Northumbria, kingdom of

views updated May 18 2018

Northumbria, kingdom of. From the middle of the 6th cent. to the 870s when the Danes took over control at York, the Anglo-Saxons who dwelt north of the river Humber achieved their own often turbulent institutional life, ruled by kings. Its borders fluctuated widely, as did the degree of dependence (or in the 7th cent. overlordship) in relation to rulers further south in Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex. At its greatest extent the kingdom embraced the lands which stretched from the Humber and the Mersey in the south to the Clyde and the Forth in the north, straddling the old Roman frontier on Hadrian's Wall, and especially strong in what was to become south-east Scotland as far as Edinburgh. Its political roots grew from two principal sources, the northern kingdom of Bernicia based on the gaunt fortress rock of Bamburgh, and the kingdom of Deira in the fertile vale of York. Rivalry between the two dynasties, both of which traced their origins to 6th-cent. rulers, bedevilled the politics of Northumbria. Bernicia was concerned with threats from the north from Picts and Scots, and Deira more entangled with the problems of the Mercian frontier. Even so in the 7th cent. under a succession of powerful rulers, Æthelfryth of Bernicia (d. 616), Edwin of Deira (616–32), the brothers, again with Bernician origins, St Oswald (633–41) and Oswiu (641–70), Northumbria was a dominant force in English political life. Edwin was said by Bede to have ruled over all the inhabitants of Britain, English and Britons alike, except for Kent; and Oswiu went even further in overwhelming and making tributary the Picts and the Scots of northern Britain. After the defeat and death of Oswiu's son Ecgfrith at the hands of the Picts in 685 Northumbria lost aspirations to overlordship and the 8th and 9th cents. provide a sorry tale of unrest and violence at the royal level. Many kings were exiled or murdered after a short reign. Yet some feeling for the integrity of the kingdom and the mystique of the blood royal persisted, and in the cultural and religious spheres the kingdom continued to flourish and produce great work well into the 8th cent. The age of Bede (672–735) saw the flowering of the Northumbrian renaissance when some of the finest literary and artistic work of the early Middle Ages was produced in the northern kingdom in the shape of the writings of the Venerable Bede and the great Gospel Books, of which the Lindisfarne Gospels is a supreme example. The monastery of Jarrow/Wearmouth and the prestigious school at York were focal points, together with Lindisfarne, for such enterprises, and in spite of political violence the school of York with its great library continued to flourish deep into the 8th cent. and was responsible for training one of the most influential and prolific scholars of the Carolingian age in the person of Alcuin (735–804). Towards the end of the century a fresh and disastrous new element was introduced with the first Viking attacks. In June 793 they brutally sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne, an event which sent shock waves throughout western Christendom. Alcuin, writing from the Frankish court, laid some blame squarely on the shoulders of the Northumbrian rulers whose kingdom had almost perished because of internal dissensions. Alcuin warned that the evil was not yet at an end; and his warning proved true. Scandinavian control of communications over the North Sea put Northumbria in the front line. Political mastery within Anglo-Saxon England had already passed south, first to Mercia and then in the 9th cent. to Wessex. When the Danes in the reign of Alfred (871–99) made their serious attempt to conquer England, the Northumbrian kingdom collapsed, leaving Danish kings after 878 in firm control of York and only vestiges of native English authority under ealdormen in the more northerly parts of the kingdom. The Danes remained in political control of York until 954. Thereafter no attempt was made to revive the kingship of Northumbria which was integrated, though with occasional manifestations of independence, in the kingdom of England.

Henry Loyn

Northumbria, Kingdom of

views updated May 29 2018

Northumbria, Kingdom of Largest kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England. Formed in the early 7th century, it included ne England and se Scotland up to the Firth of Forth. In the age of the historian Bede and the Lindisfarne Gospels, Northumbria experienced a blossoming of scholarship and monastic culture. Its power declined in the 8th century.