Edwin: Northumbria’s Shining Star

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Northumbria was the largest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, comprising the former lands of Bernicia and Deira. As such, it wielded more than just geographical power. The sheer numbers of soldiers that Northumbria could turn out for an engagement were more than a little imposing, and the other kingdoms of the Heptarchy grumbled and groaned and sometimes found themselves on the sharp end of the sword.

Such was the case in 616, when Edwin came to the Northumbrian throne. This was the first instance of the true Northumbria, both kingdoms having been subdued and forged into one large kingdom. The boundary in the north was varied, according to Scottish settlements; in the south, the boundary was the Humber River. In truth, it was a large kingdom.

Edwin had even larger ambitions: He wanted to rule the entire Island. He nearly got it.

For nearly 17 years, Edwin’s Northumbrians waged war on their former Germanic tribesmen, going so far as, so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us, to have “subdued all Britain, except the men of Kent alone.” This was a momentous achievement. Such a domination would not be seen for another 200 years.

Big moments in Edwin’s life include his marriage to Ethelburga, the daughter of Kent’s King Ethelbert, and his conversion to Christianity. For both of these things, he is revered in the Anglo-Saxon tradition as a hero.

Yet there was this other thing, the Bretwalda thing. He got the title by killing hundreds of his fellow Germanics, and he lorded it over them by having a tufa (a tuft of feathers on a spear, a military ensign of Roman origin) precede him in public processions. (As if the vanquished didn’t know who their vanquisher was!)

Anyway, Edwin’s ambition finally got the better of him. He was killed at Hatfield Chase in 633 by a rather odd coalition of the forces of Penda, king of Mercia, and Cadwalla, king of Gwynedd. (Gwynedd, you’ll remember, was in Wales. Edwin had overrun Gwynedd as well by 627.)

Northumbria was dismembered and transformed back into its two original kingdoms. Penda of Mercia became the leading Germanic figure at this time. But Edwin left behind quite a large legacy.