The Golden Age of Northumbria by H.E. Davidson (1958) [Part 6: How Do We Know?]

The Golden Age of Northumbria

How do we know how the Northumbrians lived and what happened in the Golden Age? There is no one easy answer to this, because we have found out what we know in a number of different ways, and it had been rather like piecing a jigsaw puzzle together. Some pieces of the puzzle are still missing, but as we find out more about the past holes are being filled up. You must remember that it is always like this when we try and discover what it was like in a time when very few books were written. Here are some of the ways in which we make up the jigsaw:

Archaeology. The men who first settled in Northumbria could not read or write, and we call the time in which they lived the Dark Ages, because it is so difficult to find out what really happened. But we know a good deal about how they lived because of what archaeologists have found in the earth. For instance, we know what kind of weapons and ornaments they had, and some of the useful things in their houses, because many of these were buried in Anglo-Saxon graves with the men and women who once owned them. Kings and rich people had wonderful treasures buried with them at their funerals, and some of these have been found in our own time. Only about 20 years ago, the remains of a great ship were discovered in a mound at Sutton Hoo, and this ship held many beautiful things which must have belonged to the East Anglian kings whose palace was nearby. If you go to the British Museum you can look at these great treasures for yourselves, and see what splendid things there were in a king’s hall at the time of which this book tells.

We know too from archaeology what the little huts of the poor people were like, and at last we know something about a royal hall, for quite recently the site of one of the palaces of King Edwin was found in Yeavering, up in the north of England not far from the Scottish border. We know that beside this hall there was a kind of grandstand made of wood, with seats going up in tiers like those at a football match, and this must have been where the kings of Northumbria made speeches to the people. Perhaps Paulinus and other Christian monks preached in a place like this when they brought the news of Christianity to the Northumbrians. We should never have known about this if it had not been for the archaeologists.

Remains. Besides the discoveries which have been made by digging into the ground, there are stone remains still standing in what was once Northumbria. Some churches, like those at Corbridge and Monkwearmouth, have parts which were built in the Golden Age, and at Escomb there is a tiny church which gives us a very good idea of what the first stone ones are like. There are many carved crosses still standing, either in churches or out of doors, including the two splendid ones at Ruthwell and Bewcastle. St. Cuthbert’s Coffin is kept in the library of Durham Cathedral, with some of the wonderful things found inside. You can still see inscriptions in runes which the men of Northumbria carved, either on stones or on little objects like rings or combs in some of our museums: some we can read, and some are puzzles which have never been solved.

Pictures. There are not many pictures in the Northumbrian books, because the artists liked drawing beautiful patterns rather than people. But sometimes we can find carved pictures which tell us something about how people looked in the Golden Age. there are a few on the crosses, though most of the figures are dressed like Greeks or Romans. There are a number on a little box of whalebone which was made in Northumbria and is now in the British Museum; we know where it was made because there are runes in the Northumbrian language on it. This is called the Franks Casket, after Sir Augustus Franks who found it in France where it was being used as a workbox; and it has pictures carved on the lid and all four sides. The pictures are a queer mixture, showing all kinds of subjects, but the little people in them are dressed in the way the Northumbrians must have dressed, and we can learn a lot from studying them.

Manuscripts. A number of manuscripts (that is, books written out by hand) were made in Northumbria. Some, like the Lindisfarne copy of the Gospels in Latin, were beautifully illustrated by the monks, and are great treasures. Then there are also books in Anglo-Saxon, written in the South of England. One of the most famous of these is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is a kind of diary, with all the chief of events which the Anglo-Saxons could remember from their history written down with dates. The story of the fight between the king and the prince told in this book comes from the Chronicle. There are collections of laws too, which tell us quite a lot about how the people lived. Then there are books of Anglo-Saxon poetry. One of these is called the Exeter Book (because it belonged to Exeter Cathedral) and is a collection of all kinds of poems. It has many riddles in verse, and the famous poem about the Cross which we call the Dream of the Rood. another had the long Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.

Poetry. Much of what we know about kings and warriors at the time of the Golden Age, how they lived in their palaces and how they admired courage and loyalty, and loved exciting adventures, comes from Anglo-Saxon poetry. They had many long poems about warriors and battles, but only one complete one, Beowulf, has come down to us, though some pieces of lost poems have been found on odd pages of manuscripts.

Books in Latin. You may have noticed that once Christianity came to Northumbria we know the names of a great many people, and quite a lot about their lives. Most of what we know comes from a wonderful book written in Latin by the scholar Bede, whose story has been told you. He wrote an account in Latin of what happened in Northumbria and the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms when the people became Christian. The name of his book in English is the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ (that means, the history of the Church). Since it was very famous in his own time, and has been famous ever since, and it deserves to be, for it is one of the best history books ever written, and it tells all kinds of fascinating little things about men and women. After reading it, you feel as if you had met them. Many of the people in the book Bede had known himself. If they had lived before his time, he tried to find out about them from people who had known them or heard older people talk about them.

So we know what Paulinus looked like, how Caedmon learned to write poetry, what angry remarks people made at the Council of Whitby, and all kinds of other things, because Bede put them down for us in his book: otherwise these things would have been forgotten forever. One person whom Bede did not seem to like very much was Wilfrid (you remember many people could not get on with him) and he does not tell us much about him. But a man called Eddius, a monk who knew Wilfrid very well and thought him a great saint, wrote his life for us, and this tells us a great deal about the history of the time, how Wilfrid built his famous churches, and of the various quarrels he had with his enemies. Books like these are very valuable because they were not written many years afterwards as history books, but were set down in the Golden Age itself, and the writers knew many of the people they were describing very well.

The Golden Age of Northumbria map


Discovery. There is much more you can discover about the Northumbrians and the other Anglo-Saxons. If you live in the north of England, especially in Northumberland, Durham or Yorkshire, there are many places to go and see. Find out where there are Anglo-Saxon churches or carved crosses, and visit places like Wilfrid’s crypt at Hexham, or Lindisfarne. Some of the places (like Ruthwell and Bewcastle) are not very easy to find. You will probably have to go by car and you must have plenty of time and patience to track down what you want to see.

If you live in London, then you will find the Sutton Hoo treasures and many other Anglo-Saxon things in the British Museum; the Franks Casket is there too, and some very beautiful jewellery and some of the Anglo-Saxon books. Other cities like York and Lincoln and Hull have many Anglo-Saxon objects in their museums. You will have to do some exploring for yourselves, and remember that the reference department in your public library may be able to help you. You will probably find it worthwhile to keep a scrapbook of postcards and photographs and drawings of what you find.

How the Northumbrians lived

  1. Describe a voyage over the North Sea and the arrival in Northumbria, as told by a boy or girl among a group of new settlers.
  2. Make a model of an Anglo-Saxon hut, or of a boat such as the Northumbrians used.
  3. Find out what you can about how the Northumbrians got their food and clothes, and make a list of what you think they would need in their huts, with drawings.
  4. Find out all you can about any Anglo-Saxons who settled near where you live now.

The King’s Hall

  1. Paint a picture of a banquet in the king’s hall.
  2. Act the story of the battle between the king and the prince, or the attempt to kill King Edwin, or Edwin’s adventures at the court of King Redwald.
  3. Make up a conversation between several people at Edwin’s court when they heard that Paulinus was going to preach to them about Christ.
  4. Write a riddle in verse which could be recited at the king’s hall, or write out a simple message in runes, such as could be carved on a piece of wood.
  5. Draw or make a model of an Anglo-Saxon warrior with his weapons.

The Coming of Christianity

  1. Draw the scene when Cofi burned the temple of the gods, or write an account of it by someone looking on at the time.
  2. Describe a visit of a boy with his parents either to Bede’s monastery or to see Cuthbert on Lindisfarne.
  3. Write and act some scenes from the life of Wilfrid or Cuthbert.
  4. Make a plan and a drawing of an Anglo-Saxon church in the early days of Christianity.
  5. Draw and paint an ornamented page for the beginning of a Gospel or for a Life of one of the Northumbrian saints.
  6. Write an account of the adventures of one of the monks who travelled with St. Cuthbert’s coffin.


Abbot – Head of abbey or monastery.

Archaeologists – People who find out about the past, by study of buried objects or buildings.

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

Baptism – Ceremony by which a new member is received into the Christian Church: in those days he was dipped in the water of sea or river and then dressed in new white robes.

Compline – Service chanted by monks at the end of the day.

Cormorant – Black sea bird which dives for fish.

Crypt – Underground room of stone built below a church.

Cymry – Name given to the men who were driven into the hills by the Anglo-Saxons, and gave their name to the county of Cumberland.

Dormitory – Room in a monastery where the monks slept.

Funeral pyre – Great fire on which the bodies of dead men, and probably their possessions too, were burned.

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.

Hides – Skins of cattle which can be made into leather.

Hilt – part of a sword grasped in the hand.

Humbrenses –  Name given to the men who settled round the River Humber.

Inscription – Words or signs carved in stone, metal, bone or wood.

Kilt – Skirt of heavy woollen material, worn by men.

Lindisfarne Gospels – copy of the Four Gospels, richly ornamented, now in the British Museum.

Mead – Drink made from honey.

None – Service chanted by the monks in the afternoon.

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.

Palliases – mattresses stuffed with straw.

Pedlar – Man who travels round with goods for sale.

Prime – Service chanted by the monks at dawn.

Prior – Second in command in a monastery.

Ransom – Money paid for the freeing of a prisoner.

Reeve – Man who looked after the lands of a monastery.

Relic – Something kept in remembrance of a holy person.

Revelry – merrymaking.

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

Rushlight – Simple candle made by dripping the pith of a rush into grease.

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

Scribe – Man who writes or copies books by hand.

Scriptorum – Room where the monks wrote or copied books.

Sentinels – men who keep watch.

Sext – Service chanted by the monks at noon.

Shrine – Holy place where relics are kept.

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

Thane – Warrior or councillor of noble birth in the king’s service.

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 them.

Uncivilized – Ill-mannered and ignorant.

Vespers – Service chanted by the monks at sunset.

Vessel – Jar or dish for holding the sacred oil, bread or wine used in the Church service.

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

Wergeld – Payment in money for a man who has been killed, varying according to his importance.

Whetstone – hard stone used for sharpening.

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