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Sat 17 August 2019
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The Count of the Saxon Shore on why the North was the original source of a progressive, articulate English identity.

In my last column, I looked at how London has never been central to Englishness.

The Count is ever keen to point out that this nation was created from regional identities and we lose sight of that at our peril.

The founding seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Sussex, Essex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria were later described as the ‘Heptarchy’ and, throughout the Dark Ages, there was something of a ‘game of thrones’ between each region – much like the power struggles of the seven kingdoms of Westeros in that popular fantasy TV epic.

Northumbria was at the cutting edge of the most advanced information technology of its time and unrivalled in Europe for its prowess in book-making.

Y Hen Ogledd, or the ‘Old North’ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:North_Britain_547-685.png

The Venerable Bede records the ‘Coming of the English’ with Hengist and Horsa, our immigrant progenitors, arriving in Kent in 449 AD, then Aelle of the South Saxons, or Sussex, claiming ‘imperium’ later that century.

Archeological evidence of the Sutton Hoo indicates that power then moved to East Anglia by the late Sixth Century, a lavish ship burial there probably commemorates Raedwald, a king of that region.

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By the seventh century, it was Northumbria’s turn in the Anglo-Saxon game of thrones.

Like George RR Martin’s Kingdom of the North, it boasted a rugged landscape, a tough populace and a fiercely independent spirit. And it was here, in Jarrow and Wearmouth, that Bede penned his great history of the gentis Anglorum – the first real vision of a greater English people.

Facsimile of a page from the Book of Aneirin

But, there was another North, known in the Welsh tongue as Y Hen Ogledd, or the ‘Old North’. This was comprised by the older British or Celtic kingdoms of Rheged (Cumbria), Elmet (an enclave in what is now West Yorkshire), Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde) and Gododdin (in Lothian and the Borders).

A long struggle for supremacy in the region culminated in a disastrous attack by the Gododdin against the Northumbrians at Catterick around 600 AD. This terrible defeat is recounted in Anerin’s epic poem Y Gododdin, where the first recorded mention is made of Arthur, that legendary figure of British resistance to the Anglo-Saxons.

That the South of England so often forgets what it owes to the North is at the heart of the resentment this region rightly feels, particularly in a time of forced austerity.

 Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels, incipit to the Gospel of Matthew.

And it was in the Seventh Century that the Northumbrians accepted baptism when their King Edwin married the christian Aethelburga of Kent. In recounting this event, Bede, the great propagandist, has a Northern warrior describe the existential crisis of pagan consciousness as a sparrow flying through a feasting hall in the middle of winter. A new faith seemed to offer new hope.

And its hegemony gave Northerners access to literacy and there followed a Golden Age of cultural and scholarly activity. A monastic system of living word processors, copying and disseminating text, producing exquisitely illuminated manuscripts.

Northumbria was at the cutting edge of the most advanced information technology of its time and unrivalled in Europe for its prowess in book-making. This was a true Northern Powerhouse, where an articulate and progressive English identity was forged.

That the South of England so often forgets what it owes to the North is at the heart of the resentment this region rightly feels, particularly in a time of forced austerity. This is where so many of our cultural and intellectual roots are buried. And to quote the motto of the House of Stark in ‘Game of Thrones’: “the North remembers”.

So, in my next column I will continue to look at the story of Northumbria in the Seventh Century, and how a woman called Hilda took charge of a seemingly intransigent debate over a proposed customs union with the rest of Europe: the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD.

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