A Tale of Two Counties

Northumberland, seen from Heavenfield near Hexham

I recently read Max Adam’s book Ælfred’s Britain, about the period of British History when the Danes invaded and, largely in reaction to the invasion, the patchwork of kingdoms across the country – from Fortriu in the far north to Kent in the south – fell and emerged more united in something more like the blocs we recognise today: England, Scotland and Wales.

Ælfred’s Britain also answered one of those questions about my own region of England that has always nagged at me: why are Northumberland and County Durham* so distinct from the rest of the North – and from each other?

When Bede writes of this region he speaks of Northumbria, a great kingdom – in the earliest period of English history, perhaps the greatest – that stretches along the north east of England, and even the south-east of Scotland, from the Forth to the Humber, hence the name, land north of the Humber. Thus Northumbria was comprised of what are now Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, the Scottish Borders and the Lothians. The Pennines were the natural western boundary of the kingdom in England, but at some point they were breached, and Northumbria held much of what is now Lancashire, Cumbria (that is Cumberland and Westmorland), and, further north, even parts of Dumfries and Galloway. It seemed also to sometimes have suzerainty over Lindsey south of the Humber.

But Northumbria itself had, before Bede’s time, consisted of two quite distinct kingdoms. Deira was the southern half, based around the old Roman city of Eboracum – that is, York. Exact borders from the early Anglo-Saxon eras are not always known, or knowable, but (excepting a holdout kingdom of Britons in the hills – Elmet) Deira seems to have matched the boundaries of Yorkshire almost exactly, perhaps stretching into County Durham. The northern kingdom was known as Bernicia: it was founded at Bamburgh, initially held onto only the coastal strip between the Tees (or possibly the Wear, or the Tyne) and the Forth and from there advanced inland, conquering the native Britons or pushing them west.

The two kingdoms, as well as being wary of each other would have had rather different foreign policy concerns (to borrow a modern parlance), the Bernicians most concerned with their enemies the Strathclydian Britons, their sometime allies the Gaelic Dal-Riatans and the Picts to their north, the Deirans with the Pagan Mercian English to their south. At some point it was in their interest to unite – perhaps in order to more effectively push west together, or perhaps in response to the growing ambition of the Mercians, but it seems that even at the height of their power, the regions remained distinct, ready to split again at the drop of a dynastical drama or a foreign policy crisis – like the invasion of the Danes, for example.

The Danes then did not create the distinction between the northern and southern portions of Northumbria. They certainly deepened it, however. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, the Danes were not interested in settling north of the Tees: so, while Deira, East Mercia (the five boroughs), and East Anglia, were conquered and settled by the Danes, Bernicia was left largely alone. Yorkshire is full of Danish place names, many of its residents have Danish Surnames, and they speak a dialect with words that can be traced back to Scandinavia; in the North East there is much less of these things. The Danes did settle in some coastal areas, particularly Tynemouth – I imagine this as something like a garrison of Viking warriors keeping an eye on Anglian movements up and down north Northumbria’s main river route, but Bernicia – sometimes called “English Northumbria” remained, liked Wessex (including Kent) and West Mercia, resolutely Anglo-Saxon (albeit most likely with some native Briton admixture). Later in the 9th century it came under another Scandinavian threat as Norse Vikings, expelled by Irish warriors from their redoubt in Dublin, took much land in England’s North West and tried to expand across the Pennines. They were rebuffed – though not easily – by a Scots-Northumbrian army: the Bernicians looked north to the heirs of Dal Riata for help, not to their Anglo-Saxon cousins in the south, and certainly not to their former compatriots in the heavily Danicised lands of Deira.

But if that explains the enduring distinction between Yorkshire and the North East, what of the difference between County Durham and Northumberland?

The status of what we now call County Durham in the early Anglo-Saxon period is uncertain. It may have been part the southern-most portion of Bernicia, or, Max Adams speculates, it may have been – or at least some of it may have been – a kind of march land between the Bernician and Deiran kingdoms. By Bede’s time, the north east part of county Durham – the land between the Tyne and the Wear – was owned by the church, indeed by the heirs of the great island monastery of Lindisfarne off the coast of Bamburgh. And again, this could be read in a couple of different ways – and here I am speculating – we could imagine it as a gift of the Bernician royal line, of one of their most important pieces of land, and a sign of their piousness, their royal generosity and, by extension, their power; if this was part of the Bernician-Deira marches, or just north of them, the granting of the lands to the church in a once contested territory could have also been a symbol of the strength of the alliance.

It may as easily be read as a sign of the power and importance of the church in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, and particularly of what Adams calls the Saint Cuthbert community. Founded by the Irish, Ionian monk Saint Aidan in the early seventh century, the community on Lindisfarne had prospered under the protection of the great King Oswald – later Saint Oswald, himself, like Aidan a product of Irish tutelage – he had been fostered out to the kingdom of Dal Riata at a formative age. From then, and all the way through the age of Cuthbert to the age of the Bede and the Lindisfarne Gospels, the glory of Bernicia, and later Northumbria, and the prestige of the chuch in those lands went hand in hand.

The great monastic complex between Tyne and Wear, as well as its mother monastery on Lindisfarne did not survive the age of Viking raids, but the community of Saint Cuthbert, remarkably, did. The church in that era likes to tell its story of the great pilgrimage of the monks of Lindisfarne, carrying the relics of Saint Cuthbert, down through the southern reaches of English Northumbria, as far as Ripon, before finally settling in a new home in Chester-Le-Street, and later the town of Durham: the church emphasizes the hardship of the journey. Max Adams puts a different spin on it – for Adams it was a political campaign, the church reminding its parishioners of their duty to their saint, perhaps looking for a new sponsor – and finding it, in the shape of the ascendant kings of Wessex, now spreading their influence far beyond their lands on the Thames and Severn. The Lindisfarne community also followed the example of the Bishop of York, and pursued a policy of co-existence with the Vikings of Deira – now they lived so much nearer their borders, perhaps they really had to.

They could no longer rely on the kings of Bernicia, the old dynasty of Bamburgh for their protection. Or perhaps, the Bernicians had let them go – an expensive, vulnerable institution to hold onto in a violent age. It was their separation, anyway, that is at the root of the different subsequent histories of the two halfs of our region, and differences that persist to this day.

To the north of the Tyne, and south of the Tweed (north of which a young Scotland was forming out of the old Pictish, Gaelic and British kingdoms) the heirs of the Bernician monarchs, now mere earls, held sway. After the Norman invasion their successors the Dukes of Northumberland acted in much the same way – running the county of Northumberland as a private fiefdom, defending the northern borders, while resisting too much control from the south, now and again rebelling against southern kings. To the South of the Tyne** the community of Cuthbert, later the Bishopric of Durham ran the county of Durham as a land apart too, but under an ecclesiastical rather than a ducal land, a ‘County Palatinate’ run by prince bishops, with a great cathedral to rival York’s and a castle to rival their old sponsors to the north.

* For the purposes of this article, and most others, frankly, I ignore the ahistorical new counties that were created in the 1970s. Thus, nevermind ‘Tyne and Wear’: Newcastle and north Tyneside are in Northumberland, while Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland belong to County Durham.

** The Tyne is the geographical barrier between Northumberland and Durham only as far west as Crawcrook. Further west, Northumberland reaces further south – indeed, most of the populous areas of Tynedale in Northumberland are south of the Tyne.


Three Northumbrian Pele Towers

From my travels near and far – although mostly pretty near – this summer, I came across three very different pele towers.

The first was in Belsay Hall, in a lovely lowland area near Morpeth. The hall was the home of the Middleton family – no relation to our next queen, I think. The Middleton’s owned a large tract of land and when an old building fell out of fashion, they built a new one and left the older one empty.

The tower is the oldest surviving building there. It seems to have survived longer than buildings contemporary to it because it was so sturdy in the first place. It is very almost a castle, but I think technically counts as a pele tower – it’s a fortified residence house, and Belsay was within the area that the reivers harried, though it would have taken a hardy troupe of reivers to attempt to take on people as powerful as the Middletons.


The building on the side was a later residence, built in the 17th century – though by 1800 the Middletons has moved to a larger building – Belsay Hall – in the Greek Revival style on the other side of the estate. I think I prefer this residence, though – one detail caught my eye in particular:



Thomas Middleton and Dorathy his wife built this house Anno 1614. Nice.

You will notice the glorious sunshine in the pictures. That was July, when we were reportedly enjoying a record-breaking summer. Someone forgot to tell August, which was – at least up in Northumberland – distinctly autumnal.

Which was fine with me. the second pele tower is a vicar’s pele in Embleton, further north on the Northumbrian coast near Dunstanburgh Castle. By the side of the village church, and not signposted at all, let alone open to visitors, it caught this wandering pilgrim’s eye.


It is not the only unheralded castle or pele tower in this part of Northumberland. Perhaps this near the border the need of wealthier residents to build defensive homes to protect themselves against the Scots (or just their neighbours) was so taken for granted as to be barely worth commenting on.

It does have a Wikipedia page mind.

Finally, further north still – and some miles out to sea – an island pele tower:


That’s a pele tower by the 14th century Saint Cuthbert’s Chapel on Inner Farne. I must stop there one day and dedicate a post to the saint…We didn’t stop this time, but we had a grand boat trip around the islands just as a very murky looking fret moved across the isles, turning a bright day a murky North Sea grey. Delightful. (We saw a load of seals, too – and even a malingering puffin).

The reivers were no seafarers, as far as I know, so maybe the tower was built in memory of the Vikings who sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne six centuries earlier. Or maybe it was just the best kind of structure to withstand the weather.




Trees and Gallows


Another article of mine is available at The Wagon Magazine, this time on the subject of poetry on hangings from Mediaeval times to the modern day.

It covers the French thief-clergyman Villon, the Elizabethan martyr Chidiock Tichborne, Spain’s great Luis de Góngora, the Anglo-Irish playwright Oscar Wilde and the jazz singer Nina Simone.

If that sounds enticing, click here:


(The image above is a detail from Jacques Callot’s The Hanging, from his Miseries of War series, drawn contemporary to, and inspired by, Europe’s bloodiest pre-twentieth century war, the 30 Years War. Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Come-Back Again Things

Last month I made a trip to Lanercost Priory in north Cumbria.

It is one of the properties that so-ignominiously changed hands at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the time of Henry VIII.

The most surprising thing about the priory is just how well preserved it is. It is almost as if the new owners were too ashamed of having received property forcibly removed from the church, or else too enamoured with its beauty to pull it down.

Lanercost Priory (1)

Lanercost was handed over to the Dacres, a great northern family – or at least the half of the family that had been ‘loyal’ to the king – that is mute in the face of his policy to rob the monasteries to fund a pointless war in France.

The property eventually fell into the hands of the Howards, albeit centurues after that family had played a central role, and not a noble one, in the dissolution, and the rebellions that accompanied it.

When the north rose against the Tudor King in protest at his religious reforms, in the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, it was Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, who parleyed with the rebel leader, Robert Aske, on the banks of the Don. The young Yorkshireman thought he was dealing with an honest broker, and a sympathetic one – the Howards, it was known, were proudly conservative in their faith, and no fans of Protestantism.

But Howard would rather save his skin than his faith, and he double-dealt the rebels, making a false peace with them, at which the rebels turned home satisfied, to be rounded up and executed weeks later when they posed no danger.

Perhaps Howard did not know that this would happen, however – it was not beyond Henry VIII to lie when it suited him, and he may possibly have lied to Howard, as well as the rebels.

In its heyday, the priory hosted one of the most famous kings – Edward I, who was campaigning against the Scots, a favourite pastime throughout his life. In compensation for having been a horrifically expensive guest – it is not cheap to feed a king and his marauding army, Edward gifted the priory a statue of Mary Magdalene, which stands to his day at the top of the church, still in use as a parish church, in marvellous condition for so old a statue.

Mary MagdalMagdalene (1)

Around the time I visited, when England was still suffering, or enjoying, a heatwave – though  breezes were stiff up by the border – the Wagon Magazine printed an article of mine on the monasteries in English poetry, with snippets of poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sir Walter Raleigh and William Wordsworth…

Read it here.

Though the article is about walking to monasteries, I resisted the urge to call the piece Abbey Roads, going instead for Hopkins’ beautiful phrase ‘Come-Back Again Things’, which neatly captures his love for the past of his church, and his hope for its future.




When you find a cheap bit of property up north, and then the Anglo-Scottish wars kick off…

Aydon Castle

Apologies for lack of posting of late.

I have been busy relocating back to England, and settling in.

And making day trips to places like this: Aydon Castle, near Corbridge, Northumberland.

I love the story behind it. A thirteenth century Suffolk landowner, Robert de Rhaymes snapped up this beautiful piece of property north of the Tyne, for a very reasonable price by East Anglian standards. Suffolk was back then one of the most important and populous parts of the kingdom.

But gentlefolk were starting to realize the potential of the land in the north – or its lowland areas at least. Aydon looked the perfect place to build a luxurious country estate on the cheap.

But within years of his arrival, simmering tensions with the Scots had erupted into open warfare, and the Suffolk gentleman found himself living less than a day’s ride from the border.

It’s funny the things estate agents don’t tell you.

Rhaymes quickly had to revise his plans for his new home into something more defensive – a walled castle, dominated by an early pele tower. Hostilities between the Scottish and English – wars, and internecine conflict that raged between – the reiving – continued for another three centuries, and subsequent generations of Rhaymes improved the castle’s defenses periodically – although the Scottish more than once found their way in…

The Hollow Crown: Richard II

Ben Wishaw and Rory Kinnear in Richard II

Some thoughts on the BBC’s take on Shakespeare’s take of Richard II…

The Hollow Crown (2012) follows four Shakespeare plays covering the rules of three of the kings of England, starting with the rule of the last Plantagenet, Richard II. This was, I think, the best of the BBC adaptations. It is, I think the easiest to make into a compelling drama for modern audiences, being one of Shakespeare’s tightest and most formal plays, but the BBC version also benefited from strong casting alongside the sharp visuals and heavy atmospherics that characterise the whole series.

Richard II alienates his greatest nobles through both the unmanliness, and the arbitrariness and unfairness of his rule, and through his inept handling of these nobles, sows the seeds of his own downfall. Ruling through a clique that circumvents the great powers of his realm, when two of his great lords, Bolingbroke and Mowbray, come to blows over a matter of the king’s honour, he cynically exiles both of them. Then when Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, dies, he grabs his land for himself, sowing the seeds of his own fall. When Bolingbroke returns to claim back his land, he stirs such a rebellion that Richard is swept from power, whereupon, to the surprise of the other nobles, and perhaps Bolingbroke himself, he relinquishes the crown to Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV, after which he is assassinated by an over-zealous follower of the new king.

Ben Wishaw’s Richard is a vain, aloof creature at the beginning of the play, and yet as his downfall progresses, his vulnerability and circumspection make him an increasingly compelling figure. Wishaw succeeds greatly in capturing the pathos of the fallen king – where we could be bored by his repeated reflections on the nature of kingship, instead it feels like we are discovering with him the truth of its brittleness.  ‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king,’ (3.ii 54-55) he declaims defiantly as the rebellion gathers pace, but, not much later, after some defection and defeat, he hits that woeful, fatalistic, half-crazed note so familiar to Shakespearian Drama: ‘Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs. / Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes / Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth. / Let’s choose executors and talk of wills.’ (3.ii 145-148) At this point, not even half-way through the play, his capitulation and death appears inevitable.

The historical figure was a more complex and perhaps a more interesting figure than Shakespeare allowed – the events that the play dramatises were in fact just the last act in a long and bitter power struggle between himself and the other powers of the land, over which historians still argue: was he a just reformer attempting, after the great Peasants’ Revolt, to change the dynamics of English society in favour of the common man? G.K. Chesterton thought so. Or was he an inept and vain king, who misunderstood the nature of post-Magna Carter English government, and paid the price for it? More modern historians incline towards this view. Shakespeare refers little to the wider conflict – and this BBC production even edits out some of these few references to previous problems between king and nobles – and thus the drama becomes a more effectively personal one – the story of a man who was temperamentally unfit for the challenges of kingship. Thus he captures at least one important aspect of the truth of his reign.

The most famous lines of Richard II come from the dying John of Gaunt who delivers to the sneering king, first a paean to the glories of England quickly followed by a bitter lament at the misrule that has befallen it. The first half of this is one of the most celebrated passages about England in English literature, although in our (debatably!) ‘post-national’ age, it is a lot less celebrated than it used to be. In a more confident age, this might have been chosen to accompany the start of the London Olympics, rather than the more mysterious passages about a magical isle in The Tempest (which, in any case, were certainly not written about England).

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for her self
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
(2.i, 40-49)

On the other hand, I can see why it isn’t. Not only is it more royalist, and more religious than the spirit of our own age can tolerate, and too English for our (tenuously) united kingdom, but the effective message of the passage is not just that England is magnificent, but that it is better than everywhere else – not such a pleasant message for the visiting athletics fans, perhaps.

The lamenting part of the speech is a great condemnation of the corruption of Richard’s rule.

This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
(2.i, 57-60)

One  of the contemporary complaints about Richard’s reign was that he improperly used the lands and properties of lands he owned before becoming king, as a kind of power base and a place from which to draw unquestioningly loyal soldiers. But Bolingbroke did much the same thing with the Lancastrian lands he inherited from his father John of Gaunt. Perhaps Shakespeare ignored this to avoid offending Queen Elizabeth, whose bloodline extended back directly to the Lancastrian usurper. If so, she did not accept the compliment. After watching a performance of the play, she protested that ‘I am Richard II!’ For most Elizabethans, and certainly for the famously (and justifiably) paranoid queen herself, it was a disturbing sight to see the deposition of a crowned monarch on stage.

The question of Henry IV’s conduct – his ambitions and his intentions, is one of the most ambiguous things about the play. Does he raise rebellion only to win back his ancestral lands, unjustly swiped from him after his exile and the death of his father? Does he have his eye on the crown all along? Shakespeare seems to suggest that he is as swept along by events as Richard is, but when the opportunity to become king presents itself, as surprised as he is, he takes it gladly – or, to put a more positive spin on it, assumes the responsibility readily. Rory Kinnear brings a surprising ferocity to the role (I say ‘surprisingly’ because, prior to this, I think I had only ever seen him in political drama or comedy, and it’s a big step from looking flustered in a suit to ferocious in a suit of armour). The audience, initially sympathetic to his cause, must start to feel a little queasy once,with grim efficiency, and egged on by Northumberland, he starts applying his righteous (or self-righteous) justice to his enemies. I’m thinking in particular of the scene filmed by Carew Castle in Wales, where two of Richard’s acolytes are beheaded over the castle moat. It is one of the advantages of a TV production that the true horror of such a scene can be realised – it is hard for beheadings not to look a little comical on the stage. On TV the blood on the ground, and in the water, looks that much realer.

The most significant change that the BBC adaptation makes is near the end, when Richard is killed. In Shakespeare’s text the killer is a hitherto unknown character, a minor knight who hears Henry complain about the still living Richard and takes it upon himself to execute him. In the BBC adaptation, this role is given to one of the men of Richard’s retinue, Aumerle:  caught and (on account of his high birth) excused for involvement in a plot to kill the new king, Aumerle assassinates his former friend and king in order to win favour with the new king. This tidies up the play somewhat, giving more significance to Aumerle’s role, and preventing the introduction of an important character so near the end of the play. But the original plot, although no closer to the historical record (Richard is thought to have been starved to death in captivity), is interesting in other ways too. The killer is a minor knight called Exton, who claims to have heard the king say ‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’, and, taking this for a hint that someone should kill the deposed king, travels to his prison in Pontefract and kills him. Henry denies having said these words, and disowns the act, although not quite successfully. Shakespeare took the tale from the chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, the main source for most of his Hollow Crown material, although it is not quite what really happened. The way both Shakespeare and Holinshed tell it, it is remarkably similar to the historically verified tale of another King Henry who accidentally (or not) ordered an assassination. The first Plantagenet king, Henry II, exasperated after a six year feud with his rebellious archbishop, and former chancellor and friend, Thomas Becket, raged to his court words, ‘Will no-one rid me of this troublesome prelate?’ (or words to that effect, and in French, of course). Four knights in attendance took it upon themselves to do just that, and murdered him, sacrilegiously, on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral. Becket was soon after made a saint, and Canterbury became one of the major pilgrimage sites of Europe, so much so that the king and his descendants participated in the cult, which lasted until the Reformation – at which point another rapacious and bloodthirsty King Henry, Henry VIII, had his bones taken out of the tomb and desecrated. The battle between Henry II and Thomas Becket was one of the great tales of medieval England, but one that Shakespeare left well alone. Perhaps for good reason: in the reign of the daughter of Henry VIII, it may have been an impolitic story to tell. One wonders if Elizabeth, watching the play suspiciously, may have reflected on the similarities between the different Henrys down the years. In some ways, she may have been closer to the mark if she had said ‘I am Henry IV.’

Image:COURTESY OF NICK BRIGGS, http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/sep/17/great-performances-hollow-crown/