Section from Shepherd's map of the British Isles about 802 AD showing the kingdom of Northumbria
Section from Shepherd's map of the British Isles about 802 AD showing the kingdom of Northumbria

Northumbria is primarily the name of a petty kingdom of Angles which was formed in Great Britain at the beginning of the 7th century, and of the much smaller earldom which succeeded the kingdom. The name reflects that of the southern limit to the kingdom's territory, which was the River Humber, and in the 12th century writings of Henry of Huntingdon the kingdom was defined as one of the Heptarchy of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

At its greatest the kingdom extended from the Humber to the Forth. The later earldom was bounded by the River Tees in the south and the River Tweed in the north (broadly similar to the modern North East England) and was recognised as part of England by the Anglo-Scottish Treaty of York in 1237. Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is north of the Tweed, was defined as subject to the laws of England by the Wales and Berwick Act of 1746. The land once covered at Northumbria's peak is administered now in divided parts as North East England (Anglian Bernicia), Yorkshire and the Humber (Danish Deira), North West England (Celtic Cumbria), the Scottish Borders, West Lothian, Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian.

In a modern sense, Northumbria is the popular name for the North East of England. The name appears also in the titles of the Northumbria Police (which covers Northumberland and Tyne and Wear), Northumbria University (which is based in Newcastle) and the name has been adopted by the English Tourist Board as a name for North East England.


Northumbria was originally composed of the union of two independent kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira. Bernicia covered lands north of the Tees, whilst Deira corresponded roughly to modern-day Yorkshire. Bernicia and Deira were first united by Aethelfrith, a king of Bernicia who conquered Deira around the year 604. He was defeated and killed around the year 616 in battle at the River Idle by Raedwald of East Anglia, who installed Edwin, the son of Aella, a former king of Deira, as king.

Edwin, who accepted Christianity in 627, soon grew to become the most powerful king in England: he was recognized as Bretwalda and conquered the Isle of Man and Gwynedd in northern Wales. He was, however, himself defeated by an alliance of the exiled king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon ap Cadfan and Penda, king of Mercia, at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633.

King Oswald

After Edwin's death, Northumbria was split between Bernicia, where Eanfrith, a son of Aethelfrith, took power, and Deira, where a cousin of Edwin, Osric, became king. Cumbria tended to remain a country frontier with the Britons. Both of these rulers were killed during the year that followed, as Cadwallon continued his devastating invasion of Northumbria. After the murder of Eanfrith, his brother, Oswald, backed warriors sent by Domnall Brecc of Dál Riata, defeated and killed Cadwallon at the Battle of Heavenfield in 634.

Oswald subsequently expanded his kingdom considerably. He incorporated Gododdin lands northwards up to the Firth of Forth and also gradually extended his reach westward, encroaching on the remaining Cumbric speaking kingdoms of Rheged and Strathclyde. Thus, Northumbria became not only part of modern England's far north, but also covered much of what is now the south-east of Scotland.

King Oswald re-introduced Christianity to the Kingdom, but this time, by appointing St Aidan, an Irish monk from the Scottish island of Iona to convert his people. This led to the introduction of Celtic Christianity, as opposed to Roman Catholicism. A monastery was established on Lindisfarne, probably as an echo of the island monastery of Iona.

War with Mercia continued, however. In 642, Oswald was killed by the Mercians under Penda at the Battle of Maserfield. In 655, Penda launched a massive invasion of Northumbria, aided by the sub-king of Deira, Aethelwald, but suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of an inferior force under Oswiu, Oswald's successor, at the Battle of Winwaed. This battle marked a major turning point in Northumbrian fortunes: Penda died in the battle, and Oswiu gained supremacy over Mercia, making himself the most powerful king in England.

Religious Union and the Loss of Mercia

In the year 664 a great synod was held at Whitby to discuss the controversy regarding the timing of the Easter festival. Much dispute had arisen between the practices of the Celtic church in Northumbria and the beliefs of the Roman church. Eventually, Northumbria was persuaded to move to the Roman faith, the Celtic Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne returned to Iona.

Northumbria lost control of Mercia in the late 650s, after a successful revolt under Penda's son Wulfhere, but it retained its dominant position until it suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Picts at the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685; Northumbria's king, Ecgfrith (son of Oswiu), was killed, and its power in the north was gravely weakened. The peaceful reign of Aldfrith, Ecgfrith's half-brother and successor, did something to limit the damage done, but it is from this point that Northumbria's power began to decline, and chronic instability followed Aldfrith's death in 704.

The kingdom's rise and fall

The kingdom was famed as a centre of religious learning and arts. Initially the Northumbria was Christianised by monks from the Celtic Church, and this led to a flowering of monastic life, with a unique style of religious art that combined Anglo-Saxon and Celtic. After the Synod of Whitby in 664 the Celtic and Catholic Churches united. However the unique style was preserved, with its most famous example being the Lindisfarne Gospels. Northumbria became the northern kingdom of the Danelaw, run by Scandinavians who were more or less dependent upon Anglian underlings. Vikings made Northumbria rather wealthy after pillaging it first, with a lucrative trade at Jórvík that extended to the farthest reaches of Europe.

Scots invasions further reduced Northumbria to an earldom stretching from the Humber to the Tweed, and Northumbria was for a long time in territory where sovereignty was disputed between the emerging kingdoms of England and Scotland. The Earls of Northumbria maintained a degree of independence from both, but there were lengthy periods of fighting over control of the earldom.

Norman invasion and partition of the earldom

William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066. He soon realised he needed to control Northumbria, which had remained virtually independent of the Kings of England, to protect his kingdom from Scottish invasion. To acknowledge the remote independence of Northumbria and ensure England was properly defended from the Scots William gained the allegiance of both the Bishop of Durham and the Earl and confirmed their powers and privileges. However, anti-Norman rebellions followed. William therefore attempted to install Robert Comine, a Norman noble, as the Earl of Northumbria, but before Comine could take up office, he and his 700 men were massacred in the City of Durham. In revenge, the Conqueror led his army in a bloody raid into Northumbria, an event that became known as the Harrying of the North. Ethelwin, the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Durham, tried to flee Northumbria at the time of the raid, with Northumbrian treasures. The bishop was caught, imprisoned, and later died in confinement; his see was left vacant.

Rebellions continued, and William's son William Rufus decided to partition Northumbria. William of St. Carilef was made Bishop of Durham, and was also given the powers of Earl for the region south of the rivers Tyne and Derwent, which became the County Palatinate of Durham. The remainder, to the north of the rivers, became Northumberland, where the political powers of the Bishops of Durham were limited to only certain districts, and the earls continued to rule as clients of the English throne.

The city of Newcastle was founded by the Normans in 1080 to control the region by holding the strategically important crossing point of the river Tyne.

Middle ages

The region continued to have history of revolt and rebellion against the government, as seen in the Rising of the North in Tudor times. A major reason was the strength of Catholicism in the area after the Reformation. In later times this led to strong Jacobite feelings after the Restoration. The region became a sort of wild county, where outlaws and border reivers hid from the law, as it was largely rural and unpopulated. However, after the union of the crowns of Scotland and England under King James VI and I peace was largely restored.


The flag of the kingdom was a banner of gold and red (or purple) vertical stripes.


Apart from standard English, Northumbria has a series of closely related but distinctive dialects, descended from the early Germanic languages of the Angles and Vikings, and of the Celtic Romano-British tribes. The Scots language began to diverge from early Northumbrian Middle English, which was called Ynglis as late as the early 16th century. (Until the end of the 15th century the name Scots (or Scottis) referred to Scottish Gaelic). There are many similarities between modern Scots dialects and those of Northumbria.

Major Northumbrian dialects are Geordie, Mackem, Pitmatic and, Tyke. To an outsider's ear the similarities far outweigh the differences between the dialects. As an example of the difference in the softer County Durham/Wearside the English 'book' is pronounced 'bewk', in Geordie it becomes 'buuk' while in the Northumbrian it is 'byuk'.

Due to the roots of Northumbrian dialects, it is often said that visitors from Scandinavian countries often find it much easier to understand the English of Northumbria than the rest of the country.

Further reading

  • Higham, N.J., The Kingdom of Northumbria AD 350-1100 (1993) ISBN 0862997305
  • Rollason, D., Northumbria, 500-1100: Creation and Destruction of a Kingdom (2003) ISBN 0521813352

The Heptarchy
East Anglia | Essex | Kent | Mercia | Northumbria | Sussex | Wessex

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