Ecgfrith of Northumbria
|Reign||670 – 685 AD|
|Reign||664 - 670 AD|
|Died||20 May 685 AD
Battle of Nechtansmere
King Ecgfrith (Old English: Ecgfrið; c. 645–20 May 685) was the King of Deira from 664 until 670 he then became King of Northumbria from 670 until his death. He ruled over Northumbria when it was at the height of its power, but his reign ended with a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Nechtansmere in which he lost his life.
Early life and kingship of Deira
Bede tells us, in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, that Ecgfrith was held as a hostage "at the court of Queen Cynwise in the province of the Mercians" when Penda of Mercia invaded Northumbria in 654 or 655. Penda was eventually defeated and killed by the Northumbrians at the Battle of Winwaed under Oswiu (Ecgfrith's father), a victory which greatly enhanced Northumbrian power, In 660 Ecgfrith was forced to marry Æthelthryth, a daughter of Anna of East Anglia, by his father Oswiu, Ecgfrith was then made king of Deira in 664 after his brother Alhfrith, who had apparently to Bede rebelled against his father Oswiu earlier that year disappears from history, an anonymous, late-12th century, compiler of the ‘Liber Eliensis’ alleges: “Ecgfrith ... for whom he (Oswiu) had felt a deep love, he appointed as his sharer in the kingship over the province of York (the capital of Deira), since, being oppressed by bodily illness, he was finding difficulty in maintaining secure jurisdiction over the kingdom.” Ecgfrith became king of Northumbria it following his father's on 15 February 670 Bede wrote, “In the year of our Lord 670, being the second year after Theodore arrived in England, Oswiu, king of the Northumbrians, fell sick, and died, in the fifty-eighth year of his age. He at that time bore so great affection to the Roman Apostolic usages, that he had designed, if he recovered from his sickness, to go to Rome, and there to end his days at the holy places, having asked Bishop Wilfrid, with a promise of no small gift of money, to conduct him on his journey. He died on the 15th of February, leaving his son Ecgfrith his successor.” Right after becoming king of Northumbria he put his brother Ælfwine on the throne of Deira.
King of the Northumbrians
In 671, at the Battle of Two Rivers, he put down an opportunistic rebellion by the Picts, which resulted in the Northumbrian control of the northern Britain for the next fourteen years, and which created a new sub-kingdom in the north called Lothian, around this time Æthelthryth wished to leave Ecgfrith to become a nun, Bede: “Though she lived with him twelve years, yet she preserved the glory of perfect virginity, as I was informed by Bishop Wilfrid, of blessed memory, of whom I inquired, because some questioned the truth thereof; and he told me that he was an undoubted witness to her virginity, forasmuch as Ecgfrith promised to give him many lands and much money if he could persuade the queen to consent to fulfil her marriage duty, for he knew the queen loved no man more than Wilfrid himself.” Eventually, in about 672, Æthelthryth persuaded Ecgfrith to allow her to become a nun, and: “she entered the monastery of the Abbess Æbbe, who was aunt to King Ecgfrith, at the place called the city of Coludi (Coldingham, Berwickshire), having received the veil of the religious habit from the hands of the aforesaid Bishop Wilfrid”. A year later Æthelthryth became founding abbess of Ely. Eddius Stephanus states that: “While he (Ecgfrith) was on good terms with the bishop, as many will tell you, he enlarged his kingdom by many victories; but when they quarrelled and the queen separated from him to give herself to God, the king's triumphs ceased”. Eddius implies that Æthelthryth and Ecgfrith divorced after Ecgfrith's victory over Wulfhere in 674, but, evidently, they had divorced a couple of years before, after this event Ecgfrith was re-married, to Eormenburg, before 678, that year he expelled Wilfrid from his kingdom.
In 674, Ecgfrith defeated Wulfhere of Mercia, which enabled him to seize Lindsey. In 679, at an unknown location near to the River Trent, he fought a battle against the Mercians under Æthelred, the husband of Ecgfrith's sister, Osthryth. Ecgfrith's own brother Ælfwine was killed in the battle: the province of Lindsey was given up when peace was restored at the intervention of Theodore Archbishop of Cantebury.
Ecgfrith appears to have been the earliest Northumbrian king, and perhaps the earliest of the Anglo-Saxon rulers, to have issued the silver penny, which became the mainstay of English coinage for centuries afterwards. Anglo-Saxon coins were made before his reign, but these were rare, the most common being gold shillings or thrymsas, that were copied from Roman models. Ecgfrith's pennies, (also known as sceattas), were thick, cast in moulds, perhaps copied from Merovingian coins and were issued on a large scale.
In June 684, Ecgfrith sent an expedition to Ireland under his general Berht, which seems to have been unsuccessful in the sense that no Irish land was conquered by the Northumbrians, but which resulted in Ecgfrith's men seizing a large number of slaves and making off with a significant amount of plunder from the many churches and monasteries they raided.
Death at the battle of Nechtansmere
In 685, against the advice of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Ecgfrith led a force against the Verturian Picts, who were led by his cousin Bridei mac Bili. The Northumbrians were lured by a feigned flight in the mountains and Ecgfrith was then slain at the Battle of Nechtansmere (located at either Dunnichen in Angus or Dunachton in Badenoch). This defeat severely weakened Northumbrian power in the north and Bede dates the beginning of the decline of the kingdom of Northumbria from Ecgfrith's death. He was succeeded by his illegitimate half-brother, Aldfrith.
A popular legend concerning Ecgfrith's death at Nechtansmere has his queen, Eormenburg, touring the church at Carlisle with Cuthbert during the campaign, as she could not bear to stay behind at the royal quarters and sit patiently awaiting news of the battle's outcome. During the tour Cuthbert stopped, paused, and said to Eormenburg, "I have just had a vision of your husband's death. Return to your palace and escape with your children." Almost immediately, a messenger arrived from the field at Nechtansmere with the news that Ecgfrith had been slain and his army routed.
- Eddius, Vita Wilfridi (James Raine, Historians of Church of York, Rolls Series, London, 1879–1894), 19, 20, 24, 34, 39, 44
- Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (edited by Charles Plummer, Oxford, 1896), iii. 24; iv. 5, 12, 13, 15, 19, 21, 26.
- Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis anglorum, Vol 1, Bede, ed. Charles Plummer, 1896, (Clarendon Press, Oxford): 4 mentions of "Egfrid"
- Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis anglorum, Vol. 2. Bede, ed. Charles Plummer, 1896, (Clarendon Press, Oxford): 71 mentions of "Egfrid"
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ecgfrith". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
|King of Northumbria