Bede’s World reborn

St Paul's Church, Jarrow.

St Paul’s Church, Jarrow.

The Venerable Bede was an English monk who spent almost his whole life at the dual monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. He wrote about the evolution of early English Christianity in his best-known work, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in AD 731. Despite its title the book is far more than a religious chronicle and contains a wealth of information on kings, kingdoms and politics in Dark Age Britain. Bede is one of our key sources on Pictish history. In fact, his book is a useful one to wave around whenever someone asks “Do we really know anything about the Picts?”


Bede on his deathbed in AD 735 (a painting by James Doyle Penrose).

Jarrow is situated on the south bank of the River Tyne. Its parish church, St Paul’s, stands on the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery and preserves some of the original stonework. Nearby stands Jarrow Hall, an eighteenth-century mansion which opened to the public as the Bede Monastery Museum in 1974. Nearly 20 years later, in 1993, a new museum and heritage centre called Bede’s World was unveiled. This had a “living history” aspect which included representations of Dark Age farming with real animals of the type an Anglo-Saxon monk would have seen. I visited Bede’s World a couple of times and always enjoyed it. As well as the historical displays and archaeological relics it had a nice gift shop and cafe (the latter being located in Jarrow Hall). Beyond the old monastic boundary lay the post-industrial landscape of Tyneside but this just seemed to add something to the overall experience.

Anglo-Saxon window at St Paul's Church, Jarrow.

Anglo-Saxon window in the wall of St Paul’s Church at Jarrow.

However, the recession of the early twenty-first century has had a big impact on heritage tourism sites, especially those that rely on government funds to supplement visitor revenues. Bede’s World was one of the places that fell victim to the cutbacks. Despite attracting more than 70,000 visitors per year, this unique and exciting venue was forced to close its doors in February 2016.

However, the story did not end there. A few weeks after the closure, some very encouraging tidings were heard. South Tyneside Council, the landowner of the Hall and museum, announced that the venue had been saved from oblivion. A charity called Groundwork South Tyneside and Newcastle would be taking over as the new operator.

Things have moved further along in the intervening months. Last week it was reported that the site will re-open in October as “Jarrow Hall – Anglo Saxon Farm, Village and Bede Museum.”

This is all good news. I look forward to seeing the new version of Bede’s World in the autumn. If it’s even half as good as the old one it will be well worth a visit.

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The sad tale of the closure of Bede’s World and the rather happier story that followed can be traced via the links below.

Bede’s World: Cash crisis forces closure of Jarrow tourist attraction

Bede’s World attraction in Jarrow saved from closure

Former Bede’s World museum to reopen as Jarrow Hall

More links….
Jarrow Hall – Anglo Saxon Farm, Village and Bede Museum
Jarrow Hall on Twitter
St Paul’s Church, Jarrow

Wearmouth & Jarrow: Northumbrian Monasteries in a Historic Landscape, a book by Sam Turner, Sarah Semple and Alex Turner (published in 2013).

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Remembering Aethelflaed

Aethelflaed of Mercia

Aethelflaed of Mercia with her young nephew Athelstan (a modern sculpture at Tamworth Castle).

Today is the 1097th anniversary of the death of my favourite individual from the Dark Ages.

I refer, of course, to the Anglo-Saxon princess Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and sister to his successor Edward the Elder.

Aethelflaed married Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia in the western midlands of England, and joined him in a programme of fortress-building that strengthened his people’s defences against Viking raids. After Aethelred died in 911, his widow became sole ruler and – unusually for a woman in those times – a commander of armies in the field. She led military campaigns in person and achieved several major victories. Working in tandem with her brother Edward, she not only held off the Viking menace but won back a number of conquered territories in eastern England.

As part of her wider anti-Viking strategy, she formed a three-way alliance with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. This northern and Scottish dimension is one of the reasons why I have long been fascinated by her career. Another reason is her connection with Mercia, my homeland, which she governed and protected during a time of great peril and uncertainty.

She died on 12 June 918, at the ancient Mercian settlement of Tamworth.

I’ve mentioned Aethelflaed here at Senchus quite a few times and, six years ago, devoted a blogpost to her. Last year I wrote about her again, at one of my other blogs. Here are the links to those posts…
‘The Lady of the Mercians’ [Senchus blog, 2009]
‘Aethelflaed’ [Strathclyde blog, 2014]

Her alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons is described in a medieval text known as The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. The passage in question gives an idea of the high regard in which she was held by contemporaries in lands far beyond the borders of Mercia. The relevant passage, with an English translation, can be seen in my blogpost on the Fragmentary Annals.

I also recommend Susan Abernethy’s article ‘Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia’ and Ed Watson’s ‘Aethelflaed: the making of a county town’.

I discuss Aethelflaed and her relations with the northern kings in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (on pages 58-63).

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Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey

As this blogpost is about a place in England I’m putting it in my ‘non-Scottish’ category, but that’s not the whole story, because Whitby has an important connection with early medieval Scotland.

Today, Whitby is a busy town and seaside resort on the coast of North Yorkshire. Its most striking landmark is the ruined abbey on a high headland overlooking the harbour. The abbey stands near the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery which was the venue for a hugely significant event in AD 664: an ecclesiastical synod where matters of grave concern were discussed. The synod was hosted by Abbess Hild, a princess of the English kingdom of Northumbria, who also chaired the debate. Among the attendees was the Northumbrian king Oswiu (husband of Hild’s kinswoman Eanflaed) at whose request the gathering was summoned.

At stake in the debate was the future direction of Christianity in Oswiu’s kingdom. Would the Northumbrian churches continue to follow the ‘Celtic’ religious customs of Iona, the Hebridean island monastery founded by Saint Columba? Or would they instead adopt the so-called ‘Roman’ customs practised throughout much of Western Europe? The Celtic case was put by Colmán, bishop of Lindisfarne, while the chief spokesman for the Roman side was Wilfrid, abbot of Ripon. After hearing the arguments and counter-arguments, King Oswiu decreed that the Northumbrian churches should adhere to Roman customs alone. At a stroke, Iona’s authority among the Northern English clergy was ended. Even those who felt strong loyalty to the old Celtic ways, such as Hild herself, were obliged to obey the royal command.

Nothing now remains of the seventh-century monastery at Whitby. Although archaeologists have found traces of timber buildings on the seaward edge of the headland, as well as a large cemetery of Anglo-Saxon graves beneath a car park near the Abbey, the precise layout of the monastic site is unknown. Modern visitors are instead left to imagine how the headland might have looked in Hild’s time. When they reach the top of the 199 steps leading up from the town, they encounter an impressive rendition of an Anglo-Saxon cross.

Caedmon's Cross

Caedmon’s Cross, Whitby.

This monument, known as Caedmon’s Cross, was erected in 1898 to commemorate Caedmon, a herdsman at the Whitby monastery, whose talent for poetry caught the attention of Hild. Both he and the abbess are carved on the front, together with Jesus Christ and the Israelite king David.
Saint Hild of Whitby

Caedmon’s Cross: St Hild, abbess of Whitby.


Caedmon’s Cross: Caedmon the poet

Caedmon's Cross

Caedmon’s Cross: commemorative text

The cross stands in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, an interesting old building which is well worth a visit. The church has a number of stained glass windows depicting key figures connected with the Synod of Whitby (Hild, Wilfrid and Colmán) as well as Caedmon and two seventh-century Northumbrian kings (Oswiu’s brother Oswald and Hild’s kinsman Edwin).
Hild and Wilfrid

St Mary’s Church: Hild and Wilfrid

Caedmon and Colman

St Mary’s Church: Caedmon and Colmán

Finally, a Scottish connection from a rather later period: a stone memorial, high on a wall inside St Mary’s Church, honouring the English general Peregrine Lascelles (1685-1772) who fought in the battle of Prestonpans near Edinburgh in 1745. This famous Jacobite victory, in which an English army was flung into disarray by a wild Highland charge, evidently niggled the old general to the end of his days. His memorial refers to a fruitless exertion of his Spirit & ability at the disgracefull rout of Preston pans.

St Mary's Church, Whitby: memorial to General Lascelles

General Lascelles (left) and his memorial at St Mary’s Church, Whitby (right).

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All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

I’ve written in more detail about the Synod of Whitby in my book on Saint Columba.

Hild has been brought vividly to life by award-winning author Nicola Griffith in a historical novel scheduled for publication later this year.

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My first post of 2013 has little connection with the topics usually featured here. It’s not about Scotland, nor any other part of the British Isles, even if it does fit with the overall theme of ‘early medieval’. It’s actually about Galicia (in the Iberian Peninsula) from where we have a charter issued by a prosperous woman called Letasia in the year 896. This document gives a fascinating glimpse (through female eyes) of ninth-century attitudes towards immorality among people whose lives were probably not dissimilar to those of their contemporaries in Britain. It comes courtesy of medieval charter expert Jonathan Jarrett in his final blogpost of 2012.

Happy New Year to all.

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Bede’s ‘Wilfaresdun’

I suppose this qualifies as one of my occasional ‘non-Scottish’ blogposts as it doesn’t deal with places or events in Scotland. There is, however, a slight Scottish connection, because the main event referred to here marked a significant milestone in the career of Oswiu, king of Bernicia, whose realm included parts of what are now Lothian and the Borders.

We begin with the words of an Englishman, the Venerable Bede, writing c.730 at the Northumbrian monastery of Jarrow. In Book 3, Chapter 14 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede tells us that two northern English kings prepared to do battle with one another in the summer of 651. One was Oswine, ruler of Deira, a kingdom roughly coterminous with the pre-1974 county of Yorkshire. The other was Oswiu of Bernicia, whose territory lay north of the River Tees and whose chief citadel lay on the imposing rock of Bamburgh. According to Bede….

“Each raised an army against the other, but Oswine – realising that he could not fight against an enemy with far greater resources – considered it wiser to give up the idea of war and wait for better times. So he disbanded the army which he had assembled at Wilfaresdun (Uilfaresdun), that is Wilfar’s Hill (Mons Uilfari), about ten miles north-west of the village of Catterick (vico Cataractone).”

But better times were not on the menu for Oswine. After disbanding his army, he sought refuge in the home of a local lord, supposedly a loyal henchman, who held land at Gilling. There he was betrayed to Oswiu and cruelly murdered, his death occurring on 20 August.

Bede says good things about Oswine, whom he regarded as a man of piety and generosity. Oswiu on the other hand emerges from the story with little credit, but went on to become one of the greatest of all Northumbrian kings, ruling Deira and Bernicia as a single realm. The story is useful in giving us an insight into the tensions that simmered between the respective Deiran and Bernician royal dynasties in the mid-seventh century, before they were brought together as a unified Northumbria in the era of Oswiu and his sons.

Two of the places mentioned in the story are easy to find on a modern map. Catterick, here referred to by Bede under its Latin name Cataracto or Cataracta, was a former Roman town on the main north-south highway running along the eastern side of Britain. It lay close to a major junction, now known as ‘Scotch Corner’, where another road branched off to Carlisle via the high moorlands of Stainmore. Gilling, which Bede called Ingetlingum, lies south of this branch-road and was the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery. The present village is known today as Gilling West.

But where was Wilfaresdun, Wilfar’s Hill?

Historians have occasionally puzzled over this question. Some have suggested possible answers, while others have concluded that the place cannot now be identified. Suggestions have tended to focus on a belief that the place-name may have survived, with modern equivalents being sought as far afield as Wilbarston in Northamptonshire. Wilbarston is too distant to be a viable candidate but it comes under the spotlight because no similar name survives within the broad range of Bede’s “about ten miles north-west of Catterick”. In these situations the desperate search for ‘sounds like’ place-names on a modern map sometimes takes precedence over rational thought or even, as in this case, over the testimony of a contemporary chronicler. Hence we find the small North Yorkshire village of Garriston being proposed as a possibly close match to Wilfaresdun because the two names share a superficial similarity. But Garriston poses a couple of serious problems: first, it lies south-west of Catterick, an orientation that must rule it out of any serious search; and, second, it was unlikely to have ever been known as Wilfaresdun. It has the rather different name Gerdestone when it is first mentioned in the historical record (in Domesday Book in the late eleventh century). In any case, we have no good reason to doubt the geographical context given by Bede, whose information probably came from Ceolfrith, the renowned abbot of Jarrow. Ceolfrith had formerly been a monk at Gilling, where the murdered King Oswine was venerated as a saint. The Gilling monastery had been founded by Oswiu himself in atonement for the treacherous assassination of his rival.

The monks of Gilling kept alive a memory of Oswine and undoubtedly preserved authentic stories about his life. Ceolfrith would have been familiar with these tales during his time there as a novice monk. It was surely from Ceolfrith that Bede obtained his information about the location of Wilfaresdun and we can therefore take it at face value. Wilfar’s Hill, then, lay approximately ten miles north-west of Catterick. These were Roman miles, shorter than today’s measure, so the true distance in modern terms is roughly nine miles. Bede and his contemporaries had no satellite imaging or aerial photography, so their measurements of distance were based on how far a traveller had to walk or ride along roads and tracks. If we follow the Roman highway from Catterick, steering a north-west course, we soon find ourselves on the branch-road to Carlisle. There are few significant or prominent hills in the early stages of this route, for we are still in the rolling agricultural countryside of Richmondshire. In fact, there is only one noticeable landmark worthy of note. Standing on the north side of the Roman road, some eight miles out from Catterick, it rises alone from the surrounding fields and is visible from a considerable distance. Its name on modern maps is Diddersley Hill.

Diddersley Hill

The southern flank of Diddersley Hill, viewed from the Roman road.

The suggestion that this hill might be Bede’s Wilfaresdun was made by Andrew Breeze in an article published seven years ago. Having visited the location this summer I am inclined to think Professor Breeze may be right, and that Mons Wilfari has been rediscovered. I also share his belief that Diddersley Hill may have been a traditional mustering-point for the armies of Deira, not just in the summer of 651 but at other times too. It certainly fits the requirements: a conspicuous landscape feature, visible to military forces approaching along the Roman road from east or west, an ideal venue for a king to gather an army comprising the warbands of subordinate lords. It is not difficult to imagine Oswine summoning his henchmen to this place in preparation for a decisive battle with Oswiu. Perhaps it was here, on the slopes of this hill, that the Deiran king surveyed his forces and deemed them insufficient for the task.

Diddersley Hill

Diddersley Hill, viewed from the north.

Diddersley Hill

Diddersley Hill, from the north, in its landscape context.

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Andrew Breeze, ‘Where were Bede’s Uilfaresdun and Paegnalaech?’ Northern History 42 (2005), 189-91.

The three photographs of Diddersley Hill are copyright © B Keeling 2012.

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The monastery at Dacre

Dacre Church: front entrance and Norman tower.

In February I finally got around to visiting Dacre, a small village on the southeastern fringe of the Lake District in Cumbria. It has been on my ‘get to’ list for a long time, not only because it’s a very picturesque place but also because of its history. In early medieval times the site of the present-day church was occupied by a monastery mentioned by Bede. He described it as being ‘near the river Dacore from which it received its name’, a reference presumably to the Dacre Beck or to the River Eamont into which it flows. Bede referred to a miraculous event that occurred at the monastery in 728, during the abbacy of Swithberht. At that time one of the brethren – a priest called Thrythred – had in his possession a piece of St Cuthbert’s hair. The hair cured a young monk of an untreatable condition that would otherwise have left him blind in one eye. By 731, when Bede published his Ecclesiastical History, the abbacy had passed to this same Thrythred, but this is the last we hear of Dacre until after the Norman Conquest. The names Swithberht and Thrythred are English and indicate that the monastery lay in Anglo-Saxon (i.e. Northumbrian) hands in the early 8th century. However, we do not know the date of foundation, so we cannot assume that the monks had always been English. It is possible, for instance, that the original brethren were Britons who fled in fear of Northumbrian warbands during the conflicts of the previous century.

Dacre Church: Norman arch (12th century).

Excavations in the churchyard in the early 1980s found evidence of the monastery, even though none of its buildings has survived. One early feature was a covered drain running across the southern part of the churchyard. This was found to be lined with shaped stones that may have come from a Roman structure (possibly a bridge) somewhere in the vicinity. Archaeologists also found traces of two timber buildings – one rectangular, the other circular – slightly northwest of the present church. The purpose of these is unknown but the circular one eventually fell into disuse and its space seems to have been given over to metalworking – this, at least, is suggested by the presence of hearths and copper pins. Another discovery was a large cemetery of more than three hundred graves, the majority of which are most likely of pre-10th century date. This is presumably where generations of monks were interred and where the 8th-century abbots Swithberht and Thrythred were laid to rest.

Dacre Church: the southeast corner.

Although little evidence of the daily life of the monastery has survived, a few small items have come to light. These include a writing-stylus, a belt buckle, a gold ring and a Viking coin. Together they provide evidence of a thriving community. Inside the church two sculptured fragments testify to the site’s high status in early medieval times. Both are from cross-shafts that must once have stood within the monastic enclosure. They are, respectively, of 9th and 10th century origin. The smaller of the two is the earlier and is of typical Northumbrian workmanship, with finely detailed carvings of a serpent and a winged lion. Its sculptural style is superior to that of the larger piece which looks unsophisticated by comparison. As soon as I saw this later fragment – which is usually attributed to Norse influence – I was reminded of the similarly crude sculpture of the Strathclyde Britons. The two human figures with linked hands are reminiscent of a pair on a contemporary cross-shaft from Cambusnethan in Lanarkshire, while an animal peering backward is a common motif on several Strathclyde monuments. Thus, although ‘Viking’ is a label often applied to the two Dacre fragments, I wonder if they represent a more complex set of cultural affinities. The monastery may have undergone several changes of ownership – in terms of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and secular patronage – between Bede’s era and the Norman Conquest. In the 9th century it is likely to have been a target of Norse raids and was no doubt affected by the collapse of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in the 860s. After c.900 its abbot probably became answerable to a new set of local lords, an immigrant elite of Cumbric-speaking Britons installed by the kings of Strathclyde. In 927 one of the Clyde kings attended a royal conference at a place called Eomotum – an unidentified site on the River Eamont. His name was Owain and he was a key player in the political manoeuvring between Viking, English and Celtic powers that eventually led to the great battle of Brunanburh in 937. The Eamont almost certainly marked the southern boundary of Owain’s kingdom and thus an appropriate setting for a meeting of kings. Indeed, Dacre’s position on one of the tributaries of this river led the 12th-century chronicler William of Malmesbury to suggest that the conference took place at the old monastery itself rather than at a site further downstream near the village of Eamont Bridge.

9th-century Northumbrian cross-shaft fragment.

Fragment of cross-shaft (10th century).

Animal and human figures on the 10th-century cross-shaft.

I’ve assigned this blogpost to the category ‘non-Scottish’ but this does not mean that Dacre had no connection with Scotland in early medieval times. Constantin II, one of the most famous kings of Alba, attended the royal meeting in 927 alongside his Strathclyde ally Owain. Both of these rulers can be regarded as ‘Scottish’ in the context of modern political geography. Even if Dacre is not the mysterious Eomotum (and I do not think it is) we cannot assume that it played no part in the meeting. We know it was an important site at the time because of the date of the larger cross-fragment. Perhaps the monastery hosted a religious service for the royal delegates after their high-level political discourse?

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Appendix: The Dacre Bears

The churchyard at Dacre contains four free-standing animal sculptures, each positioned near one corner of the church. Their date and purpose are unknown, but they are usually known as the ‘Dacre Bears’. Three are too weathered to show much detail but the fourth has a mane and a long tail and is probably a lion. Two others appear to be grappling with some kind of smaller animal. What all this means is a complete mystery. Were the ‘bears’ carved in early medieval times, or do they post-date the Norman Conquest? Are they, in fact, of pre-Christian origin?

One of the Dacre Bears.

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Notes & References

The Church of St Andrew, Dacre (2008) [booklet produced by the parish community]. Includes at pp.29-30 an archaeological summary by Rachel Newman, ‘The early history of the church site’.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book iv, chapter 32.

All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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Welsh kings at the English court, 928-956

Hywel Dda

The Welsh king Hywel Dda (died 950)

Although I’ve listed this post in the ‘non-Scottish’ category it does have a connection with the blog’s overall theme. It’s basically an announcement of a new article dealing with important events of the 10th century, a period when the dominant power in Britain was the West Saxon royal dynasty. The article is mainly concerned with West Saxon policy towards Wales but the author, Kevin Halloran, considers a wider political picture in which the northern Celtic powers – the kings of Alba and Strathclyde – also figured as key players. Kevin is frequently cited in modern studies of the battle of Brunanburh (937): his two articles in the Scottish Historical Review make a strong case for considering Burnswark (in Scotland) as a likely location for the battlefield.

In his latest article, Kevin takes a detailed look at the reigns of Athelstan (c.925-39) and his younger brothers Edmund (939-46) and Eadred (946-55) by examining their dealings with the Welsh kingdoms. Although West Saxon dominance in Wales cannot be denied, Kevin argues that the situation was more dynamic than has previously been recognised. He sees changes in the fortunes of individual Welsh kings adding instability to the mix and making the situation far less settled for West Saxon overlords than they might have hoped. To a very ambitious king like Athelstan, who had pretensions to be ruler of all Britain, overlordship of Wales was a key element in his plans. Not only did it ease tensions along the western flank of his core territory, it also discouraged Welsh kings from getting too friendly with Viking warlords or with other dangerous powers. As long as the Welsh remained on board as client-rulers, Athelstan could rely on them to boost his military manpower with their own armies. But contemporary records suggest that his overlordship was not as secure as later English chronclers liked to believe. Nor was every formal meeting between Athelstan and his Welsh clients necessarily summoned by him as an opportunity to display his dominance. In some cases, a meeting may have been requested by the clients themselves when they wished to raise particular concerns. West Saxon scribes often described Welsh rulers as subreguli, ‘little under-kings’. As Kevin points out, the term subregulus seems pejorative, as though English propaganda sought to demean those who were given this label in charters and other documents, but it might simply reflect English awareness of the fragmented pattern of royal authority in Wales. Welsh kingdoms were often divided between heirs, a practice that obviously had a weakening effect by hindering cohesion and centralisation.

Another aspect of Athelstan’s relationship with the Welsh is their apparent absence at Brunanburh. If their kings really were his clients in 937, they ought to have fought alongside him in the great battle. Their absence has been viewed by some historians as a sign of loyalty to Athelstan, i.e. the Welsh were good clients because they didn’t join the Celtic-Scandinavian alliance ranged against him. This is not the only interpretation we can draw, nor necessarily the most plausible. Perhaps, as Kevin Halloran suggests, the Welsh had now rejected English overlordship – if only temporarily. When Edmund succeeded Athelstan two years after the battle, the old system of West Saxon domination and patronage appears to have been amended or replaced. Edmund evidently preferred dealing with one powerful Welsh king, Hywel Dda, rather than with a gaggle of petty ones who were, in any case, engaged in perpetual rivalry with each other. Hywel eventually became an overlord in his own right, bringing most of Wales under his authority. In the time of Eadred, Edmund’s successor, West Saxon royal scribes were already calling Hywel rex, ‘king’, to acknowledge his status as a much bigger fish than the small-time subreguli of Athelstan’s time.

The above is merely a selective summary of Kevin’s article. Other interesting aspects could be picked out and highlighted, but this blogpost would then be far too long.

Kevin Halloran, ‘Welsh kings at the English court, 928-956’ Welsh History Review vol.25, no.3 (June 2011), 297-313

Note: This article is not freely available online.