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Left for dead- Eardwulf of Northumbria


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We know very little about most of the kings of Northumbria, the northern kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England.  A few blurbs here and there in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, mostly to document their accessions and deaths.  Eardwulf provides an exception here.  We actually have a reasonable amount on him.  It makes him an appealing and interesting character in early Saxon history.

Northumbria was the formation of two prior regions, Bernicia in the north, and Deira in the south.  These regions were a unified kingdom by the 600's, but it appears regional loyalties and factions persisted until the end of the Northumbrian kingdom.

We know that Eardwulf was the son of another by the name of Eardwulf.  He was a nobleman of some rank, probably an ealdorman.  He is associated with Ripon, which suggests he might have been part of the Deiran faction, however he was no friend of the current dynasty, also associated with Deira.  In 790, his death was ordered by the king Aethelred I, of the house of Moll.  A group of assassins attacked Eardwulf outside of the Ripon monastery and presumably in the open, to make an example.  He was left for dead outside the gates.  The monks brought his body inside and placed it in a tent, but the next day Eardwulf managed to crawl into the church, and was found by the monks alive.  Eardwulf got the message and escaped into exile.  It is not recorded in the chronicles where he was hiding, but local tradition associates Eardwulf with St. Hardulph at Breedon on the Hill, then a part of Mercia.  He may have lived in a cave, and the cave still exists, known locally as Anchor Church cave.  I visited this site earlier this year, pics below.

The years after 790 were turbulent, to say the least.  Both internal and external forces ripped through the kingdom.  Internally, Aethelred was trying to get rid of all rivals, including Eardwulf, but also including the prior king Osred II who had been tonsured after being deposed, and Aelf, probably the son of king Aelfwald I.  No miraculous survivals for these guys, Aethelred had them both killed.  Externally, a threat none could have foreseen came in 793- the arrival of the Vikings.  It was in that year that Viking raiders made their way to England, and attacked the Northumbrian monastery in Lindesfarne.  The ripples of this catastrophe must have been felt throughout the kingdom.

In time, the political wind changed, and Aethelred I was overthrown and killed by his nobles in 796.  No suitable candidate from the royal family seemed to exist, so the throne went to a Bernician nobleman named Osbald (perhaps a relative of Osred given the name similarity).  However a competing faction desired the return of Eardwulf, whose survival was known by some in the kingdom.  Ultimately, Osbald didn't last a month, and Eardwulf was made king.  It was a stunning reversal of fortune after he nearly died 6 years earlier and was living in exile in a cave.  Perhaps a new era in Northumbrian prosperity?

Unfortunately, no.  Eardwulf faced many the same problems as his predecessors.  The Bernician faction again rose up, with the goal of restoring Osbald, but the rebellion was unsuccessful.  Later, Eardwulf put to death an ealdorman from the house of Moll, and Almund, probably a relative of another old king, Alchred.  The constant cycle of intrigue and revolt seemed to be as healthy as ever, despite the new threat of the Vikings.  The powerful kingdom of Mercia, to the south of Northumbria, had been giving asylum to Eardwulf's enemies (just as they had to Eardwulf himself during his exile) but now Eardwulf saw them as meddling too much politically, and went to war against Mercia.  The result of this war is unknown, but a settlement was reached between Eardwulf and Coenwulf of Mercia.

Alcuin, a Northumbrian churchman living in Paris, wrote to Eardwulf in a letter that survives.  He chastised Eardwulf about his sins, with regards to political assassination, but also because Eardwulf committed a very public adultery with a concubine.  This latter issue, though quite typical for the medieval king, was a problem for Eardwulf because it brought him the enmity of Eanbald II, archbishop of York.  Eanbald began traveling with a large armed retinue, and issued coins in his own name, whereas prior episcopal coinage was in joint name with king and bishop.  The discontent fomented outside of Northumbria as well, and Coenwulf of Mercia, ever the opportunist, provided assistance to Eardwulf's enemies.  This actually led to war between Northumbria and Mercia in 801.  The war was a stalemate but Eardwulf did silence his enemies for a time.

However, the troubles continued.  In 806 another revolt erupted and Eardwulf was expelled in favor of Aelfwald II.  Nothing is known of Aelfwald II, though he may have been a relative of Aelfwald I, the Bernician.  Eardwulf fled to France and was accepted as an exiled king by Charlemagne.  He then went to Rome and visited the pope, Leo III.  With continental and papal blessing he went back to Northumbria and was probably restored in 808 (mostly due to the 'encouragement 'of Charlemagne), though the Saxon sources are silent about this.  Eardwulf would die around 810.  His son Eanred and grandson Aethelred II would succeed him.

No coins of Eardwulf were known until the 1990s.  Since that time, a total of 9 coins of Eardwulf have been found by metal detecting.  All are the nonportrait "styca type" of debased silver, and all by the moneyer Cutheard.  The Abramson collection, sold at auction in 2021, contained a remarkable 5 examples, more than half of the number known.  My coin is from that collection, found in 2009 in East Yorkshire.


Here is a coin of Eardwulf, by the moneyer Cutheard:




Here are some coins of Eardwulf's rivals-

Aethelred I, who tried to have him killed



Eanbald II, the Archbishop of York



Aelfwald II, the usurper



And lastly, here are some pictures of the Anchor Church cave, overlooking the river Trent, where Eardwulf took refuge and lived as a hermit (anchorite)-




Edited by Nap
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53 minutes ago, JeandAcre said:

I need to second @Spaniard.  @Nap, your level of erudition about early Northumbria (and your stunning coins) is fully on the same, mind-blowing level as the experts on sceattas (...raise your hands!).  It's all as fascinating as it is enlightening.  Thanks for raising the thread to this level.

I think Nap is also the resident expert in thrymsas and sceattas…only Roerbakmix can compete on European sceattas.

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A cool story (I vaguely remember having read it before - on CT?), and cool pictures of the cave as well! Very few Anglo-Saxon places exist where you can 'feel' the history - I guess this probably was one of those places. Seeing the view over the river, you can almost see Eardwulf contemplating the course of events ... 

On 12/26/2022 at 9:39 PM, John Conduitt said:

I think Nap is also the resident expert in thrymsas and sceattas…only Roerbakmix can compete on European sceattas.

I second your comment on Naps expertise. I've joined a few facebook groups, and always enjoy reading his posts there. I've tried to convince Tony Abramson to join, but he's a bit wary of joining yet another forum. Would have been fun though!

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