Deconstructing Northumbria

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.

Roman Britain


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

  • Rheged= unlocated

  • 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….


10 thoughts on “Deconstructing Northumbria

  1. Here I betray my ignorance, but I thought there was reasonably good reason to associate Rheged with the Carlisle kingdom in that the British bishop of Carlisle whom we know—is his name Rhun?—is supposed to be a descendant of Urien of Rheged? I’m trying to remember where I got this and I have a nasty feeling it must have been a Nora Chadwick paper, probably in her Celt and Saxon; would it be of interest for me to track this stuff down, or is it well-known to you already? If the latter, do you have any handy critique? I remember finding it convincing when I read it but that was a decade ago and I was young, naïf and working on the Picts and therefore ready to believe almost anything that looked like evidence…

  2. Bishop Rhun can not be localized to Carlisle or anywhere else, as far as I know. The problem is that a good argument can be made for three or four different regions of Northumbria. Nora Chadwick, Molly Miller, John Koch and Mike McCarthy all had or have good arguments.

    The most recent is McCarthy, M. R. 2003. Rheged: an Early Historic Kingdom near the Solway. Proceedings Society Antiquaries of Scotland 132: 357-81. If I recall correctly, he places Rheged on the Rhins of Galloway.

  3. The poetry really does place Rheged on an axis between Carlisle and Catterick, and there happens to be Roman roads that connect them. I’ve always favored the eastern end of Hadrians Wall myself, sort of Catterick eastwards. Than again a lot depends on if Brigantia survived at all in the post-Roman period or if most of the ‘Men of the North’ grew out of military settlements along the wall and supporting garrisons north and south. Basically what we have in the “Men of the North” are warlord families and the territory or tribal remnants they controlled.

    Its been quite a while since I have read anything on this stuff. I’m going to need to clear a few mental cobwebs to do this lost kingdom series. 🙂

  4. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on the missing kingdoms. I visited Heavenfield in mid-May and have some wonderful photographs (I signed the visitors book in the church).
    I’ve been researching northern Dark Age goings on for a couple of years in preparation for a historical novel I’m working on. Though my story covers almost all of the northern kingdoms (including Ulaid), it’s the relationship of the Northumbrains to the Dalriadans that will be the centre-piece of the tale.

    As always, I find your views on history fascinating … I’ll definitely ‘stay tuned’.

  5. Thank you for this. It’s a delight to have such a clear overview. I’ve been researching 7th C Britain for years and keep getting lost in this research cul-de-sac or that. It’s good to get back to 30,000 feet and see the outline.

    If you’re open to requests, I’d love to see something about Hild for your next Person of the Week. What was her full name? Who do you suppose she married? Why did Aidan recruit her? (Did she know Heiu? To what degree was she sympathetic to Rome/Iona? And half a hundred other questions…)

    Again, thank you.

  6. Karl,

    Welcome to Heavenfield. I hope you find something useful here for your novel.

    Hi Nicola,

    Welcome too! There certainly are too many cul-de-sacs in early medieval research. I wander into them all the time. I just hope I realize it soon enough to change directions rather than running around in circles.

    Hild is a big topic for a Person of the Week, but I’m sure I’ll have some posts on her eventually. I usually blog on feast days, so she will have one coming up in about the middle of November.

  7. I’m quite intrigued by everything that I have read about Rhun’s (was it great great) grand-daughter, who by being the heiress of Rheged and in marrying Oswui, essentially entailed Rheged to Northumberland. But the point of my interest is that in her doing so, Rheged seems to have just remained undefeated with Northumberland and as time progressed was just called differently ~ depending on who called it what. As by the time the King of Wessex defeated Northumberland in (what was it, 838?), he marched into ‘North Wales’ as the Anglo Saxon chronicles record the following year (839?), asking for its submission to him by right of defeating Northumberland the year before. As if we are talking the one and the same place (Cumbric is also called North Welsh), then there would be continuity in Rheged’s king list all of the way from Coel Hen through Urien through Oswui through the Northumberland kings down to Wessex then down to today … with the only “dog’s leg” in the continuity being from 945 ad when the king of England gave Cumberland to Scotland hence the Scottish kings until England bought it back would appear. What do you think? As the nice thing is that Cumberland wasn’t defeated by William the Conqueror hence it would be possible to enquire that being so, if native Briton law still applied in Cumbria.

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