The Early Middle Ages

The Early Middle Ages and County Durham

The Early Middle Ages, between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans, saw the replacement of a British or Romano British world by an English one, through a series of invasions by Teutonic peoples from the northern shores of Germany and Scandinavia. Much remains uncertain concerning what we popularly call the Dark Ages, but certainly long before the end of the six centuries it was possible to recognise the foundations of  distinctive unit that had emerged between the Tyne and the Tees, between the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, centred on Bamburgh and York, respectively. Within the emergent county area the basic features of rural settlement were also recognisable and the site of the future county town had been chosen as the final resting place for the North Country’s most famous saint.

The invasion of the North-East by Angles or Anglo-Saxons from the northern coast of Germany or Denmark, which began in earnest under King Ida in the mid-sixth century from his Bamburgh bridgehead, was consolidated by Aedelfrith (593-617) through battlefield victories over the native Celtic and Scottish tribes and through marriage into the royal house ofDeira. The united houses formed an extensive kingdom between the Humber and Forth, which for a century was the country’s largest and most powerful unit. Associated with political stability was a christ­ianising of the area and a blossoming of monasticism, the latter hosting a renaissance of learning when, for a period, Northumbria was the intellectual centre of Europe.

Lands of the St. Cuthbert Community, ninth century
Lands of the St. Cuthbert Community, ninth century

The conversion of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, effected by a Celtic missionary movement which came through lowland Scotland, illustrates the fusion between. native and invading peoples. It was King Oswald, converted while in exile in Scotland, who brought Celtic monks from Iona to found a monastery at Lindisfarne under Aidan in 635. In this same act can be traced the spiritual and ecclesiastical roots of Durham, for it was the episcopal seat associated with Lindisfarne that was eventu ally and eventfully transferred to Durham. South of the Tyne there was a second religious foundation of high significance. A monastery had been founded at Hartlepool under St Hilda in 647, but it was the twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth (Sunderland, 674) and Jarrow (681), founded by Benedict Biscop at the request of Northumbrian king Ecgfrith, which were to influence history.

St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth, and St Paul’s, Jarrow, were ‘Roman’ foundations, following in the wake of the momentous Synod of Whitby in 664 at which it was decided that the country’s church organisation and practice would follow the continental or Roman method, rather than the Celtic. This fusion of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon cultures in contact with the continental church led to more than the dissemination of the Roman rite and calendar. Craftsmen reintroduced the arts of stone masonry, brick and tile manufacture and glazing, including stained-glass windows. The small stained-glass windows at Jarrow are con­sidered the oldest, not only in this country but in Europe, for although glaziers were brought from Gaul no evidence of their craft on the continent remains. (Roman glass was colourless.) From their several visits to Rome Benedict Biscop and Bishop Wilfred brought back not only relics but also pictures and books for the twin monasteries. The well-stocked libraries, containing the greatest collection of manuscripts in the country, were the stimulus for the production and copying of a large number of texts, many for missionary work throughout Anglo-Saxon England, in Scotland, Ireland and the continent. The best-known of its distinctively illustrated manuscripts is the great Bible known as Codex Amiatinus, a copy of which was dispatched in 716 as an offering to the Pope. The 1,550 calf-hides for vellum which were required to produce this volume are an indication of the monastery’s scale and wealth. If the Lindisfarne scriptorium is accorded the greater artistic achievement, most notably in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the joint foundation of St Peter and St Paul was the acknowledged centre of intellectual creativity. Its most famous scholar was Bede 1674-735), born nearby at Monkton, who spent his life from the age of seven in the Jarrow monastery. Biblical scholar, historian and grammarian, the ‘venerable’ Bede is acknow­ledged as the ‘father of English learning’. His Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People provided this country with a unique record of its early evolution, thereby helping to foster a national identity among the Anglo-Saxon peoples. A ‘measure of the value of the work, produced seven centuries before the aid of printing, is that some 160 medieval copies still survive.

Anglo-Saxon & Scandinavian place-names
Anglo-Saxon & Scandinavian place-names

Beyond the monastic world, an ecclesiastical organisation for the whole area began to take shape. The initial divisions were extensive, served by one church or ‘minster’. Early possible sites for centrally-located minsters were Chester-le-Street, Lanchester, Billingham, Sock-burn and Gainford. Free-standing carved stone crosses provided supplementary nodes or gathering points for worship, and possibly burial, before the broad network was subdivided to create the beginning of a parochial system. The crosses which have survived have been incorpor­ated within churches, as in St Andrew’s, Auckland. A collection of them has been assembled in the Monks’ Dormitory in Durham Cathedral.

The age of monasticism ended abruptly. In 794, a year after the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne, Jarrow was attacked and both it and Monkwearmouth were eventually abandoned. They presumably pre­sented accessible sites to any seaborne attack, undefended and full of transportable valuables. The secular state of Northumbria was now in poor shape to offer effective defence, having been weakened by border warfare against hostile Picts, Britons and Mercians, by its internal succession feuds and, ironically, because of the previous generosity of converted kings who endowed the Church rather than rewarding aristocracy – thus weakening the state’s power base. However, invasion, as opposed to piracy, by the Scandinavian Vikings – mainly from Denmark – did not occur for another 70 years and came overland from the south. After landing in East Anglia and advancing to York, Halfdan led an expedition northwards in 874 and easily took the Northumbrian kingdom. Monasticism and church organisation were destroyed, and earls of Bamburgh henceforth had but restricted powers. An effective authority, secular as well as religious, came to be attached to the peripatetic Community of St Cuthbert, which, having left Lindisfarne in 875, eventually settled for over a century at Chester-le-Street in 882. An event of considerable significance occurred the next year, when Bishop Eadred of the Community lobbied successfully for the elevation ofGuthred to the vacant throne in York. In return, the new king granted undisputed retention of extensive estates between the Tyne and Wear, which were formerly held by the monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow,  and allowed the purchase of estates in the eastern and southern half of the county. In being given right of sanctuary and customs in all lands north of the Tees, the bishop and his successors became the king’s patron and protector: in other words, the palatinate authority of the bishopric was born.

Green Villages
Green Villages

Danish settlement rather than conquest did not generally extend north of the Tees, except in the southern part of the county where place-names, and to a lesser extent sculptural remains, provide supporting evidence. Around Sadberge (Old Danish for ‘flat hill’) immi­grants were sufficiently numerous for the hundred or ward to be called a wapentake. West and east of the wapentake, as far as Barnard Castle and Hartlepool respectively, place-names suggest the implanting of Danish settlements between sites already occupied. The place-name suffixes -by (village) and -thorpe (hamlet) are the most numerous. The most common suffixes of the earlier and widely distributed Anglo-Saxon or English place-names are -ham (homestead), -ton (farmstead), -worth (enclosure)  and -wich (also enclosure) . Relative frequency of occurrence, however, cannot be equated exactly with original colonisation. Village sites of British or Celtic origin (Auckland, Egglescliffe, Penshore, for instance) must have been more numerous than is suggested by the few place-names that have survived. A few Romano-British settlements were given Anglo-Saxon form – Great Stainton, Ebchester, Lanchester, for example. Interestingly there was less take-over of ancient names relating to natural features. The major rivers, Tyne, Tees and Wear, all bear British names, as do most of the main tributaries. Hybrid names suggest a compromise, most notably in the instance of the settlement that was to give its name to the county: Durham is derived from Dunhoim, a hybrid of the Anglian dun (a hill) and Old Danish holmr (island).

Whatever the settlement place-name, its characteristic form was nuc­leated, with homesteads clustered around a central green. Some hundred so-called ‘green villages’ have been recognised, mainly to the south and east of the Wear, that is, in that part of the county most suitable for agriculture. Originally offering a defensive role, the enclosed green was also used as pasture. Markets were held on the more important ones. The greens were most often aligned west-east, and varied in size, perhaps enclosing several acres. Their shape was used by Harry Thorpe in his classification of Durham’s green villages; Brian Roberts has more recently included other morphological features in a more detailed categorisation.

Among the settlements, Durham was confirmed in its key role in our story in 995 when the Community of St Cuthbert, no longer feeling safe at Chester-le-Street, journeyed south as far as Ripon before returning with the coffin of St Cuthbert and other precious relics to the ‘hill island’. (The wanderings of the Community and the dead saint’s part in choosing his final resting-place are recorded in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, Marmion.) With the site chosen, Aldhun, last bishop of Chester­le-Street, now first bishop of Durham, induced his son-in-law and future earl of Northumbria, Uchtred, to impress the population between the rivers Tees and Coquet to build a shrine worthy to contain the North Country’s greatest saint. Over 20 years of effort saw the rise of a twin-towered stone building of suitable magnificence to outshine any previous construction. The architectural context in which it arose can be judged from the modest dozen or so Saxon churches which have survived to the present day – from the simple nave and chancel construction, without tower (Escomb, Seaham) or with tower Uarrow, Monkwearmouth), to a cruciform type, with crossing tower (Norton). Magnificence notwith­standing,- the renowned ‘White Church’, as it was known, was ‘destined to disappear within the century as part of a new beginning ushered in by the next wave of invaders.