Historical Figure Profiles

Historical Figure Profile: King Osbert and King Aelle of Northumbria

From 'Vikings' on the History Channel. King Aelle (Ivan Kaye), the Saxon King of Northumbria, sits on his throne. — Jonathan Hession/History, Jan. 22, 2013
From ‘Vikings’ on the History Channel. King Aelle (Ivan Kaye), the Saxon King of Northumbria, sits on his throne. — Jonathan Hession/History, Jan. 22, 2013

I am guessing by now, thanks to the History Channel’s new series, Vikings, some people may have heard about Aelle the king of Northumbria. You may also have heard about his supposed involvement in the death of Ragnar Lodbrok, who is said to have been flung into a pit of vipers by the Northumbrian King. Many scholars still debate whether King Aelle died from the ‘Blood Eagle‘, inflicted on him by Ragnar’s revenge seeking sons, or whether it was a later 13th century embellishment by bards and historians.

Unfortunately, the facts about Aelle’s life and role in Northumbrian history is limited thanks to the lack of contemporary sources which have survived the ravages of time. All we know for certain from the early chronicles is that he was the man who wrested the Northumbrian throne from King Osbert, whose own history is as mysterious as his successor’s. The earliest mention of Osbert or Osbryte as he is also known, is through Simeon of Durham who states that after nine years on the throne, King Ethelred of Northumbria was slain (849AD) and Osbert took his place, reigning for 13 more years. For almost the whole of these 13 years, nothing is mentioned further about his reign until his throne is threatened by Aelle. Aelle is often labelled as being ‘not of the royal blood’, however there seems to be a suggestion (The history of St Cuthbert) that he may have been a half-brother of Osbert. During the power struggle, Osbert is defeated, though apparently allowed to live. According to Simeon of Durham this happened in 862, however it is possible through other sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that this happened as late as 866.

Bronze Styca of King Osbert of Northumbria pre 867AD
Bronze Styca of King Osbert of Northumbria pre 867AD

Coins minted during this period don’t help either in clearing up the true length of the reigns of these kings. The last coin minted before the Danish invasion (that archaeologists have found) are Stycas minted under King Osbert and Archbishop Wulfhere of York (however unlike todays coins, they were not minted with a date). There are no coins yet found attributed to Aelle which can either be taken as evidence that Aelle’s reign was a short one (possibly starting in 866 and not 862), or that life in York and Northumbria was too disrupted during the civil strife caused by the kings to organise the minting of new coins in his name. There is of course a third option: that Aelle did have coins minted, we just haven’t found these yet.

Simeon of Durham also states that ‘…both these kings… had deprived St Cuthbert of his lands, namely, Werkworth, Tillemuth, Billingaham, Ileclif, and Wigeclif…’ which sounds like a disgruntled comment by the church on the mismanagement of the Kingdom. From this translation of the text, it is unclear which King took which lands or if one was worse than the other however, the History of St Cuthbert states that Osbert took Werkworth and Tillemuth, and that Aelle took Billingaham, Ileclif, Wigeclif and Crayke once he was in power (and that he was in Crayke at the time of the Danish attack on York). What is clear, is that at the time of the Danish invasion of York and eventually the rest of the Kingdom, Northumbria was weakened by the power struggle and its people most probably disgruntled by its warring kings. That seems to be the position of the church at any rate.

Into this cooking pot of disgruntled countrymen and warring leaders came the Danes or The Great Heathen army as so many sources label them. They attacked York after first landing in East Anglia and holding those lands to ransom. Sir Frank Stenton cites the Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover as saying that the Danes first occupied York on the 1st of November 866. Under this external threat, Aelle and Osbert reconciled themselves and combined their forces to attack four months later… on the of April (21st March), being the Friday before Palm Sunday’ according to Simeon of Durham, or on Palm Sunday itself according to Roger of Wendover. At one stage, the Northumbrians were able to break through the defences and back into the city of York, however their efforts were in vain. The Northumbrians were slaughtered, the two kings were killed, and according to the Flores Historiarum (Roger of Wendover) 8 earls with them. Those few who survived made their peace with the Danes who eventually installed a man called Egbert as their puppet king.

That is all we know for sure on the two kings at the centre of one of the most important turning points in Northumbrian history and arguably of English history. Through time their lives have been forgotten or embellished as the case may be, resulting in Aelle being labelled a trouble maker, a usurper of a throne he had no claim to, and the murderer of a well-loved Danish hero. From what I have read, it is possible that the ‘Blood Eagle‘ was used during early medieval times and if this was the mode of Aelle’s death, i think it would have been employed to scare the Northumbrians into subjection, or as a symbolic sacrifice/ statement of the Danes’ victory over their rivals. Yet it is also interesting to note that the ‘Blood Eagle’ was not recorded as happening to other Anglo-Saxon kings during this period, and that the story of Aelle’s death and the reason behind his demise came later, when York had developed its own unique Danish/Norse influenced hybrid culture.

Whatever the truth,  it would be interesting to know how succeeding historical events would have played out if Osbert had been able to hold onto his throne or had allied with Aelle against the Danes a lot sooner. If Northumbria had not been so weakened by the two kings, they might have survived a lot longer against the Danes.


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6 thoughts on “Historical Figure Profile: King Osbert and King Aelle of Northumbria”

  1. Book: “Four Anglian Kings of Northumbria (etc”., 2002 edition) by Raymond E.O.Ella.
    This interesting little booklet mentions the 3 kings and other persons named Ella (Aelle, Aella, etc.) in Anglo-Saxon times. However, it seems to have sold-out but some libraries in the uk have copies.
    There is a family surnamed Ella of old Deira (etc); included what is now Yorkshire. Read http://www.hberlioz.com/others/RElla.htm

    Mike and Joan.

    1. Thanks for that guys! I know there were a few kings named Aelle (and all the variations) further back, particularly in Northumbria but I didn’t realise it was still being used as a surname. That is pretty interesting. I will check out those links too. Thanks for bringing them to my attention 🙂

      1. Hi, my ancestors surname was Ella and I am interested in tracing the line back to King Aella if possible, my Ellas came from Yorkshire. Any help would be great.

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