16.10.18, Higham, Ecgfrith: King of the Northumbrians

Main Article Content

Barbara Yorke

The Medieval Review 16.10.18

Higham, N. J. Ecgfrith: King of the Northumbrians, High-King of Britain. Donington, Lincolnshire : Shaun Tyas, 2015. pp. xxxiv, 269. ISBN: 978-1-907730-46-7 (hardback) 978-1-907730-45-0 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Barbara Yorke
University of Winchester

Is it possible to write the biography of an early medieval king? Certainly one has to accept that many of the features that one would expect to find in the biography of a more modern figure will be lacking. We know nothing, for instance, about the appearance or personality of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, though we do at least know that he was born in either 645 or 646 (though one has to hunt to find the date in this book as there is no reference to it in the index). Rather than trying to reconcile a range of disparate sources of information, the biographer of Ecgfrith must lean heavily on the works of two clerical authors, the famous Anglo-Saxon historian Bede, and Stephen, the author of a hagiography of the charismatic-but-difficult Bishop Wilfrid of Northumbria who was imprisoned and exiled by Ecgfrith. The dominance of kings in the few surviving sources and their key role in the major "events" of the time mean that the reigns of kings are a convenient means through which to approach the history of an early medieval period. But a whole book devoted solely to Ecgfrith's fifteen year reign (670-85) would be stretching things. The volume could actually have been entitled "Northumbrian kings from the accession of Æthelfrith (593) to the death of [his grandson] Ecgfrith," for we are halfway through before we get to Ecgfrith's accession in 670, at the age of about 25.

Arguably the lengthy scene-setting is necessary context for the reign of Ecgfrith. Certainly we could have no better guide to the complexities of the sources and the political situations they describe than Nick Higham, who has written extensively on seventh-century Northumbria, the career of Bishop Wilfrid, and Bede's Ecclesiastical History. He revisits earlier interpretations, including his own, in the light of the most recent research. Although no major new revelations are made (which is hardly surprising in view of the limited nature of the sources), some aspects of the reign are now clearer. Particularly effective use is made of recent research into the early Irish and Scottish kingdoms, which clarifies the shifting power structures with which Ecgfrith had to deal on his northern borders. Some other matters have become less certain in recent research. Nick Higham is critical of Ian Wood's suggestion that Wearmouth and Jarrow may not have been originally intended by King Ecgfrith as a joint religious foundation, and offers his own nuanced interpretation of the Jarrow foundation stone in support of the traditional view. Nick Higham is also an archaeologist and historical geographer and has provided extremely useful maps. His discussions of topographical settings make sense in particular of the military campaigns and battles which loom large in the sources. The battle of the River Winwaed, a major victory for Ecgfrith's father Oswiu over Penda of Mercia and his allies, is particularly clearly explained. Unfortunately the site of Ecgfrith's disastrous final defeat by the Picts at Nechtansmere is not certainly identified, though Higham is inclined to favour Alex Woolf's arguments for a Highland site, deep into Pictish territory.

The sources mean that it is Ecgfrith's military campaigns and his ecclesiastical policies that inevitably dominate any discussion of his reign. The latter do at least give insight into tensions within Northumbria and factionalism within the church. Higham deftly shows how Ecgfrith pursued a consistent policy of Romanisation that followed on from his father's decision at the synod of Whitby to back the calculation of Easter approved in Rome, and to accept the jurisdiction of Canterbury rather than Iona. Again like his father, Ecgfrith favoured the "middle party" of Northumbrian ecclesiastics who were prepared to accept Irish-trained clergy provided they adopted the Roman Easter. This put him on an inevitable collision course with the hard-line Bishop Wilfrid, who had perhaps hoped to be archbishop of a province that was independent from Canterbury. Wilfrid's imprisonment and then exile revealed where the true balance of power lay. The aftermath of the Easter controversy, with Ecgfrith prepared for reasonable compromise, but coming down hard on intransigence, perhaps provides some indication of what Ecgfrith was like as a ruler. But unfortunately we do not have the type of records that enable us to assess other aspects of his management of the kingdom or his relations with his secular nobles. Ecgfrith's links with other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are also somewhat opaque, but here too it seems likely that it was business as usual. The Mercians were the main Anglo-Saxon rivals to Ecgfrith as they had been for his uncle Oswald and father Oswiu. In 674 Ecgfrith successfully saw off Wulfhere of Mercia's attempt to place him under tribute, only to suffer a major defeat from the latter's brother Æthelred at the battle of the river Trent in 679, at which Ecgfrith's brother and heir Ælfwine was killed. Higham suggests that Ecgfrith followed a similar policy to his uncle and father by forming alliances with Mercia's chief southern rivals. He argues the case for Ecgfrith's second wife Iurmenburg (from the first element of her name) being of Kentish descent, evidence for a continuing alliance with Kent, just as Ecgfrith's first marriage to Æthelthryth was an indicator of alliance with the East Anglian royal house.

What has defined Ecgfrith's reputation was his last campaign into Pictish territory where he met his death on 20 May 685, and the greater part of his army was destroyed. It was a disaster (referred to in this work as 5/20) that marked a turning-point in the history of Northumbria. After that date Northumbrian kings ceased to be overlords of other peoples, and the hold of the descendants of Æthelfrith on the throne became increasingly insecure, leading to frequent civil wars in the eighth century. Nick Higham suggests that Bede faced particular difficulties in describing the fate of Ecgfrith. The king, founder and patron of his own monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow, in theory should have been able to rely on God's support because of his generosity to the church. His disastrous death could only mean that Ecgfrith did not have God's support, and the best explanation that Bede could make (or was prepared to make) was that the king had not always taken the advice of his ecclesiastical councillors and had unwisely attacked his Christian Irish neighbours (though as Higham shows there were good strategic reasons for doing so). Stephen, on the other hand, saw God's judgement on Ecgfrith for his treatment of Wilfrid, and thereby added to the lingering effect of a blighted reputation.

Bede also omitted Ecgfrith's name from his list of the great Anglo-Saxon overlords which included three of his Northumbrian predecessors. This book argues that Ecgfrith did exercise comparable power for part of his reign and that he has often been unfairly overlooked in general assessments of Northumbrian achievements. The aims of the book stated at the outset are to ensure that Ecgfrith becomes known to more than "a few specialists," and "to recover Ecgfrith's reign from behind the screens set around his deathbed by near-contemporary, Christian writers" (7). Undoubtedly it should raise Ecgfrith's profile, and "it is a biography, in a sense" (7), but the shortage of sources, particularly any administrative sources such as charters, mean that we can only get a limited sense of what Ecgfrith was like as a king and how he ruled his kingdom.

Article Details