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.