Sunday, December 4, 2011

A divided Land Part 2 - Northumbria AD 598 to 616

The Kingdom of Northumbria is born (continued)
by Richard Denning

In my previous article I covered the very early days of the fledgling Kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira that would one day become Northumbria. We saw how they survived the threats from Rheged, Strathclyde and Manau Gododdin and at the great battle of Catreath in A.D. 597 defeated them. This though is not the end of the story for enemies remained.

This time are the darkest years of the darkages. Documentation is scanty and interpretation difficult. What follows is an attempt at taking the story forward but the reader should be aware that we are still looking at a period where it is very hard to be certain of anything.

The Aftermath of Catreath

The battle of Catreath in 597 saw the Northumbrians crush the northern British. (an alliance of Deira and Bernicia being forged for the battle seems most likely BUT some historians suggest Deira might have backed the British but there is little or no evidence for this). It seems though that Bernicia was the stronger  and certainly came out of this period the more dominant partner. This left a strong Bernicia and a weaker Deira surrounded by defeated British lands.

Aelle the old king of Deira died around 599 and it appears that a son, or possibly brother, Aethelric becomes king. Aethelric is remembered by later commentators as being weak and ineffective. He may well have agreed to help Bernicia in its campaigns and a princess of the Deiran royal line, Asha marries Aethelfrith in the early 7th century. (See later)

Bernicia expands in the north.

Aethelfrith the ambitious king of Bernicia soon began expanding into to former lands of Strathclydge, Rheged and the Goddodin. These are brought to heel quickly.Further away, however, there were two races that posed a threat to the expanding Angles.North of the Firth of Forth were the lands of the Picts whom even the Romans never defeated. Along the west coast of what we today call Scotland, the Irish Scots of Dal-Riata had colonised  and settled. Their king, Aedann Mac Gabrhrain was strong and had been expanding himself and represented a serious threat to Aethelfrith. It seems that a diplomatic mission is sent from Dal Riata to Bernicia around AD 600. This mission would be a disaster and lead to war.

Aethelfrith kills two Irish Princes

We do not know the exact circumstances of what happened. However we know that Mac Gabhrain sent two of his sons, Domanghast and Bran to meet Aethelfrith. Accompanying them was another nobleman called Herring. Herring was in fact a former prince of Bernicia and was exiled around the time Aethelfrith came to the throne. So it is likely that Herring had once attempted a coup, failed and was forced to flee Bernicia. Did Aethelfrith see the presence of Herring in the Irish party as a threat, evidence of an alliance?

Battle Of Degsastan AD 603

Whatever he thought it seems that at least one of Aedann Mac Gabhrain's sons was killed, possibly both. Herring fled to Aedann with the news. This incident galvanised not only the Scots of Dal Riata BUT allowed Aedann to persuade Strathclyde and maybe the Picts to rally to his flag. They came together at a place recorded by the historian Bede as "Degsastan". The location of this battelfield is not known with certainty BUT it has been probably identified with Dawstone in Liddsdale in the Scottish Borders.

According to Bede's account in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Book I, chapter 34), Æthelfrith had won many victories against the Britons and was expanding his power and territory, and this concerned Áedán, who led "an immense and mighty army" against Æthelfrith. Although Æthelfrith had the smaller army, Bede reports that almost all of Áedán's army was slain, and Áedán himself fled. After this defeat, according to Bede, the Irish kings in Britain would not make war against the English again, right up to Bede's own time (130 years later).

Aethelfrith turns south AD 604

Degsastan now removed the threat on Bernicia’s north and west and so it seems that at this time Aethelfrith turned his eyes south to Deira (the other half of what will become Northumbria). It seems that the weak and possibly elderly king Aethelric was king in Deira at this time. Either by invasion or some sort of power play Aethelfrith takes over Deira around 604. Aethelric is killed (or dies).

Princes in Exile

The remaining Deiran royal housed fled into exile. This included Aelle younger son, Edwin and Aethelric’s son Hereric.  Edwin goes into extended exile in Mercia (where he marries a princess) and also in the Welsh land of Gwynedd.

Aethelfrith secured his position by marrying Asha, sister to Prince Edwin and in so doing uniting the two houses. The future king Oswald is born of this union. Some versions suggest that he may have already been married to Asha and took advantage of a weak king to move in. Aethelfrith may have already been married at this time to a Bebba a Pict princess. It is unclear if she was already dead by the time he married Asha. Another possibility is that Asha is his first wife and Bebba his second. We really don’t know.

Battle of Chester AD 614

The Battle of Chester AD 614.
Over the next decade Aethelfrith was fairly quiet – and was probably consolidating the gains in land his earlier reign had brought. However, in about 614, he is again on the move and leads an army west to Chester. It appears that Edwin had not been idle and had perhaps managed to unite the Welsh kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys, possibly with Mercia, in an alliance that now threatened Aethelfrith. The results was a battle at Chester. The only feature we know is that supposedly a large number of monks from a nearby monastery came to pray for British victory over the Northumbrian army and were slaughtered by Aethelfrith. The result of this battle was that Edwin and Hereic was again on the road and trying to find allies. Hereric is soon afterwards poisoned in Elmet, a British land the princes take shelter in, probably under the orders of Elmet’s king who is trying to appease Aethelfrith..

Aethelfrith's luck runs out AD 616

In around 616 Edwin ends up in East Anglia in the court of the then overlord of the Saxon’s, Redwald. Aethelfrith sent offers to pay Redwald if he would kill Edwin. Instead Redwald agrees to send an army with Edwin to attempt to defeat Aethelfrith. At the battle of the River Idle, in 616, Edwin is finally victorious and Aethelfrith’s luck runs out and he is slain.

King Redwald's Helmet

The Tables are turned

Edwin becomes king in Northumbria and Aethelfrith's son Oswald flees to the north with his brothers and kin. The tables are turned and Aethelfrith’s line is now in exile – for the next 16 years.
Edwin goes on to build on the foundation that Aethelfrith laid. I will cover what happens next in another article.

Child of Loki

The time period of this article is the same as my novel Child of Loki, the sequel to The Amber Treasure and a future book, Princes in Exile. Child of Loki should be published in early 2012.

A divided land ... a divided family.

The Battle of Catraeth has been won and Cerdic's homeland is safe ... but for how long?
The Northern British were crushed but yet more enemies have risen to replace them.
Soon Cerdic and his friends must go to war again - against the Scots and Picts north of Hadrian's wall. He goes to help his country’s allies - the Bernicians - under their great warlord, Aethelfrith.

But what is Aethelfrith's true design? How ambitious is he and how far will he go to fulfil his dreams? And what is Cerdic's treacherous half brother, Hussa up to in these fierce wild lands?

All Cerdic wants is to be left to live out his life in peace.

But Loki, it seems, has other ideas.


  1. Nice article Richard - love the images! (and love the cover for child of Loki - is it another Cathy Helms of by chgance?

  2. I loved this. Did you know that Kas. Ishiguru (apologise that spelling of his name is so out) is writing a novel set in the transition period after the Romans left Britain! I heard it from his own mouth at last year's London Book Fair.

  3. Helen- thanks .
    Yes the cover is by Cathy.
    Carol - NO I had not heard about thay book. I will keep an eye out for it.

  4. That was a good read and such a learning experience for me. Aethelfrith seemed a pretty ambitious and smart military leader to be taking on all the others around him and winning. I wonder if the exiled Herring had something to do with those Irish princes' deaths. He had a battleax to grind.

    Appreciate the post! I've got The Amber Room on my list of books to read.

  5. Well strawhed is supposed represent a celt then you obviously havent been to wales.
    Because i think you be hard pused to loads like,why well because they have brown and ginger hair.


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