Bamburgh – home to one of the most formidable fortresses in the British Isles.
Situated atop a dolerite outcrop near the north-eastern tip of what is now England, Bamburgh has formed a vital stronghold for various kingdoms throughout British history – a keystone for maintaining power in this area of the British Isles. Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, the site’s history stretches over 2,000 years.
The zenith of Bamburgh’s power occurred during the Anglo-Saxon period, when it formed the nucleus of the Kingdom of Northumbria. This is the story of Bamburgh’s early history.
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The first embers of a strong fortress being established here date back over 2,000 years, to Iron Age Britain and the coming of a power that ruled large swathes of the Mediterranean World and beyond: the Romans.
At the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, this area belonged to the Votadini, a Celtic tribe that dominated Britain’s eastern coastline from the Firth of Forth in the north to the Tyne in the south.
As Rome’s reach grew ever further the Votadini soon found themselves subject to the emperor’s will and aiding the empire’s attempts to subdue Scotland during the late 1st and mid-2nd centuries AD.
Following the abandonment of the Roman frontier at the Antonine Wall, however, and the withdrawal to the more-formidable Hadrian’s Wall further south, direct Roman rule over the Votadini ended and the tribe were left largely to their own devices as a client state of Rome.
Peoples of northern Britain according to Ptolemy’s 2nd-century Geography. The Votadini tribe are here shown as ‘Otadini’. Credit: Notuncurious / Commons.
For the Romans the Votadini proved the perfect buffer between themselves and the dreaded Caledonians to the north.
Strong links between Rome and the Votadini remained. Archaeologists have uncovered an abundance of Roman goods at several of the tribes’ strongholds including their one at at Bamburgh, known to the British as Dynguoaroy.
Unearthed Roman-era pottery at the site has confirmed Dynguoaroy’s close connections to ancient Rome.
The coming of ‘the Flamebearer’
For over 400 years Dynguoaroy remained in Celtic control. But it did not last. In 547, long after the Romans had departed Albion’s shores, a Germanic warlord landed at Dynguoaroy with an army, seized the Celtic town and quickly conquered the ruling Celtic kingdom of Bryneich.
The warlord’s name was Ida, ‘the Flamebearer’. On the site of the Celtic stronghold he erected his own fortified centre – the capital for his new kingdom called the Kingdom of Bernicia.
Ida of Bernicia.
Half a century later Dynguoaroy’s importance grew larger. In around 604 Aethelfrith, grandson of Ida ‘the Flamebearer’, nearly doubled the size of his dominion when he brought the neighbouring kingdom of Deira under his control.
Owning land that now stretched from the Tweet to the Humber, the age of the Kingdom of Bernicia was at an end. The age of the Kingdom of Northumbria had begun.
Despite his kingdom’s vast increase in size, Aethelfrith’s capital remained at Dynguoaroy, though with one significant alteration. During his reign he renamed the stronghold ‘Bebbanburgh’ or ‘Bamburgh’ in honour of his wife, Bebba.
Aethelfrith’s son proved an even more remarkable Northumbrian ruler: Oswald ‘whiteblade’. Following several successful conquests for a time Oswald was the most powerful warlord in Britain, ruling a kingdom that stretched from Edinburgh in the north to Leeds in the south.
From Bamburgh he ruled his large kingdom for 7/8 years, yet his greatest legacy was, arguably, not a secular one.
During his reign Oswald began to Christianise his kingdom. Not long after he ascended the throne the Northumbrian monarch had requested that the abbot of Iona send a missionary to his court at Bamburgh.
His name was Aidan and Oswald instructed Aidan to establish a splendid monastery on a tidal island to the north of Bamburgh: Lindisfarne. It would develop into one of the key centres of learning in early medieval history.
Oswald and Bishop Aidan of Lindesfarne. Image credit: / Commons.
Oswald’s reign came to an abrupt end on 5 August 641/2, when a joint Mercian-Welsh army commanded by Penda, the pagan Mercian monarch, routed Oswald’s Northumbrian force, killed the king himself and then had his body mutilated.
Oswald’s successors later made their forebear a saint, with his dismembered arms being taken back to his royal seat at Bamburgh.
Information on Oswald, Aidan and the Kingdom of Northumbria comes largely from the 8th Century writings of the Venerable Bede, a monk who had resided at the similarly-splendid monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria.
Several times he mentions Bamburgh and its prestigious position as the seat of power for Northumbrian kings in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
The Venerable Bede translating the Gospel of John on his deathbed.
The Beast of Bamburgh
Discoveries during recent archaeological excavations at Bamburgh seem only to affirm the stronghold’s importance during Anglo-Saxon times.
From the best-preserved Anglo-Saxon sword in Britain to ‘the Beast of Bamburgh’, a tiny, intricately-detailed gold plaque believed to have been part of a throne, the popular belief that Bamburgh formed the strongly-protected nucleus of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria seems almost certain.
Anglo-Saxon coins from the site suggests a royal mint may also have been situated here, while the discovery of mortar and stone has led many to believe Bamburgh’s walls and several of its buildings were made from stone.
This was highly-unusual. The Anglo-Saxons constructed most of their secular buildings from timber, so the use of stone at Bamburgh suggests the stronghold had extraordinary status.
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From the mid-7th to the mid-8th century Anglo-Saxon Bamburgh and the Kingdom of Northumbria enjoyed its Golden Age. The military might of Bamburgh was unmatched anywhere in the land, while tales of the wealth and splendour of nearby Holy Lindisfarne spread far and wide.
But no golden age can last forever, and it was not long before Northumbria’s wealth reached unwelcome ears.
Featured image credit: Window to the south of the porch of St Oswald’s depicting St Oswald. Rodhullandemu / Commons.
List of monarchs of Northumbria
Northumbria, a kingdom of Angles, in what is now northern England and south-east Scotland, was initially divided into two kingdoms: Bernicia and Deira. The two were first united by Aethelfrith around the year 604, and except for occasional periods of division over the subsequent century, they remained so. The exceptions are during the brief period from 633 to 634, when Northumbria was plunged into chaos by the death of King Edwin in battle and the ruinous invasion of Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd. The unity of the Northumbrian kingdoms was restored after Cadwallon's death in battle in 634.
Another exception is a period from about the year 644 to 664, when kings ruled individually over Deira. In 651, King Oswiu had Oswine of Deira killed and replaced by Aethelwald, but Aethelwald did not prove to be a loyal sub-king, allying with the Mercian king Penda according to Bede, Aethelwald acted as Penda's guide during the latter's invasion of Northumbria but withdrew his forces when the Mercians met the Northumbrians at the Battle of Winwaed. After the Mercian defeat at Winwaed, Aethelwald lost power and Oswiu's own son, Alchfrith, became king in his place. In 670, Aelfwine, the brother of the childless King Ecgfrith, was made king of Deira by this point the title may have been used primarily to designate an heir. Aelfwine was killed in battle against Mercia in 679, and there was not another separate king of Deira until the time of Norse rule.
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Northumbria, Old English Northanhymbre, one of the most important kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, lying north of the River Humber. During its most flourishing period it extended from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, between two west–east lines formed in the north by the Ayrshire coast and the Firth of Forth and in the south by the River Ribble, or the Mersey, and the Humber.
Its military strength was greatest in the 7th century, when the supremacy of three of its rulers, Edwin (616–632), Oswald (633–641), and Oswiu (641–670), was recognized by the southern English kingdoms. But Northumbria’s most significant contribution to Anglo-Saxon history was made in the late 7th and in the 8th century, in the religious, artistic, and intellectual achievements of what has often been called a golden age. The twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow achieved preeminence in the intellectual life not only of England but also of western Europe. The Venerable Bede (died 735), a theologian and historian who won international fame, was a monk of Jarrow, which boasted a remarkable library that made his scholarship possible. The monasteries of Hexham, Whitby, and Lindisfarne were also significant centres. The Gospel book from Lindisfarne (now in the British Museum) epitomizes Northumbrian attainment in writing and illumination, and the skill of Northumbrian sculptors survives in the stone crosses at Bewcastle and Ruthwell.
Northumbria was formed from the coalition of two originally independent states— Bernicia, which was a settlement at Bamburgh on the Northumberland coast, and Deira, lying to the south of it. Aethelfrith, ruler of Bernicia (593–616), won control of Deira, thereby creating the kingdom of Northumbria. He was killed in battle by supporters of Edwin, a representative of the Deiran royal house, who then ruled both kingdoms but thereafter, apart from a few very short intervals, Bernician royalty controlled a united Northumbria. The kingdom probably reached the west coast by the mid-7th century, and it also rapidly expanded northward, at one time extending as far as the River Tay. To the south, the power of Mercia checked further expansion of the kingdom.
The cultural life and the political unity of Northumbria were destroyed by the arrival of the Danes. The Danish “great army” captured York in 866, and many of its members settled in that area. Early in the 10th century other Scandinavians entered and settled western Northumbria from the Irish Sea. Meanwhile, in the north, the newly formed kingdom of Scotland drove the Northumbrian boundary back to the River Tweed. Eventually the rulers of the southern kingdom of Wessex imposed their authority throughout England. After the last Scandinavian ruler of York was expelled in 944, there ceased to be independent kings of Northumbria, which then became an earldom within the kingdom of England.
Where was the Kingdom of Northumbria anyway?
Over the last couple of months on the blog, I have been writing about several Kings and Archbishops (and eventually invaders) of Northumbria. I have even shared with you my journey of writing my first novel, The Northumbrian Saga. I thought then, that it was about time that I acquainted some of you who were not familiar with this ancient Kingdom and a little of its history.
As a general rule, when I talk about Northumbria in the Dark Ages and Early Middle Ages, I am referring to modern Northumberland, Durham, Cleveland, and Yorkshire from the Firth of Forth in Scotland (yes, Edinburgh was Northumbrian for many years) all the way south to the River Humber (hence the name Northumbria- the land north of the Humber).
Before the Romans came to Britain in the 1st century AD, Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland were home to late Iron Age tribes or kingdoms. In East Yorkshire, the main tribes that the Romans came up against were the Parisi. The Brigantes (upland people or hill dwellers) were a large tribe that roughly coincides with modern day Yorkshire, Cleveland, Durham and Lancashire. Lastly, the south-east of Scotland all the way down to modern day Northumberland, was home to the Votadini.
In 43AD the Roman Emperor Claudius sent his legions to invade Britain, and for the next 30 years the Romans tried to suppress the entire island. Though they managed to explore as far as northern Scotland, the Scottish tribes were far too successful in their resistance. The Romans had to make do with drawing the boundary of their already extensive empire along Hadrian’s Wall, and then later at the Antonine Wall.
The Romans stayed in Britain until 410AD, when the Roman armies in Britain were told that Rome was in effect cutting them loose. Britain would have to survive on its own without the help of the Roman Empire. At this time, the Empire was being attacked by increasing numbers of ‘barbarians’ from all sides and Britain was no different. The Irish (which to the confusion of modern readers were called the Scotti by the Romans) attacked western England. The Picts and native tribes of Scotland attacked from the north. But the main groups which we are of course interested in were the Scandinavian tribes which were coming across the North Sea in the east. These tribes were called the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes from Southern Denmark and northern Germany. These groups settled in Britain over the next hundred years or so, eventually moving north and west and integrating with the Romans and native Britons still living on the island. It is from these tribes that we get the term Anglo-Saxon, as well as the words England (Englaland- Land of the Angles) and hence English.
In the north of Britain, as in many other areas at this time, the wave of invaders mixing and fighting caused new territories to be formed and destroyed. The groups in the south-east of Scotland that had been called the Votadini were replaced by a celtic kingdom called Gododdin. From the boundary of this Kingdom until the Tees River (roughly the lands of the Brigantes) lay the newly formed Anglian kingdom of Bernicia, whose King Ida (according to legend) had travelled from the Kingdom south of the Tees to capture the stronghold of Bamburgh Rock and made it his Capitol. The Kingdom from which he had set out was called Deira, which held the lands from the Tees River until the Humber. Like Bernicia, this kingdom had at first been a celtic one, but when the Angles settled in these lands they Anglicised the name.
English: Saint King Edwin of Northumbria, St Mary, Sledmere, East Riding of Yorkshire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The two Anglian Kingdoms survived as separate entities for a number of decades, often fighting against each other or their Anglian, Saxon or Celtic neighbours. In 604 however, the Bernician King Aethelfrith united the two Kingdoms under one kingdom and one name, Northumbria. Aethelfrith was killed 12 years later by an East Anglian King and the throne then went to Aella, the son of the former king of Deira. Northumbria continued on under successive kings until the battle of Hatfield Chase in 633. King Edwin, who had been the first Northumbrian King to convert to Christianity and was recognised as an English Bretwalda (High King of Britain) after conquering the Isle of Man, eastern Mercia, Anglesey and the Kingdom of Gwenedd in wales, was killed by King Penda of Mercia and his ally Cadwallon King of Gwenedd. Northumbria was then split once more into the old Kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, and the people reverted back to their pagan ways. Both Kingdoms were persistently attacked by Cadwallon of Gwenedd and it was not until the reign of King Oswald (later made a saint) that Cadwallon was killed. King Oswald then temporarily reunited Northumbria again and expanded into the lands of the Gododdin, as well as part of the kingdoms of Rheged and Strathclyde in the west. He also re-introduced Christianity into his kingdom through Saint Aidan and it was during his rule that the monastery of Lindisfarne was established.
St Oswald, crowned as a king. King Oswald of Northumbria, d. 642 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Oswald died in 642 at the battle of Masserfield against King Penda, and Northumbria was once more split. The Mercian King Penda launched a massive invasion against the north, the lands held by Oswine the new king of Deira. King Oswy of Bernicia led a counter attack against Penda but when Oswine of Deira backed out of helping, he was killed and Oswy united Northumbria for the last time. Eventually, after much fighting King Oswy killed Penda at the Battle of Winwaed, which led to the Northumbrians gaining control over Mercia as well and making King Oswy Bretwalda in Britain.
In the 650s, Northumbria lost its influence over Mercia but still retained its power and prestige until the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685 against the Picts. From this time onwards into the beginning of the 700s, Northumbria’s power began to slip and the expansion into other territories slowed.
However, Northumbria was also becoming a great influence on learning and Christianity at this time, which is often referred to as the Northumbrian Golden Age. Many monasteries and churches were built, a great library and school was set up at York, and scholars and books on all sorts of subjects were being asked for not only within the other British Kingdoms but by the courts on the European continent such as France, Germany and Italy. Many of the saints and great writers such as Bede, St Cuthbert, St John of Beverley, St Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop were alive and working during the later 7th and throughout the 8th centuries.
Section from Shepherd’s map of the British Isles about 802 AD showing the kingdom of Northumbria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Politically, the beginning of the 8th century was plagued by assassinations, usurpers of the throne, expulsions and exiles. It is in the latter part of this century, on the 8th June 793 to be exact, that an unprovoked attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne was instigated by the Vikings. It sent shock waves as far as Charlemagne’s court in France and the Pope in Rome, but it did not put a stop to the Northumbrian’s constant quarrelling amongst each other. In amongst fighting off other attacks by the Vikings at places such as Jarrow and Tynemouth, the assassination and exiling of Kings continued.
Which brings us to the last two kings of Northumbria, King Osbert and King Aelle, and the eventual demise of Northumbria altogether under the Vikings. The Danes would eventually rule the Kingdom of Jorvik, the land from the Tees to the Humber, and the earls of the north with their power base at Bamburgh would rule what was left of Northumbria. Eventually, this land became the modern day equivalent of Northumberland with the land between this county and Yorkshire (which was once roughly the Kingdom of Jorvik) being called Durham, land given to the church as a gift from the Viking King Guthfrith of York.
If anyone is interested in the History of Northumbria in a little more detail, England’s North East website by David Simpson is very useful. There is a lot of very interesting information about the north and it’s history, but for the Anglo Saxon history of Northumbria, go to this page.
Languages in Anglo-Saxon Bamburgh
There is not a great deal written about the people of Bamburgh and their way of life during the time of Aidan and Oswald. These notes are an attempt to describe how the way people then spoke was a direct result of historical events of the period. It is impossible to separate the two. The information which follows aims to explain the very different groups of people who came and settled around Bamburgh during the first millennium, in particular, during the 5th to 7th centuries, a time of great change and progress and one which was fundamental to the North-East becoming a centre of learning not just in England but in the whole of Europe.
Early times in Bamburgh
At this time life for people in and around Bamburgh was changing in all sorts of ways. Bamburgh had been occupied by Brittonic/Brythonic. (British) speaking people that we used to refer to as Celtic (though archaeologists today often avoid this term as it does not appear to be how these ancient peoples viewed themselves). By the fifth century AD, Roman authority over Britain was at an end and regional communities were beginning to assert power over their individual areas. It was in into this changing landscape that migration of settlers from northern Europe appears to have occurred, settling in particular along the North-Eastern coast and as far south as modern East Anglia. It has been suggested those who came to Northumberland arrived via Lindsay in Lincolnshire giving the name of Lindisfarne to the island, however, no clear historical evidence has been found for this. Use of Latin and the native Brittonic languages continued by the people who remained. Latin was the language of law and education but it was less spoken in the rural north where Celtic Brittonic was used within the family and immediate neighbourhood.
For generations, the few historical records that survive from this early time were all that was available to tell the story of the post-Roman period. Even once archaeology was able to make its contribution it was traditionally interpreted within this historical framework. This historical version of the time was that Anglicans and Saxons established kingdoms in the south and east, Brittonic kingdoms continued to dominate in the west. annals talked of Anglians arriving at Bamburgh in the latter part of the 5th century. Bede, the Benedictine monk at the monastery of Jarrow, who wrote the first history of this country, gives the date as 449 AD. Known as the Father of English History, he provides much of the information which informs our knowledge of this period. Born in 672, Bede began the tradition of literature which went on to flourish in the atmosphere of Northumbria of that time and was unequalled in Europe
After defeating Outigern the Brittonic leader and capturing the fortress at Din Guaroi, the original name for Bamburgh, Ida, became from 547 the first Anglian king of the area which later became Northumbria under the rule of his grandson, Aethelfrith. Ida settled at Din Guaroi (now Bamburgh) on the coast and it is not difficult to see why he chose this strong, distinctive, elevated location overlooking the sea and nearby islands of the Farnes and Lindisfarne. The settlement of Din Guaroi became known as Bebbanburh after Aethelfrith’s wife, Bebba. Eventually, this became known as Bamburgh. There was intermittent resistance to the Anglians from the native Brittonic people which subsided as the Anglians increased their power despite being the minority culture during their early years here. Their influence was such that they became the more powerful group and their culture and way of life was gradually adopted by the settled majority. This included the language they spoke. However, it is important to note that Bede claims English, Pictish (in Scotland), Brittonic and Latin were all still being spoken as late as the 8th century.
An archaeological story
Even before more modern science-based evidence became widespread there were dissenting voices in the archaeological community that saw a different story that could be told from the archaeological evidence. The ‘tribal’ groups of Angles, Saxons and Jutes were not apparent in the material culture seen in cemetery excavations in different regions, nor in the pottery excavated from various settlement sites. This led to a different school of thought for the migration period, accentuating the continuity of population and slowly introduced cultural change.
In recent decades this excavated evidence has been greatly added to by isotope data, that tells us where people grew up, and DNA evidence that gives us a window into ancestry. This new evidence tells us that migration has been continuous from prehistory to the present and if greater levels of immigration did occur in the post-Roman period It was never sufficient to be more than a minority of the population. Bede’s idea of the people of Northumbria being of the Anglian race is now clearly a creation myth and it is very likely that the continental immigration into the far north of England was very modest.
Origins of the English language
The term Anglians derives from the area known as Anglia (roughly corresponding to Schleswig-Holstein or the Frisian coastal region), the peninsula in the Baltic Sea which also gives us the word for the language they brought with them- Ænglisc, later becoming known as English. It was closely related to the Frisian and Low Saxon dialects of West Germanic languages. The new arrivals would have spoken this amongst themselves and as they gained power it would come to be adopted by the indigenous people.
When the Anglians arrived at Bamburgh they and the native people would be mutually incomprehensible. Although Brittonic and Old English both stem from the Indo-European family of languages, their grammars and vocabulary were quite different. Proto Indo-European was the ancestral tongue of most modern languages of Europe and had been spoken by nomadic peoples probably about 5000BC although there is little consensus about the precise period covered. From it various dialects developed and became the beginnings of the main European languages we know today. The Brittonic language was in use from before the Roman invasion and was spoken everywhere in what is now Great Britain which lay south of the Firth of Forth. It absorbed some Latin vocabulary during Roman rule. However, the new arrivals, the Anglians and other incoming tribes such as Jutes and Saxons, spoke Germanic languages which had developed in a different direction from Brittonic. During the fifth and sixth centuries, as the Anglians became the dominant group, the use of Brittonic faded and Old English, sometimes known as Anglo-Saxon, was to become the principal language of the area.
Old English used 4 different dialects, Northumbrian and Mercian (Anglian) and Kentish and West Saxon (Saxon). Many of the earliest written texts from the late 7th century, such as Caedmon’s Hymn, were written in Northumbrian from which the Scots language later developed. By the beginning of the 7th century, Anglo Saxon was spoken all over the country apart from Cornwall, North-West England and Northern Scotland where the Celtic languages were more resistant to change.
Violent times give way to peace and the introduction of Christianity
Aethelfrith’s major achievement was to unite the two kingdoms of Bernicia (the northern lands of what are now SE Scotland, Northumberland and Durham) and Deira (Yorkshire). After he was killed in 616, his wife, Acha, and sons fled from Bamburgh for their own safety eventually settling on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. The throne of Northumbria was regained by Edwin. Acha and her sons remained on Iona for many years where they were influenced by the development of Celtic Christianity brought to that island by Irish monks. Oswald, the eldest son, was trained in different styles of martial combat and when he returned to conquer Northumbria he brought with him men of both Christian and pagan traditions. He became King of Northumbria in 634 and was swift to implement a means of introducing Christianity to the people of his lands. The Irish form of Christianity was to create monasteries in rural areas whereas the Roman form favoured towns. To this end, Oswald asked for a monk from Iona to be sent to establish a monastery in North Northumbria. The first missionary to arrive was Corman who achieved little success in his task. He did not win over the Northumbrians whom, on his return to Iona, he described to his superiors as:
“An ungovernable people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament…..who refused to listen to him.”
Aidan arrives in Northumbria
Aidan was then dispatched from Iona and was to achieve outstanding success, attributed to his willingness to mix with all types of people from all social sectors. He went everywhere on foot, even journeying into the Cheviots to meet with isolated shepherds. His many strong personal qualities contributed greatly to his achievements. It was Aidan himself who chose Lindisfarne as the place to build a monastery, possibly because its solitude and location reminded him of Iona. However, he began his work in Northumbria with a major disadvantage – that of not being able to speak the native tongue. For Aidan spoke Gaelic and Latin but not English, which was now becoming dominant over Brittonic. Oswald was the ideal person to act as his interpreter, competent in Old English and having learnt Irish during his years in exile. Working as a pair, they were understood by everyone. The fact that people heard the word of God from the lips of their king was a powerful factor in convincing them to adopt Christianity. For the first time, they encountered a man able to read the written word rather than rely on memory and oral repetition and this helped Aidan to win them over. The people of Bamburgh, as elsewhere in Northumbria, were absorbing not just the tools of Old English but also the styles of music, food and dress of the Anglians, which complemented the more homely nature of their form of Christianity. But Latin had not yet disappeared since people who converted to Christianity would become familiar with Latin by reciting psalms. Moreover, many Northumbrians went on to learn Latin as they aspired to write in it.
Nowadays there are few remnants of Celtic life surviving in and around Bamburgh compared with places further west. Names of rivers, hills and trees are amongst these, such as the elements der/dar/dur and -went, usa – water (Ouse), briwaa – bridge and tor – hill, dun – hillfort, warn or fearn (alder) as in Waren Burn. A small number of names like Cheviot, Amble, Mindrum and Yeavering are attributed to the Celts.
The Anglians brought with them new words which were quickly absorbed by the indigenous people. These included:
Words for days of the week such as:
Monandaeg, Tiwesdaeg, Wodnesdaeg, after early Saxon gods.
Words for family members such as:
cild child, bearn bairn, broder brother, dohtor daughter, speoster sister, sunu son, ealdorfaeder grandfather, ealdormodor grandmother.
The most important area of influence on speech was that of domestic vocabulary such as names of items of food.
aeppel apple, milc milk, hroof roof, cirice church, bed bed, lufian to love.
Prepositions, numbers, and words that provide the structure of our language such as
biforan before, to to, tellan tell, morgen morning, whoet what, hwoenne when, hwoer where, hwelc which, giese yes, na no.
Are another legacy of Anglo Saxon. It is estimated that about 70% of the words we use in Standard English today are of Anglo-Saxon origin.
Anglo-Saxon place names
It is sometimes assumed that the Vikings settled in what is now Northumberland. Although a few place names of Scandinavian origin exist – Akeld, Lucker, Howick– they form a tiny minority. However, place names of Anglo-Saxo origin abound. The area around Bamburgh shows strong evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement by the proliferation of Anglo-Saxon linguistic features Here are some local examples:
Beal –behil Old English (OE) beo-hull = bee hill, where bees swarm.
Shoreston –schoteston OE sceot = a personal name meaning quick.
Budle – bolda OE both = dwelling.
Elwick –ellewich OE Ella =of Ella + wic from Latin vicus +dwelling, dairy farm, hamlet.
Spindleston –spilestan OE spinele = spindle lock.
Outchester –ulecestr OE ule = owl + cestr = camp, Roman Fort i.e. Roman Fort inhabited/haunted by owls.
Beadnell –bedehal OE Beda personal name + halh = corner of flat land near River i.e. haugh.
Belford –beleford OE denu = dene + Ford of Bella.
Other settlements named after individual persons include Ellingham (Ella), Branxton (Brannoc), Chatton (Ceatta), Kimmerston (Cynemaer), Doxford (Dooc), Whittingham (Hwita), Mousen (Mul), Pegswood (Peg), Warkworth (Werce).
The Anglians did not repeat names for people. Each person had a unique personal name, often adding prefixes to a core for one’s children. Personal names which survive to this day include Alfred, Cuthbert, Edward, Harold, Wilfred, Dunstan, Oswald, Oscar, Audrey, Edith, Ethel, Hilda, Mildred and Elfrida. Many other names have disappeared such as Hereward, Sunngifu, Wassa and Ealdgud.
It is said that all our 100 Key Words of Modern English are of Anglo-Saxon origin. So, children who learnt to read in the 1960s with the Ladybird Reading Scheme (Peter and Jane), which employed a Key Word approach, received a firm grounding in the Anglo-Saxon structure of our language. However, it is believed that over 85% of words used in that time died out with the later influence of the Vikings and Normans. As its grammar has become simpler in Modern English, so has its vocabulary expanded from a fairly restricted range in the 7th and 8th centuries.
Features of Anglo-Saxon (Old English)
It is not just the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary which has survived the grammar has also been influential. Anglo Saxon provides us with our method of forming plurals and verb formats. Like modern German, it was a heavily inflected language with word endings changing to match the purpose of the particular word in a sentence:
There were also irregular verbs such as:
As Old English evolved it became prestigious to be able to speak it without reliance on Latin or Brittonic and it played a role in bringing together the previously separate kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, dissolving existing barriers between the two peoples.
The written form of Old English initially employed runes angular marks designed to be impressed into the writing surface. As Christianity grew, early missionaries introduced the rounded Roman alphabet which was easier to read and to write on vellum.
Early Northumbrian Christianity was heavily influenced by the Celtic Irish tradition but as time went on the Roman model moved northwards. Each branch had its own method for selecting the dates of Easter which must have caused some confusion. Oswald’s successor, King Oiswiu, called the Synod of Whitby in 664 to determine which form to officially adopt. The Roman model was decided upon which resulted in most of the Irish missionaries returning to Iona, even taking some of the English ones with them. Many Anglo-Saxon missionaries remained and conformed to the Roman model.
The myth of the Vikings
The arrival of the Vikings from Norway and Denmark in the 8th and 9th centuries saw the Danish group settle south in what is now North Yorkshire as far as West Yorkshire and down the east coast to Lincolnshire and the Norwegian group enter by the West. Contrary to what is generally believed they did not settle in North Northumbria. Perhaps the story of the Viking raids on Lindisfarne has prompted and encouraged this myth. Nowhere is their pattern of settlement more evident than in the case of place names. Those of Danish origin, include thwaite – a clearing, by – town, stead, thorpe – outlying farm, toft – homestead. These elements are found in large numbers in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and the East Midlands but very rarely in present-day Northumberland. Throughout the latter are found the familiar Anglo-Saxon features such as:
beorg – hill as in Bamburgh.
denu – valley as in Loansdean.
wic – wick as in Berwick, Howick, Lowick.
dun – hill as in Bedlington, Cramlington, Rennington.
ingas – people of, as in Ellingham, Chillingham.
Scandinavian power prevailed until about 900 when it began to decline. In 1016 King Cnut took over the throne. More Scandinavian words were creeping into the English language but these were small in number. With the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century Old Norse and French words were added, with some replacing Old and Middle English words. Sometimes regional dialects preserved one form with English retaining the Old English form, e.g. (ON) Kirk and (E)church, (ON)garth and (E) yard.
And so, there are many and varied factors which influenced the development of the language which was the forerunner of Modern English. Had not the Anglians settled in the North East the speech of Bamburgh’s residents would have developed in entirely different directions. We know now that Northumbrian dialect is sometimes regarded as “the grandmother of English” and that while many features of this dialect have been lost from Middle and Modern English they live on in this region. If you have the opportunity to listen to recordings of Anglo Saxon as it is believed it would be spoken, you cannot fail to recognise familiar patterns of intonation, pitch and articulation as well as vocabulary still in common use today which you may hear amongst local people.
Spilic splint / spelk splinter
Claeg clay / claggy sticky esp. of mud
Faem foam, froth, weak / femmer fragile, feeble
Cuw cow / cow cow
Staener stony ground / stanners gravel beds formed into grassy haughs
Micel Great, big / muckle great, big.
I love a good castle. Castles are stoic survivors of hundreds of years of history they have often survived pillage, siege and political upheaval to remain standing today. Northumberland, the most northerly county in England, is home to some of the most dramatic castles in the British Isles. My favourite is Bamburgh – despite being transformed into a stately home in the 19 th century, and having lost much of its original structure, it still retains an atmosphere that gives you shivers down the spine. Its power has much to do with its setting – on a rocky outcrop 150 feet above sea level, above a sweeping sandy bay, and overlooking Lindisfarne in the windswept sea beyond.
Bamburgh was an important place long before the actual castle was built. It was occupied by the Romans when they made their march into Scotland, before retreating down to Hadrian’s Wall. In the Anglo-Saxon period, one chronicler describes it as one of the most important places in the country. Bamburgh fortress was founded in the 6 th century CE, by the Anglo-Saxon king Ida. From this point on, Bamburgh became the seat of the Anglo-Saxon royalty.
Ida’s grandson, a king called Ethelfrith the Destroyer (what a name), came to the throne in 593 CE. He gave the fortress to his wife Bebba (almost as splendid a name), from which the name ‘Bamburgh’ derives. Ethelfrith’s legacy is the country of Nothumberland itself: before him, it was split into two distinct kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira. He conquered Deira, unifying the lands into the kingdom of Northumbria, which became the most powerful county in Anglo-Saxon England.
From the 8 th to the 10 th centuries, Northumbria was in troubled waters. Rival kingdoms attacked, and the infamous Vikings sailed over from Scandinavia and pillaged the coastline. Bamburgh was attacked by these vicious pirates, and they left it ransacked and ruined. Looking down at the sea from the castle battlements, it was easy to imagine menacing Viking longboats heading across the waters.
After the Normans invaded England, they rebuilt Bamburgh fortress into a proper stone castle, to defend against a potential Scottish invasion. A century later, Henry I built the castle keep, which is still intact today. Its walls are an incredible 11 feet thick (which would keep out the wild Northumbrian gales!). Henry was truly a borderland king: he married Edith, the sister of the King of Scotland, in order to make England’s northern border a more stable place. His reign led to disaster though: the untimely death of his son in a shipwreck led to civil war, as powerful barons refused to acknowledge the reign of his sister Matilda.
In the 1220s, Henry III built the Great Hall at Bamburgh, which had fancy fitted windows, and chimneys instead of the conventional roof holes. Henry was only nine years old when he became king, and his reign was a troubled one: he was threatened with excommunication and rebelled against by Simon de Montford.
In the Wars of the Roses the castle was besieged by the Earl of Warwick, who razed much of it to the ground (this is where it comes in handy to have a keep with 11-foot-thick walls). This was the first English siege in which the castle was defeated by artillery fire. Henry VI, who had been living at Bamburgh, fled, and Bamburgh’s status as a focus of royal power was never the same again. It was finally abandoned by royalty altogether when James I gave it away to Claudius Forster in the 17 th century as a token of thanks for loyalty. But he could not keep up with the immense task of maintaining it, and the castle became a ruin.
In 1903, the castle became a family residence, and was transformed into a traditional English stately home. The interior you can see today is mostly from this period. The great hall has a false beamed roof (which to my eye is convincingly medieval) and stained glass, as well as a suit of armour and ancestral portraits. There is also quite a lot of random bits and bobs – maiolica plates, a Honthorst replica, Dutch landscape paintings, an Italian marriage chest, 17 th century weaponry, and a billiards table. The whole interior feels distinctly aristocratic but also cosy, with lovely views out to the surrounding landscape from the arched windows.
Like many castles, Bamburgh is eclectic and shaped by centuries of history. But for me, it is its Anglo-Saxon origins and its dramatic encounter with the Vikings that resonate the most. Although no architecture remains from this time, this is the period of its history that plays the most powerfully on the imagination.
Lord Crewe’s Castle
The massive keep of the castle dates to the twelfth century with dimensions of 61 feet by 69 feet and a height of 35 feet. Much of the outer walls of the castle are medieval and some parts of the towers are Norman.
Yet the building was in considerable ruin when it was purchased by Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, the Bishop of Durham in 1704 from the bankrupt Forster family who then owned it. Crewe also brought the estate of Blanchland from the family – which lies in the Derwent valley in the southern reaches of Northumberland near the border with County Durham. Both Bamburgh and Blanchland villages are, incidentally, homes to handsome stone inns called ‘The Lord Crewe’.
The Forsters had been Constables of Bamburgh since the reign of Elizabeth I. Bishop Crewe was married to Dorothy, a member of this family who was heir to the castle along with her nephew, Tom Forster. Crewe settled Tom’s debts by purchasing the castle.
Tom, who was a Northumberland MP (as his father had been before him) became heavily involved in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 and was its most prominent leader. He supported the claims of James Stuart, ‘the Old Pretender’ to the throne. Seemingly, the whole of Northumberland came out in support but a refusal by the people of Newcastle to back him (they supported King George) is sometimes said to be the origin of the term ‘Geordie‘.
Bamburgh Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018
The rebellion was a failure. Forster was captured and imprisoned at Newgate in London. Here he was rescued from prison by his sister, who like his aunt was also called Dorothy. She disguised him as her maid. Dorothy later became the eponymous subject of the novel Dorothy Forster by Sir Walter Besant. Tom Forster fled to the continent where he continued to plot against the Crown. He would not return to England until after his death, for burial at Bamburgh.
On the death of Lord Crewe, Bamburgh Castle passed to Crewe’s charitable trust and after 1757 part of the castle keep became the home to a girl’s school, an infirmary and accommodation for shipwrecked sailors. Much of the adaptation of the castle at this time was in line with the wishes of Crewe’s Trust and was undertaken by a Crewe trustee, John Sharp, who was Archdeacon of Northumberland. A further development of the Trust’s activities under Sharp was the establishment of what was claimed to be the world’s oldest lifeboat station. The station utilised a converted coble adapted for the task of sea rescues.
Another development of the castle at this time and again in line with the wishes of the Trust was the establishment of a granary at the castle for the use of the villagers. A vestige of this is the Bamburgh Castle windmill (there are no sails today) at the west end of the castle. This mill was built by John Sharp as part of the granary.
Bamburgh Castle windmill can be seen at the far left. Photo © David Simpson 2015
Corn was bought in, then ground on site and sold to local people at reasonable rates. The mill is positioned on the site of an earlier tower that was part of the castle. It stands near the site of the ancient gateway to the castle called St Oswald’s Gate – with roots going back to Anglo-Saxon times. It was once the only entrance to the fortress.
Victorian Bamburgh Castle
After years of neglect, and occasional restoration in part, Bamburgh Castle was eventually bought by William Armstrong, a wealthy Victorian Industrialist. Most of the buildings you see today at Bamburgh Castle are his doing, with the exception of the Great Keep. Most of the medieval stone work forms the base of the structure, including the vault in the clock tower.
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Bamburgh Castle – a coastal stronghold in the old Northumbrian capital, once home to Saxon saints and kings of Northumbria
A Medieval enthusiast and fan of the middle ages. I enjoy writing and sharing about medieval history, castles, kings and the important historical events of our lands.
Kingdom of Northumbria 450AD-866AD
For three and a half centuries Britain was under Roman rule. The Romans built roads, towns, forts and temples, bringing with them soldiers and cultures from across Europe. They conquered the native ‘Celtic’ tribes of Britain and established military control in the North with the construction of Hadrian’s Wall and the huge legionary fortress at York. In the reign of Constantine the Great, they also brought Christianity. Constantine, who was proclaimed Emperor at no less a place than York, would himself become the first Emperor to convert to Christianity.
ABOVE: The Kingdom of Northumbria A2 poster map from Tangled Worm. Buy here or find out more from Tangled Worm.
By 314 York was one of a number of important places in the Roman empire with a Christian bishop. Christianity was however, only one of a number of religions accepted within the Roman empire and it is not known how many Britons were actually Christians. The native people of Britain were ancient Britons, speaking a Celtic language resembling Welsh, but of course many would also learn to speak the Latin of the Romans. Many of these people continued to practice their native Celtic ‘pagan’ religions, while others may have adopted more exotic religions introduced from other parts of the Roman empire. One thing is certain however, in 300 years of occupation the Britons had intermixed with the multicultural Romans to form a ‘Romano-British’ society, different from the Celtic culture of pre-Roman times.
The crags of the Great Whin Sill were utilised as part of Hadrian’s Walls defences Photo © 2018 David Simpson
In the vicinity of Roman forts, some native Britons intermarried with Roman soldiers enlisted from far flung corners of the Roman empire like Iraq or North Africa. At places like Housesteads on the Roman Wall, they may even have intermarried with Frisian members of the Roman garrison who spoke a language similar to that of the Anglo-Saxons whose language would rapidly come to dominate in the post Roman period.
By 399 AD, three and half centuries of Roman rule in Britain were drawing to an end as the Romans commenced the removal of their troops from Britain. Attacks on Rome by the Visigoths from eastern Europe meant that reinforcements were desperately needed elsewhere and the Romans could no longer hold on to Britain as a military province. In the North of Britain, the depletion of the Roman army left the northern frontier of Hadrian’s Wall severely exposed and revolts against the small scattering of Romans who remained soon gained momentum.
Virtually all Roman troops had departed from Britain by 410 AD, leaving our shores and internal borders defenceless. The north was particularly vulnerable to attack, not just from Picts and Scots in the north, but from Germanic raiders such as Anglo-Saxons from across the North Sea. These Germanic settlers consisted of two main groups, the Angles (or Anglians) from what is now the border of Germany and Denmark (Schleswig Hosltein) and the Saxons from what is now northern Germany.
Where the Angles came from © David Simpson 2021
During the later centuries of Roman occupation, the Romans had built several defensive watch towers along the coast to defend against the Anglo-Saxon raiders. In the north, examples could be found at Scarborough, Goldsborough, Filey and Saltburn, but there were almost certainly others. When Roman rule came to an end the Anglo-Saxons were no doubt amongst those who raided the coast but it seems that many were employed by the native Romano-Britions as mercenaries to defend Britain against the Scots and Picts or perhaps to keep order between rival British tribes across the land. The Anglo-Saxons were given land in Britain as a return for the protection, but their settlements and language in Britain gradually took a hold filling the void that had followed the collapse and departure of the Roman administration..
The Angles initially settled our eastern eastern shores and are thought to have began setling the region that would come to be known as East Anglia by 440, along with Lincolnshire and regions further inland. It is likely that the North East was already under attack or at least bracing itself for invasion, but some aspects of the Roman way of life still persisted. It is known, for example, that in 445 AD, Newcastle upon Tyne was still known by its Roman name of Pons Aelius – the site of a fort adjoining a bridge over the Tyne.
By 450 AD, the Angles had begun their colonisation of the north, notably in the Yorkshire Wolds, just to the north of the Humber in a land they called Deira. This name was the name of an existing post-Roman Celtic tribal region or kingdom, in the region that had been the land of the Parisi tribe in the pre-Roman era. Gradually the Angles would settle territory further north and began settling the lowland river valleys of the east coast including possibly the Tyne, Wear and Tees. Excavations at Norton on Teesside, have revealed evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement in this early period. It is also possible and perhaps of great significance that one group of Angles from Lincolnshire – a region then known as Lindisfeorna (later Lindsey) colonised and named the island we know today as Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne was certainly known in early Anglo-Saxon times as ‘Lindisfeorna’ though its earlier, Celtic name was Medcaut.
Lindisfarne Castle : Photo © 2015 David Simpson
Much further south on the southern shores of Britain, the Saxons were settling and establishing new kingdoms like Essex, Sussex and Wessex, whilst a similar Germanic people called the Jutes were colonising Kent and the Isle of Wight. In some areas we have details of native British resistance to the colonisation and spread of the Anglo-Saxons and it is recorded that the Britons heavily defeated the Anglo-Saxon invaders at a Battle located at some identified spot called Mons Badonicus or Badon Hill.
The early Anglo-Saxon age was perhaps an age of turmoil and uncertainity in the post Roman era and in some ways our knowledge of this period is shrouded in some mystery due to scant nature of records.
Genetic studies of DNA in recent times have shown that people in Britain today are still largely descended from the people who had inhabited Britain in pre-Roman times – the ancient Britons. This is despite the overwhelming Anglo-Saxon nature of place-names in England that we still have today and the emergence of the Old English or Anglo-Saxon language as the dominant language.
Most of the place-names of our region and indeed of England as a whole are of Anglo-Saxon origin and often tell us the names and activities of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers. Significantly, almost all places ending in ‘ton’ or ‘ham’ are of Anglo-Saxon origin, but there are many other types of Anglo-Saxon place names. Interestingly the original Celtic and Romano-Celtic places names are very rare in England , though they do occasionally crop up in upland areas of the North such as Penyghent in the Yorkshire Pennines, Penruddock and Penrith in Cumbria and indeed in the name of Cumbria itself.
This early age of Anglo-Saxon colonisation or ‘invasion’ is often associated with King Arthur, a Briton who is said to have fought against the Anglo-Saxons. He is reputed to have died in 537, perhaps on the Roman Wall, but little can be said of Arthur, since so little is known. He may not have existed at all. Although the story of Arthur is fascinating, to give too much attention to a shadowy figure like Arthur, himself largely a creation of later Medieval writers would give a distorted and unreliable view of this early period of Anglo-Saxon history.
Our limited knowledge of the early Anglo-Saxon era in the immediate post-Roman period has led to the term ‘Dark Ages’ but it would be quite wrong to apply this term to the whole Anglo-Saxon age, since the Anglo-Saxon era is in fact a period about which we know a great deal. However, the earliest period of Anglo-Saxon history it is very much a case of history’s gradual emergence from darkness.
We know, that before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, the North East, like the rest of Britain was occupied by the descendants of the Romanised ‘Celts’ and earlier peoples. In the far north, one group of these Celtic people had developed into a tribal kingdom called the Gododdin in the Lothians with their tribal fort and seemingly located at the hill fort of Traprain Law near Edinburgh. Indeed Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) itself was probably a tribal centre and hill fort. The Gododdin are thought to have been the descendants of the Votadini, a tribe that inhabited this territory along with Northumberland in the early days of the Roman invasion. In 538 AD the Gododdin were not yet under siege from the Anglo-Saxons but the records suggest they were defeated in a great battle at Edinburgh after an onslaught by the Caledonians, a massive confederation of highland tribes from northern Scotland.
Bamburgh Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018
Bernicia and Deira
The most important date in this otherwise dark period of northern history was 547 AD. In this year, the ancient British coastal stronghold of Din Guyaroi (Bamburgh) on the North East coast was seized by the Angle chief called Ida. His seizure of this important British stronghold was an important event in the Angles’ political and military control of the North. It is is a year often regarded as the first real date in the history of the kingdom that would come to be known as Northumbria.
It is likely that Ida already had a foothold in the Tyne, Wear and Tees region, but the populous native British lands in the vicinity of Din Guyaroi (or Din Guaire) were an important addition to Ida’s expanding Kingdom of Bernicia. The name of this emerging kingdom, was like Deira, an adaptation of an existing Celtic tribal region or kingdom of the post-Roman era called Brynaich (there are variations on this spelling). The exact boundaries and extent of the original Brynaich are not certain and certainly not as clear as Deira, but Bernicia would come to be synonymous with the North Eastern region in the centuries to come.
Ida had conquered huge areas of land in the North East by AD 550 including, it is thought, some territory south of the Tees. He was now undisputedly the most powerful leader in the northern Angle held Land (later England). Din Guyaroi or Bamburgh would be the capital of his kingdom. The details are hazy but in AD 560 Ida would be succeeded by his sons including Theodoric, with the domain confined to Bernicia, north of the Tees. However surviving Celtic kingdoms that existed in the north, refused to accept Theodoric’s rule.
View of Bamburgh from across the dunes near Seahouses to the south Photo © 2015 David Simpson
Meanwhile, in the Yorkshire Wolds (known to the Angles as Deira) an Anglian chief called Aelle was rising to power. Aelle can be regarded as the first king of Deira. Rivalry between Deira and Bernicia would be a long running feature of Anglo-Saxon history in the north. However, the native Celts were not yet completely subdued. Urien, the leader of the British kingdom of Rheged (based in Cumbria) was determined to fight for the Celtic cause. In 575 AD, he besieged King Theodoric of Bernicia on the island of Lindisfarne in a siege that lasted three days, but victory could not be claimed.
The island of Lindisfarne, in close proximity to the Bernician capital of Bamburgh seems to have been an important location in the early battles between Britons and Angles in the North. Little is known of this period but it was on Lindisfarne in 590 AD that Urien of Rheged would meet his end fighting against the Anglo-Saxons. It is thought that he was betrayed by Morgan, a leader of the Gododdin tribe from north of the Tweed.
In 593, Æthelfrith , the grandson of Ida the Flamebearer, became the new King of Bernicia in the North-East of England. Without a formidable opponent, like Urien, his power seemed assured even in the Celtic regions. In 598 Æthelfrith is thought to have heavily defeated the native Britons in a great battle at Catterick. Here was located the ancient British kingdom called Catraeth centred on the Tees and Swale. The battle was the result of a major campaign and a huge army of Britons had marched there after assembling at Edinburgh. The Britons included the people of Gododdin, Rheged and Northern Wales. It was as if the Britons were engaging in a last stand against the Anglo-Saxons. But they were heavily defeated by Æthelfrith. The kingdom of Catraeth was seized.
The River Tees at Piercebridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018
Æthelfrith’s power was now beyond dispute and the Celts were forced to accept his rule. That is not to say that large areas of the north instantly became Anglo-Saxon. The settlement of Anglo-Saxons was extensive, but Celts were still predominant in Cumbria, the Pennines, the Celtic Kingdoms of Loidis (Leeds), Elmet and Meicen (in Hatfield, the marshy country near Doncaster).
In 603 Æthelfrith turned his attention to the Celts of the far north, going into battle with Aidan MacGabrain, King of the Dalriada Scots. The Dalriada Scots lived in western Caledonia but originated from Hibernia (Ireland). During the battle, the Scots were assisted by a large force of Ulstermen, but were defeated in battle at Degastan, an unknown location, possibly in Liddesdale. Æthelfrith’s victory forced the Kingdoms of Strathclyde in the west, Rheged in Cumbria and Gododdin in the Lothians to recognise Bernician superiority once again. With his power and prestige assured Æthelfrith usurped the crown of Deira in Yorkshire. He thus became King of both Deira and Bernicia, uniting all the Angle territory north of the River Humber into one kingdom called Northumbria. Bernicia and Deira were reduced to mere sub kingdoms.
Of course there were many in Deira who disliked Bernician rule, so Æthelfrith encouraged Deiran support by marrying Acha, a member of the Deiran royal family. It was unlikely to stop Acha’s brother Edwin from claiming the kingdom of Deira but it was too dangerous for Edwin to remain in Northumbria and he sought protection at the court of King Cearl of Mercia (an Angle kingdom based in the Midlands). Edwin’s presence in Mercia was a constant threat to Aethelfrith.
Beautiful Bamburgh. Photo © David Simpson 2018
In 615, the Bernician capital Din Guyaroi, was renamed Bebbanburgh in honour of Bebba, Æthelfrith’s new wife. The name meant the fort of Bebba, but it would gradually come to be pronounced Bamburgh. This was perhaps one of many Celtic place names that were replaced by Anglo-Saxon names in this period and may reflect the gradual replacement of Celtic with Anglo-Saxon speech. It seemed that the native Celts were no longer the major threat to the expansion of the Angles and Æthelfrith for one was now preoccupied with defeating his Anglian rival.
Later in 615 AD, he ousted King Cearl from the Kingdom of Mercia and took virtual control of the midland kingdom, although he employed a Mercian to look after Northumbrian interests here. Edwin, Æthelfrith’s major Northumbria rival fled from Mercia and took refuge with the King of East Anglia. Edwin was still a threat to Æthelfrith , but a seemingly more distant one and it seemed there would be no end to Æthelfrith’s expansion. In 615, Aethelfrith defeated the Welsh in battle at Chester and once again seized Cumbria, bringing it firmly under Northumbria rule. It was a significant event as it isolated the Britons of North Wales from those of Strathclyde and the Lothians, although that is not to say that the Britons were exterminated in the District of the Lakes.
However, Æthelfrith’s expansion would not remain unchecked forever. In 616 he finally met his end in battle against Raedwald King of East Anglia at Bawtry on the River Idle. This site lies close to the present borders of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. In Æthelfrith’s time this area lay on the southern reaches of Northumbria, a dangerous marshy region close to the border with Lindsey and easily accessible from the East Anglian kingdom.
Church dedicated to St Edwin who was king of Northumbria at High Consicliffe (the king’s cliff) near Darlington. Photo © David Simpson 2018
Upon Æthelfrith’s death, Edwin, son of Aelle and prince of Deira seized the Northumbrian kingdom. A Deiran was now in charge of the Northumbrian kingdom, but there was still rivalry between Deiran and Bernician factions. The Bernician claimant was Æthelfrith’s son Prince Oswald, who fled from Northumbria for safety. Oswald took refuge on the island monastery of Iona off the western Scottish coast. Political expansion and victory in battle was a necessary part of being an Anglo-Saxon king if he wished to gain support and respect and this was as true for Edwin as it had been for Æthelfrith.
Much of Edwin’s early military activity seems to have concentrated on the southern borders of Northumbria where there was still strong Celtic influence. Around 626 he evicted a client king called Ceretic from the ancient British kingdom of Elmet near Leeds and followed this with the capture of the Celtic kingdom of Meicen (Hatfield) near Doncaster. His expansion also extended south into the Anglian kingdom of Lindsey (Lincolnshire).
Since Edwin already had control over much of the land acquired by Æthelfrith, Edwin’s power in the north was unequalled by any Anglian predecessor. But power and expansion naturally aroused jealousy and fear amongst rivals including Cuichelm, King of the West Saxons. In 626 Cuichelm sent north an assassin called Eumer, who attempted to kill Edwin as he celebrated the Pagan festival of Easter at his royal palace somewhere close to the River Derwent on the edge of the Yorkshire wolds. The assassin entered the King’s court and asked to speak with the king on the pretence of having an important message from the West Saxon King. On seeing the king, Eumer produced a poisoned dagger from beneath his cloak with which he attempted to stab Edwin. Fortunately one of Edwin’s men, Lillam jumped in the way and suffered a blow from which he was killed. A fight followed in which Edwin was injured but Eumer was eventually put to death. On the same night of the assasination attempt King Edwin’s queen, Ethelburga gave birth. Angered by the assasination attempt, Edwin sought revenge and defeated the West Saxons in a great battle in Wessex. As a result Edwin proclaimed himself ‘overking’ of all England.
Until this point, all the Northumbrian kings, including Edwin, had been solidly Pagan in their outlook, but this was about to change. Edwin had already formed an important alliance with the Kingdom of Kent, an Anglo-Saxon Kingdom that had converted to Christianity through the influence of St Augustine. In 625 a marriage had been arranged between Edwin and the Christian Princess of Kent called Ethelberga. Edwin was already considering his own conversion to Christianity and Edwin took the opportunity to attribute his victory in Wessex to the new Christian faith.
On April 11 627, Edwin converted to Christianity, undertaking a baptism at York performed by a Roman missionary called Paulinus. The ceremony took place in a new, wooden church dedicated to St Peter. This humble little building was the predecessor of York Minster. Coifi, the Pagan high priest under Edwin, followed the king’s example and he too converted to Christianity. To demonstrate his new faith Coifi destroyed the great heathen temple of Goodmanham near the River Derwent in East Yorkshire.
Paulinus was appointed as Bishop of York, a post redundant since Roman times. He travelled throughout Northumbria converting Edwin’s people at important locations associated with the Royal household. He is said to have baptised thousands of Northumbrians in the Swale near Catterick and in the River Glen near Yeavering.
Looking towards the Ad Gefrin site from the roadside. Photo © David Simpson 2018
At Yeavering (Ad Gefrin) the outline of one Edwin’s Royal Palaces can still be seen in the fields. It is only visible from the air but includes the clear outline of several buildings including a great hall and an auditorium. It is thought that Northumbrians assembled here to hear the words of influential speakers. Perhaps Edwin and Paulinus addressed an audience on this spot. Interestingly the palace lies at the foot of a prominent hill called Yeavering Bell, itself the site of a large Celtic fort. Was this perhaps one of many locations where Celtic and Anglian cultures merged together. Perhaps some of the Celtic peoples of the region had even held onto Christian beliefs since Roman times and it is just possible that in some cases Paulinus was preaching to the converted.
It is very tempting to look for the continuous presence of Christianity in England since Roman times. It may be significant that York, so closely associated with the great Christian Emperor Constantine and the site of a Roman bishopric was chosen by Edwin as the centre for his Christian activity. The new wooden minster built by Edwin at York lay within what had been the headquarters building of the Roman legionary fortress. In 628 AD Edwin rebuilt the church of St Peter’s in stone and he may have used rubble from the Roman fortess in its construction. Anglo-Saxon churches certainly made use of Roman stone as is demonstrated by the Anglo-Saxon church at Escomb in County Durham. Of course it is also known for certain, that the very name of the minster at York – its dedication to St Peter – was chosen to reflect its links with St Peter’s in Rome. The church was given sealed approval by the Pope.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that Roman Christianity was now firmly re-established in the north. Its future was only assured as long as Edwin remained in power. On October 12, 633, Edwin was killed. As with Æthelfrith, Edwin’s death took place in a battle within the marshy low country near Doncaster. On this occasion the battle was at Heathfield (or Hatfield) where Edwin’s forces were crushed by the Mercians in alliance with the Welsh. The Mercians fought under the leadership of a chieftain called Penda and the Welsh assisted under the their king Caedwalla. Osric, a possible successor to Edwin was also killed in the battle whilst Edwin’s son Edfrith surrendered.
Penda was appointed King of the Mercians and along with his Welsh ally Caedwalla could now claim to be one of the most powerful kings in the north. Caedwalla had his eye on Northumbrian territory and claimed the throne of Deira. It may sound sound strange that a Welshman would claim Anglian territory in Yorkshire, but many parts of this region will have still encompassed Welsh speaking territory and peoples particularly in the Pennines and in the former Celtic kingdoms near Leeds and Doncaster.
So what was the future for Christianity in the North? In Bernicia, Eanfrith, the pagan son of Æthelfrith was crowned King of the Northumbrians and those who had converted to Christianity during Edwin’s reign may have thought it wise to revert to Eanfrith’s Pagan ways. St Paulinus, the Christian Bishop of York returned to Kent.
St Aidan sculpture, Lindisfarne. Photo © David Simpson 2015
There was still hope for the Christian cause. In 634 Eanfrith was killed by his younger brother Oswald, who had returned from his exile on the Christian island of Iona. Oswald became King. The following year Oswald heavily defeated Penda and Caedwalla in battle at Heavenfield just to the south of Hexham. The event resulted in Caedwalla’s death. Oswald’s victory over Penda at the Battle of Heavenfield made him the undisputed overking (or Bretwalda) of England. This was a title that had also been held by Edwin, but was more of a recognised status of ‘top king’ than an absolute king of all England. Oswald attributed his victory at Heavenfield to the work of God. As an expriment he had asked his men to pray to God prior to the battle and was now convinced that the Christian faith had brought him victory.
Site of the Battle of Heavenfield Photo © David Simpson
Oswald was determined to continue the reintroduction of Christianity to the North East and employed St Aidan, an Irish monk from the Scottish island of Iona to convert his people. This would, however, be a Celtic Christianity, different to the Roman style of Christianity introduced by Edwin and Paulinus. Aidan, perhaps trying to recreate the atmosphere of Iona, chose Lindisfarne as the centre for his bishopric and established a monastery on the island. He was the first Bishop of Lindisfarne.
Other monasteries would follow and in 640 a monastery was established on the coastal headland at Hartlepool by Hieu an Irish princess who became the first abbess there. Like Lindisfarne this too, had an island like location, as the Hartlepool headland was virtually cut off from the mainland. Further south York’s Christian credentials were not forgotten and in 642 AD Oswald completed the work begun by King Edwin on St Peter’s Minster church. Also in Yorkshire Lastingham Priory established in 654 by St Cedd.
One lesser known monastic site of the period was Gateshead. This was known to the Anglo-Saxons as ‘Goat’s Head’ as translated from Bede’s Latin name for the site ‘Ad Caprae Caput’. Little is known about the monastery her except that it was under the jurisdiction of an abbot called Uttan in 653. The name Goat’s Head may have been taken from some kind of totem or emblem, perhaps of Roman origin, that may have existed on the Roman Tyne Bridge.
St Marys churchyard Gateshead : Photo © David Simpson
Christianity did not of course bring an end to Northumbria’s political expansion. In 638, the Lothian region was besieged by Oswald who brought it under Northumbrian control. Din Eidyn, once the chief fortress of the Gododdin, was brought under Northumbrian control and it was the Northumbrians that gave the fortress its Anglian name ‘Edinburgh’, perhaps in an attempt to associate it with king Edwin. The ‘burgh’ in Edinburgh is certainly an Anglian word and means ‘stronghold’. Extensive Northumbrian-Anglian settlement must have taken place here since most of the place names in this region are still Anglo-Saxon to this day. Interestingly the form of English spoken in Scotland would also develop from the Northumbria-Angle speech introduced to the Lothians rather than the earlier Welsh-Celtic type of language spoken by the Gododdin or the Gaelic type of Celtic language spoken by the Scots.
There was to be no peaceful break from military conflict in the North and it seemed certain that Oswald would eventually, like his predecessors, lose his life on the battlefield. And so it was on August 5, 642 AD, Oswald, King of Northumbria died in battle at Maserfelth against Penda of Mercia. The location of the battle is uncertain, with the two main suggestions being Makerfield in Lancashire or Oswestry in Shropshire.
Oswald was succeeded by his brother Oswy in Bernicia (the North East region north of the Tees) and by a rival called Oswine in Deira (Yorkshire). This meant that Northumbria was split into two parts once again. The split weakened the kingdom and Penda of Mercia took the opportunity to seize certain Northumbrian lands in Deira, Lincolnshire and Elmet near Leeds. Oswine of Deira was now under threat from all sides and was eventually murdered after backing down from military confrontation with Oswy at Wilfar’s Hill near Catterick. Oswine’s hiding place at Gilling was discovered by one of Oswy’s men.
So Oswy seized the Deiran crown, making his claim on the strength of his marriage to Eanfled, daughter of the late King Edwin. So Northumbria was once again united. Ethelwald, the son of the late King Oswald was employed by Oswy to take care of the king’s affairs in Deira, but he betrayed Oswy, siding with Penda of Mercia in an attack in 653. This attack that took the raiders as far north as Bamburgh.
War raged between Mercia and Northumbria and on November 15, 655, the Mercians and Welsh were defeated in a great battle. Its location is not certain, but the battle is described as being near the River Winwaed. The river is unidentified so its name must have changed at some later point in time, but it is generally agreed that it was somehwere near Leeds. It was a very important battle since Penda, the King of Mercia and thirty enemy chieftains were killed. Many of the Mercians were drowned in the river as they tried to escape.
Oswy’s victory placed him in a position of great prominence in England. Not only was he now the undisputed King of Northumbria but he was also proclaimed ‘Bretwalda’ – the ‘top king’ of all England. Oswy’s control of Deira was assured but now he also had a say in Mercian affairs, appointing Penda’s son Peada (after whom Peterborough is named) as King of Mercia south of the Trent. Oswy seized northern Mercia for himself.
Hexham Abbey Photo © 2018 David Simpson
The defeat and death of King Penda of Mercia at the Battle of Winwaed in 655 seemed to mark the beginning of a new period of Northumbrian greatness. It was certainly an age of important Christian developments in the region. The establishment of new monasteries continued, such as that at Ripon founded in 657 by Irish monks from Melrose. At around the same time St Hilda, abbess of Hartlepool founded a monastery at Streanashalch (Whitby).
This was also a period of great debate about the kind of Christianity that should be practised in the North. In the reign of Edwin, Roman Christianity had been introduced to the North, but during Oswald’s reign a Celtic form of Christianity was preferred. This meant that Northumbria was out of touch with the rest of England and Europe.
In the year 664 a great synod was held at Whitby to discuss the controversy regarding the timing of the Easter festival. Much dispute had arisen between the practices of the Celtic church in Northumbria and the beliefs of the Roman church. The main supporters of the Celtic Christianity at Whitby were Colman of Lindisfarne, Hilda of Whitby and Cedd, the Bishop of Essex. St Wilfrid, a well travelled man championed the Roman Christian cause and successfully persuaded the Northumbrians to reject their old ways.
Lindisfarne or Holy Island Photo © David Simpson 2015
Colman, the Bishop of Lindisfarne resigned and returned to Iona and was replaced by Bishop Tuda, the first Bishop of Lindisfarne to practice the Roman ways. Tuda’s reign as bishop was short lived and later in the year he died of plague. Wilfrid was chosen as his successor and although Wilfrid agreed to take up the post, he transferred the bishopric from Lindisfarne to York, perhaps to distance himself from the Christian Celtic traditions of the Northumbrian island.
Wilfrid was keen to prove a point with a staunch adherence to the strict rules of the Roman church. He claimed that there was no person in England who could consecrate him as bishop and so headed off to France to be ordained. This infuriated King Oswy who replaced the absent bishop with St Chad of Lastingham.
King Oswy died in 669 and was succeeded by his son Ecgfrith who allowed St. Wilfrid to return to England and take up the post of Bishop of York. Wilfrid established a grammar school at St Peters in York and commenced the building of a new minster in the city. He also established a new monastery at Ripon.
In the background to these Christian developments Northumbrian military and political expansion continued and by 672 the Celts of Cumbria and Dumfries were conquered by the Northumbrians under Ecgfrith’s leadership, whilst the Picts of Caledonia were defeated in battle. In the following year Ecgfrith would also defeat the Mercians (Midlanders) in battle. Northumbrian supremacy was once again confirmed, but Ecgfrith was soon to find himself involved in conflict away from the battlefield. In 673 he divorced his virgin queen Ethelreda of Ely in order to marry his new love Ermenburga. The chaste Ethelreda, under the influence of St. Wilfrid, chose to become a nun and was given land at Hexham by her former husband. Ethelreda chose to give her new land to Wilfrid for the building of a monastery. She herself opted for the coast and established a new monastery at St Abbs Head (north of Berwick).
The year 674 saw the establishment of what would become one of the most important Roman Christian monasteries in the north. The monastery of St Peters, Monkwearmouth was founded by a noble called Benedict Biscop on land granted by King Ecgfrith. A great library would develop here, with books from France and Rome and the first coloured glass in England would be introduced to the monastery by continental glaziers. Gregorian chanting was introduced and many other advanced aspects of Christian culture hitherto unknown in the north came to Monkwearmouth under Biscop’s influence.
St Peter’s church at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland : Photo © David Simpson
Meanwhile tensions between King Ecgfrith and Wilfrid continued to rise and in 678 the king banished Wilfrid from Northumbria. It is possible that Ecgfrith may have been jealous of Wilfrid’s long standing friendship with his former wife, now a nun at St Abbs Head. The king broke up Wilfrid’s York based bishopric into two parts with two separate sees centred on York and Hexham. The bishopric of Hexham extended from the River Tweed to the River Tees whilst that of York extended from the Tees to the Humber.
Wilfrid, in exile in Europe, turned his attention to the conversion of the Frisian people of North West Germany. He would return to Northumbria in 680 but was arrested after landing at Dunbar. Wilfrid had brought with him papal documents overthrowing the division of the Northumbrian bishoprics, but the king of Northumbria would not take orders from the Pope and Wilfrid was imprisoned. He was later released and fled to Sussex where he converted the last pagan kingdom in England to Christianity. Wilfrid claimed that King Ecgfrith had no right to divide the Northumbrian bishopric, but the king was unmoved by the papal orders. In fact, in the year 681 Ecgfrith made a further division dividing the new Bishopric of Hexham into two parts with the re-establishment of a separate bishopric at Lindisfarne. Hexham’s diocese would now extend from the River Aln to the River Tees.
With his control over the church firmly recognised, King Ecgfrith turned his attention once more to military matters and for the first time attempted to take Northumbrian expansion overseas by sending an army into Meath in Northern Ireland in 684. He may have hoped to expand his empire into these new lands but nothing seems to have developed from this particular campaign. One person who had advised the king against this particular campaign was St Cuthbert. In his younger days Cuthbert, had become a popular and well respected figure noted, apparently, for his gift of working miracles and healing the sick.
The island of Inner Farne showing Prior Castell’s tower and the lighthouse. Photo © David Simpson 2015
Cuthbert had retreated to the island of Inner Farne in 676 to live as a hermit – once a common practice among those who wished to be closer to God. Despite his hermit lifestyle, Cuthbert was visited by many, many people in search of healing. The respect he commanded amongst the people made him an ideal choice for a bishop. In 685 he was elected as the Bishop of Hexham at a synod near Alnmouth, but he requested a transfer to Lindisfarne. Cuthbert was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne at York on April 7th in the presence of King Ecgfrith.
On May 20 685, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria was killed fighting Brude, King of Caledonia. It symbolised an end to the period of Northumbrian expansion. One result of the defeat was the abandonment of yet another Northumbrian bishopric at Abercorn near Edinburgh. Aldfrith the illegitimate son of the late King Oswy and an Irish princess, became the new King of Northumbria and although his reign seemed to signify and end to political expansion, art and learning would flourish under his rule. Great works of Celtic art would be encouraged by the new King who had been educated in Ireland.
Church of St Paul at Jarrow nave on left, Saxon chancel on right Photo ©David Simpson
The year in which Aldfrith succeeded as king, saw Benedict Biscop’s completion of the monastery of St Pauls at Jarrow, a twin monastery to Monkwearmouth. Among the new students at Jarrow was Bede, a young boy of nine years old, who had been transferred from Wearmouth to the new site. Unfortunately plague hit the two monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow in 686, while their founder Benedict Biscop was in Rome. Fortunately Bede and the Abbot Ceolfrith of Jarrow were among the few survivors of the plague.
On March 30, 686 St Cuthbert, perhaps sensing his time was nearing an end, resigned from the post of Bishop of Lindisfarne and returned to the island of Inner Farne as a hermit. Later that year Cuthbert died on his lonely island with only sea birds and seals for company. Northumbria mourned the loss of its best loved saints. St Wilfrid returned to Northumbria in that year to become Bishop of Lindisfarne but within two years had transferred to Hexham. He succeeded St. John of Beverley who retired to become a hermit. Eadbert replaced Wilfrid at Lindisfarne.
Only four years passed before St Wilfrid found himself once more at the centre of controversy. Once again the issue was over the creation of a bishopric with Wilfrid refusing to allow the creation of a new bishopric based at Ripon. Wilfrid was banished from Northumbria and John of Beverley was reinstated as Bishop of Hexham. Wilfrid turned his attentions to Mercia where he founded at least six monasteries in the period 691 to 703, but his influence was being felt further afield. In November 695, a Northumbrian monk called Willibrord, a former pupil of Wilfrid at Ripon, was consecrated Bishop of the Frisians. Wilfrid’s fortunes in Northumbria would improved on December 4, 705 when Aldfrith King of Northumbria died at Driffield in the Yorkshire Wolds.
Bede and the Golden Age
Weak leadership was beginning to characterise Northumbrian affairs, but the church was growing from stength to stength and no religious house was perhaps more influential than the joint monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow. On January 12, 690 Benedict Biscop, the founder of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow monasteries died of palsy. He was succeeded by Ceolfrith who became abbot of both monasteries. Two years later in 692 Bede, a sholar at Jarrow monastery was ordained as a deacon at the age of nineteen. By 703 Bede progressed to the rank of priest.
Bede was something of a star pupil and was fortunate enough to be growing up in one of the most influential and learned monasteries in Europe. The monks of this monastery were well travelled and their opinions were respected. In 716 Ceolfrith, the Abbot persuaded the island monastery of Iona in Caledonia to abandon its Celtic Christian ways in favour of the Roman style of Christianity. Ceolfrith’s successor continued this work persuading Nechtan, the King of the Picts to convert to Roman Christianty.
Church of St Paul Jarrow: Photo © David Simpson
This was an era of great art and literature, which saw the publication of an illuminated bible called the Codex Amiatinus at Jarrow and the completion of the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels at Lindisfarne in 721. At Jarrow, Bede was writing the Life of St Cuthbert, a work specially written for the monks of Lindisfarne, but there were other works for which he would achieve greater fame. A chronolgical work published by Bede in 725 introduced dating from Christ’s birth – Anno Domini and this was eventually adopted by the entire Christian world. He did not invent the concept of AD but it is widely due to him that this system of dating was so widely adopted.
But Bede’s greatest work was undoubtedly his History of the English Church and People completed in the year 731 at Jarrow. He dedicated this work to King Ceolwulf of Northumbria. It was to become one of the most important sources of information about the history of the Anglo-Saxon period and was undoubtedly the first history of England ever to be written. Bede was one of the most respected figures of his day and such was his influence that his presence in Northumbria helped to persuade the pope to upgrade the Bishopric of York to the status of an Archbishopric in 734. The first Archbishop, Egbert, a former pupil of Bede would now be independent of Canterbury.
When Bede passed away at Jarrow on May 25, 735 Northumbria would mourn the loss of its greatest scholar and historian. His name would be remembered in history for centuries to come. He was the greatest man of learning of the Anglo-Saxon age and his works would be known throughout Europe. The joint monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow were the brightest lights of learning in ‘Dark Age’ Europe. The age of Bede was something of a heyday for the Kingdom of Northumbria, but in the late eighth century Northumbria was plagued with weak leadership and collapsed into a state of anarchy caused by rivalry between the royal houses of Deira and Bernicia.
King Aldfrith of Northumbria, who died in 705 was succeeded by his son Osred who was only a boy. The boy king was besieged at Bamburgh, but his attacker Eardulph was captured and beheaded. St. Wilfrid soon emerged as the young king’s protector and adopted faher and was reinstated as Bishop of Hexham after a synod was held near the River Nidd in North Yorkshire. But Wilfrid was now well into old age and in the year 709, he died while visiting his Mercian monastery at Oundle, Northamptonshire.
Hexham Abbey Photo © 2015 David Simpson
Wilfrid was succeeded by Acca as the new Bishop of Hexham and received burial at Ripon. Remarkably, Osred the boy king held on to power in the north and in 711 the Northumbrians even managed to defeat the Picts in battle, preventing the expansion of the Pictish kingdom. That this was a campaign of defense is perhaps telling, the days of Northumbrian expansion were now over and as the decades passed the history of the kingdom would be plagued by infighting.
In 716 Osred, was assasinated at the age of nineteen, near the southern borders of his kingdom by his kinsmen Cenred and Osric. Cenred became the new King of Northumbria. He would would only live for two years before he was succeeded by Osric. Nothing remarkable can be noted about these two murderous kings and in 729 Osric died and was succeeded King Ceolwulf, brother of Cenred. Ceolwulf’s reign was characterised by his obsessive religious interests, he was more monk like than king like and was sometimes ridculed by his people. On one occasion in 732 he was captured and focibly tonsured – his hair cut in the style of a monk.
From 737 AD to 806 AD Northumbria had ten kings, of which three were murdered, five were expelled and two retired to become monks. It brought an instability to the Kingdom which may well have encouraged the first Viking raiders to attack the Northumbrian coast from 793 AD. King Ceolwulf was one of the first of these weaker leaders retiring from the kingdom in 737 to become a monk. He was succeeded by Eadbert, an unremarkable king with an unremarkable reign. In 750, Eadbert is known to have imprisoned the Bishop of Lindisfarne at Bamburgh for plotting against him. Eventually, like Ceolwulf, hewould retire from his kingdom in in 758 to become a monk at York.
Bamburgh Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2015
Eadbert was succeeded by his son Oswulf, the following year but Oswulf reign for only a few months before assassination at Corbridge on Tyne on August 5th 759. He was succeeded by the Deiran, called Athelwald Moll of Catterick, who may have been responsible for his death. Moll was certainly capable of cold blooded murder, killing a Bernician noble called Oswin at High Coniscliffe on the Tees in 761. Moll was not popular with everyone in the north and was eventually forced out of power on October 30 765 after a meeting was held at Finchale (near Durham) to decide his future. Moll was succeeded by Alhred but he too was forced out in less than a decade, by Moll’s son Athelred. And so it goes on, the period seems to be characterised by little more than one regime ousting another. Athelred was ousted by a Bernician called Alfwold and a number of royal nobles were murdered at High Coniscliffe during the coup.
Finchale Priory © David Simpson 2021
In 788 King Alfwold was murdered by his uncle Sicga at Chesters on Hadrian’s Wall and was buried at Hexham. He was succeeded by his boy nephew Osred II, but the child fled to the Isle of Man to escape his enemies and Athelred commenced a second period as King. By the end of the summer 792 Athelred had drowned a rival Prince in Windermere and beheaded Osred II at Maryport on the Cumbrian when Osred returned to the mainland. He then attempted to form an alliance with Mercia by marrying the daughter of King Offa at Catterick.
Perhaps the ruthless Athelred was the strongest in this sucession of weak kings, but the kingdom of Northumbria was now a shadow of its former self. It no longer seemed to have the military might of the past and its religious affairs were in a state of collapse. In 782 and 789 emergency meetings or synods were held at Aycliffe regarding religious matters and church discipline. Similar meetings were held at Finchale in 792, 798 and 810. The inherent weaknesses in Northumbria probably did not escape the attention of people from far across the North Sea, who soon began to raid the Northumbrian coast.
Lindisfarne Castle : Photo © 2015 David Simpson
On June 8th 793, in an unprecedented attack which shocked the whole of Europe, a raiding party of Vikings from Norway attacked Lindisfarne. Monks fled in fear and many were slaughtered. Bishop Higbald sought refuge on the mainland and a chronicler would record- “On the 8th June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church by rapine and slaughter. ” In a letter from Charlemagne’s court in France, Alcuin the former head of York School blamed the Viking attack on a fall in moral standards in Northumbria. He was well aware of Northumbria’s state of disaray and he for one clearly saw the raid as a punishment from God.
More attacks would follow in 794 with the Vikings attacking the famous monastery at Jarrow, although on this occasion the Northumbrians were prepared for the attack and managed to surprise and utterly destroy the Viking attackers. But further Viking raids on Lindisfarne and Jarrow would continue throughout the year and by 800 monasteries at Whitby, Hartlepool and Tynemouth were also targets. The monasteries exposed on the eastern coast of Northumbria were wealthy treasure houses that were an irresistable target for the Vikings.
Tynemouth Priory. Photo: Elise Simpson 2015
King Athelred’s reaction to the Viking raids is not recorded, but by April 18th 796 he was dead, murdered at Corbridge as the result of a plot by a Northumbrian noble called Osbald who succeded Athlred as king for just over a month before he was forced out by a new king called Eardwulf. Eardwulf was ousted in 806 by Alfwold II, but was restored to power in 808 following Alfwold’s death. Eardwulf was ousted again in 811 and succeeded by Eanred.
Northumbria was by this time a backwater, no longer a big player in English affairs. This became blatantly clear in 829 when the most powerful king in England, Egbert King of Wessex and Mercia called a meeting with Eanred of Northumbria at Dore near Sheffield on the Northumbria-Mercia border. Dore was literally Northumbria’s ‘doorway’ to the south.The aim of the meeting was to ensure peace, and the result was that Eanred was forced to accept Wessex supremacy and recognise Egbert as the ‘overking’ of England. Wessex was now firmly established as the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom in England and would remain so until 1066.
In Northumbria, King Eanred’s reign would outlast many other kings of this period and he remained in power until his death in 840, when he was succeded by his son Athelred II. Throughout this period Viking raids continued to be a problem on the Northumbrian coast. In 830 the monks of Lindisfarne were forced to flee the island with the coffin of St Cuthbert to escape further raids. They settled inland at Norham on Tweed where a church was built for the saint’s shrine, but this was only the beginning of a long journey that would see them travel widely throughout the North.
Vikings raids were by a now problem almost everywhere in the British Isles. In 841 Vikings from Norway established Dublin as their chief coastal stronghold in the British Isles and Viking colonies were developing on the islands off the norther Scotish coast. The first Northumbrian king to fall victim of the Vikings was Raedwulf, who was killed by Vikings, probably in a coastal attack in 844 shortly after he had ousted Athelred II from the Northumbrian throne. The fortunate Athelred was restored and reigned until his death in 848 when he was succeeded by King Osbert, one of the last AnglIan kings of Northumbria. In 866 Osbert, the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria was overthrown by his people and replaced by Aelle II. Osbert and Aelle were perhaps brothers, but they were linked respectively to the Bernician and Deiran factions of the Northumbrian royal family and their rivalry was one aspect of a long running civil war.
Holding onto leadership was a major challenge for the Northumbrian kings in this era, but in 866 an even greater threat to the stability of leadership was about to emerge. For seven decades the Vikings had been raiding the coast of Britain and it seemed inevitable that they would eventually launch a full scale invasion of our shores. This is precisely what occurred in the year 866, when a huge army of Danes, invaded East Anglia from their well established bases in the Low Countries of the Continent. They arived under the leadership of Ivar the Boneless and his brothers, Halfdene and Hubba and after camping the winter, turned their attention to Northumbria.
How Bamburgh Became the Nucleus of Northumbrian Power - History
Only open at certain times
Only open at certain timesamburgh Castle is located on an outcrop of basalt rock on the Northumbrian coast of northern England. The outcrop of rock forms a long ridge and stands over a hundred feet above the surrounding land overlooking a natural harbour. This location has been chosen as a site that could be defended long before the medieval period. Bamburgh was chosen as the capital of Northumbria, or Bernicia as it was known, one of the seven kingdoms that existed in Saxon times. In Saxon times the castle was called Bebbanburgh after Bedda the wife of Aethelfrith of Bernicia. When Aethelfrith's son Oswald returned from exile on Iona and became King, Christianity arrived in Northumbria and a chapel was built within the confines of the castle. Aidan, a bishop from Iona, was invited to Bamburgh and was given land on the nearby island of Lindisfarne to build a monastery to be seen from the castle.
The following centuries saw destruction and reconstruction at the castle due to internal conflicts in Northumbria but also from the Vikings who attacked the north east coast stealing from the vunerable monasteries and murdering the monks. After the Norman invasion Bamburgh played an important part in protecting England from the Scots and major rebuilding work took place to improve the defences of the castle. In 1164 during the reign of Henry II a large square Norman keep known as the 'Great Tower' was built at the castle at the cost of four pounds and over the next few centuries the castle was visited by all the English kings.
The War of the Roses saw the end of Bamburgh Castle's power when a siege was ended with the use of cannons, the first English castle to fall in this way. The following centuries saw the decline of the castle's fabric as repair costs grew too much for the private owners to afford. This state of disrepair lasted until 1894 when the castle was bought by Lord Armstrong who began restoration work to convert the remains into a private mansion. The results of his and successors work is what you see today when you visit Bamburgh castle.