Thomas Carew: Eurosceptic

Jacques Callot’s ‘Looting and Burning of a Village’ – a scene inspired by the Thirty Years’ War

In the recent, long-running (that is, interminable), kerfuffle around Britain’s push-me/pull-me style attempt to leave and also to stay in the European Union, most of the debate has centred around whether it is to our advantage or not to be in the union. The Remainers, whom we used to call Pro-Europeans, think it generally is to our advantage, whereas the Leavers, formerly Eurosceptics, think it mostly isn’t.

But there is another debate, which has somewhat faded into the background, which is whether there should be a single overarching European polity in the first place. And since there is nothing new under the sun, that is a debate that has been around in one form or another since before we even defined the boundaries of what later became known as Europe.

Here is one poet’s take on the issue, written in response to the Thirty Years War (though when he wrote it, it was just past a decade and a half in):

Let us to supreme providence commit
The fate of monarchs, which first thought it fit
To rend the Empire from the Austrian grasp,
And next from Sweden’s, even when he did clasp
Within his dying arms the Sovereignty
Of all those provinces, that men might see
The Divine wisdom would not leave that land
Subject to any one king’s sole command.

From ‘In answer of an Elegiacal Letter upon the death of the King of Sweden from Aurelian Townsend, inviting me to write on that subject’, Thomas Carew, circa 1632

The Empire in question is the Holy Roman Empire, which had been run for generations by the Hapsburgs from their seat in Vienna but had come under threat by a Protestant revolt or two in the late 1610s. The Catholic Hapsburgs reasserted their dominance through the early 1620s, after which Danish then, rather more successfully, Swedish incursions turned the tide of the war the Protestants’ way – until the death of the talismanic leader, Gustavus Adolphus. The Swedish king’s death was the subject of much excitable commentary throughout Protestant Europe, and the poem this comes from is written in reply to a friend of Carew’s, who urged him to write about the great Protestant hero.

Carew instead sang the praises of the peaceful isle of Britain, largely uninvolved in the slaughter on the continent. In the passage I have quoted he suggests that God has made it so neither the Catholic Austrians nor the Protestant Swedes would be able to impose their will on the whole continent. That is a suggestion that would have propelled the hotter Puritans in Stuart England to fury. But it is very prescient, and not just about the Thirty Years’ War: whether because of geography, the variety of cultures, Divine intent – or all three, no power since has been able to impose itself on the whole of Europe, or never for more than a few years; no power, that is, until the European Union and its diffuse system of shared – or blurred – sovereignty.

Carew was a Eurosceptic in an age when that was the wisest thing to be. James I had done his best to stay out of the war, while his son Charles I, after some disastrous interventions in Europe early in his reign learned of the wisdom to keep out of Europe. Carew’s poem is written as Britain starts to enjoy ten peaceful years safely outside of Europe’s viscous wars – a period of peace cut short by the eruption of Britain’s own civil wars in the 1640s.

(Picture: – Scan of a postcard edited by Musée Lorrain, Public Domain,


Decease, Release

Queen Mary’s Tower, Carlisle Castle

A walk in Carlisle has me thinking of Mary Stuart… and Robert Southwell

Between Christmas and New Year, I took a drive through the Tyne Gap to Carlisle Castle with my son. It is a castle full of interest, if not beauty. The guidebook freely admits that it isn’t the most handsome or most dramatic castle in Britain, not the kind to evoke the chivalry of the Middle Ages, or the splendour of the Tudor and Stewart periods. Flat and broad, squatting on a hill just to the west of the city centre, the castle might best be described as functional.

Actually, it really was functional – as a barracks for the Border Regiment right the way to 1959 – 19th and 20th century buildings lie inside the older parts of the castle, all in that orangey-red brick so much used in this part of the country (also common over the border in Dumfriesshire, and also, I’ve noticed, down in Shropshire – you’d have to ask a geologist why).

For me, the function of the castle that held the most interest was the one it held very briefly in 1568 as the prison of Mary Queen of Scots. After a tumultuous six years (?) in Scotland, Mary Stuart had escaped imprisonment in her own country and crossed the Solway to try her luck in England, where her rival – and cousin – Queen Elizabeth reigned. If she imagined that Elizabeth would help her, she had miscalculated badly. She may have imagined that the Catholics of England and other discontents would attempt to put her on the throne, and about that she was quite right, but they were not quite up to the job.

She probably didn’t imagine that her stay under Warden Scrope’s watchful eye in the border city would mark the beginning of many miserable years confinement in the English state, that the same state would execute her, nor that she would never even meet the English queen – who signed her death warrant.

The space that once held the queen in Carlisle Castle was, I saw, surprisingly small – it was probably quite miserable. I imagine she lived in much greater comfort – though no greater freedom in the country houses in the Midlands where she was moved. The North of England was judged too dangerous to hold a potential challenger to Elizabeth’s throne – too near what sympathetic supporters she still had in Scotland, and especially too near the rebellious Northern lords who yearned for a return to the old religion that Mary had so fervently cleaved to. Away from the coasts, away from Scotland,  away from the north, and away from the English queen – that was the English government’s plan for Mary.

Among Catholic Englishmen, Mary inspired great devotion in her life, and even greater devotion after her death. One of those devoted to her was the Jesuit priest and poet Robert Southwell. Southwell is not well known outside the ranks of 16th century poetry aficionados and students of English Catholic martyrs, but in his time he was a highly regarded poet. Ben Jonson was said to have once described Southwell’s The Burning Babe as his favourite poem, and there are numerous allusions to Southwell in the work of Shakespeare – some think he may have been a kind of spiritual mentor to the younger poet. Unlike Jonson and Shakespeare, the first a sometime Catholic, the latter a rumoured Jesuit and church-papist (that is, a Catholic who attended Anglican services), Southwell was a Catholic Christian first, and a poet second, and his poetry is intense in its religious focus. His poem on the death of Mary Queen of Scots, full of Jesuitical wordplay and ironic reversals, sees him declare Mary a victor in her death:

Decease, release.

Dum morior, orior.                   (Dying, I Rise)


The pounded spice both taste and scent doth please,

In fading smoke the force doth incense show;

The perished kernel springeth with increase,

The lopped tree doth best and soonest grow.


God’s spice I was, and pounding was my due,

In fading breath my incense savoured best ;

Death was the mean my kernel to renew,

By lopping shott I up to heavenly rest.


Some things more perfect are in their decay,

Like spark that going out gives clearest light ;

Such was my hap, whose doleful dying day

Began my joy and termed Fortune’s spite.                      (termed – ended)


Alive a Queen, now dead I am a saint;

Once Mary called, my name now Martyr is;

From earthly reign debarred by restraint,

In lieu whereof I reign in heavenly bliss.


My life my grief, my death hath wrought my joy.

My friends my foil, my foes my weal procured;

My speedy death hath shortened long annoy.

And loss of life an endless life assured.


My scaffold was the bed where ease I found,

The block a pillow of eternal rest;

My headman cast me in a blissful swound,

His axe cut off my cares from cumbered breast.


Rue not my death, rejoice at my repose ;

It was no death to me, but to my woe ;

The bud was opened to let out the rose,

The cheynes unloosed to let the captive goe.


A prince by birth, a prisoner by mishap,

 From crown to cross, from throne to thrall I fell ;

My right my ruth, my titles wrought my trap.

My weal my woe, my worldly heaven my hell.


By death from prisoner to a prince enhanced,

From cross to crown, from thrall to throne again;

My ruth my right, my trap my stile advanced

From woe to weal, from hell to heavenly reign.


Rober Southwell S.J. Circa 1587


The English had initially held Mary on the pretext that she had been involved in the murder of her husband, but she was put on trial for a more serious crime committed during her captivity. The setup and execution of Mary Stuart was a carefully planned operation from Elizabeth’s court. Mary was drawn into a plot – entirely controlled by Elizabethan spies – purportedly planning to make Mary Queen of England. Though usually careful in her words, Mary gave just enough evidence of incitement for her to be arrested, and even then the English spies added in some forged extra evidence for good measure. After her show trial at Fotheringhay Castle, she was sentenced to death – but it took a long time for Elizabeth to sign the warrant, which she finally did under the persuasions of her councillors. Perhaps there was some sisterly (or cousinly) sentiment involved in her wariness, but mostly she worried about what spin doctors these days call the optics, and she was right to be. In the courts of Europe, the execution was a scandal.

The saintly Mary that Southwell paints stands in stark contrast to the devil-may-care, passionate individualist torn between love and duty of more recent depictions, both in popular culture and in literary works such as Stephan Zweig’s Mary Stuart (well worth a read – like anything by Zweig). Southwell puts aside, or simply ignores an awful lot about Mary to be able to call her a saint: she was certainly guilty of adultery, and very plausibly conspired in the murder of her husband. But on the other hand, ‘martyr’ is a fair enough description, and this is an aspect of her life that is often neglected in more modern tellings.

Most martyrs anyway are flawed, difficult characters – and their cults both embody and inspire discontent with the authorities of the day. In describing the executed queen as ‘pounded spice’, Southwell is effectively saying not just that her death has made her greater than she was, morally and spiritually, but also that she is of greater use to the cause – the one true church that she and Southwell (and – full disclosure – I) believe in. To moderns who tend not to believe in an afterlife, and who – often wisely, sometimes foolishly – tend to look askance at the idea of dying for a cause, it is chilly, perhaps propagandistic. But it is certainly, in both aspects, sincerely meant. And it was more poignant than Southwell knew, for in 1595, seven years after Mary, he too was executed for treason –the mere fact of being a Catholic priest in England constituted treason – another victim of Elizabeth’s war against her own Catholic subjects, and more ‘pounded spice’ for the Catholic cause.

England, Mexico, Despair

In the poem Histrion, Ezra Pound describes how

…the souls of all men great

At times pass through us,

And we are melted into them, and are not,

Save reflections of their souls

And for himself, the great souls that he believed possessed him were Villon, Shakespeare, Dante and Jesus Christ (whom for Pound was not the son of God, but merely a great man.)

I suppose a more prosaic way of saying this is that sometimes we are so impressed by, or in tune with, or inspired by, the words and ideas of another that for a while their way of looking at the world seems to pervade our whole consciousness.

Put it poetically or prosaically then, but something similar happened to me earlier this year, and the phantom I was possessed with was the English novelist Graham Greene. I was reading one of his books when I returned from a four-year stint abroad, and I felt like I was seeing my home country through Greene’s eyes. The particular lens that I saw England through was Greene’s travel book, The Lawless Roads, about the post-revolutionary, semi-functional, Mexico of the 1930s. This book is less famous than, though in my opinion somewhat better than his novel on the same subject, The Power and the Glory, about an outlawed ‘whiskey priest’ travelling those same roads. Greene was at that point in his career a practising Catholic, and, interestingly, his account of the anti-Catholic measures of the revolutionaries is interspersed with comments about the Elizabethan persecution of the Jesuits, and particularly of Edmund Campion, in the 1580s.

Greene was accused by some of being anti-Mexican, and indeed there was much about what he saw there that he disliked; but anyone who read the book through would find equally disparaging remarks about other nationalities too – Germans, for example (this was the 1930s), and the people of the USA, where his journey began. There are more negative comments about Mexico and Mexicans, it is true, but that is because the book is set in Mexico. The post-script, set in England, paints a picture of his own country that is as culturally lost, and, though materially more comfortable, in much worse state spiritually. At the very end of the book, he describes returning to England from his travels (and travails) in Mexico, only to find his feeling of desolation has not improved by returning home. In the books most quoted line he declares, ‘Mexico is a state of mind.’

For Greene, Mexico is used, fairly or not, as shorthand or decay and disorder: to be in the state of mind that is Mexico is to notice decay and disorder and an underlining spiritual decline everywhere you look. Returning to an England that seemed a lot shabbier than I had remembered it, suffering new permutations of old social problems, it wasn’t hard to slip into a similar state of mind.

In his great The History of the English, the historian Robert Tombs describes as declinist those members of the British elite who believed Britain was finished as a great power and that the job of the ruling class was to manage its decline; you could say that Greene, alongside poets like Philip Larkin was part of a concurrent literary movement that documented and lamented the (perceived ) decline of Britain, or, more specifically, of England, as it was. But Greene could also be grouped as a late member of the English Catholic literary florescence, with figures like Evelyn Waugh, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, who traced the English malaise back rather further than the decline of empire, to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. For Greene part of the fascination of Mexico was to witness something in the modern age very like what had once happened in England.

William Shakespeare, of course, witnessed exactly that persecution. And Shakespeare too sometimes wrote with despondence about the political and spiritual state of his country, most bitterly here in Sonnet 66:

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone. 

That is quite as glum as anything Greene has written – and it may be glum for almost the same reasons. Greene once criticised Shakespeare for his apparent passivity in regards to the persecution of Catholics in the Elizabethan age, talking (while receiving Hamburg University’s Shakespeare prize!) of ‘something cold and prudent in the poet’s nature’ that prevented him from speaking out to support English Catholics. Underlying this critique is the assumption that Shakespeare was sympathetic to the Catholic cause in Elizabethan England, and this is a fairly common – if not universally accepted – assumption about the bard in scholarly circles these days, among Catholic and non-Catholic scholars alike.

John T Noonan, author of a Shakespeare’s Spiritual Sonnets(1) avers that Shakespeare did, in fact, write poems in memory of the Catholic martyrs, and in support of the Catholic cause. He may have been prudent, in Noonan’s view – and he had to be, as did all Catholics, whether full-blooded rebels, or more equivocal ‘church papists’; but he was not cold about the cause at all, and his sympathies are shown in his poetry for those with eyes to see them. Noonan argues that 22 of Shakespeare’s sonnets and one of his longer poems were poems directed at God, the Catholic Church, the English Catholic faithful and specific Catholic martyrs like Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell. In Noonan’s reading of the poem, the ‘my love’ of the poem’s last line is the church, which is to say that Shakespeare’s only reason for living is not to abandon the church whose denigration is implicitly linked with the litany of injustices in the sonnet.

In Noonan’s interpretation, the poem brings to mind another poem by a 16th/17th century Catholic, the poet and songwriter Thomas Campion (Don’t confuse him – as Google Images does – with his contemporary, the Jesuit martyr, Edmund Campion). Elsewhere I have argued that his poem/song Whether Men Do Laugh or Weep conceals, behind a façade of knowing cynicism, a genuine discontent with the injustices of his age. Both poets, I think, had to shape their discontent with particular political and religious realities of the age, but perhaps Campion, a known Catholic, had to be that much more careful than Shakespeare – or perhaps, despite his open and unembarrassed Catholicism, he was just naturally more prudent. Sonnet 66’s bitter litany is filled with more specific descriptions of injustice, specific enough for someone knowledgeable about the late 16th century to match them to particular events. Noonan, for example, relates the line ‘maiden virtue rudely strumpeted’ to the story of Anne Belamy, a Catholic recusant (and naturally a virgin) who was arrested and raped by the era’s most notorious priest-hunter, Richard Topcliffe, after which humiliation she was forced to testify against fellow Catholics at a trial, and then forcibly married to one of Topcliffe’s henchmen. I would argue further that the line ‘purest faith unhappily forsworn’ could be a reference to Catholics forced to take an oath to Elizabeth’s church on threat of bankruptcy; ‘right perfection wrongfully disgraced’ could refer to the show trials of Campion, Southwell and their fellows; ‘art made tongue-tied by authority’ could refer to the strict censorship of the age, particularly on religious matters.

If Noonan is right about Shakespeare’s Catholicism – and his analysis is convincing – then Greene was quite wrong to dismiss him as a courtier too concerned with his career, or just too callous, to care about one of the greatest injustices of his age. We can hardly blame Greene, for it wasn’t until relatively recently that serious scholarship about the Catholic Shakespeare began to break through. Greene’s disparagement of the violence and injustice of 1930s Mexico – and the spiritual barrenness of England – bears much in common with Sonnet 66’s critique of the late-Elizabethan and early Jacobean age. Indeed there are hints in The Lawless Roads of a link between the wrongs of the two eras.

Another great Catholic writer, Evelyn Waugh, describing the death of the Tudor queen in his biography of the martyr Edmund Campion, made a such a link between the reformation and the problems of our own age:

The vast exuberance of the Renaissance had been canalized. England was secure, independent, insular; the course of her history lay plain ahead; competitive nationalism, competitive industrialism, competitive imperialism, the looms and the coal mines and counting houses, the joint stock companies and the cantonments; the power and the weakness of great possessions.

What was in Elizabeth’s mind as she lay there through the silent hours, sane and despairing? The thought of another England that had been in her hands to make? (2)

This is, as ever with Waugh very eloquent, but it is a bit too certain for my tastes. If Shakespeare was a Catholic, he must have been the kind of Catholic that Greene was –devout, half-compromised with the realities of life and sceptical about human nature, and sceptical too about the possibility of Utopia, Catholic or otherwise. The faults that Shakespeare identifies in his own age, surface too in his historical depictions of Ancient Greece, medieval England and Renaissance Italy; just as the corruption of the modern age follows Greene through his travels in every continent in the world – and back to England: Mexico is a state of mind.



(1) Shakespeare’s Spiritual Sonnets, John Noonan,

(2) 2010Edmund Campion: Jesuit and Martyr, Evelyn Waugh, Penguin Books London, 2012


An Editor and a Poet Remembered

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Krishna Prasad

I was saddened to hear recently of the sudden death of the Editor of the Wagon Magazine, Krishna Prasad.

Three years ago, Krishna had the admirably unfashionable idea of launching a new magazine  – an actual paper magazine (albeit with a website attached) – published in his home city of Chennai in south-eastern India.

For three years, he devoted much of his energy to corralling writers, poets and layabouts like me, local and international, to writing for his magazine, while doing much of the editing and graphical work himself, and always creating something interesting and eclectic.

Earlier this year, the internet version of Prasad’s magazine went strangely quiet for a month or so, and none of the articles that I had recently sent had appeared. Another contributor, the poet John Looker (see below) contacted me to ask if I knew what was up. I didn’t, and we both feared the worst. But a couple of months later Krishna got in contact with me to ask for my last couple of columns, explaining briefly that he had been in a remote part of India with no internet connection making a film (!)

Alas, the next time the Wagon Magazine went quiet, it was for altogether sadder reasons. From what I know about him, Krishna was a great enthusiast and a gentleman, a warm, engaging and energetic man, and I imagine that many people from his circle in and out of Chennai will miss his presence dearly. Rest in Peace, Krishna Prasad.


Cynthia Jobin

Almost exactly two years ago, my conscience was nagging me about something: for over three years I had struck up an online friendship with the poet and blogger Cynthia Jobin, and had enjoyed regular correspondence with her on her blog and on my blog, and I read and enjoyed her poems online every week, but I had neglected to buy her book, which she had self-published and was selling over her blog.

Finally overcoming my idleness, I wrote an email to her asking if she had any copies left, and, if so, could I have one sent to South Korea, where I lived at the time. She replied to say that, yes, she did, and yes she would, and what’s more she would send it free of charge. Thus, I have a signed hardback copy of what she imagined would be the only published book of her poems, a Certain Age.

In the very same correspondence, however, she informed me that she had recently been informed that she was very sick and had little time to live. And not long after, a terrible silence fell at her blog, until the news came, just before Christmas, that she had indeed passed away.

I wrote about Cynthia shortly after her death: what I knew of her, how I had got to know her, and how wonderful her poetry is.

I chose one poem that I thought encapsulated so much of her talent, wit and wisdom – her musing on the Czeslaw Milosz line, ‘It’s madness to live without joy’, which she named ‘It’s Madness.’ But, come to think of it, it was also madness that a poet as talented as Cynthia had to publish her poetry herself.

That has finally been remedied, with Bennison Book’s publication of a selection of her works, Song of Paper, which was put together by the UK poet John Looker, another close online friend of Cynthia’s, with help from other friends that she had made during her time blogging. The title seems to allude to the long time it took for her poetry to make the transition to book form! I ordered the book straight away this time, guiltily remembering my tardiness with her earlier collection.

I keep finding and appreciating things that I didn’t quite, not properly, the first time around: ‘The Food That Feeds but Does not Satisfy’, for example,  is as pithy a desciption of the baleful effects of the Internet as anything I have read in prose or poetry, and an extended sonnet to boot; ‘Maple Yellow, Maple Red’ takes on the subject of the poet’s own death with words that echo in the mind, sweet and sad but not maudlin. And, of course, I am now enjoying many of her poems a second time, their wit, their musicality, their mastery of form, and their unpredictability. No poem quite says what you expect it might say, whether it is about nature, about personal matters, or even (rarely) about current events; and for no poem do you think Cynthia is conforming to what she is supposed to feel (as a woman, a spouse, a widower, an elderly person, someone nearing death).

Bravo to John and to Bennison Books for their efforts in having the book published.




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.