The Northumbrian Saga follows the life of Aethelwin, a fictional niece of King Osbert of Northumbria and Aelle the usurper of the Northumbrian throne. Whilst these two men were real figures in Northumbrian history, there is one more member of Aethelwin’s family who is based on a real person. Aethelwin is the youngest child of the fictional Aeldorman Paega and Lady Ethelflaeda, and likewise her brothers Caedmon, Eadwine and Wulfstan are also fictional. However, Aethelwin’s eldest brother Caedmon and his wife Beornwynn have a child, a son called Aedwulf. The couple are likewise a product of my imagination, but Aedwulf is based on a man called Eadwulf, earl of Bamburgh. It is through this very real historical figure that many of the future earls of Bamburgh are descended.
During the Viking invasions of Northumbria south of the Tyne river, those lands in the north seem to have escaped much of the devastation and later rule of York. The old kings of Northumbria were dead which meant that a new power structure had to be in place within northern Northumbria after 866. As there is no surviving information on possible surviving descendants of Aelle or Osbert (which you would expect from at least some of the surviving sources), it is likely that the power vacuum left behind was filled by the surviving aeldormen and earls. Bamburgh is the one seat of power consistently mentioned throughout the available sources, so it is conceivable that whoever held power here, also held power or at the very least considerable influence, over the remaining aeldormen and earls in the region.
This man seems to be Eadwulf
It is not known when Eadwulf (also known as Eadulf/Aedulf) was born or who his ancestors were, only that he died in 913, an event that was recorded by Archbishop Aethelweard, the Irish Annals of Ulster, the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, and the Annals of Clonmacnoise. The fragmentary annals of Ireland call him Eadulf, king of the northern Saxons. Aethelweard calls him Reeve of Bamburgh, although other documents name him as having the more powerful and possibly more accurate title of Aeldorman of Bamburgh.
Unfortunately, we do not know when Aedulf occupied this position. What we do know is that he held power at some time during the reign of Alfred the Great. We know this because later on we are introduced to one of his sons, who is described in the Historia de sancto Cuthberto as ‘a friend (more likely an ally) of King Edward, just as his father Eadwulf had been a favourite of King Alfred.’ It is likely that this happened between the late 870s (876 at the very earliest) and say 899/900 when Alfred the Great died. Eadwulf probably came to power after a man called Egbert the Second who is mentioned by Roger of Wendover as taking over the rule of Northumbria ‘beyond the river Tyne’ after King Ricsige’s death in 876. Unfortunately, there is no evidence pertaining to the length of his reign as King/Aeldorman so the best we can do is give his successor Eadwulf a starting date at some point after this.
There is also conjecture that Eadwulf eventually extended his power further south and ruled York after Halfdan died in 877/8. Evidence for this seems to hinge on the fact that after Halfdan there is a gap in the succession of King’s of York until King Guthrum in 883. The fact that Eadwulf is mentioned as being a king in one Irish source and was at that time the only known power in the region are really the only two points which recommend this outcome. Of course anything is possible and connections have been made on less evidence than this.
As far as family are concerned, all we know is that he had at least two sons, named Eadred and Uhtred. We are not told of his wife’s name, however she is mentioned in the scandalous events immediately after Eadwulf’s death.
The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto is the only source which gives us any information on the nature of Eadwulf’s death. In 913 a man named Edred rides west beyond the Pennine Mountains and kills ‘Prince Eardulf’. He then seizes his wife ‘against the peace and wishes of the people’, before fleeing to the lands of St Cuthbert in Durham (also known then as Chester-le-street). The plot thickens here, as we are also told that this edred is none other than the son of Rixing, better known as Ricsige. It seems that the dynastic feuding that had plagued Northumbria before the Danish incursions has continued on in northern Northumbria. Ricsige had of course been king of York for a very brief period in 972 before he was run out by Halfdan. He continued to fight against the Danes as they attacked Northumbria and parts of Scotland in 875 but was eventually killed. This Edred who has now appeared, murdering the powerful Aeldorman of Bamburgh and stealing away his wife, has the appearance of a man desperately trying to wrest power for himself. If Edred is indeed the son of the late King Ricsige, then the murder of Eadwulf by him makes more sense.
Frustratingly, we only know a few key facts about Eadwulf and therefore much of the embellishments, including his demise and the identity and motive of his murderer, are little more than possabilities. All we know is that he surely was a powerful man, to be only an Aeldorman yet known well enough to be mentioned in Irish chronicles when even the most famous anglo-saxon kings are ignored. We also know that however he died in 913, he left behind a son to carry on at Bamburgh and thus create a line of powerful and influential men for many decades and centuries to come.