I am drawing up a political map of late 7thC Northern Britain. It is incredibly difficult work which requires me to sift through the sources, dozens of papers, chasing down exactly what Bede means when he says imperium or rex, exactly how the Cenél nEógain interacted with Dál Riata, how everyone interacted with the Picts, how the church politics influenced the secular. It is a lot of fun, for all that I complain about not getting any sleep.
In the latter half of the century there are several men whom I’ve taken to calling the “B-men”, after the first letter of their name. Their roles appear to be vaguely defined, but they clearly held positions of great importance on Northumbria’s Pictish frontier. Lately I have been reading into these men, and the titles which are assigned to them by our sources. If I can pin down exactly who they are, and what they are doing, it will go a considerable way to explaining international relations in our period.
The three men are as follows:
Beornhaeth: Described by Eddius Stephanus as audax subregulus (brave underking) in his description of the Ecgfrith’s Pictish war, 671. He also occurs in the Durham Liber vitae, although I have to check that. While whatever region over which he was subregulus is not named, the connections the other two ‘B-men’ have with the Picts and Irish could point toward a location for his dominion.
Fraser claimes that the region of Niuduera, in southern Pictish territory, was held by Bernicians.1 If we accept his argument, it could be reasonable to suppose that Beornhaeth and his kin held the region beneath the imperium of Ecgfrith’s Northumbria. As only Beornhaeth of the three is actually named subregulus by our sources, it may be going too far to title the region a petty kingdom, but it is not inconceivable that it was a high office of some kind, potentially transferable to kin. Eddius may have named Beornhaeth audax subregulus to emphasise this importance rather than ascribing to him royal status.
Berht: described by Bede as dux and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (and the Old English translations of Bede) as ealdorman. It is this Berht who led the 684 attack upon the Irish at Mag Brega. It ‘seems probable’ that this Berht is the same man as the Berctred dux regius killed in 698 in battle against the Picts during the reign of Aldfrith.2 Irish sources tell us that this man is the son of Beornhaeth [AU 697/8].
Berctfrith: Described by Bede as praefectus (ealdorman in ASC), he also fought against the Picts in 711 [HE V.24]. He is described by Eddius as secundus a rege princeps and regis princeps, and appears to have acted as regent for Aldfrith’s son Osred.
I intend to look into the titles used in more detail. My starting point for this is a very useful article from A. T. Thacker whose hand I would now very much like to shake.3
rex: Bede only ever describes English rulers as rex, even as he may describe a dominion as imperium as he does for Oswiu or Ecgfrith. This means that even powerful English rulers have this as an upper limit for their title, relegating all inferiors to lesser titles. Significant men who might well have regarded themselves as full kings are given titles such as subregulus or princeps. My supervisor pointed out to me that Bede was a philologist who knew what words meant; his careful usage here is suggestive. Hrm.
imperium: While Bede is sparing with imperium, it is clear that Ecgfrith retained that kind of power over the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, as well as various other regions during his reign. Overlordship is a fragile thing, as a dominated region lacked any kind of natural unity. It took the greater part of the 7thC to transform Deira and Bernicia into Northumbria; the modern institution of ‘Great Britain’ is scarcely any better despite having existed for centuries.
praefectus: While often translated in OE as gerefa and then in MnE as ‘reeve’, this term was generally applied to men of the highest rank. When it comes to Bercfrith, the term is generally translated ealdorman, signifying that the translators thought of the position as a kind of ‘chief minister’. A significant number of praefecti appear in our sources, describing various figures important to Ecgfrith and his successor Aldfrith. Some appear to be tied to cities, one (Waga) was entrusted with Queen Iurminburg during Ecgfrith’s ill-fated 685 war with the Picts, and another was visited by Saint Cuthbert both as prior and bishop of Lindisfarne.
dux: In the seventh century, dux was not the standard word for an official. Eddius uses it somewhat less frequently than Bede, but for both it generally appears when describing a figure at the head of an army or in another military capacity. It is used in the Vita Wilfridi describe the Frankish mayor of the palace, Ebroin. Those who arrest the saint in 680 are described as duces regis.
dux regius: Among the Anglo-Saxons, men of the royal blood appear to have had prestige similar to that of their reigning kin. Charles-Edwards cites the example of Mul, brother to Caedwalla- the weregild paid for his death was royal.4 Presuming that this also applied to other family members, then it seems likely that Berht and Berctfrith may have had the same petty-royal status as Beornhaeth. This would mean dux regius is translated as ‘royal leader’ rather than ‘king’s leader’. Conversely, Bede describes the leaders of Penda’s army defeated in 655 as duces regii. As there are thirty of them, it is less likely that they are all of royal blood.
princeps: The term was used as a general term for ‘both rulers and their chief subjects’, and was used by the Frankish mayors of the palace during the seventh century. In England the title was used of kings and other royal or possibly royal figures. In the case of Beornhaeth, it could have also been used to describe a powerful member of a family once royal but now subordinate to an overlord. This seems likely, given the subregulus at the top of the group here.
It is difficult to describe these men and their power in modern terms. My supervisor suggested ‘regal’ when we discussed duces regii, before pointing out that ‘regal’ does not have connotations of political power in the modern world. It is clear from the careful use of the Latin titles that these men were not merely warlords or frontier generals. They were cabinet leaders, ministers of war, whose domain appears to have been relations with Pictland- and along with that, perhaps Ireland. That Berht and his family were important is of clear significance to my interest in the 684 attack ordered by Ecgfrith upon Ireland, and unravelling these terms in critical to my understanding.
1. James E Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), pp. 184-5. His argument is based on the conquest of the region by Talorcan, apparently son of Eanfrith. See also Molly Miller, “Eanfrith’s Pictish Son,” Northern History 14 (1978): 47-66 and and the anonymous Life of Cuthbert.
2. Peter Hunter Blair, “Bernicians and their Northern Frontier,” in “The Bernicians and their Northern Frontier.” In Studies in Early British History, 137-172. Ed H.M. Chadwick, Nora K. Chadwick et al, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954), p. 170.
3. “Some Terms for Noblemen in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 650-900.” Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 2 (1981), 201-236. I honestly do not know where I would be without this article.
4. Thomas Charles-Edwards, “Early Medieval Kingships in the British Isles.” In The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, 28-39. Ed. Steven Bassett, (London: Leicester University Press, 1989), p. 38.