Ecgfrith of Northumbria

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The wars of Ecgfrith of Northumbria

Ecgfrith (or Egfrith; c. 646 AD–685 AD) was the King of Deira from 664 AD until 670 AD .[a] When his father died he became King of Northumbria from 670 AD until his death. Ecgfrith ruled Northumbria when it was at the height of its power. His reign ended with his defeat at the Battle of Nechtansmere in which he died.

Early life[change | change source]

Ecgfrith was a younger son of King Oswiu of Northumbria and his wife Enfleda.[1] She was the daughter of King Edwin of Northumbria.[2]: 162  He was born c. 646.[2]: 162  In 655 he was ten years old when Penda of Mercia took him hostage. In 660, at age fifteen, Ecgfrith was married to Etheldreda, the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia. She was the widow of the princips Tondberht of the South Gyrwas.[b][c][4] Even though she had been married she had retained her virginity. After her marriage to Ecgfrith she refused to consummate her second marriage and remained a virgin.[2]: 163  She was encouraged by Bishop Wilfrid to remain celibate.[5] This caused friction between Ecgfrith and Bishop Wilfrid.

King of Northumbria[change | change source]

In 660, shortly after the death of his father, Ecgfrith became King of Northumbria.[6] Ecgfrith asked Bishop Wilfrid to convince the queen the kingdom needed an heir. He paid the bishop in gold and a great many hides of land to convince her but Etheldreda would not change her mind.[2]: 163  The marriage was dissolved before the end of 672. Ethelreda was allowed to become a nun.[2]: 163  She retired to Coldingham Priory and a year later she became the abbess of Ely, which she had built herself.[2]: 164  Ecgfrith married as his second wife Eormenburg.[7] She and Bishop Wilfrid became bitter enemies.[5]

In 672 the Picts revolted and threw out the king that the Northumbrians had placed on the throne there. Ecgfrith sent his army into Pictland (Scotland) to punish them.[1] He defeated the Picts and appointed his ealdorman Beornheth to rule over them.[8] In 674 Wulfhere of Mercia and his allies attacked Northumbria.[2]: 167  Wulfhere was trying to reclaim Lindsey. But Ecgfrith defeated Wulfhere and made him pay tribute.[2]: 167  Wulfhere was succeeded as king of Mercia by his brother Aethelred in 675. Ecgfrith arranged for his sister Osthryth to marry Aethelred.[9] But in 679 Aethelred defeated Ecgfrith in battle at the River Trent.[10] To prevent a blood feud between the two royal families, Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury stepped in to prevent further bloodshed.[2]: 169–9  He secured a truce between Northumbria and Mercia that lasted for 50 years.[2]: 168–9  Ecgfrith next turned his attention to the Britons of Rheged. He drove them out of northern England and into Ireland.[8] There they became mercenaries for the Irish kings and also began raiding the English coast.[8] In 684 Ecgfrith led his armies against the kingdom of Brega, north of present day Dublin in Ireland. He won a victory and returned to Northumbria. At this point he may have become too confident. In 685 Ecgfrith again attacked the Picts but this time he was defeated and killed.[11] On 20 May 685 his forces were drawn into an ambush at Nechtansmere near Forfar in Scotland.[12] Ecgfrith and his second wife Eormenburg had no children. Ecgfrith was succeeded by his half-brother Aldfrith.[7] Queen Eormenburg retired to Carlisle abby.[8]

Ecgfrith and the Church[change | change source]

In 674 Ecgfrith had given Benedict Biscop, a Northumbrian nobleman, fifty hides of land at the mouth of the River Wear.[2]: 178  This was to build the first of two great monasteries. In 682 King Ecgfrith gave another forty hides of land to Benedict for a second monastery. It was to be at the mouth of the River Trent at Jarrow.[2]: 179  The two monasteries were administered as a single community and came to be called Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbeys. They became a center of learning and were where Bede wrote most of his works.[13] Ecgfrith was at the dedication of Jarrow abbey in 685 about a month before his death.[2]: 179 

From 669 Bishop Wilfrid was directly involved in every gift of land and money to the Church by the Northumbrian king and queens. He became very powerful and rich in the process.[2]: 164  In 671 he began building a great church which was financed by plunder and confiscated British church lands.[2]: 164  But after Queen Etheldreda retired to her abbey he lost most of his rich patronage. The new queen, Eormenburg, had no love of Wilfrid.[2]: 165  Stephen of Ripon, the author of the eighth-century Vita Sancti Wilfrithi ("Life of Saint Wilfrid") accused her of being jealous and not having the proper respect for the bishop.[2]: 165  In 678 King Ecgfrith drove Bishop Wilfrid out of Northumbria. Bede gave no explanation for why Wilfrid was expelled, but made it clear his sympathies lay with the Bishop.[14]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. Deria was a sub-kingdom of Northumbria. Egfrith had been placed on the throne of Deira by his father.
  2. The people called the South Gyrwas occupied the region of the Fens which included the present day Jarrow and Ely.
  3. Etheldreda was a beautiful young girl who wanted to devote herself to the Church and remain a virgin.[3] Her parents wanted her to marry however. When Tondberht asked for her hand in marriage her parents said yes, but Ethelreda refused.[3] Finally she agreed to marry, but she was resolved to remain a virgin.[3]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens (New york: Carroll & Graf, 1999), p. 284
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 John Marsden, Northanhymbre Saga; the History of the Anglo-Saxon Kings of Northumbria (London: Kyle Cathie Limited, 1992)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Liber Eliensis; a History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh to Twelfth Century, ed. Janet Fairweather (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004), p. 17
  4. N. J. Higham, An English Empire: Bede and the Early Anglo-Saxon Kings (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), p. 124
  5. 5.0 5.1 Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 135
  6. D. P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings, Revised Edition (London; New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 84
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, eds. Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, Donald Scragg, Second Edition (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2014), p. 162
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens (New york: Carroll & Graf, 1999), p. 285
  9. Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999), p. 254
  10. Peter Hunter Blair, Roman Britain and Early England; 55 B.C.–A.D. 871 (New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966), p. 197
  11. N. J. Higham, The Kingdom of Northumbria AD 350–1100 (Dover, NH: Alan Sutton, 1993), p. 1
  12. John Bagnell Bury, The Cambridge Medieval History, Volume 2 (New York: Macmillan, 1913), p. 599
  13. Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 185
  14. N. J. Higham, (Re-)Reading Bede: The Ecclesiastical History in Context (London; New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 86