1902 Encyclopedia > Kingdom of Northumberland

Kingdom of Northumberland

KINGDOM OF NORTHUMBERLAND. The history of Anglo-Saxon England is the history, not of a heptarchy of independent and equal or nearly equal kingdoms united by any kind of federal bond, but of the rise and progress of the kingdom of Northumberland from the end of the 6th to the middle of the 8th century under Ethelfrith and the descendants of Edwin of Deira, the predominance of Mercia during the latter half of the 8th century under Offa, and the gradual union of England under the descend-ants of Egbert of Wessex between the close of the 8th century and the Norman Conquest. The present article is chiefly concerned with the first of these periods chrono-logically, and geographically with the portion of Britain which under the Northumbrian kings at the time of their greatest power extended from the Humber to the Forth, and was bounded on the east by the German Ocean and on the west by an irregular and gradually receding line, at times overstepped, of the country more or less mount-ainous retained by the Celts of Strathclyde and Cumbria between the Clyde and the Mersey (see Plate II., vol. viii.). The first settlements of the Angles in these regions and the foundation of the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira have been spoken of in vol. viii. p. 270.. Bernicia and Deira were Celtic names, Bryneich and Deifr, somewhat modified; the former kingdom corresponded generally with the modern counties of Durham and.

Northumberland and the Lothians, the latter with York-shire, and when the two became united in one kingdom it received the name of Northumberland.

The history of Bernicia between the establishment of Ida as its king and the reign of his grandson Ethelfrith (592-617), and of Deira prior to the reign of Edwin (616-633), the son of JEWa, is obscure. The skilful piecing together of the notices of Nennius, Bede, and the early English chroniclers by Palgrave, Lappenberg, Skene, and others cannot be regarded as a completely successful re-construction of the chronology of the Northumbrian kings. The chief difficulty, though only one of many, is that six of twelve sons of Ida are said to have reigned in Bernicia from his death (559) to the accession of Ethelfrith, his grandson (592 or 594), a period of only thirty-three or thirty-five years, which, though not quite incredible, ap-pears short in comparison with the parallel reigns of iElla of Deira (559-588) and his son Edwin (616-633), while their names and order of succession do not agree in the earliest authorities. Another is that Bebba, the British princess from whom Bamburgh, the chief fortress of Bernicia, was named, was according to the Saxon Chronicle wife of Ida, but according to Nennius of Ethelfrith. Whatever may be the truth as to the earlier history, more light dawns with Ethelfrith, in whose reign the attempt to unite Bernicia and Deira commenced. " The most powerful and covetous of glory of kings," as he is called by Bede, Ethelfrith "wasted the race of the Britons more than all the chiefs of the Angles, and made more land than any of them subject to or inhabited by Angles, exterminating or sub-duing the indigenous tribes" (Bede, i. 34). By one of these victories, that of Catraethl (596), commemorated in the verse of Aneurin, he overcame the Britons, who were driven back into Cumbria, and by another at Dasgsastan ("_Dawston in Liddisdale) over Aidan, king of the Scots of Dalriada, in 603, he put a stop to incursions of the Scots down to Bede's own day. A third victory at Caerleon (Chester on the Dee) 613?, followed by the slaughter of the monks of Bangor, marks the fact that the Northum-brian Angles were still heathens fighting against Christian Celts. It was these successes that led to the extension of Northumberland to the borders of Cumberland and West-moreland, and the first permanent inclusion of part at least of the district between the Tweed and the Forth in the kingdom of the northern Angles. Ethelfrith married a sister of Edwin and daughter of ./Ella of Deira, and after ^Ella's death, during the minority of Edwin, seized Deira, over which he reigned for twelve years. The young Edwin took refuge first amongst the Britons and afterwards with Redwald, king of East Anglia, who re-stored him to his kingdom by the defeat and death of Ethelfrith at a battle on the Idle, a tributary of the Trent, in 617. This turn of fortune drove Eanfrid, Oswald, and Oswy, the sons of Ethelfrith, into exile amongst the northern Celts, and Edwin, like Ethelfrith, ruled over the whole Angles north of the Humber to the Forth; for, whether Edinburgh was his foundation or a fortress of the Celts (Dunedin), the tradition which linked its modern name with his can scarcely be without meaning. Through his example the Angles were converted to Christianity by Paulinus, a monk sent from Canterbury with letters from Boniface V. to the king and his wife Ethelberga, the daughter of Ethelbert of Kent. The story of the origin of the Northumbrian Church, with its inci-dents of the destruction of the idols by the heathen arch-priest Coifi, the speeches at the council of the witan which decided in favour of the new faith, the host of catechumens eager for baptism in the nearest rivers, the Glen in Bernicia, the Swale in Deira, and the Trent in the country of the Lindissi, the erection of a stone church dedicated to St Peter at York surrounding the wooden, oratory in which Edwin had himself been baptized, after-wards itself enclosed in the minster, forms one of the most, vivid passages of Bede. As the scene of these incidents-was his native country, and their time about half a century before his birth, there is no reason to doubt the substan-tial truth of a narrative derived at first, or at furthest at second hand.

'' Deda, a priest of Bardney, a man of singular veracity," her. mentions in one place, "told me that one of the oldest persons (in the province of the Lindissi, modern Lincoln) had informed him. that he himself had been baptized by Paulinus at noon in the pre-sence of Edwin, with a great multitude of the people, in the river Trent ... he was also wont to describe the personal appearance of Paulinus, tall of stature, a little stooping, his hair black, his-visage meagre, his nose very slender and aquiline, his aspect both venerable and majestic."

The same historian testifies to the dignity of Edwin's, reign, shown by the "tufa," or standard of feathers on a spear-head, borne before him in war and peace. A woman with a new-born child might walk through his dominion without harm, and cups were provided at the springs on-. the wayside for travellers. Such a time was fitted for the-reception of the new religion of peace, but Edwin's days-ended in war, and he perished at Heathfield (Hatfield in Yorkshire) in a battle against the heathen host led by Penda, king of Mercia, and the British King Ceadwalla. (633). His death permitted the return of the sons of Ethelfrith. The eldest, Eanfrid, who is supposed to have-been in exile amongst the Picts, obtained Bernicia, while Deira fell to Osric, the son of his uncle Alfric. Eanfrid, who relapsed to paganism, held his kingdom only a year and in 634 Ceadwalla defeated Osric at York, and killed by treachery Eanfrid, who had made overtures of peace.. Eanfrid's brother Oswald recovered both Bernicia and Deira by the great victory of Heavenfield near Hexham in 635. " The most Christian king of the Northumbrians," as-Bede emphatically calls him, Oswald restored Christianity" throughout his whole territory, but under the monastic: form he had learnt during his exile in Iona, and with the-usages as to Easter and the tonsure which distinguished the Celtic from the Eoman Church. At his request Aidan, a monk of Iona, came to instruct the Angles in the Chris-tian faith, and was in 634 or 635 consecrated as bishop of Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, which became the Iona of the eastern coast.

The powerful and wise rule of Oswald not only reunited Bernicia and Deira, but subjected races of all the four lan-guages (for we may be sure Bede's expression " all the nations of the four languages " is an hyperbole), the Britons, the Picts, the Scots, and the Angles, to his dominion.

In 642 he fell in a battle against Penda of Mercia at Maserfield, which, whether it be the place of that name now called Winwick in Lancashire or Oswestry (Oswald's tree) in Shropshire, shows that he was still further enlarg-ing his realm. His successor Oswy revenged his death by the defeat and death of Penda at the river Winwaed, now Winmore, near Leeds (655), which resulted in the conversion of Mercia. In his reign Wilfrid, an energetic and ambitious monk, persuaded the Northumbrians at the council of Whitby to conform to the Boman usage as to Easter and the tonsure, and Colman, the third Celtic bishop of Lindis-farne, returned to Iona with the Scottish monks and the relics of Aidan. The successful advocate of the Boman rites became bishop of York, with a diocese including all Northumberland and the Pictish subjects of Oswy, thus completing the scheme of Gregory I. and Augustine for the ecclesiastical organization of England.

On the death of Oswy in 670 the Picts revolted, but his son Egfrid succeeded in quelling the revolt and in extending his father's kingdom both against the Mercians on his southern and the Pictish kings on his northern border. In 684, tempted by his good fortune, he sent his general Beret to ravage Ireland, then, says Bede, a peace-ful and friendly country, which implies that his dominions had now touched some parts of the western shores, and next year he himself invaded the territory of the northern Picts, where he was defeated and slain by their king Bredei or Brude at Nechtan's Mere (Dunnichen 1 in Forfarshire) in 685. The result was that not only the Picts recovered their own land and ceased to pay tribute, but some of the Britons also became independent. The Northumbrian Church under the able leadership of Wilfrid'shared in the extension of the kingdom, and it also shared in its repulse. A bishopric established under Trumwine at Abercorn in Linlithgowshire, in the country of the Angles, but close to the arm of the sea dividing the Angles and the Picts (Bede, iv. 26), had to be abandoned. The Forth was destined to be the limit of Northumbrian sovereignty to the north.

Shortly before the close of this reign a dispute between the king and Wilfrid led to the division of the diocese of York into two bishoprics—York, of which Bosa was made bishop, and that of Lindisfarne or Hexham, whose first bishop was Eata. A new bishopric was erected for the district of the Lindissi (Lincoln), who had been conquered by Egfrid. To this or the next reign belong the earliest fragmentary memorials of the Northumbrian or Northern English dialect which have come down to our time—the Bunic inscription of the crosses at Ruthwell and perhaps those at Thornhill in Dumfriesshire and at Bewcastle in Cumberland. It was during the same period that CÍEDMON (q.v.), a monk of Whitby, the earliest English poet, died (680), and BEDE (q.v.), the monk of Wearmouth and Yarrow, the earliest English historian, except the anony-mous authors of the A.S. Chronicle, Aldhelm, and Eddi, the writer of Wilfrid's life, was born (672 or 674). To their influence, and to the learned—which succeeded the warlike —epoch of Northumberland during the next century down to the death of Alcuin of York in 804, may be ascribed the fact that, while Saxon Wessex became the dominant state, the language and the land south of the Forth received :from the Angles the name of English and England.

Egfrid was succeeded by his brother Aldfrid, an ille-gitimate son of Oswy (685-705), who "retrieved," in the words of Bede, " the ruined state of the kingdom, though within narrower bounds." It was in his reign that Cuth-bert, a monk of Melrose, which had been founded by Bishop Eata, became bishop of Lindisfarne. His preaching commenced the Christianization of the country between the Forth and the Tweed, and his fame quickly gathering a legendary halo of miracles led to his being adopted as the patron saint of Durham and the north of England, as well as of southern Scotland. While no serious attempt •was made to regain the lost territory in the country of the Northern Picts, Egfrid, his son Osred (705-716), and Osred's successors, Coenred (716-718), Osric (718-729), and Ceolwulf (729-737), some of whom were descendants of a different branch of the family of Ida, gradually extended the limits of their kingdom to the west, and, following the coast, established themselves in Galloway and as far as Cunningham (Bede, v. 12), the northern district of modern Ayrshire. Shortly before 731, when Bede concluded his history, an Anglian see had been created at Whithorn (Candida, Casa) in Galloway, of which Pechthelm was the first bishop, and which lasted till 803.

The last of the important kings of Northumberland, Eadbert (737-758), pushed his arms as far as the Clyde, defeating the Britons in Kyle, and, in alliance with Angus Macfergus, king of the Picts, took Allclyd (Dumbarton), the chief town or fortress of the Strathclyde Britons, in .756. These were uncertain conquests.

The epoch of Northumbrian greatness closes with Oswy. It is significant that two of the last-named kings, Ceolwulf and Eadbert, resigned the crown for the tonsure. External circumstances combined with the enervation of the royal race to produce the decline of Northumberland. Its southern neighbour, Mercia, was ruled by two powerful kings,—Ethelbald, who ravaged Northumberland in 737, and after his death the great Offa (757-796), the con-temporary of Charlemagne; while a series of Northum-brian kings, of whom we know little save the names and the dates of their mostly violent deaths—Oswulf (758), Ethelwald (765), Alchred (774-), Ethelred (779), Alfwold (788), Osred (792), another Ethelred (796), whose wife, Ethelfreda, was a daughter of Offa—wasted in intestine struggles the kingdom of their predecessors.

On its northern boundary a vigorous line of Pictish kings, beginning with Angus Macfergus (731-761), the ally of Eadbert against the Britons of Strathclyde, whose chief seat was Scone, threatened, and there is no doubt often passed, the boundary of the Forth, but the Angles retained Lothian during the 8th and the first half of the 9th cen-tury, and it was not till a century after the union of the Scots and Picts under Kenneth Macalpine (844), in the reign of Indulph (954-962), that Edinburgh became Scot-tish instead of Northumbrian ground. In 793 the heathen Northmen signalized the commencement of the attacks which were for several centuries to vex the coast of Britain by the sack of Lindisfarne, and in the following year of Yarrow. Though this descent was repelled, the Danish vikings with increased numbers renewed their raids in the following century. Before its close the southern half of Northumberland had received a large infusion of Danish population. Their distant kinship in race and not so dis-tant likeness of language favoured their settlement in the territory of the Angles. With the close of the 8th century the history of the kingdom of Northumberland practically ends, though a few names of kings of pure Anglian race are recorded in the 9th century.

It may be convenient to trace the subsequent fate of this king-dom and its parts. In 827 Eadred, king of Northumberland, sub-mitted to Egbert, the founder of the greatness of Wessex, and agreed to pay tribute in order to stay the progress of that kingdom at the Humber.

In 875 the Danish host, now too large for and weary of mere raids, divided itself between Guthorm, who led his division against southern England, where its final repulse by Alfred made him the hero of his race, while Healfdene, with no Alfred amongst the Angles to oppose him, conquered Northumberland and settled his followers on the east coast, throughout the whole of ancient Deira, the southern part of ancient Bernicia, and as far west as the central districts of Anglian Cumberland. Wherever the " by " replaced the older name or gave a new name to the settlement, wherever the " t" still lingers instead of " the " as the article, linguistic scholars see certain marks of Danish occupation. This occupation retarded the northern advance of the Wessex kings, the descendants of Alfred, and a century elapsed before Edward the Elder in 924 received again at Bakewell in Derbyshire the homage of the Northum-brians, as Egbert in 827 is said to have done almost at the same point, whose position on the extreme southern border of Northum-berland is significant. This homage is recorded in the contested passage of the A.S. Chronicle : "And then chose him for father and lord the king of the Scots and the whole nation of the Scots
j and Begnwald and the sons of Eadulf and all those who dwell ;n Northnmbria, as well Angles as Danes, Northmen, and others." But the dispute as to the precise nature and extent of the sub-mission does not concern the present subject so much as the evi-dence it affords of the mixed population of Northumberland, and of the absence of any prominent sovereign of the whole country whose name could be mentioned by the Chronicle. In the reign of Athel-stan, the son of Edward the Elder, the great victory of Brunan-burgh (937), by which he defeated the united forces of Olaf Cuaran, the son of Sitrie, the Danish king or earl, his father-in-law Con-stantine, king of the Scots, another Olaf, the son of Godfry, king of the Irish Danes, and the British prince of Cumbria, made the conquest of Northumberland south of the Solway and the Tweed more of a reality. Norse mercenaries under Egil, the hero of the Icelandic saga, fought in the army of Athelstan, and a few years later the aid of Erie Blood-Axe, son of Harold the Eairhaired, had to be purchased by giving him the rule over Northumberland, which he was intended, but was unable, to hold as a barrier against the Scots and Danes. The conquest of the Northumbrian Danes was only completed in 954, when Eadred, the third son of Edward the Elder, who was king of Wessex, was able to substitute Oswulf, an earl of his own choice, for their last king, Eric, who is called by the English chroniclers simply "the son of Harold," and is supposed by Adam of Bremen to have been the son of Harold (Blue-tooth) king of Denmark, but by the best modern writers to be Eric Blood-Axe, who had returned to Northumberland and was slain at Stanemoor (954). Eadgar (959-975), the successor of Eadred, divided Northumberland into two earldoms, which answered roughly to the ancient Deira and Bernicia, but probably more nearly to the modern county of York, of which Oslac was earl, and modern Northumberland and Durham, which Oswulf retained. The dis-memberment of the ancient kingdom had commenced in the earlier Teign of Edmund, who in 945 ceded Cumbria to Malcolm I. of Scot-land on condition that he should be "his fellow-worker both by land and sea," a remarkable expression in the A.S. Chronicle, indicating alliance rather than homage.

Lothian was either ceded between 970 and 975 by Eadgar to Kenneth, the son of Malcolm I., upon condition that it should Tetain its Anglian speech and customs, which is the account given by John of Wallingford, or conquered by the defeat of Eadulf Cudel, its ruler in the time of Canute, by Malcolm II. at the battle of Carham in 1018, as is stated by Simeon of Durham. It seems not impossible that both statements may be true, and that an earlier almost compulsory union was followed by a more complete annexation. For England was already threatened by the last and most formidable invasion of the Danes, which was to end in its con-quest by Canute (1017). This conquest for a brief space included not only Northumberland but Scotland (1031-35). In the confused period between the Danish and the Norman conquests of England, the succession of the Northumbrian earls appears to have been this. The two earldoms of Oslac and Oswulf had been united under Wal-theof (975), who was deposed by iEthelred in favour of Waltheof's son Uhtred (1000). IThtred defeated the Scots near Durham, and received the hand of iElgifa, jEthelred's daughter. He submitted to Canute, but was slain soon after his submission by a private enemy, and Eric, the husband of Canute's sister Gytha, became earl, though the northern portion of his earldom was left to the charge of Eadulf Cudel, a brother of Uhtred, whose signal defeat at Carham, we have seen, finally united Lothian to Scotland. Two obscure sons of Eadulf, Ealred and a second Eadulf, afterwards appear as earls in Bernicia ill the time of Hardicanute. Both were assassinated, the latter by Siward the Strong, a Danish follower of Canute, who married a daughter of Ealred, and in 1041 reigned over all Northumberland. He was the famous earl in the narrative of whose exploits it is difficult to separate legend from history, but to the latter apparently belongs his alliance with Malcolm Canmore, and the aid he gave in recovering his father's kingdom from Macbeth, the representative of the Celtic party in Scotland. On his death in 1055, Edward the Confessor appointed Tostig, one of the sons of Godwin, earl of Northumberland, including the detached shires of Northampton and Huntingdon. Deposed by the Northumbrians, he took refuge with his brother-in-law, the Flemish Baldwin, at Bruges. After taking part in the early designs of William the Conqueror against England, he joined in the expedition of Harold Hardrada against his brother Harold, and was slain at Stamfordbridge (25th September 1066). After the Conquest Yorkshire was incorporated in England. Morkere the son of .Elfgar earl of Mercia, and Copsige, a thane who had acted as deputy of Tostig, still retained the northern districts, and, though they submitted to William, the subjugation was almost nominal. Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Durham were not sufficiently subdued to be included in the Domesday survey, though some parts of southern Westmoreland and Cumberland are contained in the description of the West Biding of Yorkshire, and parts of Lancashire in that of Cheshire. Frequent risings and constant changes of its earls prove the difficulty which the Norman kings experienced in governing the unruly northern province: Kobert of Comines was slain at Durham in 1069 ; Cospatric was deprived for rebellion in 1070 ; Waltheof, who also rebelled, was executed in 1076 ; Walcher, who held it along with the bishopric of Durham, was murdered in 1080 ; Alberic resigned the dignity in 1085, and was succeeded by Bobert de Moubray, after whose for-feiture in 1095 Northumberland was united by Rufus to the crown. In the reign of Henry II. the earldom was conferred on Henry, earl of Huntingdon, the son of David I. of Scotland ; after his death it was surrendered in 1154 by Malcolm IV., but its possession was always coveted and sometimes almost obtained by the Scottish kings, until the final result of the wars of the Plantagenets was to leave Scotland independent, but to fix its boundaries north of the

Tweed, the Cheviots, and the Solway. Richard II. in 1377 regranted the earldom to Henry Percy, and the memory of its former inde-pendence probably prompted the ambition of the earls of this powerful house, which played so great a part in English history in the 15th and 16th centuries (see PEUCY).

To sum up the results of a somewhat complex and here necessarily compressed history. The ancient kingdom of Northumberland, formed by the union of all the north-eastern part of Britain between the Humber and the Forth under the Anglian kings, and the more or less complete conquest of the British or Cymric western part between the Mersey and the Clyde, was ruled by the Anglian kings from the middle of the 6th to the 9th century. A great portion of it was resettled by the Danes towards the close of that century. It was conquered by the West-Saxon kings in the 10th century, but they had to allow its Danish earls to remain its real governors until shortly before the Norman Conquest, and before its close, or in the beginning of the 11th century, to cede the northern part of Cumbria and the northern part of Bernicia beyond the Tweed to the Scottish kings. Of their dominions the former, Gallo-way (the shires of Wigtown, Kirkcudbright, and part of Dumfries), became for a time an outlying district, but after David I. an integral part, though it retained for some time longer its Celtic speech and customs, while the latter, Lothian, preserving its Anglian speech and customs, became the seat of the court and the source of the civilization of Scotland. The portion of the Northumbrian kingdom which remained English was divided into the shire of York, the earldom or county of Northumberland in the modern sense, and the later counties of Cumberland, Westmore-land, and part of Lancashire. The preponderating influence in government as in language passed during the Middle Ages, and still continues to belong, to southern England, which possesses the capital London, its greatest river the Thames, and its most fertile lands. The discovery of the coal and ironstone, the sinews of manufactures, in the North, and the later development of the Mersey, the Clyde, the Humber, the Tyne, and the Forth, as the channels of commerce in modern times, have revived the importance of the districts comprised within the ancient kingdom of Northumberland. Whatever may be its future, its earliest history forms a memorable chapter in that of Great Britain.

Of original authorities the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Bede are the most important, but the former was written in Wessex, and magnifies the West-Saxon kings. After Bede, Simeon of Durham is the most trustworthy English chronicler of northern affairs. Eddi's Life of Wilfrid and Bede's Life of Cuthbert are of value for the history of the church. The Chronicles of the Picts and Scots, edited by Mr Skene for the record series of the Lord Clerk Register, Adamnan's Life of Columba, and the Scottish Chronicles of Fordun and Wynton, supplement, unfortunately in a fragmentary manner, the English writers. Some additional information may be antici-pated from the edition of the passages in the Norse sagas bear-ing upon English history to be published in the English series of chronicles and memorials. The best modern writers to consult for Northumbrian history are Lappenberg, History of the Anglo-Saxons (1880), Skene, History of Celtic Scotland, vol. i. (1876); Robertson, Scotland under her Early Kings ; Fieeman, History of the Norman Conquest, and Old English History for Children (1869); and J. R. Green's The Making of England. (JE. M.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries