Who was King Aella of Northumbria and what did he do?

The life and times of Ælla of Northumbria is so mired in mystery and conjecture there’s doubt over almost all aspects of his reign. Did he kill one of history’s most famous Vikings? Was he a cruel and unjust usurper who seized land from the church, and was the death of Aelle unimaginably gruesome? Here is the story of King Aella.

History Rulers
3 May 2023

Shrouded in mystery and steeped in legend, the enigmatic life and reign of Ælla of Northumbria continues to captivate historians and spark debate centuries after his rule.

From around the time of the reign of Oswulf in the late 750s, the kingdom of Northumbria was plunged into decades of turbulence and chaos. Very little is known about the reigning monarchs from then until the reign of Aella of Northumbria in the mid to late ninth century.

There are few, if any, surviving contemporary sources about life in ninth century Northumbria and almost all we know about this tumultuous period, and King Aella in particular, was written years, perhaps centuries, later in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Aella, sometimes spelled Ælla or Aelle, was also mentioned in the Norse sagas. This was after the Vikings invaded England, supposedly in retaliation for Aella killing their possibly-apocryphal leader Ragnar Lothbrok in the early 860s.

Here is the story of King Aella of Northumbria.

King Aella

Ælla King of Northumbria (Photo: Universal History Archive via Getty Images)

As with almost all the later kings of Northumbria, information about the reign of Aella is the subject of much debate. The generally accepted dates of his kingship are given as 862 to 867, however even these dates are debatable. Before 867, royal chronology was almost entirely unreliable with one account putting his reign starting as late as 866.

It’s believed he took over from Osberht, who reigned for about thirteen years and was deposed. His familial line is also a mystery. Most sources agree that he was ‘not of royal birth’ and usurped the throne but one states he was Osberht’s brother.

Ælla of Northumbria was described as an illegitimate, tyrannical ruler and almost nothing is known of his reign as king. The only record of note is from twelfth century chronicler Symeon of Durham. He wrote that Aella seized land from the church at Billingham in modern-day Stockton-on-Tees; Crece, known today as Crayke in North Yorkshire, and two unknown towns, possibly called Ileclif and Wigeclif.

Aella of Northumbria & The Vikings

Lindisfarne Monastery (Photo: Richard Baker via GettyImages)

The first Vikings attacked Northumbria in 793, when they famously sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne. The small but frequent raids continued almost unabated for the next seventy years.

But in 865, the Vikings invaded England in huge numbers, mediaeval historians called them the Great Heathen Army. It’s believed they landed somewhere on the east coast and rampaged their way up the country until they reached Northumbria.

It was there that – according to the Norse sagas – a series of tales and histories written mainly in Iceland somewhere between 1190 and 1320, King Aella killed Ragnar Lothbrok by throwing him into a pit of deadly snakes

Icelandic saga Ragnarssona þáttr, ‘The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons’, says that to avenge the death of their father, Lothbrok’s sons Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye waged war against a cobbled-together militia led by Aella and Osberht.

The Death of Aelle

City of York today (Photo: StephenBridger via Getty Images)

There are three sources for the battle which took place in or near the city of York in 867 between the army led by Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons and the coalition of Osberht and Aella of Northumbria. They are from Symeon of Durham, a Welsh monk named Asser, and a tenth century chronicler believed to be from the kingdom of Wessex named Aethelweard.

Late in the battle, the Northumbrians were outnumbered and surrounded and although they ‘fought upon each side with much ferocity,’ the Vikings were victorious. The kingdom of Northumbria would stay under Viking control until the middle of the tenth century.

There are two competing possibilities as to the death of Aelle. The first, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, says that ‘both kings were slain on the spot.’ The second suggested that Aella was captured by Ragnar’s sons and tortured.

Aella of Northumbria in Modern Culture

Remains of an Anglo-Saxon burial cross (Photo: Stuart Charters via Getty Images)

While he was little more than an obscure Northumbrian king, in the TV show Vikings, King Aelle was a star. He is portrayed as loud, boisterous, spiteful and vindictive. However, the character and storyline appears mostly fictional.


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