05 November, 2007

Origins of Northumbria: Two Aethelrics?

In an earlier post, I argued for 605 AD as a likely date for the annexation of Deira by Aethelferth of Bernicia, based on evidence from Historia Brittonum and consistent with Bede and the medieval chronicler Reginald of Durham. The usual interpretation of the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle appears to suggest that Deira was annexed by Aethelferth’s father Aethelric in 588 AD. How might this apparent conflict be resolved?


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.

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

A.D. 593. This year Ethelfrith succeeded to the kingdom of the Northumbrians. He was the son of Ethelric; Ethelric of Ida.

A.D. 617. This year was Ethelfrith, king of the Northumbrians,
slain by Redwald, king of the East-Angles; and Edwin, the son of
Ella, having succeeded to the kingdom, subdued all Britain


In the year 547, Ida began his reign, which lasted for 12 years.

Historia Brittonum

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

Ida, the son of Eoppa, possessed countries on the left-hand side of Britain, i.e. of the Humbrian sea, and reigned twelve years.

63. Adda, son of Ida, reigned eight years; Ethelric, son of Adda, reigned four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned seven years. Freothwulf reigned six years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism. Hussa reigned seven years.

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. There were two sons of Edwin, who fell with him in battle at Meicen, and the kingdom was never renewed in his family, because not one of his race escaped from that war



  1. The usual interpretation of the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) is that the Aethelric (Ethelric) who is noted as succeeding Aelle (Ella) in 588 is Aethelric father of Aethelferth. As we know from Bede that Aelle was king of Deira and that Aethelferth was king of Bernicia, it’s usually further assumed that Bernicia annexed Deira in 588 AD. As discussed in my earlier post, this is difficult to reconcile with the statement in Historia Brittonum (HB) that Aethelferth reigned 12 years in Bernicia and another 12 in Deira, implying that Aethelferth took over Deira 12 years into his reign (in 605 AD). If Aethelferth's father Aethelric had conquered and absorbed Deira in 588, why would Aethelferth not have ruled over both Deira and Bernicia for the whole of his reign?

  2. HB allots Aethelric a reign length of four years, whereas ASC says five years. This could just be a rounding error – e.g. if a king reigned four and a half years and was rounded up to five years in one source and down to four years in another – or it could be a genuine discrepancy.

  3. The ASC says that Aelle reigned 30 winters, but this is inconsistent with its dates for the beginning and end of his reign (560 to 588, which is 28 years). This may be another rounding error, or it may indicate that the dates are open to question.

  4. Four kings of Bernicia – Adda, Theodoric, Freothwulf and Hussa – are listed in HB, with reign lengths for all four and parentage for two, but are missing from the ASC. Reign lengths and parentage are the sort of information one would expect to be recorded in a king list or genealogy, so it is at least a strong possibility that HB took this information from a genuine source that was either not available to or not used by the compilers of the ASC.

  5. The ASC refers to the “kings of Northumbria”. This doesn’t reflect the political situation in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Bede tells us that Northumbria was formed from two distinct kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, with two distinct dynasties. This agrees with Historia Brittonum, which refers to the kings of Deira and Bernicia as clearly distinct dynasties ruling distinct kingdoms.

On the face of it, this looks as though one source must be wrong. However, it seems to me they are not wholly incompatible, and the clue to a possible reconciliation is in point 5 above. The ASC was written in the reign of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century, three centuries distant from events at the turn of the sixth/seventh century. When the ASC was compiled, the old kingdom of Northumbria was under Danish rule and both its rival dynasties were extinct. Any records of the lost kingdom available to the ASC compilers in Wessex were probably scanty at best, and as the AD dating system was popularised by Bede in the 8th century, it’s unlikely that any such records contained AD dates. The ASC compilers probably had little more than king lists and/or genealogies, from which they may have back-calculated dates as best they could by adding up reign lengths. If they did not realise there had been two rival lines of kings in sixth/seventh century Northumbria, and/or if the records they had were incomplete, it would have been very difficult indeed to arrive at a coherent set of dates. Small blame to the chroniclers if they decided not to waste too much time trying to reconstruct precise details of two extinct dynasties in a defunct kingdom three centuries earlier.

Two Aethelrics?

The ASC entry for 588 says that Aelle was succeeded by Aethelric, who reigned 5 years. If you assume that this Aethelric was also Aethelric father of Aethelferth of Bernicia, and back-calculate the dates from the date of Aethelferth’s accession (593) that can be inferred from Bede, you get more or less the dates given in the ASC, with the attendant problems outlined above.

If, however, the Aethelric who succeeded Aelle was not the same man as Aethelric father of Aethelferth of Bernicia, the situation becomes much simpler. This Aethelric could have succeeded Aelle as king of Deira at any time after 586-590 AD, when not-yet-Pope Gregory the Great met two Deiran slave boys in Rome who told him their king was called Aelle. It may have been in 588 AD as in the ASC entry, or at some other date. Either way, it doesn’t imply that Bernicia took political control of Deira at the time, so it doesn’t conflict with HB’s evidence that Aethelferth took over Deira in 605, 12 years into his reign.

If there were two Aethelrics, there is no reason why Aethelric of Bernicia should not have ruled for 4 years (HB) and Aethelric of Deira for 5 years (ASC), so that problem also disappears.

If Aelle and Aethelric of Deira ruled in parallel with a separate line of kings ruling in Bernicia, we can accommodate the missing kings from HB. There are two fixed points in the Bernician succession; Ida beginning his reign in 547 and reigning for 12 years (taking us to around 559), and Aethelferth beginning his 24-year reign in 593. Both these dates are attested by Bede. There is a gap of 34 years between the end of Ida’s reign and the beginning of Aethelferth’s. The five kings of Bernicia listed in HB are as follows: Adda son of Ida 8 years; Aethelric son of Adda 4 years; Theodoric son of Ida 7 years; Freothwulf 6 years; Hussa 7 years. Between them they add up to 32 years, so they all fit into the gap between Ida and Aethelferth. The two-year discrepancy might indicate a missing short-lived king, or it may just be a rounding error. In either case, it is much less of a problem than four missing kings.

Who was Aethelric of Deira?

So, if Aethelric of Deira existed and ruled Deira for 5 years after Aelle, who was he? There are several possibilities:

  • a brother of Aelle (possibly even a mistake for Aelle’s brother Aelfric, who is mentioned by Bede)

  • a son of Aelle (we know that Aelle had at least one child who was considerably older than Eadwine, because Eadwine had a nephew, Hereric, who was old enough to be fathering children in 614. Aethelric may have been Hereric’s father)

  • some other collateral, e.g. a nephew of Aelle or a cousin

  • some outsider who was no relation to Aelle’s dynasty

All of these are possible, and there is no firm evidence for or against any of them, so you can take your choice.

The most obvious place for Aethelric’s five-year reign is 600-605, which would mean he, not Aelle, would have been the king of Deira displaced by Aethelferth in 605. The only evidence against this is Reginald of Durham, whose chronicle says that Aethelferth killed and deposed Aelle to take over Deira. This isn’t very strong evidence, as Reginald was writing in the twelfth century and any sources had had 500 years to become garbled by then. However, Reginald’s statement can be accommodated if Aethelric was a client-king or under-king installed after Aelle’s death to run Deira under Aethelferth’s overall control. It was not unknown for under-kings to govern part of a kingdom, as Bede mentions an under-king of Deira during Oswy’s reign in 651 (Book III, Ch. 14). Client-kings have tremendous potential to confuse records if one chronicler counts the client as a proper king and another doesn’t.

When writing fiction, you have to choose one of the possibilities and go with it. In Paths of Exile I decided to make Aethelric of Deira a nephew of Aelle (because I wanted Hereric’s father for another role in the story), and to make him a client-king installed in 605 under Aethelferth’s control (because that would account for confusion in the records, and because I liked the idea). I don’t claim that this is the Right Answer by any means, but as set out here I think it is a plausible one.

Does this make sense?


Bernita said...

Yes, it does.
Because "Client-kings have tremendous potential to confuse records if one chronicler counts the client as a proper king and another doesn’t."
sums it up, I think, and accounts for "apparent " discrepencies.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Makes sense to me.

Contradictory sources are fun, aren't they? ;)

Carla said...

Bernita, Gabriele - thank you. Puzzles like this are part of the fascination, though it's also frustrating that there isn't enough evidence to identify a definitive answer.

Gabriele Campbell said...

The definite answer would probably mess with the cool plot idea. :)

Carla said...

Far from it, Gabriele! If there were a definite answer it would be the cool plot idea :-)