In the squabbling following King Henry I’s death in 1135, the Scots, under King David I, used the dispute as an excuse to lay claim to vast tracts of Northern England. To cut a long story short, they were largely successful, being granted most of what lay north of the Tyne, including Newcastle. And, though they weren’t actually presented with County Durham, they hoped to exert severe pressure over the Prince Bishops, too.
Scottish rule didn’t last, of course. It spanned what must have been eighteen bizarre years during 1139-57, before King Henry II brought Northumberland and Cumberland back under English rule for good.
In County Durham, though, the period was one of confusion. Scotland’s Chancellor at the time was one William Cumin. And when the Bishop of Durham, Geoffrey Rufus, died in 1141, King David tried to insert Cumin as his successor. The process was only ever half-completed, with Cumin never actually being consecrated – and so began a three year battle for the bishopric.
Cumin had some supporters, but plenty of opponents too, and the dispute was heated to say the least. Accounts of Cumin’s ‘rule’ are pretty severe, as his troops terrorised the city of Durham and beyond. In 1142, King David threw the towel in and abandoned Cumin, but the usurper battled on by producing a forged letter of support for his cause from the papacy. Word was then squeezed out to the pope of Cumin’s shenanigans and he was excommunicated in 1143 – but the fuss carried on unabated. Historian Simeon of Durham tells us of Cumin’s men incessantly making forages; whatever they could lay their hands on they plundered... wherever these men passed it became a wilderness. Their torments were of many and various kinds, difficult to describe and difficult to believe. Men were hung from the walls of their own howses... others... plunged into the bed of the river... everywhere throughout the town there were groans and various kinds of deaths.
The conflict came to a head at the village of Kirk Merrington in 1144, where Cumin’s unholy band of men holed themselves up in the church and, taking advantage of its slightly elevated position, fortified the site – principally by the digging of a ditch around the building. However, it was to no avail, and the ‘enemy’ overwhelmed them without too much fuss. He must have been quite a talker, though, as he managed to negotiate his way out of immediate danger by relinquishing his claim to Durham in return for lands to endow his nephew, Richard. He did spend some time in jail, but eventually found himself restored to prominence of a sort as Archdeacon of Worcester in 1157 – a post he had held thirty years earlier. And the same year in which, coincidentally, the northern counties were taken back by the English.
Nothing remains of the ditch at Kirk Merrington these days. In fact, very little of the original church remains, either, having been almost completely rebuilt in 1850-51.