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Bernicia (Old English Bernice, Beornice, Latin Bernicia) was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom established by Anglian settlers of the 6th century in what is now southeastern Scotlandmarker and North East England.

The Anglian territory of Bernicia was approximately equivalent to the modern British counties of Northumberlandmarker, Durham, Berwickshiremarker and East Lothianmarker, stretching from the Forth to the Teesmarker. In the early 7th century, it merged with its southern neighbour, Deira, to form the kingdom of Northumbriamarker and its borders subsequently expanded considerably.

British Bryneich


Bernicia is mentioned in the 9th-century Historia Brittonum (§ 61) under the Welsh name of Berneich or Birneich and in Old Welsh poetry and elsewhere under the name of Bryneich or Brynaich. It is not quite clear whether these forms represent a Welsh version of Bernicia, or reflect the name of a preceding Brythonic kingdom or province, which was subsequently adopted by the Anglian settlers and rendered as Bernice or Beornice in the Old English tongue. The latter hypothesis is usually accepted, though no etymology has produced consensus. The etymology which is most widely cited is that tentatively proposed by Kenneth H. Jackson, which gives the meaning "Land of the Mountain Passes" or "Land of the Gaps". The earlier derivation from the tribal name of the Brigantes has been dismissed as linguistically unsound. More recently, however, John T. Koch has suggested that while the primary form is probably *Bernech, it was conflated with the native form *Brïγent for the old civitas Brigantum as a result of Anglian expansion in that territory during the 7th century.

Whatever the etymology, political activity in the area before the Anglian advent is suggested by other linguistic evidence. A few important Anglian centres in Bernicia bear names of British origin or are known by British names elsewhere: Bamburghmarker is called Din Guaire in the Historia Brittonum; Dunbarmarker (where Saint Wilfrid was once imprisoned) represents Dinbaer; and the name of Coldinghammarker is given by Bede as Coludi urbs ("town of Colud"), where Colud seems to represent the British form, possibly for the hill-fort of St Abb's Headmarker.

Political history and memory

The Brythonic kingdom of the area was formed from what had once been the southern lands of the Votadini, possibly as part of the division of a supposed 'great northern realm' of Coel Hen in c. AD 420. This northern realm is referred to by Welsh scholars as Yr Hen Ogledd or, literally, "The Old North". The kingdom may have been ruled from the site that later became the Englishmarker Bamburghmarker, which certainly features in Welsh sources as Din Guardi. Near this high-status residence lay the island of Lindisfarnemarker (formerly known, in Welsh, as Ynys Metcaut), which became the seat of the Bernician bishops. It is unknown when the Angles finally conquered the whole region, but around 604 is likely.

Kings of British Bryneich

There are several Old Welsh pedigrees of princely "Men of the North" (Gwŷr y Gogledd) which may represent the kings of the British kingdom in the area, which may have been called Bryneich. John Morris surmised that the line of a certain Morcant Bulc referred to these monarchs, chiefly because he identified this man as the murderer of Urien Rheged who was, at the time, besieging Lindisfarnemarker.

English Bernicia

Some of the Angles of Bernicia ( ) may have been employed as mercenaries along Hadrian's Wallmarker during the late Roman period. Others are thought to have migrated north (by sea) from Deira ( or Dere) in the early 6th century. The first Anglian king in the historical record is Ida, who is said to have obtained the throne and the kingdom about 547. His sons spent many years fighting a united force from the surrounding Brythonic kingdoms until their alliance collapsed into civil war.

A forcibly united Northumbria

Ida’s grandson, Æthelfrith (Æðelfriþ), united Deira with his own kingdom by force around the year 604. He ruled the two kingdoms (united as Northumbria) until he was defeated and killed by Rædwald of East Anglia (who had given refuge to Edwin, son of Ælle, king of Deira) around the year 616. Edwin then became king. The early part of Edwin's reign was possibly spent finishing off the remaining resistance coming from the Brythonic exiles of the old British kingdom, operating out of Gododdin. After he had defeated the remaining Brythonic population of the area, he was then drawn towards similar subjugation of Elmet (a Cumbric speaking territory which once existed in the modern-day West Riding of Yorkshire, near Leedsmarker) which drew him into direct conflict with Wales proper.

Following the disastrous Battle of Hatfield Chasemarker on 12 October, 633, in which Edwin was defeated and killed by Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwyneddmarker and Penda of Mercia, Northumbria again was divided into Bernicia and Deira. Bernicia was then briefly ruled by Eanfrith, son of Aethelfrith, but after about a year he went to Cadwallon to sue for peace and was killed. Eanfrith's brother Oswald then raised an army and finally defeated Cadwallon at the Battle of Heavenfield in 634. After this victory, Oswald appears to have been recognised by both Bernicians and Deirans as king of a properly united Northumbria. The kings of Bernicia were thereafter supreme in that kingdom, although Deira had its own sub-kings at times during the reigns of Oswiu and his son Ecgfrith.

Kings of Bernicia

(see also List of monarchs of Northumbria)

Under Deiran rule 616 - 633)

Under Oswald son of Æthelfrith, Bernicia was united with Deira to form Northumbriamarker from 634 onward.


  1. Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain, pp. 701-5; Rollason, Northumbria 500-1100, p. 81.
  2. Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain, pp. 701-5; Jackson, The Gododdin, p. 81.
  3. Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin, p. 216 note 566.
  4. Rollason, Northumbria 500-1100, p. 81.
  5. John Morris
  6. The History of England - From the Earliest Times to the Norman Conquest By Thomas Hodgkin, Published by READ BOOKS, 2007, ISBN 1406708968, 9781406708967


  • Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.
  • Jackson, Kenneth H. (1953). Language and History in Early Britain. Edinburgh University Press.
  • Jackson, Kenneth H. (1969). The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish poem. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Koch, John T. (1997). The Gododdin of Aneurin: Text and context from Dark-Age North Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1374-4
  • Rollason, David W. (2003). Northumbria, 500–1100: Creation and Destruction of a Kingdom. Cambridge. ISBN 0521813352.

Further reading

  • Alcock, Leslie, Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain AD 550–850. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003. ISBN 0-903903-24-5
  • Alcock, Leslie, Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology, AD 367–634. Penguin, London, 1989. ISBN 0-14-139069-7
  • Higham, N.J., The Kingdom of Northumbria AD 350–1100. Sutton, Stroud, 1993. ISBN 0-86299-730-5
  • Lowe, Chris, The Making of Scotland: Angels, Fools and Tyrants: Britons and Angles in Southern Scotland. Canongate, Edinburgh, 1999. ISBN 978-0862418755
  • Morris, John, The Age of Arthur. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1973. ISBN 0-297-17601-3
  • Ziegler, Michelle. " The Politics of Exile in Early Northumbria." The Heroic Age 2 (1999). Online.

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