King of Kings has a number of characters, and King Ealdred, or Lord Ealdred of Bamburgh is one of them. But who was he, and what was the independent kingdom of Bamburgh?
Now, I think we all ‘think’ we know about Bebbanburg (Bamburgh) thanks to Uhtred of Bebbanburg, Bernard Cornwell’s creation. But events in Bamburgh are complex and not easy to understand, even for someone who might think they know the period quite well.
So what was Bamburgh? Bamburgh is traditionally associated with the kingdom of Bernicia – the far northern Saxon kingdom, which was particularly prominent during the seventh century, so three hundred years before the events of King of Kings, and which was joined to the kingdom of Deira to form Northumbria. Check out my Gods and Kings trilogy for the some of the events of this period.
The iconic castle that stands today is a later building, the oldest part, the keep, dating to the end of the Saxon period, while much of what we see today is the later work of Lord Armstrong (who built Cragside), when he significantly repaired the remains. Indeed, the family still own Bamburgh Castle, although not Cragside, which is a National Trust property. (I’ve written a 1930s mystery set at Cragside).
Bamburgh is slightly unusual in that there are old images of the castle before the 19th century work of Armstrong. I enjoy collecting these antique prints. We often find such buildings falling into ruin, not being ruined and the rebuilt.
And Bamburgh Castle and its environs are stuffed with archaeology. There were some very famous archaeological investigations undertaken in the 1960s, and there’s now a dedicated team unearthing the treasures hidden beneath the current building. You can follow the teams work at Bamburgh Research Project’s Blog. You might know about Bamburgh because of the seventh century bones discovered in the Bole Hole, and there’s a great book about this, Warrior by Edoardo Albert and Paul Gething – available from all good book sellers. You can also learn about where these bones now lie by checking out Bamburgh Bones.
But, all this is before the events of the tenth-century (or after), as fascinating as it is. So, what was happening in the tenth-century? The easiest way I can describe this is that while York, and much of the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria was inundated with the Norse (Viking raiders if you will), Bamburgh was a bastion against this influx, wedged between the growing might of the kingdom of the Scots, ruled by Constantin, and the constantly changing affairs of York, and its string of Norse rulers, often associated with Dublin as well.
Ealdred’s father, Eadwulf is somewhat better attested, with the Annals of Ulster naming him as ‘king of the Saxons of the north.’ He died in c.913 and then Ealdred seems to have had a difficult time of it, his gaze more likely to turn to the Scots kingdom than the known Saxon rulers based in Mercia and Wessex when he was threatened by the Norse Viking raiders.
However, he joined an alliance with Edward the Elder, king of the Anglo-Saxons, in 924.
‘And then the king of Scots and all the nation of Scots chose him as father and lord; and [so also did] Reginald and Eadwulf’s sons and all those who live in Northumbria, both English and Danish and Norweigans and others; and also the king of the Strathclyde Britons and all the Strathclyde Britons.’
(Swanton, M. trans and edit The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, (Orion Publishing Group, 2000 p.104 (A text )
While this can’t be dated any more precisely than 924, it mustn’t have been long before the death of Edward the Elder, which occurred in 924. And this then takes us to the beginning of King of Kings. Will Ealdred continue his alliance with the new king of the Anglo-Saxons, or will he look elsewhere, especially now that the Viking raider, Sihtric, is lord of York/Jorvik?
As to Uhtred himself, of The Last Kingdom fame, he’s even more shadowy than Ealdred, and for that reason, doesn’t feature at all in King of Kings, although there is an ealdorman Uhtred who will appear in subsequent books.
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