A Century of Northumbrian Wars & the Forgotten Story of Acha Yffing, Deiran Princess

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Dunadd, near modern Kilmartin, now Western Scotland sometime around 617 AD…

The Kilmartin Valley is one of the richest archaeological areas in Britain. You are looking at the valley from Dunadd Fort, centre of Dal Riata’s kingdom. The name Argyll betrays this land’s Gaelic heritage.
By HypeNapungra – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7457849

In around that year, a woman, her children and retinue turned up at this seemingly unlikely site to plead for refuge to an Irish-speaking king whose original roots were in Ulster. She was perhaps around 31 at the time. The children she dragged along with her would later become the first Christian kings of Northumbria – although the Os- element in their names originally implied Woden. Some you will have heard of and some appear in the historical record only a single time. We think that at least two of these sons were educated on the Inner Hebridean island of Iona, the famous monastic settlement of Saint Columba.

In those war-ridden times, there were always refugees but this was no ordinary plaintiff. Born Princess of Deira, daughter of Ælle, very probably at the royal court at Malton in Yorkshire, she was also the late wife of the most feared man in Northern Britain, Æðelfrið, king of Bernicia.

Malton might not look much like it today, but it seems to have been the Deiran capital that predated Anglian York (Eoforwic). Furthermore – as we will see – as an Anglian powerbase it appears to be much older than anywhere in Bernicia, whose version of Northumbrian history Bede very probably formalised and propagated.

What events and frictions with neighbouring peoples brought her to seek sanctuary at this place? And what became of her? Like a lot of Dark Age women, we only hear about her when it seems useful to the overall narrative. But amongst all the male names recorded in Northumbria’s century in the run-up to the 670s is the [now?] almost invisible tale of Acha Yffing, Princess of Deira.

However, to get any glimpse of her through this narrow lens of history, we are going to have to get to know her husband fairly well. It would seem that she married him in around 603. And that, in itself, was almost certainly linked with an ongoing struggle to unify Bernicia and Deira – Northumbria’s two initial component kingdoms.

This husband was to die in 617 after about 13 years of marriage – the victim of Acha’s own brother and his new-found Suffolk-based ally, who is one of the few people of the era whose face might still almost be glimpsed.

So, who was this husband? You are so going to need the following table! There will be one at the start of each section to help with the framework. But I must emphasise that no date in this blog post is without dispute. Indeed, as time goes on, we begin to realise that some of them could be decades wrong. [My dates are not necessarily absolutely traditional; they are based on providing some sort of logical sequence!]

c. 585 Acha of Deira born
586Siege of Lindisfarne / Medcaut;
Perhaps Catraeth – or perhaps not!
588Ælle of Deira, Acha’s father, dies
603Æðelfrið Iding marries Acha of Deira (Adams chronology – usually given as around 593)
Birth of Oswald;
Æðelfrið becomes king (Adams chronology)
606Aedan mac Gabrain of Dal Riata dies
612Oswiu born to Æðelfrið and Acha
615Northumbria’s annexation of Rheged;
Battle of Chester
616Eadwine of Deira takes refuge in East Anglia
617Battle of the River Idle;
Æðelfrið killed

Æðelfrið Iding

Traditionally seen as King of Bernicia from around 593 and of all Northumbria from 604; died 617. You will see from the table above that we are not sticking with that chronology.

We have some very serious problems with the Northumbrian king lists – let’s not pretend here! [Skip forward to the Bernician King List issue if you need an explanation immediately.] Æðelfrið’s genealogy comes complete with the route through Nennius, who even seems suspicious of his own Mercian source. It does look as though Æðelfrið had a number of brothers: Ælfred (of whom a bit more discussion later), Ðeobald, Ecgulf [I am trying to use Northumbrian spellings where possible and appropriate!]

During Æðelfrið’s dominance over the North East, Eadwine of Deira, son of Ælle (‘Edwin’ as he would become known) was in exile, eventually ending up at the court of Rædwald in Suffolk but not before being a guest at the court of Mercia – which might have proved critical and, before that, in Gwynedd – maybe.

The marriages of Ida’s son, Æðelfrið

Perhaps around 603, Æðelfrið, son of Ida, married Acha of Deira, daughter of Ælle. It is certainly too late to prove anything, but I suspect that Æðelfrið was not personally responsible for the murder of Acha’s father – as Adams does seem to hint at. I do not think that that fits the revised chronology especially well.

Acha may have been Æðelfrið’s second wife. The first was supposedly called Bebba, although this might be little more than a feeble attempt to explain ‘Bebbanburgh’ (Banburgh), which had previously been called Din Guayroi. If that looks like Deganwy in North Wales, that should be no great surprise, linked to the word for fort. Neither should it be any surprise, given the strategic location, that it had previously been a British fortress.

Let’s say there was a Bebba – even if she was actually called something else. And she very probably was. Did she die? Or was she just unceremoniously dumped when she ceased to be a useful political tool? Bede would seem to indicate that she was ‘wife’ but never ‘queen’.

What exactly happened is of some importance. Æðelfrið’s eldest son, Eanfrið, seems to have had a different pattern of refuge host nation to his siblings, eventually resulting in him marrying a Pictish princess. Their son, Talorcan mac Enfret, would become a Pictish king – one who would eventually be killed by Dal Riata, no less. Was Bebba – or whatever her real name was – not so much British as Pictish? Despite all this, there are still plenty of historians who would argue that Eanfrið could also easily have been an eldest son of Acha – but not Max Adams.

If we accept a broad date of birth of 585 for Acha, we start to see a new context for this. Because Eanfrið was probably born in the early 590s, plying that he could only be Bebba’s child.

An awkward problem with Deira

Archaeological evidence seems to indicate that Bede is not ‘entirely accurate’ (like politicians being ‘economical’ with the truth!) with Ida having established the first English kingdom in the North in Bernicia in 547. Charles-Edwards suggests that this is a later Bernician reinterpretation of history once Bernicia had established firm control of the whole region – ‘the triumph of Bernician history’. In reality, Deira seems to have been established well before. To me, that changes the potential context of Acha’s wedding. Bernicia might simply have been opportunist.

There is another problem with what Adams tacitly accepts in the above. Welsh poetry has it that Ida joined Din Guayroi (Bamburgh) to Bernicia. But the poem is about the Gododdin. Is it possible that until this point Gododdin had been in control of Bamburgh?

John Varley, O.W.S. (1778-1842)
Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland. Sold by Christie’s.

There is an additional problem with Deira on the Adams chronology. If Ælle died in 588 (or thereabouts), what then happened in Deira between then and 604? Or did Ælle not really die until 603 when Æthelfrið took the opportunity to marry Acha and force a unity upon the two kingdoms? Can we be sure that Æðelric, usually given as Ælle’s successor is the same man as Æðelfrið’s father?

Bede seems to indicate that Ælle was still reigning at the time of Saint Augustine’s arrival in Kent – usually considered to be 597, although perhaps he was just struggling with the dates as well?

There are, of course, other considerations. What was Mercia up to? Was there just chaos and dynastic disputes?

Was the mysterious Cearl of Mercia around?

Let’s say that Eadwine really did spend some time at the Court of Gwynedd as Geoffrey of Monmouth said (and Adams seems to concur), then moved to Mercia and then on to East Anglia. It is perhaps sometime around 605 – 610 when he arrives in Mercia and marries Coenburh, Cearl’s daughter. Eadwine was born around 586. So, for the sake of argument, let us make Coenburh born around 590. Was Cearl ‘king’ (whatever that quite meant in early Mercia) at that point? Did Cearl wreak havoc on a destabilised Deira post-Ælle? That could quite neatly fit the gap in Deira’s history which has opened up? And matters between Mercia and Deira started to be patched up by Eadwine’s marriage?

Deira is not the only problem though…

An awkward problem with Bernicia or “12 + 12” and the Bernician King List

The problem in Bernicia centres on an interpretation of ’12 years’. The Historia Brittonum allows him 24 years as king, the last twelve of which he was king of both Bernicia and Deira. That would take you back to around 592. That is not what Adams goes for though. Worse still, there are a mass of kings in the last years of the sixth century, some Ida’s sons, some seemingly not. Here is the Bernician King List problem summarised:

KingAccession date (Traditional)Accession date (Adams)
Freowald or Friþuwald579591

I am putting to one side an issue which has occurred to me: that perhaps the 12 year periods start and terminate in different places, resulting in this being neither 12 nor 24.

It is all a confused picture and not just in terms of the order either. Which of these kings were Ida’s sons? For example, Adams has Glappa (sometimes Clappa) as one of them – but he might easily have been a brother or cousin. Interestingly, the two he does isolate reign (in his chronology) for a continuous decade or more after 591. We don’t have many clues here either. The usual alliterative name pattern seems to be essentially absent. But they might both be critical.

It is Friþuwald (or Freowald as rendered in Adams) who is the cause of the re-dating issue. He was reigning when Saint Augustine visited Kent in 597, seemingly just prior to Hussa’s takeover. But we still know nothing else about him – or, indeed, most of the others.

And what of Hussa? If we knew more about him, would that clarify everything? His son, Hering, seems to have had a key role in Aedan of Dal Riata’s alliance. How come? Is it even possible that, under Hussa, Bernicia was even tributary to the Irish kingdom, perhaps with Hering having grown up in a ‘hostage’ situation (which sounds dramatic but was fairly common practice)?

Hussa and Friðuwald are tagged onto one end of Adams’ genealogical tables, separate from Ida’s family. Neither their visual proximity there, nor the likelihood that they both occupied the immediate period before Æðelfrið, means that they were not wholly different with reference to their external relations.

If there is a weakness anywhere in The King in the North – and it is supposed to be about Oswald and not a more general overview of early kings in Northumbria – it is that this resequencing is largely confined to the appendix. So we don’t immediately quite know who is fighting which battle.

We are taking a bit of a leap back now – back to 586. But who is king in Bernicia at this point? From the perspective of the new chronology it is Þeodoric. Was Æðelfrið even old enough to be fighting at this point? His future wife and his future killer were probably still babies back in Derventio – Malton.

The Siege of Lindisfarne (Medcaut in Old Welsh)

Holy Island Sunrise (again) (15064111624).jpg
By Chris Combe from York, UK – Holy Island Sunrise (again), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42080816
The King in the North

For the time-being we will do our best to ignore the early sequencing problems between Deira and Bernicia and go along with what Adams seems to have settled upon. That does not mean that I am not entirely open to other perspectives.

There can be no more iconic site in the Early mediaeval history of the North East than Lindisfarne.

The name is a bit of an odd one in the English. It might be essentially British in origin from Lindon, like the Welsh word Llyn. But as it stands it looks uncomfortably close to being an outpost of Lindsey. Was it perhaps originally just that? We know so little about Lindsey that we really can’t tell.

Lindisfarne was not initially critical to Bernician settlement but Ida established his royal residence at Bamburgh across the bay (once he had ‘joined it’ to Bernicia) – and it would remain the centre of Bernician power and influence for centuries. Ida perhaps established himself here around the 550s. As Adams points out in The King in the North (nominally a book about the later Oswald of Northumbria) nobody can really account for where he came from and that is an issue in itself. Old Welsh poetry calls the area Bryneich or Brynaich, which might have something to do with the root word for ‘hill’, suggesting that Bernicia might have taken control of Bamburgh from an upland area? Ida’s wife appears to have had a British name Bearnoch.

The precise sequence of events in the siege is now lost to history. Ida’s son, Æðelric, may well have been the intended target. But it was his brother, Þeodoric, who seems to have led the Bernician defence on Medcaut – and that would seem to fit well with Adams’ new chronology. If that is the case, then Þeodoric (‘People’s Ruler’, no less) was probably incredibly important – and yet we seem to know so little about him. How come he was no eulogised by Bernicia’s later historian? All we do have rumoured is that he might have been slaughtered by Owain mab Urien of Rheged.

Rheged’s intention (and those of its allies) might have been nothing less than to push the Idings back into the North Sea.

However, for at least half a century, Bernicia’s hold on this coastline was obviously very tenuous. We may be dealing with a far greater period of time. Rheged – the mysterious kingdom probably centred on Cumbria’s Eden Valley or Carlisle although some recent archaeology suggests that its stronghold may have been in Galloway (Adams favours a ‘polycentric’ kingdom) – had a powerful king, Urien (who even survived into Arthurian legend). He put together a coalition of insular kingdoms which subsequently besieged Lindisfarne. Elmet under Gwalllog clearly played a role in this alliance as did someone called Morcant / Morgant (‘Morgan’) – perhaps of the Gododdin (Welsh for the Votadini via the earlier spelling, Guotodin) themselves?

And that might easily have happened, had not factional infighting started in the British camp. Urien was betrayed and the alliance fell apart – a strategic disaster. It is said that Urien was assassinated at the behest of Morgant. Alongside these two kings and Gwallog in the broad alliance was Rhydderch Hael, king of Alt Clud (based at Dunbarton).

Ðeodoric and successive Bernician kings gradually established control of the area between the Tyne and the Tees.

It is perhaps telling that Rheged is missing from the next major battle – although I am afraid that there are also potential sequencing issues involved here, to which we will return.

Catraeth (The Battle of Catterick), perhaps late 580s (?)

As the A1(M) crosses the River Swale between modern Catterick and Scotch Corner, it dissects the Roman fortress town of Cataractorum. After Rome’s departure, Catraeth had been an easternmost outpost of Urien’s Rheged. But, with its strategic position as a Swale crossing point, it was also critical to control to both the Vale of York and the borderlands between emerging and expanding Deira and Bernicia – the two constituent elements of Northumbria.

We only really know about Catraeth from one source – an oral lament which was perfected into verse far later, Y Gododdin. And there is not much detail here about the names of the participants.

The ‘Welsh’ / British poet, Aneirin, claims that on the English side was a united Deira and Bernicia. For Adams this fits with the second half of the 580s. The ASC suggests that Æðelfrið’s father, Æðelric, had ceased to be King of Bernicia in around 584. But the two of them might have deposed Ælle of Deira around that time, so that the whole of Northumbria was, in effect, under a father and son administration.

But what was happening amongst the British groupings? This raid was supposedly planned by Mynyddog Mwynfawr (although some would say that sounds like a place not a person), reputedly Lord of Dun Eidyn, which probably doesn’t need translating as it is still the capital of Scotland.

On that side the assembled forces seem to be collected from the modern concept of North Wales, northern British groupings (led by Gododdin) and some Pictish groups. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the last of these might constitute.

As I mentioned, Rheged is seemingly not there. So where was it?

If we believe Andrew Fleming and his understanding of Swaledale, then perhaps Catraeth was intended as a ‘relieving counterpunch’ in aid of Rheged.

The Swaledale Barrier

Until recently, Swaledale’s elder residents possessed a dialect which was difficult for other Broadfolk to comprehend. The reason may well be that it had strong West Norse roots (as opposed to the East Norse roots of more mainstream ‘Danish’ Yorkshire dialects). And the logic of this explanation is that Norwegian Vikings settled the routes around the west coast of Scotland down into Cumbria. But some of them also made their way across the Buttertubs Pass, settling in places such as Keld (lit. spring) and Gunnerside.

Above Keld, Swaledale. Own photo – apologies for the low quality image. No longer sure whether I have the original anywhere.

The Buttertubs Pass is a mountain pass at an elevation of 528 metres above mean sea level (asl). The road climb was rated by Jeremy Clarkson as ‘England’s only truly spectacular road’. I was going to post a video of driving over it but then remembered that the World is full of idiots!

It looks as though the West Norse movement over the Buttertubs was not the first of its kind. It was certainly not to be the last either. Centuries earlier it may have been used by Rheged as a means to push eastwards and capture (or retake?) the critical fort town of Catterick. But the more I have looked at this, the more I have thought: ‘Catraeth isn’t a town, it is some kind of sub-kingdom polity’.

The system of large linear dykes centred on Grinton and Fremington in Swaledale may have formed part of the boundary of an early, post-Roman, British political area or kingdom. The core of this system consists of two massive parallel banks lying about 500 metres apart, with ditches on their eastern sides. A third, somewhat smaller dyke lies 2.5 kilometres to the east. On the moorland above Grinton are two more.

As a whole the system seems to block access into Upper Swaledale and Arkengarthdale from the east. The dykes cut Romano-British features but are ignored by the layout of the early Medieval township at Fremington and so have been dated to the period in between – in other words, the fifth, sixth or early seventh century.

Grinton-Fremington Dyke System, Swaledale

Was Rheged attempting to defend the dale pass from Northumbrian attempted expansion west of the Pennine ridge? But, before we get too focused, we need to keep in mind the thinking of the eminent scholar of Welsh history T. Charles-Edwards – whose key work is much older than Adams’ King in the North.

Road over Buttertubs. By Kreuzschnabel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27303929

Charles-Edwards considers this dating and sequence to be incorrect. To see why we need to focus a little more on this Welsh poetry. There are actually two versions of the Gododdin. One mentions both the kingdoms of Northumbria but – perhaps tellingly – the other only mentions Deira. And it is also supposed to be some kind of celebration of Lothian (the northernmost part of Gododdin territory), without a primary focus on Catraeth.

Thomas Charles-Edwards, eminent Oxford scholar on the history of Wales and the British.

And it seems pretty likely that Catterick would have been inside Deiran territory. Let us look at the Charles-Edwards alternative then. It is quite a departure. First of all, the dating is far too late – even though Adams’ dating is a little different (i.e. earlier) to some others. If we start pushing Catraeth back to before Ida and, indeed, before the rise of Bernicia, then we might want to consider the parties involved in this war. Deira is evidently on one side. But on the other, we have the Gododdin – but we might also have Bernicia, who might even have been subject to the Votadini?

So let’s state that formally: it is unclear with whom Bernicia might have been allied in these early days – before the ‘re-write’ of Northumbrian history.

So, what about Rheged? Does it give us any clues as to sequencing? Well, it might…

Its king, Urien, was from the Coeling dynasty. This pushes his ancestry back to a legendary or perhaps only semi-legendary character Old Coel or Coel Hen, clearly an important king of the Old North. Before anyone asks, it is not clear whether that other legendary character known for being a ‘merry old soul’ is identical or related. If he were to be, then that would be an absolutely extraordinary survival from the darkest period of the British Dark Ages. I wouldn’t advise putting any money on it.

However, there is another name for Coel’s descendants – the sons of ‘Godeborg’. It comes from the word, ‘protector’, Guotepauc. Here is what Y Gododdin has to say:

Of the land of Catraeth it is related

That hosts fell, long was the grief for them.

In hardship, in ease, they fought for their land

With the sons of Godebog, an evil people.

The Gododdin
Y Gododdin in the Book of Aneirin. Although the surviving version is in a late thirteenth century collection, Aneirin claimed to be a survivor of the battle.
National Library of Wales.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1085292

That looks a little bit ambiguous in English (a problem with ‘fight with’) so, I would be grateful for any input from someone expert in earlier variants of the Welsh language.

Urien had evidently extended himself beyond Rheged – if that was where he was originally from. He is poetically known as the king of ‘Rheged, Erechwydd, Llwyfennydd and Catraeth’. I think this supports the idea that Catraeth might have been more of a small pagus rather than a town in itself?

Llywyfennydd is usually identified with the Lyvennet Valley – essentially from a few miles NE and above Tebay Services on the M6 and to the west of Appleby, now rather isolated and inaccessible. But it could easily be any valley with a similar toponymical derivation, could it not?

And then there is Erechwydd – something to do with fresh water? But which fresh water? Which lake? Which river? We are simply at a loss, I think. Adams is fairly clear that on the Fleming logic, he thinks that Erychwydd is Swaledale. But it could be any of the river valleys in this area. For example, why not Teesdale with the impressive High Force? I think it would have been a notable feature – not to mention a defensive one – to anyone approaching it and there is still a route over from Cumbria via High Cup Nick.

High Force Waterfall & River Tees, England. The Travelling Trio. The second waterfall – now largely dry – would have made it even more impressive? I think this at least as likely to have been the territory of Erechwydd – a rather long hike over from Dufton Fell and High Cup Nick on the Cumbrian side. It is also one of the most undersold sights in all of England – perhaps to its benefit!

‘South Rheged’ – a separate kingdom or another polycentric federation?

The history of Rheged is further complicated by its relationship with the pagi to the immediate south in ‘South Rheged’. Did this split off as two sons divided it? Or did it regain its independence? Or was this always a ‘marginal’ area?

Some names are still in use: Catlow, Craven and Dentdale possibly still reflect the extent of these septs. Craven is a lower tier North Yorkshire authority today whose boundaries do not necessarily reflect its previous kingdom. The Doomsday Book seems focused on settlements along the Aire and the Ribble and as far north as Pen-Y-Ghent (which could hardly be more Brythonic in its naming although nobody quite knows what the last bit might mean). Dent may take its name from a former local leader, Dunaut. Today – just as then – it is an isolated place – so much so that a great deal of the narrative suggests that it was not settled until the tenth century even though the Romans knew of it.

But the one which interests me most is Catlow because etymologists seem to have missed something in the toponym. -low I can see could well mean ‘burial mound’ but this has nothing to with cats! Catlow is not that far off that Celtic-root Katuwellaunos. For those who do not know, by the way, it is (now) a small settlement outside Nelson (near Burnley) in Lancashire. Was there a tributary kingdom to Rheged in East Lancashire?

A conclusion on Catraeth?

In conclusion on this section, were two battles merged here? [This is not uncommon in Welsh heroic poetry, by the way.] The Gododdin could have attacked Deira when they were still on the up; before Urien got the upper hand?

By Alarichall – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61951250. Map of place-names between the Firth of Forth and the River Tees: in green, names likely containing Brittonic elements; in red and orange, names likely containing the Old English elements -ham and -ingaham respectively. Survey area (approximately marked, in red) covers the pre-1974 counties of Northumbria, Durham, Selkirkshire, Roxburghshire, Berwickshire, Peeblesshire and the Lothians.

So, probably not entirely 586 then! But we need to move on.

And this is interesting because the gap between these two battles has traditionally been very narrow but now seems to be expanding by the second! In reality, we might now be talking about half a century and huge changes in regional powerbases.

Degsastan (circa 604)

We have probably just about scraped into the seventh century, given the unreliability of dates! If the revised King List dates are to be taken seriously, this is clearly a critical time for Æðelfrið.

A judicious policy of intermarriage with Deira was not the only line of political strategy for Æðelfrið ‘s rule. Æðelfrið also felt strong enough to attempt to regain the lands which had been lost by his father – and, potentially, more as well. He may well have had to do nothing: Aedan of Dal Riata was geared up for another pre-emptive strike. One which would also go dreadfully wrong and secure Northumbria’s pre-eminence in the North.

It may not have been the first conflict between Aedan and the Northumbrians. But the battles fought by the Dalriatans in the 590s are obscure and may well be essentially against the Picts. We cannot say for sure whether there was any Bernician involvement in any of these. I find myself thinking increasingly that this battle was caused by a change in external policy from Northumbria towards the Irish kingdom.

Degsastan (perhaps simply, Degsa’s stone) is now a rather unfamiliar name but it was not always so. Bede describes it as a famous battle. However, we can now only speculate as to the location – although Liddesdale has often been put forward Traditionally, it is seen as having taken place only a few years after Catraeth but for Adams it is probably more like 15. And, if we are going to shift Catraeth back, it could actually be decades later.

This time the main player other than Northumbria was Dal Riata under its leader, Aedan. But he clearly had British allies too. And Aedan’s alliance seemingly included the Bernician exile, Hering, son of former king, Hussa – suggesting dynastic rivalries in Bernicia. I think that either Hering had grown up there as a fostered child, or he had been hostage there or he had simply fled there. The ASC mentions his participation in the battle but Bede omits it. We have no information on what became of him but one might suspect that he did not make it through Degsastan.

What caused the battle? Well, legend has it that Aedan sent his sons on a diplomatic mission to Northumbria. Æðelfrið had them slaughtered. But it is likely that the huge tensions between an eastward moving Dal Riata and a westward expanding Northumbria made conflict inevitable. The gradual removal of the British tribes in the way by Æðelfrið will have increased tensions as the buffer zone between the two disintegrated. For a parallel, think of the tension created in Russia by Ukraine’s shift of political focus.

The fact that we do not know the exact location of the battle interacts with our lack of knowledge about the zone between Bernicia, Dal Riata and Alt Clud. Both Dal Riata and Alt Clud were powerful kingdoms but there zones of complete influence must have come to an end somewhere in what is now the Southern Borderlands of Scotland.

Aedan came out of this battle with Dal Riata’s lands in ‘Scotland’ tributary to Northumbria. It is not clear whether he remained king until his death or not. Then he was succeeded by his son, Eochaid (‘fair-haired’), since his elder sons were already dead.

I am guessing some people are asking exactly what Dal Riata is at this stage. In short, it is a kingdom of Irish origin in Western Scotland.

Where was Dal Riata?

Satellite image of Scotland and Northern Ireland showing the approximate greatest extent of Dál Riata (shaded). The mountainous spine which separates the east and west coasts of Scotland can be seen.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=612889

People interested in the history of the Gaelic language probably will not need Dal Riata introducing. It is clearly absolutely critical for language transmission. Very probably, most others will need it introducing.

Dal Riata is said to have been founded by the legendary king Fergus Mor (Fergus the Great) in the 5th century. Historically, this is actually somewhat unlikely. The Romans called these people ‘Scotti‘.

Fergus the Great and Oengus (Angus) supposedly moved into the area around 500. But only in the middle of the century do we start to encounter things which look more like history than foundation myth.

It seems actually to have been a complex arrival process with four main kindred groupings:

  • The Cenel nGabrain – with which we are dealing with here;
  • The Cenel nOengusa – based on Islay and Jura;
  • The Cenel Loaim – Lorne;
  • The Cenel Comgaill – Bute & Eastern Argyll;
  • And, potentially a couple of other minor kindred groups.

Dal Riata found a unique way of legitimising its kings’ rule. Sources disagree as to which Dalriatan king it may have been who first granted the island of Iona to St Columba – or Colm Cille to give him his proper Irish name. But he too probably travelled to Dunadd to request it. From thence, the Christian Church had a new role – one which was going to infect Northumbria too.

Isle of Mull Cottages

The Cenel nGabrain (Cenel might look like kin but is ultimately related to the word, begin – we are talking here about roots and origins) were the main leaders during the period at which we are looking at were centred on Kintyre (Chinn Tire in Gaelic or Pentir in British, both meaning something like ‘head of land’ although it is genitive in the Gaelic) and neighbouring Knapdale. [I plan to do something on the ‘P/Q thing’ in Insular Celtic at some point despite my own lacking on this front!] Tellingly, the furthest point of Kintyre, the Mull of Kintyre (Maol Chinn Tire – now you see why it was genitive!), is a mere 12 miles from the Ulster coast.

This stunning brooch was found at Hunterston, Ayrshire during the 1830s. Made about 700 (and, therefore, rather too late for this period although I am sceptical because Dal Riata was in terminal decline?), it is a highly accomplished casting of silver, richly mounted with gold, silver and amber decoration. The brooch was probably made at a royal site such as Dunadd. It was the creation of an extremely skilled jeweller, someone familiar with Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Irish-Scottish techniques of decorative metalwork. I think it fits better with a period of strong interchange between Dal Riata and Bernicia.
Copyright – National Museum of Scotland

But Dal Riata’s cultural styles are very distinct from ‘Northern Ireland’. I think we are looking at an essentially hybrid society with the most important feature being the adoption of language.

The Senchus fer n-Alban (Copyright – Trinity College Dublin MS 1289) page 313.

Although it has undoubtedly experienced later modification as one version was copied to another, the kings of Dal Riata are recorded in the most extraordinary document, the Senchus fer n-Alban.

615 appears to have been an important year for Æðelfrið. It starts with moves to expand to both the West and to the South West.

The annexation of Rheged

Rheged was always going to be difficult territory for the Northumbrians, thanks to the upland nature of much of it. Just how difficult depends just where its capital or capitals was / were!

England’s Lake District from the side of Saddleback or Blencathra as it is known in Cumbric, Rheged’s ancient language [compare Blaen Cadair in Welsh] – and by Wainwright who spent a whole thirteen years recording walks across the area.
[Own photo]

Wherever Rheged was centred (and I personally wonder whether it might not have been further east than traditionally suggested), in around 615 Æðelfrið was finally successful in annexing it to an expanded Northumbria. [For further discussion on Rheged’s location, see the section on Urien Rheged.]

Later, under Oswiu, there may have been a more peaceful integration between the two kingdoms. But, under Æðelfrið, it was almost certainly through brute force.

Æðelfrið now controlled territory from one coast to the other. He had effectively duplicated the course of Hadrian’s Wall in the process. An historical accident; a response to natural geology?

And the logic of the next bit of the story is now difficult to discern but the modern-day Cheshire area would have been in a zone of potential conflict between Southern Rheged (which as discussed above could have been a separate polity or a group of polities trying to reclaim their territories from a lost bit of Rhege’s colonial history), emerging Mercia, Powys / Pengwern (the old remnants of the Cornovii) and, from now on… Northumbria.

The Battle of Chester / Guaith Caer Legion (also c. 615 but let us bear in mind that there are all sorts of date inconsistencies)

With the Hen Ogledd evidently in a mode of collapse, the northern and eastern parts of modern Wales became concerned about Northumbria’s greed for more and more land which was probably being parcelled out to warlords.

Soon after the annexation of Rheged discussed above, Æðelfrið was faced by ‘Solon’ or Selyf ap Cynan (‘Selyf Battle-serpent’ but also known as ‘shirker’) of Powys at a site near Chester. The name is like Solomon, hence the variants. Selyf had a significant alliance which certainly included Rhos (a cantref of Gwynedd but which seems to have had a history of semi-autonomy), possibly Gwynedd itself under King Iago and, conceivably, some factions within Anglian Mercia.

The real significance of the battle is now lost but the kings of both Powys and Rhos seem to have lost their lives there. If Iago of Gwynedd was genuinely a participant, then it is perfectly possible that Eadwine was too. Indeed, it could well be the case that this was what Chester was really all about – i.e. some kind of recriminatory attack on the North Welsh for having harboured Eadwine.

There is a lot of debate about the precise year of the battle as sources such as the ASC, the Annals of Ulster etc. all give it different dates. But it perhaps best known for Bede’s story about the massacre of the monks under Æðelfrið’s orders for praying against a Northumbrian victory.

It is certainly a confused picture regarding Eadwine’s movements. We can’t really be sure he was ever in Gwynedd. We do know that he was somewhere in Mercia. But around 616 we suddenly become very aware of his movements. At this point he not only changes his own destiny but that of his new host – although things could easily have turned out very differently.

Eadwine’s move to East Anglia

Æðelfrið had again been victorious at Chester. But his luck was about to run out.

Eadwine seems to have moved court to Rendlesham in Suffolk – a few miles away from the Sutton Hoo burial site. His alliance with Rædwald of the East Angles was about to transform both their fortunes and turn the tables on Æðelfrið’s family. It may just be the filters on the history which have passed down to us, but what was about to happen comes over as almost entirely unexpected by us.

Woodbridge tide mill – in an area very much at the heart of Rædwald’s kingdom.
You can buy a card of this image from Gill Moon Photography https://gillmoon.com/product/woodbridge-tidemill/

We all know Rædwald already. He is most probably the king for whom the Sutton Hoo ship ‘burial’ was for. But things did not immediately look so rosy for Eadwine.

Indeed, now in Suffolk, he had been within inches of being murdered. This genuinely seems to have been on Rædwald’s mind.

What might have saved him has been manipulated by chroniclers over the years. We really do not know, but the tale that has a ring of truth to it is the one regarding Rædwald’s wife.

She is unnamed in any text and we simply know nothing about her but I am still going to try to cast some light on her. I have the feel she was a shrewd mover in the great diplomatic tradition of fríÞwebbe / freoÞwebbe.

We cannot know how much to trust Bede on this one; he was definitely no fan of Rædwald’s queen. In Christian Kent, Rædwald had converted but his wife (or, possibly, second wife) appears to have been more ‘traditional’ in her religious affiliations. Indeed, Bede effectively tells us that she was not a Christian and generally a poor influence on Rædwald. That would fit with the ‘hedged bets’ approach to burial at Sutton Hoo.

But we are only getting part of the story from a biased source. As always, there is some inter-kingdom diplomacy at play here.

Was Rædwald’s first wife from Essex?

Rædwald appears to have married his second wife at some point in the 590s. If she was not Christian, then we can almost certainly rule out the Kingdom of Kent as the source of a bit of peace-weaving.

In between lay Essex – which just might have been the kingdom of origin of his former wife. It does look as though, at some point, Rædwald tried to use marriage as a diplomatic move with the East Saxons. He had a son called Sigeberht – which doesn’t look like an East Anglian name at all but would have fitted in perfectly nicely with almost any East Saxon S- based royal genealogy.

But our Sigeberht appears to have been older than Rædwald’s other two sons and he was eventually driven off the island by Rædwald. William of Malmesbury tells us what he thinks – that Rædwald’s queen had been previously married elsewhere. Can he be relied upon so many centuries later?

Would it not make more sense had he had a previous wife who was probably from the Essex royal house? Indeed, even the choice of name looks telling. There are other East Saxon kings of the period named Sigeberht: ‘the Good’, ‘the Little’. Sigeberht the Good seems to have been an ally to Oswiu of Northumbria whilst Sigeberht the Little appears to have been pagan and allied to Mercia.

As for our Sigeberht himself, nothing is known about his life prior to exile over the Channel. But he eventually returned and ruled as joint king with Ecgric. Whilst Ecgric seems to have remained of the Germanic faith, Sigeberht came to play a critical role in Christianity in Essex – and that may be telling. He eventually abdicated to Ecgric and went to live in a monastery, unwilling even to leave it during times of warfare, even when dragged out to fight against Mercia.

In Photos: Stunning Treasures from the Burial of an Anglo-Saxon Prince |  Live Science
Blue glass beaker for the Prittlewell ‘royal’ burial in Essex. The latest estimates suggests that the burial dates from circa 590. Did Rædwald’s first wife grow up amongst such objects?

But what about his second wife?

What do the names of the children tell us? They look very different: Eorpwald and Rægenhere. And Is it just possible that Rædwald’ s return to the fold of Germanic religion was triggered by his marriage to someone outside England altogether – someone potentially even Wuffingas? There is no immediately obvious connection of the names to another English kingdom.

The Battle of the Idle

South of Doncaster and Robin Hood Airport, the Roman road network used by the A1 (Great North Road) and the River Idle almost bump into one another at Bawtry, Nottinghamshire.

It seems to have been around here that Æðelfrið suddenly lost his run of luck and was ambushed by Rædwald and a no doubt small force led by his Deiran ally, Eadwine.

Until the Dutch interventions of the seventeenth century, the River Idle took a different course from here across Hatfield Chase.

The river at ‘Idle Stop’. The original course would have passed through the trees to the right.
By Bob1960evens – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10351958

Æðelfrið had seen the potential threat from East Anglia. He was, after all, a brutal strategist. And Rædwald almost went for it.

Eadwine’s ally; Æðelfrið’s nemesis?

But Eadwine had also seen the potential. He had seen how he could get his kingdom back. The question is really: what the hell was Æðelfrið doing south of Doncaster so unprotected? Did he just think that Eadwine would never be able to venture so far north from Suffolk? If he was foolish enough to think that, then he had massively underestimated the impact that the Deiran Prince might have made in Mercia.

One possibility is that Æðelfrið thought that placing a small force somewhere like Lincoln (Lindsey was then a Northumbrian tributary) might have put the East Anglian king off. Or maybe he just completely underestimated Rædwald. After all, he had not really made his name until this point – it was this moment that was to transform him.

Rædwald had to move quickly. Æðelfrið was to be allowed no time to muster and attack East Anglia – which might now have been on his mind. But it was Rædwald who made the fast moves, attacking with all his available forces.

Bede described the Idle as the border of the Mercian people – but remember, he is writing centuries later! But Eadwine, who still had his Mercian wife at this point, might have had free passage. One hint that the East Angles might have travelled by sea is given by the fact that there is no sign of a Northumbrian retreat from Idle back into Doncaster. Is that because the East Angles surprised them from the north?

Whatever, Æðelfrið’s mistake was fatal. He seems to have ended up on the east side of the Idle, trapped between it and the Trent with no means of escape. His was far from the only death. In particular, Rædwald’s son, Rægenhere, was killed as well. It is possible that some of the dead were buried at nearby Barrow Hills.

Acha’s actions and the missing link: Osric

And there is a new people we need to introduce at this point, one unfamiliar to everyone in England: Cruithne. [It is associated with place name endings: –crune, –croon.] Interestingly, etymologically, this name has something in common even with ‘Britain’. By 773 AD, the annals stopped using the term Cruithne in favour of the term Dal nAraidi, who had secured overlordship. And Cruithne is not the only potential for confusion…

There is another regarding the name Osric – because there were two of them around at the same time. And, if Adams is even vaguely right, then the material on Wikipedia accidentally confuses the two. [There is nothing worse when a source of information makes such a fundamental mistake. Don’t try to use Wiki to find out who Eanfrið’s mother was either!]

In order to get around this I am going to call them Osric 628 and Osric 634 – based on approximate year of death. Nevertheless, unless the royal houses of Deira and Bernicia should eventually turn out to have had the same roots, these two Osrics were entirely separate. My entire logic for even mentioning Osric 628 – and Adams’, one would assume – is the link with Aedan’s Dal Riata.

Osric 628 dies in a battle on the island of Ireland in … 628. He appears to have been Founding Dynast, Ida’s, great grandson via his son, Æðelric. But it looks as though his mother was one of Aedan of Dal Riata’s daughters.

The Ulster Chronicles for 628 tell of the Battle of Fid Eoin. This was a battle in which Dal Riata’s then king, Conadh Cerr died. Alongside him, several of Aedan’s grandsons died as well. It is not 100% clear if the person referred to as Oisiricc mac Albruit is definitely intended as a grandson of Aedan.

But Adams seems to side on interpreting it that way. The problem is Albruit – his father. This should map back to English as something like Alhfrið but that name is not known amongst the Bernician royal house as early as this. Bannerman suggests that it should be Æðelfrið, which would make Osric Oswald’s brother. Adams uses the name Ælfred. This is based on Nennius’ genealogy:

Ealdric gennuit Aelfret; ipse est Aedlferd Felsaur.

Ealdric begat Ælfred – That is Æðelfrið the Twister!

Whilst that is somewhat confusing, we know who Æðelfrið Twister is and the ipse links back to the spelling Ealdric. So, Æðelfrið seems to have a son called Ælfred. If he is Albruit, then Osric is his son. Furthermore, if Osric was Conadh Cerr’s grandson, Ælfred’s wife must have been Conadh’s daughter.

It is, of course, perfectly possible, that in some attempt at one point to bring peace between Dal Riata and Bernicia the two houses intermarried. He is also labelled, ‘rigdomna Saxan’ – ‘Saxon’ aetheling. Unfortunately, whilst we know about several of Conadh’s sons, information on daughters is thinner.

We do know of Maithgemm but she seems to have married Cairell of the Dal Fiatach (the area around Downpatrick).

Potentially, this changes things regarding why Acha chooses Dal Riata!

Acha on the move

So, why did Acha travel over 200 miles to claim refugee status in Dunadd in the Kilmartin Valley? Far nearer enemies would not have dared to hack her to bits and strategically might have found good reason to have accepted her.

Perhaps the truth is that the great Ulster kingdom in the west of Scotland (let’s be honest; it’s their name) had no option but to welcome Æðelfrið’s widow?

Why did she not just stay put?

Because her marriage – rather than her birth – had determined which political side she was on. There was no way back for her – although she might well have plotted her sons’ returns.

At this point, Bernicia, together with its lands and peasantry, passed to Acha’s brother, Eadwine Yffing of Deira – a man who would have had no sympathy for his sister’s fate. It fell to him to impose his will upon both territories, to keep the two halves of Northumbria together.

And, to be fair to him, nobody had exactly cared for his welfare – except, possibly, his Irish-Christian god – and, had it been up to them, he would have known that he would have been dead.

Æðelfrið’s Bernician state apparatus fails to survive him

The fragility of the state infrastructure at this stage of history is demonstrated by the fact that, with the king’s death, everything simply went into collapse.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dscn9148-3.jpg
YORK – Not at this point Deiran capital or even a functioning urban central place. But Eadwine may have had other ideas about its future: part strategic and part in open emulation of Constantine. Own photo.

Eadwine might already have been learning via observation. York was probably not a functioning urban centre at the time. Æðelfrið may have deliberately avoided correcting that and concentrated on developing Yeavering with, as Adams puts it, the mentality of a cattle baron. But Eadwine had other ideas – either simply on account of York’s strategic position or else in open emulation of Constantine. To be fair to predecessors, it had been a British territory, Ebrauc.

He headed there from Idle, fording the Trent at Littleborough, the Don at Doncaster, the Aire at Castleford and the Wharfe at Tadcaster. He was in dangerous territory. Even if he had some agreement with Mercia, it was an unstable state with regional elites and warbands at each other’s throats, in its early stages of development. But there was another threat, one which was harbouring his cousin (and Acha’s as well), Hereric: Elmet.

It is really frustrating to wonder who Eadwine’s and Acha’s lost sibling was – and how critical he might have been!

The Kingdom of Elmet / Elfed

Elfed is a Welsh version of the same name – which might be more correct? The F sounds like a V, by the way.

The exact boundaries of the kingdom of Elmet at any particular time cannot be known for certain, but this map attempts to show the regions involved.
The deep pink area is what should be regarded as the probable extent of Elmet in its final twenty years – the period between Catterick and the fall of Elmet when Eadwine of Northumbria invaded.
If the name Elmet is known at all these days, it is because it survives in a few place names and the Godwin / Hughes collaboration, The Remains of Elmet, which is focused on the west of the area around Heptonstall.

Between Doncaster and Tadcaster – where the road network turned to the north east to follow glacial moraines, Eadwine was not just on traditional Elmetian territory, he was bordering on what they considered to be their territory at that point in time, although we can really only guess at exact boundaries. It is even possible that the demarcation line followed the Roman road network.

At the point Eadwine was able to take control of the other half of the Northumbrian state because it had no credible candidate to take on the role for itself. Oswald, almost certainly Acha’s eldest son, was only around 13 at the time – too young to mount a credible challenge. It is less clear why Eanfrið (who we have assumed to be son of Bebba) mounted no challenge. In effect, Bernicia utterly submitted to Deira with local nobility forced to take oaths. One has to wonder whether his external support was lukewarm from the very start.

At least the Bernician princes would have had some claim to Deira through their mother. Eadwine made absolutely no attempt to align himself with the Bernician nobility via wedlock – a technique he evidently used at other points in his life. We really do not know the fate of Coenburh, Cearl of Mercia’s daughter when Eadwine married his Kentish Christian princess.

It is easy to forget amidst all this confidence on Eadwine’s part that he was still nominally subject to Rædwald. That might have made him more secure but it also meant that, if East Anglia should go to war with Mercia, the growing military and political force in the Midlands, Eadwine would have been expected to plough vast Northumbrian resources into the expedition. That did not happen. But what did?

Acha, the Queenly refugee

The terrain between Northumbria and Dal Riata was no doubt difficult enough. But the terrain was probably nothing compared to the politics of the region.

At the end of her husband’s reign, Bernicia controlled modern Tyneside, Northumberland, Berwickshire and East Lothian – the last of which had probably been annexed four or five years before Catraeth. As previously mentioned, territory to the west of the Pennines, formerly under the control of Rheged had very probably also been incorporated in the final few years of her husband’s reign. But we cannot know how stable an arrangement this would now be seen as.

But between the two power blocks of Northumbria and the Irish lands of Western Scotland lay a distinct gap in our knowledge. What we do know is that there was an implacable enemy not too far away, run from Dumbarton Rock: Alt Clud. Its capital was not even that physically distant from Dunadd, at least as the crow flew – but with the landscape and the times, it would only have been crows that flew it.

On Æðelfrið’s death, Gododdin and Rheged may well have considered that their tributary status to Northumbria was over. On the other hand, there were risks to that. They might have been vulnerable to imminent attack – especially from the Irish – Dal Riata may well genuinely have been threatening to them, especially in the scenario of a broken relationship with Northumbria.

But Dal Riata was where Acha ended up. Adams suggests that she might have tried Rheged first – although it doesn’t ring quite true to me. They could have been pragmatic and told her to move on. Probable what he is suggesting is that Acha made use of the Solway -Tyne Gap and basically sailed from the Solway. And that may not have been a bad choice. Another possibility is that she could have headed to Rheged for horses.

In truth, quite how she got from Bamburgh to the court of Eochaid Buide (reigning c. 608 – 629) at Dunadd in the Kilmartin Valley – an area whose past clearly goes back centuries from this period – is almost unimaginable. It was evidently much more of a place than it is today – imports from across Mainland Europe have been found in abundance here. Many of the monuments in the valley are far more ancient than the fort and there are more than 800 ancient sites within a six mile radius of Kilmartin.

In the Land of Giants by Max Adams | Waterstones

Maybe it was more of a place but not necessarily less forbidding! If she arrived by land, the plain beneath the fortress hill would have been crossable only by causeways over a plain over peat bog. Brilliantly, in the Adams’ book I have been holding back on, ‘In the Land of Giants’ (leave it until last among his Dark Age studies!) – part travelogue, part history -he describes it as… ‘forty miles west of Glasgow but it might as well be a thousand‘.

Bing Maps suggests that the shortest – and very probably far from the safest – route is 213 miles. But there does appear to have been a code about how royal widows should have been treated crossing territories. Perhaps crossing the Gododdin was rather less of a problem.

However, she got there, she and her children were now outside of Northumbria as her brother, Eadwine, took control.

619Eadwine’s annexation of Elmet
624Death of Rædwald of East Anglia
625Eadwine marries Æðelburh of Kent
630Eochaid Buide succeeded by Domnall Brecc

617 to 624: Eadwine challenged and by whom?

By 624 Eadwine seems to have secured control of his kingdom. But the early years are now forgotten and there are hints of some instability. It is not entirely clear whether such instability was endogenous or exogenous.

Dal Riata might well have attacked Bamburgh in 619 but that seems to have been a half-hearted attempt – almost as though they felt obliged to have a shot at it. Eochaid mac Aedain would still have been king at the time. He does not seem to have died for about another decade.

It was the other end of his kingdom which might have been more of a problem. We know very little about true genealogies of Elmet. But let us go with the grain. Gwallog (Gwallog ap Lleenog), who had joined the coalition with Urien of Rheged and Rydderch of Alt Clud, was now long dead. He had been succeeded by Ceretic, his son.

Æðelfrið seems just to have ignored Ceretic. Was this because he did not think Elmet was worth bothering with? That doesn’t really ring true since he had pushed for Rheged (and, surely, Elmet had the potential to ally itself with destabilising elements in Deira?) In which case, he might have had some kind of agreement with the new ‘Elfedian’ leader.

That would suddenly have become a bit awkward after Eadwine’s coup. Bede says that Hereric (father of Hilda of Whitby), an exiled member of the Northumbrian royal house, was killed with poison, while living at the court of Ceretic of Elmet. And this is seen as the cause of / excuse for the annexation and the end of a long line of Elfedian kings.

In the light of the bit of a gap in years, I think Adams is probably right in suggesting that Bede has not quite remembered things as they were here!

With Bernicia weak and Eadwine potentially subject to East Anglia, why would Hereric not have had a shot? And, Elmet would have gone along with the plan because Hereric would have been subject to Ceretic.

If Eadwine’s plan was going to survive, then he would have to deal with him!

What is easily missed now is the potential strategic importance of Elmet for the East – West route across the southern edge of Northumbrian territories. In an earlier period, the Solway-Tyne axis must have been important for Northumbria but with Elmet inside, all that potentially changed. In between , there is only the Pennine massif with difficult crossings such as High Cup Nick between Dufton and Teesdale.

Northumbria – and its northern part especially – had always faced a problem in terms of expansion westwards thanks to the Pennine massif. With Elmet under its control, the Solway-Tyne axis (and the criticality of former-Rheged) was potentially replaced. It also gave the range of trans-Pennine options much more of a Deiran leaning.

Elmet potentially opened up the route to the Irish Sea for Northumbria. For Eadwine it created opportunities as wide-ranging as the control of Irish Sea islands such as Anglesey and Man – the ‘Mevanian Isles’ (from Late Latin, after Orosius). Anglesey had formerly been the seat of the royal court of Gwynedd. Its loss can hardly have been taken lightly. Unfortunately, we know very little about the Isle of Man in the immediate run-up to this period.

Eadwine’s end

It is a bit of an irony that the walk between the place where Eadwine (is traditionally seen as having) won his kingdom to the place where he lost it can be completed in a long morning.

The latter was known as Meicen in British (or Meigen) and Hæþfelð in early English – now Hatfield adjacent to Doncaster North services. It is the place where Eadwine’s army was destroyed by the combined forces of Mercia and Gwynedd.

Sadly, we know almost nothing about the battle itself. Adams speculates that, if Cadwallon’s forces included a complement of mounted skirmishers (which may have been typical in North Welsh strategies), then they could have cut off any retreat line away from the Mercians for Eadwine. What is clear is that both Eadwine and his son, Eadfrið, were both killed.

Eadwine was a one-off. Nobody in his direct genetic line would ever rule the area to the north of the Humber again. In contrast to what Bede would have us believe, he had probably installed a puppet, even a cousin, in Bernicia at some point in the late 620s. It was a sign that this was absolutely not a unified kingdom; at any point underlying tensions might resurface. It was actually not the image of a kingdom that Eadwine himself wanted to project!

And the situation upon his death seems to have been little better than after his Bernician predecessor’s passing. His political (and religious) vision barely survived a few months.) Once again, everything seemed to go with the king. Both kingdoms went back to homegrown kings and, at least on the surface, back to formalised ‘English religion’. God knows what was really happening at the local level on that front, especially in isolated rural areas with a strong British influence!

Doncaster North Services
We have almost lost this great battle between the allied forces forces of Gwynedd and at least some sort of Mercian faction. But at one time you might have been able to watch the action from Doncaster N services, near Fishlake and the junction with the M180. Now there is a quiet truce between Costa and Burger King.

We might know next to nothing about the battle itself, but do we know anything about the circumstances which led up to it?

Again, the road to what was occur at ‘Hatfield Chase’ – as we now know it – is somewhat obscure. Somewhere mixed up in this might be the ‘fostered relationship’ between Cadwallon and Eadwine. Adams considers all this logical – but when it comes to personal feelings, not all that much is that logical!

What we do know is that Cadwallon – who may indeed have grown up with Eadwine at Gwynedd’s court – rebelled against him.

So, what about this relationship with Mercia, which seems to come out of nowhere?

And what about Cadwallon himself? Discussion about him usually gets muted. And unfairly so. Whatever one makes of Bede’s characterisation of the man, he changed the course of Northern history.

Cadwallon – ‘Cadwallon ap Cadfan ap Iago ap Beli of Gwynedd’ or not?

If the traditional interpretation is correct, the Cadwallon with which we are dealing here is the son of Cadfan of Gwynedd.
Image: Llangadwaladr church by Richard Keatinge.
The inscription reads “Catamanus rex sapientis(s)imus opinatis(s)imus omnium regum” (English: King Cadfan, most wise and renowned of all kings – apologies for the Latin grammatical corrections!). This may well have been the final monument to Cadwallon’s father, the son of Beli of Gwynedd.

Cadwallon’s name comes from the Brythonic, Katuwellaunos. That is effectively the same name as the Catuvellauni tribe in SE Britain and means something akin to ‘Leader in battle‘. [It is just a personal theory but I do not think the name Catlow is so far away etymologically.] During these times, it makes sense that this is going to be a relatively popular name amongst warlords.

The assumption on who Cadwallon actually was also largely goes unchallenged. Whilst there is some sense in the status-quo, the real picture is not especially clear-cut.

There was certainly a Cadwallon ap Cadfan, the grandson of Iago ap Beli of Gwynedd. If there is any truth to the ‘story’ that Eadwine spent some of his childhood at the court of Gwynedd – and it might all just be an invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth (but it seems an unnecessarily far-fetched story, doesn’t it?) – then there might be some reason for deep-seated rivalries between Gwynedd and Northumbria at this point. There is a further logic, of course. Iago does seem to have died at much the same point as the Battle of Chester. If he was slaughtered there, Gwynedd had a chip on its shoulder with regard to the Anglians of North East England.

I cannot help but consider that the chip might have been more likely to have been more territorial. Eadwine had overstepped all boundaries. Was it the taking of Ynys Mon which was the step too far?

Satellite image of Anglesey
Copyright – Getty images / BBC.
Anglesey – former heartland of Gwynedd, ‘Mother of Wales’. I don’t get the feeling that anyone locally was going to miss Eadwine.

Whether this is the correct Cadwallon or not, it would still be factual to say that Cadwallon was the last Briton to hold substantial territories in Eastern Britain – at least until the Tudor period!

But Woolf considered that we have got the wrong end of the stick here and that Cadwallon, being a common enough Celtic name, was probably a king of some part of Northern Britain. It is harder to clarify of which particular kingdom he might have been king! Frankly, we must be lacking so much knowledge about so many of them – even those that are known!

I am not going to skip over the critical issues. For me, there is a slight problem with the ‘alternative Cadwallon’ hypothesis. If he was from neither Rheged nor Elmet, just which kingdom suddenly acquired such levels of military force? Or who helped them to get here?

Northumbria ‘Year Zero

There are some years in history which have to be rewritten by historians at the service of a particular ideology. Just occasionally, the years themselves rewrite everything. The year following Eadwine’s death was exactly so – and so despicable to everyone else that they literally had to delete it from the records – even the dating system!

This is a year the chroniclers did not even want to record.

What happened during this obliterated period of history? If we take the standard narrative, then everything is down either to Cadwallon, who comes over as an early emulator of Hitler, or the ‘homegrown’ kings of the North East – reversionists to Woden, Tiw/Tyr, Thor, Freyja and all the rest. Bede was always going to be down on them!

But, from all this religious politics, can we still chart a course of what happened historically? Perhaps we still can…

Cadwallon may or may not have set up an overwintering camp at Aldborough, the former civitas capital of the Brigantes from about 160, known to Rome as ‘Isurium’, a major road intersection, some seven miles northeast of Knaresborough. Easily missed by those speeding along the A1(M) between Wetherby and Leeming Bar, it is both a strategic and historic site. Cadwallon might simply have seen it as a readily defensible position.

However, he needed food and resources. We do know that the lost villa regia of Campodonum, somewhere near Dewsbury, was burned around this point. That might make some sense. If Cadwallon targetted these controlled collection points, half the pillaging work had already been done for him.

Meanwhile, well to the north, Eanfrið had asked permission to leave the court of the Pictish king, Bridei (Bridei II or ‘Bruide’, son of Foith or son of Uuid). Eanfrið may have been married to Bridei’s daughter and their son, Talorcan, would later be king there.

The Siege of Aldborough, its failure & Cadwallon’s onward move on Bernicia

Remember Osric 634? It is time to introduce him.

Being careful not to confuse Osric 634 with the (by then) deceased Osric 628, Osric was son of Ælfric, making him Eadwine’s cousin – and, yes, Acha’s too. That made him the grandson of Yffi. He was also the father of Oswine who was to be (Sub) King of Deira between 642 and 651.

We only have Bede’s word to go on that Osric had been a Christian but had reverted to paganism upon Eadwine’s death. There is actually a bit of disagreement about whose son he might have been. Adams says Ælfric’s, so we will go with that for the time being.

But late in the spring of 633, Osric seems to have moved against Cadwallon, maybe besieging him at Aldborough. It is possible that it was somewhere else.

Given the old saint’s day, it might have been 8th May when the surprising event took place. Rather than sit out the siege, Cadwallon’s forces broke out in what might have been a classic British dawn ambush. Osric was completely taken by surprise, he and his army slaughtered on the spot.

With Osric out of the way, Cadwallon set his sites on the northern half of the kingdom. For his second winter in the North he had to find a defensive site. Adams reckons that it was Corbridge (Corstopium), just east of Hexham, a critical crossing point of the Tyne. That might make lots of sense, given what was to happen.

We don’t know quite where Eanfrið was at this time – Bamburgh or Yeavering. We do know that there was looting and that Eanfrið chose to sue for peace with Cadwallon.

It is extraordinary that he felt so weak at this point that he took this course of action. Was his decision driven by his father-in-law’s lukewarm support? Adams mentions a tradition that only a son born when his father was king might be rightful king himself. I am not very convinced personally.

There is also Kirby’s contention that Eanfrið and Cadwallon were initially working in a framework of peaceful co-operation which then fell apart. Could such co-operation even have been aimed against Osric?

Whatever, Eanfrið travelled south from the Wall. He would have been loaded with treasures – these were going to be part of the deal. But that deal was never to take place. Cadwallon had other ideas. Perhaps he planned now to return home to North Wales. If that is the case, then clearly, he had something to which to return there. But he considered he might as well leave with Eanfrið’s treasures.

We are told that the king had twelve fellow travellers – although that in itself sounds a bit Biblical – or even ‘annual’ – as a number and could mean anything. As they approached Cadwallon’s camp, they were set upon and slaughtered.

Cadwallon loaded himself up no doubt with gold, cloisonne, intricate metalworking of the best Northumbrian and Pictish traditions. Bede may have exaggerated the slaughter imposed on the North by this King of Gwynedd, but there is no doubt, Northumbria was literally in pieces, without order and utterly humiliated.

Again, anyone might have tried their hand at this point. But it is time for Acha’s surviving son to enter stage north… Whiteblade Oswald (Lamnguin as he was known in Irish).

632Oswiu weds Rhieinmelth of Rheged
634Oswald returns to Bernicia;
Battle of Heavenfield
642Oswald killed at Maserfelð;
Oswiu becomes king – at least in Bernicia
651Oswiu has Oswine of Deira killed at Gilling (West?)
655Battle of the Winwæd – Penda of Mercia killed
670Oswiu’s death through natural causes
679Battle of the Trent


The idea that Oswald might not have spoken English is frankly bizarre. He would have been about 12 or 13 when his father died and he went with his Deiran (i.e. Northumbrian Anglian-speaking) mother to Dal Riata. Admittedly, he might have spoken it in a bit of a distinctive manner – but that was likely to have been the case anyway! What we can probably say with some confidence is that he also spoke Irish and was carrying huge Irish cultural influences and some very distinctive cultural elements which were specific to Dal Riata.

Furthermore, Oswald was bound by oath to Domnall Brecc, the king who presided over the serious decline of Dal Riata and who (we ‘know’ from Y Gododdin) was eventually killed by Strathclyde (as Alt Clud was to became known in time, perhaps following the shift to Govan after the Vikings captured Dumbarton Rock in 870; theoretically, it probably should not be used before then although you see it everywhere!) at the Battle of Strath Caruin (Strathcarron).

Brecc was Eocaide Buide’s son, Colm Cille’s choice to replace Aedan to whom Acha had fled in 617. Since Oswald grew up at the Dalriatan court, he and Brecc might well have fought alongside one another in Ireland. But we have no evidence of that. It does seem likely unless he was already playing his strategic cards very carefully.

Oswald would have had to have had (isn’t that the strangest English construction of all time?) the backing of Brecc to return to Northumbria. If Acha was still around, he might well have sought her counsel as well. And he would have been wise to do so as she knew who was key in both halves of the kingdom. She might have had a better idea than anyone around him how Deira might react to the then current situation – or at least she might have considered that she did.

Meanwhile, in theory, Cadwallon ought to have had no end of friends in the British North. Welsh literature celebrates him as a hero in the face of Eadwine. But the idea that all the British would support one another in the fight against Anglians is still a forced one. And Cadwallon might well have been seen by other British groupings as having done more harm than good, destabilised borders and created an openly-antagonistic environment.

The road to Heavenfield – or, more accurately, Hexham / ‘Deniseburn

Heavenfield – explorechurches.org. But we are probably looking at just slightly the wrong location for the Battle of Deniseburn or Devil’s Water – probably connected to the Celtic root from ‘black’.

Oswald probably arrived in Bernicia in the early months of 634. It is possible that he came via Rheged. His brother Oswiu clearly had previous brokerage with Rheged. Indeed, after have fathered a son with the Irish Fina during exile, he had married Rhieinmelth, daughter of Rwyth – the grandson of Urien. The marriage was undertaken sometime around 632 but was almost certainly arranged years earlier.

A careful reading of Adams, combined with some investigation of sources, will reveal that, whilst Adams considers Rwyth to have been a likely king, that is far from certain. Rwyth seems to have been descended from Urien, but Urien’s direct successor was Owain and it is not clear whether this line continued to run Rheged rather than Rhun’s. If Rhun and Rwyth were never kings, then perhaps their branch was happy enough allying itself with an external force – perhaps, if necessary, against the dominant line in the family?

There is another consideration here. Rhun might have been a British cleric. Both the Historia Brittonum and the Welsh Annals (perhaps if Hughes is to be believed, both based on a hypothesised Chronicle of Northern Britain) says that Oswald was not baptised by Paulinus but by Rhun. This might be something dreamed up as a response to the Whitby Synod of 664. Of course, one might ask why he was not baptised in Dal Riata? But it might suggest that Rhun was somewhat removed and focused on more ethereal matters.

The relationship with Rheged at this point is a difficult one. For the outlawed Bernician princes, it had lost its independence but was still held in some regard. It is harder to tell how Rheged conceived of Oswald. But a lot depends on exactly how Cadwallon was behaving once the propaganda layer of Bede is stripped away. Oswald may have looked as though he offered some stability. However such considerations may have been resolved, it is conceivable that they supplied Oswald with horses.

From Rheged he would have travelled along Stanegate (perhaps built some two centuries before Hadrian’s Wall although some estimate much less of a gap) eastwards, light and fast, unhampered by baggage.

Roman milestone on Stanegate at Vindolanda.
By Phil Champion, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12922866

Cadwallon’s tactics seem to have failed him at this point. Unfortunately, once again, we know precious little about the battle itself. Whatever Bede might have thought of him, Cadwallon was nominally Christian. So, there is something ironic about Oswald having erected a cross to bring him victory. Although Penda was an unformed Germanic believer, even Bede had to admit that he treated Christians in his kingdom well enough and even allowed missionaries.

And whilst the cross seems unambiguously Christian at first sight, Dame Rosemary Cramp has questioned this. It may have looked like a Christian symbol to Oswald’s Irish followers but more of a totemic pole to his Germanic followers.

634 does seem to mark a change of focus in Mercia with its attentions shifting eastwards to the East Angles. Remember Sigeberht and Ecgric? This is the point where they are wiped out in a shift of aggression from Mercia’s Penda.

Oswald’s relations with Mercia

Bede doesn’t quite remember to tell us the name of Oswald’s wife. So, we have to rely on far later information to establish that she is Cyniburh, the daughter of Cynegils (slightly curiously rendered as Cynegisl by Adams but who am I to doubt that?) of the Gewisse. Since these two kingdoms never bordered on one another in the period, what is the reason for such an alliance?

The Gewisse were not even remotely a dominant force in the period. It would seem from Lindsey that Mercia did not have the political or military clout to get in Oswald’s way. Nevertheless, Oswald may have felt a continued threat from the South. Marriage into the Gewisse might have sent a message about the lengths he might be prepared to go sidestep Mercia. Cyniburh bore Oswald a son, Œþelwald.

As for Mercia, it is not clear what being king there meant at this point.

A continued relationship with Dal Riata?

Nominally, Oswald was still answerable to Dal Riata. But Domnall Brecc, who was by then king there, was evidently no military genius.

Oswald’s strategy might well have been to leave northern responsibilities to his younger brother, Oswiu. We do not get a real feel for him during the period.

Brecc’s campaigns proved disastrous. In 637 at Magh Rath (sometimes known as the battle of Moira), Dal Riata effectively gave up all rights over territory in Ulster. Ironically, Domnall II High King of Ireland’s power rested upon the fact that Breecc’s Ulaid ally, Congal Caech, had killed the previous High King.

The following year Brecc suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Alt Clud.

In the end, the inevitable happened: Brecc was slain. It looks as though this was by Eugein, the king of Alt Clud, at Stratchcarron. And with Brecc’s death, the curtains closed on Dal Riata’s hegemony in the North.

Maserfelð or Maes Cogwy (642)

Both names may have the broad implication of ‘border field’ although Maser- is awkward and might be misunderstood.

But 642 was to release Oswald, not from allegiance to Dal Riata, but from life itself. Shropshire was to be his place of death. Did he really leave his name to Oswestry – Oswald’s Tree?

If we say that Maserfelð was Oswestry, then neither Oswald nor Penda should really have been there! Adams suggests that access to the brine springs of Cheshire (Northwich / Condate, Middlewich / Salinae and Nantwich) may have become a point of contention. Were Powys and Mercia attempting to gain some kind of co-ordinated duopoly?

Unfortunately, in completely understanding the battle the role of Penda’s brother, Eowa, is critical – and we don’t understand it.

It is possible that Penda and Cynddylan of Powys were allies against Oswald and Eowa. It has been suggested that Oswald had somehow become obligated to Eowa but we don’t know how. It could easily have been the other way around. Then again, it is equally possible that Eowa’s role was simply to lure Oswald in so that he could be slaughtered by his brother, Penda.

That is not quite how it worked out. Oswald was slaughtered and so was Eowa, massively increasing Penda’s Midlands status. Oswald’s curious ‘Christian’ status seems to have brought him a new combination of Christian saintly relics and a Teutonic head (and limb) cult.

One gets the feel right from the start that Oswald’s younger brother, Oswiu, was less confident in his own abilities and – most especially – his influence in Deira. Or have we simply been left this impression by later spin-doctors? The fact that someone charts a more careful course does not make them weaker!

Oswiu’s reign and his third wife: Cousin Eanflæd

We do have some idea of what happened to Oswiu’s Rheged queen. [Interestingly, I cannot find a adjectival form of Rheged!] With the connivance of Bishop Aidan (who is credited with the founding of Lindisfarne Priory), she was retired into the hands of Lindisfarne’s community – although she could not have stayed on the island itself. The community certainly had inland territorial possessions along the Tweed and one of these may have been where she ended up. Both Rhieinmelth’s children seem to have survived and were maintained at Oswiu’s court until later family disputes.

Meanwhile, Kent had a new king, Eorconberht, who ordered the destruction of the shrines of the traditional deities – seemingly the first king to do that. The former king of Northumbria, Eadwine’s daughter, Eanflæd, had sanctuary at his court. Remember that she was of Kentish origin herself, being daughter of Æðelburg, who in turn was the daughter of the Kentish king, Æðelberht. She had to be fetched and brought ‘up North’.

Marrying his cousin was a shrewd move on Oswiu’s part because it secured legitimacy to rule over both constituent parts of Northumbria. Despite this, his grip on Deira seems to have remained weak. With that in mind, according to Adams, he installed Osric’s son, Oswine as sub-king over Deira. Other will say that Oswine simply seized Deira and Oswiu was powerless to stop him.

Eanflæd was Acha’s niece when she became her daughter-in-law, assuming that Acha was still alive at this point. Two of Eanflæd’s children would be married off to Mercian kings – Peada and Æðelræd (of whom, please see my Mercian Timeline). Another, Ecgfrið, whilst aged 10, would have been taken as hostage into the care of Cynewise, after Penda’s invasion of Northumbria in 655. He was later to become king.

An explosion of monastic endowments in Northumbria associated with Eanflæd followed.

Oswiu and Oswine – Second cousins via Yffi, father of Ælle & Ælfric

Mercia under Penda would have been acutely aware of the potential for frictions in Northumbria under this arrangement and, evidently, undertook a series of raids deep into Deiran territory and into Bernicia as well – even attempting a siege of Bamburgh. Oswiu’s response seem to have a been a double intermarriage of his offspring with Penda’s children.

If that quietened Mercia, it did little to help the situation with Deira. After seven years of tensions of some sort Oswiu and the Deiran sub-king went into open warfare – or almost. Oswine decided that he wasn’t quite cut out for it all after all and went to stay with a local friend called Hunwold at Gilling – usually treated as Gilling West near Scotch Corner (although there is another option which has sometimes been put forward in the form of Gilling East on the North York Moors). Bede is fairly clear in his description of the location relative to Catterick so I think we can be fairly definite. However, he mentions a hill with a toponym which seems subsequently to have disappeared. Hunwold betrayed Oswine to Oswiu. If Eanflæd had attempted to broker a peace deal, she had failed and Oswiu had Oswine murdered. The previous concept of weregild now entered Christian benefaction as the price for redemption appears to have been monastic endowments.


Yes, I know – weird name! I have no doubt that we are missing all sorts of elements from the next events. Something seems very wrong to me.

Penda is supposed to have besieged Oswiu at a place known as Urbs Iudeu. This has traditionally been considered as Stirling. Did Penda have local allies? How on Earth did he get there? Alternatively, Iudeu could be Jedburgh in Roxburghshire. But the same questions need to be asked. If either of these is the true location, Oswiu’s control of Bernicia must simply have crumbled.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is one or the other. Adams simply goes along with the traditional Sterling argument.

Oswiu offers a mass of treasures simply for peace. Bede and the Historia Brittonum now heavily disagree with one another about what happens to the treasure – suggesting to me that this is little understood.

As Penda moves back South, the traditional story is that his allies defect. That is, of course, far from necessarily the case. In place of mass desertions, his allies could simply take natural routes home. Had Penda been so successful at Stirling / Jedburgh, why would anyone defect?

By the time he arrived at the River ‘Win-weed’, perhaps the Went, he was ambushed by Oswiu and his forces. How did they beat him back there to the point when he was about to cross back into his own kingdom? None of this makes any sense.


This was the battle which was to bring an end to Penda.

Detail of stained glass window in Worcester cathedral depicting the death of Mercian king, Penda. By Violetriga – en: Image:Penda_of_Mercia.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=303444.
There is no way that Penda would have recognised a crown as a symbol of authority, by the way – just to clear that up!

Bede tends to see the battle in terms of Germanic paganism versus Christianity – but this is as much a later, biased, interpretation as anything else. He might have told us a few more details about the battle instead – as it is, we know practically nothing… again!

We know that Cadafael survived Winwæd. If we can take the story at face value and the location as the River Went near Pontefract (Latin for broken bridge****), the Roman road network implied that on a southward journey he would already have departed from Penda and his army at the major junction a couple of miles from Barwick-in-Elmet. Today, this is essentially the crossing point of the A1(M) and the A64 going from York to Leeds.

The so-called Bramham Crossroads. Rome’s road to the North crosses the A64 linking Eboracum (York) with Cheshire. Gwynedd’s king with travelling the other carriageway here when he left the road and left Penda to his fate? © Copyright Andrew Abbott and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence – straightened your picture, by the way!

Œþelwald (a really Anglian spelling!) supposedly waited to see who would win. For this he was either retired to Kirkdale (the traditional, if unlikely, story) or was put to death by Oswiu. Adams certainly goes for the latter. There is some logic to this. After all, Œþelwald was half-Mercian by birth; he could have stomached a result on either side. But I am not sure. With responsibility for Deira, by the time we get as far south as Pontefract, has he not gone as well? Just through natural choice of route? What would he be waiting for? A trip along the outskirts of Elmet before crossing into the Mercian heartlands?

By the late 650s, Oswiu had expanded Northumbrian control to run from the northern reaches of former Pictish lands (in the last few years of Oswald’s reign he seems to have been successfully campaigning in Manaw – BTW note how similar that name is to the Isle of Man in Welsh) to the Mercian lands. Peada was allowed to run the southern areas of Mercia. It did him no long-term favours, his wife – Oswiu’s daughter via Rhieinmelth of Rheged, Alhflæd – killed him shortly after. Or so the story has it; we can hardly be sure as she immediately disappears from history too.

Osþryð, Æðelræd of Mercia’s queen – but also daughter of Oswiu and Eanflæd – seems to have been slaughtered by the ‘Southumbrians’. There is little further explanation but a suggestion that she became involved in a plot to separate the Hwicce lands (in Worcestershire and the Cotswolds) from Mercia.

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom

Whitehead speculates on some distant link between the Hwicce and Northumbria – but she also manages to confuse Osþryð’s marriage to Æðelræd as one to his brother Wulfhere. It is just a mistake. Wulfhere’s only known wife was Eormenhild, the daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent and Saint Seaxburh of Ely (and, thereby, grand-daughter of Anna of East Anglia).

An awkward break in the Venedotian royal line

Cadafael’s reign (broadly 634 – 655) seems to have coincided with the period where Gwynedd was not just an ally of Mercia but subject to it. But Cadafael ap Cynfeddw stands out in other ways too. For a start he was not Cadwallon’s son. Indeed he is described as one of three kings of Gwynedd, ‘the sons of strangers’. What had happened here? Had Gwynedd just tired of Cadwallon’s behaviour? Had Cadwallon left to head up North as a result of internal tensions in Gwynedd? If there were internal tensions, I think Cadafael is mixed up in them … and I am sure Mercia is watching carefully. It’s relationship with Gwynedd was far too critical to allow it to be innocent bystander!

But which ‘strangers’? Penda would surely not have allowed Gwynedd to have been overrun by anyone else? There are sides over which he might have had little influence but these are directions with which North Wales was familiar. It would not have called these people strangers.

I have got my own theory here: Cadafael was part Venedotian and part Mercian. Was he the result of some diplomatic intermarriage with the ‘sons of Pybba’ factions in Mercia?

Oswiu’s death and Ecgfrið’s succession

Oswiu stands out as not having been killed on a battlefield. He died in his bed and was succeeded by Ecgfrið.

Ecgfrið was probably about 25. He installed his younger brother, Ælfwine, probably aged just 10, as puppet in Deira. Adams suspects that the real power in Deira may have been Eanflæd, Ecgfrið’s mother. Ecgfrið himself may already have been sub-king of Deira after Whitby. So, he might already have had a close friendship with Bishop Wilfred, who was to embark on a grand project in Ripon complete with the crypt which basically survives largely intact today. We also know of another sub-king called Beornhæð who may have been based at Dunbar. Others have argued that this is the Anglian name for a Pictish king controlling the southern areas of the Pictish North.

Anglo-Saxon Crypt | Ripon Cathedral
The surviving crypt at Ripon Cathedral. Clicking here will take you to Ripon. https://www.riponcathedral.org.uk/

At about the age of 16, Ecgfrið had wed the daughter of King Anna of the East Angles (and someone called Sæwara – which is quite a distinctive name?), Æðelðryð also known as Æðeldreda and ‘Saint Audrey’ – and where we get the word, ‘tawdry’ strangely enough! At that time she must have been at least 26 and previously married to Trondberht of the South Gyrwe (one of the Fenland pagi). She had taken a vow of chastity and insisted on this during her second marriage too. Wilfred’s effort to intervene also proved useless and the marriage was annulled in about 672. She retired to Oswald’s sister’s abbey at Coldingham before founding her own monastery at Ely. Æðelðryð seems to have been Seaxburh’s (wife of Anna of the East Angles) sister.

Ecgfrið was free to marry again and we have a name which sounds suspiciously Kentish or Frankish, Iurminburh. It is possible that her sister was married to Centwine of Wessex. Everything else about her background is unknown to us but she and Wilfred became sworn enemies. Is it possible that she was closely related to Wulfhere of Mercia’s Kentish wife, Eormenhild?

In the early part of the 670s the new Mercian king, Wulfhere, who had recently come out of hiding, evidently launched a counter-raid on Ecgfrið but was unsuccessful. It seems to have been the second attempted invasion of Northumbria during Ecgfrið’s rule, the first being by the Picts. It does seem as though Wulfhere – whilst claiming to control all of Mercian territory – in his initial years kept himself out of Northumbria’s way, restricting most of his activities to the southern part of his kingdom.

Wulfhere did not survive long and it seems that Ecgfrið managed to wrestle Lindsey from Mercia. In celebration, Ecgfrið chose to grant lands to Cuthbert (who had grown up around Melrose) but not Wilfred – Bernicia had gained favour over Deira.

The story of the ‘Battle of the Trent’ remains untold and Nechtanesmere is almost as silent (679 to 685)

In Mercia Wulfhere was succeeded by Æþelræd, Ecgfrið’s brother-in-law and Wulfhere’s own brother. Ælfwine was to be killed by him at the Battle of the Trent.

Ælfwine’s death clearly became a bone of contention. Unfortunately, we don’t have much to go on – just Bede in fact. According to him, this almost dragged the two kingdoms into a further conflict. Is Bede overdoing things when he suggests that only the intervention of Ðeodor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, prevented another fight? Mercia seems to have agreed to pay a weregild compensation. The pressure for this might not have come entirely from north of the Humber. Ælfwine was, after all, brother to the Mercian king’s wife.

Ecgfrið himself was not to die at the Battle of the Trent but he seems to have come to an agreement with the Mercian king not to seek vengeance and with Lindsey switching back to Mercian control, the two kingdoms stabilised their border along the Humber Estuary. Bede is clear that a period of stability between Mercia and Northumbria did indeed follow Trent.

Family intermarriage far from always got in the way of outright regicide.

Ecgfrið was killed in around 685 by his cousin, the Pictish king, Bruide, at Nechtanesmere / Dun Nechtain / Llyn Garan. Bruide’s mother was probably a daughter of Eadwine.

Once thought to depict Nechtanesmere, this Aberlemno stone is almost certainly ninth century in origin but amazing anyway! By Otter – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7786478

Pictish victory here marked independence from Northumbria, which never regained such dominance in the North. No source explicitly state Ecgfrið’s reason for attacking Fortriu in 685 but the consensus is that it was to reassert Northumbria’s hegemony over the Picts. It resulted in exactly the opposite.

Ecgfrið was succeeded by his half-brother, Aldfrið, son of Oswiu and Fina and Acha’s grandson.

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