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Special Guest Feature @p5ych0p0mp: The Rise and Fall of Rheged
A deep dive into the history of the Kingdom that briefly filled the vacuum left by Arthur's death.
Short intro from Aurochs
Over the past year p5ych0p0mp and I have had quite a few discussions about sub-Roman Britain, the Brythonic Heroic Age, the Old North, and the idea of a Northern Arthur. p5ych0p0mp is ridiculously knowledgeable, honestly, more-so than I am, and when he approached me with an earlier version of this article I was blown away and encouraged him to publish it somewhere, and offered my substack if he didn’t want to start one of his own. He masterfully melds sources into a coherent narrative and gives a fantastic overview of the late 6th and early 7th century happenings in the Old North, and early Northumbria. You can find and follow p5ych0p0mp on twitter with the button below. Thank you for reading and be sure to catch Part Two next week!
Part One: The Rise and Fall of Rheged
In the late Roman period the decadent British elite were under threat from Pictish and Scottish raiders. According to Gildas in his polemical “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain” they were lead by the “usurper” Vortigern and decided to settle allied Germanic foederati in the eastern regions of their land to face this threat. This was a common practice in late Rome. Their aid in defence would be exchanged for food and other payments. As these settlements grew in size the foederati soon revolted in complaint that their payment was insufficient. This revolt developed into an island wide war which according to British tradition was eventually quelled by King Arthwys at Badon. An unstable peace was agreed upon and the foederati returned to their settlements in the eastern provinces of Britain. This “peace” lasted for about a generation.
In this context we shall focus on the fate of the British Kingdom of Rheged in the “Hen Ogledd” or Old North. The Old North can be roughly considered the region between York and Edinburgh, it spanned the entire width of the island and was centred on Hadrian’s Wall straddling the modern day border between Scotland and England.
The most direct evidence for precisely locating Rheged comes in the form of a later 12th century boastful poem by Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd. The poem recounts the Prince’s journey to “Caer Lliwelydd”, modern day Carlisle, which he explicitly locates in the land of Rheged. Despite Rheged ceasing to exist centuries earlier, the romantic memory of it’s location persisted, and indeed linguistic evidence in the area suggests there were still Brythonic speakers present even at this late stage.
Taliesin was the 6th century court bard of Rheged, he provides us with a myriad of named locations to reinforce this identification:
“The lands of Llwyvenydd” is the modern River Lyvennet, which is a tributary of the larger River Eden. The Lyvennet Valley and surrounding area have many Romano-British monuments from which many interesting artefacts have been found such as the Asby Scar Sword, the ornate Crosby Garrett Cavalry Helmet and the Crosby Ravensworth Druidic Divination Spoons.
The River Eden which the Romans recorded as “Ituna” is itself mentioned in Taliesin’s poetry, noted for it’s rich bounty as “Idon’s lavish wine”. The Eden Valley stretches down from the Westmorland Dales through the heart of Cumbria to Carlisle and the Solway Firth at its end. It is oft characterised as a lush fertile valley nestled between the upland Pennine and Lake District Fells, which perhaps explains “Lord of the cultivated plain” also found in the poetry.
“Lord of Erechwydd” is another Taliesin location which means “Area of fresh water” or sometimes “Glittering West”. This is normally interpreted as the Lake District by scholars.
Most scholars therefore locate the core of Rheged at the aforementioned locations. The main court of Rheged was most likely at Carlisle, which was also mentioned by Taliesin, “Caer Lliwelydd” in a poem about attack by a rival ruler Cunedda. It was known as “Luguvalium” by the Romano-Britons, meaning “Walled Town of Lugus”, an important Celtic deity, and was the civitas capital of the Carvetti tribe. The vast Roman infrastructure of the Hadrian’s Wall complex and beyond provided the Kingdom of Rheged with considerable strategic advantage.
Rheged did have a period of vast expansion predominantly under the 6th century King Urien, to whom Taliesin most often sang in praise. He is variously described as “Lord of Catraeth”, modern day Catterick, that he is “a protector in Aeron” modern day Ayr, and that he pushed all the way to Lindesfarne at the peak of his power. Place name evidence in the hill fort “Dun Ragit” or Fort of Rheged in the west of Dumfries and Galloway verifies this theorised expansion. We also have “Reget Gill” in Furness, Cumbria, indicating this was possibly the southern extent of his power. This large territory made him probably the most dominant power in the Old North.
To briefly outline the major surrounding Kingdoms in the rest of the Old North in the mid 6th century, we have the British: Strathclyde to the North West around Glasgow, Goddodin to the North East around Edinburgh, Dunoting-Craven to the South around Lancashire and West Yorkshire, Elmet around Leeds and Ebrauc around York. We also have the Anglian Kingdoms of Bernicia directly to the East and Deira to the South East. For the most part we will be considering the interplay of these Kingdoms and will only mention other historical actors when relevant.
Often when analysing this period, over simplifications are made asserting a straight forward ethnic conflict between Angle and Celt, but as we shall see it is more complex than this. I will outline a roughly chronological series of major events that saw the rise and fall of Rheged, though it should be noted that the narrative will be highly speculative in places.
Urien Rheged lived approximately 530 to 590 and was a descendant of Coel Hen, who was possibly the last “Dux Britanniarum” or military commander of the Old North during the late Roman period. Urien’s full genealogy is as follows: Urien son of Cynfarch (the Dismal) son of Meirchion (the Lean) son of Gorwst (the Ragged) son of Ceneu (Grandfather of Arthwys) son of Coel Hen. Coel Hen was the progenitor of many royal dynasties such as that of Arthwys himself. These descendants became known as Coeling or Sons of Coel. Urien was a famous leader in his own right and was prominently eulogised as “Lord of Prydein” and remembered as one of the “Three Pillars of Battle”, “Three Battle Leaders” and “Three Bull Protectors” of Britain in the Triads.
The Triads also say that Urien was married to a Pagan Goddess “Modron daughter of Afallach” King of the Celtic Otherworld. She became the Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend. Modron was fated to bare a child by the Christian King Urien who gave him a son Owain, who is himself equated with the archetypal divine son Mabon. Mabon was the Celtic equivalent of Apollo, and the “Locus Maponi” or cult centre was within the bounds of Rheged as recalled by the place names Lochmaben and the Clochmaben Stone. Taliesin describes Rheged as the “country of Mabon” further confirming its location. Urien and his sons were Christians, however they didn’t seem to shy away from romantic syncretism. Much of Taliesin’s poetry is semi-pagan in nature such as “The Spoils of the Otherworld” and the Tolkienesque “Battle of the Trees”. Alongside the prominent Owain, Urien had other sons named Rhun, Elffin, Cadell, Rhiwallon and Pasgen.
The expansion of Rheged seems to have been initiated without Urien’s direct involvement. The Battle of Arfderydd, which occurred in 573 according to the Annales Cambriae, happened in Urien’s lifetime a short distance north of Carlisle at Carwhinley. Carwhinley meaning Caer Gwenddoleu was an area ruled by the Pagan King Gwenddoleu. He was reputed in the Triads to have kept two fierce birds as guardians that ate two men for dinner and two more for supper. Although thought to be a king, it is possible he was a sub-king to Urien’s overlordship. The Triads tell us the battle was fought over a “Lark’s nest”, which was probably a border dispute related to the nearby Caerlaverock or “Fort of Lark’s”, which seems to have been a lasting boundary related to the Ruthwell Cross which we will discuss later. Gwenddoleu was accompanied in battle by his legendary bard Myrddin adorned in a “golden torc”. As told in “The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin” after witnessing the slaughter, Myrddin was driven into a divine madness and fled to the Forest of Celidon to become a prophetic wild man hunted by his enemies. Eventually decades later Myrddin approached the churchman Cyndeyrn Garthwys son of Owain Rheged, otherwise known as St Kentigern the founder of Glasgow. He prophesied his own “triple death” whilst converting to Christianity and promptly went on to die “Pierced by a stake, suffering stone and wave” thus fulfilling his own prophecy. Myrddin’s grave lies “When Tweed and Powsail meet”. This gift of prophecy was perhaps bestowed by the psychopomp God Gwyn ap Nudd who according to another poem was "at the place where was killed Gwendoleu, the son of Ceidaw, the pillar of songs, where the ravens screamed over blood." In another account of Arfderydd it is said Myrddin “saw a supernatural light and hosts of angels casting their lances at him”. On the opposing victorious side of battle were jointly Rhydderch Hael, King of neighbouring Strathclyde, as well as Peredur and his brother Gwrgi rulers of Ebrauc. The battle became known as one of the “Three Futile Battles” in the Triads alongside the Battle of Camlann where “Arthur and Medraut fell” 36 years earlier. Interestingly Camlann occurred less than 10 miles south east of Carwhinley at the Roman fort of Camboglanna on Hadrians Wall. Peredur and Gwrgi were cousins of Gwenddoleu, and they were all grandsons of Arthwys ap Mar. Myrddin was also grandson of Medraut, who was Arthwys’ brother. Any potential link between these two battles given their legendary related participants and proximity is elusive, however the outcome is more simple.
Despite seemingly having no involvement in the battle, Urien stepped in to fill the void left by Gwenddoleu’s death. He absorbed the Kingdom under his direct rule. This modest Kingdom of Gwenddoleu seems to have spanned between Ruthwell and Bewcastle and stretched down to Birdoswald on Hadrians Wall, which was another inhabited fort at this time. Birdoswald was previously known as “Banna” and was home to the famous St Patrick a few generations earlier where he was abducted and enslaved by Irish raiders. We will revisit these important boundary locations later. It was in this time that Urien expanded north west to the fort of Dun Ragit and further, abutting Rhydderch Hael’s Strathclyde Kingdom to the North. Taliesin’s poetry relays that Urien came to Aeron, modern Ayr, not as an aggressor, indicating he had good relations with Rhydderch Hael. Two poems mention the “Battle of Alclud Ford” near Strathclyde’s stronghold. Anglian King “Ulph came with violence on his enemies”. Urien defeated “Ulph at the ford” which earned him the title “protector in Aeron”. Fighting this battle with Rhydderch Hael made them good allies. The same poem briefly mentions a series of other battles against both Angle and Briton from this expansionist period:
A battle in the ford of Alclud, a battle at the Inver.
The battle of Cellawr Brewyn. The battle of Hireurur.
A battle in the underwood of Cadleu, a battle in Aberioed.
He interposes with the steel loud (and) great.
The battle of Cludvein, the affair of the head of the wood.
It is probably at this time that Urien also crossed the Pennines to his south eastern frontier to control Catraeth, which strategically guarded the east-west Roman road providing a buffer zone to any eastern threats. This earned him the epithet “Lord of Catraeth”. During this period of expansion it seems Urien greatly enriched himself as “the chief of warriors, procurer of vast booty” and “the Gold King of the North”. Urien’s most valued material prize however was cattle. He is repeatedly referred to as a renowned cattle raider. One of the main enemies of the Sons of Coel was the rival dynasty the Sons of Cunedda. Cunedda was the progenitor of both Gododdin and Gwynedd. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Urien’s most daring cattle raid targeted the British Kingdom of Manaw Goddodin:
Purposing the affair of Manaw
And more harmony
Advantage flowing about his hand
Eight score of one colour
Of calves and cows
Much cows and oxen
This cattle raid was the catalyst for the next significant conflict in the Old North. The orthodox view of the famous poem “Y Gododdin” by the bard Aneurin is a straightforward Briton vs Angle narrative. A band of warriors is assembled by the King of Gododdin, Mynyddog Mwynfawr. Mynyddog generously provided them with a year of feasting and drinking mead at his fortress Din Eidyn, modern Edinburgh. After a year they marched on Catraeth and are subsequently slaughtered by their enemy in battle. It is suggested this enemy is the Angles of Deira in the poem. The bulk of the poem is a eulogy to the fallen warriors. It also contains one of the earliest references to Arthur.
Leading scholar John Koch suggested a strong alternative interpretation based on Stanza 15 that calls “the sons of Godebog” an enemy. This is a reference to "Coel Hen Godebog" and Urien who we already know is the “Lord of Catraeth”. This tells us that Urien was actually allied with the Anglian Deirans and was the true victor of the Battle of Catraeth. The exact nature of Urien’s relationship to Deira is unknown: Urien as overlord, Urien’s hired foederati or just as simple allies. This Rheged-Deira dynamic will be examined in detail later. To buttress this alternate theory we get confirmation in the poetry of Taliesin. A poem called “The Battle of Gwen Ystrad” records the Battle of Catraeth from the opposite perspective, that of the victors. The name means Gwen Valley, and probably refers to nearby Wensleydale. The poem says their enemy were “Men of Prydein” from the north, which lines up with a Goddodin enemy perfectly. The opening lines of the poem refer to Urien as Lord of Catraeth and renowned cattle raider:
Catraeth's men set out at daybreak
Round a battle-winning lord, cattle-raiser
Urien he, renowned chieftain
This confirms the cause of the Battle of Catraeth was Urien’s previous cattle raiding activities on Gododdin who responded with a failed raid of their own. Gododdin recruited many warriors from their kin in Gwynedd and as such many of these warriors were slain by Urien and the Deirans. Another poem called “Moliant Cadwallon” tells us about Cadwallon of Gwynedd’s motivations in enacting another attack on the region a generation later with his own curious ally in Saxon Pagan King Penda. He wanted to avenge his kin in retribution for the “sadness or loss of Catraeth”. We will discuss Cadwallons 7th century campaign later in the chronology.
The “Moliant Cadwallon” also tells us about a third ally of Urien, blaming the "fierce Gwallawc wrought the great and renowned mortality at Catraeth". Gwallawc of Elmet was a known ally of Urien as recorded in the Historia Brittonum. His presence at the Battle of Catraeth again confirms that the Sons of Cunedda (Gododdin and Gwynned) were attacking the Sons of Coel (Gwallawc and Urien). This reference also helps us date the Battle of Catraeth to before the Siege of Lindesfarne after which time Urien was dead and Gwallawc an enemy of Rheged. This will also be discussed later. The following lines from “The Battle of Gwen Ystrad” give us a further clue to the date:
And after morning's fray, torn flesh.
I saw hordes of invaders dead”
“At the ford I saw men stained with blood
Down arms before a grey-haired lord”
“Rheged's lord, I marvel, when challenged.
I saw splendid men around Urien
Here Urien is described as a “grey-haired lord” presiding over the bloody scene at a river ford. Therefore the Battle of Catraeth can be dated to around 580 nearing the end of Urien’s reign. After dispatching their British rivals a new enemy appeared to challenge the near hegemonic power of Rheged.
The next dedicated battle poem in the works of Taliesin is “The Battle of Argoed Llyfain”. This battle likely occurred shortly after Catraeth. It is Urien’s son Owain who lead the forces of Rheged, perhaps due to the “grey haired lord” Urien’s advanced age. Their adversary was a Bernician King called “Fflamddwyn” which means Flamebearer. Fflamddwyn surrounded the seat of power within Rheged and demanded hostages and submission from Urien. This incited a robust response:
Owain answered, Let the gashing appear”
“And rush upon Flamdwyn in his army,
And slaughter with him and his followers.
And because of the affair of Argoed Llwyfain,
There was many a corpse.
The ravens were red from the warring of men.
We learn from the later “Death Song of Owain” confirmation of the battle site and that Owain personally killed Fflamddwyn leading the charge:
For the equal will never be found
of the prince of glorious Llwyfenydd.
Reaper of enemies, strong of grip,
like his father and grandfather.
When Owain killed Fflamddwyn
it was no more (to him) than falling asleep
The Cumbric word “Llwyfen" means Elm tree, this element present in both poems identifies the battle site of “Argoed Llwyfain” or “Near the Elm Wood” as the same very same Llwyfenydd, which is elsewhere described as a stronghold of Rheged and is identified with the Lyvennet Valley, Cumbria. There remains in this valley, and surrounding area, numerous Romano-British settlements. Ewe Close (Ewein Close?) or Castle Folds on Asby Scar being two of the possible battle sites. It is unclear which Bernician King “Fflamddwyn” was, but the Historia Brittonum tells us that “Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien.” It was probably his actions that sparked the next response to this new Anglian menace.
The Historia Brittonum also tells us that, in about the year 590, Urien assembled his ally Gwallawc from the Battle of Catraeth, his ally Rhydderch Hael from the Battle of Alcud Ford and a third ally Morcant Bulc. Urien lead them on a campaign against Hussa of Bernicia. A series of running battles occurred “sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated”. The Yarrow Stone is a monument just West of Lindesfarne that possibly commemorates two sons of Rhydderch Hael who died in this campaign. Its inscription reads “This is an everlasting memorial. In this place lie the most famous princes Nudus and Dumnogenus. In this tomb lie the two sons of Liberalis”. “Liberalis” is the Latin for the Welsh “Hael”.
The British alliance gained the upper hand and pushed the Angles all the way back to the Island of Lindesfarne where for three days and three nights Urien laid siege to Hussa. This was the peak of Urien’s power. He had won all of his conflicts and was on the verge of completely driving the Bernician Angles out of the Old North. His victories were enough to cement himself a place alongside Arthwys in the British heroic tradition. He may have even gone on to eclipse the accomplishments of Arthwys had there not been another twist in the tale.
Amongst his allies a conspiracy was unfolding lead by Morcant Bulc. One day when Urien was on patrol an agent of Morcant assassinated Urien. A poem by Urien’s cousin Llywarch Hen tells us that it occurred at Aber Lleu, modern day Ross Low, at the hands of a man in the pay of Morcant named Llofan Llawddifro who is also known as one of “Three Savage Men” in the Triads. Llywarch cut the head off Urien’s corpse to save it from further defilement and carried it back to Rheged. “The head of Urien, the mild leader of his army. And on his white bosom the sable raven is perched.” The ancient Celts believed the head was the seat of the soul.
The Historia Brittonum tells us that Morcant was envious of Urien’s superior military prowess. A triumphant Urien certainly would be a threat to the smaller neighbouring kingdoms. His assassination became known as one of “Three unfortunate assassinations” in the Triads. Little else is known about Morcant, although we know he was also a descendant of Coel Hen from the preserved genealogies. The “Life of St Kentigern” suggests that Morcant’s kingdom was somewhere in Dumfriesshire. This makes it likely that Morcant was a sub-King to Urien’s overlordship and wanted to usurp the throne for himself.
After Urien’s death his eldest son Owain became the King, “The Death Song of Owain” by Taliesin hails him as “The Chief of Rheged”. As the poem title implies, Owain's rule was to be short lived. The treacherous assassination of Urien divided the once strong unity of the Coeling. Morcant wasn’t the only participant in the conspiracy against Rheged as the other Kingdoms also turned on their former allies. “The Death of Urien” by Llywarch Hen tells us about the sequence of events that followed Urien’s death. Morcant and another minor King called Bran continued to ravage the lands of Rheged. Gwallawc of Elmet, the former ally from Catraeth and the Lindesfarne campaign, attacked Urien’s son Elphin with cavalry, raiding the southern province of Rheged called Erechwydd. The southerly neighbour of Erechwydd, Dunod of Dunoting, also joined in with the raiding, being repelled by Owain and his brother Pasgen.
Dunod probably died in this skirmish, his death was recorded as 595 in the Annales Cambriae. Llywarch implies, by the line “When Owain and Elphin lived”, that both Owain and his brother Elphin also died, against which of their opponents we can’t be sure. The “Stanzas of the Graves” tells us that “The grave of Owain ab Urien is in a square grave under the earth of Llanforfael”. Owain’s exploits earned him a prominent place in the Arthurian tradition in which he features in a number of romances. Llywarch also says “Were there not given to me by Rhun, the famous chief” indicating that after Owain’s death Rhun took the throne of Rheged, which is later confirmed in other sources. Pasgen also survived but we will explore his story in Part Two of this series. It is confirmed in the “Dialogue between Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd” that Gwallawg was slain in battle by the line “I have not been where Gwallawg was slain” but it does not specify who killed him. The Taliesin “Song on Gwallawg ab Lleenawg” gives us a clue to the King of Elmet’s fate:
They sing of, they deplore the prince
He rejected uniform ranks of the rulers
Of the hosts of Rhun and Nudd and Nwython
This implies further conflicts between Gwallawg and the newly crowned King Rhun. We know from reliably dated events elsewhere that Rhun’s death post-dates Gwallawg’s, which means Rhun probably killed Gwallawg ending the intra-Coeling blood feud. The role Rhydderch Hael played in these conflicts is unclear but Nwython or Neithon was ruler of Strathclyde after him and if the Nudd ap Hael commemorated on the Yarrow Stone was indeed his son and one of the hosts battling Gwallawg, this could imply they were allies with Rhun.
The “Life of St Kentigern” gives us a clue to the fate of Morcant. Kentigern was conceived when Owain impregnated Princess Taneu, daughter of King Lot, by stealth whilst dresses as a woman. Kentigern went on to become a well known Christian missionary in Dumfriesshire. Morcant drove Kentigern out of the region under threat of death. Morcant could have held this antipathy towards Kentigern due to his ongoing feud with the clan of his father Owain. Some years later Kentigern was invited back to the region by Rhydderch Hael who had taken power. Morcant was dead and we can assume it was by Rhydderch’s hand. This affection towards Kentigern ap Owain and hostility towards Morcant suggests Rhydderch was still an ally of Rheged and aided their struggle, probably seizing some territory for his trouble. Kentigern died in around 614 and his remains lie in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral to this day as patron saint of the city.
Following this disharmonious internecine episode the British Kingdoms of the Old North were severely weakened and disorganised. This chaos allowed the Angles of Bernicia to rapidly regain a foothold with no effective opposition. Many of the weakened and atomised British kingdoms were subsumed and conquered by the Angles.
After the near extinguishing of Bernicia at Lindesfarne the Angles rapidly swept through the territory of Bryneich in the absence of any opposition due to the Coeling infighting. The next British territory to be conquered was Ebrauc which was nestled between Deira and Bernicia.
The Triads tell us that Gwrgant Gwron son of Peredur was one of the “Three Prostrate Chieftains” indicating that rule of Ebrauc had changed hands in the generation before his. The Annales Cambriae lists the death of Peredur and Gwrgi rulers of Ebrauc as being 580. The Triads tell us they were abandoned by their army on the eve of battle against an Angle King “Eda Glinfawr” at “Caer Greu”. This earned them the title one of the “Three Faithless War-Bands”. Peredur is also mentioned in the “Y Gododdin” as one of the fallen warriors fighting with Gododdin at the Battle of Catraeth. “Caer Greu” hasn’t been identified but if we assume it was the same conflict as Catraeth this would make sense. The date 580 for their deaths lines up with our speculated date for Catraeth. We also know that around this time Urien took the territory around Catraeth and that King Aelle of Deira his ally took the rest of Ebrauc’s territory. The two allies at Catraeth and beneficiaries of Ebrauc’s downfall were probably those responsible for the death of Peredur and Gwrgi as well.
In the early 7th century Aethelfrith son of Hussa was King of Bernicia. He was a war-like king who conquered Deira and some unnamed British provinces in around 604. Aethelfrith subsequently banished Edwin son of Aelle. This unification created the Kingdom of Northumbria. Aethelfrith was defeated by Raedwald of East Anglia, who installed the exiled Edwin as King of Northumbria in 616. Edwin exiled Aethelfrith’s sons Oswald and Oswy who fled to Dal Riata.
The Annales Cambriae say in 626 “Edwin is baptized, and Rhun son of Urien baptized him.” This is confirmed in the Historia Brittonum stating Rhun baptized Edwin and 12000 Saxons at Easter. Bede records the same event although he negates to mention Rhun’s role. Bede does however say that most of the Saxons were “baptized in the river Swale, which runs by the village of Catraeth”. This is potentially very significant considering the river ford at Catraeth was the exact location of Rhun’s father Urien and Edwin’s father Aelle’s victory against the Gododdin. Clearly Rhun and Edwin had a strong relationship based on a long running alliance between Rheged and Deira. Furthermore in the Historia Brittonum the preceding information to the baptism tells us that Edwin “seized on Elmet, and Expelled Cerdic, its king.” It is implied in the text that the two events are linked and therefore some scholars directly link Rhun baptising Edwin to Edwin expelling Cerdic from Elmet. Cerdic was son of Gwallawg, the former ally at Catraeth turned rival whom Rhun probably killed in the Lindesfarne Siege fallout. It is speculated that Rhun would support Edwin’s claim to neighbouring Elmet if he agreed to religious submission to Christianity in order to rule his new prospective British Christian subjects. This is also why it appears a relatively peaceful regime change with Cerdic being expelled rather than invaded. In Bede’s account of events he also tangentially links Edwin’s baptism with events in Elmet which potentially confirms this suspicion.
Shortly after annexing Elmet, Bede tells us that Edwin became active in the “Mevanian islands” which are the modern day Isle of Man and Anglesey. This suggests that Edwin extended his rule west of Elmet all the way to the Irish Sea which indicates that the British Kingdom of Dunoting-Craven probably fell under his dominion at this time. The Annales Cambriae state that in 629 “The besieging of king Cadwallon in the island of Glannauc.” This entry tells us that the King of Gwynedd Cadwallon ap Cadfan was besieged on a small island off Anglesey by Edwin. Geoffrey of Monmouth and Reginald of Durham state Edwin was fostered by Cadfan in the court of Gwynedd whilst exiled in his youth. It could be a youthful rivalry between Edwin and Cadwallon that first sparked their momentous conflict. The Triads tell us that Cadwallon escaped Edwin’s siege and retreated to Ireland in order to regroup.
Cadwallon returned to “Ardd Nefon” with his reorganised army who were known as one of the “Three Faithful War-Bands” in the Triads. Cadwallon won a series of minor skirmishes against Edwin pushing him back east. Cadwallon gained a new ally in the Pagan King of Mercia Penda by defeating him in battle according to legend, he reinforced this new alliance by marrying Penda’s sister. Bede tells us the conflict culminated at the “Battle of Hatfield Chase” in 633. “Cadwallon king of the Britons, rebelled against him, being supported by Penda”… “A great battle being fought in the plain that is called Heathfield, Edwin was killed”… “and all his army was either slain or dispersed”. It is likely that Rhun supported Edwin in this battle and was probably killed here as after this time his son Rhoath was ruler. Cadwallon continued his campaign in Northumbria and when besieged by Oscric the new ruler of Deira he "sallied out on a sudden with all his forces, by surprise, and destroyed him and all his army." Bede states that Cadwallon also killed the new ruler of Bernicia King Eanfrith “who unadvisedly came to him with only twelve chosen soldiers, to sue for peace”. Bede also says “After this, for the space of a year, he reigned over the provinces of the Northumbrians, not like a victorious king, but like a rapacious and bloody tyrant”. For a brief time the Old North was once again ruled entirely by British powers. As previously examined, the “Moliant Cadwallon” tells us that Cadwallon’s conquering of the North was at least partially motivated by the “sadness or loss of Catraeth”. This loss was perpetrated at the hands of Rhun’s father, Edwin’s father and the "fierce Gwallawc wrought the great and renowned mortality at Catraeth". The Gododdin were regarded as kin by the kings of Gwynedd as both their kingdoms were founded by Cunedda. The forces of Gododdin had many warriors from Gwynedd present at the battle as eulogised in the “Y Gododdin”.
Upon the death of Edwin and his sons, Oswald and Oswy the sons of Aethelfrith became the heirs to Northumbria. While in exile in Dal Riata both sons became devout Christians in the Celtic tradition. Both were noted by Bede for their piety and sincerity as opposed to the more cynical and politically motivated strain of Christianity that the likes of Edwin ascribed to. Oswald wanted to press his claim to the throne of Northumbria but he lacked an army to confront Cadwallon. The exact composition of his makeshift army is unknown, Bede only says “an army, small, indeed, in number, but strengthened with the faith of Christ”. Not many Bernicians were authentic Christians at this time and it has been theorised that Oswald’s army was partially comprised of Scots and Picts from his Northern contacts. He is recorded to have previously fought for Dal Riata in Ireland.
However John of Fordun tells us that Domnall Brecc King of Dal Riata sent a retinue with Oswald and Oswiu to ensure that they came into their inheritance safely but not to battle Cadwallon. Domnall "even promised to help them against Penda or any of the Saxons; but altogether refused it against Cadwallon and the Britons, who had long been bound to the Scots by the friendship of faithful alliance". It is possible that Gartnait King of Picts sent warriors to aid Oswald as his sister was married to Oswald’s brother Eanfrith who was killed by Cadwallon.
As some have speculated, it is perhaps due to this lack of support that in desperation Oswald came to the court of Rhoath ap Rhun in Rheged. The old enemy of his ancestors whose grandfathers Urien and Hussa famously clashed. There are multiple indicators that Rheged supported Oswald’s campaign. Firstly and most directly it is recorded in the Historia Brittonum that Oswald betrothed Rhienmellt ferch Rhoath to his brother and heir Oswy. Her name which means “Lightening Princess” was Anglicised as “Raegnmeld” and appears first on the list of Queens in the Durham Liber Vitae. This shows that at this time Rheged is still a powerful political and military power whose support was critical for Oswald. Oswald and Rhoath were likely wary of each other given their family histories, but the marriage assured Rhoath’s support for Oswald’s claim, and Oswald’s favourable non-hostile relations should he become ruler of neighbouring Northumbria. Ultimately the common enemy of Cadwallon was enough for them to unite cause and look past previous conflicts. Rhoath would also have seen Oswald’s devout Christianity in the Celtic tradition as a sign of aligned interests. Oswald’s future actions would actually prove worthy of such praise by the British that many were given the Cumbric name “Gososwald” in his honour. This is in the same manner as the Cumbric “Gospatric” after St Patrick and “Gosmungo” after Mungo (An alternative name for Kentigern). The Cumbric element “Gos” means “Servant of”. The only other Angle to achieve this status was Cuthbert, with “Goscuthbert”. It is possible that warriors from Rheged even made up the bulk of Oswald’s army, “an army, small, indeed, in number, but strengthened with the faith of Christ”.
It is evidenced in the account of Bede that Oswald marched his cobbled together army west to meet Cadwallon on Hadrian’s Wall. This approach from the west through the territory of Rheged wouldn’t have been possible without their complicity. It also neatly explains the curious place name of “Birdoswald”, a Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, which was a manned outpost of Rheged. The etymology of the name is suggested as the Cumbric “Bwrdd-” + “Oswald” by Sir Ifor Williams meaning “Table of Oswald”. An alternate derivation is the Cumbric “Buarth-” + “Oswald” by Andrew Breeze meaning “Cattle yard of Oswald”. Both names indicate a local British population renaming the fort in memory of Oswald’s probable use of it as a marching camp. This once again indicates the local group of Britons had a positive view of Oswald.
The strategic advice of Rheged would have been invaluable to Oswald. Their local experience and strategy ensured Oswald’s forces met Cadwallon at a favourable location which allowed them to outmanoeuvre their opponent. Cadwallon’s forces were trapped between Hadrian’s Wall and Brady’s Crag. The conflict that followed became known as the “Battle of Heavenfield” or “Catscaul” meaning “Battle of the Wall” in the Historia Brittonum. Despite outnumbering Oswald, Cadwallon was killed. The Historia Brittonum calls him “Oswald Llauiguin” as a result of this victory which means “Oswald Bright Blade”, to give him this British epithet again shows that a group of Britons held a positive view of his actions, this group was obviously Rheged and not Cadwallons supporters. Few Anglian Kings earned these cognomens, two of the three others were Oswald’s nephew Ecgfrith who we will discuss later and Oswald’s father Aethelfrith who was given “Ffleisor” meaning “Schemer” showing British disdain for an enemy.
Oswald was now the unchallenged King of Northumbria. His father was Aethelfrith of Bernicia and his mother was Acha daughter of Aella of Deira. It is for this reason that Bede says: “Through this king's management the provinces of the Deiri and the Bernicians, which till then had been at variance, were peacefully united and molded into one people.” One of the first actions Oswald undertook was to convert his people to Christianity. He was sent Aidan from Iona in Dal Riata who became the first Bishop of Lindesfarne in the Celtic tradition. It was for these missionary actions that both Oswald and Aidan received sainthood. For the first time Rheged saw relative stability with a closely allied neighbouring Kingdom of Northumbria with aligned religious interests. It was in this time roughly 635 that Rhienmellt ferch Rhoath and Oswy son of Aethelfrith consolidated their alliance through marriage.
The Annals of Ulster tell us that in the year 638 Dun Eidyn, modern day Edinburgh, the seat of the Gododdin was besieged. Most scholars interpret this as Oswald conquering the Kingdom and incorporating it into Northumbria as Oswy controlled this area in his later reign. This left only Rheged and Strathclyde as the last British Kingdoms of the Old North, predominantly due to their size, advantageous western locations and strategic political manoeuvring.
Oswald died at the Battle of Maserfield in 642 fighting against Cadwallon’s former ally the Pagan King of Mercia Penda and his new British ally of Powys. As recorded by Bede in the same year 642, Oswald’s brother Oswy became King of Northumbria and his British wife Rhienmellt ferch Rhoath became Queen.
As we shall see in the following section the fate of Rheged was determined by Ecgfrith son of Oswy and his maternal lineage is critical. Oswy had two wives who could be Ecgfriths mother: Rheinmellt or Eanfled daughter of Edwin. Most scholars operate with educated guesswork and repetition of the dominant narrative. I will outline the evidence and present an alternative conclusion. For the sake of brevity I will summarise the evidence that indicates Ecgfrith is son of Rheinmellt and not Eanfled. I will expand on some of these points below, and for others check the notes at the end of this article for more detail.
1) We know the earliest possible date for Oswy’s marriage to Eanfled is 642 and latest is 651 from Bede. Eanfled’s mother would not allow a marriage to Oswy and so it wasn’t until after her death in 647 that a marriage could be arranged. Therefore the marriage occurred in 648 a number of years after Ecgfrith was born in 645.
2) Rhienmellt’s known children were Alhfrith in 636, Alhflaed in 638. Eanfled’s known children were Aelfflaed in 654, Osthryth in 659 and Aelfwine in 661. Ecgfrith was born in 645 and so is closer in age to Rheinmellt’s batch of children, furthermore the pattern of births fits her biological probabilities more.
3) The chronology of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History indicates the marriage to Eanfled happened after Bishop Paulinus’ death in October 644 therefore not early enough for Ecgfrith’s birth.
4) Eanfled was very close to Bishop Wilfred and heavily favoured the Romanist Christian tradition. Ecgfrith was an opponent of Wilfred banishing him and heavily favoured the Celtic Christian tradition putting him more ideologically aligned with Rheinmellts influence.
5) Ecgfrith was given an affectionate British cognomen in the Historia Brittonum indicating he was looked upon favourably by the Britons due to his parentage.
6) Ecgfrith is the first Northumbrian king who is recorded to have had any sovereignty in the territory of Rheged by erecting monuments at it’s borders and donating land to Cuthbert. These donations are described as being in partnership with the Britons of the area.
7) There is no records of Rhoath passing rule of Rheged to any sons and there is no records of any conquest. Ecgfrith seems to have peacefully inherited the kingdom which would be more easily explained by his direct descent from Rhoath.
8) Ecgfrith purposefully started a dynasty in Carlisle that is only recorded in British sources and is characterised as “Anglo-British” by many scholars. This dynasty ruled in Rheged but did not rule elsewhere in Northumbria.
9) Bede states that Northumbrian power peaked with Ecgfrith and waned after his death with the Britons regaining their freedom indicating Rheged was united with Northumbria in his lifetime and split off to be ruled by his “Anglo-British” sons after his death.
10) Evidence that a faction of the Rheged elite were exiled and pursued in Ecgfrith’s time. This will be covered in Part Two of this series.
These factors combined make it almost certain that Ecgfrith was son of Rheinmellt and not Eanfled. Bede tells us Oswy died in 670 of illness and subsequently Ecgfrith was crowned king in that same year. The year 670 marks the date Rheged proper ceased to be, but the story doesn’t end there. It is unclear if Ecgfrith inherited rule of Rheged peacefully or if he used force to press his claim. There is circumstantial evidence that points to the latter that we will cover in Part Two of this article about a dynasty of pirate Princes from Rheged.
Ecgfrith is the first King of Northumbria documented to exercise sovereignty over the former territory of Rheged. Symeon of Durham tells us in the “Historia de Sancto Cuthberto” that in the year 685 "King Ecgfrith and all the Britons gave Cuthbert the territory of Cartmel". This interesting quote as correctly translated and interpreted by Fiona Edmonds tells us Ecgfrith was working with the Britons, their consent was seemingly required as well as his in order to grant Cuthbert the land of Cartmel which lies in the southern part of Rheged. It also almost implies he is himself British almost like “Ecgfrith and all the other Britons in addition to himself”. This could be due to his mixed ancestry.
Described by the scholar Nikolaus Pevsner as "the greatest achievement of their date in the whole of Europe" Ecgfrith erected two impressive monuments that marked the borders of his newly acquired territory of Rheged. The Bewcastle Cross sits within a Roman Fort that was named “Fanum Cocidi” in the Ravenna Cosmography. It was the cult centre to the Romano-British God of war Mars Cocidius. It was also connected by Roman road to the significant early medieval site of Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall to the south.
The Ruthwell Cross was the sister monument which is located just to the east in the “Locus Maponi” region near to a minor Roman marching camp. Pythian-Adams and other scholars suggest the significance of these two locations is that it shows Ecgfrith’s adoption of Rheged’s established ancient boundaries integrated into the eastern and western extent of his Celtic Cuthbert-ian Diocese of Lindisfarne in the region. This boundary marked the extent of King Gwenddoleu’s domain where the Battle of Arthuret was fought over a border dispute relating to nearby Ruthwell-Caerlaverock. It is also thought these two locations could also mark the boundaries of the even older Civitas Carvetti which had continuity into Ecgfrith’s time as I will discuss shortly.
The runic inscriptions on the Bewcastle Cross confirms our reasoning. “Cyneburh” is the only confidently legible name, she was the wife of Alhfrith son of Rhienmellt who died before his younger brother Ecgfrith took the throne of Northumbria and Rheged. The main inscription probably reads “This slender pillar Hwætred, Wæthgar, and Alwfwold set up in memory of Ecgfrith, a king and son of Oswy. Pray for their sins, their souls”. The location of both crosses marking Ecgfriths adoption of Rheged’s boundaries coupled with the dedication to possibly both sons of Rhienmellt makes it very likely these impressive monuments were erected to honour the union of the Kingdoms as personified in Ecgfrith. Bishop Biscop and Ecgfrith brought stonemasons from France in 674 and both crosses probably date from this time.
Symeon of Durham tells us in the “Historia de Sancto Cuthberto” that Ecgfrith granted Cuthbert the Romano-British city of Lugubalia and the area extending 15 miles in circuit. This grant of Ecgfrith’s newly inherited territory should be interpreted more as ecclesiastical jurisdiction than land ownership. It is probably no coincidence that Bewcastle itself lies almost exactly 15 miles away from Carlisle.
Bede tells us in the “Life of St Cuthbert” that there was continuity of Romano-British tradition into Ecgfrith’s reign which he accepted and highly valued. Bede describes a visit to Carlisle by Bishop Cuthbert who was welcomed in British areas as an advocate of the Celtic Christian tradition. Interestingly Bede uses the Romano-British name for Carlisle “Lugubalia” which is unusual in his writing. In it’s time Lugubalia was home to the largest Roman cavalry unit in Brittania housing 1000 horses and men at the Uxelodunum Fort just to the west of Camboglanna and just to the east of Aballava, both evocatively named Arthurian locations.
We learn from the “Notitia Dignitatum” that this cavalry unit known as the “Ala Petriana” was under the direction of a “praefectus” under the Dux Britanniarum. Bede tells us that the purpose of Cuthbert’s visit to Lugubalia in 685 was to visit Ecgfrith’s wife Queen Iurminburh who was based here. Cuthbert is given a tour of the city by a “praepositus civitatis” to view the impressive stone walls and still functioning fountain presumably with adjoining aquaduct. This tells us that Romano-British titles, tradition and maintenance of infrastructure had continuity into Ecgfrith’s rule. Cuthbert and Iurminburh were awaiting the outcome of Ecgfrith’s campaign against the Picts. Cuthbert went on to have a prophetic vision of Ecgfrith’s death as described by Bede.
The Historia Brittonum tells us that Egfrith was campaigning against “his maternal cousin” King Bridei of the Picts. Bede gives us a detailed account of the Battle of Dun Nechtain: “rashly leading his army to ravage the province of the Picts, much against the advice of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert, of blessed memory, who had been lately ordained his op, the enemy made show as if they fled, and the king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the greatest part of his forces, on the 20th of May, in the fortieth year of his age.”
The power of Northumbria peaked with Ecgfrith and after his death their power waned. Bede talks about the aftermath of the battle: “From that time the hopes and strength of the English crown "began to waver and retrograde"; for the Picts recovered their own lands, which had been held by the English and the Scots that were in Britain, and some Of the Britons their liberty, which they have now enjoyed for about forty six years.” It is unclear which territories of the Britons regained their independence after Ecgfrith’s death but the former territory of Rheged largely falls out of the historical record after 685.
In the “Life on St Cuthbert” Bede also says “Not very long afterwards, the same servant of God, Cuthbert, was summoned to the same city of Lugubalia, not only to consecrate priests, but also to bless the queen herself with his holy conversation.” This tells us that even after Ecgfrith’s death, Iurminburh was comfortable living in this region and seems to have regarded it as safe place for her to settle Ecgfrith’s heirs. There is no record in any Anglo-Saxon source that Ecgfrith left any heirs and for this reason his illegitimate half-brother Aldfrith became King of Northumbria. No descendent of Ecgfrith ever held the crown. There is however a record of a dynasty sired by Ecgfrith in the British source Historia Brittonum:
“Oswy begat Ecgfrith, the same is Ailguin, who begat Oslach, who begat Alhun, who begat Adlsing, who begat Echun, who begat Oslaph”
Here Ecgfrith is given the favourable British epithet “Ailguin” meaning “Fair Brow” reminiscent of his uncle Oswald’s “Bright Blade” cognonem. This shows a positive relationship with the Britons due to his parentage hence the curious inclusion of his dynasty not found elsewhere. It is the opinion of scholars such as Pythian-Adams, Dumville and Jackson that this dynasty represented the “Anglo-Celtic” rulers of the former territory of Rheged as largely independent sub-kings who derived their authority from Ecgfrith’s Anglo-British heritage. This is why the western part of the Old North falls from the historical record of Northumbria. There is no other information about this Ailguin dynasty other than the genealogy. Through a rigorous analysis of place name evidence, later ecclesiastical boundaries and other evidence Pythian-Adams characterises the next two centuries as “Anglo-Celtic” in nature.
We do however know that Bede wrote Whithorn “has lately become an episcopal see” in 731. This new Diocese of Whithorn illustrates Northumbria must have wielded some power in parts of the west from 731 until the last recorded Bishop Heathored of Whithorn in roughly 833. The interesting thing here is that if we extrapolate the date at which the last recorded descendant of Ecgfrith was likely to rule the area (culminating in the 6th generation Oslaph), assuming a floruit of 25 years then we get: 685 + (25 x 6) = 835 which is extremely close to the date of 833. This indicates that something significant happened at this time, possibly installation of a new ruling elite. If we do the same calculation but assume a floruit of 30 years we get: 685 + (30 x 6) = 865. This is a significant date in the history of power dynamics in medieval Britain when a new destabilising actor entered the fray.
The next major shift in power occurred in the 9th century with the arrival of the Norse and Danish raiders. The “Great Heathen Army” landed in Britain in 865. Ivar the Boneless conquered York the next year in 866. This threw Northumbria into disarray and substantially weakened them. The Danes established the Kingdom of York in the territory that roughly corresponds with Deira. The other powers in the Old North didn’t escape either. Strathclyde was the last remaining British Kingdom in the Old North and was subjected to a four month long siege by a different Scandinavian army which resulted in the destruction of their capital; the death of King Arthgal ap Dyfnwal and many of its citizens enslaved. The Chronicle of John of Worcester recounting later events in the Norman period said this “After this the king went into Northumbria, and restored the city which is called in the British tongue Cairleu, and in Latin Lugubalia, and built a castle there; for this city, like some others in that quarter, had been laid in ruins by the heathen Danes two hundred years before, and had been uninhabited up to this time.” Perhaps this was the incident that brought Ecgfrith’s dynasty in Lugubalia to an end.
This chaos lead to the new King of Strathclyde Rhun ap Arthgal establishing a new capital in Govan. The destruction of Northumbria left a power vacuum in the western parts of the Old North and it is at this time that Strathclyde underwent a huge expansion. This expansion stretched all the way southwards including the majority of the former territory of Rheged. This expansion beyond the Clyde lead to renaming as the Kingdom of Cumbria deriving from the same root as the modern Cymru, the Brythonic “combrogos” meaning “fellow countryman”. This rapid expansion into the former territory of Rheged is explained by Pythian-Adams not as a population replacement but as an elite replacement. The common folk of the region were still mostly of British stock and the ruling class were themselves “Anglo-Celtic”. He goes on to speculate referring to the recurrence of familiar names like “Rhun” and “Owain” in the genealogy of the kings of this time that "The possibility that descendants of the erstwhile British royal line of Rheged could have married into the Strathclyde dynasty and may thus have brought with them a claim to the Cumbrian plain cannot be ruled out."
The details of this expansion are scant but there are clues to this new kingdoms southern boundary. In the Life of St Cathroe, the saint travelled through the Cumbrian kingdom to “the boundary of the lands of the Cumbrians and the Northmen” at “usque Loidam civitatem” which is modern day Leeds. One interesting place name that could confirm this new southern boundary is Pen-y- Ghent in the Yorkshire Dales meaning “hill of the pagan foreigners or Vikings” according to Andrew Breeze. This Cumbric etymology indicates the Cumbrian elite regarded this area as a frontier zone. Most scholars regard this as too far south however. A more likely frontier zone oft cited by later Scottish sources was the Duddon River to Rey Cross line which corresponds with the boundary of England in the Domesday Book. The Rey Cross on Stainmore in the Pennines also marked the spot where the last Norse King of York Eric Bloodaxe was slain whilst he was fleeing.
This Kingdom of Cumbria became a signifiant power alongside the other kingdoms of the time. William of Malmesbury and other chroniclers record a meeting of Kings in 927 at Eamont in Cumbria, possibly at Mayburgh Henge. Alongside Athelstan King of England, Constantine II King of Scotland, Hywel Dda King of Wales was Owain King of Cumbrians. They agreed to form an alliance against the Viking threat.
This alliance was a catastrophic failure as in 937 Owain and Constantine allied with the Viking King Olaf Guthfrithson and fought the Battle of Brunanburh against Athelstan. Athelstan was victorious and Owain was probably slain in battle. His grave lies not far from Eamont at a churchyard in Penrith. It is an impressive monument known as the Giants Grave said to be the resting place of a giant called Sir Owain Caesarius who hunted boar in the nearby Inglewood. It shows the influence of Norse settlers in the region with it’s Hogback Stones. The even more impressive Govan sarcophagus gives us an idea what some amateur archaeologists may have discovered when uncovering the grave in the 16th century to find “the great long shank bones of a man, and a broad sword” verifying the local legend of the giant Owain.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Brunanburh the new King of Scotland Malcolm allied himself with the new King of England Edmund. It is also thought the new King of Cumbria Dyfnwal ab Owain remained allied to the Vikings who heavily settled his land. In 945 Edmund invaded and ravaged Cumberland, blinded Dyfnwal’s sons and gave the Kingdom to Malcolm.
While this battle didn’t mark the end of the Kingdom its power gradually waned until it became the Principality of Cumberland within the Kingdom of Scotland. The region still retained its uniquely “Anglo-Celtic” character for centuries, it is thought the Cumbric language survived until the 12th or 13th century. There are mid eleventh century landowners recorded with Cumbric names such as “Moryn Lord of Cardew and Cumdivock” near Carlisle and “Eliffer Lord of Penrith”. Upon visiting Carlisle in the 12th century to inspect its impressive Roman ruins William of Malmesbury also encountered this strange caste of Anglos that called themselves “Cumbri”.
Many romantic tales survive recounting the exploits of the ancient Kings. According to one local legend “Dunmail” was attacked by Edmund and Malcolm in a Lake District valley between Grasmere and Thirlmere and was killed in the battle. He was buried under a large stone cairn known as Dunmail Raise. Some of his warriors escaped with his crown and cast it into the tarn beneath Helvellyn (Cumbric for “Yellow Mountain”). Each year the warriors retrieve the crown and carry it down to the cairn on Dunmail Raise. Striking the cairn with their spears a voice replies “Not yet, not yet; wait awhile, my warriors.”
The lakeland bard William Wordsworth reincarnated the spirit of Taliesin in his poem “The Waggoner”:
They now have reach'd that pile of stones
Heap'd over brave King Dunmail's bones,
He who once held supreme command,
Last king of rocky Cumberland.
His bones and those of all his power,
Slain here in a disastrous hour.
Read Part Two for a speculative theory about the survival of the Rheged dynasty through a rogue band of Pirate Princes.
Notes on Ecgfriths Matrilineal Descent:
Careful analysis of the offspring of Oswy reveals the prevailing direction Rheged went in for the next two centuries. Oswy actually had three wives during his lifetime and unravelling the complicated sequence of events makes identifying the mother of each child difficult. The first of Oswy’s wives was an Irish Princess called Fin. They had a son called Aldfrith but he was considered an illegitimate child by the Northumbrian church and so was ignored in the line of succession until Oswy’s legitimate sons were all dead. In roughly 635 Oswy married Rhienmellt after the Battle of Heavenfield. This marriage is confirmed in the Historia Brittonum and the Durham Liber Vitae however Bede does not mention Rhienmellt as he is a well known opponent of British influence, a sentiment which is seen throughout his writings. The next marriage of Oswy was to Eanfled daughter of Edwin, this is recorded in the Historia Brittonum, Durham Liber Vitae and Bede. The only dating information for this marriage we have comes from a story in Bede (EH Book 3, Chapter 15). The marriage happened at some point after 642 when Oswy became King (EH Book 3, Chapter 14) and before 651 when Bishop Aidan died (EH Book 5, Chapter 24). Offspring born before 642 can therefore be deduced as Rhienmellt’s whereas offspring born after 651 can be deduced as Eanfled’s.
Starting with the oldest of Oswy’s recorded legitimate children we have Alhfrith. We know Alhfrith married Cyneburh before 653 (EH Book 3 Chapter 21 & Book 5 Chapter 24). Therefore if he was born to Eanfled, the oldest he could have theoretically have been at his wedding was 9. This would be an abnormally young age therefore we can conclude he is the son of Rhienmellt. He also can’t have been born until a year after Oswy’s marriage to Rhienmellt at the earliest making him about 16 years old at his wedding which is more realistic. We can therefore assign him an approximate year of birth 636. Next we have Oswy’s daughter Alhflaed, who is much the same case. We know she married in 653 or shortly afterwards (EH Book 3 Chapter 21 & Book 5 Chapter 24) therefore is also likely daughter of Rhienmellt and will assign her a year of birth a few years after Alhfrith so 638. Next we have Oswy’s son Ecgfrith who is the critical part concerning Rheged. We know he died in 685 at the age of 40 (EH Book 4 Chapter 26) therefore we have the exact year of birth 645. As this lies between between the range of 642 to 651 we cannot be certain who his mother is. We will discuss this in greater detail shortly. Next oldest is Oswy’s daughter Aelfflaed for whom we are given the exact year of birth as one year before Penda’s death so 654 (EH Book 3 Chapter 24 & Book 5 Chapter 24). This means she is definitely Eanfled’s daughter. Oswy’s next daughter was Osthryth who we know was married at some time shortly before the Battle of Trent 679 (EH Book 4, Chapter 21 & Book 5 Chapter 24). This rough date for her marriage would make her an unusually old bride to be Rhienmellt’s daughter and therefore is most likely Eanfled’s daughter, probably born around 659 or earlier. Lastly we have Oswy’s youngest son Aelfwine, for whom we know died at the Battle of Trent in 679 at the age of eighteen years old (EH Book 4, Chapter 21 & Book 5 Chapter 24). This gives us the exact year of birth 661 and the conclusion that Eanfled is his mother as well.
To summarise we have: Alhfrith in 636, Alhflaed in 638, Ecgfrith in 645, Aelfflaed in 654, Osthryth in 659 and Aelfwine in 661. As we shall outline in the following section the fate of Rheged was determined by Ecgfrith. It is critical therefore that we ascertain his birth mother. Most scholars assume he is son of Eanfled mainly due to the parroting of opinion that has become received wisdom. I will present evidence suggestive of the contrary which would possibly solve a few mysteries.
The first thing to note is that if we divide the children into batches by mother we have Rhienmellt’s known batch from 636 to 638 and we have Eanfled’s known batch from 654 to 661. Ecgfrith is closer to Rhienmellt’s conservatively estimated batch at 7 years separation than he is to Eanfled’s at 9 years. This is far from conclusive however as he seems distinct from both groups. Eanfled was born in 626 (EH Book 2 Chapter 9) and therefore had her first known child at age 28 and her last known child at age 35. She hypothetically would have had Ecgfrith at age 19. We have no way to accurately date Rhienmellt’s year of birth but assuming Ecgfrith was born at the tail end of her fertility age 35 this would make her first child at age 26. When reproducing it is more common to have most of your children within in a short space of time at a younger age and have an anomalous child years later than the reverse. It is unlikely Eanfled had her first child at age 19 waited 9 years and then had 4 more in quick succession. It is likely however that Rheinmellt had two children in quick succession whilst young then had a rogue unexpected child 7 years later at the end of her fertility window. The infamous “accident” child. This biological pattern makes it more likely Rhienmellt is Ecgfrith’s mother. We also know that older women have a much higher risk of dying in child labour. If Rhienmellt died birthing Ecgfrith or simply was at the end of her fertility it would explain why Oswy was seeking another wife some years later with whom he had another batch of children clustered around the same time.
Careful analysis of the chronology and content of Eanfled’s life as presented in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History can give us some further clues as to the date of her marriage with Oswy. The structure of Bede’s writing is in a generally chronological order. In Book 4, Chapter 1 to Chapter 13 gives an account of Oswy’s predecessor Oswald’s life. Chapter 14 opens with Oswy becoming King in 642 after Oswald’s death. It goes on to give a chronological account of the major events in Oswy’s early reign. It reports that on the 10th of October 644 Bishop Paulinus died. Archbishop Honorius of Kent appoints a replacement. There is no mention made of any new marriage to Eanfled. It them goes on to recount events in 651 such as Bishop Aidan’s death.
Chapter 15 is an anecdote recalling a miracle performed during Aidan’s life. A priest called Utta utilised Aidan’s sage advice when he was sent by the already King Oswy to Kent to bring back the exiled Princess Eanfled for him to marry. This is how we know the marriage occurred before Aidan died in 651 and after Oswy was crowned in 642. Chapters 16, 17, 18, 19 & 20 go off on a tangent about other topics not relevant to us. When the chronology of Oswy’s life is resumed in Chapter 21 it starts again from the year 653 and goes on from there. As the placement of Chapter 15, recounting Eanfled’s marriage, occurs between Chapter 14 which recounts events up to October 644 and Aidan’s death in 651, it would suggests the Aidan-Eanfled marriage anecdote occurred after October 644. If Eanfled’s marriage had occurred before October 644, a note of such a major event would have been made in Chapter 14. But as it wasn’t noted we can assume the marriage happened between October 644 and Aidan’s death in 651. This makes Ecgfrith’s birth in 645 to Eanfled extremely unlikely.
To confirm this loose chronological logic we can look at more direct evidence from the events from Eanfled’s life. Bede EH Book 2 Chapter 9 tells us that when King of Northumbria Edwin son of Aelle arranged his marriage to Queen Ethelburh of Kent, he agreed with her brother King Eadbald of Kent that he would convert to Christianity. When Ethelburh arrived she brought Paulinus with her who became the first Bishop in Northumbria. The next year after their marriage in 626 Eanfled was born and baptised by Paulinus. Edwin was baptised by Paulinus the next year, this is the same event that Rhun ap Urien is said to have participated in elsewhere.
Book 2 Chapter 20 tells us that after Edwin was killed by Cadwallon in 633 Paulinus escorted the Queen Ethelburh, Princess Eanfled and Edwins sons to the Kingdom of Kent:
“without any prospect of safety except in flight, Paulinus, taking with him Queen Ethelburh… returned into Kent by sea, and was honourably received by the Archbishop Honorius and King Eadbald”
“having with him Eanfled, the daughter; and Wuscfrea, the son of Edwin, as also Iffi, the son of Osfrid, his son, whom afterwards the mother, for fear of Eadbald and Oswald, sent over into France to be bred up by King Dagobert”
Significantly Queen Ethelburh didn’t trust her brother King Eadbald of Kent or the new King of Northumbria Oswald who was from a rival dynasty. Therefore she sent Edwin’s sons away to France in order to keep them safe from harm but kept her daughter Eanfled with her in Kent. Given her demonstrably strong protective feelings about her children, it is impossible she would agree to a marriage of her daughter to the heir of Oswald whom she didn’t trust as explicitly stated by Bede. Therefore it is only possible that such a marriage would be agreed after her death when she is no longer there to block it. Queen Ethelburh’s death is recorded as 647 by the “Kentish Royal Legend” manuscripts. This date falls perfectly between our constraining dates of after 642 but before 651. The Aidan-Eanfled marriage anecdote in Book 4 Chapter 15 that describes Eanfled being transported from Kent to Northumbria makes no mention of Paulinus. Paulinus was involved in every other aspect of her life especially relating to negotiations with Northumbria. The fact he isn’t mentioned could indicate he was dead at this stage which aligns with our suspected chronology as previously outlined meaning the Chapter 15 marriage anecdote was purposefully placed after Paulinus’ death in 644.
If Rheinmellt gave birth to Ecgfrith in 645 as an older woman and did succumb to death due to complications or cease to be fertile after this marriage, it would explain why Oswy was seeking a new wife a few years later. It is for all these stated reasons that the most likely date for Oswy’s marriage to Eanfled is 648 and therefore Rheinmellt is Ecgfriths mother.
Notes on Celtic Christian Ecgfrith poor relations with Romanist Christian Eanfled & Wilfred:
The Synod of Whitby was a meeting organised by King Oswy to determine if the Northumbrian church would follow the Romanist or the Celtic tradition. Eanfled was a well known Romanist advocate and she supported Wilfrid at the synod:
“Archbishop Paulinus, as has been said above, kept the true and Catholic Easter, with all those that he could persuade to adopt the right way. Queen Eanfleda and her followers also observed the same as she had seen practiced in Kent, having with her a Kentish priest that followed the Catholic mode, whose name was Romanus. ” - (Bede EH Book 3 Chapter 25)
Wheras Ecgfrith was a known supporter of the Celtic tradition, he expelled Wilfrid and installed his own Bishops Eata, Eadhaed and Bosa who were all Celtic supporters at the Synod of Whitby or had been trained by Celtic supporters.
“The same year a dissension broke out between King Egfrid and the most reverend prelate, Wilfrid, who was driven from his see, and two bishops substituted in his stead, to preside over the nation of the Northumbrians, namely, Bosa, to preside over the nation of the Deiri; and Eata over that of the Bernicians, the former having his see in the city of York, the latter in the church of Hagulstad, or else Lindisfarne; both of them promoted to the episcopal dignity from a society of monks.” - (Bede EH Book 4, Chapter 12)
These radically opposing views make it unlikely that Ecgfrith was the offspring off Eanfled and was probably the son of Rheinmellt who also followed the Celtic tradition. This is also why Ecgfrith based his Queen Iurminburh in Carlisle to raise his heir Oslac.
Notes on Ecgfriths descent in Historia Brittonum:
The Historia Brittonum relays the genealogies of the early Kings of Deira and Bernicia. The passage regarding the Kings of Bernicia ceases at Ecgfrith upon his death at the hands of his cousin Pictish King Bridei. After this there is a sentence that places special significance upon the marriages of Oswy, telling us he had two wives: Rhienmellt daughter of Rhun of Rheged and Eanfled daughter of Edwin of Deira. The text then moves on to another subject. It seems emphasis is being placed upon the pedigree of Ecgfrith from a British perspective, which would be understandable if Rhienmellt was his mother and Ecgfrith inherited the Kingdom of Rheged. He seems to have inherited Bernicia and Deira through his father and Rheged through his mother, making him the personification of peaceful unity in the North. After covering other subjects the historia returns to northern affairs when it relays rule of early Deira. The death of Edwin followed by the later rule of Oswy. The Historia again places special significance on the descendants of Oswy. It relates that Ecgfrith had a son called Oslach etc. culminating in Oslaf. This line of Ecgfriths descendants doesn’t appear in any other sources and it appears they played no part in the rule of Deira or Bernicia. It makes perfect sense then as Phythian-Adams and others (Dumville, Jackson) suggest that the Britons were interested in preserving this pedigree as they were Anglo-Celtic Sub Kings descended from Rhienmellt ruling the quasi-independent West from Carlisle. The significance of starting this lineage at Oswy is his marriage to Rhienmellt from whom rule of Rheged is derived from this British perspective. It is also significant that this genealogy in unknown elsewhere, members of which played no part in affairs of Deira and Bernicia. Ecgfrith’s British epithet Ailguin or “Fair Brow” suggests a good relationship with the Britons. He could only have sired legitimate heirs through Iurminburh. Iurminburh was safe in the traditionally Romano-British city of Lugubalia.
In the Historia Bittonum it says Ecgfrith is Bridei ap Belis maternal cousin. This doesn’t rule out Eanfled or Rheinmellt unfortunately as we do not know who Bridei’s mother was. Edwin isn’t recorded as having any other available daughters despite having a well recorded genealogy, whereas the descendants and life of Rhoath is poorly recorded leaving room for other daughters to marry Beli. Intermarriages between Rheged and Strathlyde seem more likely as the two Kingdoms seemed relatively peaceful in later centuries when Strathclyde usurped overlordship from Northumbria. Also it is possible Beli died fighting Edwin in 633 making it unlikely he would be married to one of Edwin’s daughters, although this claim in unsourced.