Óengus I of the Picts

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain); Historical figures

Óengus son of Fergus
King of the Picts
The figure of the Old Testament King David shown killing a lion on the St Andrews Sarcophagus is thought to represent King Óengus. The figure is dressed as a Roman emperor of Late Antiquity and wears a fibula like that of the Emperor Justinian on the mosaic at San Vitale, Ravenna.
Reign 732 – 761
Died 761
Buried St Andrews
Predecessor Nechtan son of Der-Ile
Successor Bridei son of Fergus
Issue Bridei, Talorgan

Óengus, son of Fergus ( Hypothetical Pictish form: Onuist map Urguist; Old Irish: Óengus mac Fergusso, Anglicisation: Angus mac Fergus), was king of the Picts from 732 until his death in 761. His reign can be reconstructed in some detail from a variety of sources.

Óengus became the chief king in Pictland following a period of civil war in the late 720s. During his reign, the neighbouring kingdom of Dál Riata was subjugated and the kingdom of Strathclyde was attacked with less success. The most powerful ruler in Scotland for over two decades, he was involved in wars in Ireland and England. Kings from Óengus's family dominated Pictland until 839 when a disastrous defeat at the hands of Vikings began a new period of instability, which ended with the coming to power of Cináed mac Ailpín.

Rise to power

Irish genealogies make Óengus a member of the Eóganachta, a kindred with its base in Munster. The branch of the kindred from which he came was located in an area known as Circinn, usually associated with modern Angus and the Mearns. His early life is unknown; Óengus was middle-aged by the time he entered into history. His close kin included at least two sons, Bridei (died 736) and Talorgan (died 782), and two brothers, Talorgan (died 750) and Bridei (died 763).

King Nechtan son of Der-Ilei abdicated to enter a monastery in 724 and was imprisoned by his successor Drest in 726. In 728 and 729, four kings competed for power in Pictland: Drest; Nechtan; Alpín, of whom little is known; and lastly Óengus, who was a partisan of Nechtan, and perhaps his acknowledged heir.

Four battles large enough to be recorded in Ireland were fought in 728 and 729. Alpín was defeated twice by Óengus, after which Nechtan was restored to power. In 729 a battle between supporters of Óengus and Nechtan's enemies was fought at Monith Carno (traditionally Cairn o' Mount, near Fettercairn) where the supporters of Óengus were victorious. Nechtan was restored to the kingship, probably until his death in 732. On 12 August 729 Óengus defeated and killed Drest in battle at Druimm Derg Blathuug, a place which has not been identified.

Percutio Dal Riatai

Satellite image of northern Britain and Ireland showing the approximate area of Dál Riata (shaded).
Satellite image of northern Britain and Ireland showing the approximate area of Dál Riata (shaded).

In the 730s, Óengus fought against Dál Riata whose traditional overlords and protectors in Ireland, the Cenél Conaill, were much weakened at this time. A fleet from Dál Riata fought for Flaithbertach mac Loingsig, chief of the Cenél Conaill, in his war with Áed Allán of the Cenél nEógan, and suffered heavy losses in 733. Dál Riata was ruled by Eochaid mac Echdach of the Cenél nGabráin who died in 733, and the king lists are unclear as to who, if anyone, succeeded him as overking. The Cenél Loairn of north Argyll were ruled by Dúngal mac Selbaig whom Eochaid had deposed as overking of Dál Riata in the 720s.

Fighting between the Picts, led by Óengus's son Bridei, and the Dál Riata, led by Talorgan mac Congussa, is recorded in 731. In 733, Dúngal mac Selbaig "profaned [the sanctuary] of Tory Island when he dragged Bridei out of it." Dúngal, previously deposed as overking of Dál Riata, was overthrown as king of the Cenél Loairn and replaced by his first cousin Muiredach mac Ainbcellaig.

In 734 Talorgan mac Congussa was handed over to the Picts by his brother, and drowned by them. Talorgan son of Drostan was captured near Dún Ollaigh. He appears to have been the King of Atholl, and was drowned on Óengus's order in 739. Dúngal too was a target in this year. He was wounded, the unidentified fortress of Dún Leithfinn was destroyed, and he "fled into Ireland, to be out of the power of Óengus."

The annals report a second campaign by Óengus against the Dál Riata in 736. Dúngal, who had returned from Ireland, and his brother Feradach, were captured and bound in chains. The fortresses of Creic and Dunadd were taken. Muiredach of the Cenél Loairn was no more successful, defeated with heavy loss by Óengus's brother Talorgan, perhaps by Loch Awe. A final campaign in 741, following the deaths of Muiredach's son Eógan and Talorgan mac Congussa's brother Cú Bretan in the late 730s, saw the Dál Riata again defeated. This was recorded in the Annals of Ulster as Percutio Dál Riatai la h-Óengus m. Forggusso, the "smiting of Dál Riata by Óengus son of Fergus". With this Dál Riata disappears from the record for a generation.

It may be that Óengus was involved in wars in Ireland, perhaps fighting with Áed Allán, or against him as an ally of Cathal mac Finguine. The evidence for such involvement is limited. There is the presence of Óengus's son Bridei at Tory Island, on the north-west coast of Donegal in 733, close to the lands of Áed Allán's enemy Flaithbertach mac Loingsig. Less certainly, the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland report the presence of a Pictish fleet from Fortriu fighting for Flaithbertach in 733 rather than against him.

Alt Clut, Northumbria, and Mercia

In 740, a war between the Picts and the Northumbrians is reported, during which Æthelbald, King of Mercia, took advantage of the absence of Eadberht of Northumbria to ravage his lands, and perhaps burn York. The reason for the war is unclear, but it has been suggested that it was related to the killing of Earnwine son of Eadwulf on Eadberht's orders. Earnwine's father had been an exile in the north after his defeat in the civil war of 705–706, and it may be that Óengus, or Æthelbald, or both, had tried to place him on the Northumbrian throne.

Escomb Church, County Durham. The stone churches built for Nechtan, and perhaps Óengus's church at St Andrews, are presumed to have been similar.
Escomb Church, County Durham. The stone churches built for Nechtan, and perhaps Óengus's church at St Andrews, are presumed to have been similar.

Battles between the Picts and the Britons of Alt Clut, or Strathclyde, are recorded in 744 and again in 750, when Kyle was taken from Alt Clut by Eadberht of Northumbria. The 750 battle between the Britons and the Picts is reported at a place named Mocetauc (perhaps Mugdock, near Milngavie) in which Talorgan the brother of Óengus was killed. Following the defeat in 750, the Annals of Ulster record "the ebbing of the sovereignty of Óengus". This is thought to refer to the coming to power of Áed Find, son of Eochaid mac Echdach, in all or part of Dál Riata, and his rejection of Óengus's overlordship.

Unlike the straightforward narrative of the attacks on Dál Riata, a number of interpretations have been offered of the relations between Óengus, Eadberht and Æthelbald in the period from 740 to 750. One suggestion is that Óengus and Æthelbald were allied against Eadberht, or even that they exercised a joint rulership of Britain, or bretwaldaship, Óengus collecting tribute north of the River Humber and Æthelbald south of the Humber. This rests largely on a confused passage in Symeon of Durham's Historia Regum Anglorum, and it has more recently been suggested that the interpretation offered by Frank Stenton—that it is based on a textual error and that Óengus and Æthelbald were not associated in any sort of joint overlordship—is the correct one.

In 756, Óengus is found campaigning alongside Eadberht of Northumbria. The campaign is reported as follows:

In the year of the Lord's incarnation 756, king Eadberht in the eighteenth year of his reign, and Unust, king of Picts led armies to the town of Dumbarton. And hence the Britons accepted terms there, on the first day of the month of August. But on the tenth day of the same month perished almost the whole army which he led from Ouania to Niwanbirig.

That Ouania is Govan is now reasonably certain, but the location of Newanbirig is less so. Although there are very many Newburghs, it is Newburgh-on-Tyne near Hexham that has been the preferred location. An alternative interpretation of the events of 756 has been advanced: it identifies Newanbirig with Newborough by Lichfield in the kingdom of Mercia. A defeat here for Eadberht and Óengus by Æthelbald's Mercians would correspond with the claim in the Saint Andrews foundation legends that a king named Óengus son of Fergus founded the church there as a thanksgiving to Saint Andrew for saving him after a defeat in Mercia.

The cult of Saint Andrew

The St Andrews Sarcophagus.
The St Andrews Sarcophagus.

The story of the foundation of St Andrews, originally Cennrígmonaid, is not contemporary and may contain many inventions. The Irish annals report the death of "Tuathalán, abbot of Cinrigh Móna", in 747, making it certain that St Andrews had been founded before that date, probably by Óengus or by Nechtan son of Der-Ilei. It is generally presumed that the St Andrews Sarcophagus was executed at the command of Óengus. Later generations may have conflated this king Óengus with the 9th century king of the same name. The choice of David as a model is, as Alex Woolf notes, an appropriate one: David too was an usurper.

The cult of Saint Andrew may have come to Pictland from Northumbria, as had the cult of Saint Peter which had been favoured by Nechtan, and in particular from the monastery at Hexham which was dedicated to Saint Andrew. This apparent connection with the Northumbrian church may have left a written record. Óengus, like his successors and presumed kinsmen Caustantín and Eógan, is recorded prominently in the Liber Vitae Ecclesiae Dunelmensis, a list of some 3000 benefactors for whom prayers were said in religious institutions connected with Durham.

Death and legacy

Óengus died in 761, "aged probably more than seventy, ... the dominating figure in the politics of Northern Britain". His death is reported in the usual brief style by the annalists, except for the continuator of Bede in Northumbria, possibly relying upon a Dál Riata source, who wrote:

Óengus, king of the Picts, died. From the beginning of his reign right to the end he perpetrated bloody crimes, like a tyrannical slaughterer.

The Pictish Chronicle king lists have it that he was succeeded by his brother Bridei. His son Talorgan was later king, and is the first son of a Pictish king known to have become king.

The following 9th century Irish praise poem from the Book of Leinster is associated with Óengus:

Good the day when Óengus took Alba,
hilly Alba with its strong chiefs;
he brought battle to palisaded towns,
with feet, with hands, with broad shields.

An assessment of Óengus is problematic, not least because annalistic sources provide very little information on Scotland in the succeeding generations. His apparent Irish links add to the long list of arguments which challenge the idea that the "Gaelicisation" of eastern Scotland began in the time of Cináed mac Ailpín; indeed there are good reasons for believing that process began before Óengus's reign. Many of the Pictish kings until the death of Eógan mac Óengusa in 839 belong to the family of Óengus, in particular the 9th century sons of Fergus, Caustantín and Óengus.

The amount of information which has survived about Óengus compared with other Pictish kings, the nature and geographical range of his activities and the length of his reign combine to make King Óengus one of the most significant rulers of the insular Dark Ages.

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