Northumbrian kings

Published in Features, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2011), Pre-Norman History, Volume 19

Northumbrian kings 1Northumbria was the largest and most powerful of England’s seventh-century patchwork of independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, although in decline from the 670s. Of the five Northumbrian kings who ruled between 632 and 704, four had been ‘raised amongst the Irish’, as Bede puts it, and spoke Irish. All five were from the Bernician dynasty, which had earlier been forced into exile in Irish Dál Riata from 616 to 632 by Edwin, king of the rival Deiran dynasty. It was while in exile that these Saxon princes were baptised into Christianity by the Ionan church of St Columba. When they regained the kingship of Northumbria in 632, it was to Iona that they turned for bishops. Unlike its Irish counterpart, Saxon kingship followed the principles of primogeniture: a king was directly succeeded by his eldest son or, if he had no heir, by his brothers or their sons. Thus when Aldfrith died in 704 he was succeeded by his eldest son Osred, who was only eight years old at the time. Such a succession sequence would have been inconceivable in Ireland.


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