Ecgfrith of Northumbria

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King of Northumbria
Predecessor Oswiu
Successor Aldfrith
Died20 May 685
Battle of Nechtansmere
Consort Æthelthryth
Father Oswiu
Mother Eanflæd

Ecgfrith ( /ˈɛfrɪð/ ; Old English :Ecgfrið [ˈedʒfrið] ; c. 645 20 May 685) was the King of Deira from 664 until 670, and then King of Northumbria from 670 until his death in 685. He ruled over Northumbria when it was at the height of its power, but his reign ended with a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Nechtansmere in which he lost his life.


Early life

Ecgfrith was born in 645 to king Oswiu and Eanflæd his queen. At about the age of 10 Ecgfrith was held as a hostage at the court of Queen Cynewise after her husband king Penda of Mercia invaded Northumbria in 655. [1] Penda was eventually defeated and killed in the Battle of the Winwaed by Oswiu, a victory which greatly enhanced Northumbrian power. To secure his hegemony over other English kingdoms Oswiu arranged a marriage between Ecgfrith and Æthelthryth, a daughter of Anna of East Anglia. He was possibly as young as 15 at the time. Ecgfrith was then made king of Deira in 664 after his half-brother Alhfrith had rebelled against Oswiu earlier that year.

King of Northumbria

In 671, at the Battle of Two Rivers, Ecgfrith put down an opportunistic rebellion by the Picts, which resulted in the Northumbrians taking control of the land between the Firth of Forth and the Tweed for the next fourteen years. Around the same time, Æthelthryth wished to leave Ecgfrith to become a nun. Eventually, in about 672, Æthelthryth persuaded Ecgfrith to allow her to become a nun, and she entered the monastery of the Abbess Æbbe, who was aunt to King Ecgfrith, at Coldingham. A year later Æthelthryth became founding abbess of Ely. Her taking the veil may have led to a long quarrel with Wilfrid, Bishop of York, which ended with Wilfrid's expulsion from his Episcopal see. [2]

In 674, Ecgfrith repelled the Mercian king Wulfhere, which enabled him to seize the Kingdom of Lindsey. [2] In 679, he fought the Mercians again, now under Wulfhere's brother Æthelred who was married to Ecgfrith's sister Osthryth, at the Battle of the Trent. Ecgfrith's own brother Ælfwine was killed in the battle and following intervention by Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lindsey was returned to the Mercians.

In June 684, [3] Ecgfrith sent a raiding party to Brega in Ireland under his general Berht, which resulted in the seizing of a large number of slaves and the sacking of many churches and monasteries. The reasons for this raid are unclear, though it is known that Ecgfrith acted against the warnings of Ecgberht of Ripon and that the raid was condemned by Bede and other churchmen.

Pictish symbol stone depicting what has been generally accepted to be the Battle of Dun Nechtain, in which Ecgfrith was killed. Pictish Stone at Aberlemno Church Yard - Battle Scene Detail.jpg
Pictish symbol stone depicting what has been generally accepted to be the Battle of Dun Nechtain, in which Ecgfrith was killed.

In 685, against the advice of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Ecgfrith led a force against the Picts of Fortriu, who were led by his cousin Bridei mac Bili. On 20 May, Ecgfrith was slain at the age of 40, having been lured by a feigned flight to the mountains, at what is now called the Battle of Dun Nechtain, located at either Dunnichen in Angus or Dunachton in Badenoch. [2] This defeat, in which most of Ecgfrith's army was lost, severely weakened Northumbrian power in the north and Bede dates the beginning of the decline of the kingdom of Northumbria from Ecgfrith's death and wrote that following Ecgfrith's death, "the hopes and strengths of the English realm began 'to waver and to slip backward ever lower'". [4] The Northumbrians never regained the dominance of central Britain lost in 679; nor of northern Britain lost in 685. Nevertheless, Northumbria remained one of the most powerful states of Britain and Ireland well into the Viking Age. [5] Ecgfrith was buried on Iona and succeeded by his illegitimate half-brother, Aldfrith.

Northumbrian Monasticism

Like his father before him, Ecgfrith supported the religious work of Benedict Biscop in the kingdom and gave him 70 hides of land near the mouth of the River Wear in 674 to undertake the building of a monastery dedicated to St. Peter. About ten years later, he made a second gift of land, 40 hides on the River Tyne at Jarrow, for the establishment of a sister house dedicated to St. Paul. These two houses came to be known as the Monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow, [6] an establishment made famous by the scholar Bede, who, at the age of seven, was put into the care of Benedict Biscop at Wearmouth and remained for the rest of his life as a monk. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People was completed there in 731. [7]


Ecgfrith appears to have been the earliest Northumbrian king, and perhaps the earliest of the Anglo-Saxon rulers, to have issued the silver penny, which became the mainstay of English coinage for centuries afterwards. Coins had been produced by the Anglo-Saxons since the late 6th century, modelled on the coins being produced by the Merovingians in Francia, but these were rare, the most common being gold scillingas (shillings) or thrymsas . Ecgfrith's pennies, also known as sceattas , were thick and cast in moulds, and were issued on a large scale.


  1. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, book III, chapter 24
  2. 1 2 3 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ecgfrith"  . Encyclopædia Britannica . Vol. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 870.
  3. Koch, John T., Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (ABC-CLIO, 2006). ISBN   978-1-8510-9440-0
  4. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV, Chapter 26.
  5. Campbell, pp. 88ff; Kirby, pp. 142–143.
  6. "Benedict Biscop". Dictionary of National Biography. 4: 214. 1885–1900. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  7. "Bede". DNB. 4: 98. Retrieved 17 January 2019.


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