The Viking history of the River Tees is explored in a series of YouTube videos by David Simpson.
In an English region where borders and frontiers have shaped history more than any other, the River Tees is one part of the North East that’s often overlooked. Yet this valley has one of the most distinct and varied histories within the region and was as much a frontier as the Tyne, Hadrian’s Wall, the Cheviot Hills or County Durham’s ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’.
The story of the North East role as a frontier is covered in our new You Tube series: The Five Frontiers with four short videos covering each of five frontiers from the Tees to the Tweed.
Surprisingly, Scotland’s borders once stretched to the Tees and in the first of four videos covering the Tees we look at this legacy and the influence of the Baliol and Bruce families, both of whom once dominated the Tees valley and both of whom would produce Scottish kings. We discover how the Tees became a short-lived border for Scotland and became a focus for Scottish raids that sometimes bypassed much of the region to focus on the Tees.
The Tees was not just a Scottish frontier, however. In fact the earlier ‘frontier’ history of the valley is crucial to understanding the role of the North East’s distinct history and role as a borderland. The revelation of the river’s role in this respect is revealed through an exploration of the Viking period when the Tees became a distinct cultural frontier that separated off the rest of the region and helped form the North East’s distinct identity of which the Tees itself formed a part.
Viking settlement in the Tees valley divided the Kingdom of Northumbria into two parts with much of the Viking settlement falling upon Yorkshire and stretching only a little to the north of the Tees itself.
In the first of the four videos covering the Tees we explore the period when the Tees became the Scotland border before heading into the earlier period of Viking settlement that would partly inspire the nineteenth century Scottish poet, Sir Walter Scott in his Teesdale-themed work ‘Rokeby’. Scott partly draws on Viking place-names and themes including the Norse inspired river and stream-names: Balder, Thorsgill Beck and of course the famous ‘force’ waterfalls with their Viking terminology. Scott’s poem is set in a much later period – the Civil War – but Scott seems to have understood the earlier role of the Tees as a frontier drawing on its distinct Viking place-name nomenclature.
In our second video covering the Tees we see how two of the most famous Viking Kings to reign within England had associations with the Tees. Eric Bloodaxe met his end here in this valley as a result of a political intrigue associated with the old fault line within the Kingdom of Northumbria that lay along the River Tees.
The river separated the political sphere of influence of the ‘Kings’ of Bamburgh from the Viking kings of York and the downfall of Bloodaxe really marked the beginning end of the end for Northumbria itself. The other great and powerful Viking king associated with the valley is Cnut, the Danish king of all England who held land within the valley which he bestowed upon the Community of St Cuthbert at Durham.
The third of the videos covering the Viking heritage of the Tees looks at the Viking Wapentake of Sadberge – the Viking territory that lay just north of north of the river as well as exploring Viking place-names along the entire course of the valley.
South of the river we explore the strong Viking associations in the Cleveland area, focused upon the prominent hill of Roseberry Topping, once called ‘Odin’s Berge’ a former centre of Viking pagan worship. In this video we also look at the legacy of the unique and fascinating Viking hogback sculptures that are unique to Britain and most significantly focused on the Tees valley and neighbouring Northallerton ‘Allertonshire’ area of North Yorkshire.
In the fourth video again exploring the history of the Viking valley of the Tees we find the story of the Sockburn Worm, a probable mythological legacy associated with the Vikings and set within a loop of the river that has significant Viking links as well as connections to the Christian heritage of Northumbria. Finally, downstream from Sockburn within another loop of the Tees we visit the town of Yarm where the remarkable discovery of Britain’s first Viking helmet find was made.
At some point the Tees-themed videos will be followed by more videos covering the other frontiers of the region, namely Northumberland’s border country; the River Tyne and Hadrian’s Wall Country; County Durham’s Land of the Prince Bishops and of course the region’s magnificent frontier coast.
Why is the Wear an appendage of the Tyne? Why is the ‘North Humber Land’ of Northumberland so far north of the Humber? Why is so much of the River Tees not even part of the ‘Tees Valley’?
In this blog, historian DAVID SIMPSON laments the loss of the straightforward, traditional, easy to understand historic counties of the North East and Yorkshire.
Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland are ancient counties with roots going back a thousand years or more but something changed in the 1970s that left communities confused and disembodied in a legacy that continues to this day. It was during that decade that those long-lived county regions were broken into little pieces, redefined for economic or political purposes and given artificial names that were in some cases little more than marketing brands.
Take Yorkshire for instance. It was recorded as ‘Eoferwicscire’ as far back as 1055, though its roots are much older than that. It developed from the Viking Kingdom of York and its three ancient ‘Ridings’. Indeed it was the Vikings who divided Yorkshire into the three parts called ‘Ridings’ (North, West and East) from the Norse word ‘thrithing’ or ‘þriðjungr’ meaning ‘third part’.
Despite this ancient division, the Vikings didn’t re-brand the three individual bits with cumbersome names. They kept things clear. Yorkshire or even just ‘York’ as it was often simply known remained intact and the ‘Ridings’ stayed in place right up until 1974.
It was in 1974 that London’s brutal battle-axe of bureaucratic boundary changes hit Yorkshire as it did many other places in Britain. A new county called ‘Humberside’ was hacked out of Yorkshire’s south eastern corner and it annexed rather a lot of Lincolnshire too. People from Hull, wherever they might venture, now had to justify that they were still in fact Yorkshiremen, maintaining their centuries old right.
In 1996 Humberside was of course ultimately abolished and quite rightly too. It was then that the East Riding of Yorkshire re-merged (now the only ‘official’ Riding) and although Hull’s separate city status was acknowledged, its place in Yorkshire is clear.
It was in 1974 that Cleveland was created too.
Now, as a name Cleveland was not without precedent. Even the Vikings knew of it, calling it ‘Cliffland’ in their sagas. As an ancient district it was part of Yorkshire and exclusively part of Yorkshire, that is to say a part of that giant historic county south of the Tees. This Cleveland – the real Cleveland – stretched as far west as the little town of Yarm, encompassed Middlesbrough (a monastic cell in medieval times) and stretched right down to the River Esk at Whitby taking in the Cleveland Hills and the beautiful Cleveland coast.
However, the new 1974 County of Cleveland was something quite different to the old Cleveland district of Yorkshire. The new Cleveland still included Middlesbrough and Yarm and some of the Cleveland coastal towns but this county of Cleveland was, in historic terms, an awful inaccuracy.
For a start, Hartlepool, the ancient sea port of County Durham was annexed to Cleveland’s expanded realm along with the historic Durham towns of Stockton and Billingham and pretty villages like Egglescliffe and Norton. Yet south of the Tees much of the real, historic Cleveland was not included in the new county. So, bizarrely, most of the Cleveland Hills and the village of Carlton-in-Cleveland were not included in the new County of Cleveland. Hilariously, to add to this confusion a County Durham village called Carlton near Stockton did become part of the new county, so that we now had a Carlton in Cleveland county (but not ‘in-Cleveland’) and a ‘Carlton-in-Cleveland’ that was not in Cleveland County!
The nonsense of ‘Cleveland the county’ eventually ended (as it did with Humberside) in 1996 after an existence of only 22 years but it was only to be replaced by a new kind of nonsense some twenty years later.
The so-called ‘Tees Valley Combined Authority’ (an awful mouthful it has to be said) began life as a ‘local enterprise partnership’ in 2011 but then became a combined authority in 2016. The new authority was more or less identical to the county of Cleveland, but now also included the historic County Durham town of Darlington which had long been the focal point for South Durham.
There was apparently much support for this new combined authority across that region with 65 per cent of people voting in its favour. In fact, on closer examination (according to Wikipedia) there were only over 1,900 responses to this question – that’s not very many when we consider the Tees Valley region has a population of 700,000.
What makes the term ‘Tees Valley’ really confusing is its geographical scope. For example, you can walk along the south bank of the River Tees opposite Darlington Borough and you are firmly in Yorkshire but for some reason you’re definitely not in the ‘Tees Valley’. Similarly up in the Dales you find that Barnard Castle and the surrounding countryside of Teesdale isn’t part of the ‘Tees Valley’ either.*
‘Barney’ as it is known to locals is the capital of Teesdale, on the north bank of the river and still in County Durham as it has been for many centuries.
Then we have Hartlepool, an historic town with an extraordinary history that was once one of Britain’s major sea ports. Old Hartlepool is situated on a coastal headland on the North Sea coast. Hartlepool was never a port on the River Tees but today it is included as part of the Tees Valley.
The reality is of course that Tees Valley is an economic partnership and a rather nice marketing term for Teesside with Hartlepool and Darlington thrown in for good measure. It has no real historic meaning beyond that. If you think about it though, ‘Tees Valley’ has quite a nice ring to it and it is a much more pleasing name than the now deeply ingrained and for some reason widely accepted term ‘Tyne and Wear’ which the American writer Paul Theroux compared to ‘Time and Wear’ (as in sadly worn by time) but we’ll come to that ‘county’ in a moment.
North of the Tees (and yes we do mean the Tees) the name Northumberland (or in Latin style ‘Northumbria’) survived the Viking annexation of Yorkshire. It is a reminder that ‘Northumberland’ or ‘Northumbria’ was once the name for the whole of the North being the term for the ancient kingdom that encompassed everything English north of the Humber. During the Viking era the remaining Northumbrian rump north of the Tees split into two parts with the land between the Tyne and Tees ultimately becoming County Durham, while the term ‘Northumberland’ continued in use north of the Tyne and Derwent.
Durham developed as a kind of buffer state between Viking Yorkshire and the rest of Northumberland. Centred initially on Chester-le-Street (Conecaster) and then later Durham City it was focused on the revered shrine of St Cuthbert. ‘St Cuthbert’s Land’, the fledgling County of Durham was also called the ‘Haliwerfolc’ meaning land of the ‘Holy-man-people’. The ‘wer’ of this name means ‘man’ – the same word we find in ‘werewolf’ but in Durham’s case was perhaps a play on words because its heartland was focused on the Wear. The ‘Haliwerfolc’ were far more northern than those ‘North Folc’ of Norfolk. County Durham was also recorded as ‘Dunelmensisschira’ meaning Durham-Shire, around 1100, but ‘shire’ or ‘folk’ never caught on as part of Durham’s name.
The ‘County Palatine of Durham’ ruled by political Prince Bishops, came to be County Durham as the Prince Bishops’ powers depleted. We should not forget that the influence of the bishops was extensive across the whole region. There were even remote exclaves of their Palatine in what is now Northumberland, namely: ‘Norhamshire’ on the Tweed, sharing a border with Scotland; ‘Bedlingtonshire’ between the Rivers Wansbeck and Blyth; and Islandshire encompassing Lindisfarne and the Farnes. Along with the parish and castle of Crayke near Thirsk in North Yorkshire, they were all part of County Durham until 1844. Similarly the Yorkshire districts of ‘Allertonshire’ around Northallerton and ‘Howdenshire’ near Selby were part of the Durham bishops’ ecclesiastical – though not political – realm.
However, the Durham heartland was always that bordered by the Tyne and Derwent to the north and the Tees to the south. I’m always amused by road signs telling you that you’re entering the ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ on the A19 near Sheraton just north of Hartlepool or on the A1(M) south of Washington. The ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ in fact begins at the Tees and ends at the Tyne not according to some modern make-shift administrative boundary. In fact it officially ended about a quarter of the way across the Tyne on the Gateshead side.
The boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead were founded by the Prince Bishops, marking the very beginning of these places as towns. Hartlepool was the Prince Bishop’s port, Stockton the site of one of their major castles. The Priors of Durham founded the port of South Shields. And of course the links between Washington (Washingon CD for County Durham) and the beginnings of the esteemed family of that name are also directly linked to the Prince Bishops. Agreed that all of these events are a very long time ago but these places are still linked to the unique history of County Durham. It’s part of what makes them special and interesting and different and part of their historic identity.
Durham continued to act as a kind of buffer state in post Conquest times with its defensive focus now, like that of Northumberland, directed towards the constant inroads of invading Scots. In later times Durham’s rich medieval roots were eclipsed by a new era of industrialisation. It became an industrial powerhouse of shipbuilding and engineering and above all coal mining. County Durham’s population nestled along the banks of the three great industrialised rivers of the North East and the Durham coalfield itself stretched north to the banks of the Tyne.
County Durham of course shared the lower Tyne with the neighbouring county of Northumberland (and with Newcastle too) and shared the Tees with Yorkshire. It’s true that some of the strongest regional identities developed in the riverside communities where the allegiance can be more to the river rather than the county but this isn’t adequately reflected in terms like ‘Tees Valley’ or ‘Tyne and Wear’.
Tynesiders, Teessiders and Wearsiders all identify most closely with their riverside communities which unite each of the three groups of people in each of the three areas. I think it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear anyone identify themselves with Tyne and Wear or Tees Valley – unless they’re a politician.
The Wear is odd man out as far as the three great rivers go as it was never a shared river in terms of county allegiance. It was and undoubtedly still is the County Durham river, rising in the Durham fells before flowing through Weardale, and then through historic Bishop Auckland; the City of Durham and then Chester-le-Street.
Today, the River Wear makes an administrative exit from County Durham, for no apparent natural geographical reason, just beyond Chester-le-Street. Here it enters ‘Tyne and Wear’ and the political jurisdiction of the City of Sunderland, eventually entering the sea at Sunderland itself in what is or once was the largest and perhaps proudest of all the Durham towns – now of course a proud city. It is to Sunderland to which the County Durham river is now most closely linked yet for the entire course of County Durham’s history up until 1974 it was entirely a County Durham river.
Today Sunderland is no longer in County Durham and while some Sunderland folk may proudly cherish this independence any glance of the map shows that the city has become an appendage or afterthought in the so-called ‘Tyne and Wear’.
Like Cleveland and Humberside ‘Tyne and Wear’ was established as a county in 1974 and despite its now let’s be honest, ugly name, is still somehow going strong today, now as a unified partnership of individual boroughs and cities linked by economic interests and an admittedly excellent integrated transport system.
Like ‘Tees Valley’, Tyne and Wear makes some sense on an economic and business level but culturally and geographically there is something highly contrived about the term ‘Tyne and Wear’. In my view, a label given to a geographical entity that includes the doubtfully qualifying word ‘and’ in its title must clearly have some kind of inherent disunity at some level. It might work for a business partnership but for political geography the term ‘and’ in Tyne ‘and’ Wear never really convinces.
Wearside, the City of Sunderland has a population of around 270,000 that includes several large, neighbouring towns and villages, but in reality places like Washington and Houghton-le-Spring which may well have close relationships with Sunderland are still separate entities.
Tyneside by comparison is mostly a continuous almost homogeneous urban region (perhaps not an endearing description) that straddles two sides of the Tyne. Tyneside has a much larger population than Wearside with around one million people – a point, incidentally, rarely taken into account when comparing the relative size of support for the rival Tyne-Wear football teams.
It would be interesting to know what people think of the old counties and if people still feel an affiliation to them within the Tyne and Wear and Tees Valley regions. I suspect older people, particularly in outlying towns and villages in boroughs and cities like Gateshead, Sunderland and Newcastle may still have a closer affiliation to traditional counties rather than the modern ones and those in the larger towns may connect more closely with the terms Tynesider (or ‘Geordie’); Wearsider (‘Mackem’) and Teessider.
On my travels I have certainly found there’s affinity amongst older people to the traditional counties such as County Durham in places like Houghton-le-Spring and Hetton-le-Hole. North of the Tyne, Newcastle, Gosforth and particularly North Tyneside – Whitley Bay, Tynemouth and North Shields in particular – certainly seem to me to have something particularly Northumbrian in their nature and personality as much as they are ‘Geordie’ when compared to say Gateshead or South Shields to the south of the river.
Of course the Tyne (like the Tees) despite its different communities unites as much as it divides, whether it be in the form of the wider ‘Geordie’ culture or in sporting terms where Tyneside is mostly ‘United’ in Newcastle as its focal centre.
Yet in 2016 a vote on a region-wide North East devolution deal suggested that in another sense the traditional county divisions may still be strong. Durham County, Sunderland, Gateshead and South Tyneside all voted against the devolution plan for a North East combined authority. In other words all the places in the old County of Durham. **
However places north of the Tyne: Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland all voted in favour. Subsequently a new deal was formulated solely focused on the region north of the Tyne – the Northumberland of old.
Historic identities dating back thousands of years are perhaps harder to shift than we realise despite the brutal machinations and manoeuvrings of London bureaucrats and local marketing men.
*Note, confusingly, 1974 also saw the annexation of that part of Teesdale south of the River Tees from Yorkshire into County Durham, moving places such as Romaldkirk and Mickleton into Durham. The administration of Teesdale is of course focused on Barnard Castle, historically a County Durham town on the north side of the river.
** The ‘Tees Valley’ counties were not included in the North East combined authority vote as they already had their own version of this.