19 October, 2007

Acha of Deira and Bernicia: daughter, sister, wife and mother of kings

Acha lived during the early part of the seventh century. She was at the centre of the dynastic conflicts between the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira that would eventually forge the two into the great early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kingdom of Northumbria. Deira corresponded roughly to modern Yorkshire, and Bernicia roughly to modern Northumberland; for approximate locations, see map.

Acha was born into the royal family of Deira, married into the royal family of Bernicia, and two of her sons were kings of Northumbria. Her life marks the beginning of the unified kingdom of Northumbria, and possibly made a significant contribution to it. What do we know about her? As usual, not very much:


Bede, Ecclesiastical History

  • Oswald was the son of Aethelferth of Bernicia, and nephew to King Edwin by his sister Acha (Book III, Chapter 6)

  • Acha’s husband Aethelferth drove her brother Edwin into exile and tried for more than a decade to have Edwin murdered (Book II, passim).

  • Oswald died on 5 August 642, when he was 38 years old (Book III, Chapter 9). He must therefore have been born between August 603 and August 604.

  • Oswald’s brother Oswy succeeded him as king (Book III, Chapter 14). Oswy died on 15 February 670, at the age of 58, and was succeeded by his son Egfrid (Book IV, Chapter 5). Oswy must therefore have been born between February 611 and February 612.

  • Egfrid’s aunt Ebba was Abbess of Coldingham monastery (Book IV, Chapter 19) at the time it was destroyed by fire in about 680 (Book IV, Chapter 25).

Historia Brittonum
Aethelferth Flesaurs of Bernicia had seven sons: Eanfrid, Oswald, Oswin, Oswy, Oswudu, Oslac, Offa (Chapter 57).

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The sons of Aethelferth were Enfrid, Oswald, Oswy, Oslac, Oswood.
Oslaf, and Offa.

Reginald of Durham
Aethelferth not only drove from his kingdom Aella king of the Deirans whose daughter he had married, but after inflicting a series of defeats on him and expelling him from several refuges he deprived him of his life and kingdom together.
Quoted in John Marsden, Northanhymbre Saga.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Ebba, abbess of Coldingham, was the daughter of Acha and Aethelferth and died in around 683.


Bede says unequivocally that Acha was Edwin’s sister. Reginald of Durham says she was the daughter of Edwin’s father Aelle, and this is consistent with the fact that her sons Oswald and Oswy were both accepted as kings in Deira, suggesting that they had a claim to Deiran royal blood through their mother. Edwin and Acha may or may not have had different mothers; there is no indication either way.

Of Aethelferth’s seven sons listed in Historia Brittonum and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is noticeable that all have names beginning with O- except the eldest, Eanferth (Eanfrith, Eanfrid). Eanferth and the O- sons also appear to have taken different routes into exile on their father’s death. Eanferth appears in the Pictish king-lists as the father of a king of the Picts, Talorcan, which strongly suggests that he was exiled in Pictland. Oswald and Oswy, by contrast, lived on the island of Iona in Dal Riada (modern western Scotland). It is a strong possibility that the O- sons were Acha’s children and Eanferth was a half-brother by a previous wife. A daughter Aebbe (Ebba, Abb) is also recorded, but there is no indication of her age relative to the sons. This would suggest that Acha bore Aethelferth at least seven children, six sons and a daughter, during their marriage. If the sons are listed in the correct order, they were all born between 603/604 and 617.

Acha’s son Oswald was born between August 603 and August 604, and so Acha must have been of childbearing age by this time. This sets the latest possible date for her birth at around 590.

Another son, Oswy, was born between February 611 and February 612, so Acha must still have been of childbearing age by then. If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum have listed her children by Aethelferth in the correct order, and assuming that all the sons with names beginning with O- were Acha’s sons (see above), she also bore Aethelferth three or four more sons after Oswy. If she bore one child a year, with no stillbirths or multiple births, the youngest son may have been born around 614 to 616, which is only 1-3 years before Aethelferth’s death. This would suggest that Acha was no more than forty or so at this time, which in turn would suggest that she cannot have been born much before 575.

Nothing is known of Acha’s death.

Acha was married to Aethelferth of Bernicia. Reginald of Durham says that she was married before Aethelferth killed her father Aelle, expelled her brother Edwin, and took over the rule of Deira. I’ve argued elsewhere that the likely date for this annexation is 605. Aethelferth and Acha were certainly married before Oswald’s birth, so at latest they were married by autumn 603. How much earlier is open to speculation. As no children older than Oswald are mentioned, I think it likely that the marriage was not much before then.

Acha’s husband Aethelferth killed and deposed her father Aelle (Reginald of Durham), and spent the next twelve years trying to hunt down and murder her brother Edwin (Bede). How did Acha feel about this deadly conflict between her birth family and her husband?

Needless to say, history does not tell us, so Acha’s reaction is open to the imagination. A few things can be inferred. First, she evidently continued to have marital relations with Aethelferth for at least a further six or seven years, since their son Oswy was born in 611 or 612, and possibly up until around the time of Aethelferth’s death in 617 if the remaining sons in the lists are also her children. So it can safely be said that she didn’t leave Aethelferth, die of grief, rebel against him, or refuse to do her duty as his wife. Whether she was forced to stay with him, or was his wholehearted partner, or something in between, is open to speculation.

Second, Bede makes no mention of Acha during his description of Edwin’s reign. This may be simply because she was not germane to his history of the conversion of the English to Christianity. Or it may suggest that she died before Edwin’s reign began, or went into exile with her children. Either way, there’s no indication of a tearful reunion with her long-lost brother, unlike Hildeburgh’s return to her birth family after a similar conflict in the poem The Fight at Finnsburgh.

Third, although Bede says very little about Acha, he does not condemn her. He even suggests that Edwin would, or should, have been pleased to be succeeded by her son Oswald, “…it is fitting that so great a predecessor [Edwin] should have had so worthy a man of his own blood to maintain his religion and his throne.” (Book III, Chapter 6). This may be a slight indication that Acha’s conduct – whatever it was – during and/or after the conflict was not considered dishonourable.

Fourth, there is no record in any of the sources of Edwin attempting to persecute Aethelferth’s sons as Aethelferth had persecuted him. This may simply be absence of evidence, or it may be that he had insufficient power or influence to pursue them to Pictland or Dal Riada. Considering that Edwin’s armies were victorious as far afield as Anglesey, the Isle of Man and the West Saxons (Bede), it is perhaps unlikely that he was unable to pressurise kings in the north if he chose, but the possibility cannot be discounted. Or a further possibility may be that Edwin deliberately chose not to pursue his sister’s sons. In Old English culture the relationship between a maternal uncle and his nephews was a particularly significant one, with the uncle acting almost as a second father. Old English had special words for a maternal uncle (eam) and nephew (sweostersunu, ‘sister-son’), implying that the relationship was distinct from a paternal uncle (faedera) and nephew (nefu). It may be that Edwin was unwilling to violate this relationship – perhaps Acha was still alive? – and was prepared to leave his nephews alone unless directly threatened.

Fifth, there is no record of Aethelferth’s sons attempting to depose Edwin as he had deposed their father. Edwin’s recorded enemies were Mercia, Gwynedd and the West Saxons, not the realms of the far north. Again, this may just be absence of evidence. Or it may indicate that the kings of Pictland and Dal Riada weren’t inclined to take on Edwin’s Northumbria – though one would have thought they might at least have had a go at grabbing some land while he had his hands full in North Wales or Wessex. Is it possible that there was some sort of informal live-and-let-live agreement between Edwin and his sister’s sons during his reign? Was Acha perhaps acting as peace-weaver, putting a brake on the otherwise endless cycle of blood-feud and revenge? This is pure speculation on my part; but an interesting possibility.


Rick said...

Taking a break from US politics to get desperately pedantic here. Surely you mean that 590 is the latest possible date for Acha's birth, if she had a child in 603-4.

Even more pedantic, I wonder if it isn't over-precise to say, for example, that Oswald must have been born between August 603 and August 604. Bede obviously had a precise death date for Oswald, but would he have known Oswald's birth date so precisely? My first thought is that he probably knew the birth year, and did quick math to get age 38.

None of which bears on your actual point, but I sometimes wonder about these little chronology things.

More substantively, what a fascinating puzzle, reconstructing people and events that are only sketchily documented. How did Acha feel about this deadly conflict between her birth family and her husband? How, indeed? I like your peace-weaver suggestion, but as you say it's speculation, itself weaving together tiny fragments of evidence.

Carla said...

Yes, I do mean the latest possible date, well spotted! I've corrected the post.

Re the back-calculation of birth dates, a full year's spread is about the least precise it can be if you have a precise death date and an age at death, isn't it? Taking Oswald, as he was 38 on 5 August 642, he could have only just turned 38, in which case his birth date would have been 4 August 604, or he could have been a day short of turning 39, in which case his birth date would have been 6 August 603. Or anywhere in between. But it can't be outside that date range or he would have been 37 or 39 when he died, not 38. I'd dearly like to get it more precise than that, as a precise birth date for Oswald would narrow the possible range for Acha's marriage.

I daresay it's possible that Bede was estimating the age and knew only that Oswald was 'about 38'. That widens the range even further, as you say. So I'd rather take Bede at face value and assume that he did know the king's age! It's not all that unlikely, as if the early English celebrated their birthdays more or less as we do now, Oswald's age at death might well have been known and remembered.

There's also a further complication in that Bede is thought to have invented the AD dating system, so whatever records he was working from wouldn't have used it. Which raises the question of what 'birth year' would have been available for quick maths. Not the AD calendar year that we automatically use now! And this is before you start arguing about adjusting dates because the year used to begin in March instead of on 1 January (I gather this particular controversy isn't settled).

Chronology is the bedrock of history; without a chronology you can't cross-connect different sources. The absence of a chronology is one of the big stumbling blocks in the 5th and 6th centuries - there's hardly an uncontested date between the Rescript of Honorius in 410 and the arrival of Augustine in Kent in 597, so in between you can pretty much write "Here Be Dragons" and imagine anything you like. Which is why Bede's account is so important, since it's with his record that chronology starts up again.

It is indeed a fascinating puzzle, which is part of what draws me to the period. Unlike the 5th and 6th centuries there's a bit of evidence for guidance, so although the possible interpretations are wide they aren't limitless. You can put Acha's sympathies on either her husband's side or her brother's or somewhere in between, but you can't have her die of a broken heart like a tragic heroine.

Rick said...

This gets interesting, and rather fun - for sufficiently geeky values of fun.

My hidden assumption is that Bede inferred Oswald's age, based on some some now-lost source that gave only his year of birth, without a specific birthdate. Supposing that the year recorded worked out to 604, Bede simply did the subtraction 642 - 604 = 38, and did not feel the need to be pedantic and specify that if Oswald's was born late in the year he would only have been 37.

If Bede's source specified his age, 38, and the figure was precise rather than inferred, then you are correct. I just wonder if birthdates were even recorded in this era.

I seem to recall reading that much later medieval people were more prone to celebrate their name saint's feast day than their actual birthday. Which I admit says nothing about pagans nearly 1000 years earlier, but suggests that giving special significance to birthdates is not a given, and that therefore what was recorded as a person's age might not be precise in our sense.

The ghost of Tolkien is on your side, however - the fact that hobbits make such a big deal of birthday celebrations suggests that this struck a great Anglo-Saxonist as being very ancient custom. Whatever else you can say about hobbits, they are certainly English!

But the bigger chronology question, as you note, is how Bede worked out his chronology even to the year. I seem to recall that the AD system was invented by Diogenes Exiguus, c. 500, but only came into common use with Bede, who had the insight to realize that a universal chronology was handy.

I would guess, from historical analogies, that Bede's sources probably gave dates by local regnal years or the like, which he had to cross-tabulate. There must have been a host of ambiguities - if a king came to the throne in May of 610, was "the tenth year of his reign" the calendar year 620, or the period May 620-May 621? Not to mention complications like the calendar year beginning in March. Thank God for standardized dating!

Someone, though, must have been keeping precise dates in some form, because Bede dates Oswald's death not just to a year but August 5. Oswy also has his death pegged to an exact date.

Carla said...

"for sufficiently geeky values of fun." Call me a card-carrying geek :-)

I'll start with the usual caveat; we don't know what sources Bede was using, and your guess is as good as mine.

I personally think it's more likely that a person's age would be known than that a year of birth would be recorded. It might have been important to reckon a person's age for rites of passage, like a child being sent for fosterage or being formally accepted as an adult, for example. Some of these could be based on physical changes such as puberty, rather than on chronological age, but not all of them. E.g. Bede says in his autobiographical note "...on reaching seven years of age I was entrusted by my family to the most reverend Abbot Benedict ... for my education" and later "I was ordained deacon in my nineteenth year and priest in my thirtieth..." and later "From the time of my receiving the priesthood until my fifty-ninth year...." So it seems clear that Bede kept count of his age in years. If Bede, why not everyone else? (So I think I can claim support from Bede as well as the ghost of Tolkien!)

Conversely, birth years for children are frequently not recorded even in better-documented later times. Have a look on Alianore's blog for numerous examples of medieval aristocrats whose birth dates aren't known with any certainty and have to be estimated by back-calculating from things like marriage dates. It's noticeable that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in Alfred's time, by which time it was being written more or less contemporarily with events, records celestial phenomena, consecrations of bishops and deaths of bishops, kings and ealdormen, but not births, not even the births of King Alfred's children. I think it's fair to say that it's unlikely that seventh-century Northumbria had more extensive written records than Alfred's court.

Bede certainly had records that were dated by local regnal years. For example, major church synods begin with "...in the tenth year of the reign of Egfrid King of the Northumbrians; in the sixth year of King Ethelfrid of the Mercians...." and so on. Apart from giving the scribes writer's cramp (!), this system must have had big problems with synchronising reigns that began on different dates, as you point out. It must have been an absolute nightmare when people wanted to keep records that applied to more than a single kingdom. Hence the need for a standardised system.

Dates were reckoned by lunar months. After the conversion to Christianity the Roman method of Ides and Kalends was used, along with saints' days (see the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). (There was a sophisticated method of reckoning months before the conversion too, although it wasn't the same. See the Hobbits' calendar in the LOTR Appendix, which is based on it).
An accurate date for a king's death would have been needed to know when to start counting the regnal years. This is different to needing to know an accurate birth date, because nothing changes when a baby prince is born; he doesn't start being king when he is born, but he does stop being king when he dies. So regnal year systems need to know when a king dies with some accuracy, but they have no need to know when he was born. Hence you'd expect death dates to be recorded much more carefully than birth dates, which is what we see.

Plus, for kings who died in battle and became revered as saints (e.g. Oswald, Edwin), the date of death became the saint's feast day, which was another reason to record and remember it to the day.

Gabriele C. said...

This is such an interesting time and fun mess one wonders why there are not more novels set in 6-9th century Britain.

Carla said...

Gabriele - don't ask me. I'm doing my best to remedy it :-)

Bernita said...

As Rick says, it's fascinating, literary archaeology.

Carla said...

And with almost as many possible interpretations, Bernita