I’m writing this mainly for my very large extended family who live in Northwest County Durham (the Stanley area of Derwentside), but I hope there will be others that may find it of interest.
Like many regions of the UK we are taught so little in our history lessons about this period. It’s as if nothing happened before the Romans came, or between them leaving at the formation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. I hope to readdress this in some way.
I also hope to dispel a few myths, such as the Danes being the origin of the very distinct north-east dialect and that it was the Picts who lived the other side of Hadrian’s Wall.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with where County Durham is, and you’d be surprised at how many people in England don’t know where it is, it lies in the north-east of England above Yorkshire and below Northumbria between the rivers Tyne and Tees.
This county is of interest to me because it is the place of my birth and where I spent the first 17 years of my life. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s it was a county in decline as its main industries of coal mining, shipbuilding and steelmaking were on the wane.
There is very little known about the county in the fifth and sixth centuries, as there is indeed for the UK as a whole. It’s not called the ‘Dark Ages’ for nothing … although academia prefers us to call it the Early Medieval Period. County Durham’s Dark Age history is overshadowed somewhat by the county of the Northumbria and Hadrian’s Wall to the north and York (Ebrauc) to the south. It is thought to have originally been part of the Brigantes territory, but this doesn’t mean its inhabitants were Brigantian; they could have been under its hegemony. We only have the 2nd century geographer Ptolemy and epigraphical (carved on stones) evidence to go on for the identification of tribal regions. Ptolemy obviously got this wrong on a number of occasions, and it’s only by the chance find of inscribed stones that we know that tribal areas such as the Carvetii in modern day Cumbria existed, and the Setantii were in Lancashire because Ptolemy mentions PORTVS SETANTIORVM (Fleetwood, Lancashire): the Port of the Setantii. Otherwise we would have thought this was all Brigantian territory.
What have the Roman’s ever done for us?
Before we get to the Dark Ages in Part Two, let’s have a quick reminder of what happened before this:
The Romans, of course, had a number of forts in this area, namely Piercebridge (MORBIVM) Lanchester (LONGOVICIVM), Chester-le-Street (CONCANGIS), Binchester (VINOVIA), Ebchester (VINDOMORA) and South Shields (ARBEIA).
Of course, there were people living in County Durham and the north-east in general long before the Romans arrived in the area around 80AD. What these tribes were called is another matter. As I mentioned above Ptolemy puts Durham area under ‘rule’ of the Brigantes and certainly places Binchester in their territory, but it’s my guess that there may have been smaller tribal regions here who were under their rule. Rivers became tribal boundaries and with the Tyne to the north, the Tees to the south, and the Wear through the centre I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re were two tribal nations in the area divided by the River Wear.
There maybe clues to certain parts of Durham not being in Brigantia by a Roman inscribed stone found at Lanchester, dedicated to the goddess Garmangabis. The inscription reads: DEAE GARMANGABI ET N GORDIANI AVG N PRO SAL VEX SVEBORVM LON GOR VOTVM SOLVERVNT M (To the goddess Garmangabis and the divine spirit of our lord, Giordanus, for the health of the detachment of Suevi in Gordian’s lingones [who] deservedly fulfilled their vow). The Suevi were a Germanic tribe from the right bank of the Rhine, but this doesn’t mean the goddess was Germanic as the usual Roman practice was to worship the local god or goddess. Those in Brigantia are usually defined by dedications to the British goddess Brigantia. The dedicator might have been Seuvian but his mounted legion, the Cohors Primae Lingonum Gordiana – The First Cohort of Gordian’s Own Lingones – were from central Gaul (France). This is a perfect description as to how Roman units were originally formed in tribal regions but through time became manned by people form all over the Empire. This makes it hard to know the ethnic identity of the units. It’s slightly different for the feoderati (federates) units who were from outside the Empire and fought for them for cash. Basically groups of mercenaries, they came to dominate the late Roman military machine. They may have kept some kind of ethnic identity.
We all know about Hadrian’s Wall, built somewhere between 122 and 128 A.D., but very few people are aware of why it was built and how long it lasted as a defensive barrier against those to the north. The first thing to mention is that those north of the Wall where not Picts. Well, not in the true sense, although the Romans possibly called anyone who painted or tattooed themselves from this region, ‘Picts’. The true Picts, or rather Picti, lived many miles to the north, way past the Antonine Wall beyond Glasgow and Edinburgh. Those to the north of the Wall were Britons just the same as those to the south and, in fact, the Wall divided some of these tribes just as the Berlin Wall did to the people of Germany.
We know of at least four tribal nations, or kingdoms, to the north of the Wall, they being the Votadini (pronounce Wotadini) of what is now eastern Northumbria, Lothian and southwestern Fife. The Selgovae of central Northumbria and Lothian. The Carvetii of north Cumbria and part of Dumfries & Galloway. The Novantae of Dumfries and Galloway and the Damnonii of Clydesdale. (There is still some scholarly debate about the exact placing of these, but this is roughly where they were). Of course, this is what the Romans called them, not what they called themselves. This would be something more like the Guodothin, Selkow, Carguet, Nowanth and Damnon of Davnon.
The political situation at the time is also probably oversimplified and just like any country that has been under an empirical thumb; there would have been those happy to have them there, those hating them being there, and those who didn’t care either way as they just had their British masters replaced by Roman ones. Either way they were there, and would be for the next 340 years or so. But the occupation and situation in the area would have changed greatly in that time as legions were withdrawn to other areas and then replaced. The military situation also changed in the fourth century when the troops were allowed to marry local women.
It is also wrong to imagine a bunch of Italians patrolling the area and the Wall. They were from all over the Empire and in later years were dominated by feoderati and not legionaries. Also get out of your mind the idea of the military regalia of the Hadrianic period, these guys could very often be covered head to foot in chain mail and carry large oval shields.
So, why was the Wall built? Well it wasn’t just to keep the Picts or the northern Britons out. Both could sail around it if they wanted to raid. It was as much as a policing post where the Romans could keep an eye on who (and what) was passing between northern Britain and the diocese of Britannia. It would also have prevented that great Celtic past time of cattle raiding.(Britannia by the mid 4th century was in fact five provinces: Maxima Caesariensis, Valentia (possibly called Constantia first), Flavia Caesariensis, Britannia Prima, Britannia Secunda. Durham would have either been in Britannia Secunda or Valentia, depending on whose theory you go with).
It would appear that northern Britannia was as much trouble to the Romans as those north of the Wall hence why there were so many forts and camps in the area. It was indeed a military region in the same way that what is now Mid and North Wales were, and never really truly became Romanised like the east and southeast of England. Ironically, however, the North is where a great many vici (villages) sprouted up next to forts, so the locals probably had a great deal of contact with the military. Later, when they were allowed to marry, the vici disappear and the inhabitants of them probably moved into the forts.
Hadrian, who had the Wall built, decided it was time to stop expanding their British territory, and their territories in general, and pulled it back to the Solway/Tyne isthmus. However, it must be stressed that it was the most heavily garrisoned border in the whole of the Empire.
What is slightly odd about County Durham is the lack of Roman and civilian settlements on the coast. There have been a number of small finds but nothing major. Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the archaeological saying goes and it may be just that the haven’t been found yet.
We mustn’t forget good old Newcastle in all this; or ‘The Toon’ as it is affectionately known. The Romans called it Pons Aelius, and it was just another fort on the Wall. It was home to the Cohort Prima Cornoviorum, possibly the only British formed Roman unit at one point. The Cornovii (Corno-why-ee) in question (as there were two other tribes of the same name) would be those of what is now Shropshire (where I now live) and parts of Heredfordshire and Cheshire.
Binchester was the largest fort in the region, one of a chain built in the late 70s of the first century AD to guard Dere Street, the main north-south Roman road east of the Pennines and the principal route to Scotland. It controlled the crossing of the River Wear. Inscriptions show that the units stationed here at one time or another included a squadron of Spanish cavalry (Ala Vettonum civium Romanorum), a unit of Dutch cavalry (Cuneus Frisiorum) and possibly a detachment of the Sixth Legion.
In Part Two we’ll get to the Dark Age bit!
Thanks for reading,