Osulf I of Bamburgh

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The peninsula of Bamburgh, with the modern castle
Born unknown
Died between 954 and 963
Cause of death Lynching
Resting place unknown
Known for Betraying Erik Bloodaxe and being the first recorded High-Reeve of Bamburgh
Title High-Reeve of Bamburgh
Ealdorman of York
Parent(s) unknown

Osulf (fl. 946—54) was high-reeve of Bamburgh and ruler of Northumbria. Sometimes called "earl", he is more surely the first recorded high-reeve of Bamburgh and the man who, after assisting in the death of its last independent ruler Erik Bloodaxe, administered the York-based Kingdom of Northumbria when it was taken over by the Wessex-based King Eadred of England in 954.


Osulf appears at least 5 times in witness lists for charters, some of which may be genuine, in the years 946, 949, and 950. In 946 and 949 he witnessed charters as "high reeve" [1] In 949 he witnessed an Evesham grant as well as a grant by King Eadred to Canterbury Cathedral as dux.[2] And in 950 an Osulf Bebbanburg is alleged to have witnessed as Eorl.[3]

He is the first man specifically designated "high-reeve" of Bamburgh. High-reeve is Old English heah-gerefa, which Alfred Smyth thought was influenced by the Scottish word mormaer, which possibly has the same meaning ("High Steward").[4] Judging by the North People's Law, a high-reeve was not the same as an ealdorman (dux), having only half an ealdorman's wergild.[5]

Osulf's origins are unclear. A genealogy in the text De Northumbria post Britannos, recording the ancestry of Waltheof Earl of Northampton (and, briefly, Northumbria), suggests that Osulf was the son of Eadulf of Bamburgh, the ′King of the Northern English′ who died in 913.[6] Richard Fletcher and David Rollason thought he might be the Osulf Dux who had witnessed charters further south in the 930s, which if true would extend Osulf's floruit back to 934.[7]

Erik Bloodaxe and domination of all Northumbria[edit]

Though Eadulf and Ealdred appear to have ruled Northumbria, in the years running up to 954 the kingdom was controlled by the Scandinavians Amlaíb Cuarán and Eric Bloodaxe.[8] According to Roger of Wendover's Flores historiarum (early 13th century), Osulf was responsible for a conspiracy with a certain Maccus that led to the betrayal and death of Eric Bloodaxe, King of Northumbria, "in a certain lonely place called Stainmore".[9]

Following this, Osulf is said to have taken control of all Northumbria.[10] Although this part of the Flores historiarum was compiled centuries later and contains some obvious anachronisms, Roger of Wendover appears to have used certain earlier sources, no longer extant, which would add credibility to the story.[11] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle names King Eadred as the new ruler of Northumbria following the expulsion of Erik:

Her Norðhymbre fordrifon Yric, 7 Eadred feng to Norðhymbra rice
In this year the Northumbrians drove out Eric and Eadred succeeded to the kingdom".[12]

This is why Richard Fletcher thinks Osulf was working at Eadred's instigation, and that a grateful Eadred promoted Osulf ruler of the entire Northumbrian sub-kingdom.[13] However he got there, it was with Eadred's consent and overlordship, at least according to our sources. De primo Saxonum adventu summarises his status as follows:

Primus comitum post Eiricum, quem ultimum regem habuerunt Northymbrenses, Osulf provincias omnes Northanhymbrorum sub Edrido rege procuravit.
First of the earls after Erik, the last king whom the Northumbrians had, Osulf administered under King Eadred all the provinces of the Northumbrians.[14]

Similar sentiments were expressed in the related Historia Regum: "Here the kings of Northumbrians came to an end and henceforth the provinces was administered by earls".[15] Eadred's takeover and Osulf's rule thus represent the beginning of permanent West Saxon control of the North. Historian Alex Woolf argued that this take-over was a personal union of crowns rather like that between Scotland and England in 1603.[16]

Death and legacy[edit]

Little else is known about Osulf's period in power. The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba says that in the time of Indulf (King of Scots from 954 to 962), Edinburgh was abandoned to the Scots, though nothing is said about the involvement of Northumbrians or Osulf.[17]

The date of Osulf's death is not known. He was probably dead before 963, as that is the date Oslac appears for the first time as ealdorman in York.[18] It is unclear whether Oslac was related to Osulf.[19] According to the De primo Saxonum adventu, Northumbria was divided into two parts after Osulf's death.[20] De Northumbria post Britannos says that Osulf had a son named Ealdred, father of Waltheof of Bamburgh (fl. 994), father of Uhtred of Northumbria.[21]


  1. ^ Sawyer 520 (PASE) & Sawyer 544 (PASE)
  2. ^ Sawyer 550 (PASE) & Sawyer 546 (PASE)
  3. ^ Sawyer 552a (PASE)
  4. ^ Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men, p. 235
  5. ^ Seebohm, Tribal Custom in Anglo-Saxon Law, p. 363; North People's Law (Halsall)
  6. ^ McGuigan, ′Ælla and the descendants of Ivar′, pp. 24–25.
  7. ^ Fletcher, Bloodfeud, p. 42; Rollason, Northumbria, p. 266; see also "Oswulf 14". Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England. 
  8. ^ Costambeys, "Erik Bloodaxe"; Hudson, Viking Pirates, pp. 37—8
  9. ^ Forte, Oram and Pedersen, Viking Empires, p. 117
  10. ^ Rollason, Northumbria, pp. 65—6
  11. ^ Costambeys, "Erik Bloodaxe"
  12. ^ ASC D (etc), s.a. 954
  13. ^ Fletcher, Bloodfeud, p. 41
  14. ^ Arnold (ed.), Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, vol. ii, p. 382; trans. Anderson, Scottish Annals, p. 77
  15. ^ Quoted in Woolf, Pictland to Alba, p. 190
  16. ^ Woolf, Pictland to Alba, pp. 190, 191
  17. ^ Smyth, Warlords, p. 232
  18. ^ Fletcher, Bloodfeud, p. 44; Rollason, Northumbria, pp. 266—7
  19. ^ Fletcher, Bloodfeud, p. 44
  20. ^ Arnold (ed.), Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, vol. ii, p. 382
  21. ^ McGuigan, ′Ælla and the descendants of Ivar′, pp. 25, 33.


External links[edit]

Regnal titles
Preceded by
(possibly Ealdred)
Ruler of Bamburgh
x 946–954 x 963
Succeeded by
pos. Eadulf Evil-child
Preceded by
Erik Bloodaxe
Ruler of Northumbria under Eadred of Wessex
954–x 963
Succeeded by
pos. Eadulf Evil-child