Uhtred of Bamburgh: The Bold Ruler of Northumbria

Uhtred of Bamburgh, also known as Uhtred the Bold or Uchtred, was a remarkable figure in the history of Northumbria. From ruling over Bamburgh to serving as the ealdorman of Northumbria from 1006 to 1016, Uhtred left an indelible mark on the region.

Born as the son of Waltheof I, the ruler of Bamburgh, Uhtred of Bamburgh hailed from the Eadwulfing family, which had governed the surrounding area for over a century. However, his life was cut short by an assassination, marking the beginning of a blood feud. It is essential to distinguish him from Uhtred of Bamburgh, the son of Eadwulf I of Bamburgh.

Uhtred’s Accomplishments

In 995, Uhtred of Bamburgh embarked on a significant endeavour when he accompanied his monks to Durham to clear the site for the new cathedral, where the remains of St Cuthbert were to be transferred from Chester-le-Street. This cathedral was established by Bishop Aldhun, who later became Uhtred’s father-in-law. Uhtred married Aldhun’s daughter, Ecgfrida, around this time and received numerous estates as part of the marriage agreement.

In 1006, King Malcolm II of Scotland invaded Northumbria, laying siege to the newly founded episcopal city of Durham. With the Danes wreaking havoc in southern England and King Ethelred unable to provide assistance to the Northumbrians, the responsibility fell on Uhtred’s shoulders.

While the elderly Ealdorman Waltheof remained in Bamburgh, and Ealdorman Ælfhelm of York took no action, Uhtred of Bamburgh rallied an army from Bernicia and Yorkshire. He led his forces against the Scots and emerged victorious in a decisive battle. As a gruesome reminder of their triumph, the heads of the defeated Scots were displayed on stakes along the walls of Durham, and the local women were compensated with a cow for each severed head.

Impressed by Uhtred’s valiant efforts, King Ethelred rewarded him with the Ealdormanry of Bamburgh, even though his father was still alive. Furthermore, Ethelred orchestrated the murder of Ælfhelm and allowed Uhtred of Bamburgh to succeed him as the ealdorman of York. This move united northern and southern Northumbria under the banner of the House of Bamburgh. Ethelred’s decision was likely motivated by his lack of trust in the Scandinavian population of southern Northumbria and his desire for an Anglo-Saxon leader in that position.

After these significant honours, Uhtred of Bamburgh divorced his wife, Ecgfrida, and married Sige, the daughter of Ulf’s son, Styr, a wealthy citizen of York. This marriage aimed to forge political alliances with the Danes in Deira. With Sige, Uhtred of Bamburgh had two children named Eadulf (later known as Eadulf III) and Gospatric. Gospatric’s grandson, Eadwulf Rus, infamously murdered Bishop Walcher.

In 1013, King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England, making his way up the Humber and Trent rivers to the town of Gainsborough. Uhtred, along with all the Danes in the north, submitted to Sweyn’s rule. As Ethelred was forced into exile in Normandy during the winter of 1013, Sweyn was acknowledged as the king by Christmas of that year. However, Sweyn’s reign was short-lived, as he passed away near Gainsborough on February 2, 1014.

Following Sweyn’s death, Ethelred returned from exile and reclaimed his throne. Uhtred, together with Ingram from Otara and many others, switched their allegiance back to Ethelred. Uhtred also married Ethelred’s daughter, Ælfgifu, during this period.

The Demise of Uhtred of Bamburgh

In 1016, Uhtred joined forces with Edmund Ironside, Ethelred’s son, for a campaign in Cheshire and the surrounding shires. While Uhtred was away from his lands, Cnut, Sweyn’s son, invaded Yorkshire. Uhtred recognized the strength of Cnut’s forces and chose to submit to him, acknowledging Cnut as the King of England.

Summoned to a peace meeting with Cnut, Uhtred and forty of his men were ambushed and killed by Thurbrand the Hold at Wighill. This treacherous act was orchestrated with Cnut’s approval. Following Uhtred’s death, his brother Eadwulf Cudel succeeded him in Bernicia. Cnut appointed the Norwegian noble Eric of Hlathir as the ealdorman in southern Northumbria.

Marriages and Legacy

Uhtred entered into three marriages, each resulting in children. His first marriage, around 995, was to Ecgfrida, Bishop Aldhun of Durham‘s daughter. Although Uhtred later repudiated her before 1006, they had a son named Ealdred, who became the Earl of Northumbria and died in 1038.

His second marriage was to Sige, the daughter of Styr Ulfsson of York, around 1004. As a condition of their marriage, Uhtred was supposed to kill Styr’s enemy, Thurbrand. However, this act never came to pass. Despite their separation around 1006, Uhtred and Sige had two children: Eadulf, who succeeded his brother Ealdred as the Earl of Northumbria and died in 1041, and Gospatric, who became the father or grandfather of Eadulf Rus.

In his final marriage, Uhtred wedded Ælfgifu, the daughter of King Æthelred the Unready. Together, they had a daughter named Ealdgyth, who became the ancestress of the Earls of Dunbar. Ealdgyth married Maldred, referred to as the son of ‘thegn Crínán’ in De Obsessione Dunelmi. Although some doubt exists, Maldred might have been the brother of Duncan I of Scotland, and this union would connect Uhtred’s lineage to Scottish nobility.

Descendants and Feuds

The murder of Uhtred by Thurbrand the Hold ignited a long-lasting blood feud, chronicled in the historical work De Obsessione Dunelmi. Uhtred’s son, Ealdred, eventually avenged his father’s death by killing Thurbrand. However, Ealdred met his demise at the hands of Thurbrand’s son, Carl.

The vengeance for Uhtred had to wait until the 1070s when Waltheof II, Ealdred’s grandson, ordered the killing of most of Carl’s sons and grandsons. This example epitomizes the infamous Northumbrian blood feuds prevalent during that era.

Uhtred’s dynasty continued to hold power in Bernicia. He was succeeded by his son Ealdred, Earl of Bamburgh, who was later killed in 1038. Following Ealdred’s death, his brother Eadulf assumed the position of Earl of Northumbria but was also slain in 1041.

After the Norman Conquest, Eadulf’s son Osulf briefly held the earldom of northern Northumbria in 1067 until he, too, was killed. Uhtred’s grandson from his third marriage, Gospatric, then became the Earl of Northumbria from 1068 to 1072 before being forced to flee to Scotland.

The next earl was Waltheof II, the maternal grandson of Ealdred, who was eventually deprived of his title and executed for treason in 1076. In response to the murder of Walcher, the Norman Bishop of Durham, by Eadulf Rus, a descendant of Uhtred, William the Conqueror sent an army to ravage the region once again. In Scotland, the descendants of Earl Gospatric held the Earldom of Dunbar for many generations.

Uhtred of Bamburgh: The Bold Ruler of Northumbria
The name of Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria as it appears on folio 153r of British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B I (the “C” version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle): “Uhtrede eorle”. | Image: British Library website (Cotton MS Tiberius B I), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Influence on Popular Culture

Uhtred the Bold has left an enduring legacy that continues to captivate imaginations. Bernard Cornwell, upon discovering his descent from Uhtred the Bold, found inspiration to write his compelling book series, The Saxon Stories.

The protagonist of the series, Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg, draws inspiration from the legendary Uhtred. While the series incorporates certain events from Uhtred the Bold’s life, it is important to note that the main character, Uhtred, is a fictional creation living in the 9th century, over a hundred years prior to the historical Uhtred the Bold.

The fictional Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg also takes centre stage in the television series The Last Kingdom and the film The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die, both based on The Saxon Stories.

Adrian Mourby‘s radio plays, The Corsaint (c. 1986) and its sequel, The King of the North Rides his Horse through the Sky (1992), provide dramatic interpretations of the siege of Durham and the display of severed heads, events associated with the historical Uhtred. These plays were broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

In conclusion, Uhtred of Bamburgh, the valiant ruler of Northumbria, left an indelible mark on the region’s history. His accomplishments, marriages, and tragic demise shaped the course of events during a tumultuous era. While the historical Uhtred’s tale continues to capture the imagination, his legacy lives on in the fictional world as Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg.

*Feature Image: The name of Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria as it appears on folio 153r of British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B I (the “C” version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle): “Uhtrede eorle”. | Image: British Library website (Cotton MS Tiberius B I), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons