Northumbrian rebellion in 862 and the exile of King Burghred of Mercia

After nearly six months of warfare with Wessex, the pagan army went to London in Mercia for their winter quarters to recuperate. Burghred, the King of Mercia at that time and brother-in-law of King Alfred, purchased a truce from them for a sum of money. Halfdan and his army had already sworn that they would not attack Wessex for a time and he hoped that his bribe would also deter any harm to his own people. Perhaps it was for further ingratiation that he accepted the exiled King Egbert and Archbishop Wulfhere of York at his court after the passing of the New Year. 

The court of an Anglo-Saxon king (from the 10th-century Junius manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (http://www.historytoday.com)

The court of an Anglo-Saxon king (from the 10th-century Junius manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (http://www.historytoday.com)

For a whole year the Northumbrians had been left to their own devices whilst their new overlords preoccupied themselves with war further south. Both of their kings from before the invasion in 866/867 were dead as well as many of their leading earls, leaving the running of the kingdom in disarray. The survivors were left to carry on under a King who regardless of whether he was Danish or not, had been chosen to rule over them as King by the Danes. Their Archbishop, who we know was Northumbrian and had been Archbishop of York for over ten years before the Danish attack, seems to have worked fairly closely with both the Danes and King Egbert, to which end it has not been revealed. What we do know is that both of these men mustn’t have been very popular with the people of York as they were cast out at the beginning of 872 in favour of their own candidate for the throne, Ricsige.

King Egbert and Archbishop Wulfhere flee Northumbria to take sanctuary across the border in Mercia and the court of King Burghred. Here they were ‘honourably entertained’ for some time until the Danes arrived in 873. They Danes had left London and travelled north into Lindsey, an area which throughout history had changed hands between Northumbria and Mercia numerously. King Egbert is noted as having died this very year with no other explanation of the cause, and Archbishop Wulfhere is promptly restored to York. One can only assume that it was with the blessing and perhaps help of the Danes.

A small-scale map showing the extent of Mercian overlordship over most of the country c. 800. (http://www.anglo-saxons.net)

The Danes settled in Lindsey for the winter between the two kingdoms at the town of Torksey, raiding and causing havoc. Burghred again tried to buy them off but in 874 Halfdan and his army were at the doorstep of his royal vill at Repton. After extending his Christian charity to the two exiles from Northumbria, Burghred and his wife (they had no children it seems) found themselves sharing a similar fate. Within days they were embarking on their own exile, this time far from the British isles to reside at Rome. Burghred was to die not long after reaching the ancient city and was buried in the Church of the Blessed Mary. His wife Aethelswith, sister of Alfred the Great, was to live a further 24 years in Italy until her death in Pavia in 888.

Mercia was now in the control of the Danes. One of Burghred’s thanes, a man named Ceolwulf, was made King of Mercia under their careful watch. It is possibly for this reason that Ceolwulf was despised and regarded as ‘foolish’, ‘unwise’, and ‘stupid’, by his fellow countrymen and later historians.

From here the wrath of Halfdan turns to his unruly lands in the north. The heathen army splits in two, one half following the Danish leader Guthrum south to Cambridge where they set up their base and antagonise the surrounding area. The second half stays with Halfdan as he marches across the border and into Northumbria.

Up until this point the part of Northumbria which lay north of the Tyne River seems to have escaped most of the Danish attacks. In 875 however, the whole kingdom as well as parts of Pictland/Pictavia and the Strathclyde Britons were ravaged for an entire year, possibly in response to the subordination they had shown in expelling their puppet King Egbert and the Archbishop. King Ricsige who had filled the throne in the interim was eventually killed, or as Roger of Wendover would have us believe, dead of a broken heart.

One tale which perhaps best portrays the violence and suffering of the people at this time is the sacking of Coldingham Monastery. Ebba the Younger was an Abbess here and on hearing of the great slaughter and tales of rape by the Danes that were coming their way, she took a razor to her nose and lips hoping to disfigure herself so much that the Danes would not want to rape her. The other nuns all followed her example and when the Danes appeared, they truly were so horrified by the mess the women had made of their faces that their virginity was left intact. Unfortunately, Ebba’s plan was not enough to spare the women their lives. The monastery was set ablaze with the women still inside, and the whole community perished. It is on the 22 June every year that we celebrate the martyrdom of St Ebba the Younger (though I have seen it written that her feast day is on the 2nd of April as well).

At the end of this bloodshed, the lands of Northumbria are divided up between Halfdan’s followers who then farm and settle the land. This statement which is found in most of the primary sources doesn’t just mean in the obvious sense that they all became farmers; but powerful earls and aeldormen who could replace the old guard and takeover the running of estates, taxes and law enforcement. To what extent this was carried out north of the Tyne is uncertain as in the following decades this part of the country seems to show signs of independent rule through a collection of powerful earls, the most famous of which were based at Bamburgh. Likewise in modern day Durham, by the 880s this area had been given to the Church and divided up according to their own needs (and the needs of their tenants). Modern day Yorkshire, however, was certainly Danish and ruled under the Kingdom of Jorvik, its centre of power based firmly at York.

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