Aethelfrith’s Wars (593–616)PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Northumbria vs. (in succession) the Dalriad Scots and the Britons
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Scotland, Wales, and Nottingham
DECLARATION: None recorded
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Struggle for dominance among the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy (i.e., Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia).
OUTCOME: Aethelfrith achieved dominance in the heptarchy, only to be slain in battle by the ally of a rival.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:Unknown
TREATIES: None recorded
Although the 593–616 series of conflicts among the kings of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy is collectively called the Aethelfrith’s Wars, their culmination put Edwin (r. 616–632) on the throne as the first Christian king of Northumbria.
Aethelfrith (d. 616), king of the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia, married the princess of neighboring Deira in 588 or 590, thereby uniting the kingdoms as Northumbria and sending into exile Edwin, the heir apparent to the Deiran throne. Beginning in 593, Northumbria warred sporadically with the Britons. In 603 Aethelfrith faced a new threat from the north, but successfully defended his borders against the incursion of Scottish invaders from Dal Riata (the Delriad Scots under King Aidan) and Britons of Strathclyde, defeating both at the battle of Daegsaston. This elevated Northumbria to preeminence among the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, making it the most formidable power below the Firth of Forth.
In about 616 Aethelfrith led his Northumbrians westward as far as the Dee River at Chester. Here Aethelfrith’s forces confronted Britons under Selyf Sarffgadau, or Solomon (c. 586–616), king of the Welsh kingdom of Powys. Some 1,250 monks from the monastery at Bangor came to the fore to pray for Solomon’s success. Aethelfrith ordered his army against the unarmed monks, all but 50 of whom were slaughtered. This signaled the start of the general battle, in which the Northumbrians routed the Britons, killing Solomon in the course of battle. The Welsh peninsula was now completely cut off from the rest of Britain. In the meantime, however, the exiled Edwin had concluded an alliance with Raedwald, king of East Anglia. Raedwald attacked Aethelfrith at the Battle of the Idle (616), near modern Nottingham. He not only defeated the Northumbrian king, but killed him as well, thereby enabling Edwin to assume the Northumbrian throne as that region’s first Christian king.
Edwin went on, later in 616, to defeat the Britons in north Wales and Anglesea, thereby assuring the continued supremacy of Northumbria. Edwin died in the Battle of Hatfiled Chase (632) at the hands of Cadwallon, a north Welsh king. Nevertheless, Northumbria’s dominance of the heptarchy continued through 641 under Edwin’s successor,Oswald.
Further reading: Albany F. Major, Early Wars of Wessex (Poole, U.K.: Blandford Press, 1978); David A. E. Peteret, ed., Anglo-Saxon History: Basic Readings (New York: Garland, 2000).