This is my third post on an Anglo-Saxon ‘First Lady’. Last year I wrote about Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians, who fought the Vikings in the early 10th century. She had a Scottish connection because, according to one old source, she forged a military alliance with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. I also wrote about Queen Aethelburh, wife of the 8th-century West Saxon king Ine. Aethelburh had no connection with Scotland (as far as we know) but she got a bit of webspace here at Senchus because, like Aethelflaed, she commanded armies. I have a longstanding interest in female participation in early medieval warfare, so I made a slot for Aethelburh by putting her in the subject category ‘non-Scottish’.
In this post I want to look at another Anglo-Saxon queen. Her name was Alchflaed and she lived in the 7th century. Her husband was Peada, king of the Middle Angles, a son of King Penda of Mercia. The Middle Angles inhabited a large part of the eastern midlands of England, with a core territory corresponding to the modern county of Leicestershire. They fell under Penda’s control sometime before 650 and received Peada as their king. At that time, Penda stood at the height of his power, having spent the previous twenty years building up an impressive military reputation. Among those who tasted the edge of his sword was Oswald, king of Bernicia and overlord of Northumbria, who fell in battle with Mercian forces in 642. Oswald was succeeded in Bernicia by his younger brother Oswiu but the southern region of Northumbria – the kingdom of Deira – reverted to the rule of its own dynasty. Oswiu was harried by Penda throughout the 640s and endured several major raids on his territory, including at least one destructive assault on his chief citadel at Bamburgh.
Oswiu was probably born in 612. He was only four or five years old when his father Aethelfrith was slain in battle with the East Angles. Aethelfrith’s death enabled Edwin, the exiled king of Deira, to reclaim not only his own kingdom but Bernicia as well. Aethelfrith’s family fled in fear, seeking sanctuary in the northern Celtic realms. The eldest son and heir, Eanfrith, found refuge with the Picts but the other children – including Oswald and Oswiu – went to Dál Riata, the land of the Gaelic-speaking Scots. Oswiu did not return to Bernicia for many years. His brother Eanfrith returned in 633 to claim the kingship after Edwin’s death but he was killed almost immediately. Both he and Edwin were slain by Cadwallon, a Briton, whom most historians identify as king of Gwynedd in North Wales. It is usually assumed that Oswiu came back to Bernicia in 634, when his brother Oswald became king after defeating Cadwallon, but we cannot be certain of this. There is no record of Oswiu’s presence in Bernicia during Oswald’s reign, so it is at least possible that the two were no longer on friendly terms. Oswiu eventually succeeded to the kingship after Oswald was slain by Penda’s Mercians at the battle of Maserfelth in 642. Again, the modern assumption sees Oswiu as his brother’s designated heir, but equally he might have stayed away from Bernicia during the whole of Oswald’s reign.
Oswiu sired children by at least three different women. A liaison with Fin, an Irish princess of the northern Uí Néill, produced an illegitimate son called Aldfrith who would one day become king of Northumbria. Aldfrith’s birth is often placed in the years of Oswiu’s exile among the Gaels, prior to his first marriage, but he could have been born much later. Since Aldfrith sired a son in 696 or 697 we might wonder if he was really in his sixties at that time, although of course he might have been even older! Aside from the ‘fling’ with Fin, Oswiu had two legitimate marriages. The first of these was to Rhieinmelth, a North Briton, whose name means ‘Queen of Lightning’. She was a royal princess of Rheged and a great-great-granddaughter of the renowned warrior-king Urien.
Urien turns up on this blog from time to time. He seems to have been a key player in the wars between the North Britons and their Anglo-Saxon neighbours in Bernicia and Deira. His kingdom, Rheged, is hard to place with confidence on any map. It is usually seen as a very large realm stretching across the Solway Firth to encompass parts of southwestern Scotland and parts of the English county of Cumbria. In previous blogposts and comments (here and elsewhere) I’ve voiced my scepticism about this imagined geography, often repeating myself over and over to make the point that the location of Rheged is unknown. In this post I want to avoid the geographical debate by keeping the spotlight on Urien’s last-known female descendant: Alchflaed, the daughter of Oswiu and Rhieinmelth.
Alchflaed’s story begins with her parents’ marriage, which probably occurred in the early 630s. Oswiu, as already noted, was born around 612. Rhieinmelth may have been roughly the same age. Their betrothal was undoubtedly arranged for political reasons but we can only guess what these were. It may have been linked to Eanfrith’s or Oswald’s claims on the Bernician kingship. If so, the marriage could have occurred in 633 or 634, perhaps to seal an alliance with Rhieinmelth’s father, King Royth of Rheged, against Cadwallon. It is sometimes suggested that Royth passively gave his entire kingdom to Bernicia as a wedding dowry but this is fairly unbelievable in a 7th century context.
The marriage produced two children who survived into adulthood. One was Alchfrith, Oswiu’s eldest legitimate male heir, who was probably not yet ten years old when his uncle, King Oswald, perished at the battle of Maserfelth in 642. During Alchfrith’s teenage years, his father ruled Bernicia as a troublesome vassal of Penda, who also dominated the Deirans. It is likely that Alchfrith played an active role in the defence of Bernician territory against Mercian raiding-parties, not least as part of his training for the kingship. Away from the battleground he was a devout Christian who developed a keen interest in religious matters. The Mercians, by contrast, were pagans.
Alchfrith’s sister Alchflaed was probably born c.635. Nothing is known of her childhood but she would have spent most of it in Bernicia, residing with her parents at royal residences in different parts of the kingdom. This is where her Scottish connection comes in. As a Bernician princess she would have ventured north of the Tweed from time to time, travelling in her father’s entourage when he visited fortresses such as Dunbar or major monasteries such as Melrose. An additional Scottish connection was the land of her maternal kin, if we assume that some part of Rheged lay north of the present Border. It is likely that Alchflaed spent time there with her mother’s family, visiting the court of her grandfather King Royth. Is it too fanciful to imagine her in the feasting-halls of Rheged, hearing stories about the deeds of her great-great-grandfather Urien?
Before going too far down this sentimental road it is worth pausing to acknowledge who Alchflaed really was. She was first and foremost an Anglo-Saxon princess, not a princess of Rheged. Regardless of her mixed parentage we should regard her not as a Briton but as an Englishwoman. The few recorded facts of her life suggest that her main cultural affiliations and key social contacts were Anglo-Saxon rather than ‘Celtic’. Although we may assume a measure of biligualism arising from her (presumed) visits to Rheged, her preferred language in day-to-day conversation was surely English, not British. These observations are consistent with what we know of her brother, Alchfrith, whose documented activities were conducted within an English-speaking milieu. He was a close friend of Peada, king of the Middle Angles, whom he persuaded away from paganism. Peada’s sister, Cyneburh, was Alchfrith’s wife. In 653, when Peada approached Oswiu to ask for Alchflaed’s hand in marriage, there can be little doubt that Alchfrith acted as matchmaker. Two years later, after Oswiu defeated and killed Penda in the great battle of Winwaed, Alchfrith was given the kingship of Deira. This appointment made him a neighbour of his Mercian friends and bound him even closer to a political world that was overwhelmingly English. There is no hint that he involved himself in the political affairs of Rheged, or of any other group of Britons, or that he had more than a passing interest in the fate of his mother’s people. At Bewcastle in Cumbria, some miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, an Anglo-Saxon cross bears an inscription that some scholars have interpreted as a memorial to Alchfrith. Other experts propose alternative readings, while many now date the cross to the 8th century rather than to the 7th. Even if it does indeed commemorate Alchfrith, it wasn’t erected by him and offers no evidence that he had a particular interest in the region. It certainly cannot be seen as a monument to his British ancestry, even if Bewcastle had formerly been part of Rheged. His energies seem rather to have been concentrated in the south of his father’s kingdom, in Deira and along the Mercian border. Everything we know about his sister Alchflaed suggests that she, too, nurtured southern contacts and interests.
Their parents, meanwhile, were no longer together. By 644, Rhieinmelth’s place as Oswiu’s queen had been taken by the Deiran princess Eanflaed, daughter of Edwin. Perhaps Rhieinmelth was pushed aside to make way for a younger wife? Or maybe Oswiu saw a union with Eanflaed as a politically-advantageous move to gain support among the Deiran elite? It is possible, of course, that Rhieinmelth was dead. This is perhaps the simplest explanation. On the other hand, her early death doesn’t sit well with the evidence of the Durham Liber Vitae, a list of royal and ecclesiastical figures to whom prayers were offered by the Bernician clergy. Here, at the head of a list of queens and abbesses, we find the name Raegnmaeld, an Anglo-Saxon form of Rhieinmelth. She evidently lived in Bernicia long enough to make a positive impact and may have been alive while Eanflaed was queen. Whether Rhieinmelth was quietly pushed aside by Oswiu or left him of her own accord, her presence in the Liber Vitae suggests that she was not forgotten by the Bernicians, nor was her memory damned. In other words, one or more senior clerics considered her worthy of being remembered. Could this be a hint that she voluntarily ‘opted out’ of life at the royal court, leaving the secular world to carve out a new career as a nun and abbess? She would not have been the only Bernician queen to follow this path, but she may have been the first.
Both of her children became embroiled in violent political upheavals, the first involving her daughter Alchflaed. The sequence of events begins with Oswiu’s destruction of Penda at the battle of Winwaed in November 655. Oswiu took over Mercia and placed the northern part under his direct control. He gave the southern part to Peada, king of the Middle Angles, as a gift of friendship. Although he was Penda’s son, Peada seems to have sided with his father-in-law at Winwaed and was richly rewarded for this allegiance. The great enlargement of his kingdom meant that his Bernician wife Alchflaed was now queen of a large chunk of eastern England. She and Peada could look forward to substantial increases in wealth and status. However, in spite of this major upturn in their fortunes, something went badly wrong in their marriage. In the spring of 656, during the Easter weekend, Peada was assassinated. The finger of blame was pointed at Alchflaed. If she was indeed the culprit, why did she turn against her husband? Did her father and brother sanction the murder? Alchfrith had been Peada’s friend and religious confidante only three years earlier, while Oswiu had recently given Peada a huge tract of territory. Did they begin to feel that he had outlived his usefulness? Or did Alchflaed act alone, pursuing her own ambitions with the help of Mercian or Middle Anglian supporters?
Her fate after Peada’s death is unknown. It is unlikely that she retained her queenship of the Middle Angles, even if a faction among their nobility had helped her to get rid of Peada. It is possible that she was in cahoots with (or having an affair with) a high-ranking nobleman who wanted the Middle Anglian kingship for himself. We can assume, nonetheless, that her dead husband’s friends posed a real threat to her safety while she remained in the midlands. My guess is that she tried to flee northward to the land of her birth. Nothing more is heard of her, nor is she listed in the Durham Liber Vitae where we might have expected her name to appear if she later became an abbess in Northumbria. Perhaps she perished at the hands of Peada’s henchmen? If this was her fate, she was barely in her early twenties when she died.
Things started to turn sour for her brother Alchfrith in the following decade. In 664, he was still ruling Deira as sub-king under Oswiu, but relations between father and son broke down and Alchfrith rose in revolt. This happened sometime between 664 and 670, the year of Oswiu’s death. The reason for Alchfrith’s rebellion is unknown but it might have been due to feelings of insecurity about the royal succession. He may have resented his father’s children by Eanflaed, especially the eldest son Ecgfrith who was nineteen years old in 664. We know from subsequent events that Ecgfrith was ambitious and impetuous. It is not hard to imagine him and Alchfrith becoming bitter rivals for their father’s kingship and competing for his favour. Sometime after 664, Alchfrith launched a bid for the Northumbrian throne by leading an army against Oswiu. The rebellion failed, and history says nothing more of Rhieinmelth’s son. Like his sister, he chose conspiracy over loyalty in the pursuit of his own aims. If both he and Alchflaed paid the ultimate price for their treachery, their deaths mark a dishonourable end to the story of Urien’s kin.
Everything we know about Alchflaed comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731). The relevant passages are from Book Three:
Chapter 21: Alchflaed’s marriage to Peada in 653.
Chapter 24: Peada’s murder in 656 ‘by the treachery, or so it is said, of his wife during the very time of the Easter festival’.
Alchfrith’s rebellion against Oswiu is mentioned in Book Three, Chapter 14.
Rhieinmelth appears as Raegnmaeld in the Durham Liber Vitae and as ‘Rhieinmelth, daughter of Royth son of Rhun’ in Chapter 57 of the Historia Brittonum. Her grandfather is usually equated with ‘Rhun, son of Urien’ who appears in Chapter 63 of HB. Both sources are 9th century but incorporate earlier material.
A very good article on Oswiu’s marriages is the one by Martin Grimmer in The Heroic Age.
In the 1994 edition of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History by Judith McClure and Roger Collins (using Bertram Colgrave’s English translation) the notes to Chapter 21 say that Alchflaed ‘became abbess of the monastery on Coquet Island, and a significant figure in Northumbrian dynastic politics’. Not true. The abbess in question was actually Aelfflaed, Oswiu’s daughter by Eanflaed. I didn’t grasp this error until Michelle Ziegler (who knows about royal abbesses) pointed it out to me.