Shores of Conquest: Anglo-Saxon Encounters on the Cumbrian Coast

The Anglo-Saxons and Cumbria: The Invasion of 945 AD

The territory of Cumbria was, in the Viking era (c.800-1100), part of the Brittonic kingdom of Strathclyde. Strathclyde stretched from the basin of the River Clyde down to what is now north-western England and the Cumbrian coast which met both the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea. This exquisite 160km stretch of coastline placed Cumbria in an intriguing spot whereby it came into contact with the Scots in the north, the Hiberno-Norse from the west and the Anglo-Saxons in the south.

The Anglo-Saxon Presence

 Edmund I was the king of the English
Edmund I (MS Royal 14 B VI)

In this period the Anglo-Saxons were ruled by Edmund I (r.939-946), a very young man who was not much older than eighteen years of age when he took the throne as king of the English. His particular attention was drawn to Cumbria in what would be the latter years of his reign through his dealings with the Vikings of Northumbria. In around 942, possibly early 943, Anlaf Guthfrithson the Viking leader of Northumbria launched a raid into Anglo-Saxon Mercia. King Edmund swiftly retaliated, forcing Anlaf and his troops back into their own territories in the North. After tense negotiation, Anlaf agreed to make peace as did his cousin Ragnall with whom he was sharing authority over Northumbria, but it was not to last. Before the year was out Edmund had driven north with his army, ousted Anlaf and Ragnall and taken Northumbria into his own kingdom. This created a new north-western frontier in the Stainmore Pass and a border with the Britons in Cumbria.

Prelude to Invasion

It has been argued that during the Viking era the relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and the kingdom of Strathclyde could be categorised as one of mutual hostility. For much of this period kings on the islands of Britain vied for land, wealth and status in a vast power struggle that saw many twists of fate and fortune. However, in the specific case of Edmund it may not have been expansion that made him invade his new neighbours. The kingdom of Strathclyde was no stranger to allying themselves with the Vikings and perhaps Edmund feared that the Strathclyders might pledge to support the Vikings in an attempt to wrestle Northumbria back from the Anglo-Saxons. This would provide a better explanation for the cessation of a peace that had lasted eight years.

The Invasion and its Sources

The Kingdom of Strathclyde circa 940, Wikimedia Commons (

In 945 AD, Edmund and his army invaded. He defeated the forces of Dyfnwal, the king of Strathclyde, and took control of all the lands of Cumbria from its coastline on the Solway Firth to its southern edge on the Irish Sea. This short but successful campaign was noted by several contemporary and near contemporary sources which provide us with some detailed insights into how the Anglo-Saxons went about their conquest. The oldest surviving source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (A) which tells us that “King Edmund harried all of Cumberland and let it to Máel Coluim, king of the Scots, on condition that he be his co-worker on both land and sea.”i What is interesting with this account is we find out that Edmund did not keep Cumbria for himself but instead ‘let’ it to the king of Scots. This idea of being co-workers, found in the text as the Old English midwyrtha or literally ‘together-worker’, probably means that authority over the region was given to Máel Coluim with Edmund as its overlord in exchange for military assistance. This seems like the most prudent thing for Edmund to have done as the threat of the Dublin Vikings to his kingdom was very real at that time and an alliance with the Scots would offer some extra firepower. As for other contemporary sources, the Annales Cambriae which was written about the same time notes the event in a few short words: “Strathclyde was laid waste by the Saxons”.ii

Later chroniclers were able to expand upon the invasion and offer greater insight. For example, Henry of Huntingdon alludes to the fact that the Cumbrians could not be brought under Anglo-Saxon rule by any other means, he writes that invasion was the preferred solution because “(Edmund) was unable wholly to subdue the nation of that province, treacherous and unaccustomed to laws”.iii Almost a century after Henry put pen to paper, Roger of Wendover added yet more details to the account of Edmund’s invasion in his Flowers of History:

“King Edmund, relying on the help of Leolin, king of Dyfed, despoiled the whole of Cumbria of all its property, and having deprived the two sons oof Dunmail, king of that province, of their sight, he gave the kingdom to Máel Coluim, king of the Scots, to hold of him, that he might defend the northern parts of England against raiders by land and by sea.”iv

Firstly, with this account Roger erroneously names Leolin (Welsh: Llewelyn) as King of Dyfed it was in fact Hywel but it is not unlikely however that Edmund was aided by his Welsh allies. Furthermore, we learn that Edmund blinded two of Dunmail’s (Dyfnwal) sons. It has been suggested that this may have been done while the sons were hostages of Edmund in an attempt to force Dyfnwal to concede. However, it is more likely that this mutilation occurred in order to prevent their succession to the throne of Strathclyde, a common medieval practice.

The Chronicle of the Princes, a Welsh source, also provides the following: “In the same year Strathclyde was ravaged by the English, who cruelly slew those whom they found in their way, of the Britons and those who belonged to them”.v This account suggests that it was not just Britons that fell by the Anglo-Saxon’s swords but also non-Brittonic denizens of Cumbria who lived subject to the king of Strathclyde. This may have included Hiberno-Norse and English-speaking settlements. Therefore, it could be suggested that this source supports the argument that the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Cumbria was more about crushing potential resistance than it was about territorial expansion.

The Aftermath

As has already been mentioned, Cumbria was given over to the authority of the Scots as the Anglo-Saxons had traded away the newly conquered land for a militaristic alliance. Moreover, Edmund had severely depleted the resources of Dyfnwal and the Strathclyde armies and ended the threat of their potential allyship with the Vikings. However, this episode did not bring about an end to the kingdom of Strathclyde or even the Brittonic presence in Cumbria. In fact, in the proceeding decades after the death of Edmund (d. 946) and Máel Coluim (d. 954) Cumbria re-established their independence and persisted down to the eleventh century as a functioning political entity. It was not until the campaigns of the Norman king, William Rufus, that Cumbria would finally become a part of the Kingdom of the English.

Written by C. James McPherson MA MSc.

i The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, ed. and trans. Michael Swanton, (London: Phoenix Press, 2000), (A), 945 AD

ii Williams ab Ithel J, ed. Annales Cambriae. Cambridge University Press; 2012, 946 (for 945).

iii Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, D. Greenway (ed.), (Oxford, 1996).

iv Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, H. Coxe (ed.), (London, 1841-2).

v Brut y Tywysogion, J. Williams ab Ithel (ed. and trans.), (London 1860).