Formed from a restless and uneasy alliance of the two smaller fourth and fifth century kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, Northumbria was part of the heptarchy – the seven kingdoms – that made up Anglo-Saxon England.
At the height of its powers, the monarchs of Northumbria ruled over an area encompassing almost all of modern-day Merseyside, Lancashire, Cumbria, Yorkshire, Durham, Tyne & Wear and Northumberland and as far north as the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh.
While Northumbria may not have been the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, indeed many of the rulers of Northumbria were killed in battle, murdered or deposed, the late seventh and early eighth century represented what was known as a golden age.
During this time Northumbria was a powerhouse of creative, intellectual and religious achievement. The Venerable Bede was a famous historian, scholar and theologian and the monasteries at Whitby, Hexham and especially Lindisfarne were major religious centres. The Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is one of the world’s great works of art and was produced during this time of enlightenment.
But what of the kings of Northumbria? Here are their stories.
Æthelfrith - The Birth of Northumbria
The kingdom of Northumbria developed from two earlier independent states. Bernicia in the north and Deira to the south.
The kings of Bernicia may have come to power around 500 and Deira around sixty years later. They were continually at odds with each other until they were united during the reign of Æthelfrith in the last years of the sixth century.
This list of the kings of Northumbria starts with Oswiu in 654 and goes on a little over two centuries until the end of the reign of Ælla in 867. From this point, the VIkings ruled much of Northumbria until it was absorbed into the country of England in the 950s.
Oswiu | Reign: Approx. 654 - 670
Also known as Oswy and Oswig, he was previously king of both Bernicia and Deira and is generally believed to have been one of the first rulers of Northumbria as a whole. The early years of his reign were beset by internecine struggles and a fractious relationship with Penda, king of Mercia. Oswiu eventually killed Penda at the Battle of the Winwaed which established him as one of the country’s most powerful kings. He is buried in Whitby Abbey.
Ecgfrith | Reign: 670 - 685
The son of Oswiu, Ecgfrith was first king of Deira and then reigned as king of Northumbria for fifteen years. It’s believed he was the first of the Northumbrian kings to have minted the silver penny, known as a sceatta. He won and lost battles against the Mercians and in 685 he fought the Picts in Scotland. He was killed and his army almost wiped out. Northumbria would never be as powerful again.
Aldfrith Reign: 685 - 704
Described as an educated, learned man who was destined for the priesthood, Aldfrith was another son of Oswiu who became king when his brother died fighting the Picts. According to Bede, he ‘ably restored the shattered fortunes of the kingdom, though within smaller boundaries’.
Eadwulf | Reign: 704 - 705
Very little is known about Eadwulf’s brief reign as one of the kings of Northumbria. It’s believed he was a usurper with tenuous links to the ruling dynasty. He died in 717, as reported by the Annals of Ulster.
Osred I | Reign: 705 - 716
The son of Aldfrith may only have been eight or nine when he was crowned king so the governing was taken care of by Bishop Wilfred, a Northumbrian noble. It seems Osred was an enigma. The poetry of Aethelwulf the following century described him as a strong proactive king but also rash, tyrannical and foolish. He may have been killed fighting the Picts.
Coenred | Reign: 716 - 718
Like many of the monarchs of Northumbria, not much is known of Coenred with any degree of certainty. It appears he was descended from one of the sixth century kings of Bernicia and was accused of killing his predecessor Osred, though this is unlikely. Twelfth century chronicler William of Malmsbury suggested he was a ‘draught from the same cup’ as Osred, that is to say strong but cruel and foolish.
Osric | Reign: 718 - 729
Although he reigned for eleven years, virtually nothing is known about Osric. He could have been a son of Aldfrith and it was said by Bede that comets were seen in the sky when he died. In those days, those celestial occurrences were a bad omen.
Ceolwulf | Reign: 729 - 737
Ceolwulf was a pious ruler and one of the rulers of Northumbria who it’s said may have been more suited to the clergy. He was deposed for a short time around 731 or 732 but retook the throne relatively quickly. According to Bede he was a ‘most glorious king’ who abdicated in 737 and retired to the monastery in Lindisfarne. He was canonised and his feast day is January 15th.
Eadberht | Reign: 737 - 758
The brother of the first archbishop of York, Eadberht reigned over what is believed to have been a period of economic and religious prosperity in Northumbria. Internecine dynastic conflicts from rival families littered his reign but he attempted to revive the fortunes of his kingdom, winning territory in some places and losing it in others. He abdicated in 758 and became a cleric at York.
Oswulf | Reign: 758 - 759
Despite the fact his father Eadberht reigned for over twenty years and his uncle was one of the country’s most powerful clerics, Oswulf lasted less than a year. One of the shortest-reigning Northumbrian kings was supposedly murdered by his household staff in the Yorkshire town of Market Weighton.
Æthelwald Moll | Reign: 759 - 765
Æthelwald Moll reigned for a little over six years as one of the kings of Northumbria but like many before him, almost nothing is known. His ancestry is uncertain and there was speculation he may have had a hand in the death of his predecessor. He was deposed by a Witan – council – of local noblemen and it’s possible he became a monk.
Alhred | Reign: 765 - 774
All it says in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of Alhred was that he was one of the monarchs of Northumbria. It’s possible he had connections with English religious missions in Europe, notably Bremen and Mainz in Germany. He was deposed and may have fled to the kingdom of the Picts, possibly somewhere north of modern-day Edinburgh.
Æthelred I | First Reign: 774 - 779
The son of Æthelwald Moll may have only been around twelve when he took the throne of Northumbria. He was ‘crowned with such great honour’ but deposed in 779. This was a tumultuous time for the rulers of Northumbria.
Ælfwald I | Reign: 779 - 788/789
Virtually nothing is known of Ælfwald. It’s possible he was a son of Oswulf and reigned for around nine years. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was murdered at a fort on Hadrian’s Wall by a Northumbrian nobleman called Sigca and buried at Hexham Abbey.
Osred II | Reign: 788/789 - 790
Osred, son of Alhred, was one of the lesser known kings of Northumbria. He reigned for about a year but was deposed, tonsured by force (the hair on top of his head was shaved as a sign of humility) and exiled, possibly to the Isle of Man.
Æthelred I | Second Reign: 790 - 796
Restored to the throne after Osred II was deposed, his second reign was beset with internecine struggles that left many dead. Æthelred ordered the killing of Eardwulf, an ealdorman who survived and went on to become king himself. It’s believed he also ordered the killing of the sons of Ælfwald for reasons unknown and when Osred attempted a coup to regain the throne, he too was killed. When the holy island of Lindisfarne was destroyed by the Vikings in 793, a contemporary scholar named Alciun blamed it on Æthelred’s murderous sins. He was killed by a band of noblemen in 796.
Osbald | Reign: 796
Said to be a violent murderer who was only interested in living the extravagant life of a king with its luxurious trappings, Osbald reigned for 27 days before being exiled to the land of the Picts. He died in 799. By this time, Northumbria was descending into anarchy.
Eardwulf | Reign: 796 - 806
Much confusion surrounds the reigns of the monarchs of Northumbria during the ninth century and Eardwulf is no exception. He survived an assassination attempt by Æthelred some years earlier and may have married an illegitimate daughter of Charlemagne, king of the Franks. It’s said he was victorious against a local nobleman at the Battle of Billington Moor and also fought Coenwulf of Mercia. He was deposed in 806 but according to an obscure account from France, he was reinstated in 808 and may have reigned until 811 or even 830 although there is no corroborating evidence to suggest this is true. No date is given for his death.
Ælfwald II | Reign: 806/808 - 808/810
Like his namesake in the 780s, Ælfwald’s reign as one of the later Northumbrian kings is a matter of conjecture. Indeed the available knowledge of his kingship comes from an anonymous, obscure and historically unreliable work called De primo Saxonum adventu written two centuries later and also from a thirteenth century chronicle called Flores Historiarum.
Eanred | Reign: Approx. 810 - 840
Despite sitting on the throne for three decades or more, nothing is known with any degree of certainty about the reign of Eanred. He may have been the son of Eardwulf and probably fought the kingdom of Wessex in around 829. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ecgberht of Wessex ‘led a large army into Northumbria, and laid waste that province with severe pillaging, and made King Eanred pay tribute.’
Æthelred II | Reign: Approx. 840 - 848
The dates of the reign of Aethelred II are very much open for debate. The general consensus is that he was king from 840 to 848 but coins minted in his name may suggest a later reign, perhaps as late as 858 to 862. Again, like many of the Northumbrian kings, and the last king of Northumbria, almost nothing is known of his time on the throne aside from the possibility he was deposed by a usurper named Rædwulf in around 844. It’s believed Aethelred was murdered in 848 but why and by whom remains lost to history.
Osberht | Reign: Approx. 848/849 - 862
Symeon of Durham, an eleventh and twelfth century monk and chronicler dates Osberht’s reign from 849 and he ‘held the kingdom for thirteen years’ but there’s no evidence to back up his assertions. He may have been deposed in 862 and killed fighting the Great Heathen Army in 867 but facts are very hard to come by during this period in the history of Northumbria.
Ælla | Reign: Approx. 862 - 867
Ælla, possibly the brother of Osberht, is one of the only rulers of Northumbria mentioned in the Norse sagas. It was written that he killed the legendary Viking hero Ragnar Lothbrok by throwing him into a pit of snakes. Again, there is very little information about his reign as the last king of Northumbria and most believe he was a usurper who seized church lands and died alongside Osberht fighting the Vikings at York in 867.
By the mid-ninth century, the kingdom of Northumbria was all but gone. After the Great Heathen Army defeated Osberht and Ælla, the last king of Northumbria, they installed a puppet king named Ecgberht. They ruled over much of the area for the next ninety years or so until England came under the rule of one man, Aethelstan, the first king of England.