Newcastle upon Tyne in Roman and Saxon times

Roman and Anglo-Saxon Newcastle

Newcastle was the site of a Roman fort called Pons Aelius which protected an important crossing on the Tyne and initially lay at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall before it was extended to Wallsend. Newcastle’s importance was without doubt, yet there were few mentions of the place during the Roman era.

Modern stone replica commemorating the site of the Roman fort of Newcastle.
Modern stone replica commemorating the site of the Roman fort of Newcastle. © David Simpson 2021

In the succeeding Anglo-Saxon period Newcastle, by whatever name it was then known, was something of an enigma. It was certainly the site of an Anglo-Saxon settlement and church. Then, in the Norman period, the establishment of a castle here would set in motion the growth of the town and ultimately thrust this exceptional place into a role at the heart of the region’s trade and commerce.

Roman origins : Hadrian’s bridge

Pons Aelius was the Roman name for the fort at Newcastle and played a role in guarding both Hadrian’s Wall and the nearby Roman bridge across the Tyne. Pons is a Latin word for bridge so Pons Aelius was literally the name of both the fort and the bridge.

The Swing Bridge Newcastle
The Swing Bridge on the site of the Roman and Medieval Bridge : Photo © 2017 David Simpson

In fact Pons Aelius can be translated as ‘Bridge of Hadrian’ as Aelius was the family name of the Emperor who ordered the construction of the Roman Wall that bears his name. The wall originally  terminated at Newcastle and traces can be seen across the western parts of the city.

The Roman bridge at Newcastle was built of timber, being a wooden-decked platform on stone piers and may have predated the fort. The commemoration of Hadrian’s family in the name of both bridge and fort may reflect the significance of the place as it is unusual for both ‘Pons’ and an Emperor’s name to be used in this way.

The bridge and wall were significant for the development of communities and trade on both sides of the river and about the time Hadrian’s Wall was built a Roman-British civilian settlement developed at Gateshead in the Bottle Bank area. Bottle, which might also occur as ‘battle’ or ‘bothal’ is an Anglo-Saxon word indicating the site of dwellings. It also occurs in the name of Walbottle, on the Roman wall to the west of Newcastle.

Hadrian’s Wall was built in AD122 and evidence from an inscription shows that the fort at Pons Aelius was in existence by at least AD 213. When exactly the bridge and fort was built is not certain and there is even a theory that the Newcastle fort was preceded by a fort at Gateshead though no fort has been found there despite the existence of a Roman civilian settlement.

Hadrian's Wall near Steel Rigg
Hadrian’s Wall near Steel Rigg Photo © 20185 David Simpson

The fort of Pons Aelius overlooked the River Tyne on the site now occupied by Newcastle castle. The first Norman Castle was built in 1080 around a thousand years after the building of the Roman fort.

Archaeology demonstrates that unusually, a market was held in the Roman fort between 270AD and 360AD. Outside the fort, to the west, a Roman civilian village existed in what is now the Hanover Street area stretching down to the river bank above the present Close. So there were civilian communities on both sides of the river.

The civilian settlement or ‘vicus’ in the Hanover Street area was excavated in 2008 and finds included two Roman coffin burials at Clavering Place.  The coffins, along with another two found during the construction of the nearby Turnbull warehouse (also Clavering Place), over a century earlier in 1903, are thought to represent the burials of a single high status Roman family.

Cooperage and House of Tides
The red brick Turnbull warehouse (at the top of he picture) towering above the Close: Photo © David Simpson 2015.

Roman altar stones have been discovered at Newcastle including notable ones dedicated to Jupiter, Silvanus, Neptune and Oceanus. The last two, dredged from the river, reflect the importance of the bridge and the river location of the fort. It was thought that they had fallen from the Roman bridge but they may have been deliberately thrown into the Tyne as some kind of religious offering.

Pons Aelius was situated on a site limited for space amidst the tributary riverside denes or valleys. It was a relatively small fort and it is hard to picture its shape and location in the heart of the present city, especially on a spot now occupied by a medieval castle. Helpfully, part of the outline of the Roman fort is marked out in stone close to the castle keep which at least provides a starting point to trigger the imagination.

Part of the outline of the Roman fort is marked out in stone close to the castle keep © David Simpson 2021

There is only one written Roman reference to the fort at Pons Aelius and that comes quite late in the fifth century when it is interestingly noted that soldiers from a British tribe called the Cornovii, serving in the Roman army were stationed at the fort. It was unusual for Britons to serve in forts on Hadrian’s Wall. The Cornovii were from the Shropshire-Cheshire-Mersey area.

The lack of literary references to Pons Aelius suggest that despite being a bridging point at the head of a road on Hadrian’s Wall, this was not a place of particular importance in military terms.

Pons Aelius Newcastle
Stone cobbles mark the site of Pons Aelius within the castle precinct. © David Simpson 2021

In truth it was military campaigns and major events that made their way into Roman recorded history rather than events of everyday life. Pons Aelius was likely a relatively peaceful yet busy focal centre of trade and movement, focused on the bridge, though its garrison would always be prepared for action when needed. Archaeology might provide further clues to Newcastle’s significance.

Because much of the Roman fort site is now occupied by the castle only a small percentage of the fort has been excavated so this limits our knowledge of the fort. It is not even clear, for example, if the fort was actually attached to Hadrian’s Wall or stood apart from it.

In fact, tracing the course of Hadrian’s Wall presents uncertainties in the area immediately east and west of the castle, which have long since developed as parts of the city.

Westgate Road, on the course of Hadrian's Wall
Westgate Road, on the course of Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson 2021

To the west, the Westgate Road more or less follows the course of Hadrian’s Wall from central Newcastle westward where it becomes the West Road (A186). On the Westgate Road itself, in the heart of the city close to the Tyne Theatre, traces of a turret belonging to the wall were identified in the 1980s beneath the buildings of the street.

Slight Roman traces have also been identified at the eastern end of Westgate Road near Newcastle Central Station including the wall itself. There are also possible traces nearby of the east-to-west Military Road that accompanied the Wall along its length.

In the vicinity of the castle (the fort site) the route of the wall is open to conjecture with possible routes descending to the river and the Roman bridge via the present Dog Leap Stairs or the adjoining street called ‘Side’.

Dog Leap Stairs
Dog Leap Stairs © David Simpson 2015

Later, around AD 127, Hadrian’s Wall was extended three miles east to a new fort called Segedunum at what we now call Wallsend. Again, the exact course of this extension of Hadrian’s Wall in the immediate vicinity of the castle is not clear.

It seems to have passed through the Painter Heugh area to the rear of Dean Street (near the present railway bridge) and followed a course where the railway now crosses the central motorway. Passing through or somewhere just north of All Saints church it then passed close to the Wall Knoll tower and gateway (today known as ‘The Secret Tower’) on the later medieval town wall. The medieval town wall was built 1,100 years after Hadrian’s Wall.

Garth Heads and the Keelmen's Hospital
Stately looking former workers’ houses of the 1870s in Garth Head to the rear of the Keelmen’s Hospital in City Road. Garth Heads follows part of the westward course of Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson 2021

From Wall Knoll Hadrian’s Wall then ran along the Garth Heads area and headed north east to where we find St Dominic’s Catholic Club off Crawhall Road. Here it turned east slightly close to Stepney Bank, roughly running parallel to today’s Byker Bridge. It crossed the Ouse Burn just to the south of Byker Bridge.

Garth Heads. Newcastle
Garth Heads. Newcastle. Following the course of the Roman wall. © David Simpson 2021

Through Byker it more or less ran along the course of Shields Road on the road’s south side and then to the east of the A193 roundabout followed the course of the road called the Fossway through Walker.

The ‘Wal’ element of the name Walker is in fact a reference to the Roman Wall from ‘Wall-Kerr’, marshy scrubland near the Roman wall. In the vicinity of Milecastle House (named from the site of a Roman milecastle) the wall departs from the course of the Fossway Road following Eastfield Avenue up to the Roman fort of Segedunum at Wallsend – the end of the wall.

Reconstruction of Hadrian’s Wall overlooking the remains of the actual wall itself near Segedunum, Wallsend.
Reconstruction of Hadrian’s Wall overlooking the remains of the actual wall itself near Segedunum, Wallsend. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Segedunum was strategically located at a point where a short northward flowing section of the Tyne suddenly turns east towards the sea. East of Wallsend, this very broad, tidal section of the Tyne formed a natural and formidable continuation of the Roman defences with one of the defensive walls of the Wallsend fort actually extending into the River Tyne itself.

The extension of the wall to Wallsend would have offered great protection to the bridge and fort at Pons Aelius further upstream enabling trade to securely develop.

Once hidden by terraced housing the layout of the Wallsend fort, three miles east of Newcastle can be clearly seen today, but of course Wallsend is not part of Newcastle.

Roman Benwell
Roman Temple of Antenociticus at Benwell, Newcastle © David Simpson 2021

Heading to the west of Newcastle into the city’s western suburbs there are a number of features of the wall that make an appearance amongst the houses and terraces there.  Notably, features can be seen at Benwell where a section of the Hadrian’s Wall ‘vallum’ or defensive ditch (complete with a crossing) and a Roman temple can be seen on the edge of the Roman fort site called Condercum.

Even prominent sections of the wall itself can be seen in the Denton Burn and East Denton areas alongside the A186 and its western continuation, the A69.

Outline of Roman fort near Newcastle castle
Outline of Roman fort near Newcastle castle. Photo David Simpson

Cade’s Road : The road to Pons Aelius

It is worth exploring the route, significance and nature of the south to north road that terminated at the Pons Aelius bridge. Compared to Dere Street little is known about this road as it has produced few Roman sites. In militarily terms at least, the Roman focus was centred along Dere Street which crossed the Tyne at Corbridge some 16 miles upstream as the crow flies from Newcastle.

Dere Street was the primary northern route of the era and important for Roman military campaigns in Caledonia. The history of the north-south road on which Pons Aelius was located, is by contrast extraordinarily obscure for such a lengthy route with few Roman military sites of significance along its course.

Perhaps this road north to Newcastle followed the course of an earlier ‘Celtic’ route of prehistory. It begins at Brough on Humber, a place known to the Romans as Petuaria. Here there was a Roman fort and important Roman town in the heartland of the tribal area of the Parisi. Petuaria seems to have been the Roman designated Civitas (city) associated with the Roman administration of this native tribe. There was a ferry across the Humber to another Roman town on the south side of the Humber at Winteringham (Lincolnshire) and this was at the northern terminus of a branch of the Roman Road of Ermine Street (London to Lincoln).

In the North East the road north from Brough to Newcastle is sometimes referred to as Cade’s Road from an 18th century antiquarian who identified its route, though Roman archaeologists today refer to it by a Roman Road catalogue number: ‘Margary Route 806′.

Between Brough and Chester-le-Street there is only one known Roman fort on its course. This is at Hayton in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a very early and short-lived fort founded around 70AD. A few miles north of Hayton a branch (perhaps the main branch) seemingly headed north west to York to link up with Dere Street.

Roman roads map
Map showing Roman roads, Roman forts (red), civilian towns and settlements (yellow) and Roman roads including ‘Cade’s Road’ © David Simpson 2017

North of Hayton, Cade’s Road spans the full north-south length of North Yorkshire passing through the Vale of York and Vale of Mowbray. Near Thirsk it is remembered in Thornton-le-Street, the tell-tale suffix ‘le-Street’ added by the later Normans to designate a former Roman road (‘via strata’ – the root of  the word ‘street’ means ‘paved way’). At this point in Yorkshire the parallel Dere Street is six miles to the west.

Cade’s Road leaves Yorkshire and crosses the Tees at Middleton St George near Darlington where the site of a Roman bridge is remembered in the name of Pountey’s Lane, derived from ‘Pons Tesie’ (Bridge of Tees).

Eight miles to the west beyond Darlington the parallel Dere Street crosses the Tees at Piercebridge. To reach Piercebridge from York Dere Street has passed through the Roman fort of Aldborough near Boroughbridge with the Civitas of the Brigantes tribe nearby. Further to the north, Dere Street passes through the significant Roman town and fort of Catterick.  From Piercebridge Dere Street then heads north to the fort of Binchester (Vinovia) on the River Wear near Bishop Auckland.

In the same parallel journey from Hayton, Cade’s Road does not encounter a single fort but it may have had significance in other ways. From Middleton St George, Cade’s Road heads north through Sadberge, (the centre of the North East’s only Wapentake in later Viking times) and then heads on through the Sedgefield area. Here, a significant Roman-native British settlement focused on pottery and craft was excavated by the BBC’s archaeology Time Team programme in 2002.

The old Roman road, Great Stainton
The old Roman road, Great Stainton (Stainton-le-Street) near Sedgefield. Photo © David Simpson 2018

North of Sedgefield the road bends north west towards Durham City but then disappears just south east of Durham itself in the ‘Old Durham‘ and Shincliffe areas. In 1939 a Romano-British farm or villa of some kind was discovered near ‘Old Durham’ Farm not far from the River Wear but the site was subsequently obliterated due to sand quarrying. From here, however, the course of Cade’s Road is untraceable until we reach the outskirts of Chester-le-Street.

Intriguingly, at Willington to the north of Binchester, a branch of Dere Street also branches off in the direction of Durham City approaching the city from the south west but cannot be traced beyond Stonebridge (on the River Browney). Like its nearby companion of Cade’s Road it disappears at Durham but presumably the two were linked somewhere in the Durham City area. Whatever its course in Durham might have been, it re-merges just to the south of Chester-le-Street.

Traces of Roman barracks Chester-le-Street
Traces of Roman barracks at Chester-le-Street. Photo © David Simpson

Chester-le-Street was the site of the Roman fort of Concangis, a name thought to derive from a local tribal group ‘the horse people’ and recalled in the name of the Cong Burn that joins the Wear here. In post-Roman times Concangis was known as Conecaster and had significant links to the Community of St Cuthbert both as a resting place for the saint and as an exiled seat for the Bishops of Lindisfarne.

Entering the Tyneside area to the north of Chester-le-Street, the next main feature of Cade’s Road is an offshoot Roman Road that heads north east towards the Roman fort and port at South Shields called Arbeia. This fort on the south side of the river at the mouth of the Tyne supplemented and supported Hadrian’s Wall’s defences and served as a supply port as well as a fort.

Roman gatehouse and fort at Arbeia
Roman gatehouse and fort reconstruction at Arbeia alongside the remains of the Roman fort. Photo © David Simpson 2015

The Roman road from Cade’s Road to South Shields is called the Wrekendike (also known in parts as Leam Lane). It joins Cade’s Road in the Eighton area of Gateshead, not far from the Angel of the North.

Northward, from Eighton, Cade’s Road more or less followed the course of the Durham Road through Gateshead to the Tyne. It terminated at the Roman bridge of Pons Aelius with the civilian community at Bottle Bank near its northern end.

Remarkably, except for Pons Aelius, Concangis at Chester-le-Street seems to have been the only fort of any significance along the entire course of Cade’s Road. You get the impression that in military terms much of the land through which this road passed offered little resistance to the Roman presence compared to the hilly country traversed by Dere Street to the west. Perhaps this eastern area was more of a peaceful civilian zone compared to the militarised west.

The fort at Newcastle was perhaps an extension of this zone of relative peace and likely thrived as a trading point as well as a military post, particularly after the wall was extended to Wallsend.

Monkchester : Anglo-Saxon Newcastle

Following the collapse of Roman Britain, around 450AD, Newcastle’s history plunges into something of a darkness (as with many places) and only archaeology can shine a real light. Recent research suggests that there was much continuity across Britain in the period following the Roman departure that saw the subsequent rise of Anglo-Saxon culture. The nature of the Anglo-Saxon colonisation of Britain is a fascinating topic and still a one in which our knowledge and understanding is developing. It initially, at least, seems to have involved mercenaries, who were perhaps deliberately employed plantations of Anglo-Saxon ‘foederati’ made by the Romans shortly before their departure or by the Romano-British ‘Celts’ left to defend Britain from anarchy following the Roman departure.

Strangely, even when the North East entered the Golden Age of Northumbria, that famous enlightened ‘Anglo-Saxon’ period that produced the Lindisfarne Gospels and gave us so many prominent Northumbrian figures (Edwin; Oswald; St Cuthbert; the Venerable Bede), Newcastle’s role and status for the history of this period, if it played any significant role at all, is somewhat shrouded in darkness.

Church of St Paul at Jarrow, nave on the left
Church of St Paul at Jarrow, nave on the left. Photo © David Simpson

During this era, the most learned Bede who was of course a local man based at Jarrow and Wearmouth made a reference to a place called Ad Murum – a name that refers to a location at or within the Roman Wall. Bede was referring to the capital of a royal estate – or royal palace and described the place as “well known”.  From Bede’s description of its distance from Jarrow it seems to have been broadly somewhere in the Newcastle area.

It was at this site that Prince Peada, who ruled the ‘Middle Angles’ (the Leicestershire – Cambridgeshire area) was converted to Christianity. He was a son of Penda, King of Mercia. Peada (from whom Peterborough is named) had requested the hand of the daughter of King Oswy of Northumbria in marriage and this was granted by Oswy on the basis that Peada agreed to convert from Paganism to Christianity.

Ad Murum, the place referred to as the site of the baptism means ‘At Wall’ could possibly be Newcastle. However, it could equally be Heddon on the Wall (where there is an Anglo-Saxon church) or perhaps at Benwell (its Anglo-Saxon name means ‘within the wall’) or perhaps even Walbottle – ‘the dwellings on the wall’ just north of Newburn on Tyne where there was certainly a Northumbrian royal centre in a later period. The village of Wall in Northumberland seems much too far to the west.

Another suggestion is that Ad Murum was at Pandon, historically ‘Pampeden’, an Anglo-Saxon settlement within Hadrian’s Wall near the Pandon Burn that later became part of Newcastle.

Wherever he was baptised, Peada returned to his people with the intention of converting them and he was accompanied by a number of Christian priests including Adda, the brother of Utta, the abbot of the monastery of the ‘Goat’s Head‘ at Gateshead.

Church of St Mary, Gateshead and Tyne Bridge
Church of St Mary, Gateshead and Tyne Bridge : Photo © David Simpson

So, here we have a reference to Gateshead but only a possible reference by Bede to Newcastle in Anglo-Saxon times and as we can see there are several (perhaps much stronger) candidates that can be identified with Ad Murum.

Significantly, in the remote possibility that the ‘Ad Murum’ mentioned by Bede was in fact Newcastle then it is still the only mention of the place in the entire Anglo-Saxon period from the departure of the Romans up until the building of the Norman New Castle on the Tyne.

If Bede wasn’t referring to Newcastle, then we have a period of 700 years in which Newcastle makes no appearance whatsoever in the records of North East history and only one literary reference in the Roman era that preceded it. Here was a place clearly in a significant strategic location that is virtually absent from historical records for a whole millennia.

Was there a settlement at Newcastle of some kind during the Anglo-Saxon period? Archaeology very clearly tells us that yes there was. Anglo-Saxon place-names in the vicinity of Newcastle also show there was certainly much settlement in the immediate area but the real answer comes from the archaeology.

Significantly up to six-hundred burials dating from around AD800 have been found within the area of the former Roman fort demonstrating that from this period at least the fort was re-used as a cemetery for a local community if not actually occupied.

Lindisfarne Priory with Lindisfarne castle in the distance : Photo © 2015 David Simpson

The timing of the new activity at the Roman site may be significant. In AD793 the first Viking raid upon Lindisfarne took place followed by further recorded raids on Lindisfarne, Jarrow, Tynemouth and Hartlepool between 796 and 800. These were the first raids recorded in the chronicles and no doubt many others followed up to the great full scale Danish invasion of Yorkshire in AD 866.

If the sudden appearance of Anglo-Saxon burials in a Roman fort in a riverside area occurred around AD 800 then it is tempting to see this as an attempt to seek shelter and protection from Viking raids.

There was certainly Viking activity on the Tyne. Halfdan, the Dane wintered with his army at the mouth of the River Team (near Dunston) after sacking Tynemouth and from this base raided throughout northern Northumbria. Around AD 918 there was at least one battle at Corbridge on Tyne involving the Hiberno Norse or Norse Gaels.

Over time Vikings settled across northern and eastern England and in Cumbria and settlement was especially prominent in Yorkshire (where Viking place-names are extremely numerous in what was once the Kingdom of Jorvik). Northumberland and northern County Durham largely escaped Viking settlement but over time there was Viking influence on language throughout England and Scotland.

Byker, interestingly is a rare example of a Viking place-name on Tyneside (not Bywell though which has a different origin). The name of the Lort Burn that ran along the course of what is now Dean Street and Grey Street is also from a Norse word – meaning dirty or muddy (there is also a Lort Burn near the Roman fort of Epiacum in South Tynedale).

In Newcastle, in addition to the seemingly Norse-named Lort Burn, there was a stream called the Erick Burn, which if derived from a personal name would also seem to be Norse, though of course the term for a stream used in heavily Viking settled areas is ‘beck’ rather than ‘burn’.

Anglo-Saxon church at Newcastle
Foundations of Anglo-Saxon church tower at Newcastle. © David Simpson 2021

Only part of the Roman fort site at Newcastle has been excavated and as we have said it is not clear whether the site was occupied or just used for burials in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods. The site does, however, show traces of a succession of two Anglo-Saxon churches within the site and significantly the foundations of the tower of an Anglo-Saxon church has been identified and is clearly visible to visitors within the castle.

The church was built re-using Roman stones – a common practice in the building of Anglo-Saxon churches – and its remains are now sheltered underneath the arch of the railway bridge within the castle grounds. It is thought that the church was enclosed by the Normans within their ‘new castle’, as a private chapel.

Newcastle Castle keep above viaduct
Newcastle Castle keep above viaduct © David Simpson 2021

As the site of an Anglo-Saxon church, Newcastle was most definitely the site of an Anglo-Saxon settlement of some significance, at least a  village of some kind – but what was it called?

Given its location close to so many denes or valleys, a name ending in ‘den’ might be expected and would be typical (though den may sometimes be corrupted to ‘don’ – as in Pandon). So a place-name ending in ‘den’ is a possibility but Anglo-Saxon settlements close to or partly occupying former Roman forts almost always adopt the suffix ‘chester’ (or occasionally ‘caster’) a word meaning ‘fort’ borrowed from Latin that the Anglo-Saxons used to describe the site of a Roman fort. For the Anglo-Saxons it very specifically referred to Roman fort sites as the Anglo-Saxons usually referred to their own forts or earlier Celtic forts as ‘burhs’ (or burghs, a word that later developed into ‘borough’ meaning town).

Pandon Dene, Newcastle
Pandon Dene, Newcastle

It seems likely that the Anglo-Saxon settlement at Newcastle was a ‘chester’. There are of course some exceptions to the general rule that ‘chester’ is adopted for Anglo-Saxon settlements near Roman forts but often these names still refer to Roman features.  For example the ‘well’ in the name Benwell is in fact ‘wall’ – namely the Roman Wall, while the ‘coln’ in Lincoln refers to the former Roman Colonia.

At Newcastle we would expect a place-name ending in ‘chester’ and we find only one real possible reference to such a place. Writing between 1104 and 1107 the noted historian Simeon of Durham seems to provide the answer in his History of the Church of Durham.

Simeon was a monk and scholar at Durham who had previously been a monk at the newly revived monastery of Jarrow before his relocation to Durham so he was no doubt familiar with the geography of the Tyne. He describes how in 1073 a Mercian cleric called Aldwin of Winchcome came north with two monks Elfwy and Reinfrid from the monastery of Evesham with the express intention of reviving the monastic institutions in Northumbria for which the region had once been famed prior to the Viking incursions. Simeon says the men set off over land and that the first place they arrived was Monkchester, which Simeon describes as the ‘City of the Monks’.

Durham Castle north wing
Durham Castle north wing. Photo David Simpson

Simeon very specifically said that Monkchester lay on the northern bank of the River Tyne and pointed out that it belonged to the Bishop of Durham but was under the jurisdiction of the Earl of Northumbria. The Earl of Northumbria at that time was an Anglo-Saxon called Waltheof who interestingly had recently been involved in the building of the castle at Durham.

The Earl Waltheof was from a family line of Northumbrian earls. His father was Siward, the Anglo-Danish Earl of Northumbria and on his mother’s side his grandfather and great grandfather was Ealdred Earl of Berncia and Uhtred of Bamburgh, the Earl of Northumbria. Waltheof had a much older brother called Osbearn but when Osbearn died in battle followed later by the death of Siward in 1055 Waltheof was too young to succeed as Earl so Edward the Confessor, King of England appointed Tostig Godwinson of Wessex as the Earl of Northumbria.

Newcastle: St Nicholas Cathedral, castle keep and railway
Newcastle: St Nicholas Cathedral, castle keep and railway © David Simpson 2021

As a younger brother it is likely that Waltheof had been trained and educated to become a monk – as was often the case with nobility at that time. However, in the 1060s he became the Earl of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire within the old realm of Mercia before he became Earl of Northumbria in 1072

All of this might help to explain the sudden appearance in 1073 of two Mercian monks at one of Waltheof’s previously unmentioned estates – ‘Monkchester’ – they were perhaps invited by Waltheof himself.

The Bishop of Durham, William Walcher of Lorraine, who seems to have had a close working friendship with Waltheof thought that the monks would be better off under a bishop’s jurisdiction rather than a secular one and invited them to visit him at Durham, granting them the famed monastery of Jarrow which had long fallen out of use.

The Earl, Waltheof was later disgraced for plotting against King William I and was executed at Winchester in 1075. Bishop Walcher then gained the Earldom of Northumbria as well as retaining his role as the Bishop of Durham. This gave him extraordinary power in the North East but it was not a success as his retainers aggravated the men north of the Tyne and Walcher was ultimately murdered by a mob at Gateshead in 1080 where the bishop had called a peace keeping meeting. The murder is thought to have been one of the reasons that hastened the Norman building of the castle across the river at ‘Newcastle’ that year.

Jarrow church from the banks of the River Don
Jarrow church from the banks of the River Don : Photo © David Simpson

All of these events, including the building of the castle took place in Simeon of Durham’s lifetime and in The History of the Kings another work also attributed (though not certainly) to Simeon, it is stated that Monkchester is now called Novum Castellum (Newcastle).

What of Monkchester though? Why was it so-called if it is correctly identified as Newcastle? The name suggests a monastery but despite the finds of Anglo-Saxon burials and a church, no evidence of a monastery has been identified. One view is that it was a place where monks resided or took shelter and another suggestion is that Aldwin and the two brethren had only just started to establish the monastery and that the name should be attributed to them. If so that would raise the question of what Newcastle was called in Anglo-Saxon times before it became Monkchester?

St Peter's church at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland
St Peter’s church at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland : Photo © David Simpson

Another theory is that Newcastle was not Monkchester at all and that Simeon made a mistake but if so where was Monkchester? One suggestion is that he meant Monkwearmouth, north of the Wear near Sunderland. This is difficult to accept not just because of Simeon’s knowledge as a scholar and former Jarrow monk but because there is no known Roman fort (‘chester’) at Monkwearmouth (though it is certainly possible).

More importantly, Simeon specifically says Monkchester was north of the Tyne and within the jurisdiction of the Earl of Northumbria rather than the Bishop of Durham. Monkwearmouth was very firmly under the jurisdiction of the Bishop and had long been so as one of the first grants of land to the Bishops of Durham in the establishment of the Community of St Cuthbert between the Tyne and Tees.

One other possibility is that Monkchester was at Tynemouth, as it is just possible that there was a Roman fort or at least a watch tower of some kind located there, which might equally be regarded as a ‘chester’ but Monkchester is specifically identified as Novum Castellum – ‘Newcastle’.

Remnants of the Roman Wall, Denton West
Remnants of the Roman Wall, Denton West, Newcastle upon Tyne © David Simpson 2021

Ultimately much of Newcastle’s history prior to the Norman Conquest is something of a mystery and even its initial early development in the early decades after the building of the first castle has little information in the historical record. It poses a number of fascinating questions about the nature and status of Newcastle in those early times but one thing is certain, it would soon rapidly rise to prominence.

Castle and Walls | Quayside | Roman Newcastle

 Newcastle Streets A-DE-L | M-W

 Benwell, Elswick, Scotswood | Gosforth, Jesmond, Ouseburn

North Tyneside | Wallsend | North Shields 

Tynemouth | Whitley Bay

Gateshead | Blaydon | Whickham | Dunston | Felling

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