Edwin of Northumbria

photo of the Lilla Cross
The Lilla Cross

The main source of information for Edwin is to be found in the works of Bede, who was writing almost 100 years after Edwin’s death. Bede was a monk in Jarrow who wrote around 70 or more books, one of which was the incredibly influential “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” and he tells us much of the story of Edwin. We have to remember however that Bede wanted to tell us the story of the rise of Christianity in Britain. He was not trying to be historically objective as we would understand it today.

Bede tells us that Edwin was one of the Bretwaldas, the so-called “High Kings” of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. It wasn’t a hereditary title, but was given to the most powerful king whom the other kings were willing to acknowledge as their overlord.

In fact, Bede says Edwin was the 5th one, and the first in a line of Northumbrian Bretwaldas which went on to include Oswald and Oswy, who were his nephews. This was arguably the foundation of Northumbria’s Golden Age, as the chaos and confusion of the 5th and 6th centuries gave way to the 7th and 8th centuries which saw the production of illuminated manuscripts, and the writings of Bede himself.

Bede also tells us that in the 6th-7th century, Britain had a number of competing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms primarily divided between peoples known as Angles, Saxons and Jutes. In the north were the Anglian kingdoms of Deira (which is roughly modern Yorkshire) and Bernicia (which is roughly modern Northumberland). A number of British kingdoms were also in the region and they were in conflict with the Anglo-Saxons and with each other.

Edwin was born around 586 AD, the son of King Aelle of Deira. Aelle was in conflict with Athelric of Bernicia. When Edwin was still a small child in 588 AD, Aelle was killed by Athelric; although Reginald of Durham, a 12th century chronicler, claims it was Athelric’s son Athelfrith who assassinated Aelle. Edwin was only a toddler when his father was killed, and must have been taken into exile by the remaining members of his father’s warband who survived the attack.

Athelfrith probably then ruled as the sub-king of Deira under his father until Athelric’s own death in 593 AD. At this point, Athelfrith united the two kingdoms to become the first King of Northumbria. Conflicts with the British kingdoms continued until the Battle of Degsastan in 603 AD when Athelfrith defeated an alliance of British kings, along with an exile of the Bernician royal house called Hering, indicating all kinds of complicated political rivalries and alliances were in play. Not long after this he married Acha, Edwin’s older sister, presumably to consolidate his authority in Deira.

Meanwhile, it seems that young prince Edwin was spirited away to Gwynedd in North Wales where he grew up at the Christian court of King Cadfan. Cadfan had a son called Cadwallon and based on later events it seems the boys did not get along.

So who were the other Anglo-Saxon Kings in Britain at this time?

One of the key ones was Athelberht of Kent – he was the Bretwalda at this time and the one who in 597 CE had allowed Augustine to start his mission in Britain based at Canterbury. Athelberht was married to a Christian princess from Paris.

Another important king was Cwichelm of the West Saxons.

The king in Mercia was called Cearl, and Edwin must have visited him when he was trying to build up allies for his bid to take back his father’s kingdom, because he is recorded as marrying Cearl’s daughter Cwenburh around 615 CE, probably to forge a strategic alliance against Athelfrith who was an ever-present threat to Mercia from the north.

After his marriage, Edwin appears in East Anglia at the court of King Raedwald. Raedwald is believed by many to be the king buried at Sutton Hoo and the owner of the iconic helmet and treasures from that famous ship burial. At this time he was a sub-king of Athelberht in Kent, who by now had converted to Christianity and would have pressured his sub-kings to do the same. Raedwald was famously ambivalent about this and saw the new faith as an optional addition to the pantheon of gods he already worshipped.

King at a Barrow
King at a Barrow

However, this was a crucial period in Edwin’s life. It’s around 615 or 616 CE and by now he is a grown man actively and successfully rallying support against the usurper in Northumbria, so he is an increasing threat to Athelfrith. According to Bede Edwin was in East Anglia specifically seeking support from Raedwald against Athelfrith.

Neither had Athelfrith forgotten Edwin; he hounded him and those who sheltered him relentlessly. Athelfrith was campaigning in Mercia and North Wales, possibly in response to Edwin’s movements, and it is during this period that the Battle of Bangor Orchard (aka Battle of Chester) occurred, when Athelfrith famously ordered the slaughter of the unarmed monks praying for the success of the Christian Welsh.  At the battle, a large contingent of unarmed monks came from the monastery at Bangor to support the Welsh against the Northumbrians, and they began singing and chanting to pray for success in battle. Bede says Athelfrith ordered their slaughter because if they were praying against him, then they were his enemies.

Meanwhile, in East Anglia Athelfrith continued his pursuit of Edwin in a different way. He threatened Raedwald, demanding that Edwin be handed over, and three times offered increasingly larger bribes of money and treasure along with threats of attack in return for the betrayal. At this time Athelfrith was a terrifyingly powerful and successful warlord and Raedwald was about to give in to his demands when his wife stepped in and dissuaded him saying he should not sacrifice his honour, which is more precious than anything.

Edwin had been warned by one of his men that Raedwald was about to betray him and was sitting outside disconsolate and alone when he was approached by a stranger who talked to him, telling him that Edwin could escape his predicament and become the greatest of kings of the English nations if only Edwin agreed to follow him when asked in the future. Edwin agreed and the stranger gave him a sign by which to recognise him when the time came.  Once Edwin had given his word to everything he was duly reassured that Raedwald had been persuaded by his wife not to hand him over to Athelfrith. One of his men then came to him and told him that Raedwald had indeed changed his mind.

Raedwald then raised an army and with Edwin set out north. Beside the River Idle near Doncaster they were able to ambush Athelfrith, although his presence there is not fully explained. One argument is that he was on his way back to Northumbria from his battle at Bangor Orchard, where Bede told us he had taken heavy losses, and if so he had probably disbanded much of his army as he approached home. Athelfrith was slain on the east side of the river, although not without the death of Raedwald’s son in the fighting. Edwin now became King of all Northumbria and proved to be a powerful warlord.

The Battle of the River Idle in 616 CE was a turning point for Edwin but it was also a significant year in other parts of the island of Britain. Athelberht, King of Kent and Bretwalda of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, died and Raedwald in East Anglia became the next Bretwalda, perhaps as a result of his defeat of Athelfrith. Cadfan of Gwynedd, who had sheltered the young Edwin, also died and was succeeded by his son, Cadwallon who was Edwin’s enemy.

Meanwhile Edwin now began to establish himself and to expand his domains. King Ceretic, the King of the British Kingdom of Elmet (near Leeds) died in 619 CE. He had been driven out by Edwin, who may have been seeking revenge for the poisoning of Edwin’s nephew’s son who had gone to Elmet seeking refuge after Aelle’s death. It was during this early part of his reign that Edwin was able to subdue the kingdom and expand his borders. And still, the expansion continued…

In 622 CE Edwin laid waste to Anglesey and Man, and drove Cadwallon from the island of Priestholm off Anglesey; Cadwallon fled to Ireland. At some time during this period Edwin also conquered the Kingdom of Lindsey (Lincolnshire).

So now his kingdom extended from the east to the west and possibly as far south as the Trent up to the Firth. He was on good terms with the kingdoms in the eastern and central parts of Britain (East Anglia and Mercia), which meant that there was increasing pressure on Wessex.

Edwin had a number of royal centres throughout his kingdom, for the collection and storage of food rents, tributes and taxes. The Anglo-Saxon kings were peripatetic and the court travelled from centre to centre to take advantage of the resources available and to dispense justice and be seen by the people. He established an enormous royal palace, 90 feet long, at Ad Gefrin (Yeavering) in Northumberland as well as other bases including at Carlisle, York, Sancton, Goodmanham and Gilling. At the palace at Yeavering there was an amphitheatre built in Roman style and Bede also tells us that Edwin always had a standard carried before him when he travelled, similar to a Roman tufa, in an attempt to enhance his prestige by recalling Roman authority and power.  

Edwin now extended his dominion across Britain and the dating of his story becomes more secure from this point. Raedwald died around 625 CE and Edwin became the next Bretwalda. He had taken control of large parts of the island, and was the first Bretwalda to control both North of the Humber and South of it – all the previous Bretwaldas had only ruled the southern kingdoms. However, Edwin did not yet control Kent. So he made another strategic alliance and married the Kentish princess Athelburh, daughter of Athelberht. It would seem his first wife Cwenburh was either no longer alive, or she may have been put aside to make room for a new wife.

Athelburh’s father Athelberht had allowed Augustine to enter his kingdom and preach, and her mother was a Christian princess from Frankia, so Athelburh was a Christian, like her parents.  The marriage was only agreed on the basis that Athelburh could continue to practice her religion, and Edwin agreed to this as well as to hearing the preaching of the priests and considering whether to convert his own kingdom. In 625 CE Athelburh went to Northumbria, taking her own priests with her including a newly consecrated Bishop called Paulinus. The result of the marriage was that the kingdoms became allies and this extended Edwin’s unprecedented influence even further.  It looks like what happened next was a response to that growing power and influence. The following Easter 626 CE Athelburh was heavily pregnant and the court was in Deira.

Lilla Cross plaque
Lilla Cross Plaque commemorating Lilla’s actions

Bede tells us that an assassin called Eomer was sent by Cwichelm of Wessex to kill Edwin. He attacked the king with a poisoned dagger when he was admitted to give Cwichelm’s greeting to Edwin. Edwin was barely saved when one of his men, Lilla, managed to put himself in front of the king in time to take the blow, and so sacrificed himself.

Edwin was saved by his men’s quick reactions and that very night his daughter Eanflaed was born. Edwin was giving thanks to his pagan gods when Paulinus claimed that the queen’s safe delivery was due to the Christian God. Edwin promised that if the Christian God helped him to successfully conclude a campaign of retribution against Wessex, then he would become a Christian. He therefore agreed to dedicate his daughter to the Church immediately.

Edwin went off to Wessex and killed 5 kings and forced Cwichelm to submit to him. When he returned to Northumbria he had stopped worshipping pagan gods but was still not quite ready to convert formally. Pope Boniface even wrote letters of encouragement to Edwin and Athelburh, sending presents. Edwin received a golden shirt and purple cloak and Athelburh a silver mirror and gilt-ivory comb. Bede has transcribed the letters in his book so they can still be read today.

Even so, Edwin was still prevaricating over whether to convert his kingdom, so Paulinus applied more pressure. He revealed to the king the sign that the stranger in East Anglia had shown him before Raedwald agreed to help Edwin win back his kingdom. Paulinus demanded that the king now keep his promise. It is generally thought likely that Paulinus had been at Raedwald’s court evangelising, probably sent from Athelberht of Kent at the time, which is how he was able to do this.

Edwin now agreed to convert personally – in fact, there is a hint that he had already been baptised while in exile as a boy in Gwynedd. However, taking his kingdom with him was a bigger matter and he called a council of his advisers to debate the issue. Anglo-Saxon kings were elected by their witan (counsellors) and could be replaced by them too, so it was imperative that Edwin only act with their support. Bede’s report on the meeting is highly biased but nevertheless beautiful writing. He tells us first that Edwin’s pagan priest Coifi consented to the conversion because the pagan gods had failed to demonstrate their power by making him wealthy and successful. At this time the power of gods was evidenced by battlefield success or the acquisition of wealth and power. After Coifi, one of the chief men of the Witan also spoke, comparing the life of man on earth to a sparrow’s flight through the hall, coming in from storm and darkness and returning to it again. He said that what follows life or even precedes it is a mystery, and if Christianity had answers to the mystery it should be adopted.

With the support of his priests and his counsellors Edwin was able to go ahead with the conversion of is kingdom. On 12th April 627 CE he was baptised in York in the first York Minster. His sons by his first marriage, his daughter Eanflaed, his niece Hild (later the Abbess of Whitby) and other nobles were baptised with him. Paulinus went on to perform hundreds, or even thousands of baptisms at royal centres around the kingdom.

Edwin’s final years of rule as a Christian King were sadly few.

His enemy Cadwallon by now had become a ferociously powerful leader of the British, in fact some say the strongest they ever had against the Saxon incomers. Indeed Henry Tudor, as he set out for Bosworth in 1485, considered himself to be Cadwallon’s heir. Cadwallon allied with a pagan warlord in Mercia called Penda; Penda is often described as the “last pagan king of the Anglo-Saxons” but at this time he was still relatively young although he had an extraordinary career ahead of him. Penda may have been pagan but the war was not about religion; Cadwallon was still a Christian and Penda was notoriously relaxed about matters of the faith of others, as Bede acknowledges.

On 12th October 632 CE Edwin fought Cadwallon and Penda at the Battle of Hatfield Chase and was killed, along with his eldest son by his first marriage who was butchered in front of his eyes by Penda to demonstrate that his heirs would not survive either. His second son later tried to surrender and was also killed by Penda. His wife Athelburh, their young children and Edwin’s grandson fled back to Kent with Paulinus. The children were now exiles, as Edwin had been. Edwin’s daughter Eanflaed grew up in Kent with her mother, but the other children, boys, were sent abroad for their safety to Athelburh’s uncle, King Dagobert, the king of the Franks. This may indicate a decrease in the strength of the Kingdom of Kent if the boys were considered at risk from Cadwallon and Penda while at court there. Unfortunately they died in infancy of childhood diseases, as was so common, and the male line of Edwin was extinguished.

In fact twelve months of chaos followed Edwin’s death in Northumbria until order was restored by the return from exile of the next great Northumbrian King, Oswald, nephew of Edwin through the marriage of Edwin’s sister Acha to his enemy Athelfrith.  Through Oswald the two Northumbrian dynasties were finally united.