Home Northumbria in the 7th Century

Or: ... of heroes, saints and sainted heroes

This kingdom in the North East of England resulted from the unification of the two smaller kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia. In the 6th century, these formerly British realms came under the control of heathen Anglian (i.e. English) settlers. If there had been Christian communities at that time, their organization and rites will have followed the example of the Irish monasteries like Iona or Bangor.

When in 625 King Edwin (617 - 633) married a Christian Princess from Kent, the Roman monk Paulinus, the later bishop of York accompanied her and started evangelisation there. Due to that the Roman church gained influence. Edwin was the first Northumbrian bretwalda, thus 'Overlord over all Britain'. As a sign of his power the old royal residence Yeavering was restored. There he kept court (likewise at Bamburgh), if he was not just travelling from countryseat to countryseat, taking the government with him.

Yeavering was a spacious site, protected by wooden palisades with a large royal hall and a temple, which was later turned into a church, along with store houses and huts. Until 685 it remained the residence of the Northumbrian rulers, even though large parts of it were destroyed, when in 633 Edwin was defeated and killed. This happened in a war against the alliance of the Celtic Cadwallon of Wales with the Anglo-Saxon king Penda of Mercia, in the consequence of which Northumbria was plundered and devastated.

Paulinus fled from Northumbria taking Edwin's widow with him to Kent, which meant the temporary end of the Roman rites and rules. There was one year of relapse into paganism, a year not recorded because it was politically not correct. The kings of Deira (Eanfrith) and Bernicia (Osric) did not survive their first year in office. Murdered and not mentioned. Edwin, according to the sources, was followed by Oswald, who eventually restored English supremacy by his victory over the British Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd. From then on, the British never regained power over the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Oswald called Aidan from the Irish monastery Iona into the country, where he became bishop. He preferred the seclusion of Lindisfarne to the York residence of his Roman predecessor.

After only eight years in power Oswald was defeated and killed on August 5th 642, 38 years of age, in the battle of Maserfelth, a fight against his old enemy, pagan Penda of Mercia. Penda had the royal body dismembered and exhibited. The circumstance that Oswald had lost his life fighting a heathen opponent qualified him for sainthood, which meant that parts of his mutilated body - anything from toe to tooth - sold as relics. Even the ground he had trod and the dust he had bit could be turned into money. No wonder that more than the anatomically correct number of extremities was ascribed to the sainted hero. And Yeavering was burnt down again.

Rather unchristian did his brother Oswiu act, in order to re-establish Northumbria's unity: He had Oswin, King of Deira, murdered and secured the rest by his marriage to young Eanfled, Edwin's daughter. And again intervened the Mercian Penda, who after various raids, laid siege to the royal stronghold of Bamburgh and, for a change, burnt that place down. Oswiu was in an awful plight, when in November 655 he was cornered by Penda and his allies. However, with the help of heaven he got away: Heav(enl)y rain caused a huge tidal wave on the Humber, which produced so much confusion among the allied troops that Oswiu could defeat them. Penda fell, and his death brought about the end of Mercia.

Ecgfrid, Oswiu's youngest son and, later, heir to the throne, had lived as a hostage at Penda's court, where, most likely, he became acquainted with pagan Germanic practices. Just at that time Benedict Biscop, the founder of the twin monasteries Wearmouth and Jarrow, and his then friend Wilfrid, later bishop at Hexham, went on their first journey to Rome, which was to be followed by a number more. They returned not only with numerous precious manuscripts and religious artefacts (among them many worthless relics, plain fraud) but also with some Roman clergymen, among them the arch preceptor of Rome's St. Peter, John, as well as craftsmen from Gaul, such as stone masons, cementarii, and glass-blowers. It may be due to the preceptor's influence that along with the Gregorian chant Roman rites and monastic customs influenced Celtic monasteries.

To settle the dispute 662 the Synod of Whitby was called in. Colman, the bishop and ascetically living abbot of Lindisfarne represented the Irish position, the far-travelled and experienced Wilfrid stood for the Roman view. One item was the proper calculation of Easter, the other concerned tonsure and a third the organization of monastic life. According to the rule of Columban, the Irish practice was rather unworldly and ascetic, looking forward to the Power and Glory of that world, while the Roman tradition reflected the Benedictine rule, displaying splendour; power and glory in this world. Oswiu, who in exile was brought up the Irish way, decided in the end on behalf of the Roman side, may be for the sake of the unity of the English Church, may be - and more likely - strategically, to save his position against his rivalling son.

The monasteries, gaining influence, wealth and power, tried to catch up with the Continent in art, architecture and monastic ways of life. In one of their libraries, the carver of the casket, well versed at runes, may have found the patterns for his pictures.

When Oswiu dies in 670, he is succeeded by the now 25 year old Ecgfrid, his son. During the reign of that king, Benedict undertakes his last three (out of six) journeys to Rome. Wilfrid, too, travels the roads, though for more egoistic purposes. He had fallen into disgrace (especially with Ecgfrid's second wife) as he had tried to influence the royal family and court against King and Queen. Apart from that, he had tried to display more ostentation than the royal court could afford. His diocese, almost the entire of Northumbria, is now divided among three bishops; he eventually is arrested and is exiled in the end. Only after the King's death he will be reinstalled, but with a much smaller see.

Northumbrian monks do missionary work in Northern Germany; marriage and trade establish firm links with the Merowingian empire and beyond. Northumbria's golden age is at its peak now, but it comes to an end with the defeat of its king. After Berth's murderous raid against the peaceful Irish (684), Ecgfrid in 685 attacks his northern neighbours, the Picts. Cuthbert is said to have predicted the destruction of the Northumbrian army at Nechtansmere. Whether or not, the Northumbrians were defeated to the last man; the King fell.

With Aldfrid (685 - 705) a pious, peaceful and educated king follows to the throne. The church is so dominant now that young men rather turn to the rich monasteries than to the poverty-stricken royal court. The heroes desert the Hall.


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