At its greatest extent during the seventh century, the kingdom of Northumbria encompassed an area that stretched from the Scottish Lowlands to the Peak District and from east coast to west within those north-south parameters.

Indeed, in the period AD616-670, the early Christian rulers of Northumbria were, according to Bede, ‘overkings’ of Britain, or Bretwaldas, exercising hegemony over English to the south as well as the neighbouring British to the west and north. However, following Aethelred of Mercia’s victory over Ecgfrith in 679, Northumbrian authority south of the Humber soon began to wane, whilst in the north, Ecefrith’s expedition against the Picts was an even greater disaster, resulting in his own death in battle. And, as Higham explains:

In the aftermath, Britons, Scots and Picts broke away and were never again to be consistently brought to heel. Northumbrian claims to the ‘overkingship’ of even northern Britain died with Ecgfrith on a fateful field near Strathmore on 20 May 685. (Higham, 1993, p.139)

Nevertheless, the following century did see the full flowering of a Christian culture of learning and art – ‘the golden age of monasticism’ (Higham, 1993, p.155) – that was all the more remarkable given the internecine strife that characterized Northumbrian politics up to the kingdom’s dismemberment during the Viking age.

Picture: Æthelred of Mercia, who defeated Ecgfrith at the Battle of Trent in 679

In this study we will be looking northwards and westwards from the Northumbrian ‘heartlands’ of Deira and Bernicia (both Celtic words in origin), towards the British kingdoms of Gododdin, Strathclyde, Rheged and, beyond, to Dalriada, established by the Irish Scotti. But, prior to focusing on the interaction between the northernmost Anglian kingdom and its immediate Celtic neighbours, it is worth noting that within Northumbria itself there remained a substantial British presence, probably constituting the bulk of the population. And, though the principal spoken language in Northumbria ceased to be that of the Britons, the Celtic influence was still evident, fusing with Germanic and residual Roman elements. We shall begin, therefore, with a brief look at the issue of British survival within Northumbria and then examine some of the evidence – artistic and literary – relating to Anglo-Celtic interaction in the north during the early middle ages, from the fifth to the eighth centuries.

Historians of a previous generation might point to the disappearance of the Celtic languages within England in order to deny a ‘native’ survival within areas settled by the Germanic incomers, claiming that ‘the Britons were, as a race, exterminated’ (Freeman, E.A., 1888, quoted by Chadwick in O’Donnell Lectures, 1963, p.114). Yet survive they did, especially in Northumbria and surrounding areas, probably adopting the language, if not the culture, of an Anglian ruling elite (see Higham, 1993, pp.99-100).

Indeed, in Bernicia and Deira, place name evidence and the continuation of British burial practices suggests that much of the indigenous population remained, even though the Celtic tongue ‘may have died out very largely all through Northumbria fairly soon after the English conquest’ (Jackson, in O’Donnell Lectures, 1963, P.84; see also, Sawyer, 1998, pp.90-1; Faull, in Laing, BAR 37, 1977). Furthermore, excavations carried out at Yeavering, a Bernician royal site, indicate that this was a British foundation (dating back to the pre-Roman Iron Age), subsequently taken over by the earliest Anglo-Saxon kings – Ida is said to have established the Bernician dynasty at Bamburgh, c.547 (see Dumville in Bassett, 1989, p.218) – and, as James asserts:

The Anglian kings in Bernicia and Deira…must have ruled kingdoms whose populations were largely British, and some British or Roman traditions may have survived. (James, in Holmes, 1988, pp.68-9)

Whether or not this survival within the areas controlled by the English facilitated interaction with Britons and other Celtic peoples of the neighbouring kingdoms to the north and west is a matter for conjecture, although Yorke claims that in the seventh century the ‘choice of missionaries from Iona must have made the integration of the Celtic Christian communities into the Northumbrian kingdom easier’ (Yorke, 1990, p.86). Nevertheless, under the Anglian kingship, Bernicia probably exemplified, to a varying degree, the wider cultural milieu that must have characterized the whole ‘northern zone’ during the early medieval period: the Celtic and Romano-British legacy, modified by Irish and Christian Latin learning, influencing Anglo-Saxon artistic expression and vice versa, thereby creating an Anglo-Celtic or, to use Hope-Taylor’s defining phrase, a Hiberno-Northumbrian style ( see Hope-Taylor, 1977, pp.317-24, especially pp.323-4).

Examples of this merging of traditions and styles include the Lindisfarne Gospels, where the ‘carpet page’ juxtaposes Celtic triskeles with Germanic knotwork; and the Book of Kells, where ‘Irish and “Celtic” decoration elements are again matched by “Germanic” decoration and typically Northumbrian script’ (Campbell, 1982, 1991 edn., plates 76 and 98; see also Megaw, R. and 1990, pp.242-58, especially pp.2546).

Both these works are the product of a Christian monastic culture which, by the eighth Century, spanned the Irish and much of the northern British world, with St. Aidan of Iona having established the monastery on Lindisfarne early in the 630s. The Irish missionaries were instrumental in the conversion of Northumbria; whilst the kingdom itself provided a point of contact and, indeed, conflict between ‘Celtic’ and Roman Christianity, most notably at Whitby in 664.

A further example of artistic craftsmanship displaying a range of influences is the Franks Casket, although it is the subject matter rather than the style, impressive as it is, that prompts our attention. Usually assigned to early eighth century Northumbria, the carved whalebone panels include a diverse collection of cultural references: the front panel is decorated with scenes from Teutonic mythology (Weland the Smith) and the New Testament (the adoration of the Magi), and the whole is surrounded with Germanic runic inscriptions (see Campbell, 1982. 1991 edn., plate 93; Higham, 1993, pp.158-60; Hunter Blair, 1956, plate XIV). Such a piece could perhaps be read in terms of Germanic tradition embracing or, at least, acknowledging the emergent Christian religion; and the integration of pagan Germanic and Romano-British iconography within a single artefact raises the possibility of religious and cultural co. existence within the Angio-Celtic milieu at this time.


Yet, cultural fusion or co-existence, where it existed, within Northumbria, and interaction or borrowing between the peoples of the north and overseas, does not presuppose uniformity of outlook nor peaceable relations between the neighbouring kingdoms ruled by English and British respectively. Rather, as David Dumville states, ‘Anglo-British relations in the fifth. sixth and seventh centuries were of course largely characterized by hostility’ (Dumville in Bassett, 1989, p.219). The realpolitik of the secular world did not always correspond with the ideals of the spiritual: wealth and power was the raison d’etre for many a self-respecting medieval king – whether pagan or Christian, Briton or Anglian. Moreover, the king’s ability to provide largesse was essential to securing and maintaining the loyalty of his followers which in turn ensured his continued kingship; and such necessary material wealth could be derived from booty, tribute and territorial aggrandisement. Certainly, this seems to be the modus operandi of the sixth century English kingdoms with entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles attesting to their aggressiveness (see Yorke, 1990, p.16).

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is, of course, ‘the greatest single source of information about the narrative of Anglo-Saxon times’ (Hunter Blair, 1956, p.352), and though it was begun in Wessex during the late ninth century, it does seem that in some instances the chroniclers’ earlier sources may have been of British origin (for example, the northern recension, MSS D and E. See Yorke, 1990, p.73). However, our principal source for seventh century Anglo-Saxon England and especially Northumbria is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (hereafter abbreviated to EH in references) which traces the development of the Church in England from 597 (Book I, Chapter 25) to 731 (Book V, Chapter 24) when the Northumbrian cleric completed his work.

For his earlier chapters, covering the period from Britain’s ‘earliest inhabitants’ to the English settlement (c.440-590), Bede drew upon ‘various sources’ (see Bede’s preface), including the sixth century British ‘historian’ Gildas (his birth has been assigned to AD497. See Winterbottom, 1978, p.1). Bede notes the ‘sorrow expressed by Gildas, the Britons’ ‘own historian’, regarding the ‘unspeakable crimes’ of his British compatriots during the post Roman period (EH, 1.22, Sherley-Price, p.72). However, the Anglo-Saxon writer identifies a further British sin: ‘they never preached the Faith to the Saxons or Angles who dwelt with them in Britain’ (EH, 1.22); and this denunciation of the Britons by Bede is a recurrent theme throughout his history.

So, what does Bede tell us of relations between his fellow Northumbrians and the northern Britons during the seventh and early eighth centuries?

Three of the seventh century Northumbrian kings – Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu – are by Bede as bretwaldas who, as Barbara Yorke explains:

claimed imperium over the whole of Britain…the basis of their power being the use of military force to exact the payment of tribute. (Yorke, 1990, p.158; see also Bede, EH, 01.5, Sherley-Price, p.111)

However, it is Edwin’s predecessor, Aethelfrith of Bernicia, who created the kingdom of Northumbria through the conquest of Deira in c.603/5. Bede’s depiction of Aethelfrith is that of the archetypal pagan warrior overlord:

very powerful ambitious king…He ravaged the Britons more cruelly than all other English leaders…He overran a greater area than any other king or ealdorman, exterminating or enslaving the inhabitants, making their lands either tributary to the English or ready for English settlement. (EH, 1.34, Sherley-Price, p.97)

Of course, the question we are prompted to ask by this passage is: to which area is Bede referring? Later in the same chapter, Bede informs us of Aethelfrith’s defeat of Aidan, ‘king of those Irish who lived in Britain’, which would seem to indicate the kingdom of Dalriada (see Higham, 1993, p.111). If this is the case, the area referred to by Bede is probably that to the south and west of Dalriada, including the British kingdoms of Strathclyde, Rheged and Gododdin. Hence, Northumbrian overkingship extended up to the Scottish Lowlands and this remained the situation for much of the seventh century.

Unfortunately for the Northumbrian kings of the eighth century, Ecgfrith’s defeat at Nechtansmere in 685 (see above, p.1) meant not only the loss of northern terriitory, but considerably reduced the economic status of his successors; with the army devastated the Northumbrians no longer possessed the means to intimidate their Celtic neighbours and thus enforce tributary relations (see Yorke, 1990, pp.90-1). Indeed, writing some forty-six years after the event, Bede says that the Irish [Scots of Dalriada] and ‘a proportion of the Britons themselves’, probably meaning those of Strathclyde, were still in possession of their freedom (EH, IV.26, Sherley-Price, p.255); this indicates not only the scale of the defeat suffered in 685 but also the challenge posed by Anglo-Saxon Mercia on the southern border of Northumbria.

One picture we have of the early Anglo-Saxon period is of a society where raiding was endemic (at least amongst the warrior ‘elite’), the spoils of which were redistributed by the king amongst his warband in the form of booty and land – loyalty rewarded and bonds maintained (see Yorke, 1990, p.17). Out of this developed the expansionist kingdom of Northumbria, since Aethelfrith extended his territory by taking over neighbouring kingdoms Celtic and, as with Deira, Anglian (see Higham, 1993, p.111). The infusion of Christian values into Anglo-Saxon society during the seventh century – Edwin was converted by Paulinus in 626 and the Iona mission arrived c.634 – need not be seen as curtailing the belligerence of the king and his warband; relations between kingdoms, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, continued to be antagonistic and, indeed, Edwin was killed in battle by an alliance of the pagan Penda, King Aetheling of Anglo-Saxon Mercia, and Cadwallon of Gwynedd (‘king of the Britons’), himself a Christian, although according to Bede he ‘was utterly barbarous…[and] intent upon exterminating the entire English race in Britain’ (EH, 11.20. Sherley-Price, p.140) – such were the complex and perhaps strained ‘ethnic’ and religious relations of the period.

That the Christian Britons probably valued heroic-warrior ideals comparable to those of the neighbouring English is suggested by the poetry of the Gododdin (see Higham, 1993, p.91). The poem is usually attributed to Aneirin (fl. 600), a Briton who was possibly from the kingdom of Gododdin since he refers to the sorrow felt at the loss of his ‘true kinsmen’ (Gododdin, line 550, Jarman, 1988, p.38); although as Jarman points out, he may have moved from his place of origin to become a court poet in the north (see Jarman, 1988, p.xxi). The events of the poem concern an ill-fated expedition from Gododdin against the Anglian Deirans at Catraeth (?Catterick), conjecturally dated to c.600 (Jarman, 1988, p.xxi). This would at mean that the action of the poem is contemporary with Aethelfrith’s kingship – Bernicia (c.592616) and Deira (c.603-616) – and the ravaging of the Britons, including the defeat of Aidan of the Irish Dalriada at Degastan that Bede says occurred AD603 (see above, p.4). Indeed, the aim of the Gododdin warband – assembled by King Mynyddog of Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) and including ‘men of Gwynedd’ (line 53) – was to strike at the heart of Aethelfnth’s kingdom, although the Northumbrian king is not referred to by name and the event may have occurred prior to his reign (see Hunter Blair, 1956, p.44; but also see Stenton, 1971, p.77). Thus, whether the British attack on Deira was in retaliation to Northumbrian ravaging or a pre-emptive action to stave off the Anglian threat, or both, obviously depends upon a chronology of which we are uncertain. Interestingly, the English victory at Catraeth is not recorded in surviving Anglo-Saxon sources (Hunter Blair, 1963, p.90) and Stenton suggests that ‘the poet may have exaggerated the importance of this episode’ (Stenton, 1971, p.77), assuming it did happen at all.

Nevertheless, what the poem does reveal is a tantalising glimpse into British warrior society from the perspective of a native Briton – Bede of course provides us with an Anglo-Saxon viewpoint – although, like the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, the heroic ideal expressed in Y Gododdin does not simply centre upon honour and glory in battle but also ‘generosity and liberality in time of peace’ (see Jarman, 1988, pp.xl-xlvii). And, like the later Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon, which took place in 991, there is an emphasis on loyalty that is certainly patriotic in its message: ‘Defender of the Britons’ (Gododdin, line 924, Jaman, p.62).

The sole surviving medieval manuscript of the poem, dated c. 1250 (see Jarman, 1988, p-xiv), has a Welsh provenance. It has been suggested that its transmission and survival in Wales could be associated with an attempt by Cadwallon of Gwynedd to rally the northern British against Edwin in the 630s: the elegiac lament to the valiant Britons who fell at Catraeth might inspire a new generation of Gododdin warriors (see Higham, 1993, p.92).

In an entry reminiscent of Gildas’ criticism of the ‘tyrants’ of his time, Bede says that the ‘godless Cadwalla’ [Cadwallon] managed to nle in Northumbria for a whole year – a ‘justly punishment’ for the apostasy of Edwin’s successor – before being killed at Denisesburn in 634 (EH, 1.1, Sherley-Price, p.143-4). Like Gildas, who was writing sometime in the mid-fifth century, Bede’s perspective is that of a Christian scholar and events are often seen in terms of either God’s favour or wrath being visited upon his people – Britons or English respectively although he is as critical of the Christian Britons as Gildas is hostile towards the pagan Saxons. Yet, where Gildas’ De Exidio Britanniae is primarily concerned with the sins of several British rulers and how their moral shortcomings and religious lapses would ultimately bring ruin upon x Britain; Bede’s history ends on a positive note from the English point of view, although he 1s no less scathing of the British as a people than Gildas was of their leaders two centuries before:

The Britons for the most part have a national hatred for the English and uphold their own traditional customs against the true Easter of the Catholic church; however, they are opposed to the power of God and men alike and are powerless to obtain what they want. For although in part they are independent, they have been brought in part under subjection to the English. (EH, V.23, Sherley-Price, p.324)

What Bede reveals is a distaste for the Britons, grounded in a firm belief that they made little attempt to convert his forebears; that this 1s also a doctrinal issue is evident from his reference to the Roman Church’s dispute with the ‘Celtic’ church over the date of Easter (see also EH, 1.2). By contrast, he admires the Irish because of their harbouring of Oswald in Dalriada and. subsequently, the central role of the Iona mission in the conversion of the Northumbrians from their headquarters on Lindisfarne (see Hunter Blair, 1984, VIII, p.138; EH, III.3. Sherley-Price, pp.146-7).

Whilst the anti-British views expressed by Bede may or may not be typical of those held by his compatriots, it does appear that Anglo-British relations – from at least the time of Ida, in the mid-fifth century, to Bede’s in the eighth – were marked by some degree of conflict, if not outright hostility, whether expressed on the battlefield or in the literature that survives from the period. And, cultural and artistic interaction notwithstanding, this antagonism existed I not only amongst the warrior-aristocrats but was also manifest in the religious sphere as the Ecclesiastical History bears witness.

Such was the nature of the interaction between some of the peoples of the north, some of the time; since that which is recorded is often that which is deemed of note, written by ‘those who pray’ of ‘those who fight’, and, as such, the everyday existence of ‘those who work’ is usually absent from the historical record.

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Primary Sources

Jarman, A.O. H. (1988) Aneirin: Y Gododdin, Britain’s Oldest Heroic Poem Llandysul, Dyfed: Welsh Classics Vol. 3

Sherley-Price, L. (1990) (ed. & trans. R.E. Latham) Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Winterbottom, M. (ed. & trans.) (1900) Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Works,

Secondary Sources

Bassett, Steven (ed.) (1989) The Origins of Anglo Saxon Kingdoms, Leicester University Press

Campbell, James (ed.) (1982) Chadwick, N.K. (1963) The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Chadwick, Nora K. (ed.) (1963) Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border, Cambridge University Press

Collins, Roger (1999, 2nd. edn.) Early Medieval Europe 300-1000 Basingstoke, Macmillan

Dumville, D. (1989) ‘The Origins of Northumbria; some aspects of the British background’ in Bassett (ed.) (1898) see above

Faull, M. (1977) ‘British Survival in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria’ in Laing (ed.) (1977) see below

Hunter Blair, Peter (1956) An introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hunter Blair, Peter (1963) Roman Britain and Early England 55 BC-AD871 New York: Norton (1966 edn)

Hunter Blair, (1984) ( M. Lapidge & P. Hunter Blair, eds.) Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, London: Variorum Prints

Higham, N.J (1993) The Kingdom of Northumbria, Stroud: Alan Sutton

Holmes, George (ed.) (1988) The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe, Oxford: OUP

Hope-Taylor, Brian (1977) Yeavering: An Anglo-Celtic centre of early Northumbria (Department of the Environment Archaeological Report No. 7), London HMSO

Jackson, K (1963) Angles and Britons in Northumbria and Cumbria’ in O’Donnell Lectures (1963) see above

Laing, Lloyd (ed. (1977) Studies in Celtic Survival (British Archaeological Report 37), Oxford: BAR

Megaw, Ruth & Vincent (1990) Celtic Art, from its beginnings to the Book of Kells, London: Thames and Hudson

Sawyer, P.H (1998, 2nd. edn.) From Roman Britain to Norman England London: Routledge

Stenton, F. M (1971, 3rd. Edn) Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Yorke, Barbara (1900) Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, London: Seaby

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  1. CryptosDecrypted

    Now your talking. Enough of this newfangled crypto nonsense! Excellent and very thorough article on the kingdom of Northumbria. As a history nerd, this made my little histonerd day. Note: how it all comes back to the Irish..just saying 😉

      1. sandwichbill Post author

        Thanks, I don’t know why that paragraph came out differently, but I’m pinning my hopes with this article on winning the 10k Trybe tokens that are up for grabs and as a wise old sage once said, “You’ve got to be in it to win it.”

  2. miti

    Capolavoro! Per quanto mi riguarda hai già vinto il premio di 10K token con questo articolo, completo e corredato di immagini che ne fanno un autentico sguardo sugli equilibri che regnavano nella Northumbria Anglosassone.

  3. Tribal

    Great article – just read it a second time, very much looking forward to following your articles in future. I’ve compiled a small folk-history of the area I’m from, on the Welsh borders, where the clearances happened much later than elsewhere in the British Isles. My grandparents generation, still spoke a dialect of Anglo-Saxon Old English, mixed with various influences from Cymraeg (Welsh) – I thought you might find it interesting (link below)… also, have you heard of the modern campaigns to resurrect Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria? The Mercians have the most active campaign.

    1. sandwichbill Post author

      Great! Just my sort of thing. Thanks. I’ve not heard of any campaign to resurrect the kingdoms, but I doubt it will ever happen. That’s taking devolved power just a little bit too far, in my opinion.