Communities and Divisions
Possible British Origins
The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria was originally two kingdoms divided approximately around the River Tees: Bernicia was to the north of the river and Deira to the south. It is possible that both regions originated as native British Kingdoms which the Germanic settlers later conquered, although there is very little information about the infrastructure and culture of the British kingdoms themselves. Much of the evidence for them comes from regional names that are British rather than Anglo-Saxon in origin. The names Deira and Bernicia are likely British in origin, for example, indicating that some British place names retained currency after the Anglo-Saxon migrations to Northumbria.[a] There is also some archeological evidence to support British origins for the polities of Bernicia and Deira. In what would have been southern Bernicia, in the Cheviot Hills, a hill fort at Yeavering called Yeavering Bell contains evidence that it was an important centre for first the British and later the Anglo-Saxons. The fort is originally pre-Roman, dating back to the Iron Age at around the first century. In addition to signs of Roman occupation, the site contains evidence of timber buildings that pre-date Germanic settlement in the area that are probably signs of British settlement. Moreover, Brian Hope-Taylor has traced the origins of the name Yeavering, which looks deceptively English, back to the British gafr from Bede's mention of a township called Gefrin in the same area. Yeavering continued to be an important political centre after the Anglo-Saxons began settling in the north, as King Edwin had a royal palace at Yeavering.
Overall, English place-names dominate the Northumbrian landscape, suggesting the prevalence of an Anglo-Saxon elite culture by the time that Bede—one of Anglo-Saxon England's most prominent historians—was writing in the eighth century. According to Bede, the Angles predominated the Germanic immigrants that settled north of the Humber and gained political prominence during this time period. While the British natives may have partially assimilated into the Northumbrian political structure, relatively contemporary textual sources such as Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People depict relations between Northumbrians and the British as fraught.
Unification of Bernicia and Deira
The Anglo-Saxon countries of Bernicia and Deira were often in conflict before their eventual semi-permanent unification in 654. Political power in Deira was concentrated in the East Riding of Yorkshire, which included York, the North York Moors, and the Vale of York. The political heartlands of Bernicia were the areas around Bamburgh and Lindisfarne, Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, and in Cumbria, west of the Pennines in the area around Carlisle. The name that these two countries eventually united under, Northumbria, may have been coined by Bede and made popular through his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Information on the early royal genealogies for Bernicia and Deira comes from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People and Welsh chronicler Nennius’ Historia Brittonum. According to Nennius, the Bernician royal line begins with Ida, son of Eoppa. Ida reigned for twelve years (beginning in 547) and was able to annex Bamburgh to Bernicia. In Nennius’ genealogy of Deira, a king named Soemil was the first to separate Bernicia and Deira, which could mean that he wrested the kingdom of Deira from the native British. The date of this supposed separation is unknown. The first Deiran king to make an appearance in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum is Ælle, the father of the first Roman Catholic Northumbrian king Edwin.
A king of Bernicia, Ida's grandson Æthelfrith, was the first ruler to unite the two polities under his rule. He exiled the Deiran Edwin to the court of King Rædwald of the East Angles in order to claim both kingdoms, but Edwin returned in approximately 616 to conquer Northumbria with Rædwald's aid. Edwin, who ruled from approximately 616 to 633, was one of the last kings of the Deiran line to reign over all of Northumbria; it was Oswald of Bernicia (c. 634-42) who finally succeeded in making the merger more permanent. Oswald's brother Oswiu eventually succeeded him to the Northumbrian throne despite initial attempts on Deira's part to pull away again. Although the Bernician line ultimately became the royal line of Northumbria, a series of Derian sub-kings continued after Oswald, including Oswine (a relation of Edwin murdered by Oswiu in 651), Œthelwald (killed in battle 655), and Aldfrith (son of Oswiu, who disappeared after 664). Although both Œthelwald and Aldfrith were Oswiu's relations who may have received their sub-king status from him, both used Deira separatist sentiments to try to snatch independent rule of Deira. Ultimately, neither were successful and Oswiu's son Ecgfrith succeeded him to maintain the integrated Northumbrian line.
While violent conflicts between Bernicia and Deira played a significant part in determining which line ultimately gained supremacy in Northumbria, marriage alliances also helped bind these two territories together. Æthelfrith married Edwin's sister Acha, although this marriage did little to prevent future squabbles between the brothers-in-law and their descendants. The second intermarriage was more successful, with Oswiu marrying Edwin’s daughter and his own cousin Eanflæd to produce Ecgfrith, the beginning of the Northumbrian line. However, Oswiu had another relationship with an Irish woman named Fina which produced the problematic Aldfrith. In his Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert, Bede declares that Aldfrith, known as Fland among the Irish, was illegitimate and therefore unfit to rule.
Northumbria and Norse Settlement
The Viking invasions of the ninth century and the establishment of the Danelaw once again divided Northumbria. Although primarily recorded in the southern provinces of England, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (particularly the D and E recensions) provide some information on Northumbria's conflicts with Vikings in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. According to these chronicles, Viking raids began to affect Northumbria when a band attacked Lindisfarne in 793. After this initial catastrophic blow, Viking raids in Northumbria were either sporadic for much of the early ninth century or evidence of them was lost. However, in 865 the so-called Great Heathen Army landed in East Anglia and began a sustained campaign of conquest. The Great Army fought in Northumbria in 866–867, striking York twice in less than one year. After the initial attack the Norse left to go north, leaving Kings Ælle and Osberht to recapture the city. The E recension of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that Northumbria was particularly vulnerable at this time because the Northumbrians were once again fighting among themselves, deposing Osberht in favor of Ælle. In the second raid the Vikings killed the Northumbrian kings Ælle and Osberht while recapturing the city.
After King Alfred reestablished his control of southern England the Norse invaders settled into what came to be known as the Danelaw in the Midlands, East Anglia, and the southern part of Northumbria. In Northumbria, the Norse established the Kingdom of York whose boundaries were roughly the River Tees and the Humber, giving it approximately the same dimensions as Deira. Although this kingdom fell to Hiberno-Norse colonizers in the 920s and was in constant conflict with the West-Saxon expansionists from the south, it survived until 954 when the last Scandinavian king Eric, who is usually identified as Eric Bloodaxe, was driven out and eventually killed.
In contrast, the Great Army was not as successful in conquering territory north of the River Tees. There were raids that extended into that area, but no sources mention lasting Norse occupation and there are very few Scandinavian place names to indicate significant Norse settlement in northern regions of Northumbria. The political landscape of the area north of the Tees during the Viking conquest of Northumbria consisted of the Community of St. Cuthbert and the remnants of the English Northumbrian elites. While the religious Community of St. Cuthbert "wandered" for a hundred years after attacked their original home Lindisfarne in 875, The History of St. Cuthbert indicates that they settled temporarily at Chester-le-Street between the years 875–883 on land granted to them by the Viking King of York, Guthred. According to the twelfth-century account Historia Regum, Guthred granted them this land in exchange for their raising him up as king. The land extended from the Tees to the Tyne and anyone who fled there from either the north or the south would receive sanctuary for thirty-seven days, indicating that the Community of St. Cuthbert had some juridical autonomy. Based on their positioning and this right of sanctuary, this community may have acted as a buffer between the Norse in southern Northumbria and the Anglo-Saxons who continued to hold the north.
North of the Tyne, Northumbrians maintained partial political control in Bamburgh. The rule of kings continued in that area with Ecgberht I acting as regent around 867 and the kings Ricsige and Ecgberht II immediately following him. According to twelfth-century historian Symeon of Durham, Ecgberht I was a client-king for the Norse. The Northumbrians revolted against him in 872, deposing him in favor of Ricsige. Although the A and E recensions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle report that Halfdan was able to take control of Deira and take a raiding party north of the River Tyne to impose his rule on Bernicia in 874, after Halfdan's death (c. 877) the Norse had difficulty holding on to territory in northern Bernicia. Ricsige and his successor Ecgberht were able to maintain an English presence in Northumbria. After the reign of Ecgberht II, Eadwulf "King of the North Saxons" (r. 890–912) succeeded him for control of Bamburgh, but after Eadwulf rulership of this area switched over to earls who may have also been related to the last of the royal Northumbrian house.
Æthelfrith (r. 593–616)
Æthelfrith was the first Anglo-Saxon leader to hold the thrones of both Deira and Bernicia, and so he ruled over all the people north of the Humber. His rule was notable for his numerous victories over the Britons and the Gaels.
Edwin (r. 616–633)
Edwin, like Æthelfrith, was king of both Deira and Bernicia and ruled them from 616 to 633. Under his reign the Isle of Man and the lands of Gwynedd in Northern Wales were incorporated into Northumbria. Edwin married Æthelburh, a Catholic Princess from Kent in 625. He converted to Roman Catholicism two years later after a period of heavy consideration and after consulting numerous advisors. Edwin fell in battle in 633 against Cadwallon of Gwynedd and the pagan Penda of Mercia. He was venerated as a Catholic saint and martyr after his death.
Oswald (r. 634–642)
Oswald was a King of Bernicia, who would regain the kingdom of Deira after defeating Cadwallon in 634. Oswald would then rule Northumbria until his death in 642. A devout Catholic, Oswald worked tirelessly to spread the religion in his traditionally pagan lands. It was during his reign that the monastery at Lindisfarne was created. Oswald fell in the Battle of Maserfield against Penda of Mercia in 642 but his influence endured because, like Edwin, Oswald was venerated as a saint after his death.
Oswiu (r. 642–670)
Oswiu was the brother of Oswald and succeeded him after the latter's defeat in Maserfield. Oswiu succeeded where Edwin and Oswald failed as, in 655, he slew Penda during the Battle of the Winwaed, making him the first Northumbrian King to also control the kingdom of Mercia. During his reign, he presided over the Synod of Whitby, an attempt to reconcile religious differences between Roman and Celtic Catholicism, in which he eventually backed the Roman beliefs. Oswiu died from illness in 670 and divided Deira and Bernicia between two of his sons.
Halfdan Ragnarsson was a Viking leader of the Great Heathen Army which invaded England in 865. He allegedly wanted revenge against Northumbria for the death of his father, who was supposedly killed by Ælla of Northumbria. While he himself only ruled Northumbria directly for about a year in 876, he placed Ecgberht on the throne as a client-king, who ruled from 867 to 872. Halfdan was killed in Ireland in 877 whilst trying to regain control over Dublin, a land he had ruled since 875. There were no further Viking kings in Northumbria until Guthfrith took over in 883.
Æthelstan of Wessex (r. 927–939)
Æthelstan ruled as King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 and King of the English from 927 to 939. The shift in his title reflects that in 927, Æthelstan conquered the Viking Kingdom of York, previously part of the Northumbrian Kingdom. His reign was quite prosperous and saw great strides in many fields such as law and economics, but was also characterized by frequent clashes with the Scots and the Vikings. Æthelstan died in 939, which led to the Vikings’ retaking of York. Æthelstan is widely considered one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings for his efforts to consolidate the English kingdom and the prosperity his reign brought.
Eric of York (r. 947–948, 952–954)
In the early twentieth century, historians identified Eric of York with the Norwegian king Eric Bloodaxe, but more recent scholarship has challenged this association.[b] Historical documentation on his reign is scarce, but it seems Eric pushed out the joint English-Viking rulers of Northumbria in 947, who then regained the land in 948 or 949. Eric took back the throne in 952, only to be deposed again in 954. Eric of York was the last Danish king of Northumbria; after his death in 954, Eadred of Wessex stripped the kingdom of its independent status and made the land part of England.
He held two short terms as King of Northumbria, from 947 to 948 and 952 to 954.
Eadred of Wessex (r. 946–954)
Eadred of Wessex was the half-brother of Æthelstan and Eadmund of Wessex, all of whom were fathered by Edward the Elder. He was nominally the ruler of Northumbria from 946, as he succeeded Eadmund, but had to deal with the threat of independent Viking kingdoms under Amlaíb Cuarán and Eric Bloodaxe. He permanently absorbed Northumbria into the English Kingdom in 954 after the death of Eric.
Politics and War
Between the years of 737 AD and 806 AD, Northumbria had ten kings, all of whom were murdered, deposed, or exiled or became monks. Between Oswiu, the first king of Northumbria in 654, and Eric Bloodaxe, the last king of Northumbria in 954, there were forty-five kings, meaning that the average length of reign during the entire history of Northumbria is only six and a half years. Of the twenty-five kings before the Danish rule of Northumbria, only four died of natural causes. Of those that did not abdicate for a holy life, the rest were either deposed, exiled, or murdered. Kings during the Danish rule of Northumbria (see Danelaw) were often either kings of a larger North Sea or Danish empire, or were installed rulers.
Succession in Northumbria was hereditary, which left princes whose fathers died before they could come of age particularly susceptible to assassination and usurpation. A noteworthy example of this phenomenon is Osred, whose father Aldfrith died in 705, leaving the young boy to rule. He survived one assassination attempt early in his rule, but fell victim to another assassin at the age of nineteen. During his reign he was adopted by Wilfrid, a powerful bishop. Ecclesiastical influence in the royal court was not an unusual phenomenon in Northumbria, and usually was most visible during the rule of a young or inexperienced king. Similarly, ealdorman, or royal advisors, had periods of increased or decreased power in Northumbria, depending on who was ruling at the time.
Warfare in Northumbria before the Danish period largely consisted of rivalries with the Picts to the north. The Northumbrians were successful against the Picts until the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685, which halted their expansion north and established a border between the two kingdoms. Warfare during the Danish period was dominated by warfare between the Northumbrians and other English Kingdoms.