|FROM DOT TO DOMESDAY||Early Medieval||The Birth of Nations: England|
According to Bede: “Those who came over [to Britain] were of the three most powerful nations of Germany – Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. From the Angles ... are descended ... all the race of the Northumbrians, that is, of those nations that dwell on the north side of the river Humber”. (‘HE’ I, 15).
According to the ‘Historia Brittonum’, Anglo-Saxon settlement in the North came about when Hengist, leader of the Germanic mercenaries employed by the Britons to repel the Scots and Picts, made an offer to Vortigern, the British king: “ “if you approve, I will send for my son and his cousin, both valiant men who at my invitation will fight against the Scots, and you can give them the countries in the north, near the wall called Guaul [presumably Hadrian's Wall].” The incautious sovereign having assented to this, Octa and Ebissa arrived with forty keels.” (§38).*
The kingdom of Northumbria came into being at the beginning of the 7th century, when two kingdoms in the north-east of (what is now) England – Bernicia to the north of the Tees, and Deira, to the south – were brought together under a single king.* During the 7th century, the unified kingdom expanded west to the Irish Sea, and north to occupy much of (what is now) southern Scotland.
Northumbrian power peaked during the reigns of Edwin (616–633), Oswald (634–642) and Oswiu (642–670), each of whom succeeded in establishing themselves as overlords of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the Humber. From the mid-8th century, however, there was virtually continuous internecine conflict, added to which, at the end of the century, the Northumbrian monasteries, famous for their intellectual achievements, became prime targets for marauding Vikings. Eventually, these Scandinavian pirate bands organized themselves into a “great heathen army” of conquest and settlement. In 867, two competing Northumbrian kings joined forces to fight the invading army. Both kings were killed, and the victorious Vikings set up a puppet regime in their place. In 876, the Vikings partitioned Northumbria, establishing their own kingdom, based on York, in the south.
The Lindisfarne Gospels were, according to Aldred, the author of a note he probably added between 950 and 970, written by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (d.721): “in honour of God and St Cuthbert [d.687] and the whole company of saints whose relics are on the island. And Æthelwald, bishop of the Lindisfarne islanders [d.740], bound it on the outside and covered it, as he knew well how to do.” The book is written and painted on 258 calf-skin vellum leaves (each about 13½ x 9½ inches). The Latin text of the gospels closely follows that in St Jerome's late-4th/early-5th century Vulgate Bible. There are fifteen elaborately decorated pages: three precede each of the four gospels (a ‘title page’, showing the saint's picture; an ornamental cross design - often called a ‘carpet page’; and an ‘initial page’, featuring a highly decorative opening capital letter); one (an initial page) marks the start of the Christmas story in Matthew; two at the beginning of the whole manuscript (a carpet page and an initial page). Aldred, who by his own admission “glossed it in English”, i.e. he wrote a word-for-word Old English translation between the lines of the Latin text, also says that: “Billfrith, the anchorite, wrought the ornaments on the outside and adorned it with gold and with gems and gilded silver, unalloyed metal.” In 875, in advance of a Viking attack, the bishop and monks of Lindisfarne abandoned the island. They took with them the body of St Cuthbert, other relics and the Gospels. The community dodged the Vikings for seven years – according to a story told by Symeon of Durham (‘LDE’ II, 11–12) the book was lost to the Irish Sea, but, thanks to the intervention of St Cuthbert, was recovered, three days later, none the worse for its adventure – before settling at Chester-le-Street. It was at Chester-le-Street that Aldred, “unworthy and most miserable priest”, as he describes himself, made his additions to the Gospels. In 995 the community, once again prompted by Viking activity, finally moved to Durham. The Gospels' original bejewelled cover having disappeared (possibly removed in the sixteenth century, during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries), the manuscript was acquired by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631). In 1852 a replacement, jewelled silver, binding was provided by Edward Maltby, Bishop of Durham. The Lindisfarne Gospels are now in the keeping of the British Library (Cotton Nero D IV).
King of Deira
547 – 559 IdaBede draws his ‘Ecclesiastical History’ to a close with an annalistic summary of events, in which appears the entry: “In the year 547, Ida began to reign; he was the founder of the royal family of the Northumbrians, and he reigned 12 years.” (‘HE’ V, 24). A chronicle-fragment, based on Bede's summary (composed, roughly, between the mid-8th and mid-9th centuries), adds that Ida: “was the son of Eoppa the son of Eosa. It was Eosa who first came to Britain.”
The ‘Historia Brittonum’ says (§56) that Ida “was the first king in Bernicia”; that (§57) he “had twelve sons ... [six are named] ... and one queen, Bearnoch ...*”; that (§61) he “united Din Guaire [which would become Bamburgh] to Bernicia”; and, apparently, mentions (§62) the British leader who opposed Ida: “Dutigirn at that time fought bravely against the nation of the Angles.”
Archaeological evidence, in the form of early Anglo-Saxon burials, places the origins of Deira in south-eastern Yorkshire (the East Riding).
559 – 560 Glappa
560 – 568 Adda
568 – 572 Æthelric
572 – 579 Theodric
579 – 585 Frithuwald
585 – 592 Hussa
A Bernician king-list in the ‘Historia Brittonum’ (§63), does not include Glappa, but agrees with the Moore Memoranda in respect of the next five kings – and it also provides the only information, scant and obscure as it is, about events during the reigns of any of them: “Adda, son of Ida, reigned 8 years; Æthelric, son of [Ida], reigned 4 years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned 7 years. Frithuwald reigned 6 years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism.+ Hussa reigned 7 years. Against him fought four kings,+ Urien, and Rhydderch Hen, and Gwallawg, and Morcant....
Rhydderch Hen (i.e. ‘the Old’), who is also known as Rhydderch Hael (i.e. ‘the Generous’), was king of the Strathclyde Britons. Urien was king of Rheged, which possibly straddled the Solway Firth. Gwallawg may have ruled Elmet, situated around modern Leeds.* Urien and Gwallawg appear in Welsh genealogies as descendants of Coel Hen, and so does a Morcant Bulc. The genealogies do not, however, assign a territory to the dynastic lines, so, in view of a lack of other evidence, Morcant can be located only somewhere in ‘the North’.
.... Theodric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien.+ But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated,* and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaud [Lindisfarne]; and whilst he was on an expedition + he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science.” This stream of consciousness would seem to suggest that the four named British kings campaigned together against Hussa; and it was Morcant's jealousy of Urien, who had previously fought against Theodoric and whose successful tactics kept Hussa's forces pinned on Lindisfarne for three days, that resulted in Urien's murder.
A Welsh Triad (No.33, ‘Three Unfortunate Assassinations of the Island of Britain’) provides the information that it was: “Llofan Llaw Ddifo [Llofan Severing Hand] who slew Urien son of Cynfarch.” Triad 25 lists Urien as one of the ‘Three Battle-Leaders of the Island of Britain’, whilst in Triad 6 he is one of ‘Three Bull-Protectors [?] of the Island of Britain’. ‘The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain’, a Welsh poem attributed to a bard particularly associated with Urien, Taliesin, describes a battle between Urien's Britons and the Anglo-Saxon forces of one Fflamddwyn (i.e. the Flame-Bearer), in which Fflamddwyn is defeated and killed. The identity of Fflamddwyn is the subject of speculation, but, on account of the statement, by the ‘Historia Brittonum’, that he “fought bravely ... against that Urien”, Theodoric is a popular candidate. Another poem, ‘A Lament for Owain son of Urien’, which is also attributed to Taliesin, says that it was Owain who killed Fflamddwyn.*
560 ? – 588 ? ÆlleThe ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, announces, s.a. 560: “Ælle [son of Yffe] assumed the kingdom of the Northumbrians [see opposite], Ida being dead;+ and ... [he] reigned 30 winters.” (although his death is recorded in 588).
The ‘Annales Cambriae’ indicate that the deaths of “Gwrgi and Peredur” occurred in 580. Brothers Gwrgi and Peredur, sons of Eliffer, feature in Welsh genealogies as descendants of Coel Hen, and are traditionally associated with York.* A Welsh Triad (No.30, ‘Three Faithless War-Bands of the Islands of Britain’) refers to: “the War-Band of Gwrgi and Peredur, who abandoned their lord at Caer Greu, when they had an appointment to fight the next day with Eda Glinmawr [Eda Great-Knee]; and there they were both slain”. Eda would seem to be an Anglo-Saxon name. The ‘Historia Brittonum’ (§61) identifies one Eata, the father of Eaberht, a much later (737–758) king of Northumbria, with the comment: “he is Eata Glinmawr”. Clearly, this Eata cannot be Eda of the triad.
Bede concludes his obituary of Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great), who died in 604: “Nor must we pass by in silence the story of the blessed Gregory, handed down to us by the tradition of our ancestors, which explains his earnest care for the salvation of our nation. It is said that one day, when some merchants had lately arrived at Rome, many things were exposed for sale in the market place, and much people resorted thither to buy: Gregory himself went with the rest, and saw among other wares some boys put up for sale, of fair complexion, with pleasing countenances, and very beautiful hair. When he beheld them, he asked, it is said, from what region or country they were brought? and was told, from the island of Britain, and that the inhabitants were like that in appearance. He again inquired whether those islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism, and was informed that they were pagans. Then fetching a deep sigh from the bottom of his heart, “Alas! what pity,” said he, “that the author of darkness should own men of such fair countenances; and that with such grace of outward form, their minds should be void of inward grace.” He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered, that they were called Angles. “Right,” said he, “for they have an angelic face, and it is meet that such should be co-heirs with the Angels in heaven. What is the name of the province from which they are brought?” It was replied, that the natives of that province were called Deiri. “Truly are they De ira,” said he, “saved from wrath, and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that province called?” They told him his name was Ælle; and he, playing upon the name, said, “Allelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.”* Then he went to the bishop of the Roman Apostolic see (for he was not himself then made pope), and entreated him to send some ministers of the Word into Britain to the nation of the English, that it might be converted to Christ by them; declaring himself ready to carry out that work with the help of God, if the Apostolic Pope should think fit to have it done. But not being then able to perform this task – because, though the Pope was willing to grant his request, yet the citizens of Rome could not be brought to consent that he should depart so far from the city – as soon as he was himself made Pope , he carried out the long-desired work, sending, indeed, other preachers, but himself by his exhortations and prayers helping the preaching to bear fruit. This account, which we have received from a past generation, we have thought fit to insert in our Ecclesiastical History.” (‘HE’ II, 1).
Pope Gregory's mission arrived in Kent in 597. In his ‘Chronica Maiora’ (§4557), Bede notes that : “the people of the Angles north of the river Humber, under kings Ælle and Æthelfrith, did not at this time hear the Word of life.”* It seems clear that Bede believed Ælle was ruling Deira and Æthelfrith Bernicia in 597. However, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ announces that, in 588: “King Ælle died, and Æthelric reigned after him for 5 years.”*
Evidently there were two Northumbrian kings called Æthelric: one, son of Ida/father of Æthelfrith, in Bernicia, and one, successor of Ælle, in Deira (whose only mention is s.a. 588 in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’).*
588 ? – 593 ? ÆthelricPresumably, the original compiler of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ had access to a, no longer extant, Deiran king-list, that showed Æthelric succeeding Ælle. It would appear, though, that the chronicler believed there was a single Northumbrian kingdom at this time, which meant that the year when Æthelfrith (who did, indeed, eventually rule a united Northumbria) succeeded to the Bernician throne (see opposite) must also mark the end of Æthelric's reign. However, the ‘Historia Brittonum’ indicates (§63) that Æthelfrith ruled Bernicia for twelve years before managing to establish his rule in Deira as well – by which token (assuming the regnal lengths given by the ‘Chronicle’ are correct) Ælle's reign should be dated 569–599, and Æthelric's 599–604.
King of Northumbria
592 – 616 Æthelfrith
The ‘Historia Brittonum’ says (§63) that Æthelfrith, to whom it gives the nickname ‘Flesaur’ (the Twister): “gave to his wife Bebba, Din Guaire, which from her is called Bebbanburh [Bamburgh].” Bede doesn't name the king, but confirms (‘HE’ III, 6) that: “the royal city ... has taken its name from Bebba, one of its former queens.”Son of Æthelric (of Bernicia).
Æthelfrith is the first king to rule a united Northumbria. He succeeded to the throne of Bernicia in 592, but a comment in the ‘Historia Brittonum’ suggests that it was another twelve years before he also secured control of Deira.*
Bede reports that: “the brave and ambitious king, Æthelfrith, governed the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and ravaged the Britons more than all the chiefs of the English, insomuch that he might be compared to Saul of old, king of the Israelites, save only in this, that he was ignorant of Divine religion. For he conquered more territories from the Britons than any other chieftain or king, either subduing the inhabitants and making them tributary, or driving them out and planting the English in their places. To him might justly be applied the saying of the patriarch blessing his son in the person of Saul, “Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.” ” (‘HE’ I, 34).
Attributed to the bard Aneirin is ‘Y Gododdin’, a long elegiac Welsh poem which records the defeat of an elite band of warriors who had ridden from the northern British kingdom of Gododdin (modern south-east Scotland) to engage Northumbrian forces at Catraeth (usually, though without certainty, identified as Catterick). The Britons, led by one Mynyddog Mwynfawr (Mynyddog the Wealthy), were annihilated by the vastly greater numbers of Anglo-Saxons – apparently a combined Bernician and Deiran force. The battle of Catraeth is generally placed early in Æthelfrith's reign, around 600, though he is not named.
Bede continues: “Hereupon, Aedan, king of the Scots that dwell in Britain, being alarmed by his success, came against him with a great and mighty army,* but was defeated and fled with a few followers; for almost all his army was cut to pieces at a famous place, called Degsastan, that is, Degsa Stone [not certainly identified]. In which battle also Theobald, brother to Æthelfrith, was killed, with almost all the forces he commanded.* This war Æthelfrith brought to an end in the year of our Lord 603, the 11th of his own reign, which lasted 24 years ... From that time, no king of the Scots in Britain durst make war on the English nation to this day.” (‘HE’ I, 34).
According to the chronology indicated by the ‘Historia Brittonum’, it was in 604 that Æthelfrith took control of Deira. How he managed this takeover is nowhere recorded, but he married Acha, the daughter of Ælle (erstwhile king of Deira), about this time (their son, Oswald, being thirty-seven at the time of his death in 642 *) and, at some stage, he forced Ælle's son, Edwin, into exile.*
At some time between 613 and 616, Æthelfrith, “having raised a mighty army”, says Bede, roundly defeated British forces at Chester. Selyf ap Cynan, evidently the king of Powys, was killed, though Bede doesn't mention it – Welsh and Irish annals provide that information.* What Bede does record, however, is Æthelfrith's massacre of the monks of Bangor Is-coed (Bangor-on-Dee): “Being about to give battle, he [Æthelfrith] observed their priests, who were come together to offer up their prayers to God for the combatants, standing apart in a place of greater safety; he inquired who they were, and what they came together to do in that place. Most of them were of the monastery of Bangor, in which, it is said, there was so great a number of monks, that the monastery being divided into seven parts, with a superior set over each, none of those parts contained less than 300 men, who all lived by the labour of their hands. Many of these, having observed a fast of three days, had come together along with others to pray at the aforesaid battle, having one Brocmail [Brochfael] for their protector, to defend them, whilst they were intent upon their prayers, against the swords of the barbarians. King Æthelfrith being informed of the occasion of their coming, said; “If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they assail us with their curses.” He, therefore, commanded them to be attacked first, and then destroyed the rest of the impious army, not without great loss of his own forces. About twelve hundred of those that came to pray are said to have been killed, and only 50 to have escaped by flight. Brocmail, turning his back with his men, at the first approach of the enemy, left those whom he ought to have defended unarmed and exposed to the swords of the assailants.” (‘HE’ II, 2).
Bede believed that the “very great slaughter” of Britons (“that heretical nation”), at Chester, was Divine retribution. Earlier, Augustine, head of Pope Gregory's mission to the Anglo-Saxons (“the English nation”), had held a meeting with representatives of the British Church: “Augustine, with the help of King Æthelberht [of Kent], drew together to a conference the bishops and doctors of the nearest province of the Britons ... and began by brotherly admonitions to persuade them to preserve Catholic peace with him, and undertake the common labour of preaching the Gospel to the heathen for the Lord's sake. For they did not keep Easter Sunday at the proper time, but from the 14th to the 20th day of the moon; which computation is contained in a cycle of 84 years. Besides, they did many other things which were opposed to the unity of the church. When, after a long disputation, they did not comply With the entreaties, exhortations, or rebukes of Augustine and his companions, but preferred their own traditions before all the Churches which are united in Christ throughout the world, the holy father, Augustine, put an end to this troublesome and tedious contention, saying, “Let us entreat God, who maketh men to be of one mind in His Father's house, to vouchsafe, by signs from Heaven, to declare to us which tradition is to be followed; and by what path we are to strive to enter His kingdom. Let some sick man be brought, and let the faith and practice of him, by whose prayers he shall be healed, be looked upon as hallowed in God's sight and such as should be adopted by all.” His adversaries unwillingly consenting, a blind man of the English race was brought, who having been presented to the British bishops, found no benefit or healing from their ministry; at length, Augustine, compelled by strict necessity, bowed his knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying that He would restore his lost sight to the blind man, and by the bodily enlightenment of one kindle the grace of spiritual light in the hearts of many of the faithful. Immediately the blind man received sight, and Augustine was proclaimed by all to be a true herald of the light from Heaven. The Britons then confessed that they perceived that it was the true way of righteousness which Augustine taught; but that they could not depart from their ancient customs without the consent and sanction of their people. They therefore desired that a second time a synod might be appointed, at which more of their number should be present. This being decreed, there came, it is said, seven bishops of the Britons, and many men of great learning, particularly from their most celebrated monastery, which is called, in the English tongue, Bancornaburg [Bangor], and over which the Abbot Dinoot is said to have presided at that time. They that were to go to the aforesaid council, be-took themselves first to a certain holy and discreet man, who was wont to lead the life of a hermit among them, to consult with him, whether they ought, at the preaching of Augustine, to forsake their traditions... “Do you contrive,” said the anchorite, “that he first arrive with his company at the place where the synod is to be held; and if at your approach he rises up to you, hear him submissively, being assured that he is the servant of Christ; but if he despises you, and does not rise up to you, whereas you are more in number, let him also be despised by you.” They did as he directed; and it happened, that as they approached, Augustine was sitting on a chair. When they perceived it, they were angry, and charging him with pride, set themselves to contradict all he said. He said to them, “Many things ye do which are contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal Church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three matters, to wit, to keep Easter at the due time; to fulfil the ministry of Baptism, by which we are born again to God, according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and to join with us in preaching the Word of God to the English nation, we will gladly suffer all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs.” They answered that they would do none of those things, nor receive him as their archbishop; for they said among themselves, “if he would not rise up to us now, how much more will he despise us, as of no account, if we begin to be under his subjection?” Then the man of God, Augustine, is said to have threatened them, that if they would not accept peace with their brethren, they should have war from their enemies; and, if they would not preach the way of life to the English nation, they should suffer at their hands the vengeance of death. All which, through the dispensation of the Divine judgement, fell out exactly as he had predicted.” (‘HE’ II, 2).*
It seems clear that Selyf ap Cynan of Powys was the prime target of Æthelfrith's attack (Selyf is called “king of the Britons” by the Irish annals), but the ‘Annales Cambriae’ raise the possibility that Iago ap Beli, of Gwynedd, was also fatally wounded in the fighting,* and the ‘Annals of Tigernach’ report the death of another king, Cetula (otherwise unknown), in the battle. Just how significant the battle was is the subject of debate. The battle of Chester is often represented as the defining moment when the Britons of the North were separated from the Britons of, what would become known as, Wales. On the other hand, Bede attaches no such importance to it. Possibly it was only the slaughter of the monks of Bangor that ensured this particular battle was remembered, whilst many others were forgotten.
Meanwhile, the fugitive Deiran prince, Edwin, had found refuge with Rædwald, king of East Anglia. Æthelfrith's attempts to bribe Rædwald into murdering Edwin failed, and instead, in 616, Rædwald mounted a surprise attack against Æthelfrith. In the ensuing battle, which took place on the east bank of the river Idle (on the southern border of Deira), Æthelfrith was defeated and killed.* Edwin expelled Æthelfrith's sons, and established himself as ruler in Bernicia as well as Deira.
616 – 633 Edwin (St Edwin)Son of Ælle (of Deira).
Bede: “When Æthelfrith, his predecessor, was persecuting him, he [Edwin] wandered for many years as an exile, hiding in divers places and kingdoms” (‘HE’ II, 12). Late yarns have it that Gwynedd was one of those kingdoms,* and he certainly must have spent time in Mercia, since Bede (‘HE’ II, 14) talks of: “Osfrith and Eadfrith, King Edwin's sons who were both born to him, whilst he was in banishment, of Cwenburh, the daughter of Cearl, king of the Mercians.” Edwin eventually found refuge with Rædwald, king of the East Angles, who took up his cause and led an army against Æthelfrith in 616. Æthelfrith was defeated and killed, and his sons were exiled. Edwin supplanted Æthelfrith as king of both Deira and Bernicia.* Rædwald was, explains Bede (‘HE’ II, 5), the fourth: “of the English kings who ruled over all the southern provinces that are divided from the northern by the river Humber and the borders contiguous to it”. Taking its cue from Bede, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ (s.a. 827) lists Rædwald as the fourth of eight English kings to whom it grants the title Bretwalda. Edwin owed his position to Rædwald, and must, like the English kings south of the Humber, have recognized him as his overlord.
The ‘Historia Brittonum’ reports (§63) that Edwin: “seized on Elmet, and expelled Certic, its king.”* Elmet was a British kingdom around the Leeds area (remembered in place names Barwick-in-Elmet and Sherburn-in-Elmet). Bede makes a fleeting reference (‘HE’ IV, 23) to one “Hereric, nephew to King Edwin”, who, like Edwin himself, had been exiled from Deira: “Hereric, lived in banishment, under Cerdic, king of the Britons, where he was also poisoned”. Presumably Bede's Cerdic is to be identified with Certic, king of Elmet. It is tempting to link the poisoning of Hereric with Edwin's seizure of Elmet – Edwin's assault on Elmet being motivated by revenge for the murder of Hereric – but Bede gives no hint that Cerdic was the guilty party (the most likely culprit must be Æthelfrith).*
In due course, Edwin became the next overlord of the south-Humbrian English kingdoms (though with one notable exception) recorded by Bede: “The fifth was Edwin, king of the Northumbrian nation, that is, of those who live in the district to the north of the river Humber; his power was greater; he had the overlordship over all the nations who inhabit Britain, both English and British, except only the people of Kent; and he reduced also under the dominion of the English, the Mevanian Islands of the Britons [Anglesey and the Isle of Man], lying between Ireland and Britain” (‘HE’ II, 5).* (Edwin is the fifth Bretwalda listed by the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’.) Bede believed that Edwin had been granted his earthly success because he was destined to become a Christian – the first Christian ruler in Northumbria.
Edwin's Mercian wife, Cwenburh, must have died, because, evidently about the year 624, he contacted the king of Kent, Eadbald, and asked to marry his sister, Æthelburh. (It is, perhaps, reasonable to infer that Rædwald was dead, and that Edwin was already a power to be reckoned with by this time.) Eadbald and Æthelburh were the children of Æthelberht, who had, in 597, received the mission of Pope Gregory I, and had subsequently become the first English king to adopt Christianity. It may well be that Edwin had visited the Kentish court during his years as a wandering exile. At any rate: “When he first sent ambassadors to ask her in marriage of her brother Eadbald, who then reigned in Kent, he received the answer, “That it was not lawful to give a Christian maiden in marriage to a pagan husband, lest the faith and the mysteries of the heavenly King should be profaned by her union with a king that was altogether a stranger to the worship of the true God.” This answer being brought to Edwin by his messengers, he promised that he would in no manner act in opposition to the Christian faith, which the maiden professed; but would give leave to her, and all that went with her, men and women, bishops and clergy, to follow their faith and worship after the custom of the Christians. Nor did he refuse to accept that religion himself, if, being examined by wise men, it should be found more holy and more worthy of God. So the maiden was promised, and sent to Edwin, and in accordance with the agreement, Paulinus, a man beloved of God, was ordained bishop, to go with her, and by daily exhortations, and celebrating the heavenly Mysteries, to confirm her, and her company, lest they should be corrupted by intercourse with the pagans. Paulinus was ordained bishop by the Archbishop Justus, on the 12th of the Kalends of August [i.e. 21st July], in the year of our Lord 625, and so came to King Edwin with the aforesaid maiden as an attendant on their union in the flesh. But his mind was wholly bent upon calling the nation to which he was sent to the knowledge of truth; according to the words of the Apostle, “To espouse her to the one true Husband, that he might present her as a chaste virgin to Christ.” Being come into that province, he laboured much, not only to retain those that went with him, by the help of God, that they should not abandon the faith, but, if haply he might, to convert some of the pagans to the grace of the faith by his preaching. But, as the Apostle says, though he laboured long in the Word, “The god of this world blinded the minds of them that believed not, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ should shine unto them.” The next year [i.e. 626] there came into the province one called Eomer, sent by the king of the West Saxons, whose name was Cwichelm, to lie in wait for King Edwin, in hopes at once to deprive him of his kingdom and his life. He had a two-edged dagger, dipped in poison, to the end that, if the wound inflicted by the weapon did not avail to kill the king, it might be aided by the deadly venom. He came to the king on the first day of the Easter festival, at the river Derwent, where there was then a royal township, and being admitted as if to deliver a message from his master, whilst unfolding in cunning words his pretended embassy, he startled up on a sudden, and unsheathing the dagger under his garment, assaulted the king. When Lilla, the king's most devoted servant, saw this, having no buckler at hand to protect the king from death, he at once interposed his own body to receive the blow; but the enemy struck home with such force, that he wounded the king through the body of the slaughtered thegn. Being then attacked on all sides with swords, in the confusion he also slew impiously with his dagger another of the thegns, whose name was Forthhere. On that same holy Easter night [20th April 626], the queen had brought forth to the king a daughter, called Eanflæd. The king, in the presence of Bishop Paulinus, gave thanks to his gods for the birth of his daughter; and the bishop, on his part, began to give thanks to Christ, and to tell the king, that by his prayers to Him he had obtained that the queen should bring forth the child in safety, and without grievous pain. The king, delighted with his words, promised, that if God would grant him life and victory over the king by whom the murderer who had wounded him had been sent, he would renounce his idols, and serve Christ; and as a pledge that he would perform his promise, he delivered up that same daughter to Bishop Paulinus, to be consecrated to Christ. She was the first to be baptized of the nation of the Northumbrians, and she received Baptism on the holy day of Pentecost [8th June], along with 11 others of her house. At that time, the king, being recovered of the wound which he had received, raised an army and marched against the nation of the West Saxons; and engaging in war, either slew or received in surrender all those of whom he learned that they had conspired to murder him....
Manuscript E of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ notes, s.a. 626, that Edwin: “went against the West Saxons with an army, and there slew 5 kings, and many of the people.”
.... So he returned victorious into his own country, but he would not immediately and unadvisedly embrace the mysteries of the Christian faith, though he no longer worshipped idols, ever since he made the promise that he would serve Christ; but first took heed earnestly to be instructed at leisure by the venerable Paulinus, in the knowledge of faith, and to confer with such as he knew to be the wisest of his chief men, inquiring what they thought was fittest to be done in that case. And being a man of great natural sagacity, he often sat alone by himself a long time in silence, deliberating in the depths of his heart how he should proceed, and to which religion he should adhere.” (‘HE’ II, 9).
At this point in his narrative, Bede inserts two letters composed by Pope Boniface V. The first is to Edwin, urging him to convert to Christianity: “we have learnt that your illustrious consort, who is discerned to be one flesh with you, has been blessed with the reward of eternity, through the regeneration of Holy Baptism. We have, therefore, taken care by this letter, with all the goodwill of heartfelt love, to exhort your Highness, that, abhorring idols and their worship, and despising the foolishness of temples, and the deceitful flatteries of auguries, you believe in God the Father Almighty, and His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, to the end that, believing and being released from the bonds of captivity to the Devil, you may, through the co-operating power of the Holy and undivided Trinity, be partaker of the eternal life.” (‘HE’ II, 10). The second letter is to Edwin's wife, Æthelburh: “when our fatherly love earnestly inquired concerning your illustrious consort, we were given to understand, that he still served abominable idols, and delayed to yield obedience in giving ear to the voice of the preachers. This occasioned us no small grief, that he that is one flesh with you still remained a stranger to the knowledge of the supreme and undivided Trinity. Whereupon we, in our fatherly care, have not delayed to admonish and exhort your Christian Highness, to the end that, filled with the support of the Divine inspiration, you should not defer to strive, both in season and out of season, that with the co-operating power of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, your husband also may be added to the number of Christians; that so you may uphold the rights of marriage in the bond of a holy and unblemished union. For it is written, ‘They twain shall be one flesh.’ How then can it be said, that there is unity in the bond between you, if he continues a stranger to the brightness of your faith, separated from it by the darkness of detestable error?” (‘HE’ II, 11). These two letters would appear to have been written between 21st July 625 (when Paulinus was ordained, before he and Æthelburh embarked for Northumbria) and 25th October 625 (when Pope Boniface died). This, perhaps, seems a short time-frame into which to fit the sequence of events that must have occurred: the journey to Northumbria and marriage of Edwin and Æthelburh; Paulinus' realization that Edwin is not going to be easily converted to Christianity; a message is sent to the pope to appraise him of the situation, and the pope despatches his letters to Edwin and Æthelburh in response. Æthelburh gave birth to Eanflæd on 20th April 626, which is also a tight fit in the time-frame. Possibly Edwin and Æthelburh had in fact been married before 21st July 625.*
Bede returns to his narrative (‘HE’ II, 12): “when Paulinus perceived that it was a difficult task to incline the king's proud mind to the humility of the way of salvation and the reception of the mystery of the life-giving Cross, and at the same time was employing the word of exhortation with men, and prayer to the Divine Goodness, for the salvation of Edwin and his subjects; at length, as we may suppose, it was shown him in spirit what the nature of the vision was that had been formerly revealed from Heaven to the king.” This was a vision that Edwin had experienced during his exile with Rædwald. A spirit had visited him and asked how he would reward a man who could keep him safe, destroy his enemies, and ensure that: “you should be a king surpassing in power, not only all your own ancestors, but even all that have reigned before you in the English nation?” Edwin promised the spirit “that he would in all things follow the teaching of that man who should deliver him from so many great calamities, and raise him to a throne.” The spirit: “laid his right hand on his [Edwin's] head saying, “When this sign shall be given you, remember this present discourse that has passed between us, and do not delay the performance of what you now promise.” “* Paulinus, having received knowledge of the vision, went to Edwin: “laid his right hand on his head, and asked, whether he knew that sign?” Paulinus said that God had delivered what Edwin desired, now Edwin should stick to his side of the bargain. Edwin agreed to honour his promise and become a Christian, but insisted that he would first discuss the matter with his chief-men, to the end that, if they thought it a good idea, they would be baptized at the same time as he was. Thanks to a little “Divine prompting”, they decided that Christianity “seems justly to deserve to be followed.”*
Bede relates (‘HE’ II, 13) how Edwin's chief pagan priest, Coifi, asked the king if he could hear more detail from Paulinus himself. “When he did so, at the king's command, Coifi, hearing his words, cried out, “This long time I have perceived that what we worshipped was naught; because the more diligently I sought after truth in that worship, the less I found it. But now I freely confess, that such truth evidently appears in this preaching as can confer on us the gifts of life, of salvation, and of eternal happiness. For which reason my counsel is, O king, that we instantly give up to ban and fire those temples and altars which we have consecrated without reaping any benefit from them.” In brief, the king openly assented to the preaching of the Gospel by Paulinus, and renouncing idolatry, declared that he received the faith of Christ: and when he inquired of the aforesaid high priest of his religion, who should first desecrate the altars and temples of their idols, with the precincts that were about them, he answered, “I; for who can more fittingly than myself destroy those things which I worshipped in my folly, for an example to all others, through the wisdom which has been given me by the true God?” Then immediately, in contempt of his vain superstitions, he desired the king to furnish him with arms and a stallion, that he might mount and go forth to destroy the idols; for it was not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms, or to ride on anything but a mare. Having, therefore, girt a sword about him, with a spear in his hand, he mounted the king's stallion, and went his way to the idols. The multitude, beholding it, thought that he was mad; but as soon as he drew near the temple he did not delay to desecrate it by casting into it the spear which he held; and rejoicing in the knowledge of the worship of the true God, he commanded his companions to tear down and set on fire the temple, with all its precincts. This place where the idols once stood is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmunddingaham [Goodmanham], where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated.”
“King Edwin, therefore, with all the nobility of the nation, and a large number of the common sort, received the faith, and the washing of holy regeneration, in the 11th year of his reign, which is the year of our Lord 627 ... He was baptized at York, on the holy day of Easter, being the day before the Ides of April [i.e. 12th April], in the church of St Peter the Apostle, which he himself had built of timber there in haste, whilst he was a catechumen receiving instruction in order to be admitted to baptism....
The ‘Historia Brittonum’ claims (§63) that: “Edwin himself received baptism, and twelve thousand of his subjects with him. If any one wishes to know who baptized them, it was Rhun son of Urien: he was engaged forty days in baptizing all classes of the Saxons, and by his preaching many believed in Christ.” The assertion that it was Rhun, a Briton, and not Paulinus as indicated by Bede, who baptized Edwin also appears in the ‘Annales Cambriae’: “Edwin is baptized, and Rhun son of Urien baptized him.” There have been various theories to explain the apparent contradiction.* A popular suggestion is that Edwin was: baptized by Rhun during his exile; he then reverted to paganism; he was baptized a second time by Paulinus.
.... In that city also he bestowed upon his instructor and bishop, Paulinus, his episcopal see. But as soon as he was baptized, he set about building, by the direction of Paulinus, in the same place a larger and nobler church of stone, in the midst whereof the oratory which he had first erected should be enclosed. Having, therefore, laid the foundation, he began to build the church square, encompassing the former oratory. But before the walls were raised to their full height, the cruel death of the king left that work to be finished by Oswald his successor. Paulinus, for the space of six years from this time, that is, till the end of the king's reign, with his consent and favour, preached the Word of God in that country, and as many as were foreordained to eternal life believed and were baptized. Among them were Osfrith and Eadfrith, King Edwin's sons who were both born to him, whilst he was in banishment, of Cwenburh, the daughter of Cearl, king of the Mercians. Afterwards other children of his, by Queen Æthelburh, were baptized, Æthelhun and his daughter Æthelthryth, and another, Uscfrea, a son; the first two were snatched out of this life whilst they were still in the white garments of the newly-baptized, and buried in the church at York. Yffi, the son of Osfrith, was also baptized, and many other noble and royal persons. So great was then the fervour of the faith, as is reported, and the desire for the laver of salvation among the nation of the Northumbrians, that Paulinus at a certain time coming with the king and queen to the royal township, which is called Ad Gefrin [Yeavering, Northumberland], stayed there with them 36 days, fully occupied in catechizing and baptizing; during which days, from morning till night, he did nothing else but instruct the people resorting from all villages and places, in Christ's saving Word; and when they were instructed, he washed them with the water of absolution in the river Glen, which is close by. This township, under the following kings, was abandoned, and another was built instead of it, at the place called Mælmin. These things happened in the province of the Bernicians; but in that of the Deiri also, where he was wont often to be with the king, he baptized in the river Swale, which runs by the village of Cataract [Catterick, North Yorkshire]; for as yet oratories, or baptisteries, could not be built in the early infancy of the Church in those parts.” (‘HE’ II, 14).
Edwin persuaded Eorpwald, king of the East Angles and son of Edwin's erstwhile benefactor, Rædwald, to adopt Christianity. Not long after his conversion, however, Eorpwald was killed by a pagan rival.
The kingdom of Lindsey covered much of modern-day Lincolnshire – indeed, it is named after the Roman name for Lincoln (Lindum Colonia). Its borders are fairly precisely known: the river Humber to the north; the sea to the east; the Foss Dyke and river Witham to the south; in the west, the river Trent, but including the Isle of Axholme, in the marshes (now drained) to the west of the Trent. Lindsey has no recorded independent history – appearing as a satellite of either Mercia or, as here, its earliest appearance in the record, Northumbria: “Paulinus also preached the Word to the province of Lindsey, which is the first on the south side of the river Humber, stretching as far as the sea; and he first converted to the Lord the praefectus of the city of Lincoln, whose name was Blæcca, with his whole house.* He likewise built, in that city, a stone church of beautiful workmanship; the roof of which has either fallen through long neglect, or been thrown down by enemies, but the walls are still to be seen standing, and every year miraculous cures are wrought in that place, for the benefit of those who have faith to seek them... A certain priest and abbot of the monastery of Peartaneu [Partney], a man of singular veracity, whose name was Deda, told me concerning the faith of this province that an old man had informed him that he himself had been baptized at noon-day, by Bishop Paulinus, in the presence of King Edwin, and with him a great multitude of the people, in the river Trent, near the city, which in the English tongue is called Tiowulfingacæstir [Littleborough]; and he was also wont to describe the person of the same Paulinus, saying that he was tall of stature, stooping somewhat, his hair black, his visage thin, his nose slender and aquiline, his aspect both venerable and awe-inspiring. He had also with him in the ministry, James, the deacon, a man of zeal and great fame in Christ and in the church, who lived even to our days. It is told that there was then such perfect peace in Britain, wheresoever the dominion of King Edwin extended, that, as is still proverbially said, a woman with her new-born babe might walk throughout the island, from sea to sea, without receiving any harm. That king took such care for the good of his nation, that in several places where he had seen clear springs near the highways, he caused stakes to be fixed, with copper drinking-vessels hanging on them, for the refreshment of travellers; nor durst any man touch them for any other purpose than that for which they were designed, either through the great dread they had of the king, or for the affection which they bore him. His dignity was so great throughout his dominions, that not only were his banners borne before him in battle, but even in time of peace, when he rode about his cities, townships, or provinces, with his thegns, the standard-bearer was always wont to go before him. Also, when he walked anywhere along the streets, that sort of banner which the Romans call Tufa, and the English, Thuf, was in like manner borne before him.” (‘HE’ II, 16).
Bede reports (‘HE’ II, 18) that Justus, archbishop of Canterbury, died on the 10th November, but he doesn't specify the year. It must, however, have been between 627 and 632, and events might tend to suggest that the later end of that range is more likely. At any rate, Justus' successor, Honorius, was ordained at Lincoln by Paulinus. It had been the intention of Pope Gregory I that there should also be an archbishop based at York.* That idea was at last viable, and it would appear that Archbishop Honorius, Edwin and Eadbald, king of Kent, wrote to Pope Honorius I (625–638) requesting that Paulinus be made archbishop of York. Bede quotes (‘HE’ II, 17) the pope's reply to Edwin: “We are preparing with a willing mind immediately to grant those things which you hoped would be by us ordained for your bishops, and this we do on account of the sincerity of your faith, which has been made known to us abundantly in terms of praise by the bearers of these presents. We have sent two palls to the two metropolitans [archbishops], Honorius and Paulinus; to the intent, that when either of them shall be called out of this world to his Creator, the other may, by this authority of ours, substitute another bishop in his place; which privilege we are induced to grant by the warmth of our love for you, as well as by reason of the great extent of the provinces which lie between us and you; that we may in all things support your devotion and likewise satisfy your desires. May God's grace preserve your Highness in safety!” Bede also quotes a letter from Pope Honorius to Archbishop Honorius (‘HE’ II, 18), evidently written at the same time as the letter to Edwin: “Wherefore, in accordance with your request, and that of the kings our sons, we do hereby in the name of the blessed Peter, chief of the Apostles, grant you authority, that when the Divine Grace shall call either of you to Himself, the survivor shall ordain a bishop in the room of him that is deceased. To which end also we have sent a pall to each of you, beloved, for celebrating the said ordination; that by the authority which we hereby commit to you, you may make an ordination acceptable to God; because the long distance of sea and land that lies between us and you, has obliged us to grant you this, that no loss may happen to your Church in any way, on any pretext whatever, but that the devotion of the people committed to you may increase the more. God preserve you in safety, most dear brother! Given on the 3rd of the Ides of June [11th June], in the reign of these our lords and emperors, in the 24th year of the reign of Heraclius, and the 23rd after his consulship; and in the 23rd year of his son Constantine, and the 3rd after his consulship; and in the 3rd year of the most prosperous Caesar, his son Heraclius, the 7th indiction; that is, in the year of our Lord, 634.*” Sadly, at the time Pope Honorius wrote these letters Edwin had been dead for eight months, and Paulinus had fled from Northumbria.
Bede twice (‘HE’ II, 5 & 9) refers to Edwin bringing “the Mevanian Islands” – the Isle of Man and Anglesey – under English control. A Welsh Triad (26 W) lists Edwin (whom it calls “king of Lloegr”, i.e. king of England) as the third of the: “Three Great Oppressions of Môn [Anglesey], nurtured therein.” Plainly, the Triad refers to Edwin's overlordship of Anglesey – the island stronghold of Gwynedd – but it also alludes to a ‘tradition’, which can be traced no earlier than the 12th century, that Edwin had been raised by Cadfan, king of Gwynedd, alongside his own son, Cadwallon (who would eventually be the agent of Edwin's death). In Triad 29, ‘Three Faithful War-Bands of the Island of Britain’, first mentioned is: “The War-Band of Cadwallon son of Cadfan, who were with him seven years in Ireland; and in all that time they did not ask him for anything, lest they should be compelled to leave him” – which raises the possibility that, due to persecution by Edwin, Cadwallon was forced to flee Britain. Triad 69 refers to “the Action of Digoll” fought between Edwin and Cadwallon, when: “the Severn was defiled [with blood] from its source to its mouth”. According to a Welsh poem of apparently ancient origins, ‘Marwnad Cadwallon’ (Death-song of Cadwallon): “Cadwallon the illustrious Encamped on Digoll Mount, For seven months and seven battles daily.” Triad 62, ‘Three Fettered War-Bands of the Islands of Britain’: “And the third, the War-Band of Belyn of Llŷn when fighting with Edwin at Bryn Edwin in Rhos.” The ‘Annales Cambriae’ indicate that Belyn died in 627, and two years later record: “The besieging of king Cadwallon in the island of Glannauc.”* Evidently Cadwallon didn't command sufficient forces to overthrow Edwin. What he needed was an ally.
“Edwin reigned most gloriously 17 years over the nations of the English and the Britons, six whereof, as has been said, he also was a soldier in the kingdom of Christ. Cadwallon, king of the Britons, rebelled against him, being supported by the vigorous Penda, of the royal race of the Mercians ... A great battle being fought in the plain that is called Hæthfelth [Hatfield Chase, near Doncaster], Edwin was killed on the 4th of the Ides of October [12th October], in the year of our Lord 633, being then 48 years of age, and all his army was either slain or dispersed. In the same war also, Osfrith, one of his sons, a warlike youth, fell before him; Eadfrith, another of them, compelled by necessity, went over to King Penda, and was by him afterwards slain in the reign of Oswald, contrary to his oath....
In ‘The Lost Literature of Medieval England’ (1952), R.M. Wilson suggests that Henry of Huntingdon had access to an Old English poem on famous battles, from which he introduces short quotes, translated into Latin, on six occasions. One of them is Hæthfelth: “Report says that in the battle just mentioned, the plain of Hæthfelth ‘reeked throughout with red streams of noble blood;’ it was, indeed, the scene of a sudden and deplorable slaughter of the bravest warriors.” (‘HA’ III, 33).*
In its record of the battle, the ‘Annals of Tigernach’ calls Edwin: “king of the Saxons, who ruled all Britain”.
.... At this time a great slaughter was made in the Church and nation of the Northumbrians; chiefly because one of the chiefs, by whom it was carried on, was a pagan, and the other a barbarian, more cruel than a pagan; for Penda, with all the nation of the Mercians, was an idolater, and a stranger to the name of Christ ....
Earlier (‘HE’ II, 14), Bede had noted that: “in Campodonum [unidentified, but obviously not too far from Leeds], where there was then a royal township, he [Paulinus] built a church which the pagans, by whom King Edwin was slain, afterwards burnt, together with all the place. Instead of this royal seat the later kings built themselves a township in the country called Loidis [the region of Leeds]. But the altar, being of stone, escaped the fire and is still preserved in the monastery of the most reverend abbot and priest, Thrythwulf, which is in the forest of Elmet.”
.... but Cadwallon, though he professed and called himself a Christian, was so barbarous in his disposition and manner of living, that he did not even spare women and innocent children, but with bestial cruelty put all alike to death by torture, and overran all their country in his fury for a long time, intending to cut off all the race of the English within the borders of Britain. Nor did he pay any respect to the Christian religion which had sprung up among them; it being to this day the custom of the Britons to despise the faith and religion of the English, and to have no part with them in anything any more than with pagans.* King Edwin's head was brought to York, and afterwards taken into the church of the blessed Peter the Apostle, which he had begun, but which his successor Oswald finished, as has been said before.* It was laid in the chapel of the holy Pope Gregory, from whose disciples he had received the word of life. The affairs of the Northumbrians being thrown into confusion at the moment of this disaster, when there seemed to be no prospect of safety except in flight, Paulinus, taking with him Queen Æthelburh, whom he had before brought thither, returned into Kent by sea, and was very honourably received by the Archbishop Honorius and King Eadbald. He came thither under the conduct of Bass, a most valiant thegn of King Edwin, having with him Eanflæd, the daughter, and Uscfrea, the son of Edwin, as well as Yffi, the son of Osfrith, Edwin's son. Afterwards Æthelburh, for fear of the kings Eadbald and Oswald, sent Uscfrea and Yffi over into Gaul to be bred up by King Dagobert [of the Franks], who was her friend; and there they both died in infancy, and were buried in the church with the honour due to royal children and to Christ's innocents. He also brought with him many rich goods of King Edwin, among which were a large gold cross, and a golden chalice, consecrated to the service of the altar, which are still preserved, and shown in the church of Canterbury. At that time the church of Rochester had no pastor, for Romanus, the bishop thereof, being sent on a mission to Pope Honorius by Archbishop Justus, was drowned in the Italian Sea; and thus Paulinus, at the request of Archbishop Honorius and King Eadbald, took upon him the charge of the same, and held it until he too, in his own time, departed to heaven [on 10th October 644], with the fruits of his glorious labours; and, dying in that Church, he left there the pall which he had received from the Pope of Rome. He had left behind him in his Church at York, James, the deacon, a true churchman and a holy man, who continuing long after in that Church, by teaching and baptizing, rescued much prey from the ancient enemy; and from him the village, where he chiefly dwelt, near Cataract, has its name to this day. He had great skill in singing in church, and when the province was afterwards restored to peace, and the number of the faithful increased, he began to teach church music to many, according to the custom of the Romans, or of the Kentish people. And being old and full of days, as the Scripture says. He went the way of his fathers.” (‘HE’ II, 20).
‘Historia Brittonum’ by J.A. Giles
‘Annales Cambriae’ by James Ingram
Bede ‘Chronica Maiora’ by Faith Wallis
‘The Whitby Life of St Gregory’ by T.L. Almond
‘The Mabinogion’ by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones
‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ by Benjamin Thorpe (adapted)
Bede ‘Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum’ by A.M. Sellar
Henry of Huntingdon ‘Historia Anglorum’ by Thomas Forester
Florence of Worcester ‘Chronicon ex Chronicis’ by Thomas Forester
William of Malmesbury ‘Gesta Regum Anglorum’ by John Sharpe, revised by Joseph Stevenson
‘Historia Brittonum’ by J.A. Giles
‘Annales Cambriae’ by James Ingram
Bede ‘Chronica Maiora’ by Faith Wallis
‘The Whitby Life of St Gregory’ by T.L. Almond
‘The Mabinogion’ by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones
‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ by Benjamin Thorpe (adapted)
Bede ‘Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum’ by A.M. Sellar
Henry of Huntingdon ‘Historia Anglorum’ by Thomas Forester
Florence of Worcester ‘Chronicon ex Chronicis’ by Thomas Forester
William of Malmesbury ‘Gesta Regum Anglorum’ by John Sharpe, revised by Joseph Stevenson
In the interests of clarity, the spelling of personal names, most of which are found in several forms, has been standardized. Those names which have survived into modern times are given their familiar spelling.
Centre panel of the carpet page preceding St Matthew's Gospel. See: Lindisfarne Gospels Virtual Book at the British Library website.
See: Dark Ages.
Manuscripts B and C of the ‘Chronicle’ do not carry this remark at all. Instead, they feature a genealogy of Ida (which Manuscript E does not have). Manuscript A also used to feature the genealogy, but it was erased, at Canterbury, and replaced with the note about Bamburgh as in Manuscript E.
It is not likely that stone would have been used to build fortifications at Bamburgh during the Anglo-Saxon period.
Written on the badly damaged last leaf of Codex 178, in the Burgerbibliothek, Bern, Switzerland.
The king-list starts with Ida and concludes with Ceolwulf, the king to whom Bede dedicated his ‘Ecclesiastical History’. Quoting Bede's date for the commencement of Ida's reign, i.e. 547, the list provides no further dates, just the length (expressed in Roman numerals) of the succeeding kings' reigns. Counting forward from 547, therefore, the dates can be calculated. Using such a king-list – working backward from a known date – is, no doubt, how Bede, who mentions none of the six kings listed below, arrived at the year 547 for the start of Ida's reign in the first place.
There is a non sequitur in the ‘Historia’ here. The missing detail is supplied by Florence of Worcester, s.a. 547: “He had six sons born of his queens ... [the same six names as the ‘Historia’] ... and six by concubines ... [six further names]”.
Previously (§57), the ‘Historia Brittonum’ had named Adda, Æthelric and Theodric as sons of Ida, but here (§63) Æthelric is actually said to be the son of Adda. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ – s.a. 670, and again (but not Manuscript E) s.a. 685 – and the genealogy of King Ecgfrith (670–685) in the Anglian Collection present Æthelric as the son of Ida.
The mission of Pope Gregory arrived in Kent in 597 (see: King Æthelberht). The highlighted statement is, therefore, incompatible with the date of Frithuwald's reign (579–585) arrived at via Bede and the Moore Memoranda. Presumably the author of the ‘Historia’ has made an error attempting to synchronize his sources.
To the author of the ‘Historia Brittonum’, “the enemy” are, of course, the Anglo-Saxons.
A Peredur is the eponymous hero of an Arthurian romance found in ‘The Mabinogion’. The story begins: “Earl Efrawg held an earldom in the North, and seven sons had he... And his seventh son was called Peredur [there is no mention of a Gwrgi].” (The late-12th century French poet Chrétien de Troyes was responsible for transforming this Peredur into, the Grail-seeking knight, Sir Percival.) To the Romans, York was Eboracum, to the Britons it was Cair Ebrauc – listed as one of the “cities” of Britain by the ‘Historia Brittonum’. Maybe a historical ‘Peredur of Ebrauc (York)’ has metamorphosed into a legendary ‘Peredur son of Efrawg’.
A “Peredur Longspear” is mentioned as one of Arthur's counsellors in another of ‘The Mabinogion’ stories, ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’.
“Peredur of the steel weapons” features in the poem ‘Y Gododdin’ (attributed to Aneirin). Peredur is killed in a disastrous British raid against the Anglo-Saxons of both Bernicia and Deira, by which token the events described in the poem are generally set round about the year 600 – early in the reign of Æthelfrith, the first king to rule both Bernicia and Deira.
John Morris (‘Arthurian Sources, Vol. 8’, 1980) translates the highlighted phrase: “Four kings fought against them”.
John Morris translates the highlighted sentence: “Theodoric fought vigorously against Urien and his sons.”
John Morris translates the highlighted phrase: “But during this campaign”.
Owain features in the Arthurian romances of ‘The Mabinogion’, and is the eponymous hero of ‘Yvain, ou Le Chevalier au Lion’ (Yvain, or The Knight with the Lion) by medieval French poet Chrétien de Troyes.
Manuscripts B and C of the ‘Chronicle’ do not carry this remark at all. In Manuscript A, a genealogy of Ælle (which features in Manuscripts B and C, but not in Manuscript E) was erased, at Canterbury, and replaced with the remark concerning Ida's death as in Manuscript E (and Manuscript F, though the latter dates it 559).
The ‘Annals of Tigernach’ seemingly confuses the names of the brother and the son of Æthelfrith – calling the brother Eanfrith instead of Theobald – but provides the information that Æthelfrith's brother was killed by Mael Umai, the son of, a dead northern Irish king, Baetán.
The prefix Cair (Caer) means ‘the fort of’. Cair Ebrauc appears in a list of 28 such “cities [civitates]” of Britain (not all of which are identifiable) featured in the ‘Historia Brittonum’ (§66a). The number 28 complies with the statement made by Gildas (‘De Excidio Britanniae’ Chapter 3): “The Island of Britain ... is ornamented with eight and twenty cities”.
The most widely disseminated translation of the ‘Historia Brittonum’ (and generally used on this website) is probably J.A. Giles', first published in 1841. As far as possible, Dr Giles employed the translation made by W. Gunn, of a manuscript that the latter had found in the Vatican's library, and published in 1819. At any rate, this Vatican manuscript does not contain §§57–76, and, instead of the conventional list of 28 cities (§66a), the section on British, Irish and Pictish origins (§7) starts: “Here beginneth the history of the Britons, edited by Marcus the Anchorite, a holy bishop of that people. The island of Britain derives its name from Brutus, a Roman consul... It contains 33 cities [their names follow]”. Consequently, it is this version of the list that appears in the Giles translation.
Gregory died in 604, but Bede places his death in 605.
The ‘Chronica Maiora’ (Greater Chronicle) is not a stand-alone work, but a component of ‘De Temporum Ratione’ (On the Reckoning of Time) – written in 725 (which is, of course, before the ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’).
This Æthelric is mentioned neither by Bede nor the ‘Historia Brittonum’ – though Bede does mention Ælle's brother, called Ælfric. D.P. Kirby suggests (Chapter 4) that Æthelric may have been a third brother.
The highlighted section appears in Manuscript E only. In Manuscript A, the concluding phrase “of the Northumbrians” was added at Canterbury.
Bede says that an event dated 603 took place in the 11th year of Æthelfrith's reign.
Florence of Worcester and William of Malmesbury adopt the policy of making the two Æthelrics one and the same person.
William follows the single Northumbrian line of succession suggested by the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, i.e. Ida, having reigned fourteen years (though Bede and the ‘Chronicle’ say twelve), was succeeded by Ælle, who reigned for thirty years: “On the death of Ælle, Æthelric the son of Ida, advanced to extreme old age, after a life consumed in penury, obtained the kingdom, and after five years was taken off by a sudden death. He was a pitiable prince, whom fame would have hidden in obscurity, had not the conspicuous energy of the son lifted up the father to notice. When therefore, by a long old age, he had satisfied the desire of life, Æthelfrith, the elder of his sons, ascended the throne, and compensated the greenness of his years by the maturity of his conduct.“ (‘GR’ I §§46–47)
Florence takes a different tack – presenting an alternative Bernician king-list: “[in 559] Ælle began to reign in the province of Deira and governed it with utmost vigour for nearly 30 years... when Ælle was living, the following kings reigned in Bernicia: Adda, the eldest son of Ida, seven years; Clappa, five; Theodulf, one; Freothulf, 7; Theodric, 7; Æthelric, two years. On Ælle's death ... Æthelric reigned 5 years over both provinces.”
Bede quotes a letter (‘HE’ I, 29) written by Gregory in 601, to the head of his mission in Britain, Augustine, in which the pope directs Augustine to “send to the city of York such a bishop as you shall think fit to ordain; yet so, that if that city, with the places adjoining, shall receive the Word of God, that bishop shall also ordain twelve bishops, and enjoy the honour of a metropolitan [i.e. he will be an archbishop]”. Gregory's plan was for there to be an archbishop based at London and another at York. As events panned out, however, Canterbury, not London, became the archbishop's seat, and it wasn't until 735 that York became a permanent archbishopric.
“Æthelfrith the Twister reigned 12 years in Bernicia, and 12 others in Deira” (‘Historia Brittonum’ §63).
Manuscript E of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ notes (s.a. 603): “Hering son of Hussa led the army hither.” Presumably the Hussa mentioned here is the Hussa who was Æthelfrith's predecessor as king of Bernicia. No doubt Hering's plan was to take the Bernician throne himself.
Barbara Yorke writes: “It appears that Æthelfrith invaded Deira in 604, killing its king (presumably Æthelric), sending Ælle's son Edwin into exile and marrying Ælle's daughter Acha.” D.P. Kirby, however, suggests: “It is not impossible that Æthelfrith gained victory [at Degsastan] solely with Bernician forces; traditional accounts of the battle could have exaggerated the size of Aedán's army. Nevertheless, Deiran support would certainly help to explain what seems to have been a shattering defeat of the Scots... Against a background of possible Deiran–Bernician co-operation, the extension of Æthelfrith's kingship over both territories appears as a formalization of a previous relationship... The expulsion of Edwin did not necessarily follow immediately and Æthelfrith's hostility to his wife's kinsmen probably manifested itself only by degrees.” According to Bede (‘HE’ II, 12), Edwin had “wandered for many years as an exile” by 616.
Bede does not date the battle of Chester, but Manuscript E of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ makes a faulty inference from Bede and places it s.a. 605. (The notice of the battle as in Manuscript E was added, at Canterbury, to Manuscript A s.a. 606.) A date of 613 is indicated by the ‘Annales Cambriae’ and Irish annals. However, the dating mechanism of the ‘Annales Cambriae’ is notoriously vague, and the ‘Annals of Ulster’ is found to be two or three years early, at least in some of its dating, around this period (for instance, Degsastan is dated 600, instead of 603). Further, the ‘Annals of Tigernach’ say that Æthelfrith's victory at Chester was shortly before his death – which, as will be seen, was in 616. The modern tendency, therefore, is to place the battle at Chester c.616.
The Church had evidently survived the tumultuous times that saw Britannia abandoned by Rome and the influx of pagan Anglo-Saxons, and flourished in the areas that remained under British control. Bede accuses the Britons of making no attempt to convert the pagan newcomers: “To other crimes beyond description ... they [the Britons] added this – that they never preached the faith to the Saxons or Angles who dwelt amongst them.” (‘HE’ I, 22). When Pope Gregory's missionaries arrived from Rome to convert the Anglo-Saxons, they found that the British Church was using rituals and practices that were not in line with current Roman custom.
The A-text of the ‘Annales Cambriae’ says: “The battle of Caer Legion [Chester]. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept [died].” The deaths of Selyf and Iago are presented as two distinct events, which may, or may not, be related. The B-text, though, loses the distinction, stating that Selyf and Iago both died at the battle of Chester.
The ‘Annales Cambriae’ indicate that the Welsh eventually adopted the Roman method of calculating Easter in 768: “Easter is changed among the Britons, Elfoddw, servant of God, emending it.” Incidentally, Elfoddw, whose death is placed in 809 by the ‘Annales’, is the Elvodugus, of whom Nennius (purported author of the ‘Historia Brittonum’) claims to have been a “disciple”.
Manuscript E (the only ‘Chronicle’ manuscript to record Æthelfrith's demise and Edwin's succession) places the event s.a. 617. A king-list in the Moore Memoranda, though, indicates it should be in 616. Bede doesn't date the event directly, but places Easter Day (12th April) 627 in Edwin's 11th year as king (‘HE’ II, 14), and says he had reigned for 17 years on 12th October 633 (‘HE’ II, 20), which suggests that Edwin became king in the summer or early autumn of 616.
Both Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his well known pseudo-history, ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, published c.1139; and Reginald of Durham, in a ‘Life’ of, Æthelfrith's son, St Oswald, written in 1165, say that Edwin was raised by Cadfan, king of Gwynedd, alongside his own son, Cadwallon – Cadwallon would eventually be Edwin's nemesis. The stories of both authors have much in common, but also have significant differences, which might suggest that they were produced independently, and that something a little more substantial than Geoffrey's fertile imagination lies behind them. The notion that Edwin grew up in Gwynedd receives some support from a Welsh Triad, (26 W, from a mid-14th century manuscript, the White Book of Rhydderch) which speaks of Edwin as: “one of the Three Great Oppressions of Môn [Anglesey], nurtured therein.”
Cadfan was the son of Iago ap Beli, who died in the same year as, and possibly as a result of injuries received in, the battle fought between the Welsh and Æthelfrith at Chester, i.e. c.616.
Gwallawg is the subject of two poems attributed to the 6th century bard Taliesin. In one of them he seems (depending on interpretation) to be called “judge over Elmet”. Also, the version of a Welsh Triad – “Three Lovers' Horses of the Island of Britain” (No.41) – that appears in the Red Book of Hergest (c.1400), refers to the horse of “Ceredig son of Gwallawg”. The ‘Historia Brittonum’ mentions (§63) a king of Elmet called Certic. If Ceredig and Certic are one and the same person, then Gwallawg should be king of Elmet.
Whilst the existence of Elmet is evidenced by the ‘Historia Brittonum’ and by Bede, Rheged is known only from Welsh literary sources, notably poems attributed to Taliesin. Elmet can be placed in the vicinity of Leeds with considerable confidence – its name lives on in the place names Barwick-in-Elmet and Sherburn-in-Elmet, to the east of Leeds. Rheged (Old Welsh: Reget) is frequently sited in modern-day Dumfries & Galloway and Cumbria (and sometimes in Lancashire also), which it may well have been, but the evidence is actually rather slight. There is a 12th century Welsh poem that appears to place Carlisle in Rheged. Another Welsh poem – which, though found in the Book of Taliesin (early-14th century), was written long after Taliesin's time – contains a phrase that can be read as: ‘beyond the sea of Rheged’. The supposed Sea of Rheged has been equated with the Solway Firth. It has been argued that the place-name Dunragit, in Galloway, means ‘Fort of Rheged’.
(Rochdale, in Lancashire, is recorded in the Domesday Book as Recedham, and it has been suggested that this too preserves the name of Rheged.)
The ‘Annales Cambriae’ indicate that in 616: “Ceretic died.” Perhaps this Ceretic is the King Certic who was expelled from Elmet by Edwin. The ‘Annales’, however, place the start of Edwin's reign in the year after Ceretic's death. Clearly, if Ceretic and Certic are one and the same, then his death is placed too early.
Later (‘HE’ II, 9), Bede recaps, noting: “he [Edwin] even subjected to the English the Mevanian islands, as has been said above. The more important of these, which is to the southward [i.e. Anglesey], is the larger in extent, and more fruitful, containing nine hundred and 60 families, according to the English computation; the other contains above three hundred.”
See also: Eadbald.
An earlier version of this ‘Angels’ anecdote appears in an anonymous Latin ‘Life’ of Gregory the Great – written round about the year 700 at Whitby – but the indications are that Bede had no knowledge of this work, and received his story via a different route.
See: Rædwald, for the whole of Bede's report of Edwin's vision. An earlier, shorter, and evidently independent, version of this anecdote appears in an anonymous Latin ‘Life’ of Gregory the Great – written round about the year 700 at Whitby: “But because we have made mention of our most Christian king, Edwin, it is fitting also that we tell of his conversion; in what way it was said of old that it was foretold to him. Which though we tell it not so closely as we heard it told, yet as truly as we may, we tell in brief what we believe to have befallen, though we had it not from the report of those who knew more of him than others. For we hold it not right to pass over in silence what is piously handed down by the faithful; even though oftentimes the report of any happening, carried down over a wide stretch of time and of land, reaches divers ears in divers fashion. For this thing fell out long before the days of all now living. But we know of a truth that all things so fell out, because the same king was an exile under Rædwald, king of the East Angles. Whom his rival, the tyrant Æthelfrith, who had driven him from his country, so unceasingly harried, striving by bribes to purchase his death. At which time they say, being afeard of his life, the apparition of a beautiful vision, crowned with the cross of Christ, began to comfort him; promising, if he were willing to obey, a happy life and the future rule of his nation. Giving pledge of his willingness, if what was promised should prove true, answer was made: “Thou shalt approve it true; and whoso first appeareth to thee in this likeness and sign, him thou behovest obey. Who shall teach thee to serve the one true and living God who fashioned all things; the God who shall give thee all things whatsoever I promise, and shall show thee through him all things thou must do.” In which likeness, they say, Paulinus, the aforesaid bishop first appeared to him.” (§16). Bede makes no mention that the vision Edwin had in East Anglia was, “they say”, of Paulinus.
In fact, the only surviving manuscript of the Whitby ‘Life’ was copied-out on the Continent (it is preserved in the Abbey Library of Saint Gall, Switzerland), probably in the early-9th century. Obviously Rædwald was king of the East Angles, but it appears in the manuscript as Uuestanglorum (West Angles). Presumably a scribe failed to register his slip-up due to an unfamiliarity with English affairs.
It is generally supposed that Rhun's father, Urien, was the same Urien who had ruled the British kingdom of Rheged.
See above, left.
See above, left.
Some later manuscripts of the ‘Historia Brittonum’ attempt to equate Rhun son of Urien with Paulinus, i.e. to indicate that they were one and the same person. Clearly, they weren't.
Crop marks revealed by aerial photography suggest that the site of Mælmin is near the village of Milfield, a couple of miles to the north of Yeavering.
The genealogy of a king of Lindsey called Aldfrith appears in the Anglian Collection, but the date of his reign cannot be securely dated (he probably flourished in the late-7th/early-8th centuries). Though Blæcca, who Bede describes as praefectus (prefect) of Lincoln, does not feature, his name alliterates with some names in the genealogy. It seems reasonable to suppose that Blæcca was a member of the royal house of Lindsey, indeed, he may even have been king.
The pall or pallium: a white, scarf-like, vestment worn by the pope, and bestowed by him on archbishops as a symbol of delegated papal authority.
In a well known passage (‘HE’ II, 13), Bede puts words into the mouth of one of Edwin's chief-men:“ “The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.” The other elders and king's counsellors, by Divine prompting, spoke to the same effect.”
Rhos – lying between the rivers Conwy and Clwyd – is a region of Gwynedd.
Cefn Digoll (English name: Long Mountain) is a hill near Welshpool in Powys.
A small island off the south-eastern point of Anglesey. It is known by several names: Priestholm, Puffin Island, Ynys Seiriol.
The ‘Historia Brittonum’ (§61) and the ‘Annales Cambriae’ name the battle site Meicen. Meicen is an earlier form of Meigen, which was seemingly the name of the region of Powys where the “Action of Digoll” took place. Bede's Hæthfelth is, however, confidently identified with Hatfield Chase, which, clearly, is incompatible with a location on the borders of Powys. It seems somewhat unlikely that two sites, at both of which battles between Cadwallon and Edwin took place, should, in effect, have the same name, so there would appear to be some confusion somewhere along the line. Incidentally, the ‘Historia’ and the ‘Annales’ also say that Edwin and his two sons were killed in the battle (the ‘Historia’ names them as Osfrith and Eadfrith), which was not the case.
The ‘Annales Cambriae’ place the battle in which Edwin died in the year after the siege of Glannauc. Since Bede dates the battle 633, rather than 630 as indicated by the ‘Annales’, the siege of Glannauc should probably be dated to 632.
Hereric had two daughters of historical significance. Hereswith married into the East Anglian royal family and was mother of King Aldwulf. Hild (St Hilda) was the first abbess of the monastery (a double monastery, i.e. one having communities of both men and women) at Whitby.
Henry of Huntingdon provides detail of the battle (see: Rædwald) which might be derived from a, now lost, Old English poem on famous battles.
See: Anno Domini.
The term ‘Saxons’ is used generically – simply meaning the English (Anglo-Saxons). Technically of course, according to Bede (‘HE’ I, 15), the Northumbrians were of Angle descent.
Manuscript E of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ (s.a. 617) and the ‘Historia Brittonum’ (§57) both name Æthelfrith's seven sons: Eanfrith, Oswald, Oswiu, Oslac, Oswudu, Oslaf and Offa. (The ‘Historia Brittonum’ uses different forms of the names of course, and has a garbled name, Osguid, instead of Oslac.) Clearly, the name of the eldest, Eanfrith, does not alliterate with the rest. Bede (‘HE’ III, 6) identifies Acha as the mother of Oswald, so it seems highly likely that Eanfrith had a different mother – possibly Bebba, after whom Bamburgh was named.
Bede is widely credited with coining the term Northumbria, but Bernicia and Deira probably derived their names from the British territories which they superseded.
In fact, no early source says where the border between Bernicia and Deira lay. Indirect evidence, however (discussed by P. Hunter Blair, ‘Archaeologia Aeliana’, 1949), strongly indicates that the Tees formed the boundary.
One of the five surviving lines from a Welsh poem of uncertain antiquity, ‘Gofara Braint’ (The Flooding of the Braint River), claims that: “The head of Edwin came to the court at Aberffraw [on Anglesey]”.
When Pope Gregory's missionaries arrived from Rome to undertake the task of converting the pagan English, they found that the long established British Church (which, says Bede, had made no attempt to take Christianity to the English) was using rituals and practices that were not in line with current Roman custom – the main disagreement concerned the proper way to calculate Easter. The missionaries tried to persuade British churchmen to adopt Roman ways and join them in their work. The Britons, however, remained aloof and retained their own traditions.
‘Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum’ (Ecclesiastical History of the English People).
‘Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius hoc est Dunhelmensis Ecclesie’ (Tract on the Origins and Progress of this the Church of Durham).
s.a. = sub anno = ‘under the year’.
The Moore Memoranda is a short (just eight lines) chronological text written on the final page of the earliest extant manuscript (the Moore Manuscript) of Bede's ‘Ecclesiastical History’. Past events are related to the year 737, which suggests both the Memoranda and the copy of the ‘Ecclesiastical History’ were produced at that time.
A collection of Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and regnal lists – found in four manuscripts, the oldest of which (British Library MS Cotton Vespasian B vi) was written in the early-9th century.
Triads are linked threesomes – mainly of people or events – that, it is thought, were a device used by medieval bards to enable them to commit narrative detail to memory. Collections of Welsh Triads exist in a number of manuscripts – the earliest from the 13th century. Rachel Bromwich brought them together in ‘Trioedd Ynys Prydein’ (The Triads of the Island of Britain), first published in 1961.
‘The Earliest English Kings’ (Second Edition, 2000), Chapter 4.
‘Gesta Regum Anglorum’ (Deeds of the Kings of England).
Between references to, the Bernician kings, Ida (547–559) and his son, Adda (560–568), the ‘Historia Brittonum’ notes (§62): “At that time, Talhaearn Tad Awen [Talhaearn Father of the Muse] was famed for poetry, and Aneirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Gueinth Guaut [presumably, Guenith Guaut is meant, i.e. Wheat of Song], were all famous at the same time in British poetry.” Examples of the work of only Taliesin and Aneirin have survived.
‘Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England’ (1990), Chapter 5.
Henry of Huntingdon first produced his ‘Historia Anglorum’ (History of the English) around 1130. He then revisited the work – revising and extending – several times before his death. The final version concludes with the accession of Henry II in 1154.