History Files


Anglo-Saxon Britain

Ęthelfrith's Growing Fyrd

by Edward Dawson, 2 August 2008

Ęthelfrith, king of Northumbrian Bernicia in 593-616, was largely responsible for expanding the power of the Angles north of the Humber.

Until he gained the throne the kingdom of Bernicia, which had only existed for forty-six years (according to the available records), had occupied a small area near the coast. This area was hemmed in by the British to the north and west, and by the Anglish kingdom of Deira to the south.

However, there appears to be an inconsistency in the numbers reported to have served in Ęthelfrith's army, the fyrd.

The Britons they faced in battle reported their numbers, and if these are to be believed (a shaky assumption, admittedly), they are as follows:

Ęthelfrith with a fyrd drawn from Bernicia and Deira fielded 10,000 men at Catterick (c.597).

Men went to Catraeth at dawn: 
All their fears had been put to flight.
Three hundred clashed with ten thousand. 
They stained their spears ruddy with blood.
He held firm, bravest in battle, 
Before Mynyddawg Mwynfawr's men. [1]

[1] Stanza X, Y Gododdin, Book of Aneurin I, translation by Joseph Clancy.
[2] Histories of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Book 11, Chapter 13, translation by Sebastian Evans (1904). Read the chapter here.

Fifteen years later Ęthelfrith with a fyrd drawn from Bernicia and Deira must have fielded approximately 15,000 to 20,000 men at Chester. This estimation is based on the number of infantry that would have been necessary to defeat the combined cavalry of Gwynedd, Powys, Pengwern and South Rheged. If Geoffrey of Monmouth is to be trusted (admittedly a shaky source), then Ęthelfrith lost 10,000 men in the fighting at Chester/Bangor-is-y-Coed [2]. He would have needed far more than that to survive such losses.

That number of 15,000 to 20,000 does not fit the possible muster for Northumbria. The system the Anglo-Saxons used (admittedly recorded centuries later) called for one warrior (plus probably a second as an attendant) from each five hides (family farm units).

There doesn't seem to be any way that he could increase the number of farms held by the Angles in just fifteen years by that much.

Growing numbers

It is true that with the acquisition of stable territory around Catterick, plus farms confiscated from Britons, the number of hides which were available for the sons of Ęthelfrith's men to receive from him would have increased. In addition, there could have been some immigration to the north from East Anglia, but nearly doubling his numbers in such a short time still seems unlikely.

A later source claims even more Northumbrians, a figure of 50,000.

"If you will not have peace from your brethren, you shall have war from your enemies; if you will not preach life to the Saxons, you shall receive death at their hands."

"Edelfred, king of Northumbria, at the instigation of Augustine, forthwith poured 50,000 men into the Vale Royal of Chester, the territory of Prince of Powys, under whose auspices the conference had been held. Twelve hundred British priests of the University of Bangor having come out to view the battle, Edelfred directed his forces against them as they stood clothed in their white vestments and totally unarmed, watching the progress of the battle - they were massacred to a man. Advancing to the university itself, he put to death every priest and student therein, and destroyed by fire the halls, colleges, and churches of the university itself; thereby fulfilling, according to the words of the great Saxon authority called the Pious Bede, the prediction, as he terms it, of the blessed Augustine. The ashes of this noble monastery were smoking; its libraries, the collection of ages, having been wholly consumed [3]."

But this is likely an exaggeration. It does imply a tradition that the Northumbrians were present in overwhelming numbers. I favour 20,000, that being sufficient to withstand cavalry charges from the combined forces of the British.

What seems likely, with the flight of King Ceorl's son in law Edwin from Mercia, is that Ceorl forced Edwin out to avoid war and to avoid having to accept Ęthelfrith as his high king.

[3] Early British History, G H Whalley Esq MP, p18, London 1860.

A king is sovereign; no man may command him in anything. Ęthelfrith would not have ordered Edwin's expulsion. Because Edwin was a rival to the thrones of Bernicia and Deira, Ęthelfrith would have ordered him killed or handed over alive. Instead, Edwin was allowed to flee. This preserved Mercian semi-independence. I say 'semi-' because Mercia already had an overlord: Aethelbert of Kent (see boxout, right).

Any attempt by Ęthelfrith to conquer Mercia could potentially trigger an armed response from High King Aethelbert of Kent. Despite this attempt to salvage his independence, Ceorl would have looked weak, which would have brought his image among his subjects low.

Kingdoms and leadership

It is common for us in modern times to look upon these kingdoms as nations which were modern political units. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that a large 'kingdom' such as Mercia or Wessex consisted of a number of settlements (setna), each with its own king, all of them acknowledging one of their number as the overlord. Anglo-Saxon politics required that local kings were answerable to the elder leaders within the tribe or settlement. Any weakness shown by a king could result in defections to a stronger king, and this means that the warriors from the defecting settlements would be fighting for someone else.

It was common for young warriors to flock to any leader who was strong and engaging in conquests. They would attach themselves to such a leader in the hope of reward, primarily land. Because Ęthelfrith had already beaten the Scots of Dal Riata, and the northern British Gododdin, his reputation would be golden, and warriors would have come into his service from all over the island. These would have been Angles, Frisians, Jutes (Eotan) and Saxons, and even Picts.

There is also the possibility that Ceorl submitted to Ęthelfrith soon after Edwin's flight from Mercia. Ęthelfrith could then require Mercia to provide its fyrd as a part of his own, and come to his service in time of war. Some of the Mercians probably did not like that, as witnessed by their allying with Gwynedd after Edwin became the same sort of threat to their independence. They had seen Northumbrian domination before... and besides, they had probably been allied with Edwin's enemy, Ęthelfrith.

The addition of Mercian troops to the Northumbrian fyrd would account for the probable doubling of the Ęthelfrith's army at Chester.

This also would imply that in order to easily obtain compliance from Mercia and link up, Ęthelfrith would likely have marched south into Mercia to make the Mercians join his army. If so this would indicate his line of march to Chester was west from Mercia rather than south-west through and over the Pennines. A line of march west along the old Roman road through Luit Coit would have taken them to Pengwern instead of Caer Legion. But a march up the River Trent may have enabled them to enter the Chester area almost undetected.

  In the year of our Lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, ordained two bishops, to wit, Mellitus and Justus; Mellitus to preach to the province of the East Saxons, who are divided from Kent by the river Thames, and border on the Eastern sea. Their metropolis is the city of London, which is situated on the bank of the aforesaid river, and is the mart of many nations resorting to it by sea and land. At that time, Sabert, nephew to Ethelbert through his sister Ricula, reigned over the nation, though he was under subjection to Ethelbert, who, as has been said above, had command over all the nations of the English as far as the river Humber

Bede, Book II, Chapter III, available via the link below  

A quick glance at the Mercian tribal hidage (via the link, right) shows a rough look at the number of armed men available approximately 150 years later.

Securing the throne

If the Mercians 'proper' (Myrcna) and Lindsay (Lindesfarona) contained 37,000 hides, then divide this by five and you get more than 7,000 spearmen in the field. This is not even counting the Peak. Let's round it down a bit to 5,000 soldiers at 150 years earlier (early 600s). That alone could have given Ęthelfrith 15,000 men at Chester.

One can see a pattern emerge from examining the scanty records of the period. Once Ęthelfrith is in power he is recorded to have gone on a program of expansion and terror. This is ironic because his name means 'prince (of) peace'. He fought the Scots of Dal Riata in 603. This established Ęthelfrith as overlord or high king over Dal Riata. By doing so he endeared himself to the Picts who were enemies of the Scots. Next he probably attacked Deira and killed the king, Aelli, and then his younger brother, king Aethelric. The custom was that when a king died his successor was chosen by a vote taken from among the important men of a tribe. Ęthelfrith was probably unable to get his army inside either of the large fortresses of Deira early on, so he would have had to apply for kingship. Apparently he was refused, probably because he was not descended from the Deiran royal line.

Eventually Ęthelfrith drove out the last two possible heirs: the king's son, Edwin, who apparently succeeded his father and uncle Aethelric for a while as king, and Edwin's nephew Hereric. Edwin is said to have taken refuge at first with the Mercians, and Hereric with the British in Elmet.

Hereric was murdered by the British in Elmet. This established Ęthelfrith as high king over Elmet, because Caradog, king of Elmet, had obeyed Ęthelfrith's commands. There seem to have been similar pressure on Mercia, and Edwin fled farther south to East Anglia. Ęthelfrith then attempted to buy Edwin's murder, and failing this threatened war against East Anglia [4].

The two princes (men of royal blood) Edwin and Hereric would have left Deira each with a large bodyguard of armed men. It seems likely that they did not go far, and in fact moved to just south of the Deiran border. It would have enabled them to move quickly if an opportunity came to seize back part or all of Deira. It looks like Edwin was positioned to take back Deira proper (from Mercian-controlled Lindsay), while Hereric in Elmet was approximately a day's ride by horse from the old Roman fort of York (Ebrauc). It is interesting to note that the king of Mercia named Ceorl (pronounced churl) is recorded as the son of Creoda, the same name as a king of the Lindisware. I consider it likely that Lindsay was a part of Mercia at this time, and that the over-king of Mercia ruled from Lincoln. Edwin and his fighters would have been guests of Creoda/Cueldgils/Ceorl in Lindsay, not farther south. (Cueldgils would have been a relative of Ceorl who ruled the Lindsay sub-king.)

[4] Edwin "wandered secretly as a fugitive for many years through many places and kingdoms, until at last he came to Rędwald" (Bede Book II, Chapter XII).

By the time the very successful Ęthelfrith attacked Chester, his army would have been huge. It would have contained all of the Bernican Angles, all of the Deiran Angles, many if not all of the Mercians, a large contingent of adventurers from everywhere else in Anglo-Saxon Britain, and probably several hundred Picts too. 15,000 is a conservative number. I regard 20,000 as a reasonable estimate, given the evident violence of the British cavalry and the recorded loses of 10,000 of Ęthelfrith's fighters.



Ascension by Ęthelfrith to the throne of Bernicia, and to Deira by force some time later between 593 and 604.


Battle of Catterick

High king over Din Eiden (north Gododdin). In those days if you defeated someone, you owned them.


Aedan, king of Dal Riata, invades and attacks Ęthelfrith. Battle of Degsastan (Bede, Book 1, Chapter 34).

High king over Dal Riata. By fighting and defeating Dal Riata, Ęthelfrith secures the alliance of Dal Riata's enemies, the southern Picts. His northern flank is now safe and he turns his attention south and west.


Battle of Chester (ASC 607, Annals Tigernach 611, Annals Cambriae/Annals Ulster/Annals Clonmacnoise 613, Annals Innisfree 614, Welsh legends indicate the same year as River Idle battle, ie. 616).

(Rev Theophilus Evans in Drych y Prif Oesoedd says 601, but he wrote much later.)


Hereric poisoned in Elmet. (Note: this is a strong argument in favour of the battle of Chester being after 614. I cannot imagine Ęthelfrith being so stupid as to lead his army out of the country while a rival prince is waiting for a chance to move against him a day's ride from his largest fort.)


Battle of the River Idle. Death of Ęthelfrith.


Ęthelfrith's end

Edwin with his new father-in-law, Raedwald of East Anglia, attacked and killed Ęthelfrith on the southern border of a shrunken (AD 616) Elmet, along the River Idle.

With Ęthelfrith dead, Edwin took control of the most powerful military machine in Britain (similar to Alexander the Great inheriting his father's army) and used it to terrorise most of the island. He invaded Gwynedd, Ireland, Wessex, etc, but that is another story.

Other material

Bede, Ecclesiastic History of the English People, Book I, Chapter XXXIV.

Bede, Ecclesiastic History of the English People, Book II, Chapter II.

"Penda was the son of Wybba, Wybba of Creoda, Creoda of Cynewald, Cynewald of Cnebba, Cnebba of Icel, Icel of Eomer, Eomer of Angelthew, Angelthew of Offa, Offa of Wearmund, Wearmund of Whitley, Whitley of Woden." AD 626 (ASC). This list (the latter half of which is spurious) contains "Icel", which indicates that the royal line of Mercia/Lindsay was from North Folk in East Anglia (the Iceni area)? They would have been dominated or expelled when the Wuffingas royal line from the South Folk united the North and South Folk.

Brochwel Ysgythrog

It has been claimed that it was under the protection of Brochwel Ysgythrog that the hierarchy of the British Church assembled in conference to give an answer to Augustine, an emissary from Rome (probably St Augustine of Canterbury meeting Welsh Bishops in 602 at Aust near Chepstow, or a later meeting in 604). Their reply was "We know of no obedience that he whom you call the Pope, or Bishop of Bishops, can command, claim or demand; the Bishop of Caerleon (St. David's) is alone, under God, our ruler to guide us right in the way of Salvation."

Augustine replied, "If you will not have peace from your brethren, you shall have war from your enemies; if you will not preach life to the Saxons, you shall receive death at their hands". St Augustine died in 605, but in 613, Ęthelfrith, king of Northumbria, poured 50,000 men into Brochwel's territory in the Vale of Chester and 1,200 British Priests of the University of Bangor (Bangor Monachorum) at Bangor-is-y-Coed wearing their white vestments and totally unarmed, who had come out to aid by their presence or prayers the unequal contest, were massacred to a man. Ęthelfrith then put to death every priest and student in the University and burnt its halls, colleges, churches and libraries.

A leader named Scrocmail (Brochwel) escaped with a small band of 50 men who managed to hold the passage of the Dee until the arrival of help, when in their turn the armies of Ęthelfrith were put to flight with equal slaughter. This Scrocmail / Brochwel could not be our Brochfael who was born in 502, and the Battle of Chester (or Derva or Caer-Legion) occurred in 613 (and the massacre at Bangor-is-y-Coed possibly in 616) so he would have had to be 114 years old. The dates for this massacre at Bangor has been variously given as 605 through to 615.

Furthermore Ęthelfrith was born in 586 after the commonly accepted death of Brochfael Ysgythrog in 570. Brochfael Ysgythrog's grandson, Selyf Sarffgadau fell at the battle of Chester (613).


Augustine, having been sent by Gregory the Great to re-establish Christianity in England by converting the Saxons, endeavoured to extend the power of the Church of Rome by usurping an authority over the British prelates. But the latter resisting, a great council of the clergy was convened, at which seven bishops and many learned men from the monastery of Bangor were present: the British deputies continued firm in their refusal to submit to St Augustine, or aid him in his intended conversion of the Saxons; in consequence of which the mortified missionary is said to have denounced the judgment of God against them, predicting that, as they would not accept peace with their Christian brethren, they would soon have war with their pagan enemies, and that they would find death by the swords of those to whom they had refused to preach the word of life.

This threat, if ever uttered, was accomplished a few years afterwards, in the battle of Chester, by the slaughter which actually took place of 1150, out of 1200, monks who had gone forth to pray for the success of their countrymen, the Welsh, against the Northumbrian Saxons, by whom, under Ethelfrid [Ęthelfrith], that ancient city had been attacked.

The Saxons, having defeated their opponents, and taken possession of Chester, advanced to Bangor, where they entirely destroyed the monastery, and committed its valuable library to the flames. They then intended to penetrate into Wales, but their passage over the Dee at this place was disputed by Brochwel Yscithrog, prince of Powys, who successfully resisted all their attacks, until relieved by Cadvan, king of North Wales [Cadfan of Gwynedd]; Meredydd, king of South Wales [Dyfed]; and Bledrus, sovereign of Cornwall [Bledric ap Custennin of Dumnonia].

The confederate princes called to their aid the services of Dynawd, or Dśnothus, abbot of Bangor, and one of the fifty monks that had escaped the general massacre of his brethren, who delivered an oration to the army, which he concluded by ordering the soldiers to kiss the ground, before the action commenced, in commemoration of the communion of the body of Christ, and to take up water in their hands out of the River Dee, and drink it, in remembrance of his sacred blood.

This act of devotion infused a confident courage among the Welsh, already ardent for revenge for the calamities they had recently endured; and they encountered the invaders with such bravery as entirely to defeat them, with the loss of above 10,000 men, compelling Ethelfrid, with the remainder of his army, to retreat into his own country.


Main Sources

Aneirin - Y Gododdin, stanza X - Celtic Poem commemorating the British expedition against the Northumbrian Angles in about 597

Blayney, Keith - Brochfael (Brochwel) Yagythrog (of the Tusks), web site

British History Online - Bangor-Iscoed, web site



Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.