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Anglo-Saxon Britain

The Kings of Northumbria

Compiled by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999



Edwin (588-593 in Deira, 616-632 in Deira & Bernicia combined)

Edwin was the son of Aelli, first king of Anglian Deira. After his father's death, he reigned for nearly five years. Then Aethelfrith of Bernicia claimed Deira, which gave him control of all the Northumbrian Angles. He married Acha, a member of the Deiran royal family and sister of Edwin.

It became too dangerous for Edwin to remain in Northumbria and he sought protection at the court of Raedwald, King of East Anglia. Aethelfrith died in a battle near the river Idle in AD 617 while fighting Raedwald and Edwin. Edwin then took his chance to return and take the entire Northumbrian kingdom, which was powerful enough to see him confirmed as Bretwalda.

In 616. Edwin conquered most of British North Rheged and Ynys Manau (Isle of Man). The following year he gained more southerly territory with the defeat of Elmet. By 620 he was beginning the Northumbrian domination of the Lindisware. In 632 his powerful reign finally came to an end when the alliance of Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon, High King of the British, saw him slain him in battle on 14th October at Hatfield Chase. (Additional material  contributed by Richard Watson, with thanks.)


Oswiu (Oswy) (642-670)

Oswiu saw the final union between Bernicia and Deira. He married Rhiainfelt ferch Rhoedd of Rheged, thus cementing his claim to the whole of Northern Britain, much in the fashion of Coel Hen, although whether he was aware of this is uncertain. Once he had killed Penda of Mercia, he also had an undisputed claim on the former British Kingdom of Elmet. His rule ended on 15th February 670.


Ecgfrith (670-685)

Son of Oswiu and Eanfled, Ecgfrith ruled from February 670 to 20th May 685. In 672 he married Ethelreda, daughter of the king of the East Engle, but she fled when he tried to consummate the marriage and became an abbess. Ecgfrith was killed by Brude mac Bile of Pictland at the battle of Nectansmere, during an attempted invasion of Pictland.


Osric (718-729)

Osric was the son of Aldfrith, and grandson of Oswiu (Oswy). Bede, in referring to Osric's reign, says very little, other than noting the appearance of two comets, presaging calamity to a kingdom, and the deaths of Wihtred of Kent and of the monk Ecgberht at Iona.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains contradictory evidence as to the date of Osric's death, but the appearance of the comets places it at 729. It seems that he was slain, which may have been as punishment for the death of the licentious king Osred, in whose murder Osric and his predecessor Cenred were involved.

Osric has sometimes been identified with Osric, King of the Hwicce, but this has not been generally accepted. The Hwicce Osric was eventually buried in Gloucester Cathedral.


Oswald (Oswulf) (758)

Oswald succeeded to the throne of Northumbria when his father abdicated in his favour in 758. Before he had reigned a year he was rather brutally murdered by the men of his household on 24th or 25th July at a place called Mechil Wongtune (Market Weighton?) in the East Riding.


Ælla (866-867)

Although not of royal blood, Ælla was chosen by the Northumbrians when they deposed his predecessor, Osberht. While Northumbria was divided between the parties of the two kings (the deposed Osberht and Ælla), the Danish host, which had wintered in East Anglia, crossed the mouth of the Humber and captured York.

Due to the intervention of the kingdom's chiefs peace was made between the rival kings. They joined their forces, and drove the Danes into York. Part of their army succeeded in entering the city, but the Danes rallied, and after a fierce battle the Northumbrians were defeated with very heavy casualties ("great slaughter"). Both Ælla and Osberht were slain. This victory established the Danish power in Northumbria.

This is all that is really known of Ælla. Different stories are told of him and the cause of the Danish invasion. It is said that he caused the sea-king, Ragnar Lodbrog to be bitten to death by serpents; that the sons of the hero came to avenge their father's death; that they took Ælla alive, and slew him in the barbarous manner described as carving an eagle on him (more than possible, as this was the way in which St Edmund, King of the East Angles, was killed in 869).

Another story makes Ælla violate the wife of a rich merchant of York, who avenged the wrong by calling in the invaders. This story may be compared with many others which attribute successful invasions to vengeance taken for personal wrong. He ruled until that fateful day on 21st March 867 (some of the above events were re-used in the 1958 feature film, The Vikings).



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.