Ecgfrith of Northumbria

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Ecgfrith
King of Northumbria
Reign 670 – 685
Predecessor Oswiu
Successor Aldfrith
King of Deira
Reign 664 – 670
Predecessor Alhfrith
Successor Ælfwine
Consort Æthelthryth
Eormenburg
House Northumbria
Father Oswiu
Mother Eanflæd
Born c. 645
Died 20 May 685 (aged 39 or 40)
Battle of Nechtansmere

Ecgfrith [ˈɛddʒˌfrIθ] (Old English: Ecgfrið; c. 645 – 20 May 685) was the King of Deira from 664 until 670, and then King of Northumbria from 670 until his death, succeeding his father Oswiu. 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 the province of the Mercians" 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, Oswiu forced Ecgfrith to marry Æthelthryth, a daughter of Anna of East Anglia. Ecgfrith was then made king of Deira in 664 after his half-brother Alhfrith, who according to Bede had rebelled against Oswiu earlier that year, disappears from history. According to the Liber Eliensis, “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 following his father's death on 15 February 670. Bede writes, “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.” 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. Bede writes, “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. Stephen of Ripon 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”. Stephen implies that Ecgfrith divorced Æthelthryth after his victory over Wulfhere of Mercia in 674 (see below), but, evidently, they had divorced a couple of years before. At some point between 674 and 678 (when he expelled Wilfrid from his kingdom), Ecgfrith married again, to Eormenburg, of whom little is known.

In 674, Ecgfrith defeated Wulfhere of Mercia, which enabled him to seize Lindsey. In 679, he fought the Mercians again, now under Wulfhere's brother Æthelred (who had married Ecgfrith's sister Osthryth), at the Battle of the Trent. Ecgfrith's own brother Ælfwine was killed in the battle and, following the intervention of 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.

Coinage[edit]

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.

Citations[edit]

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

Sources[edit]

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Oswiu
King of Northumbria
670–685
Succeeded by
Aldfrith