The Golden Age of Northumbria by H.E. Davidson (1958) [Part 1: How Northumbria Began]

To the Reader

The Golden Age of NorthumbriaThis book is the story of how Christianity came to Northumbria. It tells you why we call the time of King Edwin and the kings who came after him the Golden Age. all the people mentioned in it really lived, and all the facts are based either on early records and books in Anglo-Saxon or Latin, or on the discoveries of archaeologists.  The pictures too are either from early books or carvings made in Northumbria, or else they are drawings of Anglo-Saxon buildings or things which the Northumbrians or their neighbours once used (except for one or two pictures of houses or temples which are based on what archaeologists have discovered). While this book was being written, men were at work digging out the foundations of one of the palaces of King Edwin, and now we know much more about it than we did before. The exciting thing about the history of the Northumbrians and the other Anglo-Saxon peoples is that we are discovering more and more about them all the time through archaeology, and learning many new things about how men lived which are not in the history books.

You may be able to see for yourself some of the treasures of the Golden Age. St. Cuthbert’s Coffin is in the Library of Durham Cathedral: the book found in it is at Stonyhurst College. Many beautiful things found in Anglo-Saxon graves are in the British Museum, as well as the manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels. You are told more of how we know about the Golden Age of Northumbria on page 84. On page 88 there is a map showing you many of the places mentioned in this book. You will find the meanings of the words printed like this in the Glossary on page 90.




Can you imagine what it would be like to see the shores of England for the first time? Picture to yourself some long, low ships moving slowly across the North Sea while the men in them looked eagerly westwards for signs of land. They were brave, tough men, used to a hard life, but it had been a rough voyage in these open ships. They had no sails to help them along. The men had to row all the way from the coast of Europe, steering by a big paddle over the stern and baling out the water as the waves came over the side. This is the kind of ship they used:


Northumbrian Age Boat 1

It was cold and wet and uncomfortable aboard, but the men were ready to put up with discomfort or danger if only they could find new homes for themselves. For they came from a country where there were far too many people crowded together, and not much good land for farming.

It must have been an exciting moment when someone with sharp eyes first spied the east coast of England through the mist. As they came near the shore, watching for a good place to land, they must have had many anxious questions in their minds. What kind of land would it be? Would there be many people settled there already, and would there be much fighting?

Soon they saw the mouth of a great river, and they turned their ships into it, looking eagerly this way and that at the new land. They were glad to see an almost empty country. There were a few small villages here and there, and sometimes a rich man’s farm. There were one or two stone watchtowers, but there were no signs that anyone was keeping watch on them. You would think it wild, rough land, but it seemed a very good sight to these men from across the sea. It looks quite different today, for this river is the Humber, with docks and warehouses and factories all along its banks, but about fifteen hundred years ago when these new settlers arrived, this district was almost deserted.

So they landed, found a site for their village, and began to build houses and grow food. Other men had come before them, and many more ships crossed the grey sea after them, as the news got round that there was room to spare in this new country. The young men came hoping for adventures and fighting, and the older ones hoping to find room for a farm. They sometimes brought their wives and children with them, and even some of their animals. That was no easy business in their little ships, and it must have been very hard for the women to keep the children from falling overboard.

We call these men Anglo-Saxons, for many of them came from a part of Europe where the Angles and Saxons used to live. The men who came up this river and settled in the land round about were the Humbrenses. Now you can see how the river got its name. In time the Anglo-Saxons spread throughout all the country north of the Humber, which came to be called North-humbria; and so we have the country called Northumberland. How would you like to have a part of England called after you? I expect these men would have been very much surprised if they had been told that their name would be there fifteen hundred years after their voyage! It sounds grand, but it cost the first men who started the Kingdom of Northumbria much hard work, fighting and danger. They did not expect an easy time when they came over the sea, and they were quite right.


Why Life in Northumbria was Hard


The new settlers in Britain had plenty of room to start their farms and villages, but life was strange and rather frightening for them. Look at a modern map of the country where very few people live even today. If you go for a holiday up in the Pennines or on the Yorkshire moors you will find some of the loveliest and loneliest country in England. It was much lonelier for the first settlers than it is today.

They were not used to mountains–for they had come from a land that was very flat–so they kept away from them as much as they could. They kept away from wild moors and swamps too, for they believed that all kinds of evil creatures dwelt there, trolls and monsters, giants and goblins and perhaps even dragons, brooding over their treasure in the burial mounds which earlier people had built on the hills. Here is how an Anglo-Saxon imagined a dragon; he put it on his king’s shield, and gave it wings and great jaws full of sharp teeth.

Northumbrian Age SHarp Teeth

The Northumbrians believed that sometimes you could see fiery dragons flying through the air; and that this was always a sign of great trouble coming to Northumbria; perhaps what they really saw was what we call the Northern Lights.

All this may seem silly to you if you live in a town, but if you walk through a lonely wood when night is coming on and hear the wind whistling through the trees, or go to bed with only a flickering candle in an old farmhouse, the monsters and goblins may not seem far away. The Northumbrians had no street lamps or electric light in their houses. Besides, they would often listen to eery tales at supper-time, which they remembered when they were alone in the dark–tales about fearsome monsters like Grendel, who stalked over misty moors on the long black nights and snatched away men of the king’s bodyguard.

There were other things to fear too. The Northumbrians found great stone towers and forts, and a great stone wall that ran right across the north of England. Nowadays we know that these had been built by Roman soldiers who had left Britain before the new settlers arrived. But the Northumbrians, who had never learned to build in stone or brick, found this Great Wall of Hadrian (as we call it) and other Roman buildings both wonderful and terrifying. They called them ‘the Work of Giants’, because they thought only giants could have raised such mighty works of stone, and they were never quite sure what strange figures they might meet among the ruins, especially at night.

The Roman soldiers who had lived on the Wall left before the Anglo-Saxons came. But the country was not empty, for there were Britons who had lived under the rule of Rome and had stayed behind when the soldiers went. Some of the Britons made friends with the new settlers, others moved out of their way, but some chose to fight. You could never be sure when they were going attack. If they were outnumbered they would retreat into the hills and dash out to ambush the Northumbrians who went after them. In their language, which was rather like Welsh, they called themselves the Cymry or fellow-countrymen, and that is why there is a county of Cumberland west of Northumberland.

Then to the north there were the Picts and Scots, living in what is now Scotland. Any Northumbrian could have told you how fierce they were. They had been making raids into Northern England, on and off, all the time the Romans were here, in spite of Hadrian’s Great Wall. they had no intention of stopping now that the Romans had left. So you can see that it was risky for a Northumbrian to go far from home, for he never knew when he might be ambushed and attacked by some of his enemies. These Pictish warriors below were carved on as tone in Scotland.

Northumbrian Age Sword Fight

Travelling was especially dangerous as there were very few roads. The Romans had made one or two good ones (can you find these on a map?), but otherwise there were only tracks and footpaths which turned into mud after wet weather. Most of the country was thick forest. Nowadays most of the forest has disappeared, for farmers and woodmen have been clearing the land for centuries, but in the early days of Northumbria the clearing had only just begun.

You can see why life was never quite safe in Northumbria. The new settlers too often quarrelled bitterly with each other. In those days, if one of your neighbours killed someone in your family, there were only two possible things you could do, unless you were going to be disgraced for the rest of your life. Either you must make the other man pay your wergeld (that means, ‘man-payment’, the payment for a man’s life, and was a sum of money decided by law according to the importance of the man who was killed); or else you must kill a member of the other man’s family as important as the dead man on your side.

You can imagine that sometimes many men were killed when two powerful families quarrelled, and hot-tempered young men and angry women were eager for vengeance. Here is a picture by a Northumbrian artist of something that probably happened more than once in his country–a man defending his house against his enemies:

Northumbrian Age man defending house

He uses bow and arrows, while the attackers carry swords and spears. This picture was carved on the lid of a box with a knob in the middle, and the artist had not much room, so he made some of the less important people smaller. You can see here how the Northumbrians looked when they went fighting. Some of these men must have been quite rich, for you can see they were wearing helmets and coats of mail, which were great treasures in those days.

One of the earliest Anglo-Saxon laws said that if a stranger went off the road through a wood, he must either shout or blow a horn to let people know he was coming. If he did not, then he could be seized as a robber and held for ransom. So it was rather dangerous to come up to a village in Northumbria without making sure that people knew you came on a friendly errand.

If you had visited a Northumbrian village where the new settlers lived, you would have been surprised and rather shocked by the tiny, dirty houses. These were not built of brick or stone, and not even of wood unless the owner was a man of importance. When a villager made a house, he first dug down about two feet, and stamped out a hard earth floor. He made a low wall of earth and set in it a number of posts: he had to be careful about these, for if they were not securely fixed, the whole house would fall down. Then he fixed a ridge beam across the posts, under the roof. This would not be  very high, so a tall man had to be careful not to bang his head (and some of the Northumbrians were very tall men indeed). The walls inside were made of layers of mud and straw; the roof was made of thatch. The hut must have looked rather like this:


Northumbrian Age hut

There were no windows. If in winter they wanted a fire indoors, the smoke had to find its way out through a hole in the roof, so it was very easy to set this kind of house on fire.

The poorest people had only one room, but others had one for living and sleeping, and a separate kitchen for cooking. Probably they all cooked out of doors in fine weather, like campers or gipsies, and made fine, tasty stews in their big iron cauldrons, like this one:

Northumbrian Age cauldron

They often threw the bones from the stew down on the earthen floor to be trodden in, and some of them would even bury a dog in a corner of the room (though perhaps that was because they thought his spirit would guard the house).

Some people, however, needed special rooms for their trades. The weaver had his loom, and the smith his fire and anvil, and the potter an oven for baking his pots. The potter was a particularly important person, because all the villagers needed pots to keep food and other stores in. each local potter had his favourite set of patterns, and his pots could be easily recognized. He made these patterns sometimes with pointed sticks, and sometimes with little wooden stamps. In Northumbria they made the pots by hand, not on a wheel, but some were very fine all the same; others were rather odd. Here are some Anglo-Saxon pots:

Northumbrian Age AS pots

When someone in the village died, it was the custom in some places to burn the body on a big funeral pyre. When the fire had died down, they would carefully collect up the bones and ashes and what was left of brooches and other ornaments the dead had been wearing, and put them into an urn. This was really a pot like the ones they used in the kitchen; sometimes they bought a fine new decorated one and sometimes they simply took one out of their store. The urns were buried in little pits dug in the ground. There was much drinking and feasting at the burning, especially at that of a great man. In one Anglo-Saxon cemetery, some little pits have been found in a row, but some of the urns were put into the ground outside them in the wrong places. Perhaps they had drunk too much funeral ale!

In other parts, folk had given up burning their dead and had taken to burying them in graves in the earth. The dead man was carefully dressed in his best clothes and buried with his finest ornaments and possessions. Sometimes they put food beside the man in the grave. Perhaps they thought he would be hungry in the after-life. Hundreds of years later, people found this warrior in his grave, with his weapons laid beside him:

Northumbrian Age skeleton

The villagers were kept busy working on the land, fishing and hunting, and making their own clothes and what they needed for their homes. There were a few markets for those near towns, and perhaps travelling tinkers and pedlars sometimes brought things to sell, but the poorer people had to make most things themselves. They spun and wove their own cloth from wool from their sheep, and made their own shoes from the hides of their own cattle. They fetched water, made their own rushlights and torches, collected wood for the fire, got rid of their own rubbish. If you ever been camping you will have some idea of how much work had to be done. These people had little spare time for amusement.

Of course they had to grow their own food, and all the men had to work hard ploughing up the rough land. The Northumbrians ploughed with oxen, not with horses. Here is an Anglo-Saxon picture of a plough:

Northumbrian Age AS plough

One man guides the plough, while another shouts at the oxen until he is hoarse, because oxen are slow and lazy beasts, not willing workers like horses.

Life in the villages must have been poor and uncomfortable, especially in bad weather. The food was very dull. In the winter there was no fresh meat, and often the people must have been almost starving by the time spring came. They caught fish from the sea and the rivers, and that was a great help, but you cannot catch fish when the weather is bad. Sometimes there were terrible outbreaks of illness, when many people died. They did not realize how easily bad food or water and dirt caused dangerous diseases, and rats and mice spread them.

But even in the villages some of the people had fine treasures. Men and women wore great gilded brooches, which must have shone out in the dim light of their little houses, and men liked big bright buckles on their leather belts. They had long strings of coloured beads too, and some of the women had gilt ornaments rather like keys jingling from their waists, and clasps to keep their sleeves fastened at the wrists. Here are some of their ornaments:

Northumbrian Age AS jewelry

The little metal box is a workbox to gold needles and thread. I think women who owned these were much envied.

We do not know as much about the clothes the Northumbrians wore as we know about their ornaments, because the clothes have not lasted to our time as the ornaments have done. Perhaps the men wore a kind of kilt like the figure on the left from an ivory box made in Northumbria. The women wore long dresses like the figure on the right, and everyone wore cloaks and hoods for cold weather.

Northumbrian Age end of chapter 1


Source: The Golden Age of Northumbria, Longmans, [a volume in the “Then and There Series”], chapter 1, pp. iv- 14.


  • Ambush – surprise attack by hidden men.
  • Anglo-Saxons – name given to the invaders from Europe in the 5th century, who usually called themselves Angles or Saxons.
  • Anvil – block, usually of iron, on which the smith hammers and shapes his metal.
  • Archaeologists – people who find out about the past, by study of buried objects or buildings.
  • Cymry – name given to the men who were driven to the hills by the Anglo-Saxons, and gave their name to the country of Cumberland.
  • Funeral Pyre – great fire on which the bodies of dead men, and probably their possessions too, were burned.
  • Hides – skins of cattle which can be made into leather.
  • Humbrenses – name given to the men who settled round the River Humber.
  • Kilt – skirt of heavy woollen material, worn by men.
  • Northern Lights – coloured lights and patterns seen in the sky, especially near the North Pole, caused by particles shot out from the sun: also called the Merry Dancers and the Aurora Borealis.
  • Pedlar – man who travels round with goods for sale.
  • Ransom – money paid for the freeing of a prisoner.
  • Rushlight – simple candle made by dipping the pith of a rush into grease.
  • Tinker – man who makes and mends pots and pans.
  • Troll – ugly evil creature, like a large goblin, supposed to turn to stone if the sun shines on him.
  • Wergeld – payment in money for a man who has been killed, varying according to his importance.




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