I’ve been talking alot about Northumbria on Heavenfield so I thought that I would do a run down of its history and geography in this post.
The realm or region of Northumbria has had a common history and organizational unity from pre-Roman times to the modern era. At times its cultural identity has evolved, but the region has held together. Its important to note that the various invasions of Britain brought a minority of people to the island, who were added to the native majority producing a new blended people. The old paradigm of invasion and ethnic cleansing is gone. The English (and the Danes who followed) provided a new ruling class, but did not completely replace the native majority who learned new languages and adopted new histories (eventually everyone wants to be part of the ruling group). Anthropologists still debate the percentages of immigrant peoples, but the consensus is forming that in Northumbria in particular, the immigrants were less than half the population (even if they were almost all of the visible population in surviving literature). We can see this blending of cultures best on the ground in the cemetery of Bamburgh that is still in the process of excavation.
We first see Northumbrian territorial integrity in Roman Britain when the majority of Northumbria was the province of Britannia Secunda.
The northern border of Britannia Secunda is Hadrian’s Wall. Britannia Secunda was always a military province, the northernmost border of the entire Empire; it and the border country further north to the Antonine Wall was administered from York. Heavenfield is located in about the middle of Hadrian’s Wall and Bede’s monastery at Jarrow is located on the eastern end of the wall.
When Rome withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century, Brtannia Secunda and the border country to the north was eventually divided up into several kingdoms. We can name at least seven of them, and there were others whose names have not survived:
Deira = modern East Riding Yorkshire/Humberside, centered at York from the early 7th century
Elmet = modern West Riding Yorkshire whose main city was Leeds
Craven= small mountainous region NW of Elmet
Bernicia = straddles Hadrians wall on the east when it first appears in the record, perhaps an outgrowth of the settlements along the eastern end of Hadrians wall. Between the rivers Tweed and Tees, main fortress at Bamburgh.
Gododdin = southern shore of the Firth of Forth, main fortress at Edenburgh. It was later known as Lothian.
Strathclyde/ AltClud = city state of Dumbarton/Glasgow on the Rock of the Clyde.
- Carlisle region = name of this area is unknown but it withstood English expansion until the mid-seventh century. By default, many have placed Rheged here.
Here is a map of the border zone north of Britannia Secunda; Denisesburna is the battlefield associated with Heavenfield. Din Eidyn is now called Edenburgh.
By the death of King Ecgfrith in 685 all of these kingdoms were part of Northumbria except Strathclyde, which resisted Northumbrian pressure until they were annexed into the growing, unified kingdom of Scotland. Ecgfrith’s successor, his brother Aldfrith managed to maintain his kingdom south of the Firth of Forth, but hegemony over the Picts, Scots and presumably Strathclyde was lost. Northumbria’s unity held together until the establishment of Danelaw, which eventually gave way to the Earldom of Northumbria in the late Anglo-Saxon period and beyond.
The lost kingdoms may have eventually reappeared as organizational units in the late Saxon and Norman period. Dukes regained control of Bamburgh for Old Bernicia, Lothain in Scotland for Old Gododdin, and Galloway for the Carisle/Whithorn region. Strathclyde became the principality of the Scottish heir-apparent, and Deira was largely controlled by the Archbishop of York. There are several possibilities for the location of Rheged. Presumably all but Strathclyde and Lothian were united under at least the nominal control of the Earl of Northumbria at least until 1066. Thereafter the fate of Northumbria often depended on border wars between England and Scotland. Ultimately, the English-Scottish border runs fairly close to the border of Brittania Secunda with the exception that the border rises northwards enough to include Bamburgh’s immediate region within England. Scotland claimed most of the Border Country between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall.
Over the next year or so I’m going to run a new monthly series of posts on lost kingdoms of Britain and Ireland. I’ll start with the lost kingdoms of Northumbria and then branch out from there, so stay tuned….