April 2, 798: Battle at Whalley: Eardwulf of Northumbria defeats conspiracy of his enemies

We looked once before at the history of Northumbria in the second half of the eighth century and found it a mass of rival claimants, long-running feuds, exiles and surprise attacks and murders, as if Macbeth's croaking raven had taken up permanent residence. This second foray does nothing to dispel that gloom.

On March 22, we noted that in 778, Æthelbald and Heardberht, probably with the connivance of King Æthelred, murdered three high-reeves. Æthelred himself was killed in 796, and after an interim claimant who only lasted 27 days before being banished, Eardwulf came to the throne. Eardwulf had been an ealdorman (high-ranking noble) in Æthelred's reign, and seems to have been sufficiently promising to worry Æthelred, because in 791 Æthelred had Eardwulf captured and brought to Ripon, and ordered him put to death -- but somehow Eardwulf managed to escape.

The great English scholar Alcuin, who wrote the famous lament for the sack of Lindisfarne in 793, wrote a cautiously optimistic letter to Eardwulf at the outset of his reign, urging him to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. But the following year Eardwulf put away his wife, and Alcuin began to expect the worst. The year after there was a great battle at Whalley (a few miles northeast of Blackburn, in Lancs), and many were killed, including Heardberht's son. A later historian, Simeon of Durham, suggests that the battle was fomented by the murderers of King Æthelred -- it may be that Eardwulf's ex-wife came from the families of the murderers and represented the peace between them, and when he put her aside he effectively invited their revolt. Just as Æthelred had tried to do to him, Eardwulf ordered the killing of two important nobles (rival claimants?) in 799 and 800, and Eardwulf was himself forced into exile in 806.

Review the history, 757-806.