Sunday, November 20, 2011

A divided Land Part 1 - Northumbria AD 550 to 597

The Kingdom of Northumbria is born
by Richard Denning

Northern Britain 580 to 616

The existence of the England we know today is strongly and rightly linked to the victories of Alfred the Great and his Kingdom of Wessex over the Vikings in the ninth century. Yet, three hundred years before Alfred’s time, it was the creation of the powerful kingdom of Northumbria and its emergence as the dominant power in Britain for about a century, where we can see the roots of that England.

This was the Kingdom of Bede, the great chronicler of the late 7th. and early 8th. centuries and author of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum: ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. It is also the land of the great kings, Aethelfrith, Edwin and Oswald, as well as the location of the Council of Whitby that established the form that the Christian Church in England would take: a form that lasted − more or less unchanged − until Henry VIII broke away from Rome some 900 years later.

One day, the Vikings would sweep it all away, but by then the mark left on the history of England by the golden age of Northumbria, could not be erased. How though does Northumbria come to exist? What are its roots?

A tale of two Kingdoms
In the 5th and early and mid 6th century two distinct groups of Angles migrate to Britain and settle in Northumbria. The first group to come were led by a figure called Soemil of which we know almost nothing. Sometime in the 5th century, possibly in response to appeals by the Romano-British inhabitants pleas for mercenaries, he establishes settlements along the river Humber and in the Yorkshire Wolds. These will one day become the kingdom of Deira in what is today Yorkshire.

In the 6th Century another Anglo-Saxon warlord, Ida and his family capture the fortress of Din Guardi - what is now Bamburgh and around this and settlements along the coast up to Lindisfarne they create a kingdom - Bernicia.

To begin with both are weak and small and surrounded by potent Romano British kingdoms of which the strongest was the Kingdom of Eboracii (what is now York) under King Peredur and further west Rheged under King Urien. Survival of the fledgling Anglo-Saxon enclaves may have been a lot to do with infighting between the various British kingdoms. Perhaps in the early stages the Angles avoided provoking the British too much but they were gradually expanding.

The succession of kings in Bernicia is confusing and between circa 569 and 593 there seems to have been as many as 7 different Kings. It is likely that all of these (Ida, Clappa, Ada, Frithuwulf, Theowulf, Hussa, Aethelric) were all related and that Ida was succeeded by a series of sons, brothers or uncles most of whom may have died in battle.

After the mysterious Soemil the succession in Deira is totally unknown to historians BUT around 560 a strong king emerges - Aelle - who set about unifying the Deiran lands and establishing his own dynasty.
Slowly the invaders numbers grew, their lands expanded and finally the British took notice and began to take action.

Battle of Caer Greu

Around 580 King Peredur and his brother, alarmed by the growth of Bernicia, took an army north to attack them - probably in the time of King Ada. At a battlefield somewhere in Bernicia called Caer Greu the British army is defeated and the British Kings slain. Bernicia's immediate future is secured but this battle has a knock on effect as Aelle may well have taken advantage of the power vacuum at Eboracum  (York) to capture the city. Certainly around the same time Eboracum becomes part of Deira. It was renamed Eorforwic. ( Which the Vikings would one day change to Jorvik and later people to York).

Crisis at Lindisfarne
The defeat at Caer Greu and the fall of York would have sent shock waves through the Northern British.  The powerful king of Rheged, west of the Pennines in what is now Cumbria set about building an alliance of Kingdoms that included the kingdoms of Strathclyde, Gododdin (around Edinburgh) and others. He led an army on a furious campaign around the year AD 590 that swept across Bernicia and retook almost all the land previous lost by the northern Britons. The Bernicians under either Theodric or Aethelric (or maybe both as they were probably brothers. ) were besieged on the island of Lindisfarne and may well have been destroyed had the British alliance not then started to crumble and old rivalries emerge. Urien was assassinated by a fellow British ruler, Morcant before he could defeat the Angles and the heart seemed to have gone out of the British alliance. A resurgent Bernicia launched a counter attack that turned the tables on the losses suffered and in fact Theodric and Aethelric now invade Rheged.

Disaster in Rheged - Rise of Owain and Aethelfrith

At some point in circa 590 to 593, whilst campaigning in Rheged, first Theodric and later Aethelric are killed by the son of Urien - Owain.  Owain then seems to take a pause to regroup and rebuild the shattered alliances with his British neighbours. In Bernicia, meanwhile, this brings the powerful Warlord Aethelfrith, son of Aethelric to the throne. He too rebuilds his strength but it now can only be a matter of time before another huge clash ensued.

The Battle of Catreath - Owain tries to destroy Northumbria
That clash takes place at a place called Catreath in about AD 597. This is PROBABLY Catterick in Yorkshire which is located on the junction of two Roman roads - one over the Pennines to Rheged and the other the main north south road linking Deira and Bernicia.  Strategically an army able to capture Catterick can turn on Bernicia OR Deira at will.

The battle of Catreath has passed into legend thanks to a Welsh Poem Y Goddodin that tells of the gathering of a host of British from various kingdoms and their march to Catreath. It tells of their bravery and prowess and the charge of the Goddodin cavalry. Then it tells of defeat. For whereever the battle occured Aethelfrith of Bernicia and probably Deira united to crush Owain and his alliance.

This defeat removed the risk that the fledgling Northumbrian Kingdoms would be easily destroyed. There were still enemies of course  but Catreath can possibly be seen as the birthplace of Northumbria
In another article I will take the story forward as the Northumbrian Kingdoms once again unite to crush the Scots of Dal Riata at the battle of Degsastan and then turn on each other in a tale of exile and revenge that lasts 28 years.

The time period of this article is the same as my novel The Amber Treasure:
“I will take care of the body of my lord and you can carry the sword, story teller. For all good stories are about a sword.”

6th Century Northumbria: Cerdic, the nephew of the great warrior Cynric, grows up dreaming of glory in battle and writing his name in the sagas.

When war comes for real though, his sister is kidnapped, his family betrayed and his uncle's legendary sword stolen. It falls to Cerdic to avenge his families’ loss, rescue his sister and return home with the sword.

'Enjoyable novel set in sixth century Northumbria. Accurate detail and vivid fight scenes together with an engaging central character and his coming-of-age make this an absorbing read for fans of historical fiction...' The Book Bag


  1. Thanks to Richard Denning, author of The Amber Treasure, a historical action adventure novel set in sixth century Northumbria, for this great article on the beginnings of the Kingdom of Northumbria.

  2. A wonderful digest of the period. I want to save this someplace for future reference. Thank you Richard!

  3. This ancient history is so intriguing. I picture of life of cold and damp and a struggle to obtain enough food to get through the winter. People had to endure all that as they also fought for land, and their leaders for power. I can't imagine living in that time.

  4. You know your setting, Richard Denning! The Amber Treasure sounds like a great read... Thanks for the imformative post!

  5. Thanks for all that. Apologies bit delayed replying - been busy today.

  6. I had to re-read this to digest all the changes of hands. What an uneasy time in which to live, I would think especially if your land was near a moving border.

    Fascinating time! Thanks for posting!


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