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Northumbria (sometimes spelled Northhumbria) was a kingdom of Angles, in what is now northeast England and southern Scotland, and the earldom which succeeded it when the united Anglo-Saxon kingdom became England. The name reflects the approximate southern limit to the kingdom's territory: the Humber estuary.

Northumbria was formed in central Great Britain in Anglo-Saxon times. At the beginning of the 7th century the two kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira were unified. (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 at least from just south of the Humber, to the River Mersey and to the Forth (roughly, Sheffield to Runcorn to Edinburgh) - and there is some evidence that it may have been much greater.

Kingdom (654 – 878)Edit

Northumbria was originally composed of the union of two independent kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira. Bernicia covered lands north of the Tees, whilst Deira spanned the lands between the Humber and the Tees, as far as the western edge of the Vale of Jorvik. Bernicia and Deira were first united by Aethelfrith of Northumbria, 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 of Northumbria, the son of Aella of Deira, a former king of Deira, as king.

Edwin, who accepted Christianity in 627, 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 of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia, king of Mercia, at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633.

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 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 by appointing Aidan of Lindisfarne, an Irish monk from the Scottish island of Iona to convert his people. This led to the introduction of the practices of Celtic Christianity. A monastery was established on Lindisfarne.

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.

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 practice, 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 Dunnichen in 685; Northumbria's king, Ecgfrith of Northumbria|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.

In 867 Northumbria became the northern kingdom of the Danelaw, after its conquest by the brothers Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless who installed an Englishman, Ecgberht, as a puppet king. Despite the pillaging of the kingdom, Viking rule brought lucrative trade to Northumbria, especially at their capital Jórvík, (York).

Earldom (930 – 1217)Edit

After the English regained the territory of the former kingdom, Scots invasions reduced Northumbria to an earldom stretching from the Humber to the Tweed. Northumbria was disputed between the emerging kingdoms of England and Scotland. The land north of the Tweed was finally ceded to Scotland in 1018 as a result of the battle of Carham. Yorkshire and Northumberland were first mentioned as separate in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1065.[1])

William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066. He 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 II 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 River Tyne and Derwent (North East England), which became the County 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.

Language Edit

Northumbria has a series of closely related but distinctive dialects, descended from the early Germanic languages of the Angles, but heavily influenced by the tongues of the Danes.

See AlsoEdit

External linksEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Higham, N.J., The Kingdom of Northumbria AD 350-1100 (1993) ISBN 0-86299-730-5
  • Rollason, D., Northumbria, 500-1100: Creation and Destruction of a Kingdom (2003) ISBN 0-521-81335-2

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