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--Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
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.
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 "Truly are they De ira," said he, "withdrawn from wrath, and called to the mercy of Christ.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