Heroic Age Logo The Heroic Age, Issue 2, Autumn/Winter 1999  

The Politics of Exile in Early Northumbria


Michelle Ziegler,
Belleville, Illinois

Æthelfrith son of Æthelric is the first Bernician king to appear in history with any significant details. Bede knew Æthelfrith as a victorious, conquering warlord who could be excused for his paganism by virtue of his ignorance. Æthelfrith was likely the first Anglian overking of the northernmost overkingdom that would later form medieval Scotland.1 To Bede he was the founder of Bernicia's greatest dynasty who presided over the kingdom's days of glory already sorely lacking in Bede's lifetime.

Bernicia Geneaology

Figure 1: Bernician Genealogy

Æthelfrith's family (See Fig. 1)and career provide a rare opportunity to study the political dynamics of exile which must have been common in all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the period, if not in the Celtic kingdoms as well. Æthelfrith spent a significant part of his reign combating æthelings ("princes")2 whose exile he had caused in both Bernicia and Deira. Further, like many great kings of his time, his success made mortal enemies for his family. His fall in battle among the southern Angles brought a near total revolution in the politics of what is now northern England. His children and their loyal retainers were sent fleeing for their lives from Edwin, the successor to the southern region of his domain, and the northern kingdoms were freed from Anglian overlordship. The very nature of the northernmost overkingship and the complex politics that supported it is reinforced by Edwin's succession only to the southern region of Æthelfrith's domain, primarily the Humbrian overkingdom plus Bernicia. Instead of fleeing to other Anglian courts, Æthelfrith's children fled north to the Celtic kingdoms of Eochaid Bude of Dalriada and Nechtan of Pictland, two kingdoms that had each produced a recent northern overking.3 The nature of exile of the æthelings of Bernicia and Deira also provides a significant insight into the political orientation of each kingdom in the early seventh century.

Æthelfrith's Kingship

According to the Historia Brittonum (Chap. 63; Morris 1980:38), Æthelfrith ruled Bernicia twelve years and ruled over both Bernicia and Deira for another twelve years, confirmed by a 24 year reign in the Moore Memoranda (Blair 1950:246).4 The year of his son Oswald's birth (c. 604) to Acha daughter of Ælle of Deira also saw the extension of Æthelfrith's power over Deira. The symmetry of dividing his reign into two twelve year periods is probably altered to fit Christian ideals but may have a basis in fact (Higham 1997:145). Overall, Æthelfrith's reign is assigned to c. 592 to c. 616 A.D.

Æthelfrith succeeded a king named Hussa who is credited in the Moore Memoranda with a seven-year reign from 585-592 (Kirby 1991: Appendix Fig. 7; Blair 1950:246). Hussa is not found in the genealogy of Ida, who is credited with founding Anglian Bernicia and was Æthelfrith's grandfather. It is likely that he represented a rival Anglian dynasty within Bernicia. The presence of a warrior named Hering son of Hussa as a leader or guide of Aedan mac Gabran's retinue at the battle of Degsastan5 can be viewed as possible evidence that Æthelfrith had driven the kinsmen of his Bernician rival and predecessor into exile (Moisl 1983:112-115). Adomnan of Iona also confirms that there were at least two Saxons on Iona four years before the death of St. Columba in 597 (Kirby 1991:61; Moisl 1983:114) and one of Aedan's younger sons, Conaing, may have a Saxon name (Bannerman 1974:87). The Irish legendary tale "Gein Branduib meic Echnach" claims Aedan (r. c. 574-c. 608) brought "Saxons and Britons and the men of Scotland to contest the kingship of Ireland" (Moisl 1983:110). Moisl (1983:115) also suggests that Osric son of Albruit, a figure mentioned among the casualties in the Dalriadan defeat at Fid Eoin in 628 in the Annals of Tigernach (AT), was the son of a daughter of Aedan by an exiled Angle, his birth occurring before 612. This is all consistent with the sons of Hussa and their retainers fleeing Bernicia on Æthelfrith's accession in 592 (Moisl 1983:114).

At about the same time as Æthelfrith rose to power in Bernicia, Nechtan became king of the Picts. He succeeded Gartnait son of Domnech and probably Aedan mac Gabran (Bannerman 1974:93-94) who died in c. 597-601.6 It has been suggested that Nechtan was a member of the Strathclyde royal family and father of Beli, king of Strathclyde c. 612-c. 640 (Smyth 1984:64-65; Miller 1978:52-56). Nechtan was from a collateral line of the Strathclyde dynasty (Miller 1975:261) which was likely a rival to the line of Rhydderch Hael, a long-reigning king of Strathclyde (r. c. 575?-612/4) who was popular in Brittonic legend and a likely ally of Aedan of Dalriada.7

The accession of Nechtan as king of the Picts may have been unusual since he is styled in the king lists as "nepos Uerb" ("grandson or nephew of Uerb"; A. Anderson 1922:cxxiv). It is possible that Æthelfrith was instrumental in aiding Nechtan's rise to power. I would suggest that Æthelfrith's wife, Bebba,8 was a sister of Nechtan of Strathclyde, king of the Picts. According to the HB (Chap. 63), Æthelfrith "gave Din Guaire to his wife, whose name was Bebba, and it was named Bamburgh from his wife's name" (Morris 1980:38) and Bede (3.6, 3.16; McClure and Collins 1994:119, 135) confirms that Bamburgh was named for a former queen named Bebba although he does not name her husband. Bebba was probably Æthelfrith's first and most important wife. The prominent role that Bebba may have had at Æthelfrith's Bernician capital, Bamburgh, may be a reflection of the important marriage alliance that she represented. It is possible that Æthelfrith arranged the marriage of his son Eanfrith and a daughter of Wid,9 a figure named in a Pictish king list as the father of three successive kings, at this time.10

Bernician and Deiran Battles, A.D. 603-634

Map by Linda A. Malcor

Perhaps the single most important battle in Æthelfrith's career has already been alluded to, the battle of Degsastan in 603 against the most successful Scottish warrior king of the time, Aedan mac Gabran (see map). Until 603, Æthelfrith can be viewed only as the king of a minor kingdom. The only previous mention of Bernicia is the legendary besieging of Æthelfrith's uncle Theodoric by Urien Rheged at Lindisfarne in c. 572-579 (HB Chap. 63; Morris 1980:38). Throughout the 590s, according to Adomnan and the Irish annals, Aedan was at war with both the southern Picts and the "Saxons" (Bannerman 1974:83-85; Kirby 1991:71). If there had been an alliance between Æthelfrith and Nechtan of Pictland it may, however, have tilted the balance of power at the battle of Degsastan in Æthelfrith's favor. The battle was a major clash of titans in which Aedan lost nearly his entire army and Æthelfrith was victorious but lost his brother Theobald11 and the latter’s entire retinue (Bede 1.34; McClure and Collins 1994:61-62). Aedan survived the battle since he reigned another five years (Bannerman 1974:86-87), which suggests that Aedan and Æthelfrith had come to terms after the battle.12 While it is likely that Æthelfrith became the northern overking when he defeated Aedan at Degsastan in 603, he would have still needed a powerful ally to give him the security he needed to conquer Deira and turn his attentions even further south. The Pictish king, Nechtan, possibly was that ally. As the northern overking, Æthelfrith would have also gained some limited military support from the northern kingdoms for his southern conquests. As previously mentioned, Aedan's retinue had been led by Hering son of Hussa, certainly an Angle and probably the son of Æthelfrith's predecessor. It is possible that Aedan was supporting Hussa's son for the throne of Bernicia. In this case, Hering's bid to recapture the Bernician throne failed and he is not heard from again.

Æthelfrith's hostile takeover of Deira in c. 604 is probably indicated by the exile of all the Deiran æthelings, namely Edwin son of Ælle and Hereric grandson of Ælle along with their kinsmen and loyal followers (See Fig. 2). Both men were likely equal inheritors to the throne of Deira. Hereric was approximately the same age or older than Edwin13 and therefore the son of a much older son of the Deiran king Ælle, possibly the Æthelric recorded as having ruled in Deira for 5 years between Ælle and Æthelfrith. The short reign of Æthelric may be a sign of Æthelfrith's hostile conquest of Deira.

Deira Geneaology

Figure 2: Deiran Genealogy

After his annexation of Deira and marriage to Acha daughter of Ælle,14 Æthelfrith seems to have been preoccupied with hunting down Edwin and Hereric (See Fig. 2).15 The æthelings Hereric and Edwin fled into the mid-Humbrian and south-Humbrian regions of Elmet and Mercia, respectively, (Kirby 1991:64-65). It is possible that Deira and Mercia had a close relationship since the Historia Brittonum notes that Penda was the first to separate the Mercians or south Humbrians from the northerners (Kirby 1991:64-65). Further, Deira's early formation relative to Mercia probably gave them a dominant position within a federation of independent Humbrian states. Elmet and Mercia must have each still been independent of the overlordship of both Æthelfrith and Æthelberht of Kent when they each accepted an exiled ætheling (Higham 1995:145). Significantly, according to the Historia Brittonum (Chap. 63), Elmet remained an independent kingdom until King Ceretic was expelled by Edwin on his return and the Annales Cambriae (AC) records the death of Ceretic probably a year too early in 616 (Morris 1980:38,46; Kirby 1991:72).

In c. 613-4, Hereric was poisoned in the court of King Ceretic of Elmet probably at the instigation of Æthelfrith. The traditional means of dating this event is derived from Bede (4.23; McClure and Collins 1994:210-213) who states that Heretic's wife Breguswith discovered she was pregnant with Hild around the time of the murder and that Hild was 66 years old when she died in 680.16 Higham (1992:3) believes that Hild's age was manipulated for the sake of her cult to make her 33 years old when she took the veil and a 33-year career in the church. He, therefore, believes that her age at the time of her death can not be used to date Hereric's death. Higham (1992:3-4) maintains that the date for his assassination should be moved to c. 604 because he believes Hereric had only recently fled Deira leaving his wife and daughter behind there. Although Bede does indicate that Breguswith and Hereric were living apart at the time, he does not indicate that Breguswith and their daughter Hereswith were still in Deira. It seems unlikely that Hereric would have left his wife and daughter behind in Deira under Æthelfrith's rule. Breguswith may have been living with her parents’ people or other allies. It is possible that Hereric had returned to Elmet to organize a bid to retake Deira and was assassinated during his visit. From Elmet, Hereric could have made contact with the remaining loyal Deiran thegns and ealdormen to organize his return. If Hild’s age has been manipulated, she could have been born at any time between 604 and 616. Whenever Hereric was killed, his death in Elmet so close to Deira does probably indicate that he was the leading contender for the Deiran throne and at least as old as Edwin if not older.

Edwin appears to have been given refuge in Mercia, possibly Gwynedd, and lastly in East Anglia.17 Bede (2.12; McClure and Collins 1994:91-92) testifies to Edwin's flight from Æthelfrith and the latter's attempts to bribe and threaten Edwin's hosts into killing him or turning him over to Æthelfrith. Edwin spent a considerable amount of time in the court of King Ceorl of Mercia whose daughter Cwenburg he married (Higham 1992:3). Edwin and Cwenburh had two sons, Osfrith and Eadfrith, during their exile suggesting that they were married early in his exile. The extent of Ceorl’s Mercian kingdom is unknown,18 although it was presumably large enough for him to believe he could protect Edwin. He was, of course, wrong.

In 616,19 Æthelfrith attacked the British at Chester killing King Selyf ap Cynan of Powys and another otherwise unknown king named Cetula (Kirby 1991:72; Chadwick 1963b:173-174; see map). The battle was made infamous by Æthelfrith’s orders to his army to slay the British monks of Bangor-Is-Coed who had come to pray for a British victory (Bede 2.2; McClure and Collins 1994:73-74; Chadwick 1963b:173-174). Bede claims 2100 monks came to pray and later says that “about” 1200 were killed and only 50 escaped. Bede saw divine vengeance in this act for the refusal of the monks of Bangor to join in Augustine’s mission to the English. While Æthelfrith may have feared their prayers, it was probably a tactical move. Bede claims that Æthelfrith ordered “them [the monks] to be attacked first and then he destroyed the remainder of their wicked host” (Bede 2.2; McClure and Collins 1994:74). The last thing the Christian British expected was for their holy men to be attacked first and Æthelfrith must have caught them by surprise. Whatever battle plans they had must have been lost in their efforts to rearrange their army to defend the monks.

Speculation over the cause of the attack at Chester has varied greatly. Kirby suggested that Æthelfrith was protecting Anglian settlers in the area between the Pennines and the Irish Sea or gaining control of the emerging Anglian settlements beyond the Pennines (Kirby 1991:72). Yet, there is little reason to believe that significant numbers of Angles were settling in Lancashire this early (Chadwick 1963b:179; Blair 1948:122-125). Literary evidence from the Life of Wilfrid suggests that the land west of the Pennines remained in British hands until c. 670 (Blair 1948:122-125; Yorke 1990:83-84). Further, Ozanne (1962-3:33) has shown that Anglian settlement in the Peak District, which lay between Elmet and Powys at the base of the Pennine hills, did not begin until the middle of the seventh century. She believes that this area was always a marginal area of settlement. Nora Chadwick (1963a:149; 1963b:180-182) refers to an old belief that the attack was motivated by Gwynedd's protection of Edwin and also suggests that holding a position on the Irish Sea was important to the northern Angles. She believed that the battle of Chester could have only become so renowned in the annals if the kingship of all Britain was at stake, equating Selyf’s importance with that of both Cadwallon of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia (Chadwick 1963b:182-185). While it is unlikely that Chester was a battle for all of Britain while Æthelberht of Kent was still alive,20 it is possible that it was a contest between two regional overkings. According to Yorke (1990:83-84), Æthelfrith’s victory at "Chester in 616 does not mean that Æthelfrith had permanently conquered the lands west of the Pennines, but merely that he was enforcing overlordship of the area." If Æthelfrith did defeat the Welsh overking at Chester, then he had indeed conquered or made tributary more Britons than any previous Anglian king. It is impossible to speculate how much of Wales, if any, that Æthelfrith was able to make tributary since he died within 1-2 years of the battle of Chester.

Alternatively, N.J. Higham (1992:6-10) has suggested that the battle of Chester was the final defeat of King Ceorl of Mercia whom he believes was the overking of most of the midlands and Wales. Yet, there is no evidence that Ceorl was present at Chester or that he was the overking of Gwynedd or Powys. The fact that this is the only victory recorded for Æthelfrith in southern Britain does not indicate that Ceorl must have perished in it as Higham (1992:7) suggests.21

An examination of Æthelfrith’s two possible routes to Chester from his probable Deiran capital at York may enlighten the question of Cearl’s participation in the battle of Chester and the likelihood that Æthelfrith’s presence at Chester implies that he conquered Mercia (see map). The most direct route was along the Roman roads from York to Tadcaster (Margary 1967:416-417), through a gap in the Pennines to Slack and Castleshaw, on to Manchester eventually reaching Chester (Ordnance Survey 1994; Margary 1967:359).22 A more southerly and longer route from York through Tadcaster to Templeborough (Margary 1967:412, 415-417), then west to Buxton and Northwich,23 and on further to Chester is also possible. The choice of route would have been dependent on Æthelfrith's purpose. If Chester was the last battle in a continuing war in his southern territory the southern route is possible. If Æthelfrith had conquered the Mercian heartland cradled in the southern region of the River Trent, there are numerous other possible routes to approach Chester. However, if Chester was the only intended target of the campaign then the northern direct route is more likely. Significantly, both routes would have passed through the British kingdom of Elmet ruled by King Ceretic.24 Ceretic's survival until Edwin's reign (HB Chap. 63; AC 616; Morris 1980:38, 46) suggests that Elmet became tributary to Æthelfrith, probably around the time of Hereric's assassination. It is highly likely that both of Æthelfrith’s possible routes passed completely through British territory.25 If this is true, it supports Bede’s claim that Æthelfrith “ravaged the Britons more extensively than any other English ruler ” and he “subjected more land to the English race or settled it, having first either exterminated or conquered the natives” (Bede 1.34; McClure and Collins 1994:61). Since Anglian datable artifacts do not appear in the Peak District before c. 650 (Ozanne 1962-3:33), there is no reason to believe that the southern route passed through Mercian territory.

The effects of the battle of Chester on Edwin's exile are obscure but perhaps predictable. If Æthelfrith had secured the Roman roads from Tadcaster to Bawtry on the Idle and its western branch from Doncaster to Buxton, he would have been a great threat to Ceorl of Mercia even if this area was north of Ceorl's territory. It is likely that Æthelfrith and Ceorl clashed along one of these Roman roads before 615 when Æthelfrith fought the battle of Chester. Welsh sources, including the Welsh Triads and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and Reginald of Durham’s Life of Oswald claim that Edwin fled to the court of Cadfan of Gwynedd from Mercia after the battle of Chester (Chadwick 1963a:148-152).26 The chronology of the legends of Edwin in Gwynedd is confused,27 and the most we should be able to say is that the battle of Chester might have effected Edwin's flight. It is more likely, considering that the battle of Chester occurred closer to 615 and Edwin was in East Anglia in 616, that the battle forced Edwin to flee from Gwynedd rather than towards it. If Edwin was in Gwynedd before the battle of Chester it seems unlikely that he had been there long or that it was the only reason for Æthelfrith's attack. It is significant that the annals remember Selyf of Powys as being Æthelfrith's opponent rather than a king of Gwynedd. Higham (1992:9) is possibly correct when he states that "it was Æthelfrith who replaced Cearl (Ceorl) with a king of an alternate line apparently headed by either Pybba or Eowa (respectively father and brother of Penda)". Edwin's eventual replacement of Æthelfrith would have made him the enemy of Eowa and Penda, who later allied themselves with Cadwallon in defeating Edwin.28

It is quite likely that Æthelfrith's target was Powys, which, if Welsh poetry can be trusted, had grown strong under Selyf's father Cynan Garwen (Pennar 1988:45-46). The fact that the monks of the Powysian foundation of Bangor-Is-Coed led the British embassy that met with Augustine in c. 604 (Bede 2.2; McClure and Collins 1994:71-74) also suggests that Powys was the dominant British kingdom from at least c. 600-615. Æthelfrith’s son Oswald would die attacking Powys again in 642 and Mercian - Powysian cooperation seems to have existed both before and after Oswald’s death and may have extended backward as far as the era around the battle of Chester (Rowland 1990:123-135). Although Æthelfrith won the battle, there is no evidence that he pushed further into Powys or to Gwynedd and indeed, he won no apparent gain from his victory (Chadwick 1963b:179-180). However, we are limited in our detection of Æthelfrith’s gains in the west due to his death so soon after the battle.

By c. 615-616, events were turning in Edwin’s favor. He had made his way to the court of King Rædwald of East Anglia, to which Bede records that Æthelfrith sent at least three threatening bribes for Edwin's life. After much internal debate and pressure from his wife, King Rædwald decided it was more honorable to meet Æthelfrith in battle than break his oath of protection to Edwin (Bede 2.12; McClure and Collins 1994:91-92). Bede records that in 616 “not giving him [Æthelfrith] time to summon and assemble his whole army, Rædwald met him with a much greater force and slew him on the Mercian border on the east bank of the River Idle” (Bede 2.12; McClure and Collins 1994:94).29 The River Idle runs north-south in only a short stretch near the Roman road from Bawtry to Malton leading toward Lincoln (Ordnance Survey 1994; Margary 1967:359, 410-412; see map). This region was a likely boundary area between Mercia to the south and west, Elmet to the northwest,30 and Lindsey to the East. This is exactly the type of area where we would expect the powerful northern overlord to clash with a would be southern English overlord. The fact that none of Æthelfrith’s kinsmen are recorded as falling with him may support the assertion that he did not have time to call his full army. Yet, it should not be considered that Æthelfrith was caught by surprise or ambushed. Bede’s phrasing suggests that he did have time to call as much of his army as possible and his position on the Roman road may suggest that he was actually moving toward Rædwald when they met. After the victory, Rædwald became the unquestioned overlord of the southern Anglo-Saxons and the Anglian areas of Æthelfrith’s realm (Higham 1995:197-200; Kirby 1991:73, 77-78). With Rædwald's support, Edwin son of Ælle reclaimed Deira and extended his domination over Bernicia as well.31 The children of Æthelfrith fled northwards into exile with their loyal retainers to seek the protection of the Dalriadan king Eochaid Bude son of Aedan and possibly also Nechtan of Pictland.

The Sons of Æthelfrith in Exile

Æthelfrith's nobles would have been in charge of his minor children in their flight and would have known that the best chance for their survival would be for them to split up. According to the Historia Brittonum (Chap. 57; Morris 1980:36) and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC; Swanton 1998:24), Æthelfrith was the father of seven sons: Eanfrith the eldest, Oswald, Oswiu, Oslaf, Osguid (HB)/Oslac (ASC), Osgudu, and Offa; and at least one daughter, Æbbe, as confirmed by Bede, Eddius Stephanus, and the anonymous author of the first Life of Cuthbert (See Fig. 1). According to Bede (3.1; McClure and Collins 1994:110), Æthelfrith's children were given refuge among the Scots and Picts. Oswald, Oswiu, Æbbe and perhaps others went to the court of Eochaid Bude of Dalriada. The second batch of children headed for Pictland probably led by Eanfrith who married a Pictish woman shortly before or after Æthelfrith's death.

Dalriada's protection was reliable and secure. There is no indication that Edwin was ever able to threaten Oswald or his siblings in any way during their stay in Dalriada. With the death of Æthelfrith and possibly of Nechtan of Pictland, Eochaid Bude appears to have become the overlord of the far north. There is a suggestion that he extended his dominion over Gowrie and Fife in Pictland during this time (M. Anderson 1980:142, 151) and was called King of the Picts in his obituary in the Annals of Ulster (Bannerman 1974:95). The baptism of all Æthelfrith's children, including Eanfrith, by the Irish further indicates that Eochaid Bude was the dominant king since the Picts are not known to have been especially pro-Christian yet, although some of the southern Picts may have acknowledged Whithorn as their mother church as Bede indicates (3.3; McClure and Collins 1994:114-115). It is likely that Eochaid stood as godfather over all the sons of Æthelfrith.

Eochaid Bude died in 629 but the children of Æthelfrith remained under the protection of his son, Domnall Brecc, who succeeded Eochaid's short-term successor Conadd Cerr (Bannerman 1974:96-99).32 Although surviving historical records of Domnall Brecc’s reign paint a disastrous portrait of a hapless king, Domnall ensured the protection of Oswald and his siblings for as long as was needed, until 634. Prior to 634, Domnall Brecc had not yet suffered a defeat in battle and Dalriada's only recent loss, the battle of Fid-Eion, was in Ireland. It is quite possible that Dalriada retained its dominant role, if not the northern overkingship, largely on its reputation.

Seventeen years in Dalriada were to have a lasting effect on the children of Æthelfrith (Stancliffe 1995:40). Oswald and his siblings in Dalriada learned fluent Irish and converted to Celtic Christianity on Iona (Bede 3.3; McClure and Collins 1994:113-114). In Dalriada, they would have learned that Christianity and warrior kingship are "perfectly compatible" and that Columba was a patron saint of both defenders and aggressors (Stancliffe 1995:68-69). There is evidence that Oswald and probably his brothers fought for Dalriada in their battles in Ireland during his exile (Moisl 1983:105-112).33 It was during these Irish battles that Oswald gained his battle experience before the battle of Denisesburn in 634.

Some (or most) of the children of Æthelfrith married and/or had children during their exile (See Fig. 1). Æthelfrith's oldest son and heir Eanfrith married a Pictish heiress and produced at least two children, a son named Talorcan who later became king of Picts (r. 653-657) and a daughter who became the mother of Bridei son of Beli king of Picts (r. 672-693) (Miller 1978; Blair 1959:160). Eanfrith's wife is believed to have been the sister of the sons of Wid who reigned in Pictland from c. 633-653 (Miller 1978:56; M. Anderson 1980:169-170). As Æthelfrith's heir, it is significant that Eanfrith chose to marry a Pictish woman. The close relationship between Bernicia and the Picts would continue until the death of Oswiu son of Æthelfrith in 670. Oswald is known to have had one son, OEthelwald, who became (sub-) King of Deira 651-655 (Bede 3.23 and 3.24; McClure and Collins 1994:148, 150, 395). If OEthelwald was the son of Oswald's Gewisse wife whom he married no earlier than 635, he would have only been 15 in 651. It would have been foolish to place a fifteen year old untried boy on the throne of Deira,34 which served as a border subkingdom between the heartland of Bernicia and Penda of Mercia, the slayer of Oswald and Edwin. Therefore, it is likely that Oswald, who was 29 by the time his exile ended in 633, had married an Irish woman who was OEthelwald's mother and that OEthelwald was far older than 15 when he became King of Deira. His greater age would also explain his boldness in fighting for Penda of Mercia against his uncle Oswiu in 655 (Bede 3.24; McClure and Collins 1994:150). One of Æthelfrith's younger sons Oswiu produced a bastard son Aldfrith, known as Fland Fina in Ireland, with Fina daughter of Colman Rimid (d. 604) of the Ui Neill probably during his exile (Ireland 1991; Moisl 1983:122-123). According to the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, Æthelfrith's daughter Æbbe, who later became Abbess of Coldingham, was a widow (Colgrave 1985:81).35 No matter what age Æbbe was when Æthelfrith died, she would have come to a marriageable age sometime during her seventeen-year exile in Dalriada. Therefore, it is likely that her husband was from Dalriada or Pictland.

Years of Chaos, A.D. 633-635

In the autumn of 633, the sons of Æthelfrith received their long-awaited opportunity. A coalition led by the powerful Cadwallon of Gwynedd engaged Edwin in battle at Hatfield Chase, slew him and his son Osfrith, and captured his remaining adult son Eadfrith.36 Edwin's forces were soundly crushed and Cadwallon and his allies, including Penda of Mercia, went on a rampage in Deira. Edwin’s dominion was split into its constituent kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, Lindsey appears to have come under the dominion of Mercia and the southern British regained their freedom. Osric, a cousin of Edwin, came to the throne in Deira, Eanfrith son of Æthelfrith in Bernicia, and, in the same year, Eanfrith's brother-in-law Gartnait son of Wid came to the throne of the Picts (See Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). According to the late and semi-legendary Chronicle of the Scottish Nation by John of Fordun (3.34; Skene 1993, 1:112-113), Domnall Brecc sent a retinue with Eanfrith, Oswald and Oswiu and their kin to ensure that they came into their inheritance safely. John of Fordun further claims that Domnall "even promised to help them against Penda or any of the Saxons; but altogether refused it against Cadwallon and the Britons, who had long been bound to the Scots by the friendship of faithful alliance" (3.34; Skene 1993, 1:112-113). Although John of Fordun is late and sometimes uses questionable sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, this incident is recorded nowhere else and is consistent with our current understanding of the political history of the time.

Cadwallon was a still a threatening power to be reckoned with in late 633-634; his defeat of Edwin was not luck. The new king of Deira, Osric, immediately upon becoming king attacked Cadwallon, besieging him in a fortified town, possibly York (Higham 1997:202). Cadwallon's superior numbers and skill as a war leader were evident immediately when he broke the siege by rushing out of the fortress and destroying the besiegers (Bede 3.1; McClure and Collins 1994:110). Cadwallon then gave his fury full vent against Deira which he occupied and dominated for a full year (Bede 3.1; McClure and Collins 1994:110-111). Later that summer, Eanfrith and several close retainers came to Cadwallon to negotiate a truce or treaty. Instead of negotiating, Cadwallon had Eanfrith beheaded (AT 634; A. Anderson 1922:158; Bede 3.1; McClure and Collins 1994:110).

Eanfrith’s brother Oswald advanced through southern Scotland to meet Cadwallon at Denisesburn near Hexham just south of Hadrian's Wall (see map). It is quite possible that both the Scots and the Picts aided Oswald at the battle. Gartnait could have been eager to avenge his brother-in-law and Domnall Brecc may have sent significant forces to Oswald's aid. Eanfrith's execution by Cadwallon may have pushed Domnall into breaking his truce/alliance with the Britons. Domnall later showed the same capacity to break another long-standing alliance with the Ui Neill at the battle of Mag Rath in 637 (Bannerman 1974:100-102; Moisl 1983:117-120).

Cadwallon was slain at Denisesburn and, his force dispersed, and Oswald then succeeded to the throne of Bernicia. The exact year is in question. According to lists of regnal years, Oswald became king in 634 but a calculation based on Bede's account, which includes Cadwallon's yearlong reign, suggests 635 (Higham 1997:206). A possible resolution to this problem is that Cadwallon may have reigned for a full year in Deira only but not in Bernicia. This would indicate that Eanfrith had ruled for a full year or slightly more.37 Oswald's success in slaying Cadwallon, the most successful king of his era, vaulted him into the role of the dominant Anglo-Saxon king, or Bretwalda,38 and overking of at least northern Britain virtually the day he slew Cadwallon (Higham 1997:209).

Within the first year of his kingship, Oswald probably moved to secure the throne of Deira possibly through his claim as the son of Acha, King Ælle's daughter and as nephew of Edwin, but most likely through force of arms. It is likely that the Deirans favored a kinsman of Edwin from the male line, as Osric had been, over Oswald. Oswald's cousin and rival Oswine fled to the West Saxons for protection indicating that Oswald was not wholeheartedly accepted by the Deirans (Higham 1995:167; 1997:203, 226). However, Oswald’s role in slaying Cadwallon, an oppressor of Deira, and his kinship to the Deiran royal house may have made him begrudgingly acceptable to the nonroyal nobles of Deira. This support for Oswald among the Deiran nobles may have allowed his son OEthelwald to exercise some autonomy as King of Deira from his uncle Oswiu, King of Bernicia, by allying himself with Penda of Mercia in opposition to Oswiu in c. 655 (Yorke 1990:78-79). Oswald also did take some care to invest in Deira by completing the construction of the stone church of St. Peter in York that had been begun by Edwin. He also appears to have allowed Edwin’s head to be placed in the chapel of Pope Gregory the Great in the church (Bede 2.20; McClure and Collins 1994:105-106). While Oswald was a hostile rival to his Deiran cousins, this patronage of Edwin’s projects in Deira would have helped mollify the Deiran nobles to his cause.

Oswald's conquest of Deira caused the exile of his cousins: Edwin's son Uscfrea and his grandson Yffi, Oswine son of Osric, and probably also the death of Eadfrith son of Edwin who had been taken prisoner by Penda after the battle of Hatfield Chase (See Fig. 2 and map). Æthelburh, Edwin's wife, took his minor children and grandson into exile to her brother King Eadbald of Kent but later sent the boys to her cousin King Dagobert of the Franks for fear of Oswald and Eadbald (Bede 2.20; McClure and Collins 1995:106). Penda had his own reasons for killing Eadfrith,39 but Penda and his brother Eowa probably came to terms with Oswald after his conquest of Lindsey and before he traveled across Mercian territory to Dorchester for Cynegils' baptism and his marriage to Cynegils' daughter in c. 635 (ASC 635; Swanton 1998:27). The death of Eadfrith may have been one of the demands made on Penda and Eowa by Oswald for their truce. Oswine was given refuge with Cynegils of the Gewisse (Higham 1995:167). It is possible that the delicate nature of Oswald’s alliance with Cynegils prevented him from pressuring the latter over Oswine if he ever knew Oswine was in Cynegils’ court at all.

By 635, Oswald was firmly in control of at least the same kingdom his father had ruled, a united Bernicia and Deira with hegemony in northern Britain and among the south Humbrians. He was a traditional king who ran all his rivals into exile, even though they were his kinsmen, and possibly pressured Penda to kill Eadfrith. His allegiance to his own hosts Eochaid Bude and Eochaid's son, Domnall Brecc, during exile is best illustrated by the likely marriage alliances arranged between Dalriada and Bernicia40 and the establishment of Lindisfarne as a daughter church of Iona. It is possible that Oswald also provided Domnall Brecc with warriors for the battle of Mag Rath in 637 (Moisl 1983:119). Unlike all the other exiled æthelings it appears likely that Oswald was able to turn the tables on his mentor after Domnall Brecc’s disastrous defeat at Mag Rath in 637 and so become the overlord of Dalriada during his former host's lifetime.41

The Politics of Exile

The exile of numerous æthelings from Bernicia and Deira noted from 603 to 635 provides a unique insight into the mechanism of early medieval Anglian kingdoms. Each time a new dynasty came to the throne the event was akin to a revolution and the previous king's kinsmen, even if they were young children, were killed or driven into exile where assassination was a constant threat.

These young men and their dependents were taken into the various neighboring kingdoms to be used as political pawns in a game of hegemony. The host hoped that one day he might return the exiled ætheling to his kingdom as a subject king to himself. Rædwald's return of Edwin to the throne of Deira was a complete success and Edwin appears to have been dominated by East Anglia for the remainder of Rædwald's life until c. 625 (Higham 1995:199-200). However, this strategy was not always successful. The kings of Dalriada twice accepted Bernician exiles with the hopes of returning them to their kingdom as subject kings. In their case the policy was not a complete success as Aedan failed to return Hering to the throne in 603, Eanfrith was killed in his first year and Domnall Brecc's hegemony over Oswald was probably quite short lived. Other kings who took in refugees saw no significant political gain for their hospitality. Cynegils of the Gewisse gave Oswine son of Osric refuge from Oswald but he died the same year Oswine returned to become King of Deira and his successor Cenwealh does not appear to have gained anything significant from Oswine.42 Dagobert of the Franks got even less when Edwin's son and grandson died of an illness in his charge (Bede 2.20; McClure and Collins 1994:106). Dagobert had undoubtedly hoped to increase his influence in Britain through the young boys as had the Frankish host of Sigeberht son of Rædwald when he reclaimed the kingship of East Anglia after his brother's death (Bede 2.15; McClure and Collins 1994:99). Edwin showed particular ingratitude to some of his hosts. King Ceorl of Mercia may have paid the greatest price for his sponsorship of Edwin if, as seems likely, Æthelfrith destroyed his regime and his line never reclaimed Mercia. If Welsh legend is correct, Edwin later attacked Cadwallon, the son and successor of his former host, King Cadfan of Gwynedd, driving him into exile (Chadwick 1963a:148-155; AC 629; Morris 1980:46). Edwin and Deira paid for this insult dearly when Cadwallon returned.

An ætheling and his host had certain expectations of each other. First and foremost, the ætheling expected to be protected from his enemies, an expectation illustrated most clearly by the actions of Ceorl and Rædwald during Edwin's exile. He probably expected that he and members of his close family would intermarry with the kindred of his host as had Edwin, Eanfrith and probably Oswald, thereby increasing their ties to the host. These marriages also stabilized the æthelings family in their new host kingdom in the event that they failed to return to their home. An exiled ætheling who never returned to his homeland was still a kinsman by marriage to the king and his children were members of the royal dynasty of his host's kingdom. The host expected the ætheling and his entire retinue to fight for him in whatever battle he chose, an example of this being the death of an Anglian ætheling alongside Dalriadan king Conadd Cerr at the battle of Fid-Eion in Ireland in 628 (Moisl 1983:105-109). The refugee was expected to practice and promote the religion of choice of his host even after he returned to his homeland, a point illustrated by the conversion of the sons of Æthelfrith on Iona and their subsequent support of the Celtic church in Bernicia and Deira (Bede 3.3; McClure & Collins 1994:113-114) and by Sigeberht's conversion in Gaul and his acceptance of the Gaulish bishop Felix (Bede 2.15; McClure & Collins 1994:99, 381-2). As already noted, the ætheling was also expected and perhaps sworn to remain a subject king to his host if the host helped return him to his kingdom.

The stay of an exiled ætheling in the host kingdom and his return to his own kingdom could also be a force for cultural change. This change is most dramatically illustrated by the Irish (Scottish) influence brought to Northumbria and beyond with Oswald and Oswiu. The influence of the church of Iona would permeate not only Northumbria but also Mercia, Lindsey and Essex (Higham 1997:231-250, Fig. 8). The strong influence of the Scots, northern British and the Picts on Oswald’s kingdom in particular will be discussed further in another essay. Dalriada’s contact with the sons of Hussa and Æthelfrith increased their knowledge of the Angles and also influenced their culture. Sigeberht’s exile among the Franks must have also brought aspects of Frankish culture to East Anglia at least in matters of the church, not only in his acceptance of Bishop Felix but also in Abbot Fursa’s journey to the court of Frankish King Clovis and in the entry of East Anglian noblewomen into Frankish convents.43

One of the clearest trends to emerge that is specific to Northumbria is the opposing political orientation of Deira and Bernicia. For both kingdoms, we have two chronologically separate examples of exiled æthelings from each kingdom that followed the same paths.

Both sets of Bernician æthelings, Hering son of Hussa and the sons of Æthelfrith with their families and retainers, fled to Dalriada. It was quite natural for Hering to flee to Aedan of Dalriada who was the most powerful northern king in 592 when Æthelfrith took the throne, while the presence of Angles on Iona in 593 suggests Hering's retinue went directly to Dalriada. Although we have no evidence that Æthelfrith pursued Hering, Æthelfrith's quest for Hereric and Edwin suggests that he would have dealt with Hussa's family if possible. The ebbing of Dalriada's power is manifest in the flight of Æthelfrith's sons to the Picts as well as to the Scots and by his heir Eanfrith's marriage to a Pictish woman. Bernicia was clearly in the orbit of the northern kings and it was to the North rather than to the southern Angles that the æthelings turned in their exile. Bernicia was therefore comfortably nestled in a Celtic world and was more at home with at least the Scots and Picts rather than with the more ethnically similar southern Angles or Saxons.

The Deiran æthelings took a completely different path (See Fig. 2). In c. 604, Hereric and Edwin fled initially to the Humbrian kingdoms of Elmet and Mercia and when these failed to protect them, Edwin "wandered secretly as a fugitive for many years through many places and kingdoms, until at last he came to Rædwald" (Bede 2.12; McClure and Collins 1994:91-92). All of Edwin's wanderings appear to be confined to southern Britain, south of the Humber. In 634 on the death of Edwin's cousin and successor Osric, Oswine son of Osric and Edwin's young son Uscfrea and grandson Yffi all went into exile. Initially Uscfrea and Yffi went to Kent with Edwin's wife Æthelburh and his daughter Eanflæd but soon Æthelburh felt they were in danger from her brother Eadbald and Oswald. To keep them as safe as possible she sent them to live with her cousin Dagobert of the Franks. Oswine must have also felt that Kent was not safe and spent his exile under the protection of Cynegils of the Gewisse. The biggest change in the exile pattern of the second set of Deiran æthelings was their inability to turn to the other Humbrian kingdoms after Edwin annexed Elmet and, later, when Mercia under Penda participated in the slaying of Edwin and captured his son Eadfrith, whom Penda later executed. This forced the surviving æthelings to flee to Kent, the southern-most overkingdom of the Saxons, and even to the Continent. There is no reason to believe that they ever contemplated fleeing to Northern Britain. The pattern of their flight suggests that they were familiar and comfortable with Britons and Anglo-Saxons but there is no suggestion that they were acquainted or familiar with the Irish/Scots or the Picts. This may explain why there is no evidence that Edwin pursued the sons of Æthelfrith. He lacked knowledge of the culture, language, geography, and political strength of the northern kingdoms and he probably lacked spies who could inform him. Æthelfrith could chase Edwin because he was dealing with a British and Anglian aristocracy, with whom he was at least culturally familiar, even if he did not have previous contact with these kingdoms. Edwin appears to have been content with ruling what had been Roman Britain rather than all of the island of Britain.

In summary, while the plights of all princely exiles had much in common, those of these northern English exiles tell us a great deal about the political environment of Bernicia and Deira in the late sixth and seventh centuries. The Bernicians were more comfortable in the northern Celtic world than in the southern Anglo-Saxon world. This would continue to be true through the reign of Æthelfrith's son Oswiu who was the overlord of all of Britain north of the River Humber until his death in 670. The Deirans were oriented primarily toward the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms with little apparent interest in the north outside of Edwin's possible dealings with the Cynfarchings of British Rheged. This drastic difference in political outlook may have been one of the main reasons why it took Bernicia approximately 75 years to fully annex Deira with frequent revolts of unequal success throughout those years.44

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