In 867 the Viking Great Army took York, the attempt by Aelle and Osberht to retake the city failed, and the kingdom of Northumbria disappeared into the mists of history. Although the Vikings eventually established their own kingdom of Jorvik, in the old Bernician stronghold of Bamburgh became the base for a new dynasty of rulers who established the semi-independent Lordship of Bamburgh.
These Lords of Bamburgh governed a territory stretching along the eastern coast of Britain between the rivers Tees and Forth, encompassing essentially the old kingdoms of Bernecia and Lothian.
The lords of Bamburgh
These lords of Bamburgh, although submitting (at various times) to the
kings of Jorvik, England and Scotland maintained a degree of independence
throughout the turbulent tenth century and variously took the title of king or ealdormen or high-reeve.
The first was Eadulf, described by the Annals of Ulster as "king of the northern Saxons" who claimed descent from Ida the Flamebearer and was presumably therefore some Bernician nobleman.
The nature and scope of their authority can best be illustrated from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 926;
King Athelstan took to the kingdom of Northumbria, and governed all the kings that were in this island: - First, Howel, King of West-Wales; and Constantine, King of the Scots; and Owen, King of Monmouth; and Ealdred, the son of Eadulf, of Bamburgh.
From which of course the important point to derive is that the rulers of Bamburgh were considered to be equivalent in status with the likes of Constantine II
and Hywel Dda
- one of the kings that were in this island
1: The struggle against the Vikings
Exactly how and when Eadulf began his 'reign' as "king of the northern Saxons" is not recorded. However it is known that in 872 there was a revolt in Northumbria against the Viking placeman Egbert, with the natives favouring another candidate named Ricsige. This rebellion was ultimately squashed in the south (and led to 'direct rule') but it may well have been that the north remained a centre of resistance with with Eadulf as its leader.
Whilst Eadulf's son Ealdred I was briefly driven out by Ragnall in 914, but regained power with the help of Constantine II, king of the Scots at least by 920, the Vikings of Jorvik seem to have taken less interest in the North, particularly after the intervention of Athelstan who drove out Olafr Sigtryggson in 927.
As noted above in 926 Ealdred was submitting to Athelstan but
in any event Athelstan's grip on the north was transitory despite his victory at Brunanburh; after his death Olafr Gothfrithson revived the kingdom of Jorvik in 939. Dynastic struggles weakened the capacity of Jorvik and they were further weakened in 954 when
Eirikr Bloodaxe was assassinated at Stainmore in Teesdale by one Maccus 1 who is believed to have been acting on the orders of Osulf Ealdulfing. Osulf's reward was to be appointed as ealdorman of Northumbria, an appointment that signalled the the reabsorption of the lordship within the mainstream of English politics.
2: The struggle against the Scots
The fact that the lords of Bamburgh took the title of 'high reeve' 2has led some to conclude, that they owed fealty to the king of the Scots. It may well have been this submission that gave rise to Scottish claims to territory to the south of the Forth, claims that they were ready to back up by force if necessary.
In 954 the Scots took Edinburgh and the hold of Bamburgh over Lothian weakened. Although quite how much or little of Lothian was gained at the time is unclear, but certainly by 973 the Scottish king Kenneth II was submitting to the English king Edgar in return for recognition of his tenure of Lothian. In 995 Kenneth II tried to extend his reach southwards and launched an invasion of Bamburgh but was defeated by Uhtred.
In 1006 his successor Malcolm II tried again, laying siege to Durham, but his forces were routed by those of Uhtred, with Uhtred recovering a large part of Lothian.3.
Unfortunately for Uhtred there was then a change of dynasty in England. The Danish Cnut perhaps fearing Uhtred's loyalties remained with the deposed Aethelred II arranged for Uhtred to be ambushed and murdered in 1016 by one Thurbrand the Hold. The ealdordom of Northumberia passed out of the hands of the family of Bamburgh and into those of Elikir of Hlathir an ally of Cnut.
Perhaps inevitably this division of power weakened the north. Malcolm II sought to take advantage and establish his claims over Bamburgh; in 1018 at
the Battle of Carham, he won a comprehensive victory over the forces of Eadulf Cudel. In the end this victory did not produce for Malcolm II the desired result, but it did confirm that Lothian was no well and truly lost and firmly in the grip of the Scots.
3: The twilight of Bamburgh
Eadulf Cudel died the following year and was succeeded by his nephew Ealdred. Ealdred seems to have persued venegeance for the earlier death of Uhtred his father, and killed Thurbrand the Hold. This led to further fighting between the two families until Ealdred was himself killed by Thurbrand's son Karl in 1038.
Ealdred was succeeded by his half-brother Eadulf; in 1041 he was killed on the orders of king Harthacnut, and the remaining brother Gospatric fled to safety in the arms of the king of the Scots, abandoning the last vestiges of independence in the far north of England.
1 Who may have been a relation of Olafr Sigtryggson
2 A translation of Goedelic Mormaer or 'great steward'
3 It is said that after the battle that the heads of dead Scots were displayed around the walls of Durham, and that the women of Durham were presented with a cow in payment for washing the faces and combing the hair of these trophies of victory.
Pieced togther from A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain by Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby (Seaby 1991)