King Ecgfrith of Northumbria

Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians
This blogpost is about a book published last year – a biography of the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith who ruled from 670 to 685. Ecgfrith was an ambitious warlord whose army campaigned far beyond the frontiers of his kingdom. During his reign, Northumbrian forces clashed with those of Mercia – the main English power in the midlands and a frequent adversary of Ecgfrith’s forebears – as well as with various Celtic peoples. In 684, Ecgfrith sent one of his henchmen across the Irish Sea at the head of a raiding army. The ensuing assault on the territory of the Southern Uí Néill also targeted churches and monasteries, much to the dismay of clergyfolk back home in Northumbria. Ecgfrith’s belligerence finally came to an end on 20th May 685 at the battle of Nechtanesmere in the land of the Picts. There he perished with nearly all of his warriors.

Ecgfrith’s new biography is written by Professor Nick Higham, well-known as author or editor of a number of books on the Anglo-Saxon period. Nick supervised my PhD in the 1990s and helped me to navigate a path through the intricate maze of early medieval history. Many readers of this blog will, I am sure, be familiar with his published works, such as The Kingdom of Northumbria, AD 350-1100 (1993), King Arthur: Myth-making and History (2002) and The Anglo-Saxon World (2013, co-authored with Martin Ryan).

Much of what we know about Ecgfrith comes from the Venerable Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People (published in 731) documented the rise of Northumbria as a major political power. Bede was himself a Northumbrian, so a lot of his information on the kingdom came from local sources. Some of his contemporaries had known Ecgfrith personally. In 685, when news of the disaster at Nechtanesmere reached English ears, Bede was a young monk of twelve or thirteen, living at the monastery of Jarrow beside the River Tyne. In later life, when writing his Ecclesiastical History, he interpreted the Pictish victory as divine retribution for the callous destruction unleashed by Ecgfrith’s soldiers on Irish religious sites in the previous year

Nick Higham’s book is more than just a study of Ecgfrith’s reign. The first two chapters set the scene by introducing the reader to seventh-century Northern Britain and to the various (often enigmatic) literary sources that purport to describe what was going on. Here we also obtain useful information on ethnic/cultural identities, on the nature and practice of early medieval kingship, and on the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon settlement in the North. In the third chapter, we get to know King Oswiu, Ecgfrith’s father, who ruled the Northumbrians until his death in 670. This brings us to the mid-point of the book and to the start of Ecgfrith’s reign. Those of us with a keen interest in Northumbrian relations with the Picts may find the fifth chapter especially useful, in particular a 15-page narrative under the sub-headings ‘Ecgfrith and the North’ and ‘685’. The same chapter ends with what is, for me, a major highlight of the book: a detailed discussion of how Ecgfrith’s death was reported and interpreted by contemporary observers in Northumbria and elsewhere.

This is a book I heartily recommend (and would do so even if the author had not influenced my own approach to the early medieval North). Writing a biography of a seventh-century Northumbrian king is a challenging project for any historian, even for one who understands the scale of the task better than most. I believe Nick Higham has done a great job here.

N.J. Higham, Ecgfrith: King of the Northumbrians, High-King of Britain (Donington: Sean Tyas, 2015)

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Check out Nick Higham’s article on Ecgfrith at the History Extra website: The Anglo-Saxon who (almost) united Britain

I’ve blogged previously about the battle of Nechtanesmere where Ecgfrith was slain by the Picts – Against iron swords: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

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6 comments on “King Ecgfrith of Northumbria

  1. dearieme says:

    Presumably we’ll never know whether Ecgfrith’s rank and file were Britons serving under German officers, but I suppose that’s plausible. Is it?

    • Tim says:

      This is an interesting question which touches on the larger issue of ‘ethnic’ and cultural identity in seventh-century Northumbria. It seems that the bulk of the population was of native British ancestry with an overlay of ‘Englishness’ (i.e. they spoke English as their main language and had adopted Anglo-Saxon culture). By 685, most Northumbrian soldiers would have probably identified as Englishmen, regardless of their ancestry three or four generations back. I imagine there would still be pockets of Britons here and there, in remote areas, where native language and culture were kept alive, but I also think these would have become fully ‘English’ by c.700.

      The broader context is discussed in detail in Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, a 2007 book edited by Nick Higham.

  2. pacerboy says:

    Some accounts have Ecgfrith also being called Alcfrith, who is commemorated in the runic inscription on the Bewcastle cross shaft in northern Cumbria. But I’ve never been able to reconcile the facts on this. The cross supposedly dates from about 680, when Ecgfrith/Alcfrith was still alive. An earlier Alcfrith died in the 640s, but was sufficiently obscure as not to deserve such a commemoration. Do you have any insights?

    • Alchfrith (or Alhfrith) was Ecgfrith’s older half brother from a different mother, his mother was Reinmelth who was a Briton, descended from Urien Rheged. Alchfrith was a close ally of St Wilfrid who led the pro Roman side at the Synod of Whitby, with Alchfrith’s enthusiastic support.

      Shortly after Alchfrith, who was by now King of Deira in a subservient position to his father Oswiu planned to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, however his father would not allow this. Also Oswiu had appointed Chad as Bishop of York in preference to Alchfrith’s choice of Wilfrid.

      For whatever reason, Bede tells us that Alchfrith attacked his father, after which he is never heard of again, and Ecgfrith replaces him as King of Deira. It seems probable that Alchfrith came to a sticky end, although I suppose it is possible that he was allowed to live out his life in a monastery.

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