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 © David Simpson

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 that was 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 the 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.

View of the Cheviots from the Duddo stones.
View of the Cheviots from the Duddo stones © David Simpson

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 © David Simpson

Some of the districts within Northumberland became northern territories of Durham’s Prince Bishops. These were Norhamshire (near the Tweed); Islandshire with Holy Island, the Farne Islands and several parishes on the neighbouring mainland (see the Prince Bishops) as well as Bedlingtonshire in the coastal area between the Wansbeck and Blyth.

Other liberties consisting of vast tracts of remote dales and wilderness were given to Norman Barons, or powerful ecclesiastics who through their own self interest, were expected to administer, defend and protect them from lawlessness in return for special privileges granted by the king. In Northumberland these districts included, the Liberty of Tynedale, and Liberty of Redesdale.

The liberties of Tynedale, Redesdale and Hexhamshire © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2022 A larger version of this image can be seen here
The liberties of Tynedale, Redesdale and Hexhamshire © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2022. A larger version of this map with additional notes can be seen here.

During the twelfth century in the reign of King David of Scotland much of Northumberland and Durham came under Scottish ownership between 1139 and 1157 yet surprisingly for much of the period that followed there was relative peace in the border regions and after Henry II reclaimed Northumberland and Durham in 1157, the King of Scotland remained the Lord and owner of the Liberty of Tynedale until 1286.

However, the creation of six Scottish ‘Border Marches’ would emphasise the importance of creating a border buffer zone between the two nations. There were three divisions with three marches each respectively found on the two sides of the border under the jurisdiction of a warden for each march.

The wardens were responsible for keeping the peace and settling disputes but the wardens themselves were often personally entrenched in border raiding and reiving of their own making. The marches were created as a result of a treaty between Henry III of England and King Alexander III of Scotland in 1249. The marches remained in place until end of the Elizabethan era.

Borderland and the North in medieval times showing some of the major northern English and border shires, liberties and counties.
Borderland and the North in medieval times showing some of the major northern English and border shires, liberties and counties © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2022. A larger version of this image is available here.

Cross-border tensions increased when England came under the rule of the powerful first Plantagenet king, the French-speaking Edward I, known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’.

The rebellion of the Norman baron, Robert Bruce who would become King of Scotland, caused much devastation in Northern England – especially in south Durham and North Yorkshire in raids in which Bruce often entered from the north west via Cumberland. This is a reminder that Northumberland could be bypassed by Scottish raids altogether and was by no means the only focus for invasions and raiding.

In addition to Tynedale and Redesdale there were other shires in the region that had certain privileges such as the Liberty of Tynemouthshire centred on Tynemouth that belonged to the abbey of St Albans which had other extensive outlying lands across Northumberland. Another liberty was Hexhamshire centred on Hexham and 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 (the Percies were like ‘kings in the north’) – as well as other minor barons.

Liberties and realms with notable degrees of autonomy also existed in northern Yorkshire such as Langbaurgh (Cleveland) and the Honour of Richmond which covered the Swaledale and Wensleydale areas to the south of the Tees.

Winter's Gibbet, near Elsdon
Winter’s Gibbet near Elsdon in Redesdale post-dates the era of Border raiding but seems to exemplify the often brutal history of the border region © 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 later Percys, of Alnwick (and other strongholds) who acquired land in the county in the early fourteenth century and became successors to the Umfravilles as the chief focus of power in Northumberland.

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 1603 when King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of Englan, life in the English border region could be extremely dangerous and sometimes a one of strife and misery.

Information board at the Battle of Otterburn site
Information board at the Battle of Otterburn site © David Simpson

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 in particular 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 © David Simpson

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  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’.

Bamburgh Castle and village
Bamburgh Castle and village © David Simpson

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. They were lived in by men who did not have the same status as the barons (with their castles) but the inhabitants were usually of a higher social standing than those farmers who inhabited bastles.

Vicar's Pele at Corbridge
Vicar’s Pele at Corbridge © David Simpson

Found on both sides of the border, the Pele towers were virtually impregnable against raiders and marauders. 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 © 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 inhabited by lawless raiding clans called the Border Reivers which included once notorious families like the Robsons, Armstrongs, Elliotts, Grahams and Dodds.

Border Reivers map
Border Reivers map. A higher resolution version of this map including additional details and comments is available as an A2 print from Tangled Worm © David Simpson and

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, this 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. Both sides of Hadrian’s Wall are of course in England. More than two-thirds of the county of Northumberland and most of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne are situated north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Milecastle 39 Hadrian's Wall
Milecastle 39, Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

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 Bay

Alnmouth to Dunstanburgh

Bamburgh Lindisfarne Farne Islands

Blyth and Bedlingtonshire

Ashington, Newbiggin and Lynemouth

Newcastle upon Tyne | North Tyneside | Whitley Bay


North East England History and Culture