Ecgfrith of Northumbria

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Pictish symbol stone depicting what has been generally accepted to be the battle of Dun Nechtain.

Ecgfrith (c. 645 – 20 May 685) was the King of Deira from 664 until 670, and then King of Northumbria from 670 until his death in 685. 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[edit]

According to Bede in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Ecgfrith was held as a hostage at the court of Queen Cynwise in Mercia when Penda of Mercia invaded Northumbria in 654 or 655. Penda was eventually defeated and killed in the Battle of the Winwaed by the Northumbrians under Oswiu, a victory which greatly enhanced Northumbrian power. In 660, Ecgfrith married Æthelthryth, a daughter of Anna of East Anglia. Ecgfrith was then made king of Deira in 664 after his half-brother Alhfrith had rebelled against Oswiu earlier that year. According to the Liber Eliensis Oswiu appointed Ecgfrith his sharer in the kingship over the province of York (the capital of Deira).

Ecgfrith became king of Northumbria following his father's death on 15 February 670 at the age of 58, leaving his son Ecgfrith his successor. Upon becoming king of Northumbria, Ecgfrith put his brother Ælfwine on the throne of Deira.

King of Northumbria[edit]

In 671, at the Battle of Two Rivers, Ecgfrith put down an opportunistic rebellion by the Picts, which resulted in the Northumbrians taking control of the land between the Firth of Forth and the Tweed for the next fourteen years. Around the same time, Æthelthryth wished to leave Ecgfrith to become a nun. 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 Coldingham. A year later Æthelthryth became founding abbess of Ely.

In 674, Ecgfrith repelled the Mercian king Wulfhere, which enabled him to seize Lindsey. In 679, he fought the Mercians again, now under Wulfhere's brother Æthelred who was married to Ecgfrith's sister Osthryth, at the Battle of the Trent. Ecgfrith's own brother Ælfwine was killed in the battle and following intervention by Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lindsey was returned to the Mercians.

In June 684,[1] Ecgfrith sent a raiding party to Brega in Ireland under his general Berht, which resulted in the seizing of a large number of slaves and the sacking of many churches and monasteries. The reasons for this raid are unclear, though it is known that Ecgfrith acted against the warnings of Ecgberht of Ripon and that the raid was condemned by Bede and other churchmen.

In 685, against the advice of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Ecgfrith led a force against the Picts of Fortriu, 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.


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. Coins had been produced by the Anglo-Saxons since the late 6th century, modelled on the coins being produced by the Merovingians in Francia, but these were rare, the most common being gold scillingas (shillings) or thrymsas. Ecgfrith's pennies, also known as sceattas, were thick and cast in moulds, and were issued on a large scale.


  1. ^ Koch, John T., Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (ABC-CLIO, 2006). ISBN 978-1-8510-9440-0


Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of Northumbria
Succeeded by