The Anglo-Saxon who (almost) united Britain

In AD 675, the Northumbrian ruler Ecgfrith was so powerful that he effectively made himself ‘high-king’ of Britain. Nick Higham introduces a true heavyweight of early English history.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Ecgfrith visiting St Cuthbert at Lindisfarne. © AKG Images

On Saturday 20 May AD 685, St Cuthbert was with Iurmenburh, Northumbria’s queen, at Carlisle, when he had a vision of Iurmenburh’s husband, Ecgfrith, dying at the hands of the Picts. A few days later, “they heard that it was announced far and wide that a wretched and lamentable battle had taken place at the very day and hour it was revealed to him”.

Ecgfrith was dead, and the flower of his army had fallen. For Northumbria, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that spanned much of what is now northern England and south-east Scotland, it was a fateful day. Bede, the English monk and author, later quoted from Virgil’s Aeneid: “The hope and valour of the realm of the English began ‘to ebb and flow away’.”

The Picts recovered lands previously taken from them and the Scots and northern Britons threw off English overlordship. The Northumbrians’ dream of exercising power across all of Britain was finally extinguished.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, Britain was a world of small kingships. Minor rulers found it necessary to look to more powerful kings for protection. The resulting regional kingships could be volatile and short-term but – thanks to a combination of dynastic alliances, Christian missions, raids and wars, sometimes pursued over considerable distances – a pattern of larger kingdoms slowly emerged, absorbing smaller neighbours.

Occasionally, in the seventh century, the most successful rulers established a Britain-wide, ‘over-’ or ‘high-kingship’ – by which every local or regional king in the whole island recognised the superiority of just one man. It was this supreme power that Ecgfrith lost his life trying to attain in 685.

 

Imperial rule

Of course, the idea of an overall authority across Britain (attempted, if not realised) stems ultimately from the ancient Romans, whose emperors were later understood locally as high-kings ruling over British kings.

This notion of a high-kingship was developed by Bede, who employed the word imperium in reference to both Roman and English supremacies.

Bede listed seven kings who had imperium south of the Humber, the last three of which were Northumbrians – Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu – whose power was centred further north. These, Bede tells us, had greater power: Edwin achieved authority over Anglesey and Man; Oswald ruled “within the same bounds” in this list, but Bede later claimed for him authority over all peoples speaking English, Welsh, Scottish and Pictish.

Finally, Oswiu additionally “overwhelmed and made tributary the greater part of the peoples of the Picts and Scots who inhabit the northern limits of Britain”. We can certainly see Oswiu as all-powerful in the years after 655, when he defeated the Mercians and took over much of the English Midlands and Fife in Scotland, becoming overlord of the northern kings beyond.

Bede visualised a progression, therefore, from ‘over-kingship’ of the south to a Northumbrian ‘high-kingship’ of all Britain. The subordination of all the other peoples of Britain to the (Northumbrian) English was, in Bede’s view, God’s plan for the island.

The one high-king who Bede omitted from this list was Ecgfrith, Oswiu’s son and heir, and a king who has not perhaps received as much attention as he deserves. He came to the throne of the Northumbrians, aged about 25, following his father’s death in 670.

An almost immediate challenge came from his father’s erstwhile northern tributaries, for the Picts rose against him, seeking to throw off English overlordship and recapture the Pictish territory that Oswiu had taken under Northumbrian rule. Ecgfrith may have been new to the throne but he was more than equal to the Picts’ challenge. He marched north and won an overwhelming victory against them, reimposing tribute, confirming his hold on Fife and instigating regime change.

At home, though, Ecgfrith was experiencing serious difficulties. At the root of his problems was a split in the Northumbrian church. On one side were the majority of the clergy, who had been trained within the Scottish tradition (centred on Lindisfarne, Melrose and Whitby), but had conformed to the Roman dating of Easter in 664.

On the other side of the divide was Bishop Wilfrid, who had adopted the continental view that British and Scottish churches were heretical, and was now moving energetically against British priests within Northumbria, expelling them by force of arms.

Historians have traditionally believed that this Pictish carved stone – from Aberlemno in Angus – depicts the battle of Dun Nechtain in 685, where the Picts ambushed a Northumbrian army and killed King Ecgfrith. However, many now suspect that it portrays a different conflict © SuperStock

 

The religious life

Such tensions within the church cannot have made life easy for Ecgfrith. Nor could the fact that his wife of 12 years, Æthelthryth, an East Anglian princess who was significantly older than the king, had consistently refused to consummate their marriage. Ecgfrith finally gave way and, around 672, allowed Æthelthryth to retire to the religious life. She went on to found a nunnery at Ely and took up its rule in 673.

On the face of it, a loss of a wife was a major setback. Yet it appears that Ecgfrith was able to turn this to his advantage. For, with Æthelthryth in her Ely retreat, Ecgfrith was free to marry again – and his next match, with Iurmenburh (probably a member of the Kentish royal household) helped secure him a vital alliance with the people of Kent, and greatly extended his influence in the south.

Yet where there are winners, there are inevitably losers. And in this case the losers were the Mercians, who saw their influence in the south wane as Ecgfrith’s grew and grew. Their response was to raise a great army against him in 674 – yet, once again, Ecgfrith emerged triumphant, defeating the Mercians in battle, and forcing them to cede Lindsey (broadly, Lincolnshire) and pay tribute. When the Mercian king, Wulfhere, died in 675, he was succeeded by his brother, Æthelred, who Ecgfrith had married off to his own sister – probably as part of the peace arrangements.

Ecgfrith’s victory over the Mercians marks the high-water mark of his reign. In fact, in 675, it would be no exaggeration to describe him – like his father, Oswiu, at Christmas 655 – as the high-king of Britain. Had his brother-in-law on the Mercian throne played ball, then Ecgfrith’s position might have become embedded.

Yet, unfortunately for Ecgfrith, the Mercians weren’t prepared to take the loss of Lindsey and the waning of their influence across the south lying down. In 676 they struck back, devastating Kent and effectively asserting their independence of Northumbrian overlordship. Just as significantly, they exposed Ecgfrith’s inability to protect his southern allies.

Worse still, the situation in the north was also deteriorating. The evidence is poor and often ambiguous but an alliance hostile to the high-king’s interests seems to have developed between the northern Britons on the Clyde, his cousin King Bruide of the Picts and the Irish high-king, Finsnechta Fledach, king of Brega.

A portrait of Æthelthryth, the queen who refused to consummate her marriage with Ecgfrith © Bridgeman

Such formidable opposition forced Ecgfrith to take a more conciliatory stance towards Scottish Christianity. He could no longer afford Bishop Wilfrid’s hostility towards those who had been trained within that tradition, and so he expelled Wilfrid in 678, and resisted all subsequent papal pressures to reinstate him. Ecgfrith turned instead to the Northumbrian clergy who had initially been educated and advanced within the Scottish church but had accepted Oswiu’s Catholic reformation in 664.

He also saw to it that candidates from this faction were appointed to new bishoprics. The last bishop whose appointment Ecgfrith engineered was St Cuthbert, who represented the final flowering of the tradition of preaching and asceticism established by the Scottish missionaries to Northumbria in the 630s.     

Yet such moves didn’t pacify Ecgfrith’s enemies in the south. In 679, Æthelred’s Mercians marched against the Northumbrian king and defeated him in a great battle on the Trent, killing his brother, Ælfwine. Peace was restored by Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury – but not before Mercia had regained Lindsey. Ecgfrith’s high-kingship was rapidly slipping through his fingers.

The risk of further attacks by Mercia probably kept Ecgfrith close to his southern borders over the next few campaigning seasons but he successfully despatched a force to ravage the Irish territory of his opponents in 684 – the only Anglo-Saxon king ever to send forces across the Irish Sea.

 

Killed in battle

In 685, political upheavals among the South Saxons and then the West Saxons reduced the risk of a Mercian attack, allowing Ecgfrith to go on the offensive again, this time launching a lightning strike against the Picts. Yet this was to be his last throw of the dice for, as we’ve seen, on 20 May he was killed and ambushed by the very Picts he was trying to bring low, far to the north in the Scottish Highlands. We know very little of the battle beyond the outcome, which was a Northumbrian disaster.

In the crisis that followed, the Picts overwhelmed Fife, and even its Catholic bishop had to abandon his see. Aldfrith, an illegitimate, half-Irish brother of Ecgfrith, took the throne and continued Ecgfrith’s religious policies, but he was a middle-aged scholar and no warrior.

Aldfrith never attempted dominance of Britain either north or south of Northumbria. Instead he settled for an alliance with the West Saxons to try and contain Mercia, and made the most of his close friendships with the Irish to retain a degree of influence among the Celtic courts of the north.

Northumbria’s glory days were over, and with them any chance that a single king would attain universal superiority across Britain.

This sixth or seventh-century Anglo-Saxon gold pendant was discovered in Kent, which formed an alliance  with Northumbria in the 670s © British Museum

Had Ecgfrith won his battle against the Picts, and then turned once more against the Mercians, might the pattern of history have been different? It is possible that Britain could have been welded into a single political unit under Northumbria’s kings across the late seventh and eighth centuries, but to do this they needed to secure permanent control of Mercia, so establishing a single realm from the Thames to the Firth of Forth and beyond.

They enjoyed temporary successes, but the kings never achieved this long enough for their power to take root. Instead, Northumbria’s kings often found themselves engaged on two fronts, to the north and south, and unable to deal effectively with either.

Despite this, Northumbria’s seventh-century kings were the only rulers to exercise even intermittent power universally across Britain before the 10th century, and their achievements should be recognised. Had they achieved lasting success, then the division that we see today between Scotland, England and Wales would probably be very different indeed.

 

High, but how mighty?

How close did Ecgfrith’s fellow Northumbrian high-kings come to uniting Britain?

Æthelfrith (Ecgfrith’s paternal grandfather) should be viewed as the founder of Northumbria. He came to prominence as king of the Bernicians in northern Northumbria, c592, but expanded his rule dramatically by waging war against the neighbouring British kingdoms, and by imposing himself on Deira (basically Yorkshire). He also fought off an attack by the Scots of Dál Riata, then marched against the Welsh and won the battle of Chester around 615.

Edwin (Ecgfrith’s maternal grandfather) was king of Northumbria, 616–33. He was initially placed on the throne by East Anglian backers but from c626 onwards he was the most powerful king in Britain. He defeated the West Saxons and the Welsh and took control of Anglesey and Man. Conversion to Roman Christianity provided him with an important source of soft power, and his marriage allied him with Kent. He died in battle fighting the Welsh and Mercians.

Oswald (Ecgfrith’s paternal uncle) was king of Northumbria, c634/35–42. He was Æthelfrith’s son, obtaining power through victory over the Welsh king Cædwalla. A marriage alliance with Wessex stabilised his ‘over-kingship’ in the south, while disastrous defeat suffered by the Scots in Ireland probably allowed Oswald to extend his high-kingship across the north and take direct control of the Lothians. He was defeated and killed “treacherously” by the Mercians.

Oswiu (Ecgfrith’s father) was king of Bernicia from 642 and of all Northumbria from 655–70. He used his patronage of Scottish Christianity to expand his influence into the south-east Midlands and Essex but had to retreat right up to the Firth of Forth in 655 in the face of a massive Mercian-led invasion. The invaders were defeated and mostly slain on the river Went near Doncaster in late autumn as they returned home, allowing Oswiu to emerge as high-king of Britain.

Although his attempt to take over Mercia ultimately failed, Oswiu did expand Northumbria northwards into Fife and established his over-lordship across the north.

Nick Higham is professor emeritus at the University of Manchester. He is co-author (with Martin Ryan) of The Anglo-Saxon World (Yale, 2013).

Further reading
Ecgfrith: High-king of Britain by Nick Higham (Sean Tyas, forthcoming 2015)

Listen again
To listen to a series of portraits of 30 ground-breaking Anglo-Saxon men and women, which appeared on Radio 3’s The Essay.

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