Æthelfrith of Northumbria

Æthelfrith of Northumbria

Æthelfrith (died c. 616) was King of Bernicia from c. 593 until c. 616; he was also, beginning c. 604, the first Bernician king to also rule Deira, to the south of Bernicia. Since Deira and Bernicia were the two basic components of what would later be defined as Northumbria, Æthelfrith can be considered, in historical terms, the first Northumbrian king. He was especially notable for his successes against the Britons and his victory over the Gaels of Dál Riata. Although he was defeated and killed in battle and replaced by a dynastic rival, his line was eventually restored to power in the 630s.


Æthelfrith, son of Æthelric and grandson of Ida, apparently succeeded Hussa as king of the Bernicians around the year 592 or 593; Æthelfrith's accession may have involved dynastic rivalry and the exile of Hussa's relatives.Michelle Ziegler, " [http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/2/ha2pen.htm The Politics of Exile in Early Northumbria] ", "The Heroic Age", Issue 2, Autumn/Winter 1999.] The "Historia Brittonum" says that Æthelfrith ruled Bernicia for twelve years and ruled Deira for another twelve years, which can be taken to mean that he ruled in Bernicia alone from about 592 to 604, at which point he also came to the throne of Deira. ["Historia Brittonum", [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/nennius-full.html chapter 63] . See D. P. Kirby, "The Earliest English Kings" (1991, 2000), page 57, for interpretation of the chronology.] His predecessors are obscure; Æthelfrith is the earliest Bernician ruler about whom any significant details are known. The 20th century historian Frank Stenton wrote that "the continuous history of Northumbria, and indeed of England, begins with the reign of Æthelfrith", and that "he was the real founder of the historic Northumbrian kingdom, and he was remembered as the first great leader who had arisen among the northern Angles." [Frank Stenton, "Anglo-Saxon England" (1943, 1971; 1998 Oxford paperback), pages 76–77.]


Bede tells of Æthelfrith's great successes over the British, while also noting his paganism (the conversion of Northumbria did not begin until a decade after his death): he "ravaged the Britons more than all the great men of the English, insomuch that he might be compared to Saul, once king of the Israelites, excepting only this, that he was ignorant of the true religion. For he conquered more territories from the Britons, either making them tributary, or driving the inhabitants clean out, and planting English in their places, than any other king or tribune."Bede, "Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum", [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/bede-book1.html Book I] , Chapter 34.] It may have been Æthelfrith who destroyed the British army at the Battle of Catraeth (Catterick, c. 600); the battle is described in the early poem Gododdin.cite book |last= Fletcher|first= Richard|title= Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England|pages=25-26|year= 1989|publisher= Shepheard-Walwyn|isbn=0-85683-089-5] The British called him "Flesaur", or "the twister". [The "Historia Britonum" mentions the name "Flesaur": see chapters 57 and 63. See also Stancliffe, "The Making of Oswald's Northumbria", in Stancliffe and Cambridge (ed.), "Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint" (1995), page 20.] It was under Æthelfrith that Bernicia's boundaries pushed significantly inland from the coast, and penetrated further into British territory.

Áedán mac Gabráin, the Irish king of Dál Riata (to the northwest of Bernicia), was alarmed by Æthelfrith's successes, and in 603 he led "an immense and mighty army" against Æthelfrith. Although Æthelfrith commanded an inferior force, according to Bede, he won a crushing victory at a place called Degsastan; most of Áedán's army was killed, and Áedán himself fled. Bede says that Æthelfrith's victory was so great that the Irish kings in Britain would not make war on the English again, right up to Bede's own time. ["Historia ecclesiastica", Book I, Chapter 34; Bede's qualification "in Britain" may allude to the war of Fiachnae mac Báetáin and Æthelfrith's successor Edwin.] The battle appears to have been costly for Æthelfrith as well, however; Bede says that Æthelfrith's brother Theodbald was killed, "with almost all the forces he commanded". [Bede, "H. E.", I, 34; also the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," manuscript E, year 603, which mentions Theodbald's death along with "all his troop" The "Annals of Tigernach", s.a. 598, claim that Máel Umai mac Báetáin of Cenél nEógain killed Æthelfrith's brother, whom they call "Eanfrith".] The appearance of Hering, son of Hussa, Æthelfrith's predecessor, on the side of the invaders seems to indicate dynastic rivalry among the Bernicians. [See the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," manuscript E, under the year 603, for Hering's participation; Bede does not mention Hering. See Ziegler, "Politics of Exile", for the dynastic implications of Hering's participation; Ziegler also suggests that Bede would not have mentioned Hering's participation even if he knew of it, since this aspect of the conflict could tarnish his portrayal of Æthelfrith and the Bernician line he represented. ( [http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/2/ha2pen2.htm#note5 note 5] )] Æthelfrith may have come to terms with the Irish of Dál Riata after this, judging from the fact that Æthelfrith's subsequent known military campaigns took place in other parts of Britain; that his sons were later able to take refuge among the Irish of Dál Riata after Æthelfrith's own death in battle may be significant. [Rosemary Cramp, "The Making of Oswald's Northumbria", in C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge (ed.), "Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint" (1995, 1996), page 19 (also note 10).]

Æthelfrith gained control of Deira around 604; the circumstances of this are unknown.D. P. Kirby, "The Earliest English Kings", pages 60–61.] That he gained Deira through conquest is suggested by the exile of Edwin, son of the former king Ælla, and Hereric, Edwin's nephew, who were both notable members of the Deiran royal line; the short five-year reign of Aethelric of Deira, who ruled immediately prior to Æthelfrith's acquisition of Deira, may also indicate conquest. On the other hand, D. P. Kirby suggested that Æthelfrith's rule of both kingdoms may have represented "a formalization of an existing relationship" of cooperation between the two. Kirby also pointed out that Edwin did not necessarily go into exile immediately, and considered it likely that Æthelfrith's hostility towards him "manifested itself only by degrees". Edwin, apparently seeking safety from Æthelfrith, seems to have travelled between many different kingdoms during his period of exile. He may have spent time during his exile in the British kingdom of Gwynedd, [John Marsden, "Northanhymbre Saga" (1992) based on Reginald of Durham and the "Welsh Triads".] and it seems clear that he spent time in Mercia, because he married a daughter of king Cearl. [Bede, "H.E.", Book II, chapter 14.] Ultimately, he took refuge in East Anglia, where his presence precipitated the events that caused Æthelfrith's downfall.

It was also around 604 that Æthelfrith's son Oswald was born. [This is based on Bede's statement ("H.E.", [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/bede-book3.html Book III] , chapter 9) that Oswald was thirty-eight years old at the time of his death, which was in 642; therefore he must have been born around 604.] Oswald's mother was Acha, daughter of Ælla, and thus Edwin's sister. [Bede, "H.E.", III, 6.] Although Bede does not explicitly say Æthelfrith married Acha, it is thought that he did so; [Ziegler, "Politics of Exile", [http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/2/ha2pen2.htm#note14 note 14] .] he may have married her prior to taking power in Deira, in which case the marriage may have facilitated it, or he may have done so afterwards in order to consolidate his position there.

The "Historia Brittonum" says that Æthelfrith gave the town of Din Guaire to his wife Bebba, after whom it was named Bamburgh; ["Historia Brittonum", chapter 63; Ziegler, "Politics of Exile", cites a translation (Morris, 1980) using the place names spelled as given.] Bede also says that Bamburgh was named after a former queen named Bebba, although he does not mention Æthelfrith. [Bede, "H.E." III, 6, and III, 16.] It has been suggested that she "was probably Æthelfrith's first and most important wife".

Later in his reign, probably between 613 and 616, ["The Anglo Saxon Chronicle" (E) records this battle under the year 605, but this is considered incorrect; see Michael Swanton's translation of the "ASC" (1996, 1998, paperback), page 23, note 2. 616 is the generally accepted date, as first proposed by Charles Plummer, "Venerabilis Beda Opera Historica" (1896).] Æthelfrith attacked the Kingdom of Powys and defeated its army in a battle at Chester, in which the Powysian king Selyf Sarffgadau was killed, along with another king called Cetula, who was probably Cadwal Crysban of Rhôs. [A. W. Wade-Evans, "Vitae sanctorum Britanniae et genealogiae" (1944).] He also massacred the monks of Bangor-Is-Coed who were assembled to aid the British by their prayers. Bede says that he decided to attack them because, although they were not armed, they were opposing him through their prayers. The number of dead monks was said to be about 1200, with only fifty escaping. [Bede, "H.E.", [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/bede-book2.html Book II] , Chapter 2. The "ASC" (E) gives the number of dead monks as only 200, but agrees that fifty escaped.] It has been suggested that Æthelfrith may have done this for tactical reasons, to catch the British by surprise and force them to change their plans in order to protect the monks. After first killing the monks, Æthelfrith prevailed over the enemy army, although Bede notes that Æthelfrith's own forces suffered considerable loss. [Bede, "H.E.", II, 2.] Æthelfrith's victory at Chester has been seen as having great strategic importance, as it may have resulted in the separation of the British between those in Wales and those to the north; however, Stenton noted that Bede was mainly concerned with the massacre of the monks and does not indicate that he regarded the battle as a historical "turning-point". [Stenton, page 78.]


The Deiran exile Hereric was poisoned while at the court of Ceretic, king of Elmet; Æthelfrith may have been responsible for this killing. [Bede, "H.E.", [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/bede-book4.html Book IV] , chapter 23; see also Ziegler, "Politics of Exile", and Kirby, page 61, for the suggestion of Æthelfrith's guilt.] Edwin ended up in East Anglia, under the protection of its king, Raedwald. Æthelfrith sent messengers to bribe Raedwald with "a great sum of money" into killing Edwin; Bede reports that his first message had no effect, but Æthelfrith sent more messengers and threatened war if Raedwald did not comply. (Bribes and threats of this kind may have previously been used to accomplish Hereric's killing.) Raedwald eventually agreed to kill Edwin or hand him over to Æthelfrith's messengers, but was reportedly dissuaded from this by his wife, who said that such a thing was unworthy of his honour. Raedwald then raised an army and marched against Æthelfrith, and around 616 Æthelfrith was defeated and killed on the east side of the River Idle by an army under Raedwald; Bede says that Æthelfrith had the inferior army, because Raedwald had not given him time to bring all his forces together. [Bede, "H.E.", II, 12.] While presented by Bede as being fought simply over the issue of Edwin, this war may have actually involved questions of power and territory between the two rulers. [Kirby, pages 52 and 61.] Following Æthelfrith's death, Edwin became king not just of Deira but of Bernicia as well; Æthelfrith's sons Eanfrith, Oswald, and Oswiu fled to the north. [See Bede, "H.E.", II, 12; "H.E." III, 1 (which mentions the exile of Æthelfrith's sons among the Scots and Picts); and the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", manuscript E, under the year 617. The "ASC" (E) lists the sons of Æthelfrith as follows: Eanfrith, Oswald, Oswiu, Oslac, Oswudu, Oslaf and Offa.] Thus Æthelfrith's death in battle has been seen as causing "a near total revolution in the politics of what is now northern England". After Edwin was killed in 633 at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, Eanfrith temporarily regained power in Bernicia, and subsequently Oswald restored the Bernician line of Æthelfrith to power in both Bernicia and Deira. After this point, Æthelfrith's descendants continued to rule until the first part of the eighth century. [Kirby, page 52.]

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