The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Map of broadly corresponding to Earldom of Northumbria
Map of North East England broadly corresponding to Earldom of Northumbria

Northumbria is primarily the name of an Anglian or Anglo-Saxon kingdom which was formed in Great Britain at the beginning of the 7th century, and of the much smaller earldom which succeeded the kingdom. The name reflects that of the southern limit to the kingdom's territory, which was the River Humber, and in the 12th century writings of Henry of Huntingdon the kingdom was defined as one of the Heptarchy of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

At its greatest the kingdom extended from the Humber to the Forth. The later earldom was bounded by the River Tees in the south and the River Tweed in the north (broadly similar to the modern North East England) and was recognised as part of England by the Anglo-Scottish Treaty of York in 1237. Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is north of the Tweed, was defined as subject to the laws of England by the Wales and Berwick Act of 1746 and is administered now as a part of the county of Northumberland and the region of North East England.

The name appears also in the titles of today's Northumbria Police (which covers Northumberland and Tyne and Wear), Northumbria University (which has campuses in Newcastle upon Tyne, Morpeth, and Carlisle), and Northumbrian Water (which serves the region of North East England, and the name has been adopted by the English Tourist Board as a name for the region.



The kingdom's rise and fall

Main article: Northumbria in the Early Middle Ages

Northumbria was founded around 604 by the union of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia under Aethelfrith of Bernicia. Bernicia covered lands north of the Tees, whilst Deira corresponded roughly to modern-day Yorkshire, and the new kingdom stretched from the Humber to the Forth. After the invasion of the south of the kingdom by Vikings and Danes in 866 (forming the Viking kingdom of York, or Jorvik) Anglo-Saxon Northumbria shrank to land north of the Tees only.

The kingdom was famed as a centre of religious learning and arts. Initially the Northumbria was Christianised by monks from the Celtic Church, and this led to a flowering of monastic life, with a unique style of religious art that combined Anglo-Saxon and Celtic. After the Synod of Whitby in 664 the Celtic and Catholic Churches united. However the unique style was preserved, with its most famous example being the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Viking and Scots invasions further reduced Northumbria to an earldom stretching from the Tees to the Tweed, and Northumbria was for a long time in territory where sovereinty was disputed between the emerging nation states of England and Scotland. The Earls of Northumbria maintained a degree of independence from both, but there were lengthy periods of fighting over control of the earldom. See also: Monarchs of Northumbria.

Norman invasion and partition of the earldom

William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066. He soon realised he needed to control Northumbria, which had remained virtually independent of the Kings of England, to protect his kingdom from Scottish invasion. To acknowledge the remote independence of Northumbria and ensure England was properly defended from the Scots William gained the allegiance of both the Bishop of Durham and the Earl and confirmed their powers and privileges. However, anti-Norman rebellions followed. William therefore attempted to install Robert Comine , a Norman noble, as the Earl of Northumbria, but before Comine could take up office, he and his 700 men were massacred in the City of Durham. In revenge, the Conqueror led his army in a bloody raid into Northumbria, an event that became known as the Harrying of the North. Aethelwine , the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Durham, tried to flee Northumbria at the time of the raid, with Northumbrian treasures. The bishop was caught, imprisoned, and later died in confinement; his see was left vacant.

Rebellions continued, and William's son William Rufus decided to partition Northumbria. William St Carileph was made Bishop of Durham, and was also given the powers of Earl for the region south of the Rivers Tyne and Derwent, which became the County Palatinate of Durham. The remainder, to the north of the rivers became Tyne and Derwent, became Northumberland where the political powers of the Bishops of Durham were limited to only certain districts, and the earls continued to rule as clients of the English throne.

The city of Newcastle was founded by the Normans in 1080 to control the region by holding the strategically important crossing point of the river Tyne.

Middle Ages

The region continued to have history of revolt and rebellion against the government, as seen in the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Rising of the North in Tudor times. A major reason was the strength of Catholicism in the area after the Reformation. In later times this lead to strong Jacobite feelings after the Restoration. The region became a sort of wild county, where outlaws and border reivers hid from the law, as it was largely rural and unpopulated. However, after the union of the crowns of Scotland and England under King James VI and I peace was largely restored.

Industrial Age

Northumbria played a vital role in the industrial revolution. The region’s coalfields fuelled industrial expansion in other areas of the country, and the need to transport the coal from the collieries to the Tyne lead to the development of the first railways. Many prominent engineers hailed from the area, including.

Ship-building and armament manufacture were other important industries.


The flag of the Kingdom was a banner of gold and red (or purple) vertical stripes. A modern version of this flag is used quite widely throughout the region (see picture).


Northumbria, in the modern sense, has many of its own traditions, not found elsewhere in England (unless you count revivalists), a strong mix of indigenous, Celtic, Norse and Anglian influences including the rapper sword dance, Clog dance and the Northumbrian smallpipes (a type of bagpipe) as well as its own tartan (often referred to in Scotland as the Shepherd’s Tartan). Traditional Northumbrian music sounds similar to Scottish, reflecting some of the strong historical links between Northumbria and Scotland. In general, Northumbrian culture has more in common with Scottish culture, from which it has been greatly influenced and vice versa, than with that of the rest of England, and many Northumbrians feel a closer affinity with Edinburgh than with London.


Apart from standard English, Northumbria has a series of closely related but distinctive dialects, descended from the early Germanic languages of the Angles and Vikings, and of the Celtic Romano-British tribes. Early Northumbrian is regarded as the forerunner of the Scots Language, which was called Ynglis as late as the early 16th century. (Until the end of the 15th century the name Scots (or Scottis) referred to the Gaelic of Ireland and Scotland). There are many similarities between modern Scots (Ynglis) dialects and those of Northumbria.

Three major Northumbrian dialects are Geordie, Mackem and Pitmatic. To an outsider’s ear the similarities far outweigh the differences between the dialects. There is a good explanation of the Geordie dialect in the relevant Wikipedia entry. As an example of the difference in the softer County Durham/Wearside the English 'book' is pronounced 'bewk', in Geordie it becomes 'buuk' while in the Northumbrian it is 'byuk'.

Due to the roots of the Northumbrian (Geordie) dialect, it is often said that visitors from Scandinavian countries often find it much easier to understand the English of Northumbria than the rest of the country.

External links

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