only the due compensation in money to the avenging king;[*] and this peace continued long after between those kings and between their kingdoms.[*]
HE IV, 21
In 680, Bishop Wilfrid returned from Rome with papers from Pope Agatho ordering his reinstatement. Far from being reinstated, however, he was imprisoned for nine months, and then exiled from Northumbria[*].
Wilfrid’s erstwhile diocese, already split-up in 678, was, in 681, further divided by Theodore – Eata’s see was fixed at Lindisfarne, one Tunberht was appointed to Hexham, and: “Trumwine to the province of the Picts, which at that time was subject to English rule.” (HE IV, 12). Bede notes: “Eadhæd returning from Lindsey, because Æthelred had recovered that province, was placed by Theodore over the church of Ripon.” Ecgfrith had taken possession of Lindsey following his victory over Wulfhere in 674, but lost it again following the battle of the Trent in 679 (certainly a victory for Æthelred, though Bede doesn't explicitly say so). Northumbria never again had control of Lindsey.
In the year of our Lord 684, Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians, sending Ealdorman Berht with an army into Ireland, miserably laid waste that unoffending nation, which had always been most friendly to the English; insomuch that the invading force spared not even the churches or monasteries. —
— But the islanders, while to the utmost of their power they repelled force with force, implored the assistance of the Divine mercy, and with constant imprecations invoked the vengeance of Heaven; and though such as curse cannot inherit the kingdom of God, yet it was believed that those who were justly cursed on account of their impiety, soon suffered the penalty of their guilt at the avenging hand of God. For the very next year [i.e. in 685], when that same king [i.e. Ecgfrith] had rashly led his army to ravage the province of the Picts, greatly against the advice of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert, of blessed memory, who had been lately ordained bishop,[*] the enemy made a feigned retreat, and the king [Ecgfrith] was drawn into the narrow passes of inaccessible mountains, and slain, with the greater part of the forces he had led thither, in the 40th year of his age, and the 15th of his reign, on the 13th of the Kalends of June [20th May]. His friends, as has been said, advised him not to engage in this war; but since he had the year before refused to listen to the most reverend father, Egbert, advising him not to attack the Scots [i.e. the Irish], who were doing him no harm, it was laid upon him as a punishment for his sin, that he should now not listen to those who would have prevented his death.
HE IV, 26
Bede doesn’t name the battle-site, but the Annals of Ulster state that:
The battle of Dún Nechtain was fought on the twentieth day of May, a Saturday, and Ecgfrith son of Oswiu, king of the Saxons, who had completed the 15th year of his reign, was slain therein with a great body of his soldiers …[*]
Dún Nechtain (Fort of Nechtan) is conventionally identified as Dunnichen, near Forfar.[*] The equivalent entry in the Annals of Tigernach adds that the Pictish king responsible for Ecgfrith’s defeat and death was Bridei (Bruide in Irish) son of Bili. The Historia Brittonum (§57) says:
Ecgfrith is the one who made war against his cousin, who was king of the Picts, named Bridei; and there he fell with all the strength of his army, and the Picts with their king were victorious …
The Historia provides the Welsh name for the battle: “it is called gueith Lin Garan [the battle of Crane Lake].” Symeon of Durham provides the English name:
… in the same year in which King Ecgfrith had caused this venerable father [Cuthbert] to be ordained bishop, he was killed at Nechtanesmere (that is, the Lake of Nechtan) … This happened as the same father Cuthbert had predicted,[*] upon the 13th of the Kalends of June [20th May], in the 15th year of his reign. His [Ecgfrith’s] body was buried in Iona, the island of Columba.
From that time the hopes and strength of the English kingdom [i.e. Northumbria] began ‘to ebb and fall away’ [Virgil, Aeneid II, 169]; for the Picts recovered their own land which had been held by the English; and the Scots that were in Britain, and some part of the Britons, regained their liberty, which they have now enjoyed for about 46 years. Among the many English that then either fell by the sword, or were made slaves, or escaped by flight out of the country of the Picts, the most reverend man of God, Trumwine, who had been made bishop over them, withdrew with his people that were in the monastery of Aebbercurnig [Abercorn], which was situated in English territory but close by the firth [i.e. the Firth of Forth] that divides the lands of the English and the Picts.
It seems that Aldfrith was a souvenir of his father’s exile amongst the Scots. His mother appears to have been an Irish princess called Fín (or Fína), and he is known in Irish as Flann Fína.[*] He was a noted scholar – in the Annals of Ulster entry for 704, for instance, he is “Aldfrith son of Oswiu, wise-man [sapiens], king of the Saxons”, whilst Stephen the Priest (Ch.44) calls him “the most wise King Aldfrith” and Bede (HE V, 12) “a man most learned in all respects”. Several literary works, in Irish, are attributed to him, notably a collection of maxims, Bríathra Flainn Fhína maic Ossu (Sayings of Flann Fína son of Oswiu).
Bede, in his prose ‘Life’ of St Cuthbert (he also wrote a verse version), tells how, a year before the event, Cuthbert had predicted the death of Ecgfrith, Aldfrith’s predecessor. Ælfflæd, abbess of Whitby and sister of Ecgfrith, pressed Cuthbert to tell her who would succeed Ecgfrith, since, as she pointed out, he had no children or brothers:
Cuthbert was silent for a short time. “Say not,” he said, “that he is without heirs, for he shall have a successor whom you may embrace like you do Ecgfrith himself, with sisterly affection.” But she continued, “Tell me, I beseech thee, where is he now?” And he said, “You see this mighty and wide ocean, with how many islands it abounds. It is easy for God from one of these to provide a ruler for the kingdom of the English.” Wherefore she understood that he spoke of Aldfrith, who was said to be the son of Ecgfrith’s father, and who at that time lived in exile, for the sake of studying letters, in the islands of the Scots [i.e. Irish].
Bede Vita Sancti Cuthberti Ch.24
… to fulfil in all respects the prophetic words of Cuthbert, Ecgfrith was slain the year after by the sword of the Picts [on 20th May 685]. And Aldfrith, his bastard brother, who for a considerable time previous had gone into voluntary exile for the sake of acquiring learning, through the love of wisdom, in the region of the Scots, was raised to the kingdom in his stead.
Bede Vita Sancti Cuthberti Ch.24
Back in more familiar territory, the Ecclesiastical History, Bede states:
Aldfrith succeeded Ecgfrith in the kingdom, being a man most learned in the Scriptures, who was said to be his brother and the son of King Oswiu; he nobly retrieved the ruined state of the kingdom, though within narrower bounds.
HE IV, 26
In 687 Aldfrith recalled Bishop Wilfrid, who had been exiled by Ecgfrith. Wilfrid was reinstated as bishop of York, but relations between him and Aldfrith were strained, and in 692 Wilfrid was again exiled, and took himself to Mercia.[*]
In the annalistic summary at the end of the Ecclesiastical History (HE V, 24) is the entry: “In the year 698, Berhtred, an ealdorman [dux] of the king of the Northumbrians, was slain by the Picts.” Bede provides no further information. Irish annals, however, make it clear that Berhtred was killed in battle, and identify him as the son of Beornhæth – the latter being described as Ecgfrith’s “brave sub-king [subregulus]” by Stephen the Priest (Ch.19). It seems likely that Berhtred is one and the same as Berht, the ealdorman who led Ecgfrith’s army against the Irish in 684.[*]
At some stage, Aldfrith married Cuthburh, the sister of Ine, king of the West Saxons, but later, as Florence of Worcester puts it: “both renounced connubial intercourse for the love of God.” Cuthburh became founding abbess of Wimborne, Dorset.[*]
Bishop Wilfrid had evidently remained a thorn in the side of Aldfrith and the Church authorities. In about 703, Aldfrith hosted a synod at Austerfield (near Bawtry, South Yorkshire), at which Berhtwald, archbishop of Canterbury, presided. According to Stephen the Priest:
… they were determined to despoil our holy bishop of all his possessions so completely that he should not possess one fragment of a single cottage in Northumbria or Mercia.
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.47
There was a general outcry at the severity of this course of action, and so, “acting with a little more humanity”, it was decided that Wilfrid could have the monastery at Ripon:
… they added the proviso however that he should sign the strongest undertaking that he would remain quietly there; that he would not pass beyond the bounds of the monastery without permission from the king; that he would not in any way exercise the episcopal office. Thus they sought with the utmost urgency to compel him, under oath, to strip himself of his own accord (horrible to relate) of his honourable rank.
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.47
Needless to say, this was not acceptable to Wilfrid. He and his ally, Æthelred, king of Mercia, decided that the matter should be put to the pope. In 705, Wilfrid arrived back in England. Pope John VI (701–705) had given him an open letter (quoted by Stephen, Ch.54), addressed to Æthelred (who had by this time abdicated and become a monk) and Aldfrith, in which he ordered Archbishop Berhtwald to convene a synod to finally work out an agreement that was acceptable to all parties. Aldfrith dismissed Wilfrid’s ambassadors, and refused to consider the pope’s ruling. Soon after, however, Aldfrith fell seriously ill. Stephen says that the king realized he had been struck down by divine vengeance, and he wished to make his peace with Wilfrid:
… he made a vow to God and St Peter that if he rose healed from his bed of sickness he would remedy everything in accordance with the desire of St Wilfrid the bishop and the judgment of the Apostolic See. “But if by God’s will I die, in the name of God I bid my heir, whoever it may be who shall succeed me in the kingdom, to make peace and a settlement with Bishop Wilfrid for the good of my soul and his own.” … But the king was overcome by his weakness; his power of speech deserted him for many days, and at last he died.
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.59
Bede (HE V, 18): “In the year of our Lord 705, Aldfrith, king of the Northumbrians, died before the end of the 20th year of his reign.” In the annalistic summary (HE V, 24): “In the year 705, Aldfrith, king of the Northumbrians, died.” Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 705: “In this year Aldfrith, king of the Northumbrians, died on the 19th of the Kalends of January [14th December] at Driffield”. [*]
706 – 716 Osred I
Son of Aldfrith.
Bede (HE V, 18) states that, following Aldfrith’s death (14th December 705): “His son Osred, a boy about eight years of age, succeeding him in the throne, reigned 11 years.” Not mentioned by Bede, nor, indeed, any other source except Stephen the Priest, Bishop Wilfrid’s biographer, is the brief reign of one Eadwulf. Stephen reports that, when King Aldfrith died:
… Eadwulf reigned for a short time. Our holy bishop coming to him from exile with Eadwulf’s own son,[*] sent messengers from Ripon as if to a friend. But the king, persuaded by his counsellors because of their deep-rooted malice, replied harshly and austerely: “By my salvation I swear that if he has not left my kingdom in six days, any of his companions whom I can find shall perish.” After these rough words a conspiracy arose against the king, and he was driven from the kingdom over which he had reigned for two months.[*] In his place reigned a boy of royal birth whose name was Osred, the son of King Aldfrith, and he became the adopted son of our holy bishop.
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.59
Stephen puts words into the mouth of Ealdorman Berhtfrith, the muscle behind young Osred’s claim to the throne:
“… when we were besieged in the city called Bamburgh and surrounded on every hand by a hostile force [i.e. Eadwulf’s army] and were sheltering in a narrow place in the stony rock, taking counsel amongst ourselves, we vowed that if God granted our royal boy his father's kingdom, we would fulfil the Apostolic commands concerning Bishop Wilfrid. As soon as our vow was made, the minds of our enemies were changed; with all haste they all plighted their friendship to us with an oath; the gates were opened, we were freed from our narrow quarters, our enemies were put to flight, and the kingdom became ours.”
Vita Sancti Wilfrithi Ch.60
Stephen says that Berhtfrith was: “next in rank to the king”. He was speaking at a synod, held, “near the river Nidd and on its eastern side” (exact site not known), in the first year of Osred’s reign, presided over by Berhtwald, archbishop of Canterbury, to settle the long-running dispute with Wilfrid.
The end of this holy council was that all the bishops and the king with his counsellors made a complete peace with Bishop Wilfrid, which they kept until the end of their lives; they returned him the two best monasteries, Ripon and Hexham, with all the revenues belonging to them …
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports, s.a. 710, that: “Ealdorman Berhtfrith fought against the Picts between Hæfe [Avon] and Cære [Carron][*]”. (The rivers Avon and Carron join the Forth, on its south bank, about twenty miles west of Edinburgh.) Bede places the event in 711 (HE V, 24),[*] as do the Annals of Ulster, which leave no doubt who were the victors: “A slaughter of the Picts by the Saxons in Mag Manann [the Plain of Manu]”. (Manu is the Irish equivalent of the Welsh Manaw, and before the conquest of the British kingdom of Gododdin by the Northumbrians, seven decades or so earlier, this region was known as Manaw Gododdin.)
Bede makes a passing mention (HE V, 22) that, in 716, Osred “was slain”. Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle note that he “was slain to the south of the border”[*]. Assuming the border in question was Northumbria’s northernmost border with the Picts (which it may not have been), then the implication would seem to be that Osred was killed by the Picts. Other evidence, however, tends to suggest that he was assassinated.
The boy-king appears to have grown into something of a monster. Archbishop Boniface (the ‘Apostle of Germany’), and a number of other Continental bishops, sent, in 746 or 7, a joint letter to, the Mercian king, Æthelbald. It contains the passage:
… after the Apostolic Pope Saint Gregory sent preachers of the Catholic faith from the Apostolic See, and converted the race of the English to the true God, the privileges of the churches in the kingdom of the English remained untouched and unviolated up to the time of Ceolred, king of the Mercians, and Osred, king of the Deirans and Bernicians. At the suggestion of the devil these two kings showed, by their accursed example, that these two deadliest of sins could be committed publicly against the evangelical and apostolic precepts of our Saviour. And lingering in these sins, namely lust and adultery with nuns and the destruction of monasteries, condemned by a just judgment of God, they were cast down from their royal thrones in this life, and surprised by an early and terrible death; deprived of the light eternal they were plunged into the depths of hell and the bottom of the abyss.… the spirit of licence drove [Osred] to lust and the frenzied rape of consecrated virgins in the convents of nuns, until by a mean and contemptible death he lost his glorious kingdom, his young life and impure soul.[*]
An early-9th century Latin poem, De Abbatibus, written by one Æthelwulf, a Northumbrian monk, provides a brief, but vivid, description of Osred.
He was vigorous in his deeds, in his words, and in every activity, but alas, not having been controlled in early life, he was an indocile youth: he knew not how to subdue the wanton senses through the mind, and scorned the thunderer’s laws, being very mighty in arms, and bold in his own strength. He did not honour the nobles, or even fittingly worship Christ, but alas he devoted his whole life to empty acts, while life remained in his body. Hence it came to pass that his mortal life remained for a brief period, and he was not able to live long. Being a man of this type, he destroyed many by a pitiable death, but forced others to serve their parent above, and to live in monastic enclosures after receiving tonsure.
De Abbatibus Ch.2
De Abbatibus is concerned with the history of Æthelwulf’s, unidentified, monastery. It was founded by an ealdorman (dux) called Eanmund, who was one of those noblemen who had been forced into the religious life by Osred. It seems reasonable to suppose that Osred was overthrown and killed by the supporters of his successor, Cenred.
Penda’s status at this time is not certain. Bede (HE II, 20) describes him only as being “of the royal family of the Mercians”.
Bede: “Oswald, the most Christian king of the Northumbrians, reigned 9 years, including that year which was held accursed for the brutal cruelty of the king of the Britons and the insane apostasy of the English kings; for, as was said above, it is agreed by the unanimous consent of all, that the names and memory of the apostates should be erased from the catalogue of the Christian kings, and no year assigned to their reign.” (HE III, 9).
Catscaul in the Historia Brittonum; Cantscaul in the Annales Cambriae. The latter would appear to be correct. The Old English Hagustaldesham (now Hexham) translates into modern English as: ‘the village of the young warrior’. Cantscaul seems to be a Welsh rendition of the same name. (See Kenneth Jackson ‘On the Northern British Section in Nennius’, Celt and Saxon, Studies in the Early British Border pp.20–62, 1963.)
Bede continues: “Nor is it foreign to our purpose to relate one of the many miracles that have been wrought at this cross. One of the brothers of the same church of Hagustald, whose name is Bothelm, and who is still living, a few years ago, walking carelessly on the ice at night, suddenly fell and broke his arm; he was soon tormented with a most grievous pain in the broken part, so that he could not lift his arm to his mouth for the anguish. Hearing one morning that one of the brothers intended to go up to the place of the holy cross, he asked him to bring him, on his return, a piece of that sacred wood, saying he believed that he could thereby, through the Lord’s gift, be healed. The brother did as he was requested; and returning in the evening, when the brothers were sitting at table, gave him some of the old moss which grew on the surface of the wood. As he sat at table, having no place to bestow the gift which was brought him, he put it into his bosom; and forgetting, when he went to bed, to put it away, left it in his bosom. Awaking in the middle of the night, he felt something cold lying by his side, and putting his hand upon it to feel what it was, he found his arm and hand as sound as if he had never felt any such pain.”
Bede refers to all the Irish as Scots. By “northern Scots” he must mean the inhabitants of both northern Ireland and the Irish kingdom established in the west of, what is now, Scotland.[*]
The native Churches of the British Isles had operated independently for many years. There were doctrinal differences – the main one concerning the proper way to calculate Easter – between these indigenous Churches, frequently lumped together under the umbrella-term ‘Celtic Church’, and the Catholic Church of Rome, the representatives of which, Pope Gregory the Great’s mission, had landed in Kent in 597 (see King Æthelberht). It would be a long process – still under way when Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History – for the various regions of the British Isles to adopt the Roman Easter. The error of the indigenous churchmen in their calculation of Easter is a subject Bede repeatedly returns to, for instance: “Bishop Aidan, a man of singular gentleness, piety, and moderation; having a zeal of God, but not fully according to knowledge; for he was wont to keep Easter Sunday according to the custom of his nation, which we have before so often mentioned, from the 14th to the 20th day of the moon; the northern province of the Scots, and all the nation of the Picts, at that time still celebrating Easter after that manner” (HE III, 3). Bede adds, however, that: “the Scots which dwelt in the southern parts of Ireland had long since, by the admonition of the bishop of the Apostolic See [i.e. the pope], learned to observe Easter according to the canonical custom.” The Picts adopted the Roman Easter round about 710, Iona in 716, but Wales did not fall into line until 768.
Bede doesn’t give a date, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports the event s.a. 635: “In this year Cynegils was baptized by Birinus the bishop at Dorchester [on Thames], and Oswald [Manuscript E adds: "king of the Northumbrians”] received him.” D.P. Kirby*, though, opines: “Since Oswald was still securing himself as king over the northern Angles in the mid-630s, his presence in the Thames valley before the late 630s seems unlikely; the baptism of Cynegils, therefore, should probably be dated to the late 630s, possibly c.640.”
* The Earliest English Kings, Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 3 (pp.39–40).
Bede (HE III, 11) recounts how Oswald’s niece recovered her long dead uncle’s remains and took them to the monastery at Bardney, in Lindsey, to be interred. At first, however, the monks refused to accept Oswald’s bones: “though they knew him to be a holy man, yet, as he was a native of another province, and had obtained the sovereignty over them, they retained their ancient aversion to him even after his death.”
Bede does not mention Riemmelth, who was evidently Oswiu’s first wife, but her existence would seem to be substantiated by the Durham Liber Vitae – the manuscript of which (London, British Library MS Cotton Domitian A vii) originated in the mid-ninth century. First in a list of “Names of Queens and Abbesses” appears Raegnmaeld, which appears to be an Anglicized version of Riemmelth. The second name in the list is Oswiu’s second wife, Eanflæd.
In its Liber Vitae (Book of Life), a religious establishment would record the names of its supporters. The idea being that the people named in a Liber Vitae on earth, would also be named in the heavenly Liber Vitae, which would be opened on Judgement Day. The earliest names in the Durham book are probably associated with Lindisfarne (the church at Durham was not established until the very end of the 10th century).
Alfred P. Smyth* warns: “it is unwise to assume as several scholars have done, that through this marriage between Riemmelth and Oswiu the old kingdom of Rheged … passed peacefully into the possession of the Northumbrian kings. Anyone who has studied Celtic polity knows that kingdoms did not passively change hands as dowries, and that even if royal lines were reduced to sole surviving daughters, there were myriads of rival segments in the tribal aristocracy who would not sit idly by and see a Germanic warlord usurp their patrimony.”
* Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD80-1000 (1984), Chapter 1 (p.23).
The term ‘Saxon’ is used generically – simply meaning English (Anglo-Saxon). Technically, according to Bede (HE I, 15), the Bernicians and the Deirans were of Angle descent.
Northumbria was not, in fact, completely untouched by Christianity. Bede reports (HE II, 14) that subsequent to Edwin’s baptism in 627, Bishop Paulinus: “for the space of six years from this time, that is, till the end of the king’s reign, with his consent and favour, preached the Word of God in that province, and as many as were foreordained to eternal life believed and were baptized.” Paulinus fled Northumbria after Edwin’s death, but: “He had left behind him in his Church at York [in Deira], James, the deacon, a true churchman and a holy man, who continuing long after in that church, by teaching and baptizing, rescued much prey from the ancient enemy” (HE II, 20).
The entry is placed two years after Oswald’s victory over Cadwallon, which would indicate a date of 636; three years before the siege of Edinburgh, indicating 635; and four years before the battle in which Oswald was killed, indicating 638.
According to the Historia Brittonum (§63), Bebba had been a wife of Oswald’s father, Æthelfrith.
Bede continues: “Through this king’s [i.e. Oswald’s] exertions the provinces of the Deirans and the Bernicians, which till then had been at variance, were peacefully united and moulded into one people. He was nephew to King Edwin through his sister Acha; and it was fit that so great a predecessor should have in his own family such an one to succeed him in his religion and his kingdom.” (HE III, 6). This passage is flattering to Oswald (obviously a hero of Bede’s), but is not entirely truthful. Both Æthelfrith and Edwin had previously ruled a united Northumbria. These kings had been fierce rivals, and the Bernician and Deiran dynasties they represented continued to be rivals. After Oswald’s death, Northumbria again split into its constituent parts.
Following Edwin’s death (633), Eanflæd had escaped to Kent with her mother, Æthelburh, who was the sister of Eadbald, king of Kent.
Since Ecgfrith, their son, was in his 40th year in May 685, the marriage of Oswiu and Eanflæd probably took place c.644.
Oswiu had been married previously – to Riemmelth, a princess of the British kingdom of Rheged (which is widely thought to have been in modern-day Cumbria and Dumfries & Galloway).
In the annalistic summary at the end of HE (V, 24), Bede explicitly states: “In the year 651, King Oswine was killed”, but, since Oswald was killed on 6th August 642, 20th August 651 would be expected to be in Oswiu’s tenth year, not his ninth as stated by Bede. It seems likely, however, that Bede counted the first whole AD year following a king’s accession to be his first regnal year, regardless of the actual date in the previous year he became king – the whole of that previous year being counted as his predecessors last regnal year.[*] By this token, the whole of 651 was Oswiu’s ninth year.
Later (HE III, 24), Bede says: “Trumhere, an Englishman, but educated and ordained by the Scots … was abbot of the monastery that is called Ingetlingum, and is the place where King Oswine was killed, as has been said above; for Queen Eanflæd, his [Oswine’s] kinswoman, in expiation of his unjust death, begged of King Oswiu that he would give Trumhere, the aforesaid servant of God, a place there to build a monastery, because he also was kinsman to the slaughtered king; in which monastery continual prayers should be offered up for the eternal welfare of the kings, both of him that was murdered, and of him that commanded the murder.”
“The Middle Angles, that is, the Angles of the Midland country”, says Bede. See Tribal Hidage.
Identity uncertain, though Bede says (HE III, 22) it was called At the Wall (Ad Murum): “because it is close by the wall which the Romans formerly drew across the island of Britain, at the distance of 12 miles from the eastern sea”, which makes Walbottle, a western suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne, the favourite candidate.
Penda had killed King Anna (in fact, he had also killed Anna’s predecessors, Sigeberht and Ecgric), and it is possible that it was he who placed Æthelhere on the East Anglian throne.
As originally written, it seems as though Bede is, out of the blue and without reason, blaming Æthelhere for causing the war. In Joseph Stevenson’s translation (1853), the highlighted section reads: “were almost all of them slain; among whom was Æthelhere, brother and successor to Anna, king of the East Angles, who had been the occasion of the war, and who was now killed, with all his soldiers and auxiliaries.” The proposal made by J.O. Prestwich*, that a scribe’s omission of punctuation has resulted in this false reading, is now widely accepted. The insertion of a full stop allows Penda to be the cause of the war (as Bede surely intended), and, furthermore, gives notice of his death, which otherwise would be absent from Bede’s report.
* ‘King Æthelhere and the battle of the Winwaed’, in The English Historical Review Vol. 83 Issue 326 (1968), freely available online.
In his annalistic recap (HE V, 24), Bede explicitly states: “In the year 655, Penda was slain”. Oswiu’s predecessor, Oswald, was killed on 6th August 642, so 15th November 655 would be expected to be in Oswiu’s fourteenth year, not his thirteenth as stated by Bede. However, as already mentioned, Bede evidently reckons the whole of 642 as Oswald’s last year, and the the whole of 643 as Oswiu’s first year, so the whole of 655 is Oswiu’s thirteenth year.
(See Anno Domini.)
Hild (St Hilda) was the daughter of one Hereric, a nephew of Edwin. Her sister, Hereswith, had married into the East Anglian royal family and was the mother of Aldwulf, who became king of the East Angles in 663 or 4.
Bede presents something of a conundrum. He says (HE III, 6) that Oswiu’s brother, Oswald, had: “brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain, which are divided into four languages, to wit, those of the Britons, the Picts, the Scots, and the English”. In the passage where he names the overlords of southern England (HE II, 5), however, Bede makes no mention that Oswald, the sixth overlord, had any authority over the Picts and Scots, but states, as if it were a fresh achievement, that Oswiu, the seventh overlord: “for the most part subdued and made tributary the nations of the Picts and Scots, who occupy the northern parts of Britain”. Clare Stancliffe* writes: “One possibility worth mooting is that Oswald achieved theoretical recognition as overlord from Dál Riata [the kingdom of the Scots in Britain; see Scotland] and the Picts, but that Oswiu later re-established or redefined this in more oppressive terms, requiring them to render tribute, the badge of subjection to a foreign king.”
* In an essay titled: ‘Oswald, “Most Holy and Most Victorious King of the Northumbrians”’, published in Oswald, Northumbrian King to European Saint (1995).
Though he doesn’t mention it, Bede draws, very selectively, on a Vita (Life) of Wilfrid written by Stephen the Priest. It is Stephen who names the bishop of Lyon ‘Dalfinus’. The bishop in question was, however, evidently called Aunemundus. Scholars have tended to rationalize this anomaly by either presenting Dalfinus as the, otherwise unnamed, brother of Aunemundus, or by saying that Aunemundus was also known as Dalfinus – the position adopted by the 17th century editor of the traditional account of Aunemundus’ deeds (Acta Aunemundi), but it seems that there is no early substantiation for either suggestion.
Another bone of contention between the two doctrines was the style of a monk’s tonsure, i.e. the pattern in which the head was shaven.
Whitby was a double monastery, i.e. one having communities of both men and women. All known double monasteries in England were headed by an abbess.
It was the visit to Northumbria of Agilbert, a Frankish bishop (Catholic of course) and “a friend”, says Bede (HE III, 25), of Alhfrith and Wilfrid, that had precipitated the decision to hold the synod. Agilbert, too, couldn’t speak English, and so he nominated Wilfrid to speak on his behalf. Agilbert had been bishop of the West Saxons. According to Bede’s story (HE III, 7), a dispute between him and the West Saxon king, Cenwalh, had arisen from Agilbert’s inability to speak English, and culminated with Agilbert leaving Wessex. The dating evidence is less than clear, but it would appear that Agilbert abandoned his position in Wessex in 663. He journeyed to Northumbria, and, at Alhfrith’s request, ordained Wilfrid as a priest. After the synod at Whitby, Agilbert returned to Gaul. He was one of a number of bishops who officiated at Wilfrid’s consecration as a bishop, which took place at Compiègne, and by 668 he had become bishop of Paris. Stephen the Priest says (Ch.12) that Wilfrid wanted to be consecrated in Gaul to ensure it was carried out in an unimpeachable Catholic manner.
The term ‘Saxon’ is used generically – simply meaning the English (Anglo-Saxons). Technically of course, according to Bede (HE I, 15), the Northumbrians were of Angle descent.
Lindsey covered much of modern-day Lincolnshire – indeed, it is named after the Roman name for Lincoln (Lindum Colonia). The pedigree of a king of Lindsey called Aldfrith appears in the Anglian Collection, and, though the date of his reign cannot be securely dated, it seems likely that he flourished during the late-7th/early-8th centuries. Lindsey, however, has no recorded independent history. From 627 – its earliest appearance in the record: “the province of Lindsey, which is the first on the south side of the river Humber, stretching as far as the sea” (HE II, 16) – it appears as a satellite of either Northumbria, as was the case in 627, or, as here in Wulfhere’s day, Mercia.
iuxta Rippel et Ingaedyne et in regione Dunutinga et Incaetlaevum in caeterisque locis. The translator, Bertram Colgrave, notes: “RIBBLE, YEADON, ETC. These conjectural identifications of the place-names are based on suggestions made by Prof. Chadwick.” Nevertheless, the identifications are evidently generally accepted.
Barbara Yorke*: “[Northumbrian] Expansion west of the Pennines was made at the expense of the British kingdom of Rheged.[*] The main advances here seems to have been achieved by Ecgfrith though we are dependent on veiled allusions in the Life of St Wilfrid whose hero benefited from grants of substantial estates that had supported British religious communities in the kingdom.”
Alfred P. Smyth**: “It is clear that Wilfrid’s building programme at Ripon was financed by plunder and endowments from confiscated British church lands in the Pennines. The estates which Ecgfrith had granted to Wilfrid included Yeadon in Airedale which must have been in Elmet [British kingdom conquered by Edwin, 616–633] … The three other places mentioned – Ribble, Dent and Catlow – all formed part of the remoter highlands of Rheged in the northern Pennines. Wilfrid and his king were presiding at Ripon over the dismemberment of at least part of the Rheged kingdom. There is nothing to suggest that these British lands had lain deserted for generations: on the contrary, there is a certain immediacy in Eddius’s text which shows us, incidentally,that Anglo-Saxon aggression was directed against British warriors and clergy alike.”
* Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (1990), Chapter 5 (p.85).
** Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD80-1000 (1984), Chapter 1 (p.24).
Scholars generally place Rheged on both sides of the Solway Firth – in modern-day Dumfries & Galloway and in Cumbria (and sometimes in Lancashire also) – which could well be the case, but the evidence is actually rather slight. A 12th century Welsh poem implies that Carlisle is in Rheged (Old Welsh: Reget). Another Welsh poem – which, though found in the so-called Book of Taliesin (Peniarth MS 2, early-14th century), was written long after the famous 6th century bard’s time – contains a phrase that can be read as: ‘beyond the sea of Rheged’. The supposed ‘sea of Rheged’ has been equated with the Solway Firth. It has been argued that the place-name Dunragit, in Galloway, means ‘fort of Rheged’. (Rochdale, in Lancashire, is recorded in the Domesday Book as Recedham, and it has been suggested that this too preserves the name of Rheged.)
It would seem that government of the various regions comprising the enormous kingdom of Northumbria was delegated to high-ranking nobles, subreguli (sub-kings), such as the previously mentioned Beornhæth.
Stephen provides neither date nor place for Ecgfrith’s victory over Wulfhere. Bede mentions the event only in passing – whilst discussing the year 678 he refers to “the province of Lindsey, which King Ecgfrith had but newly acquired, having defeated Wulfhere and put him to flight” (HE IV, 12). The Moore Memoranda is a short (just eight lines) chronological text written on the back of the last page of the earliest extant copy of HE (the Moore Bede). It falls into two parts: a Bernician/Northumbrian king-list and an aide-memoir in which nine, minimally described, events are related to an unspecified year. Peter Hunter Blair, in his paper ‘The Moore Memoranda on Northumbrian History’ (first published in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe, 1950), demonstrated that the unspecified year was 737, and argued that pugna Ecgfridi ante annos lxiii (a battle, Ecgfrith, 63 years ago), which produces the year 674 (737 - 63 = 674) could only refer to Ecgfrith’s defeat of Wulfhere. This is now generally accepted.
In the annalistic recap (HE V, 24), Bede provides an explicit date: “In the year 679, Ælfwine was killed.”
Bede does not supply a date for Wigheard’s selection, his dispatch to Rome nor his death – noting only (HE IV, 1) that the see of Canterbury had been “vacant for no small time” after Deusdedit’s death, on 14th July 664, before Wigheard was sent off to be ordained. Following Wigheard’s death, the pope eventually (his original choice having declined the offer) settled on Theodore, a monk from Tarsus, to be the new archbishop of Canterbury. There was a hiatus of 4 months while Theodore grew his hair: “that it might be shorn into the shape of a crown; for he had before the tonsure of St Paul, the Apostle, after the manner of the eastern people. He was ordained by Pope Vitalian, in the year of our Lord 668, on Sunday, the 7th of the Kalends of April [26th March]”. Manuscript E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places Wigheard’s journey and death in 667. This is probably simply deduced from Bede, but 667 does seem a likely date for Wigheard’s death, though his selection and journey would fit comfortably in 666.
In the Moore Bede, the earliest extant copy of HE, evidently produced in, or soon after, 737, the numeral here is XVI (16). (Though it appears to be the earliest copy, the Moore Bede, which seems to have been hastily produced, is not the ‘best’ copy. That is the Leningrad Bede, or St Petersburg Bede, evidently produced no later than 747.) 17 (XVII) is the intended number – Bede later (HE III, 26) writes: “the year of our Lord 664, which was the 22nd of the reign of King Oswiu, and the 30th of the episcopate of the Scots among the English; for Aidan was bishop 17 years, Finan ten, and Colman three.”[*] Bede here says that Aidan died in his seventeenth year, which is wholly consistent with the proposal that Bede counted the whole of the AD year in which a king, or in this case bishop, died as his last year (regardless of when in the year he died), and the whole of the following AD year as the first of his successor. (Oswiu became king during 642. For purposes of reckoning, Bede counts the whole of 643 as his first regnal year, so the whole of 664 is Oswiu’s 22nd year. Similarly, Aidan’s first year is 635; his seventeenth year, his last, is 651. Finan’s ten years are 652–661 inclusive; Colman’s three 662–664 inclusive.)
In HE manuscripts, numbers appear in a (not always the same) mix of Roman numerals and written, Latin, words. This difference is not usually reflected in translations. On this website, an attempt has been made to represent numbers in a similar way to the manuscripts.
In fact, Bede has incorrectly placed the comet in 678 – it was actually visible in 676. Bede’s source was undoubtedly the biography of Pope Donus in the Liber Pontificalis (Book of the Popes), where the comet is reported to have appeared in August, the month when Donus was elected. Donus was ordained on 2nd November 676, and he died in 678. Bede’s error in placing the comet does not invalidate 678 as the correct year for Wilfrid’s expulsion.
As previously discussed, Bede is evidently reckoning the whole of 678 to be Ecgfrith’s 8th year. (Since Ecgfrith’s father and predecessor, Oswiu, died on 15th February 670, August 678 would fall in Ecgfrith’s actual 9th year.)
R.L. Poole’s proposal (“The Chronology of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and the Councils of 679–680”, The Journal of Theological Studies Vol. 20 No. 77, 1918), that Bede, taking his cue from the Indiction, chose to begin the year on 1st September (i.e. four months before current practice), means that every time Bede specifies an AD date between September and December, one year has to be deducted from that date. Dr Poole’s theory was adopted by Frank Stenton in his classic work Anglo-Saxon England (the last edition of which was published, posthumously, in 1971).
In 1963 (“Bede and Northumbrian Chronology”, The English Historical Review Vol. 78 No. 308) D.P. Kirby published a theory that Bede had made Ecgfrith’s reign a year too long – that he actually succeeded in 671, not 670 – meaning that most of Bede’s Northumbrian dates before Ecgfrith’s death (685) are one year behind.
Bede dates the death of King Edwin 12th October 633, so applying Poole’s rule, Edwin’s death occurred in 632, whilst applying Kirby’s rule, Edwin’s death occurred in 634.
The ‘wergild’ – the monetary value, based on rank, of a person’s life.
A similar situation arises later (HE IV, 17), when Bede quotes from the record of a synod at Hæthfelth [Hatfield]. Here the document itself places the synod in 679, but, in his annalistic recap (HE V, 24), Bede places it in 680.
Bede continues (HE IV, 22): “In the aforesaid battle, wherein King Ælfwine was killed, a memorable incident is known to have happened, which I think ought by no means to be passed over in silence; for the story will be profitable to the salvation of many.” This is the only time Bede gives Ælfwine the title ‘king’. He proceeds to tell a tale in which one of Ælfwine’s men, “a youth called Imma”, is taken captive by Mercians, and sold as a slave, to a Frisian, in London. For miraculous reasons, however, he cannot be fettered. When the Frisian realizes this he gives Imma permission to try to ransom himself: “He [Imma], having taken an oath that he would either return, or send his owner the money for the ransom, went into Kent to King Hlothere, who was the son of the sister of Queen Æthelthryth [Ecgfrith’s ex-wife] … for he had once been that queen’s thegn [minister]. From him he asked and obtained the price of his freedom, and as he had promised, sent it to his master for his ransom.”
In fact, applying the customary one year correction to the date given by the Annals of Ulster, in this instance (and, indeed, other instances around this time where English events are recorded), puts the Annals at odds with Bede. In other words, the uncorrected year, 684, agrees with Bede.
The Annals of Ulster record the military exploits in Ireland of “Britons” s.a. 682, 697, 702, 703 and 709 (corrected dates). Alfred P. Smyth* writes: “This record shows that British warbands were active along a 160-mile stretch of the east coast of Ireland from 682 until 709. They are first heard of in Ulster which suggests they came from northern Britain rather than Wales”. Professor Smyth proposes that the Britons were fugitive warriors from Rheged: “Their first appearance in Ireland coincided with a time when Ecgfrith of Northumbria was engaged in a major offensive against his northern neighbours, and when Wilfrid was busy acquiring confiscated British church lands west of the Pennines. The arrival of these Britons in north-east Ireland would fit in well with the migration of a warrior élite from Galloway or from Cumbria and the Solway plain who were driven to seek their fortune at the courts of Irish kings always in need of warriors for their own incessant warfare. Finally, if we view these warriors as part of an exiled warband of Rheged, then their earliest appearance in eastern Ireland in 682 makes sense at last out of the punitive expedition dispatched by Ecgfrith of Northumbria against eastern Ireland in 684.”
* Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD80-1000 (1984), Chapter 1 (pp.25–6).
Cuthbert was ordained at Easter (26th March) 685. Bede (HE IV, 28): “it was carried out at the Easter festival, in the city of York, and in the presence of the aforesaid King Ecgfrith; 7 bishops coming together for his consecration, among whom, Theodore, of blessed memory, was primate. He [Cuthbert] was first elected bishop of the church of Hagustald [Hexham], in the place of Tunberht, who had been deposed from the episcopate; but because he chose rather to be placed over the church of Lindisfarne, in which he had lived, it was thought fit that Eata should return to the see of the church of Hagustald, to which he had been first ordained, and that Cuthbert should take upon him the government of the church of Lindisfarne.” Cuthbert died on 20th March 687.
This theory, regarding Bede’s handling of regnal years, was proposed by Wilhelm Levison in his England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (1946), and convincingly supported by Susan Wood in an article titled “Bede’s Northumbrian Dates Again” (The English Historical Review Vol. 98 No. 387, 1983). (See also Anno Domini.)
At the time of Ecgfrith’s victory, Cuthbert was apparently prior of the monastery at Lindisfarne. In 676 (according to the chronology presented in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto) he took himself to Farne Island to live as a hermit.
When Ecgfrith was killed in 685, it was “the 40th year of his age” (HE IV, 26), placing his birth in 645. Bede (HE IV, 19) says Æthelthryth and Ecgfrith had been together for 12 years when they divorced. After a year, Æthelthryth became an abbess and founded Ely. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 673: “St Æthelthryth began the monastery at Ely.” So, Æthelthryth and Ecgfrith were married in 660, Ecgfrith being 15 years-old, and were divorced in 672. Ecgfrith’s victory over Wulfhere was in 674.
Quite how Ecgfrith and Bridei were related is the subject of much conjecture. The connecting link is usually supposed to be Eanfrith, Ecgfrith’s uncle. Eanfrith, Oswiu’s older brother, appears to have married a Pictish princess and sired a son, Talorcan, who ruled the Picts from 653 to 657.
Another instance where applying the customary one year correction to the Annals of Ulster produces a conflict with Bede. The uncorrected year, 685, not only agrees with Bede but would seem to be right, since 20th May was a Saturday in 685.
An anecdote found in both an anonymous ‘Life’ of St Cuthbert (III, 6), written at Lindisfarne c.700, and in Bede’s prose ‘Life’ (he also wrote a verse version) of Cuthbert (Ch.24), written c.721 (and which draws on the anonymous work), tells how, a year before Nechtansmere, Cuthbert revealed to Ecgfrith’s sister, Ælfflæd, abbess of Whitby, that Ecgfrith would die in twelve months time.
This theory, regarding Bede’s handling of regnal years, was proposed by Wilhelm Levison in his England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (1946), and convincingly supported by Susan Wood in an article titled “Bede’s Northumbrian Dates Again” (The English Historical Review Vol. 98 No. 387, 1983).
Egbert was an Englishman (almost certainly Northumbrian), of noble birth who became a priest in Ireland. He crossed over to Iona in 716, and persuaded the community to adopt the Catholic Easter. He died on Iona in 729, aged ninety.
“Reeve of the city” is the translation of civitatis praepositus. The term reeve (gerefa) applies to a whole raft of administrative officials. In the course of time, there arose the position of shire-reeve (scirgerefa), i.e. sheriff.
The Roman walled town (hence it is termed a civitas, i.e. ‘city’) was called Luguvalium, which was known to Bede as Lugubalia. In the equivalent passage in his prose ‘Life’ of Cuthbert (Ch.27), Bede notes: “the city of Lugubalia, which is corruptly called Luel by the English”. A couple of centuries later (round-about 900) the Britons of Strathclyde extended their territory southwards, occupying Luel. Caer, meaning ‘fort’, ‘citadel’, in Welsh, was added to the name to produce Caerluel – hence Carlisle.
“The queen” is Iurminburh, whom Stephen the Priest accuses of turning Ecgfrith against Bishop Wilfrid. Stephen notes (Ch.24), however: “after the death of the king, from being a she-wolf she was changed into a lamb of God, a perfect abbess and an excellent mother of the community.”
Bishop Wilfrid is purported to have had a vision of Ecgfrith’s death. According to a ‘Life’ of Wilfrid by Eadmer (c.1100), Wilfrid (who was, at the time, an exile in Sussex) saw Ecgfrith fall, beheaded, and his soul being dragged, groaning, to hell by two evil spirits.
There is a chronological issue with this scenario. Oswiu would seem to have returned to Northumbria, with his brothers, in 633. By this token, Aldfrith would have been in his early fifties when he succeeded to the throne, and have been siring children in his sixties. Clearly this is not impossible, but it is, perhaps, a little unlikely. Maybe, then, Oswiu’s fling with Fín – Bede, in his prose ‘Life’ of St Cuthbert (Ch.24), calls Aldfrith a bastard (nothus), so they were not married – took place rather later. The Irish king, one Colmán Rímid, whom genealogical tradition says was the father of Fín, died in 604. D.P. Kirby* suggests that Fín was the granddaughter, not daughter, of Colmán Rímid, and that her liaison with Oswiu: “could have occurred c.650. Aldfrith would then have been a man in his early thirties at his accession in 685, which seems more credible.”
* The Earliest English Kings, Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 7 (p.119).
The reason for Ecgfrith’s raid against the Irish is not clearly apparent. Some historians, however, suggest that Ecgfrith regarded Aldfrith, who was living with the Irish, as a rival. Alfred P. Smyth asserts that, since “they had given refuge to his estranged and exiled brother, Aldfrith”, it was a reason for Ecgfrith’s “hating the Irish”. Barbara Yorke writes: “Desire to forestall any claims Aldfrith might have had to the Northumbrian throne could have been one reason for Ecgfrith’s raid.” Whilst Clare Stancliffe reckons that: “Aldfrith, was half-Irish, had studied on Iona, and probably owed his successful bid for the Northumbrian throne to the Pictish/Irish alliance which had overthrown his predecessor.”
There is, in fact, no direct evidence that Ecgfrith was hostile towards Aldfrith (nor, indeed, that there was any Pictish/Irish alliance). Bede says that Aldfrith’s exile was self imposed, “for the sake of acquiring learning”. Aldfrith would appear to have been a bookish man, content to devote himself to study, who was plucked from obscurity because Ecgfrith had no obvious heir. D.P. Kirby seems to hit the nail on the head: “The prestige of Oswiu’s family, or else its capacity for intimidation, must have been very considerable for Aldfrith to return and rule in what seems to have been domestic peace. Bringing Aldfrith back was a master-stroke for those who wished to perpetuate the monopoly of royal power in the hands of Oswiu’s family.”
Alfred P. Smyth Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD80-1000 (1984), Chapter 1 (p.26).
Barbara Yorke Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (1990), Chapter 5 (p.85).
Clare Stancliffe The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. 1 (2005), Chapter 16 ‘Christianity Amongst the Britons, Dalriadan Irish and Picts’ (p.460).
D.P. Kirby The Earliest English Kings, Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 7 (p.120).
Indeed, Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the only manuscripts to record the ealdorman’s death (s.a. 699), name him Berht, not Berhtred.
Florence and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle impart the information concerning Aldfrith and Cuthburh s.a. 718. The date, however, has no relevance to the couple’s story – the material is tacked onto the obituary of Ingeld, brother of Ine and Cuthburh.
Aldfrith had another connection with Wessex. A surviving text by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury (later, bishop of Sherborne), comprises an essay on the number seven, two treatises on Latin metrics, and a collection of one hundred riddles, the whole being addressed to one Acircius (the text is called Epistola ad Acircium). Acircius is evidently Aldhelm’s nickname for Aldfrith (it means ‘someone from the region of the northwest’ – presumably an allusion to Aldfrith’s stay on Iona). At any rate, it is clear that the two men had been comrades some twenty years previously – Aldhelm is a little cryptic, but it seems as though he stood as sponsor to Aldfrith at his confirmation. Aldhelm makes no mention of where they were at the time – Iona and Wessex both have their advocates.
Bede is inconsistent in the way he describes the length of Aldfrith’s reign. Assuming Aldfrith succeeded Ecgfrith promptly after the latter’s death in May 685, he, in reality, would have ruled for more than twenty years and six months. Though Bede, apparently, did not know the precise date in 705 of Aldfrith’s death, his statement that it was “before the end of the 20th year of his reign” is consistent with the method he had previously used to relate regnal years to A.D. dates (see Anno Domini). This method should lead him to allot Aldfrith a reign of 20 years (as does the king-list preserved by the Moore Memoranda), however, Bede seems to have tripped himself up, stating (HE V, 1) that Aldfrith: “ruled the nation of the Northumbrians for 19 years.”
D.P. Kirby* argues that, in fact, this latter statement is the correct one: “The Northumbrian regnal list gives Aldfrith a reign of twenty years and Bede correspondingly assigned him a reign from 685 to 705 (HE IV, 26; V, 18), but Bede also knew, perhaps from knowledge of a more precise regnal figure, that Aldfrith really reigned nineteen years (HE V, 1) and died before the end of his twentieth regnal year (HE V, 18). Aldfrith, therefore, almost certainly died in 704.” The Annals of Ulster also place Aldfrith’s death in 704, but this source (using the standard correction) is one year behind Bede for a number of events relating to English affairs around this time (using no correction, the dates correspond to Bede’s), and in the instance of the battle of Nechtansmere (in which Ecgfrith was killed) Bede’s date is demonstrably correct. (Adopting R.L. Poole’s theory that Bede began his year on 1st September also produces a date of 14th December 704 for Aldfrith’s death.)
* The Earliest English Kings, Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 7 (p.121).
Gareth Williams writes: “Northumbria was Christianised under the Deiran king Edwin in the 620s and a bishopric was established at York. Some coins within the group carry a cross as part of the design, and again it seems likely that the decision to issue coins followed conversion. With no legible inscriptions on the coinage the group cannot be precisely dated, but it is possible to suggest an approximate dating on the basis of the coins’ gold content, as both Frankish and Anglo-Saxon gold coins show a gradual decline in the gold content in the course of the seventh century. This method suggests the Northumbrian series may have begun in the 620s, or not until the 630s, but still before the burial of Crondall [a hoard found in 1828] in c.640.” J.R. Maddicott refers to “probable gold thrymsa coinage from York of c.650”, whilst Elizabeth J. Pirie confidently talks of the dating of: “the so-called York issues having been brought forward from an earlier period, c.640–50, to the time of Ecgfrith”.
Gareth Williams Early Anglo-Saxon Coins (2008), Chapter 3 (p.21).
J.R. Maddicott ‘Two Frontier States: Northumbria and Wessex, c.650–750’, in The Medieval State (2000).
Elizabeth J. Pirie ‘Contrasts and Continuity Within the Coinage of Northumbria, c.670–867’, in Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c.500–1250 (2006).
Symeon of Durham notes, HRs.a. 740, that: “Earnwine the son of Eadwulf was slain, on Saturday [feria vii] the 10th of the Kalends of January [23rd December].” The same son who had been with Wilfrid in Ripon thirty-five years previously?
William of Malmesbury writes: “two months later he was deprived of life and kingdom, and as he lay dying he struck the ground with the crown which he had seized.” (GP III §109). There is nothing to suggest, however, that this is anything more than conjecture on William’s part. The Annals of Ulster, though, record the death of “Etulb mac Ecuilb” in 717. This is probably to be rendered ‘Eadwulf son of Ecgwulf’ in English, which would seem to suggest that Eadwulf fled to the Picts or the Scots.
It so happens that the Historia Brittonum (§61) has an Ecgwulf as great-grandfather of, the later Northumbrian king, Eadberht (737–758), and a descendant of, the mid-6th century Bernician king, Ida. However, in the Anglian Collection, and on a table displaying both the succession and genealogy of the kings of Northumbria in the miscellany that precedes the Chronicon ex Chronicis of Florence of Worcester, the name Ecgwald is found in place of Ecgwulf. Nevertheless, it is possible that Eadwulf was from a rival branch of the Bernician royal family tree to Osred. On the other hand, Wilfrid was with Eadwulf’s son at Ripon, North Yorkshire, which might suggest that Eadwulf was from the erstwhile Deiran royal family.
The highlighted section appears in Manuscripts D and E only.
Bede (HE V, 24): “In the year 711, Ealdorman [praefectus] Berhtfrith fought against the Picts.”
In widely available older translations of the Chronicle (for instance Giles, 1847; Thorpe, 1861) the highlighted phrase is rendered “on the southern border”, but Charles Plummer (in his ‘Notes to the Ecclesiastical History’, 1896, p.336), points out that be suðan gemære is actually: “‘to the south of the border’ (not ‘on the southern border,’ as commonly translated).” Modern translations (Whitelock, 1961; Swanton, 1996) agree with Plummer.
Boniface was an Englishman – a West Saxon, born about 675 and called Wynfrith. He was named Boniface by Pope Gregory II at Rome in 719, and was given the task of preaching to the pagan peoples of Germania. He never returned to England. He was ordained bishop, without a fixed see, in 722. A decade later he was made archbishop. Eventually, in 746/7, his see was fixed at Mainz. In 754 Boniface was killed by pagans whilst on missionary work in Frisia.
Alex Woolf*, however, has made a persuasive case for Dún Nechtain to be equated to Dunachton, on the western shore of Loch Insh, Inverness-shire.
* ‘Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts’ (freely available online), published in The Scottish Historical Review Vol. 85.2 (2006).
Adomnán only mentions his visits to Northumbria as a means of demonstrating the miraculous power of St Columba. He writes that, during his own lifetime: “the isles of the sea generally, namely, Ireland and Britain, have been twice devastated by a dreadful pestilence [in the 660s and the 680s], except two peoples, namely, the people of the Picts and that of the Scots of Britain … And although there are not wanting amongst both peoples great sins, by which the Eternal Judge is often provoked to anger, yet hitherto, bearing patiently with both, He has spared them. To whom else can this grace, granted them by God, be attributed except to St Columba, whose monasteries, founded within the boundaries of both people, have up to the present time been held in high honour by both?” Adomnán says (VC II, 46) that at the time of his visits to Northumbria: “the plague had not yet ceased and was devastating many villages up and down the country”, but thanks to Columba’s influence: “not one of my own company died, nor was any one of them troubled by any disease.”
In his annalistic recap (HE V, 24), Bede confirms the year of Oswiu’s death: ”In the year 670, Oswiu, king of the Northumbrians, died.”
Anna Gannon*, confidently, writes:
“The animal on the reverse has been variously described as a ‘crude beast’ or a pantomime horse, and its tail has been mistaken for a tree. The various odd details that mystify at ﬁrst sight, however, belong to a far nobler creature, and go back to the kind of prestigious models likely to have appealed to the taste of a patron such as Aldfrith: the coins, in fact, portray a classical lion courant. The sinuous body finds precedents in late Roman work, such as the tigress handle from the Hoxne treasure … Though the lion’s movement is compressed by the restriction of the coin, the design still manages to convey a sense of leaping movement, which must be understood entirely in the classical tradition: manuscripts and textiles could have been equally inﬂuential in the transmission of details, such as the triple-tufted tail or the long open snout.”
* The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage (2003) Chapter 4 (p.126).
The Historia Brittonum (§§61 & 64) identifies Bede’s Cædwalla, “king of the Britons”, as Cadwallon, “king of the region of Gwynedd”. This identification is pretty much universally accepted, but Alex Woolf* has argued that it is a mistake produced by the Historia Brittonum author’s inability to accurately synchronize his various sources, and suggests that Bede’s Cædwalla was in fact a northern British king, “a neighbour to both Deira and Bernicia”.
* ‘Caedualla Rex Brettonum and the Passing of the Old North’, in Northern History Vol. 41 Issue 1 (2004).
The Anglian Collection of royal genealogies is found in four manuscripts, the oldest of which (British Library MS Cotton Vespasian B vi) was written in Mercia in the early-9th century.
The Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely) is a history of the monastery of Ely, from its 7th century beginnings – it was founded by King Anna’s daughter, Ecgfrith’s wife, Æthelthryth (see Queen Æthelthryth) – to the 12th century.
Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunhelmensis, Ecclesie (Tract on the Origins and Progress of this the Church of Durham).
Between references to, the Bernician kings, Ida (547–559) and his son, Adda (560–568), the Historia Brittonum notes (§62): “Then Talhaearn Tad Awen [Talhaearn Father of the Muse] was famed in poetry; and Aneirin and Taliesin and Blwchfardd and Cian, who is called Gwenith Gwawd [Wheat of Song], were all simultaneously famed in British poetry.” Examples of the work of only Taliesin and Aneirin have survived.
Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, first produced his Historia Anglorum (History of the English) about 1130. He later revisited the work – revising and extending – several times. The final version concludes with the accession of Henry II in 1154.
The Moore Memoranda is a short (just eight lines) chronological text written on the reverse of the last page of the earliest extant manuscript of HE (the Moore Bede).
Historia Regum (History of the Kings).
Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the Bishops of England).