Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Norham and North Durham (NT899473)

Anyone who knows anything about the ancient history of Northumbria will be aware of the region’s strong links with early Christianity. Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede dominate the annals of our history from the former’s arrival here as a missionary in 635AD to the latter’s death exactly a century later. And the village we now know as Norham on the very edge of England overlooking the River Tweed played an important role in those formative years.

These days, of course, the castle is the great symbol of Norham’s place in history, but this fine structure didn’t appear in its earliest form until the 1120s. Unlike most other settlements in the North-East, the village had already enjoyed an eventful and quite well documented history up until this point, mainly due to its situate.

Skipping conveniently over its very earliest days, it came to prominence most notably at the dawn of Northumbria’s period of Dark Age dominance in the 630sAD. When King Oswald won the crown of the northern kingdom in 634 he invited the Celtic monks of Iona to establish Christianity in the region – and it was, of course, Aidan who made this happen. He was sent over from the little Scottish island in 635 and, by passing over the Tweed and through Norham en route, he first brought the village into the sightlines of the religious community.

Norham was then called Ubbanford (‘upper ford’), and though Lindisfarne soon became religious HQ, it has been suggested that Norham enjoyed a brief period of superiority beforehand. Even in later years it remained a regular monkish stopping-off point on their journeys to and from Iona. A grant of land was, in fact, made to create a monastery at Norham as early as 655.

The village’s religious links were reinforced during the ninth century when on at least one (and probably two) occasions, the remains of St.Cuthbert were moved there to keep them safe from Viking raids. By the mid eleventh century Ubbanford had become Norham, and was essentially the capital of the County Palatine of Durham’s lands in North Northumberland – or North Durham, as it was for centuries known. So, yes, Norham (or Norhamshire) and a good deal more of the northern reaches of Northumberland weren’t in Northumberland at all, really, from the medieval period to the Victorian era, but rather they were part of County Durham – a curious state of affairs brought on by the enduring religious heritage of these stretches of land. Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1844 that the common sense switch was made by handing North Durham to Northumberland. 

When the castle came along in the 1120s, it was a Bishop of Durham who commissioned it. Built to keep the incursions of the increasingly boisterous Scots at bay, it encouraged the development, in time, of the the village proper. Then another very different phase in Norham’s history began… as a military outpost.

But that’s another story.

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