North-west of England during the Anglo Saxon era

Peter Graham

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Jan 2014
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Westmorland
The flooded areas in Cheshire and Lancashire effectively cut off Cumbria and Strathclyde from the british west. There were places like the Eden Valley where land could be farmed but they were remote from either british or anglo saxon kings and so enforcing control over them, to extract tribute, was a lot of trouble for not much gain. It did happen, particularly under the Bernician Aethelfrith but he over extended himself and whilst, on paper, he pushed the map of his kingdom to the irish sea, he withdrew his men and his control was nominal. The land was of interest to people who wanted to carve out an existence for themselves, remote from kings and kingdoms for whom it became a sort of 'siberia'. They didn't really want it and were mainly concerned with making sure nobody else had it.
So the OP has both sides of the argument, I would disagree with this assertion. The kings of Strathclyde - or Alt Clut ('Rock of Clyde'), as it was originally known - were a major force in early medieval politics. Strathclyde lasted much longer than any other northern British kingdom and in the tenth century, the kings of Strathclyde exercised authority across most of what, until 1974, was Cumberland. The border was at Stainmoor rather than Gretna.

Flooding did not, in any event, impede movement or cut people off from one another. Seaways were major routeways, not barriers to movement.

In addition, early medieval politics was local and regional. Flooding or not, the kings of Wales had never exercised authority over the north. The socio-political situation in post-Roman Cumbria (by which I mean the English county of Cumbria) is shadowy, but there is just enough to argue that rather than being remote from British kings, the area was controlled by local British kings, at least until the seventh century, when those kings appear to have become clients or allies of Northumbria. It was held successfully too - the North West has little evidence for the Irish influence which is so visible elsewhere (especially South Wales).

There was movement between Northumbria and Ireland and between Northumbria and south west Scotland, and the easiest way to get from one to the other was via the passes that cross into the North West - notably the Tyne Gap, where Hadrian's Wall runs. The Tyne Gap is the main routeway from east to west and linked Northumbria to Carlisle. Carlisle's nunnery was headed by the King Ecgfrith's sister in law and the Queen of Nothumbria was there in 675, awaiting the outcome of her husbandl' diasatrous battle against the Picts. Maryport had been a Roman base and probably a naval installation and may well have been the point from which Christianity spread to Galloway (it is intervisible from Whithorn on a clear day and sailing across is far, far quicker than walking or even riding). The Eden valley is the main routeway north from London to Scotland - Scotch Corner on the A1 is so called because it is where you turn left for the quickest historical route into Scotland.

The earliest piece of post-Roman insular poetry seems to concern what is now Cumbria and it is quite possible that the earliest surviving Welsh panegyric concerns the same area. The two best examples of early Anglo-Saxon sculpture are at Bewcastle and Ruthwell.

This was no Siberia or forgotten backwater. For some centuries, Northumbria was the pre-eminent English kingdom, able to exercise authority over much of Britain. The North-West is Northumbria's direct neighbour and was connected to it physically, culturally and politically.
 
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Nov 2008
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England
Carlisle and Chester are the most obvious candidates for towns. I know more about Cumbria than Lancashire or Cheshire and more about the early Anglo-Saxon period than the later, but understand Chester was depopulated and might even have been abandoned before being resettled again at some point, presumably in the seventh century where we begin to see the emergence of Anglo-Saxon trading towns.
Chester was described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for the year 894 as a deserted certain city in the Wirral. It was Aethelred, lord of the Mercians who in the year 907 re-fortified Chester and founded a burh there to counter Viking activity in the area.
 
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authun

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Aug 2011
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The border was at Stainmoor rather than Gretna.
I'm not saying Cumbria was disconnected from Strathclyde at all. To the contrary, Strathclyde was Cumbria's accessible neighbour. It is Gwynedd that was cut off from it because of the marshy nature between Cheshire and Lancashire. It's not a question of mobility, it's about population density. There was a sort of no man's land between controlling kingdoms, where not many people lived. When I wrote places like the Eden valley were remote, I meant they were remote from Northumbria, Wales and Mercia, Strathclyde was the only region that it was connected to.

William Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North - The Region and its Transformation 1000 - 1135 describes the north as being economically separated from the south, in the western half, because of the Mersey. He also explains the problems within the north, to the west of the pennines.

"West of the mountains [pennines] the peat moss bogs along the mersey formed an effective barrier between Lancashire and Cheshire. The only good land routes to the Midlands were between the Ouse swamps and the Pennine foothills on the east and through the Manchester area on the the west but both these passages are crossed by transverse rivers."

The waterways didn't really help. The wealthier side of the country, to the east of the pennines, is served by rivers which flow into the north sea. The western side did not benefit from this. Even river traffic was via rivers like the Ouse and the Trent but Lancashire was cut off from the south and from the east. Kapelle continues:

"The upland regions [Pennines, Lake District, Southern Highlands] effectively divide the North into three areas; the east coast plain, the west coast plain with the Vale of Eden and the uplands. These mountains and hills functioned as a serious barrier to communications between the coast plains and were agriculturally marginal. Except where pierced by river valleys such as the Vale of Eden or the Tweed-Teviot system, much of the uplands was useful only as summer pasure for the settlements in the valleys. Consequently a big slice of the north was lightly exploited nearly empty land."

Where were the markets for those few settlements in Lancashire? Getting them to the coast was not easy. The rivers did not flow to harbours. Little is known about Lancaster from the anglo saxon period through to the norman period, it doesn't seem to have functioned as a sea route. The Lune Deeps too are particularly awkward for shipping. The coastal plains are transversed by rivers like the Lune and Ribble both of which had extensive flood plains making north south land routes difficult. Basically anyone in Cumbria, had to look towards the north, hence Cumbria is often within the sphere of the influence of Strathclyde rather than Mercia, Northumbria or Gwynedd.

Although the land was unattractive for development, Kapelle points out that it was attractive for brigands who were relatively unhindered by any controlling authority.

"Unfortunately, the usual corollary of low settlement density, pastoralism and poor communications was a 'free zone', that is, an area that was normlly beyond the control of the local forces of law and order and it became a refuge for the peasant's primeval enemy the wolf and his societal enemy, the outlaw. Such was certainly the case in the North of England."

Kapelle's comments reminded me of Symeon of Durham's observation that the 'land between the Tees and Tyne is densely forested and infested with thieves and wolves'.
 
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authun

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Aug 2011
5,219
There was movement between Northumbria and Ireland and between Northumbria and south west Scotland, and the easiest way to get from one to the other was via the passes that cross into the North West - notably the Tyne Gap, where Hadrian's Wall runs. The Tyne Gap is the main routeway from east to west and linked Northumbria to Carlisle.
The OP was asking about settlement. Of course passage over the Pennines was possible but, I took the question to be about the lack of exploitation or economic development of places like lancashire and the resulting paucity of settlement sites. The maps that I posted which pertain to the roman period show too that, it is not as densely populated during that period either. I think geography and the difficulties in communication made it unattractive, not impossible.

The earliest piece of post-Roman insular poetry seems to concern what is now Cumbria and it is quite possible that the earliest surviving Welsh panegyric concerns the same area. The two best examples of early Anglo-Saxon sculpture are at Bewcastle and Ruthwell.
Again, Christianity was a reason for communication. No one is saying that anything is impassible, but one has to have a reason for travelling and when it came to produce, Lancashire had no market.

This was no Siberia or forgotten backwater.
No but the land wasn't exploited to the same extent as say Yorkshire. One would have to compare the economic wealth of lancashire at the time of Domesday with other areas covered by Domesday but I see no reason to doubt the claim made by the OP that "the north-west seems a blank slate". It's not devoid of villages, but as far as I know, it was economically underdeveloped.
 

Peter Graham

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Jan 2014
2,665
Westmorland
I'm not saying Cumbria was disconnected from Strathclyde at all. To the contrary, Strathclyde was Cumbria's accessible neighbour. It is Gwynedd that was cut off from it because of the marshy nature between Cheshire and Lancashire. It's not a question of mobility, it's about population density. There was a sort of no man's land between controlling kingdoms, where not many people lived. When I wrote places like the Eden valley were remote, I meant they were remote from Northumbria, Wales and Mercia, Strathclyde was the only region that it was connected to.
But why would Cumbria be an unwanted or remote backwater even if it was cut off from Gwynedd or Mercia? Gwynedd never enjoyed hegemony over the British west and as I said, the focus of early medieval politics was, for some time, the north rather than the south or the west.

The Eden valley - and Cumbria more generally - isn't remote from Northumbria. It's directly connected to it. Bernicia is linked to Carlisle by the Tyne Gap, which is still the main east-west route of the far north of England. Carlisle is linked to York (so Deira as was) by the Eden Valley/Vale of York route now followed by the A66 and the A1. Again, that's still a major modern routeway. Catterick's historical importance is due to the fact that it sits at the junction where the Roman and medieval road up from London branches north and west. Brougham sits at the other end, where the Catterick/York road meets the Roman/medieval road coming up from Chester and the south (at Eomotum, now Eamont Bridge). Carlisle is about twenty miles further north, where this combined route meets the Tyne Gap route.

William Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North - The Region and its Transformation 1000 - 1135 describes the north as being economically separated from the south, in the western half, because of the Mersey. He also explains the problems within the north, to the west of the pennines.
Fair enough, but the Anglo-Saxon era is over all bar the shouting by 1000, is it not? When we get to 1066, we leave the early medieval period behind.

Basically anyone in Cumbria, had to look towards the north, hence Cumbria is often within the sphere of the influence of Strathclyde rather than Mercia, Northumbria or Gwynedd.
It was apparently firstly independent, then under Northumbrian influence, then under Strathclyde influence before becoming part of England in 1086.

"Unfortunately, the usual corollary of low settlement density, pastoralism and poor communications was a 'free zone', that is, an area that was normlly beyond the control of the local forces of law and order and it became a refuge for the peasant's primeval enemy the wolf and his societal enemy, the outlaw. Such was certainly the case in the North of England."
I'd disagree with that assessment. The lawlessness of the far north of England was principally the result of Anglo-Scottish tension and warfare which made much of the north an unstable border zone subject to frequent incursions.
 

authun

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Aug 2011
5,219
But why would Cumbria be an unwanted or remote backwater even if it was cut off from Gwynedd or Mercia?

It's not just the AS period, it is less developed in roman times with a paucity of villas. It doesn't appear to be part of the villa economy and many indicators of wealth, such as coin hoards and pottery are absent. There is also a lack of cities. Whilst there are more roads than those on the map below, they connect military sites and are not part of the economic output. So, the area is not deserted but certainly agriculturally less developed and contributing less to the economy.



roman villas.jpg


roman cities.jpg


Coin Hoards 68-244 AD; 269-367 AD; 367-408 AD

68-244.jpg269-367.jpg367-408.jpg


I'd disagree with that assessment. The lawlessness of the far north of England was principally the result of Anglo-Scottish tension and warfare which made much of the north an unstable border zone subject to frequent incursions.
They are not mutully exclusive. There have been many periods where parts of the country has suffered brigandage. In fact the lack of control in the debateable lands and the reiver borderers may have had its origins in the brigandage in the anglo saxon period. William's harrying of the north added to the problem by swelling the numbers in the upland areas and forests with those who fled their agricultural lands. Kapelle argues that the lawlessness was not solved by William but only started to be contained by William Rufus. It was only finally subdued by Henry 1st. The peoples however, simply fled north into the areas not controlled either by the english or scottish crowns. If not, it would simply be a separate example of lawlessness but the reiver borderers does not preclude what Kapelle concludes.
 

Peter Graham

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Jan 2014
2,665
Westmorland
It's not just the AS period, it is less developed in roman times with a paucity of villas. It doesn't appear to be part of the villa economy and many indicators of wealth, such as coin hoards and pottery are absent. There is also a lack of cities. Whilst there are more roads than those on the map below, they connect military sites and are not part of the economic output. So, the area is not deserted but certainly agriculturally less developed and contributing less to the economy.
I see what you are saying, but I think you are falling into the trap of equating the absence of one particular economic model with a lack of economic and/or cultural sophistication. Such an association is based on the premise that any developed Roman economic area is gong to have cities and villas and that such a model is essentially the benchmark by which 'development' (or 'Romanitas', or 'economic complexity', to use other current ways of expressing the same notion) is measured. I don't think that premise is sound.

The villa model, as I suspect you'd agree, is a big farm model. It was engaged in producing an unfinished, often monocultural agricultural surplus for export. The nearest modern equivalent is probably the Lincolnshire barley barons. Such a model, when carried out effectively, can produce lots of cash. Just as the stately home owners of an earlier age needed vast amounts of cash to support their lifestyles, so the villa owners of lowland Roman Britain needed cash to fresco their bath houses, maintain their town houses and presumably acquire civic office.

Of course, the villa model doesn't work in the uplands because the land isn't as good. The north was never therefore going to have the villa system. A different economic model pertained in northern Britannia which, up here at least, was based around the Roman army. At its most basic, the Roman tax cycle was about bringing in gold and silver which could then be paid out to the army and the civil service. I get that wages were increasingly paid in kind, but wages 'in kind' still came from somewhere. So too did the services which the soldiers were able to pay for with their gold and silver, which had to be exchanged for base metal coinage to be used in daily transactions. Grain might have been shipped in from South Shields or wherever, but it seems plausible that each fort was able to draw on local resources from its immediate territorium. Those resources included people, given both the late Roman relaxation on the ban on Roman soldiers getting married and the requirements of hereditary recruitment. Roman garrisons were therefore the foci for political administration and economic activity in their areas. Some, such as Carlisle, South Shields, Housesteads, Stanwix, Maryport, Binchester and Birdoswald were able to continue that role into the fifth century and beyond (the so-called 'mutation' model in which the last Roman garrisons morph into the British warbands of the sixth century). The forts fulfilled many of the same functions fulfilled by towns in the civilian south. Their economic activity is less visible archaeologically, but that is primarily because there was less cash sloshing about. Less cash = fewer durable artefacts for archaeologists to find! But less cash doesn't mean a lack of economic complexity or a lack of development. It simply means that things were done differently. As they are today. Are we 'less developed' in the north just because the southerners have more Ferraris per head than we do?

They are not mutully exclusive. There have been many periods where parts of the country has suffered brigandage. In fact the lack of control in the debateable lands and the reiver borderers may have had its origins in the brigandage in the anglo saxon period
.

I'd doubt that. At the height of its powers, Northumbria included great chunks of lowland Scotland, including Galloway and parts of Ayrshire. After Northumbria's fall, Strathclyde was able to exercise influence over much the same western areas. The lands of the later border reivers were entirely within these polities. The issues with reiving were partly about stunted economic development caused by brigandage, but the brigandage required a mix of weak or disinterested government, porous borders and Anglo-Scottish hostility (or, at least, distrust) to truly flourish into the 'industry' it became.

The peoples however, simply fled north into the areas not controlled either by the english or scottish crowns.
I'd agree that post-Rufus control over certain areas (such as Liddesdale or Tynedale) was pretty inefficient, but that was more about local politics and the fact that the men who were supposed to be keeping the royal peace were usually engaged in raiding themselves and were often drawn from the leading local families such as the Kerrs, the Maxwells or the Forsters. The whole border was divided into Wardenries fairly early on and especially troublesome areas had their own Keepers (Liddesdale's Keeper was usually based at Hermitage Castle). The only area that was not directly controlled by either crown was the Debatable Land (singular), a relatively small area around Canonbie and even that was eventually divvied up in the sixteenth century.
 

authun

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Aug 2011
5,219
I see what you are saying, but I think you are falling into the trap of equating the absence of one particular economic model with a lack of economic and/or cultural sophistication.
No I'm not. I suggesting that the area was unexploited agriculturally by the romans despite the fact that they successfully exploited the adjacent region. There must be an explanation for that.

Such an association is based on the premise that any developed Roman economic area is gong to have cities and villas and that such a model is essentially the benchmark by which 'development' (or 'Romanitas', or 'economic complexity', to use other current ways of expressing the same notion) is measured. I don't think that premise is sound.
It's not the premise. Villas and cities are just examples of the lower population density. Whatever you look at, large parts of Lancashire appear to be thinly populated. Below is a map of roman period roadside settlements, again, large gaps, unexplained gaps, but gaps nonetheless. If your premise is that the north west was populated with a similar density to the north east, what sort of activities were being undertaken?

roman sites.jpg





Of course, the villa model doesn't work in the uplands because the land isn't as good. The north was never therefore going to have the villa system.
The north east does have villas whereas the north west does not. My suggestion is that the land in the north west wasn't as suitable for volume grain production, either in the upland areas or in the lancashire plain. The reason why the villa estates in the north east exist is because they exist in places like the yorkshire wolds, elevated but not too high and on light chalky soils. Maybe the villas don't exist because there were no areas where conditions were right for grain production and the romans were not interesting in growing turnips. The britons may have culivated root crops and practiced animal husbandry, but that will be difficult to find in the archaeology.


A different economic model pertained in northern Britannia which, up here at least, was based around the Roman army.
I agree that what economy existed was based around the roman military. There has to be a reason for all those roads whose absence on the maps I mentioned earlier. Britons were likely producing for the army and selling at the vicii. When the roman military left, it would leave the local economy poorer. The land however would remain unattractive for the type of agriculture favoured by the new settlers. The only people living there were going to be the people who knew how to work that land and had a lifestyle to suit. The first settlers in the Lincolnshire Wolds and the Yorkshire Wolds are people who migrated from similar elevated areas with well drained easily tillable soils that we find in places like the Dänischer Wohld in Angeln and, I imagine, that's what they looked for in Britain.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,665
Westmorland
No I'm not. I suggesting that the area was unexploited agriculturally by the romans despite the fact that they successfully exploited the adjacent region. There must be an explanation for that.
it depends what you mean by 'the Romans'. There are large numbers of what used to be called 'native settlements' across Cumbria (and presumably Lancashire too). To the extent that farming was carried out by Romano-Britons, it wouldn't be right to say the land was unexploited agriculturally.

It's not the premise. Villas and cities are just examples of the lower population density. If your premise is that the north west was populated with a similar density to the north east, what sort of activities were being undertaken?
I never said it was populated to a similar density. I just said that it wasn't underdeveloped.

The north east does have villas whereas the north west does not. My suggestion is that the land in the north west wasn't as suitable for volume grain production,
Agreed. And it was the volume grain production which supported the villa system. But if we accept that volume grain production is just one economic model, rather than being the only one, the fact that such a system did not exist in the north doesn't automatically mean that the north was economically inactive or underdeveloped.

The britons may have culivated root crops and practiced animal husbandry, but that will be difficult to find in the archaeology.
But not impossible. Cattle bones found at the forts at Carlisle and Birdoswald show the same mutations, suggesting a shared and local supply.

I agree that what economy existed was based around the roman military. There has to be a reason for all those roads whose absence on the maps I mentioned earlier. Britons were likely producing for the army and selling at the vicii. When the roman military left, it would leave the local economy poorer.
Fair enough - although the Roman military probably didn't leave. It shrank though - the vici up here were steadily abandoned from the late third century.

The land however would remain unattractive for the type of agriculture favoured by the new settlers.The only people living there were going to be the people who knew how to work that land and had a lifestyle to suit.
Also fair enough - but again, that doesn't mean that those societies were less developed than those brought by the newcomers.
 
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Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,665
Westmorland
I've found references to Carlisle being inhabited in the sixth century as it was one of the royal residences of a King Urien, but that's about it.
Those references may well be misplaced. There is no evidence to link Urien with Carlisle. Even if we take a very charitable view and assume that every place asociated with him in early Welsh poetry really was under his control (rather than just being later confection), Carlisle isn't mentioned.