King of Northumbria (685-705)
born circa 640 died 14 December 705

Aldfrith was the son of Oswiu and a princess of the O' Neill (2), and therefore of course, half Irish. Many state without equivocation that he was illegitimate; he may well have been, but no one is entirely sure due to the uncertainties that surround the exact nature of Oswiu's marital arrangements.

He spent most of his early life in Ireland being educated possibly with the intention of pursuing a career in the church, what was certain was that it was never the intention that he would rule Northumbria. (He was certainly overlooked when the crown of Northumbria passed from Oswiu to Ecgfrith.)

It was only as a result of the failures of his half brother Ecgfrith (in particular the latter's untimely death) that Aldfrith ever came to power, and then only with the assistance of his half sister Aefflaed, the abbess of Whitby and St Cuthbert who were instrumental in providing the invitation that brought about his return.

He inherited a kingdom that had been badly shaken by the defeat at Nechtansmere and Aldfrith is credited with re-establishing order within the kingdom, although our sources are short on the detail of how exactly this was achieved. Bede is content with merely stating that he "nobly restored the shattered state of the kingdom, although within narrower bounds." (3)

Aldfrith was fundamentally of a different character from his predecessors; he was no warrior king. His reign was characterised by peace rather than warfare, and he abandoned expansionism in favour of consolidation.

Probably the closest thing to an intellectual that ever sat on an English throne, his interests lay in the realms of literature and learning as befitted one who had enjoyed an Irish scholastic education. (He is even said to have been an accomplished poet in the Irish Gaelic.) He exchanged a large parcel of land in order to obtain a copy of the Cosmographi (4)and Adomnán, Abbot of Iona considered that an appropriate gift was a copy of his book on the holy places of Syria, De Locis Sanctis.(5) Bede described him as "very learned", and Alcuin called him "a scholar with great powers of eloquence, of piercing intellect, a king and a teacher at the same time".

It is therefore perhaps no surprise that it is under the rule of Aldfrith that we see the beginnings of what later became known as the Golden Age of Northumbria. The Lindisfarne Gospels, the Codex Aminiatinus, the Life of St Cuthbert and more all date from his reign, and Aldfrith is more deserving than most of the title of the father of this great flowering of Northumbrian intellectual culture.

He married Cuthburh, sister of king Ine of Wessex. She later left him to become a nun, which seems something of an occupational hazard for medieval Northumbrian kings. She did however provide him with a son, Osred who succeeded to the throne on Aldrith's death (presumably from old age) in 705.

He made no conquests and seems to have won no great battles but perhaps the like of the Lindisfarne Gospels stands as a greater testament to human achievment.

a most wise king
Eddius Stephanus


(1) Also known as Aldfrid, Eldfrith etc

(2) Or Uí Néill to be precisely Gaelic, which one source tells me was Fina daughter of Colman Rimid

(3)A reference no doubt, to the loss of Northumbrian dominion over the Picts.

(4) An anthology of classical treatises on the subject

(5) Adomnán was on a mission to release some Irish prisoners taken by Ecgrith during his raid of 684


A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain by Ann Williams, Alfred P Smyth and DP Kirby (BA Seaby 1991)

Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum by the Venerable Bede

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

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