Much of early medieval history consists of making interesting assertions based on limited evidence. This is particularly true of the early history of northern Britain, and a couple of weeks ago we got a master class on it with Alex Woolf’s paper at the IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on “The wasting of Brega, 684: beyond the Anglo-Irish paradigm.” There are only two contemporary accounts of the wasting of Brega, and Alex started by giving us both of them. The first is from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, 4-26:
In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 684, Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians, sending Beort, his general, with an army, into Ireland, miserably wasted that harmless nation, which had always been most friendly to the English; insomuch that in their hostile rage they spared not even the churches or monasteries. Those islanders , to the utmost of their power, repelled force with force, and imploring the assistance of the Divine mercy, prayed long and fervently for vengeance and though such as curse cannot possess the kingdom of God, it is believed, that those who were justly cursed on account of their impiety, did soon suffer the penalty of their guilt from the avenging hand of God; for the very next year, that same king, rashly leading his army to ravage the province of the Picts, much against the advice of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert, of blessed memory, who had been lately ordained bishop, the enemy made show as if they fled, and the king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the greatest part of his forces, on the 20th of May, in the fortieth year of his age, and the fifteenth of his reign. His friends, as has been said, advised him not to engage in this war; but he having the year before refused to listen to the most reverend father, Egbert, advising him not to attack the Scots, who did him no harm, it was laid upon him as a punishment for his sin, that he “should not now regard those who would have prevented his death.
The second is from the Annals of Ulster for 684:
The Saxons wasted the Plain of Brega and many churches in the month of June.
On this small quantity of (probable) fact, a number of theories have been built on the reason for the only known English attack on Ireland in the period. Part of Alex’s paper was pointing out that previous theories didn’t hold water. For example, Alfred Smyth and others have argued that the Irish were planning to overthrow Ecgfrith and replace him with his half-brother Aldfrith, and that Ecgfrith was making a pre-emptive response to this. But as Barbara Yorke has commented, there’s no evidence for the alleged plot, and Aldfrith was probably Ecgfrith’s heir anyhow, as he had no sons and his legitimate brother had been killed.
Thomas Charles Edwards, meanwhile, has seen the attack as an early form of crusading, with Ecgfrith’s warrior ambitions running in tandem with St Wilfred’s claim to be the metropolitan for the north of Ireland. In contrast, the kings of Brega had been supporting the bishops of Armagh against the bishops of York. Charles Edwards also links this to the adoption of the Roman Easter in the area, which happened between 684-688.
However there were actually three Easters (the Irish, the Victorine and the Dionysian) and Alex argued that the change was probably made in 688, when the 84 year and 19 year cycles gave the same date for Easter, and it would be easier to swap. Thus this was not directly connected to the raid. In addition, Wilfred had been exiled from Northumbria in 678, and though he probably returned, was then exiled again. (In post-drink discussions I was arguing for St Wilfred to be the World’s Stroppiest Saint). So it’s unlikely that Ecgfrith was greatly influenced by him in 684.
In addition, the Easter controversy probably wasn’t as important as Stephen of Ripon (Wilfred’s biographer) and Bede make it out to be. For example, although early in Ecgfrith’s reign Ripon was endowed with large estates that British clergy had been driven from, it shows that they hadn’t been removed after the Synod of Whitby in 664. This large scale endowment also seems only to have been a brief phase. The actual relations of the British and English were probably better than Stephen and Bede imply: for example, Cuthbert still had links to Iona, and Wilfred seems to have been the only person accusing the Irish of being heretics. Alex thought that the Synod of Whitby was probably more about Oswiu (Ecgfrith’s father) attempts to prevent his son Alhfrith set up a breakaway church in Deira.
Whitby, in Alex’s view, didn’t break down the good relations between the northern Ui Neill and the Northumbrians. Ecgfrith himself was culted in Iona on 27th May, a date seven days after the battle of Dun Nechtain, which raises that the possibility that he survived that long after the battle and was taken to Iona to die. Simeon of Durham in the twelfth century independently says that Ecgfrith was buried on Iona.
Rather than the events of 684 being about “English” versus “Irish”, Alex thought, it was instead mostly about alliances and rivalries between kingdoms in Ireland, Scotland and England. In particular, he saw evidence of a long term alliance between the northern Ui Neill (the Cenel Connail, associated with St Columba), Iona and Bernicia. Their rivals were the southern Ui Neill (the Síl nÁedo Sláine) of the kingdom of Brega, whose king, Finsnecta Fledach, was the last of his line to be king of Tara for centuries. Rather than the alternation of kingship between the southern and northern Ui Neill in the eight-tenth centuries, there seems to have been bloody strife between them. Adomnan’s Vita Columbae, written in the 690s is hostile to the southern clan and to the men of Brega, but refers to links between Columba and Northumbria.
Alex also tied this in with Ecgfrith’s raid on Fortriu, which had become the dominant power in the north, as shown by its wasting of Orkney and attack on Dunnotter. Adomnan talks about the potentially hostile king Breda in the Vita Columbae, and it is possible he thought that Fortriu was a threat. Ecgfrith’s campaign in 685 may have been intended in defence of Iona and the Dal Riata. Similarly, his attack on Ireland was not an attack on “the Irish”, but in defence of what Alex described as a ‘banana-shaped’ alliance extending from northern Ireland via southern Scotland to northern England. The theory sounded plausible to me, as a complete outsider, but anyone who knows better is welcome to raise objections in the comments…