To many people, the name ‘Cumbria’ means the English county created in 1974 from an amalgamation of Cumberland and Westmorland (plus a small part of Lancashire). From this we get the adjective ‘Cumbrian’ and the collective noun ‘Cumbrians’. It would be easy to think of these terms as relatively recent creations arising from common usage in the period after 1974. Cumbria, however, is a very ancient name whose origins lie in the distant past. It first appeared more than a thousand years ago, at a time when England and Scotland were beginning to emerge as the countries we know today.
Cumbria and Cumberland are names derived from Old English Cumber, a term used in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria to describe the native Britons. The latter, of course, were a Celtic people who had once inhabited the whole island of Britain. A large number of Britons in the far North were known as ‘Picts’ from the late 3rd century AD, if not before. Most of the rest, living south of a line drawn between modern Edinburgh and Glasgow, were (more or less) ruled by Rome until the early 5th century. After c.410, the population of what had once been Roman Britain was gradually conquered or assimilated by the Anglo-Saxons or ‘English’ whose ancestors had come from Germany. The so-called ‘Anglo-Saxon Conquest’ was drawn out over five hundred years but led eventually to the creation of England. By c.900, at the height of the Viking Age, only two regions of Britain still remained under native ‘British’ control. One of these was Wales, at that time a patchwork of small kingdoms. The other was a single realm located in what are now southwest Scotland and northwest England, with borders reaching from Loch Lomond in the north to Penrith in the south. To the Anglo-Saxons of neighbouring Northumbria this kingdom was ‘Cumber-land’ or ‘Cumbra-land’, a land inhabited by Britons. In Latinised form the name was ‘Cumbria’.
Cumber (plural: Cumbras) is a term coined by English-speakers from one used by the Britons of themselves. A variant of the original native word survives today in the Welsh name for Wales: Cymru (pronounced Cum-ri). Loosely translated, it means something like ‘compatriots’ or ‘fellow-countrymen’. In the period c.400 to c.1100, it is likely that any group of people living in Britain who identified as ‘Britons’ called themselves by a name similar to ‘Cum-ri’ regardless of whether they lived in Wales or on the banks of Loch Lomond. They were defined by a shared preference for the native British language rather than for English, Gaelic or Old Norse. Because this old language is the ancestral speech of Wales it is sometimes referred to as Welsh, but two regional forms or dialects can be distinguished in early medieval times: Old Welsh, the speech of Wales; and Cumbric, the northern speech of Cumbria or Cumberland.
In the mid-10th century, the Northumbrian English shared a very long border with the ‘Cumbrian’ Britons. It ran from the western edge of Lothian, down through what are now the Border Hills, across the upper valley of the River Tweed, then onto the North Pennines and southward as far as the River Eamont near Penrith. East of the Pennines lay a part of Northumbria that had fallen under Viking rule in the previous century. This area, the kingdom of York, reverted to the English after powerful West Saxon kings came up from the South to wrest it from Scandinavian control in the mid-900s.
The core or heartland of the old Cumbrian kingdom was Clydesdale, the valley of the River Clyde. Other key districts were Lennox – the vale of the River Leven running south from Loch Lomond – and an area of fertile farmland around Carlisle. The importance of Clydesdale led to the entire kingdom being known by an alternative name: Strathclyde, the ‘strath’ or valley of the Clyde. In strict geographical terms this did not really apply south of the river’s source but it was most likely used by the Britons of 10th-century Wales to denote the kingdom as a whole. They regarded the extensive domain of the Clyde kings as the last bastion of their northern fellow-countrymen, even if they were not always on friendly terms with it. From Wales the name ‘Strathclyde’ seems to have passed into contemporary English usage. The West Saxons, who had close dealings with Wales, were already using the name when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was being compiled. In the Chronicle we find both Cumberland and Straecled being used interchangably. The Welsh called the kingdom Strat Clut or Ystrad Clud in their own language, both forms no doubt being similar to whatever name was used by the Clyde Britons themselves.
The kingdom of Cumberland or Cumbria, then, was a sort of ‘Greater Strathclyde’. It became one of the major powers of the 10th century but, in spite of its southward expansion, it had a fairly brief history. Cumbric-speaking kings had ruled on the Clyde since the 5th century but the lands around the Solway Firth – including Carlisle – had fallen under Northumbrian rule by c.750. Not until the late 9th century, after Viking warlords broke the power of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, did the Clyde Britons see an opportunity to expand southward. By c.900 they had taken back large swathes of territory once ruled by their fellow-countrymen. The rapid reconquest, undoubtedly achieved by military force, saw the replacement of English-speaking lords by a Cumbric-speaking aristocracy. This was the true beginning of the ‘Cumbrian’ kingdom, a sort of mini-empire ruled from a core domain in the Clyde Valley. In the lands around Carlisle, and down as far as Penrith, many place-names coined in English were replaced by Cumbric ones. When, in 927, the West Saxon king Athelstan arranged a high-level meeting to discuss important political issues, he chose a site near Penrith as the venue. Here, on the south bank of the River Eamont, Athelstan met several powerful northern rulers. Among them was Owain of Strathclyde, ‘king of the Cumbrians’, whose southern border ran along the Eamont. A later namesake of this Owain, perhaps his great-grandson, fought with the Scots against the English at the great battle of Carham-on-Tweed in 1018. By then, the kingdom of Strathclyde or Cumbria was entering its twilight years. Under increasing pressure from English and Scottish kings, and from groups of ‘Gall Gaidhil’ (Gaelic-speaking Vikings) in Galloway and Ayrshire, the realm began to shrink back to its Clydesdale heartlands. It finally fell to the Scots, its former allies, sometime between 1030 and 1070. In the late 1060s, northern English scribes still regarded the area around Carlisle as part of ‘Cumberland’, but acknowledged that it now answered to a Scottish king. Other pockets of former ‘Cumbrian’ territory south of the Solway Firth were seized by English lords. In 1092, when Norman forces came north during the reign of William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, they seized Carlisle and made it part of the kingdom of England. The lands around the city, from the Scottish border to the River Eamont, subsequently became the new English county of Cumberland.
Before c.1150, the old Cumbric language of the Clyde Britons had probably died out in all the lands where it had once been spoken. Traces of it still remain, like fossils, in a scatter of place-names across southwest Scotland and in parts of modern Cumbria. Visitors to the Lake District might sometimes wonder why Welsh-sounding names like Penruddock and Blencathra appear on maps of the area. The apparent mystery is easily solved by a quick browse through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There, as well as being described as Cumbrenses (a Latinisation of Old English Cumbras), the inhabitants of 10th century Cumbria or ‘Greater Strathclyde’ are also called wealas, an Old English word meaning ‘strangers’, from which our modern term ‘Welsh’ derives.
Notes and references
* This blogpost deals with topics discussed in the final chapters of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010)
* Current academic opinion on the term ‘Cumbria’ in a 10th-century context is reflected in a number of publications that have appeared in recent years. Here are three examples:
Dauvit Broun, ‘The Welsh identity of the kingdom of Strathclyde, c.900-1200’ Innes Review 55 (2004), 111-80
Thomas Owen Clancy, ‘Ystrad Clud’, pp.1818-20 in John Koch (ed.) Celtic Culture: a Historical Encyclopedia. Volume 5 (Santa Barbara, 2006)
Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007) [has a sub-section The Problem of Strathclyde or Cumbria at pp.152-7]
* Two older theories need to be mentioned. One sees Cumbria/Cumberland and Strathclyde as separate kingdoms. The other sees Strathclyde as being under the rule of Scottish kings after c.870. Both are now regarded as obsolete.
* Folklore in modern Cumbria still remembers the old ‘kings of the Cumbrians’, as revealed in a fascinating blogpost by Diane McIlmoyle.
This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series: