Kingdom of Northumbria

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Kingdom of Northumbria
Norþhymbra rīce
Unified Angle kingdom (before 876)
North: Angle kingdom (after 876)
South: Danish kingdom (876–914)
South: Norwegian kingdom (after 914)
  Extent of Northumbria in 800
Capital Northern: Bamburgh
Southern: York
Languages Old English, Cumbric, Latin
Government Monarchy
 •  654–670 Oswiu
 •  died 954 Eric Bloodaxe
 •  Established 653
 •  South is annexed by the Danelaw 876
 •  South is conquered by Norse warriors 914
 •  Annexed by Wessex 954
Currency Sceat (peninga)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
COA Urien Glodrydd.svg Rheged
Kingdom of Scotland Royal Arms of the Kingdom of Scotland.svg
Kingdom of England Royal Arms of England (1198-1340).svg
Today part of  United Kingdom
  Northern England
  Lothian and Borders

The Kingdom of Northumbria (/nɔːrˈθʌmbriə/; Old English: Norþhymbra rīce, "kingdom of the Northumbrians") was a medieval Anglian kingdom in what is now northern England and south-east Scotland, which subsequently became an earldom in a unified English kingdom. The name reflects the approximate southern limit to the kingdom's territory, the Humber estuary.

Northumbria was formed by Æthelfrith in central Great Britain in Anglo-Saxon times. At the beginning of the 7th century, the two kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira were unified. (In the 12th century writings of Henry of Huntingdon the kingdom was defined as one of the Heptarchy of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms). At its height, the kingdom extended at least from just south of the Humber to the River Mersey and to the Forth (roughly, Sheffield to Runcorn to Edinburgh)—and there is some evidence that it may have been much greater (see map).

The later (and smaller) earldom came about when the southern part of Northumbria (ex-Deira) was lost to the Danelaw. The northern part (ex-Bernicia) at first retained its status as a kingdom but when it became subordinate to the Danish kingdom, it had its powers curtailed to that of an earldom and retained that status when England was reunited by the Wessex-led reconquest of the Danelaw. The earldom was bounded by the River Tees in the south and the River Tweed in the north (broadly similar to the modern North East England).

Much of this land was "debated" between England and Scotland, but the Earldom of Northumbria was eventually recognised as part of England by the Anglo-Scottish Treaty of York in 1237. On the northern border, Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is north of the Tweed but had changed hands many times, was defined as subject to the laws of England by the Wales and Berwick Act 1746. The land once part of Northumbria at its peak is now divided by modern administrative boundaries:

Northumbria is also used in the names of some regional institutions, particularly the police force (Northumbria Police, which covers Northumberland and Tyne and Wear) and a university (Northumbria University) based in Newcastle upon Tyne. The local Environment Agency office, located in Newcastle Business Park, also uses the term Northumbria to describe its patch. Otherwise, the term is not the official name for the UK and EU region of North East England.

Kingdom (654–954)

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See also: List of monarchs of Northumbria and Timeline of Northumbria

Northumbria was originally formed from the union of two independent kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira. Bernicia covered lands north of the Tees, while Deira corresponded roughly to modern-day Yorkshire. Bernicia and Deira were first united by Aethelfrith, a king of Bernicia who conquered Deira around the year 604. He was defeated and killed around the year 616 in battle at the River Idle by Raedwald of East Anglia, who installed Edwin, the son of Ælla, a former king of Deira, as king.

Edwin, who accepted Christianity in 627, soon grew to become the most powerful king in England: he was recognised as Bretwalda and conquered the Isle of Man and Gwynedd in northern Wales. He was, however, himself defeated by an alliance of the exiled king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon ap Cadfan, and Penda, king of Mercia, at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633.

King Oswald


After Edwin's death, Northumbria was split between Bernicia, where Eanfrith, a son of Aethelfrith, took power, and Deira, where a cousin of Edwin, Osric, became king. Cumbria tended to remain a country frontier with the Britons. Both of these rulers were killed during the year that followed, as Cadwallon continued his devastating invasion of Northumbria. After the murder of Eanfrith, his brother, Oswald, backed by warriors sent by Domnall Brecc of Dál Riata, defeated and killed Cadwallon at the Battle of Heavenfield in 634.[citation needed]

Oswald expanded his kingdom considerably. He incorporated Gododdin lands northwards up to the Firth of Forth and also gradually extended his reach westward, encroaching on the remaining Cumbric speaking kingdoms of Rheged and Strathclyde. Thus, Northumbria became not only part of modern England's far north, but also covered much of what is now the south-east of Scotland. King Oswald re-introduced Christianity to the Kingdom by appointing St. Aidan, an Irish monk from the Scottish island of Iona to convert his people. This led to the introduction of the practices of Celtic Christianity. A monastery was established on Lindisfarne.

War with Mercia continued, however. In 642, Oswald was killed by the Mercians under Penda at the Battle of Maserfield. In 655, Penda launched a massive invasion of Northumbria, aided by the sub-king of Deira, Aethelwald, but suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of an inferior force under Oswiu, Oswald's successor, at the Battle of Winwaed. This battle marked a major turning point in Northumbrian fortunes: Penda died in the battle, and Oswiu gained supremacy over Mercia, making himself the most powerful king in England.

Religious consolidation

In the year 664 the Synod of Whitby was held to discuss the controversy regarding the timing of the Easter festival. Dispute had arisen between the practices of the Celtic church influencing Northumbria and those of the Roman church predominate throughout southern England and Western Europe. Eventually, Northumbria was persuaded to move to the Roman practice and the Celtic Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne returned to Iona. The episcopal seat of Northumbria was transferred from Lindisfarne to York, which indicates the growing religious, political and economic importance of connections to southern Great Britain.

Decline of the Kingdom of Northumbria

Northumbria lost control of Mercia in the late 650s, after a successful revolt under Penda's son Wulfhere, but it retained its dominant position until it suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Picts at the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685; Northumbria's king, Ecgfrith (son of Oswiu), was killed, and its power in the north was gravely weakened. The peaceful reign of Aldfrith, Ecgfrith's half-brother and successor, did something to limit the damage done, but it is from this point that Northumbria's power began to decline, and chronic instability followed Aldfrith's death in 704.[citation needed]

Coin of Eric Bloodaxe at the British Museum. The legend reads ERIC REX ("King Eric")

In 867 Northumbria became the northern kingdom of the Danelaw, after its conquest by the brothers Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless who installed an Englishman, Ecgberht, as a puppet king. Despite the pillaging of the kingdom, Viking rule brought lucrative trade to Northumbria, especially at their capital York. The kingdom passed between English, Norse and Norse-Gaelic kings until it was finally absorbed by King Eadred after the death of the last independent Northumbrian monarch, Erik Bloodaxe, in 954.

Ealdormanships and earldoms in Northumbria (954–1217)

After the English regained the territory of the former kingdom, Scots invasions reduced Northumbria to an earldom stretching from the Humber to the Tweed. Northumbria was disputed between the emerging kingdoms of England and Scotland. The land north of the Tweed was finally ceded to Scotland in 1018 as a result of the battle of Carham. Yorkshire and Northumberland were first mentioned as separate in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1065.[1]

Norman invasion and partition of the earldom

William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066. He realised he needed to control Northumbria, which had remained virtually independent of the Kings of England, to protect his kingdom from Scottish invasion. In 1067, William appointed Copsi (sometimes Copsig) as Earl. However, just five weeks into his reign as earl, Copsi was murdered by Osulf II of Bamburgh.

To acknowledge the remote independence of Northumbria and ensure England was properly defended from the Scots, William gained the allegiance of both the Bishop of Durham and the Earl and confirmed their powers and privileges. However, anti-Norman rebellions followed. William therefore attempted to install Robert Comine, a Norman noble, as the Earl of Northumbria, but before Comine could take up office, he and his 700 men were massacred in the city of Durham. In revenge, the Conqueror led his army in a bloody raid into Northumbria, an event that became known as the Harrying of the North. Ethelwin, the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Durham, tried to flee Northumbria at the time of the raid, with Northumbrian treasures. The bishop was subsequently caught, imprisoned, and later died in confinement; his seat was left vacant.

Rebellions continued, and William's son William Rufus decided to partition Northumbria. William of St. Carilef was made Bishop of Durham, and was also given the powers of Earl for the region south of the rivers Tyne and Derwent, which became the County Palatine of Durham.[citation needed]

The remainder, to the north of the rivers, became Northumberland, where the political powers of the Bishops of Durham were limited to only certain districts, and the earls continued to rule as clients of the English throne. The city of Newcastle was founded by the Normans in 1080 to control the region by holding the strategically important crossing point of the river Tyne.[citation needed]

Subsequent history

The Northumbrian region continued a history of revolt and rebellion against the government, as seen in the Rising of the North in Tudor times. A major reason was the strength of Catholicism in the area after the Reformation. Rural, thinly populated, and sharing a border with an often hostile Scotland, the region became a wild place where reivers raided across the border and outlaws took refuge from justice. However, after the union of the crowns of Scotland and England under King James VI and I peace was largely established. After the Restoration, many inhabitants of the Northumbrian region supported the Jacobite cause.


Page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, c 700.
Sword pommel from the Bedale Hoard, inlaid with gold foil.

Northumbria during its "golden age" was the most important centre of religious learning and arts in the British Isles. Initially the kingdom was evangelised by Irish monks from the Celtic Church, based at Iona in modern Scotland, which led to a flowering of monastic life. Lindisfarne on the east coast was founded from Iona by Saint Aidan in about 635, and was to remain the major Northumbrian monastic centre, producing figures like Wilfrid and Saint Cuthbert. The nobleman Benedict Biscop had visited Rome and headed the monastery at Canterbury in Kent and his twin-foundation Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey added a direct Roman influence to Northumbrian culture, and produced figures such as Ceolfrith and Bede. Northumbria played an important role in the formation of Insular art, a unique style combining Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Pictish, Byzantine and other elements, producing works such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, St Cuthbert Gospel, the Ruthwell Cross and Bewcastle Cross, and later the Book of Kells, which was probably created at Iona. After the Synod of Whitby in 664 Roman church practices officially replaced the Celtic ones but the influence of the Celtic style continued, the most famous examples of this being the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Venerable Bede (673–735) wrote his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731) in Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, and much of it focuses on the kingdom.[2] The devastating Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 marked the beginning of a century of Viking invasions that severely checked all Anglo-Saxon culture, and heralded the end of Northumbria's position as a centre of influence, although in the years immediately following confident works like the Easby Cross were still being produced. A bullion-weight economy was still in use at the end of the 9th-century AD, as demonstrated in the twenty-nine silver ingots found in the Bedale Hoard, along with sword fittings and necklaces in gold and silver.[3]

Northumbria has its own check or tartan, which is similar to many ancient tartans (especially those from Northern Europe, such as one found near Falkirk and those discovered in Jutland that date from Roman times (and even earlier).[4][5][6][7] Modern Border Tartans are almost invariably a bold black and white check, but historically the light squares were the yellowish colour of untreated wool, with the dark squares any of a range of dark greys, blues, greens or browns; hence the alternative name of "Border Drab". At a distance the checks blend together making the fabric ideal camouflage for stalking game.[8][9]

The design of the Northumbrian or Border Check is one of the earliest styles of Tartan in Northern Europe.


Apart from standard English, Northumbria has a series of closely related but distinctive dialects, descended from the early Germanic languages of the Angles, of which 80% of its vocabulary is derived,[10] and Vikings with a few Celtic and Latin loanwords. The Scots language began to diverge from early Northumbrian Middle English, which was called Ynglis as late as the early 16th century (until the end of the 15th century the name Scottis (modern form: Scots) referred to Scottish Gaelic). There are many similarities between Modern Scots dialects and those of Northumbria.

The major Northumbrian dialects are Geordie (Tyneside), Northern (north of the River Coquet), Western (from Allendale through Hexham up to Kielder), Southern or Pitmatic (the mining towns such as Ashington and much of Durham),[11] Mackem (Wearside), Smoggie (Teesside) and Tyke (Yorkshire). To an outsider's ear the similarities far outweigh the differences between the dialects. As an example of the differences, in the softer South County Durham/Wearside the English 'book' is pronounced 'bewk', in Geordie it becomes 'bouk', while in the Northumbrian it is 'byuk'.

See also


  1. E. Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names: 4th Ed, OUP, 1960, ISBN 0-19-869103-3
  2. Goffart, Walter. The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550–800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988. 238ff.
  3. Townedn, M. 2014.Viking Age Yorkshire. Pickering: Blackthorn Press
  4. Cultural Heritage
  5. J. P. Wild Britannia, Vol. 33, 2002 (2002)
  6. J. P. Wild, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Nov., 1964)
  7. Anglo-Saxon Thegn, 449–1066 A.D. By Mark Harrison, Osprey Publishing 1993, ISBN 1-85532-349-4; p. 17
  8. A short history of the Tartan
  9. The History of Scottish Tartans & Clans Tartans
  10. North East dialect origins and the meaning of 'Geordie'
  11. The Northumbrian Language Society

Further reading

  • Higham, N.J., (1993) The Kingdom of Northumbria AD 350–1100 ISBN 0-86299-730-5
  • Rollason, D., (2003) Northumbria, 500–1100: Creation and Destruction of a Kingdom ISBN 0-521-81335-2
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  • Adams, M., (2013) The King in the North the life and times of Oswald of Northumbria ISBN 9781781854204

External links

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