Eric Bloodaxe - Eric's Death

Eric's Death

The Chronicle gives no explanation, but it seems as if Amlaíb's and Eric's abdication are described as being essentially northern affairs, apparently without any great deal of (direct) West-Saxon intervention, let alone invasion. The historical accounts of Eric's death point to more complex circumstances, but Northumbrian politics are to the fore. Following a report on William I's invasion of Scotland in 1072, the Historia regum attributed to Symeon of Durham recalls that Eric was driven out and slain by one Maccus son of Onlaf. The Flores historiarum (early 13th century) by Roger of Wendover is thought to have relied on a northern source now lost to us when it adds the following details:

... rex Eilricus in quadam solitudine quae 'Steinmor' dicitur, cum filio suo Henrico et fratre Reginaldo, proditione Osulfi comitis, a Macone consule fraudulenter interempti sunt, ac deinde in partibus illis rex Eadredus regnavit.
"King Eric was treacherously killed by Earl Maccus in a certain lonely place which is called Stainmore, with his son Haeric and his brother Ragnald, betrayed by Earl Oswulf; and then afterwards King Eadred ruled in these districts."

Stainmore, previously in Westmorland (Cumbria) until the reform of April 1974, lies in the main pass through the northern Pennines, the Stainmore Pass or Gap, which marks the boundary between Cumbria in the west and modern Durham in the east. It is here that the mountains are traversed by an old Roman road – more or less followed by the A66 today – leading from York to Catterick and northwestwards from Catterick (via Bowes, Stainmore, Brough, Appleby and Penrith) to Carlisle. Eric may therefore have followed by and large the same route that St Cathroé had taken, except in opposite direction, possibly with Strathclyde or the Hebrides as his intended destination.

The comes Osulf who betrayed Eric was high-reeve of the northern half of Northumbria centred on Bamburgh, roughly corresponding to the former kingdom of Bernicia. He clearly benefited from his murderous plot against Eric. The Historia regum says that the province of Northumbria was henceforward administered by earls and records the formal appointment of Osulf as earl of Northumbria the following year. Likewise, the early 12th-century De primo Saxonum adventu notes that “irst of the earls after Erik, the last king whom the Northumbrians had, Osulf administered under King Eadred all the provinces of the Northumbrians.” By contrast, the identity of Eric's slayer, the comes Maccus son of Anlaf, is unclear. His name may point to origins in a Norse-Gaelic family based in the Border country. While Anlaf (i.e. MI Amlaíb, ON Óláfr) is a common Scandinavian and Norse-Gaelic name, Maccus, a Norse-Gaelic name of Middle Irish origin, is geographically more restricted and is particularly well attested in southern Scottish place-names. Based on Eric's confrontation with his predecessor Óláfr in Fagrskinna, attempts have been made to connect Onlaf to Amlaíb Cuarán, but this must remain in the realm of speculation.

Eric's death receives a grander treatment in the synoptic histories and sagas. Fagrskinna, apparently the Eiríksmál which it incorporates, and Heimskringla assert that Eric and five other kings died together in battle in an unnamed place in England. According to Ágrip and Historia Norwegiæ, Eric died on a foray in Spain after being forced out of Northumbria. Somewhat in line with the former version, earlier generations of scholars have envisaged the occasion of Eric’s death on Stainmore to have been a last stand in battle. The view was espoused by W.G. Collingwood and later still by Frank Stenton, who speculates that Eric might have attempted to regain the kingdom or was fighting off pursuers. Finnur Jónsson re-interprets the alternative tradition in a historical light by proposing that Span- ‘Spain’ in Ágrip goes back to a scribal confusion for Stan-, which in turn would have referred to Stainmore (OE *Stan). Having thus ascribed a historical core to the body of Scandinavian material, he in turn interprets the event as a battle.

However, scholars today are usually less prepared to colour the sober records with details from the sagas, preferring to take the view that Eric was assassinated in exile. In sum then, it looks as if Eric, expelled and heading in northwesterly direction (possibly in search of support), was about to cross over into Cumbria, when in a bid for power, his official Osulf had him killed through the agency of Maccus. Exactly what made this a betrayal (proditio) in the eyes of the tenth-century chronicler or those of Roger of Wendover, is unclear. It is unknown whether Osulf was also behind Eric's expulsion, despite being the main beneficiary, and whether he was expected to grant Eric safe passage and perhaps an escort to guide him safely through that part of Northumbria over which he (Osulf) had jurisdiction. It is equally obscure whether Maccus ambushed his victims, or was part of the escort, betraying them (fraudulenter) as soon as he saw the opportunity.

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