FB: The Mystery of Urbs Iudeu

James Fraser has written an interesting article on a very important seventh century English fortress called Urbs Iudeu. Fraser notes that the Urbs Iudeu is unlikely to be one of the better known named places on the Firth of Forth, this fortress gave its name to the firth itself, or took its name from the firth. In effect a modern translation would be Fortress of the Forth or Forth Fortress. Urbs means fortified place, but that does not mean it was not a fortress like Bamburgh or Dunbar. Bede also used the term urbs for Dumbarton/Clyde Rock.

Stirling is often assumed to be the location of urbs Giudi.
Stirling is often assumed to be the location of Urbs Iudeu (urbs Giudi).

Fraser asks where did Bede get his information on Urbs Iudeu and the Firth of Forth. He goes through a through discussion and I think correctly concludes that it came through Bishop Trumwine and/or Abercorn. All of the information for that region is therefore in relation to Abercorn. I think this makes a lot of sense.

A few things that Fraser didn’t mention: If Bishop Trumwine was a kinsman of Abbot Trumhere of Gelling (and probably later Abbot of Hexham), then he was probably also a kinsman of Bede’s Abbot Ceolfrith (whose brother Cynefrith succeeded Trumhere as abbot of Gelling). If Bishop Trumhere was the kinsman of Abbot Ceolfrith, it is likely that Wearmouth-Jarrow would have been closely connected to Bishop Trumwine and Abercorn. It is likely, for example, that Bishop Trumhere would have sought to place some of his monks in his kinsman monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow after 685. Consider that Wearmouth-Jarrow had also been closely associated with its founding patron King Ecgfrith (who would have also been a kinsman of Abbot Ceolfrith through Queen Eanflaed) and also the founding patron of Abercorn. As part of a small circle of churchmen close to King Ecgfrith, it seems like that Abbot Ceolfrith would have been well informed of Bishop Trumwine’s activities even if he wasn’t his kinsman. All of this means that Bede would have good contacts with men from Abercorn who could inform him on the geography and events around Abercorn.

Fraser easily dismisses Striling as a possible site for Urbs Iudeu. I admit that I had accepted it as conventional, but there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think it was there (or that any fortress was there in the seventh century).

I think one of the key points in identifying Urbs Iudeu is the realization that the Niurdui Picts are Picts of Iudeu (nIurdu). This does not appear to be just a geographic description but a name they were known by so these people shared their name with the Firth of Forth. I also think at the very edge of the British-Pictihs frontier, terms like Pict and Brit don’t mean much especially from an English point of view.  Fraser notes that Bede uses the term urbs for native fortresses rather than Roman forts. Here it is interesting to note that he also refers to Dumbarton/Alt Clyde as an urbs. Fraser also mentions that truly massive native hillforts have been discovered and dated to the early medieval period without being mentioned at all in period or later documents. He points to Burghhead in Moray as an example of an undocumented major ‘promontory fortification’.

Fraser discusses several possible sites put forward by others including Inveresk, Carriden, Crammond Island (a tidal island), Carlingnose Battery in North Queensferry, and Blackness. He goes through great detail in discussing each of these candidates and three really jump out. Fraser’s own preference if pushed is for Carlingnose Battery, interestingly on the Pictish side of the forth if we truly hold the firth to be the boundary. He also holds open a possibility for Crammond Island and Blackness. All of these except Carlingnose Battery are far closer to known Bernician territory than Stirling. If Caer Eden fell in 638, any of these places could have easily have been taken by Oswiu in successive years, while Stirling would be a major push into British territory.

In favor of the fortress on a tidal island, consider that this is the opposite of what is found at Bamburgh-Lindisfarne, where the bishop and his monastery is on the tidal island and the king on a very close hillfort. I think that a full island like Inchkeith would be too hard to supply and move troops back and forth from, its too isolated. Crammond Island is pretty far from Abercorn, but we do know that Bernicians may have learned the value of a tidal island as defense in Urien’s seige of Theodoric on Lindisfarne in the 57os. I’ve also wondered about Urbs Iudeu being a very large crannog, actually in the firth that gave it its name.

If we just consider that Abercorn was founded close to Urbs Iudeu for its protection, then Blackness would seem to be the most logical choice. On the other hand, if we consider that Urbs Giudi may be in the land of the Niurdu Picts, then Carlingnose Battery that juts out into the firth is possible. However, being across the firth from Abercorn would make its protection of the bishop and his people more difficult.

The one thing we do know is that Oswiu of Bernicia was in control of Urbs Iudeu by 654-655. It is possible that it fell to Oswiu in a series of battles after the death of Oswald in 642-643. First Domnall Brecc of Dalriada is killed by Owen of Strathclyde at Strathcarron in December 642. Y Gododdin tells us that in Owen’s time, survivors of Caer Eden were in Owen’s court. The annals then record that Oswiu ravages the Britons and it may be 643 when the entire southern coast of the firth of Forth transfer into Osiwu’s hands. Ultimately, Urbs Iudeu must be a place where Penda can realistically besiege Oswiu in 655 with his full army. British sources claim that some of them, persumably from Gwynedd, got home with considerable loot handed over by Oswiu to Penda.  As Fraser concludes it is likely that only archaeology can solve this conundrum and so the mystery of Urbs Iudeu remains.


James Fraser. (April 2008) “Bede, the Firth of Forth and the Location of Urbs Iudeu Scottish Historical Review. 87 (1), p. 1-25.

9 thoughts on “FB: The Mystery of Urbs Iudeu

  1. Hmmm, that was interesting. Looks like somethings will always remain mystery.

    I myself has been trying to solve the mystery of the legend that forces you to have “earn it before

    having it”, for a wile now. Could not understand much though.

    Let me know in case you get to understand the mystery of the Old Hound and the Legend

    By the way, good writing style. I’d love to read more on similar topics

  2. I don’t see Oswiu being in a position to expand his domains in any direction between 642 and 655, i.e. between the collapse of Oswald’s hegemony at Maserfelth and the defeat of Penda at Winwaed. In those years Penda was top of the heap and Oswiu was merely one of several subordinate client kings, with little opportunity to emulate his brother’s achievements. For an unknown time after 642 the area around the Firth of Forth lay under the hegemony of Owain of Dumbarton, the victor of Strathcarron, so Oswiu would not have had much scope in that direction. Bede doesn’t say anything about the Forth region falling under Oswiu’s control pre-Winwaed and I’m not sure how far we can trust the Historia Brittonum with its story about the surrender of riches to Penda at Iudeu. If Bede’s mention of Penda refusing Oswiu’s offer of tribute refers to the same incident its position immediately before the account of Winwaed suggests that the offer was made and refused in some place not too distant from the battlefield. The HB story only fits with the political situation of the period if Iudeu is not on the Forth but somewhere in Northumbria, like the lost Iudan-burg mentioned in 10th century sources.

  3. I read Fraser’s article a couple of months ago and have subsequently visited all the eligible sites. In my view, Urbs Iudeu was almost certainly not what is now Stirling Castle. My vote would be for Blackness.

  4. In February 2001, Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society made a ground resistance survey over a cropmark located at the western end of Hopetoun Estate. It is shown in an aerial photograph in RCAHMS. The cropmark surrounds a flat topped hill, about 2km from Abercorn, and it lies immediately to the west of “Nynia Well Field”, depicted on an 18th century estate map. From the top of the hill, overlooking Blackness Castle, there are extensive views over the Forth and Abercorn. The survey along the east limb of the cropmark was limited by weather and the simple equipment then in use. The printout showed a bank (high resistance), a ditch (low) and possible upcast on the outer east side over a distance of about 90m. The ditch possibly terminated at the south end of the cropmark just short of where there appeared to have been a square structure. The Society’s report, Occasional Paper No. 4, suggested that the site could have been Northumbrian, associated with Oswald: alternatively, Edward I appears to have had a fort at Blackness in 1303-04.

  5. I think that Urbs Iudeu could be Jedburgh – the town has 83 historical name variations which include ‘Iedeuwrth’ and ‘Jeddeuurd’

  6. Clearly fits with the “..lost Iudan-burgh mentioned in 10th century sources” referred to by Tim

  7. Thanks to Bede, we can definitively rule out any location for Iudeu which is not situated on (or in) the Firth of Forth, so Jedburgh is a non-starter. Fraser convincingly destroys the conventional identification with Stirling and offers three alternatve candidates, Carlingnose, Blackness and Cramond Island. For me, Carlingnose can be eliminated because it lies on the north side of the Firth, in the Pictish kingdom, not the Bernician kingdom. Bede is clear that the Firth is the boundary between the two kingdoms. I am also doubtful about Blackness, because Bede, when writing about the Antonine Wall, describes its eastern termination (at Carriden) by reference to its distance from the monastery at Abercorn. If Iudeu, the principal Bernician stronghold in the area, was at Blackness, which lies closer to Carriden than Abercorn does, would Bede not have described the termination of the Wall by reference to its distance from Iudeu rather than Abercorn? This objection is reinforced by the fact that Bede describes the western termination of the Wall by reference to Dumbarton Rock, which he sees as the equivalent in the Firth of Clyde to Iudeu in the Firth of Forth. This leaves Cramond Island, a tidal island just offshore from Cramond, the site of a major Roman fort, and possibly (see the current exhibition at the Museum of Edinburgh) a stronghold of the Gododdin prior to the invasion of the Angles. There is debate about tide levels in the Forth in this period, raising the possibility that Cramond Island was at that time permanently attached to the mainland. Cramond Island/Cramond looks like the strongest candidate, but as Fraser himself says, only archaeology can provide the answer.

    1. If anyone has a copy of Frasers article I could really do with one as I am trying to write a history of Stirling Castle and want to conclusively disconnect it with Iudeu. Unfortunately I am struggling to get a copy without paying $24 for it, and Prof Fraser hasnt replied to my email. Can anyone help? I am on Facebook as The Castle Guy to contact me direct. Appreciate anyone who can assist 🙂

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