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Ecgfrith is an Old English name derived from 'ecg', meaning 'sword' and 'frith' meaning 'peace', hence sword of peace one would imagine.

There are two historical Ecgfriths; one dealt with below was a king of Northumbria, the second was Ecgfrith son and successor of Offa of Mercia. This second Ecgfrith ruled Mercia for a mere five months in the year 796, and was very likely killed and supplanted by his uncle Coenwulf and about whom there is very little else to say.

King of Northumbria 670-685
born 645 died 685

Ecgfrith the King

Ecgfrith was the son of Oswiu and became king on the death of his father on the 15th of February 670. He inherited an united Northumbria, (there were no further signs of any desire for Deiran independence such has had plagued Oswiu during his reign), and as his father, uncle and grandfather had all succeeded in expanding the scope and power of the kingdom there were clear expectations of what he should achieve.

Ecgfrith and Rheged

We don't really know what was the exact constitutional relationship between Rheged and Northumbria at this time. We do know that in 678 Ecgfrith endowed the bishopric at Rippon with lands in the Ribble area, from which Eddius Stephanus tells us that,

the British clergy deserted when fleeing from the hostile sword wielded by the warriors of our own nation
The implication would be that Ecgfrith was formally ruler of Rheged but engaged in eliminating the last vestiges of British (i.e. Welsh autonomy in the area.

Some also surmise that Ecgfrith's Irish invasion of 684 was a motivated by a desire to search out those warriors of Rheged that had sought across the Irish Sea. From the Venerable Bede's complaint that Ecgfrith's army,

miserably wasted that harmless nation..insomuch that in their hostile rage they spared not even the churches or monasteries
it certainly sounds more like a punitive raid than a serious invasion attempt.

Ecgfrith and Mercia

Inevitably there was conflict between Mercia and Northumbria; there was a tustle over the sub-kingdom of Lindsey, Ecgfrith gained control of it in the year 674 by defeating king Wulfhere of Mercia. Five years later however he lost it to Wulfhere's successor. For in the year 679;

a great battle was fought between him and Aethelred, king of the Mercians, near the river Trent,
This seems to have been a serious defeat for Ecgfrith and Northumbria, his brother Aelfwine was killed(2), and the intervention of Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore was required to to prevent a more bloody war taking place. Theodore negotiated a peace that Bede tells us, continued long after between those kings and their kingdoms.

The result seems to have been to establish an agreed border between the two kingdoms and meant the end of any further Northumbrian expansion in the south.

Ecgfrith and Pictavia

Failure in the south against Mercia seems to have persuaded Ecgfrith to try his luck in the north. Already in 672 he had won a significant victory against the Picts, according to Eddius Stephanus,

filling two rivers with corpses, so that, marvellous to relate, the slayers, passing over the rivers dry-shod, pursued and slew the crowd of fugitives

In 678 Ecgfrith appointed one Trumwine with his see at Abercorn (3) to act as bishop for the Picts, a clear indication that the the victory of 672 had bought Pictavia within the dominion of Northumbria.

Perhaps encouraged by his expedition against Ireland and frustrated by his lack of success in the south, Ecgfrith decided that another military foray against the Picts was in order. So early in 685, "rashly leading his army to ravage the province of the Picts", he met the Pictish army at the Battle of Nechtansmere. Ecgfrith lost both his life and most of his army in one of the most comprehensive defeats ever suffered by an English king on British soil.

The Battle of Nechtansmere was a disaster for Northumbria, ending whatever pretensions it had to be the dominant military power in Britain. It marked a turning point in the history of Northumbria, as it brought to an end the expanionist era that had begun eighty years before in the time of Aethelfrith. (4)

After Ecgfrith

Ecgfrith was the last of the Northumbrian warrior kings, and probably the least successful. He inherited a united kingdom that was pre-eminent in Britain, he left it with the bulk of the army lying dead in a Caledonian bog and somewhat in straitened circumstances.

He was married twice. Firstly to Aethelthryth, the daughter of the king of East Anglia, who apparently succeeded in retaining her virginity despite twelve years of marriage and left Ecgfrith to found an abbey at Ely. Secondly to Iurminburg, famous for her hostility towards bishop Wilfrid.

Neither marriage seems to have produced any issue. (5) Which meant that the crown of Northumbria unexpectedly passed into the hands of Ecgfrith's younger half brother Aldfrith.


(1) Also known as Egferth, Egfith, Everth, Egfrid and variations thereon.

(2) His younger brother Aelfwine, appointed as nominal king of Deira on Ecgrith's acession in 670 at the age of nine.

(3) Abercorn - a small village on the Firth of Forth, north west of Edinburgh

(4) Bishop Trumwine fled Abercorn after the defeat, taking all his monks with him and took refuge in the relative safety of Whitby

(5) Pretty obviously in the case of his first wife, but his second wife also seemed more interested in arguments with bishop Wifrid rather than in producing the required heir.

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