King Æthelfrith and King Edwin

Northumbria in the age of Æthelfrith and Edwin : AD 598 – 633

Northumbria, “North of the Humber” was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom formed by merging Bernicia, north of the Tees, with Deira to the south. Northumbria’s first two kings were a Bernician called Æthelfrith and a Deiran called Edwin. Æthelfrith was a pagan, but King Edwin of Northumbria became the North’s first Christian king after baptism at York in 627AD.

Looking towards the Ad Gefrin site from the roadside
Looking towards the site of Ad Gefrin the Anglo-Saxon palace of King Edwin of Northumbria near Yeavering in north Northumberland © David Simpson.

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c 598/600 – Battle of Catterick

The Northumbrian Angles defeat the native Britons at Catterick. The ancient British tribal kingdom of Catraeth was based in the valleys of the Tees and Swale and had been subdued by the Germanic Angles. The Catterick area was the scene of fierce resistance against the Romans in earlier centuries. Britons from Lothian and north Wales assembled at Edinburgh prior to the battle.

603 – Northern king defeats the Scots

Æthelfrith, King of Bernicia, has defeated Aidan MacGabrain, King of the Dalriada Scots at the Battle of Degastan to the north east of Gretna. The Dalriada Scots live in western Caledonia and originate from Hibernia (Ireland) and were assisted by a large force of Ulstermen in the battle. Aethelfrith’s victories in battle have forced the kingdoms of Strathclyde in the west, Rheged in Cumbria and Gododdin in the Lothians to recognise Bernician superiority.

604 – Æthelfrith is Northumbrian king

Æthelfrith has taken the crown of Deira in the Yorkshire wolds and so has united all the Anglo-Saxon territory north of the River Humber into one kingdom which will be called Northumbria.

Bamburgh Castle and beach,
Bamburgh (Din Guayroi) , King Æthelfrith’s capital © David Simpson

604 – King marries Deiran princess

Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria, has gained support from his new province of Deira (Yorkshire) by marrying Acha, a member of the Deiran royal family. The marriage is unlikely to stop Acha’s brother Edwin from claiming the Deiran throne.

610 – Midland king shelters claimant

King Cearl of Mercia (in the Midlands) has taken Prince Edwin under his protection. Edwin’s presence in the Mercian court will be a great threat to Æthelfrith, the King of Northumbria.

615 – King names Bamburgh for his wife

The Bernician fortress capital of Din Guaire (or Din Guayroi) has been renamed Bebbanburgh (later Bamburgh). It has been named after Queen Bebba, the new wife of Æthelfrith following Acha’s untimely death. Bamburgh has continued to be known by its old Celtic name despite its capture by the Anglo-Saxon chief Ida in 547. Since that time it has been the chief fort and capital of northern Northumbria. The site’s new name means Bebba’s fort.

© David Simpson
Bamburgh Castle rock © David Simpson

615 – Edwin exiled by Northumbrians

King Æthelfrith has ousted King Cearl from the Kingdom of Mercia and installed a puppet. Edwin, the Prince of Deira, who had been under Cearl’s protection and has taken refuge with the royal family of East Anglia.

615 – Northumbrians capture Cumbria

Cumbria has been seized by King Æthelfrith and added to the Kingdom of Northumbria.

616 – Æthelfrith killed, Edwin is king

Æthelfrith has been killed in battle against Raedwald of East Anglia at Bawtry on the River Idle near the borders of Northumbria and Mercia. Oswald, Æthelfrith’s son has fled Northumbria and taken refuge on the Scottish island monastery of Iona. Edwin, a Deiran and the son of Ælle, the first King of Deira has become the new King of Northumbria, although he has to fight rivals in the north to secure his crown.

622 – Prophet Muhammad

In the Middle East, the journey of the prophet, Muhammad, from Mecca to Medina signifies the beginning of a new religion called Islam.

625 – Edwin marries a Christian

King Edwin of Northumbria has married a Christian princess called Ethelberga of Kent. The marriage reflects Edwin’s desire to form an alliance with King Eadbald of Kent, who is the only Christian king in England.

Plaque commemorating the site of Ad Gefrin
Plaque commemorating the site of Ad Gefrin, a northern palace of King Edwin in Glendale, Northumberland © David Simpson

626 – Edwin seizes Hatfield and Lindsey

The native Celtic kingdom of Meicen (Hatfield) near Doncaster and the Anglian kingdom of Lindsey (Lincolnshire) have been captured by Edwin. Edwin’s power in the north is unequalled by any Anglian predecessor.

626 – Assassination attempt on Edwin

Eumer, an agent of Cuichelm, King of the West Saxons (Wessex), has attempted to assassinate King Edwin while he was celebrating the pagan festival of Easter at his royal palace in the Yorkshire wolds between York and Beverley. The assassin entered the King’s court and asked to speak with the king on the pretence of having an important message from the West Saxon King. On seeing the king, Eumer produced a poisoned dagger from beneath his cloak and attempted to stab Edwin. Fortunately one of Edwin’s men, Lillam, jumped in the way and was killed. A fight followed in which Edwin was injured but Eumer was eventually put to death. On the same night Edwin’s queen, Ethelburga, gave birth.

626 – Northumbrians  defeat Wessex

Angered by the West Saxons’ assassination attempt, Edwin has defeated them in a great battle in Wessex and proclaimed himself over king or ‘Bretwalda’ of all England.

April 11, 627 – Edwin is a Christian

King Edwin has been converted to Christianity by a missionary called St Paulinus. Edwin promised to become a Christian after defeating the West Saxons. He was baptised at York in the new wooden church of St Peter (a predecessor of York Minster).

York Minster, central tower
York Minster, central tower © David Simpson

627 – Edwin and Paulinus

Mass baptisms have been performed by the Roman Christian missionary Paulinus, who accompanied Edwin on tours of his kingdom. Involving perhaps thousands of people the mass baptisms are known to have taken place in the River Glen near Edwin’s Palace of Ad Gefrin in north Northumberland and in the River Swale near Catterick and possibly at Holystone in Coquetdale. Edwin’s Anglian palace site at Ad Gefrin lies near the foot of the prominent former Celtic hill fort stronghold of Yeavering Bell.

Catterick © David Simpson

628 – Edwin rebuilds York Minster

King Edwin has begun rebuilding the wooden church of St Peter’s at York in stone.

York Minster
A number of important churches have stood on the site of York Minster including the one rebuilt by Edwin. Minster is an Anglo-Saxon word for a church of importance © David Simpson

632 – Edwin expands territory

King Edwin’s military campaigns and conquests have included the taking of Anglesey and the Isle of Man and an attack on north Wales.

Oct 12, 633 – Edwin dies in battle

King Edwin has been killed in Battle at Heathfield (Hatfield near Doncaster) by Penda, a Mercian chief. Penda was assisted in the battle by the Welsh under the leadership of Caedwalla. Osric, a possible successor to Edwin, has also been killed in the battle. Edwin’s son Edfrith has surrendered to Penda.

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Kingdom of Northumbria

North East England History and Culture