Northumberland: England's Border Country

By Waters, Irene | Contemporary Review, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Northumberland: England's Border Country


Waters, Irene, Contemporary Review


'Welcome to Northumberland, England's border country' reads the sign at the boundary. Throughout much of its history this part of England has indeed been a typical frontier zone, an undefined margin, disputed territory, a remote and thinly populated no-man's land.

Much of Northumberland remains sparsely populated: Tynedale District Council covers the largest area of any English District yet has fewest people - there are more sheep than humans. I have often walked all day over the rounded hills of north Northumberland - the National Park, the 'land of far horizons' - meeting no-one except a shepherd. Visitors comment on the tranquillity but, to those aware of the significance, there are many signs betraying the county's turbulent past.

The southern boundary has been indistinguishable since 1974 when local government re-organisation created the county of Tyne and Wear, drawing the line just north of the Tyne, leaving Northumberland a mainly rural county. Close to this, however, lies the earliest attempt to define a boundary in this area: the wall begun at Roman Emperor Hadrian's command in AD 122. Snaking across the narrowest part of Britain, perched for much of its length on the volanic outcrop of the Whin Sill, it remains an impressive sight.

Although the original purpose of the Wall is unclear, it was undoubtedly a symbol of power. Troops garrisoned in the forts were readily available to quell any rebellion among the Brigantes to the south while, to the north, the Votadini were maintained by the Roman army to provide a buffer zone. The Wall represented a dividing line between Romanised southern Britain and the barbarian highlands to the north, between civilised, settled country and the untamed outback, between safety and danger.

Notwithstanding long periods of relative peace Northumberland remained a buffer zone and battle ground for centuries. It was disputed territory between a developing and expansive Scotland and an England increasingly ruled from a base hundreds of miles away.

In the late eleventh century Norman barons laid waste much of northern England, then carved out large estates and built castles to defend the frontier. The Percy family, for instance, were granted lands in the north after coming to Britain with William the Conqueror. In 1309 they purchased the Barony of Alnwick from Bishop Bek of Durham and built a castle to guard the river crossing, with another a few miles downstream at Warkworth. They later became Dukes of Northumberland and, during the Middle Ages, were almost continuously at war defending the border - for which they received royal funding, frequently complaining this was inadequate.

Northumberland was ravaged many times before the River Tweed became the accepted boundary with Scotland in 1174. But the Tweed never presented much of a barrier as it is easily fordable at low water and the town of Berwick continued to change nationality - at least 14 times before its final re-capture by England in 1482. Fighting in the 1378 siege of Berwick was the 14-year-old son of the fourth Lord Percy. Ten years later the impetuosity that earned the lad his nickname 'Harry Hotspur' lost him the Battle of Otterburn - with the deaths of over 1,000 men to the Scots' 200. Hotspur was captured, but not before he had personally hacked down the Scottish leader, Earl James Douglas, and other nobility.

Richard II paid the equivalent of over [pounds]1 million ransom and, within a year, Hotspur was back in command of the English border. That was a price worth paying for his indefatigable fighting skills. Scotland was a menace to England: foreign, potentially hostile and offering a stepping-stone to her enemies. And Hotspur took his revenge at the Battle of Humbleton Hill (1402), defeating and capturing (for ransom) Earl Archibald Douglas, three other Scottish Earls and several wealthy nobles.

In that fight Hotspur was guided by steadier counsel from George Dunbar, the Scottish Earl of March, who had allied himself to the Percys against his arch enemies the Douglases. …

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