The Realm of Humbria

Humbria is a hypothetical proto-over-kingdom in the extreme. The area discussed under the term Humbria seems to be the region around the Humber River, not surprisingly. This region includes the kingdoms of Deira, Elmet, Lindsey, and proto-Mercia. In effect, references to Humbria suggest that it was the core of Deira’s hegemony. While Edwin had extended his power far beyond this core of principalities, this may have been the core of hegemony under previous Deiran kings, particularly Edwin’s father Ælle who is reputed to have reigned for 30 years. Deiran hegemony over ‘Humbria’ also explains why Northumbrian kings tried to exert rights over land south of the Humber until 679. Think of Humbria being something like the Thames river hegemony group early on being usually dominated by Kent. Around the Thames the kingdoms seem to have more parity preventing one from controlling all, and the kings of Kent don’t seem to have the same military skills as any of the Humbrian (or East Anglian) kings. Mercia developed as an offshoot of the Humbrian group, perhaps largely as Wessex developed as an upriver offshoot of the Thames group. I believe this is what the Historia Brittonum means when its says that Penda first separated Mercia from the northern king. Compared to the kingdoms of the two main hegemony groups (Humbrian and Thames), both Mercia and Wessexare frontier kingdoms in that the both expand away from the two main river systems. Bernicia begins so far out on the fringe that they are almost an island thathas tobe reconnected to the other English by conquest.

Drainage zone of the Humber Estuary
Drainage zone of the Humber Estuary. York is on the River Ouse and the kingdom of Elmet was between the River Warfe and River Don.

Defining Humbria

Æthelfrith’s movement southward was not only a conquest of the Anglican kingdom of Deira but also the realm of Humbria. When Æthelfrith had taken Deira, Ælle’s grandson Hereric fled only to neighboring Elmet, part of the hegemony group where he might expect assistance to expel an invader, even if Elmet was British. Around the same time, Ælle’s younger son Edwin (about the same age as Hereric) fled to king Ceorl of Mercia where the exiled prince married Ceorl’s daughter, probably part of a formal agreement between exile and host. That both Ceredig of Elmet and Ceorl of Mercia cooperated by initially giving refuge to the exiled Deirans probably suggests that Humbria was a well established regional hegemony group and though Deira had recently been dominant, it may not have always been so. It is possible that the British were major players in this hegemony group in the recent past. Also the rival I know, who is now beholding to me, is better than an invader any day. Soon Æthelfrith had contrived to have Hereric assassinated by poison in Elmet, no doubt securing Elmet’s alligiance, and had driven Edwin’s family out of Mercia, where Ceorl is heard from no more. Whether Edwin fled to the British first before finally arriving in East Anglia is uncertain, but suggested by British lore.

Either way, we could interpret Æthelfrith’s next two battles as defending or defining his hegemony over Humbria. In 613 Æthelfrith destroys Powysian forces at the battle of Chester, breaking coordinated Powysian power for a generation and in effect probably enlarging Humbria’s western flank. Æthelfrith’s last battle on the River Idle is exactly at the crossroads on the Roman road system between Lindsey, Mercia and East Anglia. He is traveling without all his forces, according to Bede, expecting to be on a diplomatic mission to collect a troublesome exile from the East Anglian king who is expected to take payment for him and probably acknowledge Æthelfrith’s power. Of course, boldness was rewarded when Rædwald of East Anglia ambushed Æthelfrith and slew him and his bodyguard. The point here is not so much Æthelfrith’s career as to look at the territory he is defending or defining.

So after Æthelfrith falls, Edwin of Deira seems to immediately take control of all of Humbria. His first action is to depose Ceredig of Elmet, presumably for killing his nephew Hereric, and he seems to have direct control over Elmet during his reign. Paulinus of York takes part in the consecration of a new Archbishop of Canterbury at Lincoln where the highest ranking official is a reeve.

Wetlands of the Humber estuary
Low lands of the Humber estuary. Around the Lincoln edge was the Isle of Axholme in early medieval times. Lindsey was a virtual island surrounded by marshes and rivers.

Humbrian names

Then there is the importance of Humbria in all names for the northern Anglian kingdom. Before Bede’s time there were a number of names for what we now consider Northumbria, but they all involved “Humbria” — Ultra humbria (above the Humber), Transhumbria (across the humber, Northumbria (north of the humber). While the Humber is surely an important estuary (and much more important then when there were more wetlands), once they were restricted north of the Humber there is much less of a reason for it to be retained in their name. It seems clear that for much of the long seventh century, northern Anglian kings insisted on being called kings of a version of Humbria. If we compare to Mercia, the name of the original core kingdom of the ruling dynasty was extended for the new swollen kingdom. Yet, the ruling dynasty of Northumbria was with a 17 year exception for Edwin’s reign, a Bernician dynasty but the whole kingdom never incorporated the name of Bernicia.

One State, Multiple Nations

Northumbria was essentially a state composed of several nations that each kept their identity too much to adopt the Bernician name. They sought a new name, Northumbria, that is different than any other Anglo-Saxon kingdom — geographic, north, and regional, Humbria. In taking the name Humbria they adopted a regional name that clearly enclosed two (or more) nations, two ethnicities. Elmet and Craven clearly retained some of their British characteristics through Bede’s lifetime. Lindsey and Deira both were both Anglo-Saxon kingdoms but they also were capitals of Roman provinces and likely had significant Romano-British influence. Recall that the British kings Gwrgi and Peredur of York were the sons of Eliffer Great Retinue and that ‘great retinue’ at York may have had English mercenaries or immigrants. Its interesting that Edwin only seems to have brought his court to York after Bishop Paulinus arrived. The English may have preferred to stay where they had been settled in toward the peninusla by the British and let the former Roman captial remain ruins. Moving into the ruins of York no doubt fueled by Bishop Paulinus also gave Edwin dreams of grandure and empire. Britons continued to be a reality as long as Northumbria existed as they expanded into Cumbria and west of the Humbria, as Britons melded into a Northumbrian English existence in the oldest areas around Humbria.

Kingdom of Mercia showing its constituant parts.
Kingdom of Mercia showing its constituant parts.

Mercia is clearly the late developing entitiy in Humbria. North Merica, cradled in the River Trent, is typically believed to be the original Mercia. Its royal genealogy is not as well developed and Penda is really the first king to be more than a name. Based on name evidence, it seems likely that South Mercia was an area added by Penda and his immediate predecessors. Outer Mercia may have been only added at the height of Penda’s career along with Middle Anglia where he placed his son Peada. Its interesting that Penda is also open to working with British allies, and that they are open to working with him, pagan and all.

In the end the peoples of the Humbrian hegemony group dominated Britain until the Norse invasions. Ultimately Humbria was split nearly in two: Deira and most of Elmet to Northumbria, while Mercia,Humbria’s fringe territory, breaks free taking part of Elmet and Lindsey with it. Eventually, Mercia will in turn take control of the Thames group as well. In the end, both Northmbria and Mercia crumbled in the face of the new Norse invader faster than the Romano-British had gave way before their invasions/immigration 400 years earlier. Unlike the Romano-British, the Engish never learned to defend themselves from sea-bourne threats and it seemes didn’t learn to defend against land based threats that were not states who behaved by the rules of war they established among themselves.

2 thoughts on “The Realm of Humbria

  1. I wonder how purely English even original Mercia was : what do you make of the fact that most of Penda’s family, and the Gewissi too, have either British (Welsh) names or names containing the English word for Welsh?
    Thank you for this interesting post which clarified for me the background out of which the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria emerged.

  2. Nennius mentions ‘The Humbrian Sea’ and I understand that this would refer to the present day Hull Valley and parts of North Lincoln bordering the Humber. Would you agree with this interpretation?

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