Acha of Deira and Bernicia: daughter, sister, wife and mother of kings

Acha lived during the early part of the seventh century. She was at the centre of the dynastic conflicts between the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira that would eventually forge the two into the great early English ('Anglo-Saxon') kingdom of Northumbria. Deira corresponded roughly to modern Yorkshire, and Bernicia roughly to modern Northumberland; for approximate locations, see map.

Acha was born into the royal family of Deira, married into the royal family of Bernicia, and two of her sons were kings of Northumbria. Her life marks the beginning of the unified kingdom of Northumbria, and possibly made a significant contribution to it. What do we know about her? As usual, not very much:


Bede, Ecclesiastical History

Oswald was the son of Aethelferth of Bernicia, and nephew to King Edwin by his sister Acha (Book III, Chapter 6)
Acha's husband Aethelferth drove her brother Edwin into exile and tried for more than a decade to have Edwin murdered (Book II, passim).
Oswald died on 5 August 642, when he was 38 years old (Book III, Chapter 9). He must therefore have been born between August 603 and August 604.
Oswald's brother Oswy succeeded him as king (Book III, Chapter 14). Oswy died on 15 February 670, at the age of 58, and was succeeded by his son Egfrid (Book IV, Chapter 5). Oswy must therefore have been born between February 611 and February 612.
Egfrid's aunt Ebba was Abbess of Coldingham monastery (Book IV, Chapter 19) at the time it was destroyed by fire in about 680 (Book IV, Chapter 25).

Historia Brittonum

Aethelferth Flesaurs of Bernicia had seven sons: Eanfrid, Oswald, Oswin, Oswy, Oswudu, Oslac, Offa (Chapter 57).

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The sons of Aethelferth were Enfrid, Oswald, Oswy, Oslac, Oswood, Oslaf, and Offa.

Reginald of Durham

Aethelferth not only drove from his kingdom Aella king of the Deirans whose daughter he had married, but after inflicting a series of defeats on him and expelling him from several refuges he deprived him of his life and kingdom together.
-Quoted in John Marsden, Northanhymbre Saga.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Ebba, abbess of Coldingham, was the daughter of Acha and Aethelferth and died in around 683.



Bede says unequivocally that Acha was the sister of Edwin (Eadwine). Reginald of Durham says she was the daughter of Eadwine's father Aelle, and this is consistent with the fact that her sons Oswald and Oswy were both accepted as kings in Deira, suggesting that they had a claim to Deiran royal blood through their mother. Eadwine and Acha may or may not have had different mothers; there is no indication either way.


Of Aethelferth's seven sons listed in Historia Brittonum and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is noticeable that all have names beginning with O- except the eldest, Eanferth (Eanfrith, Eanfrid). Eanferth and the O- sons also appear to have taken different routes into exile on their father's death. Eanferth appears in the Pictish king-lists as the father of a king of the Picts, Talorcan, which strongly suggests that he was exiled in Pictland. Oswald and Oswy, by contrast, lived on the island of Iona in Dal Riada (modern western Scotland). It is a strong possibility that the O- sons were Acha's children and Eanferth was a half-brother by a previous wife. A daughter Aebbe (Ebba, Abb) is also recorded, but there is no indication of her age relative to the sons. This would suggest that Acha bore Aethelferth at least seven children, six sons and a daughter, during their marriage. If the sons are listed in the correct order, they were all born between 603/604 and 617.


Acha's son Oswald was born between August 603 and August 604, and so Acha must have been of childbearing age by this time. This sets the latest possible date for her birth at around 590.

Another son, Oswy, was born between February 611 and February 612, so Acha must still have been of childbearing age by then. If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum have listed her children by Aethelferth in the correct order, and assuming that all the sons with names beginning with O- were Acha's sons (see above), she also bore Aethelferth three or four more sons after Oswy. If she bore one child a year, with no stillbirths or multiple births, the youngest son may have been born around 614 or 616, which is only 1-3 years before Aethelferth's death. This would suggest that Acha was no more than forty or so at this time, which in turn would suggest that she cannot have been born much before 575.

Nothing is known of Acha's death.


Acha was married to Aethelferth of Bernicia. Reginald of Durham says that she was married before Aethelferth killed her father Aelle, expelled her brother Eadwine, and took over the rule of Deira. I've argued elsewhere that the likely date for this annexation is 605. Aethelferth and Acha were certainly married before Oswald's birth, so at latest they were married by autumn 603. How much earlier is open to speculation. As no children older than Oswald are mentioned, I think it likely that the marriage was not much before then.


Acha's husband Aethelferth killed and deposed her father Aelle (Reginald of Durham), and spent the next twelve years trying to hunt down and murder her brother Eadwine (Bede). How did Acha feel about this deadly conflict between her birth family and her husband?

Needless to say, history does not tell us, so Acha's reaction is open to the imagination. A few things can be inferred. First, she evidently continued to have marital relations with Aethelferth for at least a further six or seven years, since their son Oswy was born in 611 or 612, and possibly up until around the time of Aethelferth's death in 617 if the remaining sons in the lists are also her children. So it can safely be said that she didn't leave Aethelferth, die of grief, rebel against him, or refuse to do her duty as his wife. Whether she was forced to stay with him, or was his wholehearted partner, or something in between, is open to speculation.

Second, Bede makes no mention of Acha during his description of Eadwine's reign. This may be simply because she was not germane to his history of the conversion of the English to Christianity. Or it may suggest that she died before Eadwine's reign began, or went into exile with her children. Either way, there's no indication of a tearful reunion with her long-lost brother, unlike Hildeburgh's return to her birth family after a similar conflict in the poem The Fight at Finnsburgh.

Third, although Bede says very little about Acha, he does not condemn her. He even suggests that Eadwine would, or should, have been pleased to be succeeded by her son Oswald, "…it is fitting that so great a predecessor [Edwin] should have had so worthy a man of his own blood to maintain his religion and his throne." (Book III, Chapter 6). This may be a slight indication that Acha's conduct - whatever it was - during and/or after the conflict was not considered dishonourable.

Fourth, there is no record in any of the sources of Eadwine attempting to persecute Aethelferth's sons as Aethelferth had persecuted him. This may simply be absence of evidence, or it may be that he had insufficient power or influence to pursue them to Pictland or Dal Riada. Considering that Eadwine's armies were victorious as far afield as Anglesey, the Isle of Man and the West Saxons (Bede), it is perhaps unlikely that he was unable to pressurise kings in the north if he chose, but the possibility cannot be discounted. Or a further possibility may be that Eadwine deliberately chose not to pursue his sister's sons. In Old English culture the relationship between a maternal uncle and his nephews was a particularly significant one, with the uncle acting almost as a second father. Old English had special words for a maternal uncle (eam) and nephew (sweostersunu, 'sister-son'), implying that the relationship was distinct from a paternal uncle (faedera) and nephew (nefu). It may be that Eadwine was unwilling to violate this relationship - perhaps Acha was still alive? - and was prepared to leave his nephews alone unless directly threatened.

Fifth, there is no record of Aethelferth's sons attempting to depose Eadwine as he had deposed their father. Eadwine's recorded enemies were Mercia, Gwynedd and the West Saxons, not the realms of the far north. Again, this may just be absence of evidence. Or it may indicate that the kings of Pictland and Dal Riada weren't inclined to take on Eadwine's Northumbria - though one would have thought they might at least have had a go at grabbing some land while he had his hands full in North Wales or Wessex. Is it possible that there was some sort of informal live-and-let-live agreement between Eadwine and his sister's sons during his reign? Was Acha perhaps acting as peace-weaver, putting a brake on the otherwise endless cycle of blood-feud and revenge? This is pure speculation on my part; but an interesting possibility.