Bernicia from the South

What I would like to explore today is the hypothesis that the early Bernicians were viewed as outsiders by the southern English, including in Deira and Lindsey.

The Bernician heartland outside of the former Roman province may have also made them seem more barbarian to even the Anglo-Saxons. Was there a long held suspicion that these English were more of an Anglo-British mixture than the southern English? They may have been more distinctive. The northern British would have been less Romanized, so even if the southern English did intermarry more than we have evidence for, the upper-level Britons of the south would have been far more Romanized and may have considered themselves Romans, more than Britons. Recall that Patrick addressed his British audience as fellow Romans. As in Gaul, it may have been Roman ancestry that conferred status rather than native ancestry. After 400 years of Roman Britain, this would have only been natural in the most Romanized areas.   Bernician adoption of British hillforts, like Bamburgh and Dunbar, would may have reinforced the idea that they were not as civilized.

While the Bernicians appear to have taken more British culture like use of the hillforts (and perhaps cavalry), and we know there was some intermarriage, it may have been their relationships with the Picts and Scots that really made them stand out. In the early 5th century, Geramanus of Auxerre was involved in repelling an attack by “Picts and Saxons”, which could be a coordinated attack by Bernicians and Picts. This would make more sense that a coordinated attack by Picts and continental Saxons. Britons called all the English (Angles, Saxon, Jutes, etc) Saxons. The Picts would have been natural allies of the Bernicians against local Britons as long as there were Britons between them. Their British neighbors would have been their continual enemies simply because they were continually taking land from them.

Peaceful ties between the Bernicians, Scots and Picts prior to the early seventh century can be seen in two sets of Bernician exiles taking refuge among the Scots and Picts in c. 600 and again in the 620s. Its likely that these were not the first exiles or hostages exchanged between these peoples. Indeed in times when Scottish or Pictish kings were extremely powerful, Bernician nobles may have been hostages in their courts.  This would have fostered intermarriage and ties between Scottish, Pictish, and Bernician kings. Pre-Christian kings were polygamous and bride exchanges would have been common. The Bernicians may not have been powerful enough to resist giving hostages to more powerful neighbors before Æthelfrith.

Not until Ecgfrith with his half-Kentish mother and his East Anglian bride (and then perhaps another southern bride) did the Northumbrians become really integrated as part of the English. His reign is the first to embrace Canterbury throughout. As far as that goes, Ecgfrith is the first that we know to enforce his northern hegemony by war. It is possible that Oswald and Oswiu fought battles to bring them into line, but it wasn’t recorded. We know that Æthelfrith fought against the Scots, but this was a rebellion of a minor king against the major (Scottish) king. Oswald and Oswiu appear to have gained and maintained their northern hegemony more by political manouverings than by war. This is not to say that they didn’t fight key battles, but they maximized their hegemony and its maintence by politics. From Ecgfrith on, northern hegemonies were gained and maintained only by force. Ecgfrith brought the Bernicians/Northumbrians into the mainstream of English culture and politics but at a high price.


6 comments on “Bernicia from the South

  1. In the early 5th century, Germanus of Auxerre was involved in repelling an attack by “Picts and Saxons”, which could be a coordinated attack by Bernicians and Picts. This would make more sense that a coordinated attack by Picts and continental Saxons.

    I confess that I’ve always assumed the Saxons here were probably rebel federates defending the northern border, as we’re told Hengest did at first. I find it quite difficult to accept very much Anglian settlement in Bernicia until Ida’s apparent take-over in the sixth century, it involves pushing back the local adventus to before the genealogies’ start of Anglian rule, which I think is problematic. As I think I’ve said here before I see Anglian rule in Bernicia very much as a top-level takeover of an area already run by British separatists. I can’t imagine that the area had changed perceived ethnicity genti Saxonicae as early as Germanus, that would involve heavy settlement earlier than anyone’s date for the adventus! I entirely agree with you about the seventh-centiry ties, though, I think they’re very significant, but not two hundred years old…

  2. Michelle says:

    Good point about the dates on Germanus, though I don’t know that it means heavy settlement. Germanus’ great victory could have been only over 2-3 boat loads of men. At least one would have been Pictish, just one distinctively Saxon would have been enough. If it was a settlement of primarily mercenaries/federates then it would have had a high percentage of warriors.

    Given that Bede dates the Adventus to the 440s, he could have been 10-20 years off. Bede’s date is really dependent upon the Hengest story which is by his time already a foundation legend.

    I guess it is also possible that Ida’s lineage was not the oldest in Bernicia. If Ida’s family first came under the leadership of someone else, the original lineage would not have survived.

  3. I thought about that, and of Barbara Yorke’s theories that the Wessex genealogies were stretched to antedate the Kentish ones. All the same, wouldn’t you expect a genealogist to appropriate the earlier lineage, not white it out? You may well be right, and the numbers point is a very good one, but the overall theory involves modifying sources too much for me to be completely happy with it.

    The adventus date also rests on some Continental chronicles too, of course; is it Marcellinus (not Ammianus!) that dates it to 446, or Prosper of Aquitaine? (It’s late where I am.) Ah: it’s neither. Have a look at this.

  4. Michelle says:

    Gallic Chronicle:
    Honorius, 16th year : (409/410)
    “The Britains were devastated by an incursion of the Saxons.”

    It doesn’t say they went home…. or that they came from the continent. The Gallic Chronicle is very likely only recording what is going on in SE Britain. Germanus’ first trip to Britain was about 429, significantly after 410.

    Theodosius II, 18th and 19th year :(AD 441)
    “The Britains, which to this time had suffered from various disasters and misfortunes, are reduced to the power of the Saxons.”

    Chronica Gallia a DXI, (AD 440)
    Theodosius II and Valentinian III, 16th year :
    “The Britains, lost to the Romans, yield to the power of the Saxons.”

    Ok… none of these entries say when the first settlements occurred. Yielding to their power is far from an isolated settlement, it is when Saxons first become dominant in a region.

    Besides the continental chronicles hear so little from Britain they wouldn’t know about isolated settlements.

    My point was that Bernicians and Picts or Scots will have been cooperating prior to c. 600, not necessarily that the Bernicians were the first settlers. Germanus was just an example of Saxon and Pictish cooperation.

  5. My point was that Bernicians and Picts or Scots will have been cooperating prior to c. 600

    I’m right with you there, I think the flights to exile show that clearly, but where I don’t think I can follow you is in the suggestion that Bernicians might have identified as Saxons, or been identified as such, Germanus-early.

  6. Mak says:

    I was reading somewhere recently of the archaeological evidence that points to the contact between the ‘Angles’ of the east and northeast with the Picts (I put ‘Angles’ in inverted commas because of the archaeological evidence that they most likely weren’t just Angles. For example, the famous ‘Anglian’ find of Sutton Hoo now appears to be from southern Sweden). Unfortunately I can’t remember where I read about this connection and even much Googling hasn’t worked!

    It also appears that the Saxons and the Scots (Irish) had a thing going on for a while. Something even many Irish don’t know (or don’t want to admit) is their 4th century hero, Nail of the Nine Hostages (c.368-395) – he who recent DNA studies suggest has 3 million offspring alive today – had a Saxon mum, so was, in fact, a Hiberno-Saxon!

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