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(d. 759)
  • David Rollason

Oswulf (d. 759), king of Northumbria, was the son of Eadberht (d. 768) and descendant of the founder of the Bernician royal house, Ida, via his son Ocga. He succeeded to the throne on his father's abdication in 758, only to be killed by his household (familia) on 24 July 759 at a place called ‘Methil Wongtun’, which has not been identified but may be identical with ‘Medilwong’, referred to in the anonymous life of St Cuthbert. His successor, Æthelwold Moll (fl. 759–765), was of unknown ancestry. If he was the same person as the Moll in whose favour, according to a letter of Pope Paul I, King Eadberht had alienated the monasteries of Coxwold and Stonegrave, in what is now Yorkshire, and the unidentified ‘Donamuthe’, he was presumably a leading official of that king, since the letter refers to him as a 'patrician' (patricius). Little is known of his reign. In 761 he defeated and killed a certain Oswin, perhaps a claimant to the throne, at Eildon, in modern Northumberland, and on 1 November 762 he married Æthelthryth at Catterick. In 765 he is recorded as having 'lost the kingdom of the Northumbrians' on 30 October at an unidentified place called ‘Pincanheale’ (Symeon of Durham, Opera, 2.43). Since this is elsewhere referred to as a meeting-place of Northumbrian councils, it is possible that Æthelwold Moll was deposed in such a body.

The next king, Alhred (fl. 765–774), claimed descent from another collateral branch of the family of Ida, deriving from the latter's son Eadric. That his family may have been connected with the Tyne area is suggested by the fact that his son Osred II was buried at Tynemouth. Alhred minted coins and, in 768, he married Osgifu, apparently a daughter of the former king Oswulf, perhaps to strengthen his position. He patronized missionary activity on the continent and there has survived a letter from him and Osgifu to the Anglo-Saxon missionary bishop Lul, referring to the exchanging of names for commemoration in the mass between England and the continent, and asking particularly that Lul should 'help and care for our embassies to your lord the most glorious King Charles [Charlemagne], that you may make peace and amity, which are proper to all, to be firmly strengthened between us' (Tangl, no. 121; English Historical Documents, 1, no. 187). The letter also alludes, however, to disturbances in the churches and people of Northumbria, which seems consistent with a report in another source of how Liudger, the future bishop of Münster, had to return to Frisia because of civil disturbances at York, where he was studying. Finally, in 774, King Alhred was 'deprived of the society of the royal household and nobles, by the counsel and consent of all his people' (Symeon of Durham, Opera, 2.45), and fled first to Bamburgh, and then into exile in the kingdom of the Picts. As with Oswulf, his deposition hints at the power of the Northumbrian council.

The Northumbrians then accepted as king Æthelred I (d. 796), son of the former king Æthelwold Moll. In view of the fact that his father's marriage had taken place only in 762, he may have been a child at his accession. Little is known of his 'first' reign, and only one coin has been assigned to it. In 778 he ordered the killing of three ealdormen (duces) and in 779 he was driven into exile, to be replaced by a member of the line of Eadberht, Ælfwald I (d. 788), son of the former king Oswulf. In 786 Ælfwald received in his kingdom George, bishop of Ostia and legate of the pope, who held an important council, attended by Ælfwald and the secular and ecclesiastical magnates of Northumbria. This promulgated a series of decrees, including one requiring that kings be of legitimate birth and anathematizing any who conspired to kill a king. Ironically, Ælfwald himself was murdered. The killing occurred at a place called ‘Scythlescester’, near Hadrian's Wall, on 23 September 788 as a result of a conspiracy formed by his patrician Sicga, whose name had come at the head of the lay representatives at the 786 council. The king was buried at Hexham and apparently regarded as a martyr, for according to the annals a heavenly light was seen at the place of his death and a church constructed there. The reign had not been an altogether settled one, for the annals report the killing at Christmas 780 of Ælfwald's patrician Bearn at the hands of two ealdormen. Alcuin indeed regarded the reign as inaugurating a period of moral decline: 'From the days of King Ælfwald fornications, adulteries, and incest have flooded the land, so that these sins have been committed without any shame and even with the handmaids of God' (Dümmler, no. 16; English Historical Documents, 1, no. 193).

Following a short reign by Osred II, Æthelred I was restored to the throne in 789, and enjoyed a second reign. In 792 he married Ælfflæd, daughter of King Offa of Mercia, at Catterick. He appears to have been a ruthless ruler: in 790 he captured, tonsured, and then exiled the former king Osred II; in the same year he made an unsuccessful attempt to execute the nobleman and future king Eardwulf; in 791 he persuaded the sons of the former king Ælfwald I to leave their sanctuary in St Peter's, York, under false promises and had them drowned; and in 792 he had Osred killed after his abortive attempt to return from exile. In 796, however, Æthelred was himself murdered, at Corbridge according to one source, by two ealdormen. Although Æthelred had enjoyed the support of Charlemagne, who sent him gifts, he was severely criticized by Alcuin for luxurious living and immorality.


  • B. Colgrave, ed. and trans., Two lives of Saint Cuthbert (1940)
  • M. Tangl, ed., Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, MGH Epistolae Selectae, 1 (Berlin, 1916)
  • A. W. Haddan and W. Stubbs, eds., Councils and ecclesiastical documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, 1 (1869)
  • S. Lebecq, Marchands et navigateurs frisons du haut moyen âge, 2 vols. (1983)
  • J. J. North, English hammered coinage, 3rd edn, 1: Early Anglo-Saxon to Henry III, c.600–1272 (1994)
  • D. P. Kirby, The earliest English kings (1991)
  • English historical documents, 1, ed. D. Whitelock (1955)
T. Arnold, ed., , 2 vols., RS, 75 (1882–5); repr. (1965)
Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae [ in quarto]