Osulf I of Bamburgh

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The peninsula of Bamburgh, with the modern castle
Diedbetween 954 and 963
Known forBetraying Erik Bloodaxe and being the first recorded High-Reeve of Bamburgh
TitleHigh-Reeve of Bamburgh, Ealdorman of York

Osulf or Oswulf[1] (fl. c. 946 to after 954) 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'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.[2] Others identify him as the son of Ealdred I of Bamburgh and a grandson of Eadulf.[3] 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.[4]

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").[5] 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.[6]

Osulf is listed as an attester to four charters of King Eadred, one dated 946, two in 949 and one of 950. These are all 'alliterative charters', which have much fuller witness lists than 'mainstream charters', so he may have been present on other occasions.[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 the English 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, part came under the control of Oslac, the other under the dominion of Eadwulf Evil-child.[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] At least one 19th century work suggests that Oslac and Eadwulf were also probably Osulf's sons. [22] Others simply suggest that Oslac, Eadwulf, and Osulf were probably related. [23]

Probable sons of Osulf:

  • Ealdred of Bamburgh
  • Oslac, Ealdorman of York
  • Eadwulf Evil-child, Earl of Bamburgh
  • Waltheof of Bamburgh, is sometimes attributed as a son of Osulf, and sometime as the son of Ealdred and therefore Osulf's grandson; the relationship is unclear.


  1. ^ Name variations: Osulf, Oswulf, Osulf of Bamburgh, Osulf of Bebbanburg, Oswulf of Bamburgh, Oswulf of Bebbanburg, Oswulf Eadwulfsson, Oswulf Ealdredsson, Osulf I of Bamburgh
  2. ^ McGuigan, ′Ælla and the descendants of Ivar′, pp. 24–25.
  3. ^ ‘Ealdred (d. 933?)’, Benjamin T. Hudson, , Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 8 April 2015
  4. ^ Fletcher, Bloodfeud, p. 42; Rollason, Northumbria, p. 266; see also "Oswulf 14". Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England.
  5. ^ Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men, p. 235
  6. ^ Seebohm, Tribal Custom in Anglo-Saxon Law, p. 363; North People's Law (Halsall)
  7. ^ Keynes, Atlas of Attestations, Table XLV. For the charters see The Electronic Sawyer. They are S 520, 544, 550, 552a. Osulf is also listed as an attester to S 546, but the authenticity of this charter is disputed. For the 'alliterative charters' see Keynes, 'Church Councils, Royal Assemblies and Anglo-Saxon Royal Diplomas', and Snook, The Anglo-Saxon Chancery.
  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.
  22. ^ Armitage, Ella S (1885). The Connection Between England and Scotland. Rivingtons. p. 20.
  23. ^ Williams, Ann; Smyth, Alfred P; Kirby, D P (1997). A biographical dictionary of Dark Age Britain. Routledge. p. 114. ISBN 978-1852640477.


External links[edit]

Preceded by
(possibly Ealdred)
Ruler of Bamburgh
x 946–954 x 963
Succeeded by
Preceded by Ruler of Northumbria
Under King Eadred and King Eadwig

954–x 963
Succeeded by
South of the River Tees
Succeeded by
Eadulf Evil-child
North of the River Tees