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Anglo-Saxon Britain

Æthelfrith's Growing Fyrd

by Edward Dawson, 2 August 2008

Æthelfrith, king of Northumbrian Bernicia in 593-616, was largely responsible for expanding the power of those Angles who were located to the north of the Humber.

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

However, there appears to be an inconsistency in the numbers reported to have served in Æthelfrith'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:

Æthelfrith with a fyrd drawn from Bernicia and Deira fielded 10,000 men at Catterick (circa 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 Æthelfrith 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 which would have been necessary to defeat the combined cavalry of Gwynedd, Powys, Pengwern, and South Rheged. If Geoffrey of Monmouth is to be trusted (a somewhat shaky source!), then Æthelfrith 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 (albeit a system which was recorded some 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 by that much the number of farms held by the Angles in just fifteen years.

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 Æthelfrith'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].'

This is likely an exaggeration, but it does imply a tradition that the Northumbrians were present in overwhelming numbers. A figure of 20,000 is favoured here, that being sufficient to withstand cavalry charges from the combined forces of the British.

What seems likely, with the flight of King Ceorl's exiled son-in-law, Edwin, from his temporary home in Mercia, is that Ceorl forced Edwin out to avoid war and to avoid having to accept Æthelfrith 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. Æthelfrith would not have ordered Edwin's expulsion. Because Edwin was a rival to the thrones of Bernicia and Deira, Æthelfrith would have ordered him killed or handed over alive. Instead, Edwin was allowed to flee. This preserved Mercian semi-independence - 'semi-' because Mercia already had an overlord: Aethelbert of Kent, bretwalda of the English below the Humber (see boxout, right).

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

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 leader (cyning in Saxon, 'king'), all of them acknowledging one of their number as overlord. Anglo-Saxon politics required local kings to be 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 who was also engaging in conquests. They would attach themselves to such a leader in the hope of reward, primarily in the form of land. Because Æthelfrith 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.

  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  

There is also the possibility that Ceorl submitted to Æthelfrith soon after Edwin's flight from Mercia. Æthelfrith 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 (and seemingly due to close links with the Britons of the West Midlands - see the Mercia's British Alliance link, right). They had seen Northumbrian domination before... and besides, they had probably been allied with Edwin's enemy, Æthelfrith.

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

This also would imply that in order to easily obtain compliance from Mercia and link up, Æthelfrith 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.

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 Æthelfrith 15,000 men at Chester.

One can see a pattern emerge from examining the scanty records of the period. Once Æthelfrith 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 Æthelfrith 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. Æthelfrith 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 Æthelfrith 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 Æthelfrith as high king over Elmet, because Caradog, king of Elmet, had obeyed Æthelfrith's commands. There seem to have been similar pressure on Mercia, and Edwin fled due east to East Anglia. Æthelfrith 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 personal bodyguard of armed men. It seems likely that they did not go far, and in fact moved to a point just south of the Deiran border. This 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 who was named Ceorl (pronounced churl) is recorded as being the son of Creoda, the same name as a king of the Lindisware. It is 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 over 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 Rædwald' (Bede Book II, Chapter XII).

By the time the very successful Æthelfrith 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. In fact 15,000 is a conservative number - 20,000 is a more reasonable estimate, given the evident violence of the British cavalry and the recorded loses of 10,000 of Æthelfrith's fighters.



Ascension by Æthelfrith 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 Æthelfrith. Battle of Degsastan (Bede, Book 1, Chapter 34).

High king over Dal Riata. By fighting and defeating Dal Riata, Æthelfrith 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, while Welsh legends indicate the same year as the 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. It cannot be imagined that Æthelfrith would so stupid as to lead his army out of the country while a rival prince was waiting for a chance to move against him just a day's ride from his largest fort.)


Battle of the River Idle. Death of Æthelfrith.


Æthelfrith's end

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

With Æthelfrith 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 the North Folk in East Anglia (the former Iceni area perhaps)? They would have been dominated or expelled when the Wuffingas royal line from the South Folk united the North Folk 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, Æthelfrith, 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. Æthelfrith 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 fifty men who managed to hold the passage of the Dee until the arrival of help, when in their turn the armies of Æthelfrith 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 Æthelfrith 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 with 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 to be 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 1,150 out of 1,200 monks who had gone forth to pray for the success of their countrymen, the Welsh, against the Northumbrian Saxons, by whom, under Ethelfrid [Æthelfrith], 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 Dúnothus, abbot of Bangor, and one of the fifty monks who 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), website

British History Online - Bangor-Iscoed, website



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