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Anglo-Saxon Britain

The Kings of Northumbria

Compiled by Peter Kessler, with Richard Watson, 1 April 1999. Updated 2 June 2007

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

Edwin was the son of Ælle (Aelli), the first independent ruler of the Anglian-held region of Deira.

Following his father's death he reigned for nearly five years. Then Æthelfrith (Aethelfrith) of Bernicia claimed Deira, which gave him control of all of the Northumbrian Angles. To cement his position he married Acha, sister of Edwin and therefore a member of the Deiran royal family.

It became too dangerous for Edwin to remain in Northumbria, so he sought protection at the court of Rædwald (Raedwald), king of East Anglia. Æthelfrith died in battle near the River Idle in AD 617 while fighting Rædwald 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 following the passing of Rædwald.

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 (634-664), acknowledged overlord of the British, saw him slain him in battle on 14 October at Hatfield Chase.


Oswiu (Oswy) (642-670)

Oswiu oversaw the final union between Bernicia and Deira. He married Rhiainfelt ferch Rhoedd of Rheged, thereby cementing his claim to the whole of the former 'Kingdom of Northern Britain', much in the fashion of its effective founder, Coel Hen, although whether he was aware of this is unclear.

Once he had killed Penda of Mercia, he also had an undisputed claim on the former British kingdom of Elmet. His rule ended on 15 February 670.

The remains of the defensive bank at Roman Derventio (modern Malton) are shown here, which formed the main military post in the region of Deywr before it fell into Anglian hands as Deira


Ecgfrith (670-685)

Son of Oswiu and Eanfled, Ecgfrith ruled from February 670 to 20 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 instead.

Ecgfrith was killed by Brude mac Bile of Pictland at the battle of Nectansmere, during an attempted invasion of Pictland. The Northumbrians had been steadily encroaching on Pictish authority and territory for many years, but this infringement was a step too far. The Picts were able to undo much of the previous Northumbrian domination of the north.


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, ruler of the Hwicce, but this has not been generally accepted. The Hwiccan Osric was eventually buried in Gloucester Cathedral.

Plain of Kyle
In 750 the Northumbrians seized the plain of Kyle following a heavy battle between its former owners, the Britons of Alt Clut, and the Picts - presumably this loss cut off the Britons from the southern territory of Cumbria


Oswald (Oswulf) (758)

Oswald succeeded to the throne of Northumbria when his father abdicated in his favour in 758. Before he had reigned for even a year he was rather brutally murdered by the men of his household on 24 or 25 July at a place called Mechil Wongtune (possibly 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. Osberht did not take that lying down, and civil war ensued.

While Northumbria was divided between the parties of the two kings the Danish host, which had wintered in East Anglia, crossed the mouth of the Humber and captured York. From there they ventured out to engage the Northumbrian campaign forces.

Due to the intervention of the kingdom's chiefs, peace was made between the rival Northumbrian kings. They joined together their forces and drove the Danes back 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 Danish power in Northumbria.

This is all that is really known of Ælla. Different stories are told of him and of 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 slain 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. Ælla ruled until that fateful day on 21 March 867 (and some of the events which are ascribed to his reign were re-used in the 1958 feature film, The Vikings).



Main Sources

Alcock, Leslie - Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003)

Anderson, Alan Orr - Early Sources of Scottish History AD 500-1286 (Volume 1, reprinted with corrections, Paul Watkins, Stamford 1990)

Bede - A History of the English Church and People (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham)

Smyth, Alfred P - Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000 (1984)

Online Sources

Mote of Mark (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland)

'Lost kingdom' linked to Galloway (BBC News)



Text and maps copyright © P L Kessler, with additional information by Richard Watson. An original feature for the History Files.