The Golden Age of Northumbria by H.E. Davidson (1958) [Part 2: King Edwin of Northumbria]


The Golden Age of NorthumbriaIt is time we heard about the king–Edwin of Northumbria. You would not find it very easy to reach the king. If you came over the sea, you would meet his sentinels on the coast, and there would be more men on watch for strangers outside the town or hall where the king was. You would have to tell them your business and your family (that was important), and then wait until the king agreed to see you. If all was well you would be led into the hall, and your men would leave their spears and shields outside while you went and stood before the king.

Edwin was called King of Northumbria, and this was something rather new. When the settlers first came over the sea, they followed many different kings and leaders, and there was much quarrelling. After a time, two kings became more important than the rest, and the land was divided into two kingdoms called Deira and Bernicia.

The kings of Deira and Bernicia were both very proud of the fact that they traced their families back to the great god Woden. Of course they were great rivals, and each wanted to get the better of the other. At last the old king of Deira died, and a boy called Edwin succeeded him. That gave the king of Bernicia the chance he had been waiting for. He was a proud, fierce man called Ethelfrith, so cunning in war that some of his Celtic enemies had a nickname for him which meant something like ‘the Artful Dodger’. Ethelfrith had married young Edwin’s sister, and he thought this gave him a good excuse to make himself king of Deira as well as Bernicia. Edwin was not old enough to fight him, and all he could do was to get away quickly before Ethelfrith found another good excuse to put him to death. His friends helped him to escape, and he left Northumbria, hoping that before long he would get his father’s kingdom back again. But he had to wait for twenty-four years, so that he was a grown man when he came home again to rule his country. During that time he was often in great danger, and often lost heart.

At last, after many years of wandering, he was at the court of King Redwald of East Anglia, who had promised to protect him from Ethelfrith. Redwald was a powerful king, and Edwin hoped to be safe with him. But one night a friend came and whispered to him to come out of the hall and talk with him. They walked up and down in the darkness, and Edwin learned that men from Ethelfrith had come to Redwald and were even now trying to persuade him either to kill Edwin or hand him over to them. This time Edwin refused to run away. He said he was going to trust Redwald’s promises, and run the risk of death; he had been a wanderer so long, he said, that anything was better than to run away again. But after his friend had left him, he sat on a stone feeling very hopeless.

Suddenly he realized that an unknown man was standing beside him, asking why he was so sad. It was none of his business, said Edwin. But the man answered that he knew all about him, and why he was afraid. He said he could promise him a speedy end to his troubles, and that he would soon win back his kingdom and rule as the greatest king of his time. Then he asked what Edwin would give to one who could bring all this about. “All that I have in my power to give”, answered Edwin, amazed. “Would you let such a one guide and advise you?” asked the stranger. “Indeed I would”, said Edwin, wondering what this strange conversation could mean. Then the man placed his hand on the prince’s head, and told him that when he received that sign again, he must remember his promise, and at that he was gone into the darkness. But almost at once Edwin’s friend came out to him again, with news that the queen had talked long with the king, and that she had persuaded Redwald to keep faith with Edwin, Redwald would refuse to give him up to his enemies, and would help him to win back his kingdom.

From that night Edwin’s fortunes changed completely. Redwald helped him in battle, and Ethelfrith was defeated and killed. So Edwin became king, not only of Deira, which his father had ruled, but of Bernicia also, and the two made up the kingdom of Northumbria. His kingdom stretched far into what we know today as Scotland. The map on the left shows you the two kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia before Edwin ruled; the map on the right shows how far Northumbria stretched after Edwin had been king for awhile.

Northumbrian Age Map

The hall of the king of Northumbria, like the houses of the more important people, was built of wood. It looked like this:

Northumbrian Age King's Hall

Inside it was something like this, only far more splendid and elaborate:

Northumbrian Age King's Hall interior

There was probably uch carving on tables and benches, and when there was a feast, all the walls were hung with tapestries, worked by the ladies of the court. The tapestries helped to keep out draughts, and also made the hall look very splendid, for Anglo-Saxon women were very skilful at working wonderful pictures showing gods and heroes.

In the middle of the hall was a great open fireplace, as you can see in the picture. The smoke had to find its way up through the hole in the roof, as in the huts of humbler folk, but the hall was much bigger and higher, and unless the wind was blowing the wrong way it was probably not too bad, especially as they burned wood and not coal. Compared with the dark, cold, dangerous world outside, the king’s hall with its blazing fire and bright torches all around must have seemed very warm and splendid.

The king had his own seat in the warmest place near the fire in the middle of the hall. And the chief guest sat opposite him. When the king held a feast, long tables were set up in the hall, and fine dishes set out. Here is part of a set of silver dishes used in an Anglo-Saxon king’s hall; they were not made by the Anglo-Saxons, but had come a long way from Southern Europe, perhaps as a gift from some other ruler:

Northumbrian Age silver dishes

In King Edwin’s hall they would certainly have fine glasses of the latest fashion to drink from, probably like these:


Northumbrian Age fine glasses

You will see that most of them would not stand on the table; the guests would have to hold them in their hands, and would then turn them upside down on the table when empty. The ones with little claws of glass at the side, like the one in the middle in the picture, were specially precious. They used drinking-horns too, some of them very grand with silver or gilded mounts. Edwin’s friend, King Redwald, had an enormous drinking-horn, like this:

Northumbrian Age drinking horn

Edwin may have had one too. It was made from the horn of an aurochs, the great wild ox which could be found in Northern Europe in those days. This horn held several quarts, and was used when the queen or princess carried the drink round to honoured guests, each man drinking in turn, after speeches had been made.

Northumbrian Age claspAt such feasts the royal family and great nobles wore wonderful jewelled ornaments. Here is a picture of a splendid clasp for a king to wear in his cloak. You can see this in the British Museum, and if you could look at all the tiny details of the pattern through a magnifying glass you would be amazed at the cleverness of the maker. How do you think these jewellers managed without electric light and all the modern tools which men use now? Even the parts of the ornaments which could not be seen were made with great beauty and skill, as the back of the brooch in this picture has been.

Northumbrian Age clasp back

After the feast was over, the long dining tables were taken down, for some of the king’s men used to sleep in the hall on palliases and pillows which could be cleared away in the morning. The king himself and the royal family and important guests would probably have real bedrooms in small buildings outside the hall.

The king and his nobles wore wonderful swords, with hilts decorated with gold and silver, scabbards covered with linen or leather and perhaps lined with sheepskin to prevent rust, and fine blades with wavy patterns down their centres. They are now called ‘pattern-welded’ blades because they were made in a special way, by welding strips of metal together. The patterns sometimes looked like twisting snakes, sometimes like twigs, and sometimes like ripples on water. The blades gleamed with rich colours in the light, and were as brilliant and smooth as a mirror, with two edges as sharp as a razor. Only a few smiths knew the secret of how to make them, and so they were thought to be great and marvellous treasures, and were passed down from father to son as family heirlooms. A warrior who possessed such a sword would be almost invincible in battle. Here is a pattern-welded blade such as a lucky warrior in Edwin’s court might wear:

Northumbrian Age sword

Northumbrian Age sceptreThe king kept a stock of weapons carefully sharpened, ready to give his followers when they entered his service, or in time of special need, like an attack on the hall. One of Edwin’s neighbours had a royal sceptre which you see here. It was really a whetstone, used to sharpen swords and knives, and it must have been made like that as a sign that the king guarded swords for his followers and kept them sharp. In his chests he would have coats of mail too, and helmets like this one:

Northumbrian Age helmet

It would be padded inside like a crash helmet, and there was a ridge at the top to protect the head if a sword came crashing down on it in battle. The mail coats were great treasures too. The finest were made of thousands of tiny rings fastened to one another: only kings and very important warriors had them.

King Edwin of Northumbria used to have a standard-bearer walking before him with a splendid standard. You can see here a king’s standard, which could either be carried or struck into the ground by the spike at the base. Notice the beautiful little stag at the top.

When King Edwin led his men to battle, his standard was planted on the battlefield, and his own special bodyguard fought round it. He and the other Anglo-Saxon kings had each his own special band of warriors, mostly young men who were ready to follow him to the death. If he was attacked they would fight round him until the last of them had fallen, for to live on after the king had been killed was so great a disgrace that none would dare to face his family and friends afterwards. There is a story of a young Anglo-Saxon king further south which shows you how loyal a bodyguard could be:

Northumbrian Age standardIt was said that this young king went to visit a lady on her country estate, taking only a small band of men with him. While he was there, an old enemy of his, a certain prince who believed he ought to be king himself, made a surprise attack with a larger band, and slew the king before his warriors could come and defend him. Once the king was dead, the prince offered to come to terms with his bodyguard. What use going on fighting, he asked them, now that their leader had fallen? Why not accept him as the new king, and come into his service? But they refused without hesitating a moment, and they fought a hopeless fight until they all lay dead around their king.

That was in the evening. Next morning news of the battle reached the king’s court, and a powerful band of the king’s nobles rode over to the country house. Now it was the prince who found himself outnumbered. He and his men shut the gates and barricaded the place as best they could, but they knew they could not hold it long against so strong a force.

So the prince came to the gate and called to the men outside, proposing that they should accept him as their new king and leader to save further bloodshed. He reminded them that many of the men who followed him were related to them, and that if they fought it would be against some of their own kinsmen. The men outside replied briefly that no kinsman was as dear to them as their lord and king, and that they would never follow the man who had slain him. Those who were close relatives, they said, might come out if they wished before the fighting started.

But the prince’s men inside the gate replied with one voice that they were not going to desert their lord now that he was outnumbered by his enemies. “The same offer you have just made,” they said, “was made yesterday to your comrades, the men who fell fighting round their king. And we are going to give you the same answer they gave us, when we offered them their lives.” Then fierce fighting began round the gate, and when it was over the prince lay dead, and all his followers with him, except one youth who was severely wounded but escaped with his life.

Such stories were often told at Edwin’s court. They admired above all things courage and loyalty and a grim fight against overwhelming odds. Nearly all their favourite stories seem to have been sad ones, ending in defeat and death, but they are stories that stir the heart. These stories were all the more thrilling to hear because the men at Edwin’s court knew that they themselves might soon be fighting in such battles. One day a man arrived at their court and said he brought a message from the King of Wessex to King Edwin. He was brought into the king, but as he stood beside him he suddenly drew out a poisoned dagger from under his cloak and tried to stab Edwin. The king would have been killed had not Lilla, his chief minister, thrown himself in front of him, so that the knife went through Lilla’s body first, and Edwin only received a light wound from the point. The king’s men drew their swords and cut the assassin into pieces, but Lilla was dead. It was held to be a great thing that he gave his life for the king.

Riddles and Poems

Northumbrian Age man and hawkThe king and his court had plenty of amusements when they were not fighting or feasting. They were very fond of horse-racing and hawking. Here you see a Northumbrian gentleman with a hawk on his wrist.

Inside the hall they played a game rather like draughts, with bone or wooden playing-men on a board. They liked asking riddles, especially long ones in verse, in which they imagined that some bird or beast or familiar object was speaking, and they had to guess its name. Here is one of their riddles, put into our language. Can you guess the answer? A well-known bird is speaking:


I lay like the dead, when my parents left me,

As yet no breath nor being in me.

Then someone drew her dress above me,

Covered me over, guarded and cared for me,

Cherished me kindly as her own children.

Till under that refuge, as ruled my fate,

I was brought to life and granted breath

In the midst of a family not my own.

Then she who fostered me brought me food,

Till I grew fast, and went afaring

Further afield, but because she fed me

She lost her own dear sons and daughters.

Northumbrian Age harpEveryone enjoyed hearing new riddles, but what they liked best was listening to poetry and story-telling. A man who could recite poems or tell good stories was always sure of a welcome and rich gifts from the king. There would be poetry at every feast, and music too, for the poets used to chant their poems to the music of the harp which would be passed round the hall from one singer to another. The king himself often took part in the entertainment. Here is a little harp which once belonged to a king.

Some poems would be in praise of the king; others would tell of the deeds of his ancestors. Since there were no history books in those days, it was by such poems that boys in the hall learned about the glories of the long-dead heroes in their own royal family. There were stories, too, of struggles against monsters and dragons, and of help given by the gods to men. When the king won a battle or some great deed was done (like Lilla’s death to save the king) the court poet would soon be telling about it in a new poem. These poems were not written down, for these men had not yet learned writing as we know it. But they were trained from childhood to listen well, so they could remember long poems and stories after hearing them once in a way that seems impossible to us now.

Runes and Magic

Though they did not know our alphabet, they had symbols or letters of their own, which they called runes. Instead of an alphabet, the runes were written out in lines like this, and this set of runes was known as the futhorc (if you look at the first six letters you will see why):

Northumbrian Age futhorc

There were a good many variations, according to where you learned your runes. Here is one futhorc, not quite the same as the first one, carved on a knife that was found in the River Thames.

Northumbrian Age runes

Runes cut by the Anglo-Saxons on ivory or metal or stone have been preserved down to our day, but they were generally carved in wood. Try and see if you can carve some for yourselves.

People believed that runes had great magic powers, and you had to be very careful indeed how you used them. They thought that if you cut the right runes at the right time, a prisoner could be freed from chains or cords that bound him, and a horn full of poisoned drink would break in pieces. You could call down terrible curses too by means of runes, and make your enemies’ weapons blunt, and even drive men mad. But it was very dangerous to use them without full knowledge, for a mistake could bring down a curse on your own head, and perhaps lead to illness or madness. There would not be many men even at Edwin’s court who would understand runes thoroughly.

The Old Gods

One man who almost certainly would know all about runes was the chief of the priests of the gods, Coifi. He was a very important person, who sat at royal council in the king’s hall. He alone of the king’s councillors carried no weapons, and he never rode upon anything but a mare, which was kept specially for his use. He and the priests under him were in charge of the little temple in which stood the figure of the gods. It had a fence around it, and stood not very far from the king’s hall. It looked something like this:

Northumbrian Age temple

Coifi must have known many stories about the gods. Unfortunately he never wrote down what he knew, so we are not sure what men at Edwin’s court really believed. We know that they held Woden to be the chief of the gods. They thought he gave victory in war, and at one time animals and even men were sacrificed to him for victory. There was Thunor too, god of thunder, and Tiw, another war-god. These three have days of the week called after them: Wednesday is Woden’s Day, Thursday is Thunor’s Day, and Tuesday is Tiw’s Day. There were other gods and goddesses too: our word Easter comes from the name of one of them, Eostra, the goddess of springtime and new life.

The old chants to the gods are lost, but there are still some spells which the Anglo-Saxons remembered and later wrote down. Some of these were against elves, not dainty fairy people, but powerful spirits, almost like gods themselves. The elves were supposed to help men with farming and harvesting, and to be able to hurt them by flinging invisible darts which caused aches and pains. If you were a Northumbrian boy and got a sudden stitch in your side, you might think it was sent by the elves, and so too if your father had a sudden attack of rheumatism.

Northumbrian Age man animal head

Every mid-winter the Northumbrians held great feasts in and around their temples. They built little huts outside the temple where they could stay while the feasting and revelry went on for days. They killed many of the horses and cattle because there was not enough feeding-stuff to keep them all alive through the winter, so for a time there was plenty of meat to eat. Sometimes they dressed up in the skins and heads of the artist carved this figure with an animal’s head; but if you look closely you will see that he seems really to be a man. Perhaps he was one of the people at the feast. They looked forward to these great parties very much, because they came in the middle of the dark, cold season, and the feasting and drinking and excitement was something for the poor as well as the rich to enjoy.

But while King Edwin was ruling over Northumbria, a great change took place; it was something that altered the whole life of the people, so that nothing was ever the same again.

St Edwin of Northumbria



Aurochs – huge wild ox that use to roam across Northern Europe.

Futhorc – name given to the Runic alphabet, because the first six letters were f, u, th, o, r, c.

Hawking – chasing or hunting birds with a tame hawk.

Heirloom – valuable family possession passed down from father to son.

Hilt – part of a sword grasped in the hand.

Palliases – mattresses stuffed with straw.

Revelry – merrymaking.

Runes –  special letters, usually carved and often used for magic spells.

Scabbard – case in which a sword is carried to protect the blade.

Sentinels – men who keep watch.

Tapestries – coloured hangings used to cover walls, woven in patterns or pictures.

Welding – to join pieces of metal by heating and hammering on the anvil.

Whetstone – hard stone used for sharpening.

The Seax of Beagnoth, showing the full Anglo-Saxon Futhorc runic alphabet.

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