The First True King of the North
The historian Nennius refers to Aethelfrith with three spellings: Ethelfrid, Aethelfrid, and Eadfered. For what purpose is not stated, though perhaps he just wanted to cover all the possibilities. He also attributes him either the title or surname “Flesaur”, meaning “twister” in the Welsh of the time. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 593, Aethelfrith ascended the throne of Northumbria in that year. However, the Chronicle has a tendency to confuse the separate realms of Bernicia and Deira for the later Northumbria, so it should be assumed that Aethelfrith only became King of Bernicia at this time.
In interesting contrast to most Pagan Kings, Bede is quite complimentary of Aethelfrith, writing of hs conquests over the Scots and Britons. He asserts that “[Aethelfrith], a most worthy king, and ambitious of glory, governed the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and 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.” Bede is generally quite critical of the Northumbrian Kings (at this time, Aethelfrith was king of both Bernicia and Deira, though the nation of a united Northumbria was still over half a century away), essentially assigning villain status to any pagans and hero status to any christians. According to Bede, Aethelfrith conquered and subdued more Briton kings than any previous Anglo-Saxon king, though no specific number is given; he also supplanted the populations of native Britons with Angles. Aethelfrith is also the King who established the citadel at Bebbanburg; according to Nennius “[Aethelfrith] Flesaurs reigned twelve years in Bernicia, and twelve others in Deira, and gave to his wife Bebba, the town of Dynguoaroy, which from her is called Bebbanburg”.
The specific actions of Aethelfrith are recorded to be following his victories over the Britons. Given the period of Aethelfrith’s reign from 593-616 AD, it seems likely that he was the king who defeated the Britons at the Battle of Catraeth, about which the poem Y Gododdin was written. The battle is supposed to have taken place around the year 600 AD, in the territory that would become Northumbria, and thus the Northern Kingdom of Bernicia would be in the proper place. The Battle resulted in the dissolution of Brittonic power in the north, with the exception of the Kingdom of Strathclyde between Dal Riata and Bernicia, and the death of a Rheged King named Owain, slain by Fflamdwyn – an epithet ascribed to Aethelfrith by Nennius . Verse 12 in Canto 10 of the epic, “O matchless king of the glittering west/When slain by Fflamdwyn slept no better man/While all about him Angles death-dreams share,” refers to both Fflamdwyn and the Angles in the same moment, and thus makes the idea that Aethelfrith was the king involved rather concrete.
Aethelfrith’s other major military victory came at the expense of the Scots of Dal Riata in AD 603. The Scoti King, Aedan mac Gabrain, “being concerned at his success, came against him with an immense and mighty army; but was beaten by an inferior force, and put to flight; for almost all his army was slain at a famous place, called Degsastan, that is, Degsastone”. The Chronicle confirms this, and adds that “Theobald also, brother of [Aethelfrith], with his whole armament, was slain”, as well as telling us that the Irish Scots of Dal Riata would not make another invasion into Northumbria ever again. Interestingly, it appears that the Scottish army was led by Aethelfrith’s cousin, Hering, as the Chronicle states that “Hering, the son of Hussa, led the army thither”. Bede confirms the account of the Chronicle, explaining that “no king the Scots durst come into Britain to make war on the English to this day.”
In terms of conquest, Aethelfrith also fulfilled a prophecy of Augustine of Canterbury, such that should the Welsh not make peace amongst themselves, they would be destroyed at the hands of the invaders. Gwynedd, the largest of the remaining Welsh kingdoms, had so far failed to unite the Welsh permanently, despite the appearance of a “Mael Gwynedd” during the reign of Hussa in Bernicia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 607 AD explains that “Ethelfrith led his army to Chester; where he slew an innumerable host of the Welsh; and so was fulfilled the prophecy of Augustine, wherein he saith “If the Welsh will not have peace with us, they shall perish at the hands of the Saxons.” There were also slain two hundred priests.” How Bede reconciled the act of killing two hundred priests with his formerly idyllic description of Aethelfrith is uncertain, because Aethelfrith is left out of the rest of The Ecclesiastical History despite there being thirteen years between Aethelfrith’s victory against the Scots and the coronation of the next King, Edwin. According to D. P. Kirby in The Earliest English Kings, Aethelfrith’s attack on the Britons of Powys at Chester has unknown motives, but it could have been for the purpose of “a transhumbrian over-kingship of the lands south of the Humber”, similar to what Redwald had established in East Anglia.
While he had two main rivals, Aethelfrith’s chief rival for the throne was Edwin, the son of the old Deiri King, Aelle. Edwin, later to be made a saint according to Bede, fled Deira after the Aethelfrith ascended the throne of that kingdom by circumstances unknown. Aethelric’s other rival was a man named Hereric, nephew of Edwin, who was poisoned at the court of Elmet. Aethelric had a son, Oswald, sometime around 604 AD, which can be extrapolated from Bede’s statement that Oswald died at the age of 38 in the year 642 AD. Edwin took refuge with Redwald, King of East Anglia. Oswald’s mother was Edwin’s sister, Acha, also according to Bede in Chapter 6 of Book 3 of the Ecclesiastical History. There are two likely possibilities for how Aethelfrith captured the crown of Deria given this information. He may have conquered the Kingdom, though there is not known source suggesting he did. He also may have gained it through his marriage to Acha, Aelle’s daughter. The expulsion of Edwin from the kingdom suggests that he resisted this move, though one cannot be certain.
Edwin’s exile in East Anglia lasted for a time, and he may have also resided in Gwynedd, until Aethelfrith discovered his location at the East Anglian court. Aethelfrith sent a group of men south, armed with a considerable amount of coin with the intent of getting rid of Edwin. They failed, and Redwald ended up raising an army for the purpose of giving Edwin the throne of Deira once more. Aethelfrith was killed in battle against Redwald and Edwin, and the latter became king of Bernicia and Deira simultaneously as a result. Following his coronation, “Edwin, the son of Aelle, having succeeded to the kingdom, subdued all Britain, except the men of Kent alone, and, drove out the Aethelings”. How much truth rests in this statement is questionable, as Bede does not refer to Edwin as any sort of king over all Britain at this time. According to James Tyrrell, a more detailed account of the war between Bernicia and East Anglia comes from William of Malmesbury, who gave the location of Aethelfrith’s death at the east side of the River Idel. According to William, the battle had appeared to side with Aethelfrith, who charged deep into the routing enemy, yet Redwald rallied his men, and Aethelfrith was cut down in the melee. Another writer, H. Huntington, adds that “This battle was so great and bloody, that the River Idel was stained red with the Blood”.