Northumbria’s downfall

Anarchy, murder and mayhem : Northumbria’s downfall, AD 736 – 854

In the late eighth century, Northumbria was plagued by weak leadership and collapsed into a state of anarchy caused perhaps in part by dynastic rivalries between the royal houses of Deira and Bernicia. From 737AD to 806AD, Northumbria had ten kings: three were murdered, five were expelled and two retired to become monks. This instability may well have encouraged the first Viking raiders to attack the Northumbrian coast from 793AD.

Tees views from High Coniscliffe
View across the Tees vale from St Edwin’s churchyard at Coniscliffe © David Simpson

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737 – Northumbrian king now a monk

King Ceolwulf of Northumbria becomes a monk on Lindisfarne. He is succeeded by Eadbert.

April 24, 741 – York Minster hit by fire

York Minster is damaged by fire. It will be rebuilt in 770.

York Minster
The present York Minster is a successor to earlier minsters built at York in Anglo-Saxon times © David Simpson

746 – Rome writes to Jarrow

Bishop Boniface of Rome has written to Jarrow in Northumbria for editions of the works of Bede the most popular titles in Europe.

750 – Eadbert defeats Strathclyde

Eadbert, King of Northumbria defeats the Britons of Strathclyde and seizes Kyle and Ayrshire.

750 – Bishop plotted against king

Cynewulf, Bishop of Lindisfarne, is imprisoned for plotting against King Eadbert.

756 – Dumbarton captured

Dumbarton, the capital of Strathclyde (its name means ‘fort of the Britons’) is captured by the Northumbrians under King Eadbert. King Eadbert had formed an alliance with the Picts against the Strathclyde Britons. At this time there were four main groups of people in what is now Scotland. These were the Northumbrian speaking Angles (Anglo-Saxons) in the south east to the south of the Forth with the Picts across the River Forth to the north. In the south west as far north as the Clyde were the Britons who spoke a language similar to Welsh and in the north west beyond the Clyde and into the neighbouring islands were the Gaelic speaking Scots who speak a language akin to that spoken in Ireland.

757 – Mercian king murdered

The murder of Ethelbald, King of the Mercians brings an end to a period of Mercian dominance in southern England. He is succeeded to the midland kingdom by Offa following a civil war there. Offa will also rise to prominence.

758 – Another king becomes a monk

Eadbert, King of Northumbria has retired to become a monk at York. He is succeeded by his son Oswulf.

Aug 5, 759 – King murdered

Oswulf, King of Northumbria, is assassinated at Great Whittington near Corbridge and succeeded by a Deiran called Æthelwald Moll of Catterick who may be responsible for the assassination.

761 – Noble killed at Coniscliffe

Oswin, a Bernician noble is murdered at Coniscliffe (King’s Cliff) by Æthelwald Moll.

St Edwins Church, High Coniscliffe
Churcn dedicated to St Edwin who was king of Northumbria at High Consicliffe (the place-name means king’s cliff and it was an important Anglo-Saxon site) © David Simpson

762 – Consecration at Elvet

Peothwine is consecrated Bishop of Whithorn at Aelfet Ee (Elvet). It is the first mention of Christian activity in the Durham City area.

St Oswald’s Church and Durham Cathedral
St Oswald’s Church, Durham Elvet, Durham Cathedral across the river to the left © David Simpson

Oct 30, 765 – Moll forced out

Following a meeting at Finchale, King Æthelwald Moll is forced from power and succeeded by Alhred.#

767 – Alcuin of York

A man of learning called Alcuin becomes the head of St Peter’s School in York.

774 – King driven out

King Alhred is driven out of Northumbria by Æthelred, son of Æthelwald Moll.

779 – Coniscliffe murders

Æthelred has been ousted by a Bernician called Alfwold. A number of royal nobles are murdered at Coniscliffe during the coup.

781 – Consecration at Sockburn

Higbald has been consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne at Sockburn.

Sockburn peninsula
Looking across to the Cleveland Hills from the Sockburn peninsula © David Simpson

782 – Scholar leaves for Europe

Alcuin of York, who has built up a huge library at his school in the city, has left to study at the court of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne at Aachen in Frankia where he becomes master of Charlemagne’s palace school.

786 – Papal legate

Representatives of the Pope (a papal legate) visit the Kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria.

786 – Viking raid in the south

A party of Vikings raid Portland in Dorset.

788 – Boy king flees

King Alfwold is murdered by his uncle Sicga at Chesters near Hadrian’s Wall and is buried at Hexham. He is succeeded by his nephew Osred II who flees to the Isle of Man. Æthelred begins a second period as King.

789 – Aycliffe meetings

A Synod has been held at Aycliffe regarding religious matters and discipline. It follows a similar meeting at Aycliffe in 782.

Aycliffe church.
Aycliffe church, is situated at an important Anglo-Saxon site © David Simpson

792 – Æthelred kills rivals

King Æthelred drowns a rival prince in Windermere and beheads Osred II at Maryport on the Cumberland coast.

Sept 26, 792 – Royal marriage at Catterick

Æthelred of Northumbria marries the daughter of King Offa of Mercia at Catterick.

June 8, 793 – Vikings raid Lindisfarne

In an unprecedented attack which shocks Europe, a raiding party of Vikings from Norway attack Lindisfarne. Monks flee in fear and many are slaughtered. Bishop Higbald seeks refuge on the mainland. A Chronicler records: “On the 8th June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church by rapine and slaughter.”

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle © David Simpson

793 – “Raids God’s punishment” : Alcuin

In a letter from Charlemagne’s court in France, Alcuin, the former head of York School, blames the recent Viking attack on a fall in moral standards in Northumbria. He sees the raid as punishment

796 – Viking raids continue

In 794 Vikings attacked the famous monastery at Jarrow but the Northumbrians were prepared for this attack and manage to surprise and utterly destroy the Vikings. That year a Viking raid also took place in Orkney. Iona and Skye were subsequently attacked by Viking raiders and further raids on Lindisfarne and Jarrow occurred this year.

A dramatic depiction of the Vikings raiding the coast of Northumbria by William Bell Scott in the painting at Wallington Hall : National Trust
A dramatic depiction of the Vikings raiding the coast of Northumbria by William Bell Scott in the painting at Wallington Hall : National Trust

May 26, 796 – Murderous king’s short reign

King Æthelred of Northumbria, who became king on April 18 is murdered at Corbridge and succeeded by Osbald who plotted the murder. Osbald is then forced out by Eardwulf.

The bridge Corbridge
The Tyne at Corbridge © David Simpson

800 – Vikings raid Hartlepool and Tynemouth

During 796 Viking raids were recorded in Ireland. This year Vikings raided the monasteries at WhitbyHartlepool and Tynemouth. Northumbria now seems increasingly weak and vulnerable to outside attacks.

Beach at Tynemouth
The coast at Tynemouth © David Simpson 2015

801 – Monastery at Gainford

A monastery is established at Gainford where a chieftain called Ida is said to be buried.

801 – Failed invasion

The Northumbrians launch an unsuccessful invasion of Mercia.

Ginford church
Ginford church on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery © David Simpson

804 – Alcuin dies

Alcuin of York has died at Charlemagne’s court in France. He was one of the most highly respected men of learning in Europe.

804 – Vikings burn Iona

Vikings attack and burn the Scottish monastery of Iona, murdering the monks.

808 – King Eardwulf restored

In 806, King Eardwulf was driven out and succeeded by Alfwold II but Eardwulf is restored following Alfwold’s death.

810 – Synods at Finchale

A synod has been held at Finchale on the River Wear to discuss Northumbrian church matters and discipline. Similar meetings took place at Finchale in 792 and 798AD.

Finchale Priory
Finchale Priory by the Wear was built in much later times © John Simpson

811 – Eardwulf ousted again

Eardwulf is deposed as King of Northumbria. He is succeeded by King Eanred.

821 – Bishoprics merge

The Bishopric of Hexham has been absorbed by Lindisfarne. The new bishopric extends from Tweed to Tees.

829 – Wessex conquers Mercia

King Egbert of Wessex conquers Mercia, his supremacy amongst the Anglo-Saxon kings is acknowledged by the Northumbrians.

829 – Powers meet at Northumbria’s ‘door’

Egbert, King of Wessex and Mercia, and Eanred, King of Northumbria meet at Dore. Their aim is to ensure peace. Eanred accepts Wessex supremacy and recognises Egbert as ‘over king’ of England. Dore, near Sheffield is situated on the Northumbria-Mercia border near a Pennine pass or ‘doorway’ linking Northumbria to the south.

830 – Cuthbert monks flee Lindisfarne

The monks of Lindisfarne leave the island with St Cuthbert’s body to escape further raids. They settle inland at Norham on Tweed where a church is built for the saint’s shrine.

St Cuthbert's coffin
The carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin depicted in a painting in Chester-le-Street church.

840 – King Eanred dies

Eanred, King of Northumbria, dies. He is succeeded by his son Æthelred II.

841 – Dublin Vikings

Vikings from Norway establish Dublin as their chief coastal stronghold in the British Isles. Other ports are established by these Vikings along the Irish coast.

844 – King killed by Vikings

King Æthelred II is temporarily expelled and hastily replaced by King Raedwulf who is killed fighting the Vikings. The location of Raedwulf’s death is recorded as a place called Alutehelia which has been identified with both Elvet and Bishop Auckland in Durham. Æthelred II is restored as king.

848 – King Osbert

Æthelred II is killed and succeeded by King Osbert.

851 – Danes attack Norwegian Irish

The Danes attack Norse ports in Ireland.

854 – Lindisfarne Bishop

Eardwulf is appointed as the last Bishop of Lindisfarne.

Budle Bay
View of Lindisfarne from Budle Bay © David Simpson

860 – Vikings dominate Scottish islands

Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides are now well-established centres of Viking colonisation.

866 – Danes invade

Osbert, the King of Northumbria, is overthrown by his people, meanwhile, the Danes will mount a major invasion of England.

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