07 October, 2009

Intermarriage in early medieval Britain

Dynastic marriage to secure or strengthen a political alliance was standard practice throughout medieval Europe, as a cursory glance at royal marriages will show. For example, looking at the post-Conquest kings of England, Henry I married Edith (also called Matilda), a descendant of the English royal family displaced by Henry’s father William the Conqueror. Their daughter Maud (or Matilda) married the German Holy Roman Emperor. Her son Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, heiress to great tracts of what is now southern France. Their son John married Isabella of Angouleme. John’s daughter Joan married Llewellyn of Gwynedd and John’s son Henry III married Eleanor of Provence. Their son Edward I married Eleanor of Castile. Their son Edward II married Isabella of France. And so on; practically every generation involved an international marriage. The reasons are obvious, including:

  • Pedigree. In an age when birth counted for everything, having royalty on both sides of the pedigree was an obvious plus;

  • Inheritance. A royal wife would be well dowered, and if you were really lucky she might inherit her father’s kingdom and bring an unexpected windfall (the Hapsburgs inherited Spain in the 16th century when biological accident left Juana, wife of Philip the Fair, as the only surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabella);

  • Political alliance. Two powerful royal families could aid each other in their respective wars, increasing the chance of success for both. And it was not the done thing to attack a family one was married into (although practice had an unfortunate habit of diverging from theory).

What about early medieval Britain? The same reasons apply, so one would expect dynastic intermarriage to occur. Is there any evidence?

Documented inter-ethnic marriages

It’s rare for the names of queens to be recorded, let alone their descent, but there are two reasonably solid examples of marriages between ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kings and Brittonic queens, plus another that is rather less secure.

Aethelferth of Bernicia and Bebba

Eadfered Flesaurs reigned twelve years in Bernicia, and twelve others in Deira, and gave to his wife Bebba, the town of Dynguoaroy, which from her is called Bebbanburg.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 63

Bede, writing in 731, confirms the story:

…the royal city, which is called after a former queen named Bebba
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3 ch. 6

Bebbanburg is modern Bamburgh. Bebba is not an English name. Nothing is known of Bebba’s ancestry, but there may be a clue in the fate of Aethelferth’s eldest son Eanferth (Eanfrid, Enfret). Eanferth was exiled on his father’s death in 617 AD, and inherited Bernicia in 633 AD:

During the whole of Edwin’s reign the sons of Aethelferth lived in exile among the Irish or the Picts
…Eanfrid, as eldest son, inherited the crown of Bernicia
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book III ch. 1

Elsewhere in the Ecclesiastical History Bede tells us that Aethelferth’s other sons Oswald and Oswy lived in exile among the Irish (Book III ch. 3 and ch. 25), so it is a reasonable deduction that the other son Bede mentions, Eanferth, was the one who lived among the Picts. While there, he presumably married a Pictish princess, because he fathered a king of the Picts:

Tallorcen filius Enfret iiij. annis regnavit
[Translation : Talorcan son of Eanferth reigned 4 years]
--Pictish Chronicle

Eanferth’s career would be consistent with his mother Bebba having belonged to either the Pictish aristocracy, or to the aristocracy of a Brittonic kingdom with Pictish connections, such as the kingdom of Gododdin in what is now southern Scotland (roughly the area of modern Lothian and/or around Edinburgh; see map).

Eanferth’s nephew Ecgfrith son of Oswy is described as cousin to Bridei king of the Picts in 685:

Egrid is he who made war against his cousin Brudei, king of the Picts, and he fell therein with all the strength of his army and the Picts with their king gained the victory
--Historia Brittonum ch. 57

The date is from Bede (Book IV ch. 26). Bridei may have been a cousin to Ecgfrith through Eanferth’s Pictish marriage in the previous generation, or their relationship may indicate another Pictish–Northumbrian royal marriage.

Oswy of Northumbria and Rhianmellt of Rheged

Oswy was the son of Aethelferth. It is not known whether he was the son of Bebba, or of Aethelferth’s wife Acha of Deira. I have argued elsewhere that he was probably the son of Acha because he has the same Os- prefix to his name as Acha’s son Oswald, but this is not proven. Oswy was born in around 612 and died in 670.

Oswy had two wives, Riemmelth, the daughter of Royth, son of Rum; and Eanfled, the daughter of Edwin, son of Alla.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 57

Oswy’s marriage to Eadwine’s daughter Eanflaed is confirmed by Bede (Book III ch. 15). Bede doesn’t mention Rhianmellt, but she does appear in the correct place, immediately before Eanflaed, in the list of queens in the Durham Liber Vitae:

-- Durham Liber Vitae, searchable on Google Books

I think we can therefore consider her existence confirmed. Rhianmellt is a Brittonic name. Her father Royth son of Rum is not otherwise mentioned, but her grandfather Rum is usually considered to be the Rum map Urbgen mentioned elsewhere in HB:

If any one wishes to know who baptized them, it was Rum Map Urbgen
--Historia Brittonum ch. 63

Urbgen or Urien was a famous king of Rheged (somewhere in what is now north-west England and/or south-west Scotland, location uncertain) in the late sixth century. He features in the poetry attributed to Taliesin and in several royal genealogies:

U]rbgen map Cinmarc map Merchianum map Gurgust map Coilhen
--Harleian Genealogy

Vryen uab Kynuarch m Meirchavn m Gorust Letlvm m Keneu m Coel
--Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd

Putting the pieces together, and assuming that Rum father of Royth was also Rum son of Urbgen, this would make Rhianmellt a descendant of the royal dynasty of Rheged in north-west England, a logical dynastic marriage partner for a king of Northumbria in north-east England.

Ida of Bernicia and Bearnoch

….Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 56

Ida had twelve sons, Adda, Belric Theodric, Thelric, Theodhere, Osmer, and one queen Bearnoch, Ealric. Ethelric begat Ethelfrid: the same is AEdlfred Flesaur.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 57

Bede confirms Ida as the founding figure of Bernicia, “In the year 547, Ida began his reign, which lasted twelve years. From him the royal family of the Northumbrians derives its origin” (Book V, ch. 24).

Bearnoch is not mentioned elsewhere and so her ancestry is not known, but her name is very similar to the Brittonic name of the kingdom, Berneich. Her name may be genuine (in the same sort of way as the name of a region, Gwynedd, is now also a modern female name, Gwyneth), or it may be a vague memory that Ida gained or consolidated his position as king by marrying a woman of the local royal or noble dynasty. However, it may also be possible that a reference to the region has been misinterpreted as referring to a person, or even that Bearnoch was invented as a mythical ancestor to shore up a dodgy pedigree (although this in itself may be an indication that dynastic marriage was considered a valuable thing to have in one’s pedigree).

Legendary (?) marriages

Vortigern and Rowena daughter of Hengest

Possibly the most famous example of inter-ethnic intermarriage between early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) and Brittonic royalty is the (legendary?) marriage between Vortigern and the daughter of Hengest:

[…] bringing with them the beautiful daughter of Hengist.
[…] Vortigern, at the instigation of the devil, and enamoured with the beauty of the damsel, demanded her, through the medium of his interpreter, of the father, promising to give for her whatever he should ask. Then Hengist, who had already consulted with the elders who attended him of the Oghgul race, demanded for his daughter the province, called in English Centland, in British, Ceint, (Kent.).
[….] Thus the maid was delivered up to the king, who slept with her, and loved her exceedingly.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 37

Historia Brittonum was written down in the early ninth century according to its prologue. I’ll happily take it as a source for events within a couple of centuries of its composition (i.e. back to about the turn of the sixth and seventh century), especially as quite a few of its statements can be corroborated from other sources such as Bede (insert the usual caveat that some of the sources might have copied from each other and may not be independent). But in the case of Vortigern and Hengest it is around 400 years after the event, and caution is in order. However, even if the story of Vortigern’s marriage to the daughter of Hengest has been misinterpreted, embellished or even invented over time, it does indicate that inter-ethnic dynastic marriage was considered a reasonable component of power politics when Historia Brittonum was in circulation and being written down.

Cadwallon of Gwynedd and the sister of Penda of Mercia

His [Cadwaladr’s] mother was Penda’s sister
For Cadwallon, after his reconciliation with her brother, made her the partner of his bed and had Cadwaladr by her.
--Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, Book XII Ch. 14

The source for this is Geoffrey of Monmouth, and if Geoffrey said the sun rose in the east I would still want to check it. So I’m inclined to consider this a legend. I mention it here because Cadwallon’s military alliance with Penda is confirmed by Bede (Book II Ch. 20). A dynastic marriage to seal a military alliance is not at all unreasonable, so that could be taken as partial support for Geoffrey’s statement, though I wouldn’t take a bet on it. However, the same comment applies as above; even if the marriage itself is legendary, it may indicate that Geoffrey – and his intended audience – considered it plausible.

There are also some examples of Brittonic names in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ genealogies, and a possible instance of a Brittonic warrior whose father had an Old English name, which may indicate intermarriage. I’ll discuss these in another post.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Durham Liber Vitae, searchable on Google Books.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, available online
Historia Brittonum, available online
Pictish Chronicle, available online

Map links


Anonymous said...

SO does this mean Eleanor of Aquitaine was well en-dowered with great... Tracts of land?


I'm so sorry. I couldn't resist.


Rick said...

Ian - the curious thing is that we don't have a clue what Eleanor of Aquitaine looked like.

'Bearnoch' might also have been a nickname that stuck in place of her foreign real name.

The sources are very brief, but there's no hint in them that anything was seen as unusual about these alliances.

Carla said...

Ian, Rick - I thought the chroniclers at the time described Eleanor as exceptionally beautiful, though without giving any details? So we might have a bit of a clue (with the caveat that flattering a great lady is unlikely to have been a bad career move so it may have been diplomatic to talk up Eleanor's looks). But certainly we don't have any detailed information.

Yes, Bearnoch might have been a nickname or perhaps a title. It wouldn't take very much to get from something like "Lady of Bryneich" to "Lady Bryneich" and then just "Bryneich" as if it were a personal name. It was common practice to attach the name of the territory to the name of a king, e.g. Urien Rheged, and in later medieval usage it was standard to refer to nobles by their titles (Gloucester, Kent, Buckingham etc) rather than by personal names. Perhaps something similar happened with Bearnoch.

Given the general paucity of evidence, it's striking that there's reasonable documentary evidence for at least two intermarriages. Whether that means it was common practice, or common in some regions but not in others, or whether they were recorded because they were exceptional, is open to question. (As it always is when trying to argue from the particular to the general!). As you say, there's no hint that the chroniclers thought there was anything particularly unusual, and HB in particular cheerfully digresses into moral judgments when it feels like it (see Vortigern). One could argue that Bede's lack of detail about Bebba and his failure to mention Rhianmellt at all is indicative that he disapproved of Brittonic queens; on the other hand, neither converted her husband to Christianity so it could simply be that they were not immediately relevant to his church history.

Annis said...

Artist Duncan Long had a go at picturing Eleanor of Acquitaine, based on a sculpture of her created around 1152, when she was aged about 30. Robert Fripp has used this portrait as the cover for his novel about Eleanor. Fripp comments that contemporary reports say that Eleanor had blue eyes, but doesn't mention his source.

The story of Riemmelth is featured in Kathleen Herbert's novel "Queen of the Lightning", isn't it?

Doug said...

I would expect that Oswy had already been converted when he married Rhianmellt. He was little more than a baby when he had to leave Northumbria, and it was in exile that he was converted. Bede probably had nothing to say about her because Oswy's second wife Eanflaed was another of his preferred race, Northumbrians, so stole the show.
Very informative article, as usual, making the best of the limited information on Anglo-Saxon queens.

Doug said...

Ah, misread you, I thought you were implying that Oswy remained non-Christian after his marriage to Rhianmellt, if he was converted before their marriage then this is consistent with her not having converted him!

Rick said...

Eleanor is indeed described as beautiful, often enough that it probably isn't just flattery - especially from monkish chroniclers who were not singing her praises. But they didn't get around to giving any details.

This is one reason why no actress can own Elizabeth I the way Katharine Hepburn owns Eleanor - real Eleanor doesn't get in the way, because we don't really have a first hand sense of her.

I think you are right that Bede simply didn't see these queens as relevant to his concern. But your mention of what was his concern, such as queens who converted hubbies to Christianity, points to a dog not barking in the night.

Presumably the 'British' queens were Christian. (Maybe not Bebba.) If any had converted her husband, Bede would surely have taken note of her. But in fact I have the impression that part of his critique of the Celtic church was that they did diddly squat to convert the English. For the Roman church, working through queens to rope in their hubbies was SOP.

Katherine Christensen said...

Hi Carla,
Interesting discussion.

I've been curious about the relationship between Ethelbert, the King of Kent, and Bertha, the daughter of the Frankish Merovingian King Charibert -- marriage was somewhere around 580AD.

Many texts say she influenced the introduction of Christianity to the Anglo Saxons through this marriage by opening the door for Pope Gregory's missionaries, but I have not seen any evidence of cooperation or alliances between the Kingdoms. . .

Katherine Christensen said...

Hi Carla,
Interesting discussion.

I've been curious about the relationship between Ethelbert, the King of Kent, and Bertha, the daughter of the Frankish Merovingian King Charibert -- marriage was somewhere around 580AD.

Many texts say she influenced the introduction of Christianity to the Anglo Saxons through this marriage by opening the door for Pope Gregory's missionaries, but I have not seen any evidence of cooperation or alliances between the Kingdoms. . .

Unknown said...

I'm just in the middle of Alison Weir's Eleanor of Aquitaine. Its a great book but trying to follow the family ties and the consanguity with both Louis or Henry 11 is mind boggling. Beautiful or not this lady must have had a great presence to have had such a lasting interest.

Carla said...

Annis - if she looked anything like the portrait, blue eyes or not, I can see why she had such an impact on her contempories! Yes, Rhianmellt is the subject of Queen of the Lightning, which is an approximate translation of her name

Doug - Indeed, Oswy was converted to Christianity on Iona, where he lived in exile with his brother Oswald (and possibly other members of the family) from the age of about 5 to about 22. Rhianmellt didn't need to do anything, assuming that she was a Christian of the Brittonic church (highly likely if her grandfather Rum was a prominent churchman; there's a theory that he was a bishop of Carlisle). As the Brittonic and Irish churches both followed the same way of calculating Easter, there wasn't even that difficulty to negotiate! Eanflaed was part of the reason for Oswy deciding in favour of the Roman Church (since she had been raised in the Roman tradition in Kent, and the subsequent conflict with Oswy's Irish Easter prompted the Synod of Whitby), so that would have made her highly important in Bede's eyes.

Rick - Indeed, for most of us Katherine Hepburn is the mental image we have of Queen Eleanor.

Bebba certainly didn't convert Aethelferth, but we don't know her religion. Oswy was already a Christian when he married Rhianmellt (Bede says he converted in exile on Iona, see above), so she had no need to convert him. If Rhianmellt was a Brittonic Christian, as is likely if she came from the royal dynasty of Rheged, Bede would certainly have disapproved of celebrating Easter on the wrong date (he even criticises St Aidan for that; it was clearly a point very close to his heart!) and that may have been a reason to ignore her. Whereas Oswy's second wife Eanflaed belonged to Bede's favoured Roman Christianity, as well as being the daughter of Bede's hero King Eadwine. Bede says that the Britons never preached Cristianity to the English. Whether he was right, and whether interaction might have varied in different regions and at different times, is a different question.

Katherine - Bertha is usually credited with having helped with the conversion of Aethelbert to Christianity because she provided a gateway for St Augustine's mission to Kent in 597. However, it's notable that although she had a Frankish chaplain with her from the beginning of her marriage, Aethelbert didn't convert until after St Augustine came. This may be because the Frankish chaplain didn't try, or wasn't very persuasive, or may indicate that Bertha had relatively little influence, or it may indicate that Aethelbert wasn't about to accept Christianity from a Frankish clergyman in case that made him subservient to the Merovingian kings, and was therefore sticking out until he got a direct line to the Pope in his own right. Frankish-style artefacts turn up in Kentish graves of the late 6th and early 7th century, which indicates some sort of trade and/or cultural contact across the Channel (as one would expect for reasons of geography). There is also a reference somewhere to the Frankish kings having hegemony over Britain at about the same time (cannot remember the source offhand), which is unlikely to be literally true but may indicate some sort of Frankish over-kingship over part of Brtiain, the most likely candidate being Kent on the grounds of (a) the Frankish artefacts found there, (b) geography, (c) Bertha's marriage. One possibility is that Aethelbert saw himself as having some sort of 'special relationship' with the Merovingian kings but wouldn't accept Christianity from their priest in case that turned him into a client king (possibly the Merovingians already saw him as a client...)

Carol - I only have a hazy idea of the family trees, but I think Eleanor was at least as closely related to Henry as she was to Louis, which rather shows up the political nature of her annulment! Indeed, she must have been a remarkable lady, and her beauty was probably only a part of her charisma.

Constance Brewer said...

Very interesting read, thanks!

Katherine Christensen said...

Facinating information on the timeing of Aethelbert's conversion and possible relationship with the Merovingians. Thanks!

Carla said...

Constance, Katherine - you're welcome.