Early Northumbrian history to 685


a. Polities

a vigorous civilization grew up in a receptive soil, in which the mingling of native and foreign elements yielded a rich harvest.
                                                  Wilhelm Levison 3.

Bernicia and Deira can be compared to the territories of the Brigantes and Parisii.[1] Bernicia (Brynothic Brynaich"Land of the Mountain Passes")[2] original stretched north to include the former Scottish county of East Lothian. Ida (reigned 547-59),[3] the son of Eoppa, was first king of Bernicia, which was largely coastal, with a capital at Bamburgh Castle (Welsh Din Guardi). His descendants are referred to as the ‘Idings’. His son Theoderic (‘flame-bearer’?) defeated a Brittonic coalition led by Urien Rheged, to extend the territory westward. The Irish missionary Columba (543 – 621) founded the monastery on the isle of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides, in the Celtic tradition, in 563. Æthelfrith (reigned 592-616),[4] grandson of Ida and a convert of the monks of Iona, continued the westward expansion. In 604, he invaded Deira, ejected Æthelric, sent Ælla’s son Edwin into exile and married Ælla’s daughter Acha.

Deira (Brythonic “people of the Derwent”),[5] was possibly established as a kingdom before Bernicia, and with more Germanic immigrants, but the succession before Ælla is confused. Ælla (559/560 – 588), son of Yffi, succeeded on Ida’s death.[6]

Around 593, at the Battle of Catterick (Catraeth) the British Goddodin, a Brythonic people of the "Old North", engaged with the Angles of Bernicia and Diera, disastrously for the Britons. The battle is the subject of the British poem Goddodin. Æthelfrith again expanded his territory westward.

Higham discussed the evolving nature of imperium at this time: “An Æthelfrith warrior king of c.600 was far removed from the coin-minting, tax-collecting, church-founding, law-issuing, synod-presiding, kings of late seventh- and eighth-century England.” [7]

b. The Conversion period

the Christian conversion of Anglo-Saxon England had a disastrous effect on the survival of material for archaeological analysis
                                                 Richard Bailey 146.

The chronology of the conversion of England to Roman Catholicism, with specific reference to Northumbria, is as follows:

According to Rahtz (2003) “There is very little evidence for Roman Christianity in North Yorkshire. Eboracum, the capital of Britannia Secundum, did, however, have a bishop, Eborius, who attended the Council of Arles in 314.”[8]

In 597, a somewhat reluctant Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great, arrived at the court of Æthelberht of Kent. Æthelberht’s Christian wife Bertha was descended from Clovis (466 – 511), king of the Franks who had converted to Christianity. It is likely that members of her entourage were responsible for secreting the St Martin’s hoard of gold artefacts, found in a grave in Canterbury. [9] In the same year, St Columba (Columcille), Irish founder of the abbey on Iona, died, presaging the dominance of the Roman faith over Celtic beliefs.

Around 603, at the Battle of Degsastan (Dawstane?),[10] Britons (possibly including Bernician exiles), under Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Raida, were again heavily defeated by Æthelfrith who unified Bernicia and Diera as Northumbria and continued to push through to the Irish Sea.[11] Bede glorifies Æthelfrith’s victory.[12]

At the Battle of Chester in 616,[13] Æthelfrith gained another overwhelming victory, now over a combined force of Welsh kingdoms (possibly also allied with Mercia). Æthelfrith is said to have approved the massacre of monks from Bangor, which Bede[14] numbered at twelve hundred, though, as there were merely ‘faithless Britons’, through his ecclesiastical lens, he overlooks moral condemnation.

However, later that year, Æthelfrith[15] suffered a mortal reversal at the Battle of the River Idle: Æthelfrith was killed when attacking Rædwald of the Wuffingas, who was possibly in pursuit of his rival Edwin, son of Ælle of Deira - Æthelfrith was married to Edwin’s sister Acha (a unifying stratagem).[16] Hunter Blair has suggested that Edwin was converted by Paulinus on his visit to Rædwald at whose court Edwin was exiled.[17]

Rædwald installed Edwin as king of Northumbria, interrupting the Bernician dominance, and York (now Eoforwic, “place of the boar”) became the capital. Æthelfrith’s sons were exiled to Dál Raida. The death of Æthelberht of Kent in this year, left Rædwald in a dominant position. Rædwald is the favoured candidate as occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship burial.[18] The thirty-seven different Merovingian gold coins found in a purse at Sutton Hoo, contrasts with the Crondall (Hampshire) hoard of 101 pieces, dated a decade or two years later, which includes sixty-nine English ‘thrymsas’, thus, in conventional numismatic wisdom, narrowing the recommencement of native coinage to c.630s - c.640s.[19] Current suggestions that the ‘London’ type shilling may be attributable to Bishop Mellitus (d. 624) and that of York to Edwin (d. 632) as well as the Eadbald (d. 640) shilling may advance the re-introduction of native coinage.[20]

At the start of his reign in 616, Edwin invaded Elmet, a small British outpost between the Wharfe and Sheaf, distinguished by Brythonic-derived place names and significant defensive earthworks. Elmet was the most northerly territory to be included, at six hundred hides, in the Tribal Hidage.[21] In 627, it was incorporated into Northumbria.

Edwin married Æthelburg, sister of Eadbald of Kent (son of Bertha of Kent), in 625, leading to Edwin’s baptism in 627, after conversion by Paulinus at Goodmanham.[22] Edwin waged annual wars to expand his territory as far as Strathclyde, Rheged (Carlisle & Solway), Mersey, Anglesey and Man. His court travelled around his kingdom collecting renders and dispensing justice. His royal palaces included Yeavering, Barwick, Goodmanham and, possibly, Sancton.[23]

Of Edwin, Bede remarked: ‘So peaceful was it in those parts of Britain under King Edwin’s jurisdiction that the proverb still runs that a woman could carry her new-born babe across the island from sea to sea without any fear of harm’.[24]

At the Battle of Hatfield Chase (Hæđfeld near Doncaster) in 633,[25] Edwin was defeated by an alliance of Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd (respectively, a pagan king of Saxon descent and a Christian king of British descent) and killed; Paulinus fled York. Edwin’s kingdom was divided between a distant relative, Osric, in Deira, and Eanfrith, son of Æthelfrith and Edwin's sister Acha, in Bernicia. Osric and Eanfrith, both of whom had reverted to paganism, were, separately, murdered by Cadwallon, who then temporarily ruled the Northumbrian provinces. Such was the disgust of Bede, for what he regarded as a tyrant, that he expunged Cadwallon from the Northumbrian regnal list. [26]

Revenge, in Bede’s eyes, was close at hand,[27] for in 634 at the battle of Heavenfield (Deniseburna [Rowley Burn] near Hefenfelth), Eanfrith’s brother Oswald (Æthelfrith’s exiled son with affiliations to Iona) killed Cadwallon beside the Roman Wall, about four miles north of Hexham, and re-united the kingdom, now restored to Christianity, under the descendants of Ida.[28]

In 635, Oswald installed Bishop Aidan in the See of Lindisfarne.[29] Bede deemed Oswald to be saintly for his work in supporting the successful mission of Aidan in converting the populace, though Edwin’s widow Æthelburg fled to France with her children in fear of him.

Oswald’s extended his northern domains by besieging Edinburgh, royal seat of the Goddodin, and subsequent actions in Scotland around 638. He also seized Lindsey, to the south of the Humber.

Oswald was killed by Penda in 642 at the Battle of Maserfield (Oswestry?).[30] The mythology of this event is a fusion of the traditional Germanic warrior-king with Christian sainthood. Northumbria was again cleft: Oswald’s brother Oswy (Oswiu, Oswig) succeeded in Bernicia and, in Diera, Osric’s son Oswin, who Bede considered ‘a man of great piety and devotion’.[31]

After suffering some years of ‘intolerable incursions’ and ‘godless destruction’[32] in Northumbria, especially around Bamburgh, fighting on British territory in Elmet in 655 Oswy unexpectedly defeated and killed Penda at the Battle of Winwæd (near Liodis, Leeds), and temporarily became bretwalda (as king Æthelhere of East Anglia had also died).[33] Penda's son Peada (who was baptised in 653 and was also Oswy’s son-in-law) ruled Mercia for a year before a revolt of noblemen set up his brother Wulfhere as Christian king of Mercia. Oswy’s domination ended in a negotiated settlement. Oswy’s second (of possibly three wives), the Irish princess Fin of the Ui Neill dynasty, bore him Aldfrith. Oswy replaced his cousin Æthelwold, who had supported Penda, as king of Deira with his son Alhfrith. Ahlfrith attempted to gain Deiran independence, presumably fatally, as he disappears from the record after the Synod of Whitby (664).

Hild(a), an abbess of royal blood was appointed by Edwin on the founding of Whitby (O.E. Strenæshalc[34]) in 656, with the ceremony conducted by Paulinus.[35] In 664, Oswy presided over the Synod of Whitby, which discussed the dating of Easter, the monastic tonsure and other procedural differences between the insular church of Britain and Rome.[36] That this reconciliation of British, Celtic and Roman traditions should be sited in the Northumbrian heartland, demonstrates its spiritual and political centrality. Both Bede and Eddius Stephanus (in Life of Wilfrid) praised Wilfrid’s Roman views, though neither was impartial. These were opposed by the Celtic tradition of Iona represented by Colmán.[37] Oswy found in favour of Rome[38] but, presumably, implementation took time, as Bede tells us that in 665, while King Oswy was feasting, Queen Eanflæd was fasting![39] Oswy died of natural causes in 670.

In describing the austerity of Colmán, Bede stated: ‘…whenever they received any money from rich folk, they immediately gave it to the poor; for they had no need to amass money…’[40] (my italics), but this was in 664 when ‘money’ may plausibly have included only the York gold shilling or imported (Merovingian) tremisses, denominations far too high to be of immediate relief to the poor.[41]

Ecgfrith (645-685), king of Deira from 664, was elevated to king of Northumbria on the death of his father, Oswiu, in 670. The following year, he quelled a Pictish uprising in the Battle of Two Rivers and took land between the Firth of Forth and the Tweed.[42]

In 674, Ecgfrith defeated Wulfhere of Mercia. Lindsey was seized but lost again in 679 at the Battle of the Trent where Ecgfrith fought Æthelred of Mercia.[43] Ecgfrith’s brother Ælfwin was slain. Theodore intervened to enforce a peaceful settlement between Ecgfrith and Æthelred, which included wergeld for Ælfwin, However, this marked a significant downturn in Northumbrian fortunes.

Ecgfrith inflicted a destructive raid on Ireland, in 684, against the advice of Ecgberht. Slaves were seized and churches destroyed. Bede scorned the raid.[44]

The most decisive battle in Northumbrian fortunes took place at Nechtansmere (Dun Nechtain) in 685.[45] Bridei Mac Bili, king of the Northern Picts in resisting Northumbrian suzerainty, had laid waste to the Orkneys, in 681. Orkney had pledged loyalty to the Roman Church after the Synod of Whitby. Against advice from his counsel, including Cuthbert, Ecgfrith attacked Fortiu but was lured into the mountain passes near Forfar by Bridei’s feigned retreat. Ecgfrith’s force was ambushed and he perished with his army. Influence over Pictish lands north of the Forth was lost, only Carlisle and Whithorn in Rheged were retained. This was a catastrophic watershed in Northumbrian fortunes.[46]


[1] Ramm.
[2] Breeze argues for the more imaginative ‘land of the piercers of battle-lines, territory of those making gaps between enemy warriors’. See also Wood, M.
[3] Marsden (1992) p. 21-49. Higham (1993) 76-9.
[4] Marsden (1992) p. 51-76. Yorke (1990) p. 77-8, 83-4.
[5] cf Roman Malton Derventio [now uncertain – see Lawton, 1999 'Derventio - a Roman Stamford Bridge Update', Forum (CBA Yorks) p.7-11.] Again Breeze suggests the more epic ‘land of the valiant ones, territory of heroes’.
[6] Higham (1993) p. 79-80, Yorke (1990) p. 74, 77.
[7] (1999) p. 31-6.
[8] Rollason et al. 1998, 44 and 108-9.
[9] including at least five Italian and Merovingian solidi and tremisses, the ‘Liudhard’ medalet, a Roman intaglio and a circular brooch, probably originally suspended from a woman’s necklace.
[10] Marsden (1992) p. 67-9.
[11] Cramp (1995) 9-10.
[12] Bede I, 34.
[13] Marsden (1992) p. 69-74.
[14] Bede II, 2.
[15] ‘the Ferocious’ or ‘Artful Dodger’?
[16] Marsden (1992) p. 73-5. Higham (1999) compares the military reputation of Æthelfrith with the diplomacy of Æthelberht of Kent.
[17] Hunter Blair (1956) p. 118-9. Higham (1993) p. 119-124. Marsden (1992) p. 86-96.
[18] Marsden (1992) p. 77-104.
[19] Metcalf (1992) T&S p. 29-56.
[20] As suggested by Arent Pol and Anna Gannon at the workshop ‘From Gold to Silver in the Seventh Century’, Cambridge, 27-8th March 2015.
[21] Higham (1993) p. 117.
[22] Earlier in 627, Lilla succumbed to Edwin’s would-be assassin’s knife and was commemorated at Lilla Howe, an Anglian burial in a Bronze Age tumulus. Spratt & Harrison 63.
[23] the ‘Sancton’ site, rich in sceats, was revealed to be South Newbald by Booth & Blowers, YN3 15-38
[24] Bede II, 16.
[25] Higham (1993) p. 87-9. Marsden (1992) p. 100-5.
[26] Bede II, 20 and III, 2.
[27] Bede III, 2.
[28] Higham (1993) p. 125. Marsden (1992) p. 105-32.
[29] Higham (1993) p. 127-8. Marsden (1992) p. 118-21.
[30] Higham (1993) p. 129. Marsden (1992) p. 129-32.
[31] Bede III, 14.
[32] Bede III, 24
[33] Higham (1993) p. 129-132. Marsden (1992) p. 133-158.
[34] See Blair fn. 245. This may refer to Strensall (Whyman & Howard 32).
[35] Marsden (1992) p. 150-1.
[36] Higham (1993) p. 35. Bede III, 25. Wilfrid successfully argued for the metonic cycle.
[37] Edwin would have supported the former and Oswald, had he lived, the latter.
[38] For which he received a great cache of relics from the papacy. Bede (III, 29).
[39] Bede III, 25
[40] Bede III, 26
[41]Though this may be too literal an interpretation perhaps – Bede is contrasting Celtic asceticism with (e.g. Wilfred’s) aestheticism.
[42] Marsden (1992) p. 159-86.
[43] Higham (1993) p. 139.
[44] Bede IV, 26.
[45] Higham (1993) p. 138-9. Marsden (1992) p. 179-85.
[46] Ian Wood does not accept that it made very much difference to Northumbria’s domains (pers. comm. Oct 2013).
[47] See Rollason (2003) ill. 8 for the reverse cross with interlaced animals and cruciform devices.



Bede, 1969, An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and trans. by B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Blair, J., 2005, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford: OUP).

Booth, J., and I. Blowers, 1983, ‘Finds of Sceattas and Stycas from Sancton’, NC, 143, 139–45.

Breeze, A., 2009, The Name of Bernicia, The Antiquaries Journal, Volume 89, September 2009, pp. 73-9, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003581509990096, Published online: 03 August 2009.

Higham, N. J., 1993, The Kingdom of Northumbria, ad 350–1100 (Dover: Sutton).

Cramp, R., 1995, Whithorn and the Northumbrian Expansion Westwards, Whithorn Lecture, 3 (Whithorn: Friends of the Whithorn Trust).

Higham, N. J., 1999, ‘Imperium in Early Britain: Rhetoric and Reality in the Writings of Gildas and Bede’, in ASSAH 10 (Oxford).

Hunter Blair, P., 1956, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, (Cambridge).

Marsden, J., 1992, Northanhymbre Saga: The History of the Northumbrian Kings of Northumbria (London: Kyle Cathie).

Metcalf, D. M., 1993–94, Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, RNS Special Publication, 276, 3 vols (London: RNS).

Ramm, H., 1978, The Parisi (London: Duckworth).

Rollason, D., D. Gore, and G. Fellows-Jensen, 1998, Sources for York History to ad 1100 (York: YAT).

Rollason, D., 2003, Northumbria, 500–1100: Creation and Destruction of a Kingdom (Cambridge: CUP).

Wood, M, 2011, ‘Bernician Transitions: Place-Names and Archaeology’, in Early medieval Northumbria: kingdoms and communities, AD 450-1100 (Turnhout: Brepols).

Yorke, B., 1990, Kings and Kingdoms in Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: Seaby).

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