Durham, Northumberland, Yorkshire

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 M...
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 N...
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 Isl...
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.


15 thoughts on “Where was the Kingdom of Northumbria anyway?”

  1. A really informative and interesting article. I remember last year when I was in Northumberland reading on how both English and Scottish people alike forget that the border isn’t actually at Hadrians Wall and that there is a big chunk of territory that in effect goes not too far below the same latitude of Edinburgh which is present day Northumberland.

    Interesting that in the current independence debate, the current border between England and Scotland is not up for debate and mention is never made of Edinburgh being a Northumbrian city!

  2. A great post! I could so have used this info when I began to do the research for my William the Conqueror romance, The Red Wolf’s Prize (to be released Oct. 1st). I have dozens of historical maps in my “map” folder. You see, I wanted to have a custom map made for the novel and locating Northumbria was critical since my setting is 1068 and the battle of York is included. I finally settled pretty much on what you have in your 802 AD map and drew no boundaries for folks to argue about. It’s good to know I was right. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Regan. The period around 1066 in England and even Williams rise to power in Normandy is fascinating. I look forward to hearing how your book goes! I too had difficulty (and still do) with finding the relevant maps for each period. It was a pretty turbulent time as far as kingdoms and their boundaries went. Unfortunately they were changing all the time and we still have very little information. Thanks for the comment and good luck 🙂

  3. Great post. Every “first” Christian king founded an abbey for the care of his soul in the Holy See and a bishopric for promotion of native Christianity not too far distant. Lindisfarne is clearly the abbey founded by King Oswald, but where was the bishopric of Northumbria?

    1. Thanks Kathleen. As far as I understand it, Lindisfarne was the seat of a bishopric until Bishop Eardulf moved the community to Chester-le-street not far from Durham. There was also a Bishopric from Hexham for a while (until i believe it too came under Lindisfarne), and i have a feeling there was at least one more (It could possibly have been York but I really can’t remember). I’m sorry i cannot give you much more information than that at this point, but it is a really good question. I will have to dig a bit further and get back to you.

      1. Kathleen, i hope this helps you out a little more. I believe the first centre of Christianity was based at York, then later it was re established at Lindisfarne, until it again moved to York.
        As the first Northumbrian King to convert to Christianity, Edwin chose to build one of the first churches at York where he and his family were baptised by St Augustine. Augustine planned to make York the seat of an Episcopal see second to London when he wrote to the pope in 601. However, although permission was granted it wasn’t carried out for many years. Even after it was made a bishopric there is evidence that the site was not looked after very well for some time. Paulinus is said to have been the first Bishop of York under King Edwin, yet after the King’s death and the kingdoms descent into paganism he returned to Kent and the primary function of York as a centre of Christianity was obsolete.
        It was once King Oswald regained the throne in 633 and reformed Northumbria that he brought Christianity back. However, instead of going back to Roman Christianity as practiced under Edwin, he turned to his allies in the Celtic tradition who sent Saint Aidan and several monks to establish a church at Lindisfarne in 634. It became the only bishopric in Northumbria until 30 years later in 664 it was divided. This in part was due to Saint Wilfrid and his push to make Ripon a bishopric (amongst his other ambitions) but also due to the Synod of Whitby drawing away from the Celtic tradition (from which Lindisfarne had been established). From this time onwards there were bishoprics at York, Hexham (established 673), Melrose, Whithearne in Scotland (for a short time) and in Lindsey on the southern side of the Humber.
        In 735 York, the original seat of Roman Christianity within Northumbria, was made an Archbishopric with a level of autonomy not yet experienced within the Northumbrian church. Although Lindisfarne regained its bishopric status and was a vitally important centre of learning and Christianity, It was York that had now become the major centre of Christianity in Northumbria, and though York managed to retain its importance and power after the Viking invasions, unfortunately the community of Lindisfarne left around 875 to re establish themselves at Chester-le-street.
        Sorry i couldn’t be of much more help. If you do find out any more i would be interested 🙂

      2. Fantastic! Augustine’s getting a see at York is exactly what I was hoping, and explains Pope Gregory’s according equivalence to the bishoprics of London and York as a matter of canonical law in the 6th century, confirmed by Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury again in the 11th century. In my translation of the Carmen by Guy d’Amiens – the 1067 history of the Norman Conquest – I’ve suggested it must be William of London who is ‘another of equal rank’ holding King William’s left hand at the coronation, with Archbishop Ealdred of York officiating at the consecration and holding his right hand in procession. York held Lanfranc’s right hand and London his left hand in 1075 at the Council of London.

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