History of Northumberland

See also article on Northumberland

Northumberland, England's most northerly county, is a land of historical extremes. It can claim more castles than any other county, the oldest habitation, the most battle sites, and the first successful steam locomotive. The present-day county is a vestige of an independent English kingdom that once stretched from Edinburgh to the Humber. Before that, the region served as the most northern outpost of the Roman Empire. This article surveys the history of the Northumberland region from pre-historic times to the present.

Ancient Northumberland

Northumberland Rock Art (photo by Aron D. Mazel)
Northumberland Rock Art (photo by Aron D. Mazel)

As attested by many instances of rock art, the Northumberland region has a rich pre-history. Archeologists have studied a mesolithic structure at Howick, which dates to 7500 BC and has been identified as Britain's oldest house. They have also found tools, ornaments, building structures and cairns dating to the bronze and iron ages, when the area was occupied by Brythonic Celtic peoples who had migrated from continental Europe.

The Roman Occupation

A section of Shepherd's (1923) map of Roman Britain
A section of Shepherd's (1923) map of Roman Britain

When Gnaeus Julius Agricola was appointed Roman governor of Britain in 78 AD, most of northern Britain was still controlled by native British tribes. During his governorship Agricola extended Roman control north of Eboracum (York) and into what is now Scotland. Roman settlements, garrisons and roads were established throughout the Northumberland region.

The northern frontier of the Roman occupation fluctuated between Pons Aelii (now Newcastle) and the Forth. Hadrian's Wall was completed by about 130 AD, to defend Roman-occupied lands from Pictish raiders. By 142, the Romans had completed the Antonine Wall, a more northerly defensive border lying between the firths of the Forth and Clyde. However, by 164 they abandoned the Antonine Wall to consolidate defenses at Hadrian's Wall.

Two important Roman structures in the region were Stanegate and Dere Street, the latter extending through the Cheviot Hills to locations well north of the Tweed. Located at the intersection of these two roads, Corbridge was the most northerly town in the Roman Empire. Other examples of Roman settlements in the Northumberland region are Housesteads, a fort on Hadrian's Wall, and Vindolanda, a fort guarding Stanegate.

The Celtic peoples living in the region between the Tyne and the Forth were known to the Romans as the Votadini. When not under direct Roman rule, they functioned as a friendly client kingdom, a somewhat porous buffer against the more warlike Picts.

The gradual Roman withdrawal from Britain in the 5th century led to a poorly documented age of conflict and chaos as different peoples contested territories in northern Britain.

Northumbria and The Anglian Kingdoms

An illustration from the Lindesfarne Gospels
An illustration from the Lindesfarne Gospels

Conquests by Anglian invaders led to the establishment of the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia. The first Anglian settlement was effected in 547 by Ida, who, accompanied by his six sons, pushed through the narrow strip of territory between the Cheviots and the sea, and set up a fortress at Bamburgh, which became the royal seat of the Bernician kings. About the end of the 6th century Bernicia was first united with the rival kingdom of Deira under the rule of Æthelfrith of Northumbria, and the district between the Humber and the Forth became known as the kingdom of Northumbria.

After Æthelfrith was killed in battle around 616, Edwin of Deira became king of Northumbria. Æthelfrith's son Oswald fled northwest to the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata where he was converted to Christianity by the monks of Iona. Meanwhile, Paulinus, the first bishop of York, converted King Edwin to Roman Christianity and began an extensive program of conversion and baptism. By his time the kingdom must have reached the west coast, as Edwin is said to have conquered the islands of Anglesea and Man. Under Edwin the Northumbrian kingdom became the chief power in Britain. However, when Cadwallon ap Cadfan defeated Edwin at Hatfield Chase in 633, Northumbria was divided into the former kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira and Christianity suffered a temporary decline.

In 634, Oswald defeated Cadwallon ap Cadfan at the Battle of Heavenfield, resulting in the re-unification of Northumbria. Oswald re-established Christianity in the kingdom and assigned a bishopric at Hexham, where Wilfrid erected a famous early English church. Reunification was followed by a period of Northumbrian expansion into Pictish territory and growing dominance over the Celtic kingdoms of Dál Riata and Strathclyde to the west. Northumbrian encroachments were abruptly curtailed in 685, when Ecgfrith suffered complete defeat by a Pictish force at the Battle of Nechtansmere.

Monastic Culture

When Saint Aidan came at the request of Oswald to preach to the Northumbrians he chose the island of Lindisfarne as the site of his church and monastery, and made it the head of the diocese which he founded in 635. For some years the see continued in peace, numbering among its bishops Saint Cuthbert, but in 793 Vikings landed on the island and burnt the settlement, killing many of the monks. The survivors, however, rebuilt the church and continued to live there until 883, when, through fear of a second invasion of the Danes, they fled inland, taking with them the body of Cuthbert and other holy relics.

Against this background, the monasteries of Northumbria developed some remarkably influential cultural products. Cædmon, a monk at Whitby Abbey, authored one of the earliest surviving examples of Old English poetry some time before 680. The Lindisfarne Gospels, an early example of Hiberno-Saxon visual art, is attributed to Eadfrith, the bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. Stenton (1971, p. 191) describes the book as follows.

In mere script it is no more than an admirable example of a noble style, and the figure drawing of its illustrations, though probably based on classical models, has more than a touch of naïveté. Its unique importance is due to the beauty and astonishing intricacy of its decoration. The nature of its ornament connects it very closely with a group of Irish manuscripts of which the Book of Kells is the most famous.

Bede's writing, at the Northumbrian monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, gained him a reputation as the most learned scholar of his age. His work is notable for both its breadth (encompassing history, theology, science and literature) and quality, exemplified by the rigorous use of citation. Bede's most famous work is Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is regarded as a highly influential early model of historical scholarship.

The Earldom of Northumbria

The kingdom of Northumbria ceased to exist in 927, when it was incorporated into England as an earldom by Athelstan, the first king of a united England. In 937, Athelstan's victory over a combined Norse-Celtic force in the battle of Brunanburh secured England's control of its northern territory.

The Scottish king Indulf captured Edinburgh in 954, which thenceforth remained in possession of the Scots. His successors made repeated attempts to extend their territory southwards. Malcolm II was finally successful, when, in 1018, he annihilated the Northumbrian army at Carham on the Tweed, and Eadulf the earl of Northumbria ceded all his territory to the north of that river as the price of peace. Henceforth Lothian, consisting of the former region of Northumbria between the Forth and the Tweed, remained in possession of the Scottish kings.

The term Northumberland was first recorded in its contracted modern sense in 1065 in an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relating to a rebellion against Tostig Godwinson.

The Norman Invasion and its Aftermath

The vigorous resistance of Northumbria to William the Conqueror was punished by ruthless harrying, mostly south of the River Tees. As recounted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

A.D. 1068. This year King William gave Earl Robert the earldom over Northumberland; but the landsmen attacked him in the town of Durham, and slew him, and nine hundred men with him. Soon afterwards Edgar Etheling came with all the Northumbrians to York; and the townsmen made a treaty with him: but King William came from the South unawares on them with a large army, and put them to flight, and slew on the spot those who could not escape; which were many hundred men; and plundered the town. St. Peter's minster he made a profanation, and all other places also he despoiled and trampled upon; and the etheling went back again to Scotland.

The Normans rebuilt the Anglian monasteries of Lindisfarne, Hexham and Tynemouth; and founded Norman abbeys at Newminster (1139), Alnwick (1147), Brinkburn (1180), Hulne, and Blanchland. Castles were built at Newcastle (1080), Alnwick (1096), Bamburgh (1131), Harbottle (1157), Prudhoe (1172), Warkworth (1205), Chillingham, Ford (1287), Dunstanburgh (1313), Morpeth, Langley (1350), Wark and Norham (1121), the latter an enclave of the palatine bishops of Durham.

Northumberland county is not mentioned in the Domesday Survey, but the account of the issues of the county, as rendered by Odard the sheriff, is entered in the Great Roll of the Exchequer for 1131.

In 1237, Scotland renounced claims to Northumberland county in the Treaty of York.

During the reign of Edward I (1272 - 1307), the county of Northumberland was comprised of the district between the Tees and the Tweed, and had within it several scattered liberties subject to other powers: Durham, Sadberge, Bedlington, and Norham belonging to the bishop of Durham; Hexham belonging to the archbishop of York; Tynedale belonging to the king of Scotland; Emildon belonging to the earl of Lancaster; and Redesdale to Gilbert de Umfraville, earl of Angus. These franchises were exempt from the ordinary jurisdiction of the shire. Over time, they were incorporated within the county: Tynedale in 1495; Hexhamshire in 1572; and Norhamshire, Islandshire and Bedlingtonshire in 1844.

The county court for Northumberland was held at different times at Newcastle, AInwick and Morpeth, until by statute of 1549 it was ordered that the court should thenceforth be held in the town and castle of Alnwick. Under the same statute the sheriffs of Northumberland, who had been in the habit of appropriating the issues of the county to their private use, were required thereafter to deliver in their accounts to the Exchequer in the same manner as the sheriffs of other counties.

Border Wars, Reivers and Rebels

From the Norman Conquest until the union of England and Scotland under James I and VI, Northumberland was the scene of perpetual inroads and devastations by the Scots. Norham, Alnwick and Wark were captured by David I of Scotland in the wars of Stephen's reign. In 1295, Robert de Ros and the earls of Athol and Menteith ravaged Redesdale, Coquetdale and Tynedale. In 1314 the county was ravaged by king Robert Bruce. And so dire was the Scottish threat in 1382, that by special enactment the earl of Northumberland was ordered to remain on his estates to protect the border. In 1388, Henry Percy was taken prisoner and 1500 of his men slain at the battle of Otterburn, immortalized in the ballad of Chevy Chase.

Alnwick, Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh were garrisoned for the Lancastrian cause in 1462, but after the Yorkist victories of Hexham and Hedgley Moor in 1464, Alnwick and Dunstanburgh surrendered, and Bamburgh was taken by storm.

In 1513, King James IV of Scotland was slain in the battle of Flodden Field on Branxton Moor.

Union and Civil War

After uniting the English and Scottish thrones, James VI and I sharply curbed the lawlessness of the border reivers and brought relative peace to the region.

During the Civil War of the 17th century, Newcastle was garrisoned for the king by the earl of Newcastle, but in 1644 it was captured by the Scots under the earl of Leven, and in 1646 Charles I was led there a captive under the charge of David Leslie.

Many of the chief Northumberland families were ruined in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.

Industrial Development

The mineral resources of the area appear to have been exploited to some extent from remote times. It is certain that coal was used by the Romans in Northumberland, and some coal ornaments found at Angerton have been attributed to the 7th century. In a 13th-century grant to Newminster Abbey a road for the conveyance of sea coal from the shore about Blyth is mentioned, and the Blyth coal field was worked throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. The coal trade on the Tyne did not exist to any extent before the 13th century, but from that period it developed rapidly, and Newcastle acquired the monopoly of the river shipping and coal trade. Lead was exported from Newcastle in the 12th century, probably from Hexhamshire, the lead mines of which were very prosperous throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. In a charter from Richard I to Hugh de Puiset creating him earl of Northumberland, mines of silver and iron are mentioned. A salt pan is mentioned at Warkworth in the 12th century; in the 13th century the salt industry flourished at the mouth of the river Blyth, and in the 15th century formed the principal occupation of the inhabitants of North and South Shields. In the reign of Elizabeth I, glass factories were set up at Newcastle by foreign refugees, and the industry spread rapidly along the Tyne. Tanning, both of leather and of nets, was largely practised in the 13th century, and the salmon fisheries in the Tyne were famous in the reign of Henry I.

20th Century Politics and Culture


Long, B. (1967). Castles of Northumberland. Newcastle, UK: Harold Hill.

Stenton, F. M. (1971). Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Trevelyan, G. M. (1959). A shortened history of England. New York, USA: Pelican.

Waters, I. (1999). Northumberland: England's Border Country. Contemporary Review, 275(1605), 203-210.

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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