On 20 May 685, Bishop (and future saint) Cuthbert was admiring the wonders of Carlisle, where he was visiting Queen Iurminburh, wife of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria.


Touring this former Roman bastion, the cleric marvelled at a fountain that continued to flow many centuries after it was built. But then, we’re told, Cuthbert became suddenly troubled.

Leaning on his staff, he declared sorrowfully: “Now, the contest is decided!” Two days later, a Northumbrian warrior arrived from the north, relaying grave news: the king, Iurminburh’s husband, was dead. Cuthbert’s premonition had been proved correct.

Earlier that month, Ecgfrith had led his army north into the lands of the Picts. For many years, Northumbria had exacted tribute from some of the peoples living north of the Forth and Clyde estuaries.

Now, Ecgfrith decided, it was time to enforce his overlordship. Friends had counselled against this expedition, not least Cuthbert – wise advice, as it transpired. On 20 May, the day of the bishop’s dire pronouncement in Carlisle, a Pictish force launched a devastating ambush, killing King Ecgfrith and his elite retinue.

More than 1,300 years later, we’re still unsure where Ecgfrith met his end. One thing seems certain, though: the clash now known as the battle of Nechtansmere (or Dún Nechtain) was fought in Pictish territory, deep in what’s now Scotland. This demonstrates a key point that challenges widely held views.

Northumbria has long been seen through the lens of English history: a kingdom whose future lay as a part of the English state. Yet clearly that’s not how Ecgfrith saw it. In fact, the Northumbrians looked west and north as well as east and south.

A northern powerhouse

In its heyday in the late seventh century, the kingdom of Northumbria extended from the Humber and the river Mersey north to the Firth of Forth, deep in modern Scotland, and established extensive links across the Irish Sea. Ecgfrith overextended himself marching even further north into Pictish territory. Yet the fact that he attempted to do so suggests that he was king of a northern British powerhouse.

The story of Northumbria begins with two dynasties that emerged from the obscurity of the post-Roman era: the rulers of the Bernicians and the Deirans. These dynasties had much in common: they were based in what’s now north-east England, in Northumberland and Yorkshire, respectively; they spoke Old English; and they claimed origins across the North Sea, with Germanic antecedents stretching back as far as the god Woden.

Bede, the monk and scholar born in Northumbria in the 670s, suggested that their forebears had come from the region he called Angulus, in modern Germany’s far north.

These warriors were said to have arrived in north-eastern England from the fifth century as mercenaries before later gaining power in their own right. They did so at the expense of the existing kings of the region, who spoke a Brittonic language akin to Welsh – indeed, Welsh writers lamented the loss of Yr Hen Ogledd (‘the Old North’), though the Northumbrians adopted many features of those earlier kingdoms. The names of the Bernicians and Deirans derive from the Brittonic language. So does the name of Ad Gefrin, the impressive Northumbrian palace that stood 1,300 years ago near what’s now Yeavering in Northumberland.

In its heyday in the late seventh century, the kingdom of Northumbria extended from the Humber and the river Mersey north to the Firth of Forth, deep in modern Scotland, and established extensive links across the Irish Sea

As the peoples that later became Northumbrians expanded north and west, polities ruled by Brittonic-speaking kings fell like dominoes. Take the fate of the kingdom of Elmet, in what’s now West Yorkshire – perilously close to the core territory of the eminent Deiran ruler Edwin.

In the 610s, Edwin invaded Elmet and ejected Ceredig, its Brittonic-named king, possibly using as an excuse the poisoning of a Deiran noble in Elmet. Subsequent rulers from the north-east established a villa (country estate) in Elmet, at the site of the modern city of Leeds. This soon became part of the royal circuit – a network of halls dotted around the Northumbrian kingdom, each of which took turns to host kings and their entourages.

Imagine groups of warriors, their swords glinting with gold and garnet fittings, traversing the by-then-uneven Roman roads. Arriving at an ornately carved wooden hall, they enjoyed lavish feasts, formed friendships, distributed largesse and collected renders – a kind of tax paid in food – from those who worked in the surrounding countryside. Queens also led their own circuits and, once the Northumbrian royalty had converted to Christianity, churchmen joined these tours to perform baptisms.

Threats to Northumbrian expansion

This image paints a picture of a peaceful, prosperous kingdom. Yet, beyond the glad-handing and fine dining, this was a realm plagued by sporadic unrest. The region that would become the kingdom of Northumbria was dogged by two major threats.

The first was the persistent division between Bernician and Deiran interests. One outbreak of this rivalry resulted in Edwin’s Bernician rivals fleeing into exile as he pushed north from Deira and took the palace of Yeavering to add to his royal circuit.

The second threat came from the powerful enemies who had been growing increasingly alarmed by Northumbria’s rapid expansion. That would soon spell disaster for Edwin. In 632–33, the Welsh king Cadwallon of Gwynedd joined forces with Penda, leader of the Anglian kingdom of Mercia (which encompassed much of central England south of the Humber), to launch an assault on Northumbria. Edwin marched out to meet his assailants but was killed in battle at Hatfield, south of the Humber.

It was left to arguably the greatest Northumbrian leader of all, a Bernician prince called Oswald, to save his kingdom from Cadwallon’s harsh rule. Oswald had spent much of Edwin’s reign in exile. However, in 634 he returned, raised an army and defeated Cadwallon near the evocatively named Heavenfield, close to the market town of Hexham on the Tyne. As the son of a Bernician king and a Deiran princess, Oswald was able to achieve something that had eluded his predecessors: he welded together the two royal dynasties.

Northumbrian golden age

This stability provided a platform from which he could propel Northumbria into a golden age. Bede tells us that Edwin, Oswald and Oswald’s brother Oswiu, who succeeded him to the throne, achieved pre-eminence over the Saxon and Anglian lands south of the Humber. They also asserted overlordship across northern Britain, benefiting from the similarity of Northumbria’s power structures to those of their northern and western neighbours. In these predominantly upland areas, cattle was king. Cattle exchanges forged social relationships and perhaps, as in Ireland, determined the owner’s status.

Oswald had spent his youth in exile in the Gaelic-speaking area of Dál Riata, which straddled western Scotland and north-eastern Ireland, and Northumbrian-Gaelic connections would have a profound impact on his reign. Once installed as king, he drew on his childhood contacts to found a new Northumbrian episcopal see and monastery on Lindisfarne. This tidal island in some ways replicated the isolation of Iona – island home of a monastic community in the Inner Hebrides, where Oswald had been baptised – and was visible from his palace at Bamburgh.

Oswald drew on his childhood contacts to found a new Northumbrian episcopal see and monastery on Lindisfarne. This tidal island in some ways replicated the isolation of Iona – island home of a monastic community in the Inner Hebrides, where Oswald had been baptised

Bede recounts how Oswald toured Northumbria, translating from Gaelic into English to enable his new bishop (and another future saint), Aidan, to speak to his diocese. The Synod of Whitby – held in 664, two decades after Oswald’s death – sent Iona’s formal influence over the Northumbrian church into decline. (It was where King Oswiu decreed that his kingdom would calculate the date of Easter according to the customs current at Rome, not those taught by Iona’s monks.)

Yet Northumbria’s cultural power can be seen in the decoration of the illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels. Produced in the early eighth century, the book draws inspiration from the swirling metalwork and vibrant artistry of the Gaelic world. The Lindisfarne Gospels also reveal Northumbria’s links to a wider world. Key aspects of its text, layout and decoration derive from books imported from Italy via Rome or Canterbury.

And a wider network of influences, ranging from Byzantium to north Africa, underpinned the Northumbrian church. The kingdom reached its artistic and scholarly zenith against an international backdrop, and continued to cultivate these international connections long after the Picts checked Northumbrian influence at Nechtansmere.

Timeline: the rise and fall of Northumbria

Fifth century AD

In the confusion of the post-Roman era, many polities emerges, some claiming connections across the North Sea.

Early seventh century

The Anglian realms of Deira and Bernicia enter into a dynastic union to form the kingdom of Northumbria, whose name referred to the area north of the Humber.


Alarmed at Northumbria’s growing influence, a combined Welsh and Mercian force defeats and kills Northumbrian king Edwin at the battle of Hatfield.


Bernician prince Oswald defeats Cadwallon of Gwynedd at the battle of Heavenfield. He becomes arguably Northumbria’s greatest ruler.


At the Synod of Whitby, King Oswiu decrees that Northumbria will calculate the date of Easter according to the customs of Rome, rather than following the method then used at Iona.

20 May 685

Northumbrian hegemony over northern Britain is dealt a painful blow when King Ecgfrith is killed by Pictish forces at the battle of Nechtansmere.

Early 8th century

The illuminated manuscript now known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, revealing influences from across the Christian west, is created.

June 793

Viking raiders attack the church of Lindisfarne, shocking many in Northumbria and beyond, and ushering in the Viking Age in Britain.


Vikings take York in the face of weak, divided Northumbrian leadership. A Scandinavian army now dominates this part of the kingdom.


A Scottish army defeats the forces of Uhtred, Earl of Bamburgh, at Carham on the Tweed, sounding the death knell for the Northumbrian kingdom.

A target for Viking attacks

Even during this golden age, though, Northumbria had vulnerabilities. As in many early medieval kingdoms, there was no automatic primogeniture (succession from father to firstborn son). And by the later eighth century, there were numerous candidates for kingship, some of whom enjoyed only very short reigns.

In 796, for example, Osbald’s stint on the throne lasted a mere 27 days. To compound matters, regional magnates were on the rise in the Eildon Hills, now in the Scottish borders, and in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire. One such was a nobleman called Wada, who was involved in a conspiracy against King Æthelred I in 796, and who then challenged another ruler, Eardwulf, in battle at Whalley in 798.

Despite this turmoil, the Northumbrian economy continued to grow. Merchants at Eoforwic (York) traded with counterparts at ports around the North Sea. Silver pennies were minted under the authority of kings and archbishops and, by the ninth century, a lower denomination coin known as the styca was circulating widely.

Such riches made the kingdom a prime target for Vikings who, from the late eighth century, launched raids along England’s coast – most notoriously the 793 attack on Lindisfarne. The violent raid on the renowned church founded by Oswald and Aidan caused international shockwaves and recriminations at home.

Then, in the 860s, several Viking forces coalesced into one ‘Great Army’ that descended upon eastern England. When that horde arrived in York in 866, it found a city – and a kingdom – riven by civil war with two rivals for the throne, Osberht and Ælla, vying for power. By the spring of 867, the two men had settled their dispute – but it was too late: the Vikings had seized York, and all efforts to recover it failed.

Divided then united

The fall of the city catalysed the fragmentation of Northumbria. Scandinavian settlers divided up the area around York, and its epicentre became a key Viking trading centre. Western Northumbria was left leaderless, vulnerable to power-grabs from other regions. One such was the Brittonic kingdom of Strathclyde, which expanded south towards the Lake District, with its people becoming called ‘Cumbrians’.

Meanwhile, Dublin’s Scandinavian leaders established footholds in southern Northumbria from the early 10th century. Evidence of their influence is provided by the immense Cuerdale Hoard, found near Preston in 1840.

This spectacular collection of treasures, ranging from Arabic coins to Carolingian jewellery, far exceeds any other Viking-Age silver hoards discovered in Britain. A sizeable proportion of the bullion was manufactured in Dublin, and a significant number of the coins had been recently minted in York. Thus this hoard foreshadowed the future connection between the great urban centres of York and Dublin, which were ruled in tandem by one dynasty for much of the period 918‒54.

With its neighbours pulling Northumbria apart, the end was nigh. In 927, King Æthelstan of Wessex took York from the Vikings (albeit temporarily), and designated himself not only rex Anglorum – ‘king of the English’ – but also rex totius Britanniae: ‘king of all Britain’.

Later, Scottish kings tightened their control of Lothian, the northern part of the former Northumbrian kingdom. In a battle now dated to 1018, Uhtred, Northumbrian magnate and Earl of Bamburgh, lost to the Scots and allied forces at Carham, on the line of the later Anglo-Scottish border. If not the definitive coup de grâce, it was certainly a watershed moment. Northumbria was passing into history – and two new nations, England and Scotland, were being forged.

Fiona Edmonds is professor in regional history at Lancaster University and author of Gaelic Influence in the Northumbrian Kingdom: The Golden Age and the Viking Age (Boydell and Brewer, 2019)


This article was first published in the September 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine