Ælla of Northumbria

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Ælla (or Ælle) (died 21 March 867) was King of Northumbria, England in the middle of the 9th century. Sources on Northumbrian history in this period are limited. Ælla's ancestry is not known and the dating of his reign is questionable. He is a character in Scandinavian historical saga, particularly in Ragnarssona þáttr (′The Tale of Ragnar's sons′).


Ælla became king after Osberht was deposed. This is traditionally dated to 862 or 863 but evidence about Northumbrian royal chronology is not decisive about dates prior to 867[1] and it may have been as late as 866.[2] Almost nothing is known of Ælla's reign; Symeon of Durham states that Ælla had seized lands at Billingham, Ileclif, Wigeclif and Crece, which belonged to the church.[3] While Ælla is described in most sources as a tyrant and not a rightful king, one source states that he was Osberht's brother.[4]

The Great Heathen Army marched on Northumbria in the late summer of 866, seizing York on 21 November 866.[5] Symeon of Durham, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser and Æthelweard all recount substantially the same version of events in varying detail. Symeon's Historia Regum Anglorum gives this account of the battle on 21 March 867, where Osberht and Ælla met their deaths at the hands of the Vikings.[6]

In those days, the nation of the Northumbrians had violently expelled from the kingdom the rightful king of their nation, Osbryht by name, and had placed at the head of the kingdom a certain tyrant, named Alla. When the pagans came upon the kingdom, the dissension was allayed by divine counsel and the aid of the nobles. King Osbryht and Alla, having united their forces and formed an army, came to the city of York; on their approach the multitude of the shipmen immediately took flight. The Christians, perceiving their flight and terror, found that they themselves were the stronger party. They fought upon each side with much ferocity, and both kings fell. The rest who escaped made peace with the Danes.[7]

After this, the Vikings appointed one Ecgberht to rule Northumbria.[8] According to an Anglo-Norman genealogy, Ælla had a daughter named Æthelthryth and through her was the grandfather of Eadwulf of Bamburgh, the ′King of the Northern English′ who died in 913.[9]


Execution of Ragnar Lodbrok

Ragnarssona þáttr (The Tale of Ragnar's sons) adds a great deal of colour to accounts of the Viking conquest of York. This associates the semi-legendary king of Denmark and Sweden Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons, Hvitserk, Björn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Ivar the Boneless and Ubba. According to the stories, Ragnar was killed by Ælla and the army which seized York in 866 was led by Ragnar's sons who avenged his death by subjecting Ælla to the blood eagle.[10] Earlier English sources record that Ælla and Osberht died in battle, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stating that "both the kings were slain on the spot".[11] The main figure in the revenge tales is Ivar, who is sometimes associated with the Viking leader Ímar, brother of Amlaíb Conung, found in the Irish annals. Dorothy Whitelock notes that "it is by no means certain that he should be identified with the son of Ragnar, for the name is not uncommon".[12] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not name the leaders in Northumbria, but it does state that "Hingwar and Hubba" slew King Edmund of East Anglia (Saint Edmund) some years later.[13] Hubba is named as a leader of the army in Northumbria by Abbo of Fleury and by the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto. Symeon of Durham lists the leaders of the Viking army as "Halfdene, Inguar, Hubba, Beicsecg, Guthrun, Oscytell, Amund, Sidroc and another duke of the same name, Osbern, Frana and Harold."[14]

Popular culture[edit]

Ælla was played by Frank Thring in the movie The Vikings (1958).[15] Ælla is played by Ivan Kaye in the History Channel's drama series Vikings (2013).[16][17]

In The Last Kingdom, a historical novel by Bernard Cornwell, Ælla appears very briefly as a minor character at the beginning of the book. He, along with Osberht and Uhtred, a fictional Ealdorman of Bernicia, lead a Northumbrian army to repel invading Danes at York. The battle ends disastrously for the Northumbrians, and Ælla dies on the field.


  1. ^ Pagan, pp. 1–15
  2. ^ Kirby, p. 196.
  3. ^ Symeon of Durham, p. 654.
  4. ^ Kirby, p. 197.
  5. ^ Higham, pp. 178–179; ASC s.a. 867.
  6. ^ Dated by Symeon of Durham, p. 654.
  7. ^ Symeon of Durham, p. 470.
  8. ^ Higham, p.179.
  9. ^ McGuigan, pp. 24–25.
  10. ^ Whitelock, p. 225ff.
  11. ^ ASC, s.a. 867.
  12. ^ Whitelock, p. 227.
  13. ^ ASC, s.a. 870.
  14. ^ Symeon of Durham, p. 654. Whitelock, p. 227, discusses the leaders of the Great Army in various sources.
  15. ^ IMDb: The Vikings: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052365/
  16. ^ IMDb: Vikings: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2306299/
  17. ^ "VIKINGS Tops The Ratings With 8.3 Million Viewers". Irish Film Board. 5 March 2013. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 


External links[edit]

Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of Northumbria
Succeeded by
Ecgberht I