17 November, 2009

Aelle of Deira

Aelle is the first king of Deira (roughly modern Yorkshire) who can be reasonably securely dated. He lived in the late sixth century, and shouldn’t be confused with the later king Aelle of Northumbria, who reigned in the 860s, was defeated by a Norse (Viking) army and featured (loosely) in the Kirk Douglas film The Vikings. Aelle of Deira was a quite separate individual, and as far as I know has never attracted the attention of Hollywood. What do we know about him?


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

A.D. 560. This year Ceawlin undertook the government of the
West-Saxons; and Ella, on the death of Ida, that of the
Northumbrians; each of whom reigned thirty winters. Ella was the
son of Iff, Iff of Usfrey, Usfrey of Wilgis, Wilgis of
Westerfalcon, Westerfalcon of Seafowl, Seafowl of Sebbald,
Sebbald of Sigeat, Sigeat of Swaddy, Swaddy of Seagirt, Seagar of
Waddy, Waddy of Woden, Woden of Frithowulf.

A.D. 588. This year died King Ella; and Ethelric reigned after
him five years.
--Anglo-Saxon Chronicle


At some date before Pope Gregory the Great was appointed Pope, he apparently saw some Anglian slave boys for sale in the market in Rome, and enquired where they were from:

What is the name," proceeded he, "of the province from which they are brought?" It was replied, that the natives of that province were called Deiri. "Truly are they De ira," said he, "withdrawn from wrath, and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that province called?" They told him his name was Ælla: and he, alluding to the name said, "Hallelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts."
--Bede Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. I.

This incident is undated, but presumably occurred after Gregory came back to Rome from a journey to Constantinople in around 585/586 (Catholic Encyclopaedia), and before Gregory was made Pope in 590 AD.

He [Pope Gregory] sent to Britain Augustine, Mellitus and John, and many others, with God-fearing monks with them, to convert the English to Christ. [….] However, the people of the Angles north of the river Humber, under Kings Aelle and Aethelfrith, did not at this time hear the Word of life.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis

Augustine arrived in Kent in 597 AD, so Aelle was king of Deira at this date.

Aelle had a brother called Aelfric:

…the kingdom of Deira devolved upon Osric, son of Edwin’s uncle Elfric…
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book III Ch. 1

Two of Aelle’s children are known by name, a daughter called Acha who married Aethelferth of Bernicia (see earlier post for more information on Acha), and a son called Edwin (Eadwine) who was exiled by Aethelferth of Bernicia and later regained his kingdom (Bede Book II Ch.12). Eadwine was killed in 633 at the age of forty-eight, according to Bede (Book III Ch. 20), and was therefore born around 585 AD.

Eadwine had a nephew called Hereric, implying the existence of another sibling, but it is not known whether this was a brother or sister, or whether (s)he was a child of Aelle or of Eadwine’s (unknown) mother. Bede describes Hereric’s descent as ‘noble’ (Bede Book IV Ch. 23), which is consistent with royal descent from Aelle, but this is not certain.


Aelle appears in various genealogies:

Eadwine son of Aelle son of Yffe son of Wuscfrea son of Wilgils son of Westerfalca son of Soemil son of Saefugel son of Saebald son of Siggot son of Seubdaeg son of Woden son of Frealaf
--Anglian Collection

61. Woden begat Beldeg, Brond begat Siggar, who begat Sibald, who begat Zegulf, who begat Soemil, who first separated Deur from Berneich (Deira from Bernicia.) Soemil begat Sguerthing, who begat Giulglis, who begat Ulfrea, who begat Iffi, who begat Ulli, Edwin, Osfrid, and Eanfrid
--Historia Brittonum ch. 61

See also his genealogy in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted above.

Reginald of Durham (12th century chronicler)

"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.


The genealogies are remarkably consistent for four or five generations before Aelle, and even the names in the upper reaches are broadly similar, so either the surviving manuscripts all copied from each other or they were all derived from the same tradition.

The date given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for Aelle’s death (588 AD) does not fit with the statement by Bede in On the Reckoning of Time that Aelle was still king in Deira, reigning at the same time as Aethelferth in Bernicia, in 597 AD when Augustine arrived in Kent. I’ve argued elsewhere that the date in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may be mistaken, perhaps arising from a confusion between two kings named Aethelric, and that a date of 605 AD for Aelle’s death and Aethelferth’s takeover is a better fit with more of the sources. (You can make up your own mind whether you agree with me).

However, the reign length for Aelle given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t contradict Bede, and there seems no particular reason to challenge it. It’s possible that “thirty years” was just an approximation meaning “a long time”, or that it meant what it said. AD dating was popularised by Bede, and prior to its widespread adoption the standard method of reckoning dates was by regnal years (“in the Xth year of the reign of King Y”), as can be seen from the records of some of the Church synods given in Bede’s history. A system of reckoning time by regnal years requires keeping records of kings and their reign lengths. Reign length is thus the sort of information we might expect a scribe to have access to from early sources, perhaps king-lists from Northumbria and its component parts of Deira and Bernicia and/or stories handed down in oral tradition.

Thirty years (approximately) is a long time to hold down the most dangerous job in early medieval Britain, but reigns of that sort of length are not unknown. Oswy of Northumbria ruled for about 28 years (“with much trouble”) according to Bede (Book III Ch 14), Aethelferth ruled for 24 years in total according to Historia Brittonum, and Alfred the Great ruled Wessex for 28 years between 871 and 899. Perhaps Aelle of Deira was similarly long-serving. If he was, he would presumably have been at least middle-aged and perhaps approaching old age by the end of his reign. This may indicate the context in which Aethelferth successfully annexed Deira. If Aelle did rule for thirty years or so, it’s a reasonable inference that he was an effective ruler (or possibly a very, very lucky one), but no-one remains at the height of their powers for ever. If he was ageing and/or in poor health he may have been an easy target for the aggressive and militarily able Aethelferth.

If Aelle ruled in Deira for 30 years, and his reign ended in 605 when Aethelferth began his 12 years of rule in Deira, then Aelle would have begun his rule in Deira somewhere around 575 AD (give or take a few years if the 30-year reign length is taken as an approximation). If we disregard Reginald of Durham’s late account and say that Aelle’s reign ended five years before Aethelferth’s annexation of Deira, that would place Aelle’s reign from 570 to 600 or thereabouts. Interestingly, either scenario would make him roughly contemporary with Peredur, killed in 580 AD according to Annales Cambriae and traditionally associated with York. Given that Aelle’s son Eadwine controlled York in the next generation (by 627 AD), this raises interesting questions about the relationship between Aelle and Peredur and the political territories they controlled. More about Peredur in a later post.


Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Marsden J. Northanhymbre Saga. Kyle Cathie, 1992, ISBN 1856260550
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Anglian Collection, available online
Historia Brittonum, available online
Catholic Encyclopaedia, Pope St Gregory I (“the Great”), available online


tenthmedieval said...

The date given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for Aelle’s death (588 AD) does not fit with the statement by Bede in On the Reckoning of Time that Aelle was still king in Deira, reigning at the same time as Aethelferth in Bernicia, in 597 AD when Augustine arrived in Kent. I’ve argued elsewhere that the date in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may be mistaken, perhaps arising from a confusion between two kings named Aethelric, and that a date of 605 AD for Aelle’s death and Aethelferth’s takeover is a better fit with more of the sources. (You can make up your own mind whether you agree with me).

Barbara Yorke argued a long time ago now that all the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relating to the early Cerdicines seem to have been back-dated by about twenty years, which she put forward as an explanation for the apparent duplication of some entries at that sort of interval. Her explanation was that the compilers wanted to make sure that the Kings of Wessex arrived at a comparable time to those of Kent, rather than later. She thinks the 'stretch' was done with Ceawlin's reign, so this entry is the key one in fact. I don't know if I accept that last bit, because the entry seems to associate the two kings because of their reign length when it might have been easier to separate them if one was not real. But either way, it is possible that what mattered to the compiler is not Ælle's dates but Ceawlin's, though apparently their comparability meant that they had to 'travel' together. How does the rest of the Northumbrian succession stack up in the ASC's chronology?

A very brief casting-about in old notes finds that the Yorke reference is: "The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex" in Steven Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1989), pp. 84-96. Everything in that book's really interesting, actually.

Carla said...

Agreed, I read Bassett's book a while ago.

The ASC agrees with Bede on the date for the start of Ida's reign (547), Aethelferth's victory at the battle of Degsastan (603), the start of Eadwine's reign (617), the attempt to assassinate him (626), his baptism by Paulinus (627), his death (633), Oswald's death and Oswy's succession (642). It's consistent with the ASC compiler having copied the dates out of Bede where there were any, but having had to find dates for Aelle from somewhere else.

I think it's very likely that what mattered to the ASC compiler was the Wessex dates, rather than Aelle's dates. Assuming the ASC was written at Alfred's court in the late ninth C, both the old Northumbrian dynasties were extinct by then (courtesy of each other and the Vikings), and the dates of a king from a defunct dynasty in a now-conquered kingdom 300 years earlier could well have seemed of fairly academic interest. Perhaps if there was a surviving tradition that Aelle had ruled for a long time that might have been a reason to bracket him with Ceawlin, especially if Ceawlin's reign had been, um, artificially extended. What do you think?

tenthmedieval said...

Gawd, I don't know, and more importantly I don't know how we could tell. I completely buy the twenty-year stretch argument, but it seems odd to me to retain Ceawlin and Ælle as a thirty-year duet if that wasn't actually how they were remembered, at whatever level of memory we're talking here. So I would like the stretch to be just before or just after Ceawlin but I don't know that either of these work very comfortably...

Carla said...

Testing a hypothesis is always the tricky bit in this period :-)

There's evidently some confusion over the early Wessex kings since the ASC says Cynric was the son of Cerdic and the Anglian collection genealogies put a Creoda between them. One possibility may be a situation of multiple dynasties that were later shuffled together into one, or perhaps sub-kingdoms that amalgamated and fragmented so that the same king might have been king for different lengths of time in different places. Or different kings with the same name getting mixed up.

Rick said...

Confusion in the king lists seems like just what we might expect of a period when kingdoms are first jelling out of 'warlord-doms.'

If his genealogy counts for anything, 4 or 5 generations would take us back to the early 5th century. But consistency in the sources could just mean that everyone copied from the same made-up genealogy.

Westerfalcon - what a cool name!

Carla said...

Rick - yes, absolutely. There may not even have been a definite view on who counted as a king, let alone only having one at once.

Whose genealogy are we talking about here? - Aelle's, or are you picking up tenthmedieval's discussion about Cerdic? If Aelle, there's a theory that Soemil 'separating Deur from Bryneich' refers to some sort of involvement in Hengest's rebellion against Vortigern, which wouldn't be inconsistent with the number of generations and the approximate date by generation-count.

Yes, Westerfalcon or Westerfalca is a name to conjure with, isn't it? Just begging to be used as a hero's name :-) The "Wester" element looks recognisably Old English, but the "falcon" or "falca" bit looks to me like it could derive from Latin 'falco', which is where we get the modern English 'falcon' but via Middle English and Old French. I must say I find the idea of an early fifth-century leader with a name that's half Old English and half Latin quite appealing :-)

Gabriele C. said...

Maybe he was a descendant of that famous sleuth. :)

Alianore said...

Just wanted to say how interesting and informative I found this post, and sorry I don't have anything to contribute to the discussion.

Westerfalcon is a seriously cool name. :-)

Carla said...

Gabriele - maybe either Lindsey Davis or whoever wrote the genealogies was a time-traveller :-)

Alianore - thanks for your comment! It's always nice to know someone's listening, even if they don't want to say anything.

Rick said...

Aelle's genealogy is the one I had in mind, and the possible connection to the Hengist-Vortigern thing is intriguing.

And yes, the very meaning of 'king' could be uncertain at the time. Some notion of island-wide authority persisted, as witness 'Bretwald,' and is in inherent tension with local claims to kingship.

I tend to agree with Tenthmedieval that chronologically harnessing Ceawlin and Aelle is likely to reflect some tradition that their reigns substantially overlapped.

Carla said...

It's only a very tentative connection, based on generation counting and guesswork, but it is intriguing.

There were probably tensions between 'king' at all sorts of different levels, including down to sub-regions and sub-sub-regions, let alone with any concept of island-wide authority.

Steven Till said...

In looking at how Aelle ruled for so many years, it might be interesting to research the reigns of Oswy, Aethelferth, and Alfred to see if there are commonalities in character among all four. They must have done something right to rule for as long as they did. Have you done any posts on them in the past you could point me to?

Carla said...

Steven - no specifc posts on them yet, I'm afraid. Alfred is by far the best documented. Aethelferth we know from Bede to have been a highly capable military leader, and since he married into the Deiran dynasty (and possibly also an important Brittonic or Pictish dynasty, see the post on Intermarriage in ealry medieval Britain) I think we can reasonably infer that he was also capable of using political means of gaining and maintaining power. Oswy's military career was chequered (like Alfred's), and he is known to have made at least two dynastic marriages, one into the royal dynasty of Rheged and one into the Deiran dynasty (see the Intermarriage post linked above). So little is recorded about Aelle that it is difficult to draw comparisons.

Steven Till said...

Thanks, Carla. I'll check out the post on intermarriage.