NORTHUMBRIA - 3: THE BEACON DIMS - Decline, and Danes

"Lord Osred, my king, you must learn. It is only through learning that we become wiser. You will one day be king in your own right and lead your kingdom from the front", the old man wags a bony finger at the lad, his pupil.

"What will men say of me then, Wilfrid?'

"They will say they are proud to be Northanhymbran, and will follow you to the end of the earth". Wilfrid has seen his best years. His twilight years beckon and he wonders what will become of Osred when he is gone, which will not be long. "They will also think back on you with fondness when you are gone..."

The maelstrom that Northanhymbra became...

Northanhymbra tears itself apart, Deira and Beornica at war again draws a new enemy
Northanhymbra tears itself apart, Deira and Beornica at war again draws a new enemy
Model of a Northanhymbran thegn, AD 779 - warfare within the kingdom had become commonplace again and new threats would come from across the sea
Model of a Northanhymbran thegn, AD 779 - warfare within the kingdom had become commonplace again and new threats would come from across the sea | Source

Aeldfrith passed on in AD 705, young yet. Following him into the kingship was a young son, hardly into puberty. Even before he was ready to take the mantle of kingship the young king was beset by Eardulf at Baebbanburh, although the traitor was foiled in his bid to wrest the kingship from the rightful heir and beheaded for his pains.

Knowing time was not on his side, Wilfrid took Osred under his wing. The old man became a father to his king, and following the outcome of a synod near Aet Hripum (Ripon) was in turn given back the bishopric of Hexham. But he was an old man now. He died four years into Osred's 'reign' whilst visiting one of his monastic houses in Mierca, (at Oundle near Peterborough).

Acca was given Hexham's bishopric and Wilfrid was interred at Aet Hripum. Luckily the Northanhymbrans defeated the Picts in AD711, stemming their southward expansion. Osred held onto the kingship despite the odds against him doing so. His kingdom, although not yet on the wane, would not see the power his grandfather Oswy attained in his lifetime. A period of internecine strife would follow and they would barely be able to hold their own against outside pressures.

Osred was murdered before he reached maturity in AD 716. He had lived through nineteen summers when his kinsmen Cenred and Osric decided to do away with him in the far south of the kingdom. Cenred took the kingship, surviving a further two years before Osric overturned him. Neither reign was marked by any notable achievement and it would be Cenred's line that came to hold the crown in AD 729. Ceolwulf was not exactly the kind of king Northanhymbra needed, however. He was learned, true enough. But he was monkish is demeanour, sometimes belittled by his underlings. Three years would pass and the Northanhymbran nobles had enough. He was kidnapped, his head shaven in the manner of a monk in AD 732.

The succession of ten kings in the space of sixty-nine years from AD 737 to AD 806 did not inspire the kingdom's nobles with confidence. Three of these kings were slain, and not in battle! Five were thrown out, rejected. Two, including Ceolwulf in AD 737 left the kingship to take the cloth. The kingdom reeled, hope lost of ever achieving the greatness of its 7th Century kings. It may have been this lack of focus that drew Norse raiders to attack Lindisfarena in AD 793..

Eadberht showed some spark of spirit when he had the Bishop of Lindisfarena shut away at Baebbanburh for plotting against him, but other than that showed no promise. He too left the kingship in AD 758 to follow Ceolwulf into holy orders at Eoferwic. Eadberht's son Oswulf reigned briefly before being murdered (at Corbridge on Tyneside) the following year on August 5th. The Deiran Aethelwald 'Moll' of Catraeth took the throne - possibly the architect of Oswulf's downfall. He was a cold-blooded killer who soon added the Beornican noble Oswin to his tally (at High Coniscliffe by the Tees) in AD 761. Few took to the murdering 'Moll', and at a meeting near Dunelm (Durham) his future - or lack of it - was discussed. The man who took his place, Alhred, was no better although he held the throne for ten years before he, too, was ousted. Aethelred, the son of 'Moll' took over the kingdom next until a Beornican known to us as Aelfwold threw him out. With Aethelred's demise went a number of nobles loyal to him.

Aelfwold followed Aethelred into the hereafter, murdered bu his uncle Sicga (at Chesters near Hadrian's Wall), and buried at Hexham. His young nephew Osred II succeeded him, only to flee into exile on Man from enemies who would have stopped at nothing to do away with him. Aethelred took up where he left off By late AD 792 he had done away with a rival at Windermere in Rheged, and beheaded Osred II when he returned, thinking himself safe. His marriage at Catraeth to the daughter of Offa of Mierca was a bid for an alliance to bolster his own power.

Aethelred may have been the strongest contender for a true successor to Ecgfrith, but the kingdom was not what it had been a hundred years or more earlier. Its power and its ecclesiastical affairs were in turmoil. Both in AD 782 and AD 789 hastily summoned synods were held in the south of what by now was known as Saint Cuthbert's Land. Other meetings were called near Dunelm in AD 792, AD 798 and AD 810. These weaknesses would not go unnoticed across the North Sea. They sized up Northanhymbra as a shark would a swimmer.

When a strong warrior king was needed, Ceolwulf preferred learning and his church. There was only one way to deal with him...

'Monkish' Ceolwulf is taken and forcibly tonsured - the crown of his head shaved in the manner of a monk
'Monkish' Ceolwulf is taken and forcibly tonsured - the crown of his head shaved in the manner of a monk | Source

The fury of the Northmen

"On the 8th June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God's church by rapine (sic) and slaughter..."

The summer of AD 793 witness the unforseen attack on Lindisfarena stunned all Europe in its ferocity. A Norse raiding party from the fjords struck. Monks fled, fearing for their lives, most slaughtered. Bishop Higbald fled the island to seek refuge on the mainland.

Alcuin, erstwhile head of St Peter's School at Eoferwic, now at the court of Charles 'the Great' saw fit to put the blame for the Vikings' attack on the lowered moral values within the kingdom. He knew full well of Northanhymbra's unsteadiness and saw the raid as God's wrath.

Further raids saw Jarrow attacked. Even though by this time the Northanhymbrans were ready, and the monastery was after all on the mainland, the Norsemen knew here was an easy target for times to come. More raids followed, on Jarrow Lindisfarena and Wearmouth. At the turn of the century Streoneshealh came under attack, another site thought out of reach. With it Hartlepool was raided for the first time, and Tynemouth again. Soon the coastal monasteries stood as ruins bereft of gold and silver ornament taken from the bound works. The dead were buried, sites abandoned for the time being with a view to rebuilding one day...

How Aethelred saw the earlier raids is unwritten. He would not see out the year AD 796, being slain in mid-April that year on Tyneside at Osbald's behest. A month later Osbald himself was thrown out by Eardwulf. Some sort of peace and stability descended on the kingdom for the next ten years before another came along to disturb the much needed prosperity. Aelfwold II , and set on the throne again after two years when Aelfwold was killed. Three years later Eardwulf was ousted again, this time by Eanred.

Homage had not been paid to the Northanhymbran kings for many years by this time, the kingdom slid into decline politically. Why bother, after all, when Beornica and Deira rose and fell so quickly at one another's expense? Leave them be, further weakened until one day perhaps an outsider such as a West Seaxan king such as Ecgberht came along in AD 829 and made demands on Eanred. Ecgberht, who by now had added Mierca to his dominions, was now the strongest king on the British mainland. Eanred had to accede and ackowledge Ecgberht's overlordship, his power a shadow of what Oswy's had been.

The West Seaxne were now the strongest. Their kings would see a male line last until Aelfred's time, although weakened, to Aethelred II of West Seaxe and his son Eadmund 'Ironside'. [An Anglo-Danish line from Knut through Harold I to Harthaknut broke the thread before Eadward came to the throne in AD 1042, but his time and power would be limited].

Raiding on the east coast outposts of the Church...

The Norsemen raid along the coast of Northumbria, not one monastery is spared
The Norsemen raid along the coast of Northumbria, not one monastery is spared | Source

A different angle of approach to the book in the previous episode (and below) taken by John Marsden of the kingdom of Northumbria, its relationship with the Celtic kingdoms and other Anglian/Jutish/Saxon kingdoms on the British mainland

Like a suffering animal put down...some would be kept, others sold as thralls and yet more would die

Danes spread out; by AD 900 they had set up another kingdom centred on Dyflin - Dublin - they were also in Cork, Limerick, Wexford and Waterford - slavery would be stock in trade, sold to them by rival Gaelic kingdoms as well as taken by themselves
Danes spread out; by AD 900 they had set up another kingdom centred on Dyflin - Dublin - they were also in Cork, Limerick, Wexford and Waterford - slavery would be stock in trade, sold to them by rival Gaelic kingdoms as well as taken by themselves | Source

Eanred would still be king of a united Northanhymbra until his death in AD 840. Much-needed peace and prosperity, if not power, were restored to the kingdom. He would be succeeded to the throne by his son Aethelred II (not to be confused with his West Seaxan namesake a century and a half later).

Viking raids kept up the pressure throughout these years, Northanhymbra providing them with easy, isolated targets. In AD 830 the monks of Lindisfarena had been obliged to foresake their abbey with the bones of Saint Cuthbert. Inland, they halted (at Northam-on-Tweed) where they built a small church. Yet this was only at the outset of long years of aimless wandering to find somewhere where they could lay the saint's bones to rest permanently.

Edoardo Albert, in association with Paul Gething introduces you to the complex history of Northumbria as an independent and powerful kingdom from early days to an inglorious end. You are taken from the time the Angles landed and spread out north from the Humber, to the sad end when a puppet king was installed - before the kingdom became an earldom.

Northumbria the lost kingdom

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Death agonies...

Anglian, Jute and Saxon kingdoms as at AD 802
Anglian, Jute and Saxon kingdoms as at AD 802 | Source
The Danes are here - to stay
The Danes are here - to stay | Source
The movements of the Great Heathen Army up to AD 865
The movements of the Great Heathen Army up to AD 865 | Source
King Osberht of Deira (Southern Northumbria) faces the Danes with Aella's ealdorman of Bernicia (right), early scene from 'The Last Kingdom'
King Osberht of Deira (Southern Northumbria) faces the Danes with Aella's ealdorman of Bernicia (right), early scene from 'The Last Kingdom' | Source
By AD 886 the scene had changed drastically, with the Danes having taken lands east of Watling Street and turned Deira into a Danish kingdom with its heart at Jorvik. Eoferwic is a thing of the past.
By AD 886 the scene had changed drastically, with the Danes having taken lands east of Watling Street and turned Deira into a Danish kingdom with its heart at Jorvik. Eoferwic is a thing of the past. | Source

A new age of conquest, of rather than by the Northanhymbrans

Across Britain the Norsemen raided. The Danes founded a trading haven and stronghold in Ireland they named Dyflin as somewhere to set out on raids to mainland Britain. The West Norse (Norwegians) settled in the northern isles of Ljodhus (Lewis), Orkney and Sjetland (Shetland). They also settled the far north of the mainland in Katanes (Caithness) and Suthraland (Sutherland).

King Raedwulf fell to the Norsemen first not long after ousting Aethelred II. The lucky Aethelred held his throne again, reigned another four years until dying in AD 848, to be succeeded by Osberht. One of the last of the Aengle kings of Northanhymbra, Osberht was cast aside by the Northanhymbrians in favour of Aelle II. These two may have been half-brothers, but they stemmed from rival dynasties. Beornica and Deira.

It was hard enough for a king of the Northanhymbran Aengle to hold on to his throne, but that year a new threat would hang over Aelle like the sword of Damocles. Over the past seven decades by this time the Norsemen had made quick raids, in and out, taking treasure and slaves. They had no wish to outstay their welcome. This new threat would not go away again after a day or two. The Danes were here primarily to avenge a death, and secondarily to make their mark.

The death they came to avenge was Ragnar 'Lothbrok', his ship wrecked on rocks near Baebbanburh. Aelle had him locked away in a pit of vipers (see DANELAW YEARS - 1: LEGENDARY 'LEATHER BREEKS'). His sons Halvdan, Bjorn 'Ironside', Ivar 'the Boneless', Sigurd 'Snake-eye' and Ubbi came to avenge his death, first however to East Aengla. King Eadmund fled the field of battle to hide in the church at Byrig (now Bury St Edmunds). The monks tried to bar the church to the pursuing Danes, then the altar where Eadmund thought perhaps he might be safe. He was asked why he thought his men should die in the shieldwall whilst he seek shelter. There was no satisfactory answer to that. Asked whether he thought he would fly to heaven he failed to see where this would lead. He was tied to a pillar and arrows were loosed off at him.

'I cannot see him fly anywhere!' The Danes left him to the monks to bury.

It would be Aella's turn next. When he and the Deiran king Osberht were beaten near Eoferwic, the story goes, after Osberht was held for ransom Aelle underwent the punishment of the 'Blood-eagle'. His rib bones were to be separated from the spine and splayed out in the manner of wings. A puppet king was installed by the Danes to do their bidding. This would also be the case for Mierca. The West Seaxne would be next! (see DANELAW YEARS - 2: NJORD'S SILVERY PATH and 3: "ALL I SMELL IS BURNING CAKES!")

Next - 4: The New Kingdom

[You might have seen the TV series 'The Last Kingdom' based on Bernard Cornwell's series that takes his hero Uhtred of Bamburgh from youth to adulthood during the time of Aelfred's kingship of Wessex. It's fairly well done, except they keep insisting on identifying the Northumbrians as 'Saxons' and the name 'England' crops up a lot. Despite these inaccuracies (they're in the books), the series is well worth watching. I think Aelfred has been miscast. The actor who takes the part of Asser looks more like Aelfred should. Aelfred's dream of a united kingdom of Angles, Jutes and Saxons was only half-realised by his grandson Aethelstan, although a truly united England only became a reality in the reign of Edward III - it was divided again by the wars between the Lancastrians and Yorkists, and again again in the 17th Century when king and Parliament went to war]..

'The Last Kingdom', rousing adventure of conflict and alliances in the 9th Century at the time of Aelfred of Wessex. Not until the following century with Aethelstan was England 'born'.
'The Last Kingdom', rousing adventure of conflict and alliances in the 9th Century at the time of Aelfred of Wessex. Not until the following century with Aethelstan was England 'born'. | Source

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