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--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book III ch. 1
…Eanfrid, as eldest son, inherited the crown of Bernicia
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--Pictish Chronicle
[Translation : Talorcan son of Eanferth reigned 4 years]
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:
Raegumaeld-- 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.--Historia Brittonum ch. 37
[…] 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 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--Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, Book XII Ch. 14
For Cadwallon, after his reconciliation with her brother, made her the partner of his bed and had Cadwaladr by her.
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