Northumberland : Borderlands

Northumberland : Kingdom to County

Northumberland, more anciently known as Northumbria, was part of the great Anglo-Saxon kingdom of that name, with territory extending from the Humber to the Firth of Forth.  Present day Northumberland, encompassing a much smaller area, lies mostly to the north of Hadrian’s Wall and is no longer a kingdom, but it is the northernmost county in England. It stretches from urban Tyneside to the rolling wilderness of the Cheviot Hills. The hills still form the most imposing natural boundary between England and Scotland.

The Cheviots viewed from Ford.
The Cheviots viewed from Ford. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Northumbria was one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England and had been a focus for Anglo-Saxon christianity, art and learning centred on places like Lindisfarne, Hexham and Jarrow but in its later years it suffered constant invasion from the Danes and Scots.

Eventually the Northumbrian lands to the north of the Cheviots and to the south of the Tees (Yorkshire) were conquered respectively by the Scots and Danes so that the remaining part of Northumbria was reduced to an Anglo-Saxon earldom comprised of what later became the counties of Durham and Northumberland.

It was the Norman conquerors who divided this region into its two main parts, creating the County Palatine of Durham from the southern portion of Northumbria, while the remainder of the Earldom to the north of the Rivers Tyne and Derwent, continued to be known in Latin as Northumbria or in English as ‘Northumberland’ as it still is today.

Northumberland and Durham, though forming a remote and quite distinct English `border region’, developed notable social and political differences. Durham, thus became a semi-independent state, ruled by leaders known as Prince Bishops while Northumberland, more isolated and vulnerable to Scottish attacks, was divided into liberties and shires, which like Durham were often exempt from the writ of the King.

Norham Castle
Norham Castle Photo © David Simpson 2018

Some of these Northumberland districts became northern territories of Durham’s Prince Bishops – Norhamshire (alonsgide the Tweed), Islandshire (Holy Island) and the neighbouring mainland) and Bedlingtonshire. Other liberties were given to Norman Barons, or powerful ecclesiastics who through their own self interest, were expected to defend and protect them from the Scots in return for special privileges granted by the king. These districts included, the Liberty of Tynedale, and Liberty of Redesdale.

The Liberty of Tynemouthshire centred on Tynemouth belonged to the Abbot of St Albans and had extensive outlying lands across Northumberland and Hexhamshire centred on Hexham was under the direct control of the Archbishop of York. In other parts of Northumberland power rested primarily in the hands of the Earls of Northumberland – ‘kings in the north’ – and other minor barons.

Winter's Gibbet, near Elsdon
Winter’s Gibbet near Elsdon in Redesdale Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Many of Northumberland’s Norman barons, like the Umfravilles, Lords of Redesdale, held a status almost equivalent to Durham’s Prince Bishops. It is these barons who were largely responsible for building many of the grand castles, that are still a feature of the Northumbrian landscape to this day. Most important of the Northumbrian barons, were of course the Percys, of Alnwick Castle, who acquired land in the county in the early fourteenth century.

A battle ground

As England’s ‘Border County, it is not surprising that many great battles have been fought on Northumbrian soil between the English and the Scots. Most notable were the battles at Otterburn (1388) and at Flodden Field (1513), but there were many other lesser known battles and Border feuds fought in Northumberland. Until the Union of the English and Scottish Crowns in 1603 life in the Border County could be extremely dangerous and was often a one of strife and misery.

Stability, Law and order were of course gradually brought to the Border region following the accession of James I to the throne in 1603. From then on the heyday of Border raids slowly came to an end. Today the bloody Border past, has left Northumberland with a rich and colourful history, heritage and folklore.

O’ come with me, Ghosts walk tonight,
Victims of bloody border fight
Who made our English history,
Grey phantom Percies lead the way
Against the Douglas chivalry,
Grey ghosts of ancient mystery.
Lo! Watch them sweep o’er Flodden Field,
Where all the flowers of Scotland died;
Death cannot slay the splendid pride
Of those who fell but scorned to yield,
Who fought in vain, except to earn
Their name upon the scroll of fame
And write in blood each hero’s name
Upon the stones of Otterburn.

From Frederick C Palmer’s `The Ghosts’

Vicar's Pele, Elsdon
The village of Elsdon in Redesdale showing the vicar’s pele Photo © David Simpson 2019

Castles, Pele Towers and Bastle Houses

A notable feature of Northumberland’s heritage as a `Border region’, is that it has more castles than any other part of England. Some of these castles are admittedly ruins, but many still stand as very impressive monuments to the Border past. Surprisingly, apart from the spectacular edifices at Bamburgh at Dunstanburgh and the great medieval ‘Windsor of the North’ at Alnwick many are virtually unknown to people outside the region even though Northumberland has been described by the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, as the `English Castle County Par Excellence’.

In addition to the great castles, there are many other, smaller fortifications scattered throughout the Northumberland countryside, called Peles and Bastles, which stand as romantic and often eerie reminders of the county’s border past. Peles or Pele towers are the most common. These are stone-built, oblong tower houses, measuring approximately 40 feet by 30 feet, with walls 3 to 4 feet thick.

Vicar's Pele at Corbridge
Vicar’s Pele at Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Found on both sides of the border, the Pele towers were virtually impregnable against raiders and marauders and were lived in by the rich and poor alike. They usually consisted of a tunnel-vaulted ground floor for storage and livestock refuge along with two or three upper storeys accessible by a narrow spiral staircase. Access to a Pele Tower could be gained through two sets of doors, the outer made of iron the inner of oak. To ensure the tower’s defences were complete, windows in the Peles were very small and kept to a minimum.

Border Pele towers can date from as early as the thirteenth, to as late as the seventeenth century, but were all built to very much the same pattern. The `Vicar’s Peles’ found in some parts of Northumberland such as that at Elsdon or Corbridge are so named because they were once inhabited by local vicars or rectors.

Black Middens bastle
Above: Black Middens Bastle House, North Tynedale. Photo © 2005 David Simpson

Bastle Houses are a variation on the Pele tower, but are a lot less common. These are fortified farm houses rather than tower houses and tend to be found in remoter areas of the border country, usually not far from the border itself.

In Elizabethan and earlier times, the Pele Towers and Bastles of Northumberland were often inhabited by lawless raiding clans called the Border Reivers which included once notorious families like the Robsons, Armstrongs, Elliotts, Grahams and Dodds.

Milecastle 39 Hadrian's Wall
Milecastle 39, Hadrian’s Wall. Photo © 2018 David Simpson

English Borderland North of the Wall

Apart from the Castles, Bastles and Pele towers, arguably one of the most dramatic monuments to Northumberland’s border past is Hadrian’s Wall, but in fairness, though a symbol of the border country it may well be, the wall never formed the boundary between England and Scotland. In fact the wall was not, as is commonly thought built “to keep the Scots out”, for the Scots did not settle in Northern Britain until centuries after Hadrian’s Wall was built.

The real boundary between Scotland and England, can be as many as fifty miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall and runs along the heights of the imposing Cheviot Hills towards the coast near Berwick upon Tweed. The greater part of the county of Northumberland actually lies to the north of the ancient Roman frontier.

Berwick WoolerMilfield, Ford, Etal and Norham

Alnwick Morpeth Area | Wallington and Belsay

Kielder North Tynedale | Redesdale

Hexham Corbridge South Tynedale | Allendale

Hadrian’s Wall  | Hadrian’s Wall Country 

Warkworth, Amble and Druridge BayAlnmouth to Dunstanburgh

Bamburgh Lindisfarne Farne Islands

Blyth and BedlingtonshireAshington, Newbiggin and Lynemouth

Newcastle upon Tyne | North Tyneside | Whitley Bay


North East England History and Culture