Æthelfrith of Northumbria

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Æthelfrith (died c. 616) was King of Bernicia from c. 593 until c. 616; he was also, beginning c. 604, the first Bernician king to also rule Deira, to the south of Bernicia. Since Deira and Bernicia were the two basic components of what would later be defined as Northumbria, Æthelfrith can be considered, in historical terms, the first Northumbrian king. He was especially notable for his successes against the Britons and his victory over the Gaels of Dál Riata. Although he was defeated and killed in battle and replaced by a dynastic rival, his line was eventually restored to power in the 630s.

Contents

Background

Æthelfrith, son of Æthelric and grandson of Ida, apparently succeeded Hussa as king of the Bernicians around the year 592 or 593; Æthelfrith's accession may have involved dynastic rivalry and the exile of Hussa's relatives.[1] The genealogies attached to some manuscripts of the Historia Brittonum say that Æthelfrith ruled Bernicia for twelve years and ruled Deira for another twelve years, which can be taken to mean that he ruled in Bernicia alone from about 592 to 604, at which point he also came to the throne of Deira.[2] His predecessors are obscure; Æthelfrith is the earliest Bernician ruler about whom any significant details are known.[1] The 20th century historian Frank Stenton wrote that "the continuous history of Northumbria, and indeed of England, begins with the reign of Æthelfrith", and that "he was the real founder of the historic Northumbrian kingdom, and he was remembered as the first great leader who had arisen among the northern Angles."[3]

Conquests

Bede tells of Æthelfrith's great successes over the Britons, while also noting his paganism (the conversion of Northumbria did not begin until a decade after his death): he "ravaged the Britons more than all the great men of the English, insomuch that he might be compared to Saul, once king of the Israelites, excepting only this, that he was ignorant of the true religion. For he conquered more territories from the Britons, either making them tributary, or driving the inhabitants clean out, and planting English in their places, than any other king or tribune."[4] It may have been Æthelfrith who destroyed the British army at the Battle of Catraeth (Catterick, c. 600); the battle is described in the early poem Gododdin.[5] The Britons called him Flesaur, or "the twister".[6] It was under Æthelfrith that Bernicia's boundaries pushed significantly inland from the coast, and penetrated further into British territory.[5]

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