31 March, 2010

Hereric of Deira

Hereric was a prince of the royal family of Deira (approximately modern Yorkshire) in the early seventh century. What do we know about him?


Bede, Ecclesiastical History

In the following year, that is the year of our Lord 680, Hilda, abbess of the monastery of Streaneshalch, of which I have already spoken, a most religious servant of Christ, after an earthly life devoted to the works of heaven, passed away to receive the reward of a heavenly life, on the seventeenth of November, at the age of sixty-six.
She was nobly born, the daughter of Hereric, nephew to King Edwin…
Her life was the fulfilment of a dream which her mother, Breguswith, had when Hilda was an infant, during the time that her husband, Hereric was living in banishment under the protection of the British king Cerdic, where he died of poison. In this dream she fancied that he was suddenly taken away, and although she searched everywhere she could find no trace of him. When all her efforts had failed, she discovered a most valuable jewel under her garments; and as she looked closely, it emitted such a brilliant light that all Britain was lit by its splendour. This dream was fulfilled in her daughter….
--Bede, Book IV Ch. 23.

Cerdic is a variant spelling of Ceretic or Ceredig.

Annales Cambriae

616 Ceredig died.
617 Edwin begins his reign
--Annales Cambriae, available online

Historia Brittonum

Edwin, son of Alla, reigned seventeen years, seized on Elmete, and expelled Cerdic, its king.
--Historia Brittonum, ch. 63, available online


Hereric was clearly the son of a sibling of King Edwin (Eadwine), but it is not known whether he was the son of a sister or a brother. The identity of his other parent is unknown.

Date of birth
Bede does not specify Hereric’s age or year of birth. However, since he tells us that Hereric’s daughter Hild died on 17 November 680 at age 66 years, Hild must have been born between 18 November 613 and 17 November 614. Hereric must therefore have been old enough to father children by early 614 at the latest. Caveat that this calculation assumes that Bede’s dates are accurate and that age was reckoned in complete years incremented on the anniversary of birth, as is the case now – if age was reckoned differently, e.g. by incrementing at a particular season or date rather than on the anniversary of birth, the margin of error might be a year or so either way.

Hild also had a sister Hereswith (Bede, Book IV ch.23). If Hereswith was also Hereric’s daughter, as seems likely from the ‘H’ alliteration of all three names, and if she was born before Hild (see below for rationale), Hereric would have to have been old enough to father children at least a year earlier, in 613 at the latest. Hereric must therefore have been born around 599 at the earliest (making him 14 when he fathered the first of his daughters), and probably some years before then.

Date of death
If Breguswith’s dream that her husband was ‘suddenly taken away’ is intended to represent his death, and if finding a jewel ‘under her garments’ is intended to signify that she was pregnant with Hild at the time, this may indicate that Hild was born after Hereric’s death. Bede says that Breguswith had the dream when Hild was an infant, implying that Hild was born some time before her mother’s dream, although Hereric’s death could have occurred before both Hild’s birth and Breguswith’s dream. Either way, the implication seems to be that Hild was at most an infant when Hereric died. If Hild was born close to the date of her father’s death, this further implies that Hild’s sister Hereswith was probably born before Hild. As Hild was born some time between late 613 and late 614, this suggests that Hereric’s death was some time in 614.

Cause and context of death
Bede says that Hereric died of poison. This may be deliberate poisoning, or it may be that a sudden death from natural causes was interpreted as poison. Accidental food poisoning from something like botulism can be fatal, as can acute infections, especially in an era without access to antibiotics. Allergic reactions such as anaphylactic shock could also be interpreted as poisoning.

Hereric was living in exile at the time of his death, at the court of a Brittonic king called Cerdic or Ceretic. It is not known whether he had been resident there a long time or had only recently arrived. Bede says he was living there in banishment, and it is likely that Hereric was expelled from Deira when it was annexed by King Aethelferth of Bernicia (probably in 605, see earlier article on Dating the annexation of Deira for the rationale for the date). Bede’s statement that Hereric was under the protection of the king implies that he was there with Ceretic’s knowledge and consent. Bede doesn’t name Ceretic’s kingdom, but Historia Brittonum records a Ceretic as King of Elmet contemporary with the reign of Hereric’s uncle Edwin (617-633). It seems likely that this Ceretic of Elmet is the same individual as the Ceretic at whose court Hereric was living.

Elmet was a territory in the area around modern Leeds (see sketch map for approximate location), and the name of the kingdom survives in a few place names such as Sherburn-in-Elmet and Barwick-in-Elmet (see map links). It bordered Hereric’s homeland of Deira on the south-west. Hereric’s reason for being in Elmet when he met his death in around 614 is not known. He may have been living there in exile ever since Aethelferth annexed Deira, perhaps reflecting personal or family connections with Elmet, or he may have only recently arrived in Elmet, perhaps in the hope of gaining support for an attempt to reclaim Deira, or any number of other possibilities.

If Hereric was intending to challenge Aethelferth for Deira, this may suggest a motivation for someone to poison him (if his death was not due to natural causes, see above). Aethelferth would have had an obvious motive to have Hereric assassinated, and no great distance to send an agent to do it. Alternatively, Ceretic, or someone else in Elmet, might have decided that Hereric was too dangerous to have as a guest and arranged to get rid of him. If Hereric was poisoned, as Bede says, there is a plausible political context for murder. Murder, or believed murder, would also be consistent with political developments a few years after Hereric’s death (more on this in a later post). Needless to say, other interpretations are possible.

Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum, ch. 63, available online

Map links


Nicola Griffith said...

The way I've imagined it, Hereric's father was Æthelric, who (again, in my fictional world) was briefly king of Deira (and son of Ælla). I imagine Hereric was killed as a result of pressure from Edwin (whom I imagine as a much less sympathetic character than your Eadwine).

Isn't it lovely to take Bede's bare bones and build a Britain? (Apologies for my alliteration addiction . Temporary I'm sure.)

Carla said...

Nicola - there are lots of ways of fitting Hereric and Aethelric into the very incomplete family tree Bede provides :-) Your interpretation fits in with the known facts (as does mine). I made Aethelric the son of Aelle's brother Aelfric, and made him a client king of Deira (duration currently unspecified), and made Hereric the son of a fictional Eadric (eldest son of Aelle) with a family connection into Elmet to explain the location of his exile. I haven't yet reached Hereric's death, so I'm not going to say how I think he came by it :-)
Yes, it is - that's why I'm drawn to write about this period. Nothing wrong with alliteration :-) It does become something of an occupational hazard if you read a lot of Old English poetry.

Doug said...

It makes the point of how sketchy our information is, and how much detective work is needed to make a story, that only now have I realised that we don't actually know that Hereric was in Elmet! Of course, Ceretic was a common name for the Britons, so common that it overflowed into Wessex.
As Nicola suggests, we don't know that Eadwine wasn't inclined to have rivals removed. I would speculate, however, that the early expulsion of Ceretic of Elmet would indicate that he had a grievance against him, supporting both that as a location for Hereric and a probability that Eadwine was not pleased by Hereric's fate.

Nicola Griffith said...

One day, I hope we'll sit over a drink (tea, wine, beer, coffee--I'm not fussy) and discuss family trees and troop movements and what to call things like monkshood before there were monks (well, that one's relatively easy: wolfsbane) and so on. One day, I'll finish this novel!

Rick said...

Suspicion of poison was common when prominent people died suddenly, though this is 950 years too early for suspicion to fall on Catherine de Medici. Whatever the cause, the death of an exiled royal was surely convenient to someone.

If Hereric was in exile from 605, Breguswith must have been in exile with him, or at least visiting from time to time, or the jewel under her garments around 614 would be hard to explain. But the dream story sounds as if they were apart at the time of his death, and probably also at the time of Hild's birth, even if she was born before his death.

On the other hand, Bede's real interest here is presumably Hild and her life as a churchwoman. The story of her birth underlines his point, and is much too good to pass up. But for his purpose - unlike yours and Nicola's - the details are tangential and don't call for exhaustive effort at reconstruction.

The 'bare bones of Bede' indeed! Instead of an iron cage of facts you have just a few landmarks to which a created setting must conform.

Carla said...

Doug - I think it's a reasonable inference that Hereric was in Elmet, since we know from other sources that there was a Ceretic reigning in Elmet at the time. Bede mentions Elmet and the region around Leeds elsewhere, so he evidently expected his readers to be familiar with it, and there was very likely a whole stratum of saga and story that his audience would have known that's now lost to us.
Eadwine appears to have had 'attack Ceretic' as almost the first thing on his To Do list (!), so it's fair to say that whatever the motivation was it seems to have been considered a matter of some urgency. Whether Hereric's death two or three years earlier was a reason, a convenient excuse, a coincidence or anything in between is open to speculation.

Nicola - that can always be done via email :-)

Rick - yes, Catherine de Medici is in the clear on this one at least :-) I would be cautious of the poison theory for the reason you mention, though Bede doesn't bandy accusations of poison around all that frequently so I'd give him some credence.
We know that two of Eadwine's children were born while he was in exile (Bede explicitly says so), so it wasn't unknown for a royal exile to have his wife and family with him. We don't know who Breguswith was or what her family connections were (except that her name is of Old English form), and we don't know whether she and Hereric were already married before Hereric's exile or after. Given that there are no other siblings mentioned for Hild, my guess is that Hereric and Breguswith had not been married long. It's possible that quite a few Deiran aristocrats may have found it politic to move across the border into Elmet (especially any who already had family connections there, as is not unlikely in neighbouring kingdoms) and that Breguswith's family may have been among them, in which case Hereric may have met and married her in Elmet, but there is absolutely no evidence either way. Hereric may have been absent on some routine matter - travelling with the king's court, or perhaps fighting in his host's warband, or even just on a hunting trip - or on something out of the ordinary like an attempted or planned invasion. You can construct quite a number of scenarios that fit the handful of landmarks :-)

Yes, Bede's interest is in Hild as a great churchwoman, so his interest in Hereric is just to provide Hild with a suitably noble ancestry and a (fulfilled) prophecy of a great destiny. From which one could plausibly infer that any politics surrounding Hereric and his death were probably secular rather than religious, as one would expect Bede to mention a religious angle if there was any hint of such a thing. Caveat, though, that this is arguing from absence of evidence, so I wouldn't put too much weight on it.

Nicola Griffith said...

Carla, yes indeed :)

I've decided that Breguswith is a relative of Æthelberht of Kent. Makes all the Edwin/Deira/Hereric intrigue juicier, and throws in a Frankish Connection.

Carla said...

Nicola - Entirely possible, since we don't have anything to the contrary. Does that make her a Christian, and if so does that give you an extra religious angle?

Rick said...

I'd guess that the story, including the poisoning, was current in Bede's day. He simply reports it in an aside, neither hyping the poison angle nor challenging it.

Your guess that the politics were secular may be arguing from absence of evidence, but it seems pretty reasonable. Bede only mentions Hereric at all in a brief aside on the birth of a notable churchwoman.

How exasperated he would probably be at our era's laboring to squeeze out every bit of information on political events, while ignoring what he was actually writing about.

Speaking of which, abbesses obviously showed up as prominent figures pretty quickly.

Carla said...

Rick - that would be my interpretation too. It's noteworthy that Bede doesn't say who poisoned Hereric, which may imply that the culprit wasn't an integral part of the story he knew, or that he didn't consider it important enough to mention.

I don't think we entirely ignore what he was actually writing about; it's more the case that his main theme (How the English came to be Christian) is sufficiently clear that there isn't much more to say, whereas reconstructing the political background takes a lot more effort.

The fact that Hild and women like her appear as prominent abbesses wielding considerable influence within a generation of the conversion is among the circumstantial evidence indicating that women with political influence were an accepted feature of pre-conversion English society.

Nicola Griffith said...

I'm imagining Breguswith as being born either pre-Bertha or, more likely, to a non-Christian branch of the family (related to Æthelberht, and therefore to the Merovingians by marriage). But in my version of events she's among one of the court to get baptised along with Eanfled--always looking for political advantage.

Carla said...

Nicola - a non-Christian family branch is quite likely; didn't Aethelbert's son Eadbald reject Christianity after his father's death, indicating that not everybody was fully converted?

Rick said...

Indeed, the abbesses probably did not come out of a vacuum.

I also have the impression that the Church targeted women, and depended heavily on them to bring their menfolk around, with roles and opportunities like this being part of the package.

All of which is wonderfully contrary to the current fashionable stereotype.

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, quite. Women certainly played a significant role in the early church, and Bede has a lot to say about various female saints and abbesses.