Anglo-Saxon Northumberland

Anglo-Saxon Northumberland

After the Roman departure from the northern frontier, the region was controlled by a number of small British Kingdoms. Little archaeological evidence of this period has been found, though the Romano-British settlement at Huckhoe near Bolam revealed pottery of late 5th- or early 6th-century date that probably came by trade from west of the Pennines, possibly with the Dairiadic Scots of Argyll and Ulster. The Votadini groups held Northumberland until the mid-sixth century, when Anglians, already well established further south in Yorkshire, began arriving on the coast. In about 547 Ida and his followers came by sea from Yorkshire and established a beachhead at Bamburgh. For a considerable time the British forces contained these invaders in a few coastal sites. ‘Outigern fought bravely against the race of the English’, one record reads. Urbgen of Rheged, a British territory focussed on Carlisle, besieged the Angle Theodric for three days and nights on Lindisfarne sometime between 571 and 578. It was only with the accession of Aethelfrith towards the close of the century that this new kingdom of Bernicia took real hold of  Northumberland and expanded outwards.

Map showing Anglo-Saxon Northumberland
Anglo-Saxon Northumberland

This chronology is confirmed by the place-name and archaeological evidence. There are few pagan (i.e., early Anglian) cemeteries in Northumberland, the most notable at Howick on the coast, and only one example of the -ingas place-name (Birling near Warkworth) that characterises early settlement in southern England. In the following century the Anglians spread across the country, establishing villages and fields, clearing wood and marsh. Second phase names ending in -ingham, meaning homestead of the people of, are common and occupy good sites in river valleys. From settlements such as Ellingham, Chillingham and Ovingham, further settlements sprang up, as at Ovington next to Ovingham. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know to what extent they took over a Celtic or British landscape or created a new one. Certainly the names frequently suggest the clearing of new ground: Hedgeley, meaning Hiddi’s clearing; Fenham, homestead in the marsh; Shipley, sheep clearing.

Many British elements persisted, however, as at Wallington, farm of the sons of the Briton or Welshman, and especially amongst the higher ground that did not become a landscape of large villages. The river names are all Celtic, as are Mindrum, Plenmeller (‘top of the bare hill’), Ross, Troughend and Glendue (‘black or dark valley’). Cambois, near Blyth is a Normanised form of Celtic Camus, bay. Many Celtic personal-names survived in use until the 12th and 13th centuries. A Wesescop (meaning ‘Bishop’s lad’) is found in Tynedale, a Gillemichel at Longframlington, and a Gillefani at Hethpool. Prof. G. W. S. Barrow, who noted these survivals, has also drawn attention to the parallels in land organisation and tenure between Anglian Northumbria and Celtic areas in Scotland and Wales, suggesting the Angles did not re-start from scratch. Dr. Alcock, the archaeologist, goes further: ‘… in Bernicia a very small, and largely aristocratic, Anglian element ruled over a predominantly British population’, though this perhaps overstates the case.

There is no need here to chronicle the tremendous expansion of the Bernician kingdom in the century after Aetheifrith’s victory over the Scots at Degsastan in 603. In that century Northumbria came to extend from the Humber and Mersey in the south to the Solway in the north west and the Firth of Forth in the north east. Lothian became an Anglian area. In this period Northumbria was a major political and cultural centre with links throughout Europe. For most of this period Northumbria was ruled by the Bernician royal house, but after Aethelfrith’s death the throne was secured by Edwin of Deira (the Anglian kingdom of York) and the Bernician family sought exile in Scotland, though they returned under Oswald after Edwin’s death.

The Angles were not Christians, unlike the British. However, Edwin’s wife was from the Kentish royal family that had been converted by Augustine and Paulinus. Paulinus was invited north, and he converted and baptized throughout Northumbria. He came to the royal estate of Yeavering near Wooler, and for 36 days preached and baptized in the River Glen. Aerial photography by J. K. St. Joseph in 1949 identified a possible site for this royal palace at Yeavering, called Ad Gefrin by Bede, and it has since been excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor. A whole series of halls have been revealed, in form like the great hall of Heorot described in the poem Boewuif, together with an amphi­theatre which may have been used for councils and where Paulinus may have preached. Later another hail at Maelmin, two miles away at Milfield, succeeded it.

The return of the exiled Oswald brought Celtic monks from Iona to Lindisfarne under Aidan. There were organisational conflicts between the Celtic and Roman groups, eventually decided in favour of the Roman group, but the Celtic missions had great influence. The years 650 to 750 were the golden age of Northumbrian monasticism under bishops like Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and Wilfred of Hexham.

Cuthbert, the shepherd-boy from the Lammermuirs, belonged to the ascetic, itinerant Celtic school, spending over nine years as a hermit on the Inner Fame, eventually returning there to die. Wilfred, for a time Bishop of all Northumbria, was a more political figure, acquiring lands and influence for the Church, but his ambition created enemies and led to his demotion. He founded the monastery at Hexham in the 660s and the lands of Hexhamshire were granted to it by Queen Aethelthryth in about 674. From this period date the Lindisfarne Gospels, with their blend of Celtic, Germanic and Romanesque art, and the works of Bede and others in monasteries at Jarrow, Monk­wearmouth, Lindisfarne, Tynemouth and elsewhere. Lindisfarne has recently been suggested as a possible origin for the Book of Kells, and D. R. Howlett has argued very convincingly that the Anglo-Latin poem De Abbatibus was written by the monk Aethelwulf at Bywell­on-Tyne about 819.

In the 8th century Northumbrian political power declined. There was much internal dissension. Bede notes in the 730s that spurious monasteries were created, where laymen and their families, including most government officials, profited by their exemption from secular services. Their personal gain resulted in a weak state, unable to defend itself, as Bede had predicted.

The Danish pirates first arrived on the coast in 793. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records: ‘In this year dire portents appeared over Northum­bria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8th June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter’. Jarrow was attacked the following year. However, the main Danish invasions did not come until 70 years later, and came in south-east England. After a year they occupied York (866) and in 874 one of the Danish leaders, Halfdan, led an expedition to the north, and sailed into the Tyne. They ravaged Northumberland, destroyed Tynemouth monastery, and set up winter quarters. In the new year ‘Halfdan shared out the lands of the Northumbrians, and they proceeded to plough and support themselves’.

This Danish settlement took place almost entirely south of the Tees. There are only a few Scandinavian place-names in Northumber­land, such as Byker (‘village by the marsh’), Walker, a few names in the south west, like Ouston, the farm of Ulfr, and Nafferton, the farm of the man nicknamed ‘Night-traveller’, and a possible group around Rothbury. Sir Edmund Craster noted some interesting evidence of Danish settlement at Tynemouth, where personal names like Orm, Svan, Hedne, and Hrother are found in the 11th century. For the most part the Danes left the rump of Northumbria north of the Tees as a virtually independent kingdom, which became a rather isolated Anglian region.

However, the Danish invasions destroyed Northumbrian monasticism and church organisation. The bishop and monks of Lindisfarne fled before Halfdan’s Danes, and, together with the relics of St. Cuthbert, roamed the countryside for seven years until they settled at Chester¬le-Street, moving to Durham a hundred years later. The see of Hexham was also extinguished and monasticism did not return until after the Norman Conquest, though a church revival in the 1 ith century has left a number of fine Anglo-Saxon churches, as at Ovingham and Bywell.

The Northumbrian kingdom, centred on Bamburgh, was a weak element in the fight that the West Saxons led against the Danes. It lost territory to other expansionist groups: Norsemen took Lancashire and Cumbria; Strathclyde took around the Solway; by 850 the newly-formed kingdom of Scotland was capturing Anglian Lothian, and by 945 was established up to the Tweed. The success of the West Saxons led to the subordination of the Northumbrian kingdom to them in 927, and in 954 it became the Northumbrian earldom. By this time the Scots had carried the war south of the Tweed, and in 969 Malcolm ‘devastated the province of the Northumbrians with the sword and fire’: the question was now whether the Anglo-Scottish border could be pushed south to the Tyne.