Brigantia during the Dark Ages

The Dark Ages in Yorkshire

Yorkshire’s history during the Dark Ages is a tapestry of cultural shifts and invasions, beginning with the departure of the Romans in the early 5th century. This period saw the region become a melting pot of Celtic Britons, and later, the Angles and Vikings, each leaving a distinct imprint on the cultural landscape.

The Kingdom of Deira

The Angles established the Kingdom of Deira, which later became part of Northumbria, a powerful kingdom that played a significant role in the early Christian history of England.

The Kingdom of Deira was one of the two early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms located in what is now Northern England, the other being Bernicia. Established by the Angles, a Germanic people who migrated to Britain, Deira encompassed the area between the Humber and Tees rivers. In the early 7th century, Deira and Bernicia were united by Æthelfrith, forming the Kingdom of Northumbria. This unification marked the beginning of Northumbria’s rise as a significant power in the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, a term used to describe the seven kingdoms of early medieval England.

Northumbria’s significance was not just political but also religious. The kingdom played a crucial role in the early Christian history of England, particularly after the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria to Christianity in 627 AD. Edwin’s baptism, influenced by his marriage to a Christian princess and the persuasive efforts of Bishop Paulinus, was a pivotal moment for the spread of Christianity in the region. Following his conversion, Edwin established York as his religious capital, where he built the first Christian church, the forerunner of the present-day York Minster.

The Christianization of Northumbria also had cultural and intellectual ramifications. The kingdom became a centre of learning and art, exemplified by the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the scholarly works of Bede, also known as the Venerable Bede, who was a monk at the Monastery of Saint Peter in Northumbria. Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ remains a vital source for understanding the early history of England and the spread of Christianity.

Northumbria’s influence waned after a series of defeats and internal strife, but its legacy endured, particularly in religious and cultural contributions that shaped the development of England. The kingdom’s early embrace of Christianity laid the groundwork for the Church of England and had a lasting impact on English society and governance. Thus, the Kingdom of Deira’s integration into Northumbria represents a significant chapter in the tapestry of England’s history, intertwining the threads of conquest, religion, and culture.

Viking Influence

The Viking invasions of the 9th century had a profound impact on the region now known as Yorkshire. These incursions brought with them Norse culture, language, and governance, which intermingled with the local Anglo-Saxon ways to create a unique cultural synthesis.

The Norse influence is particularly evident in place names throughout Yorkshire, many of which derive from Old Norse. For instance, the suffix ‘-by’, found in names like Selby or Whitby, is a Norse word for a farm or village. Similarly, ‘-thorpe’, meaning a secondary settlement, and ‘-thwaite’, referring to a clearing or meadow, are also of Norse origin. This linguistic legacy extends beyond place names and into the dialects spoken in Yorkshire, which retain words of Norse origin.

Governance, too, was affected, with the establishment of the Danelaw—a region of England under the control of Norse law—of which Yorkshire was a part. The Danelaw had its own legal system, distinct from that of the Anglo-Saxons, and it left an indelible mark on the legal traditions of the region. The Norse legacy in Yorkshire is a tapestry woven through the fabric of time, leaving a lasting impression on the region’s identity.

The Norse influence in Yorkshire extended beyond place names and dialects, permeating various facets of daily life and culture. Agriculture, for instance, was significantly impacted by Norse practices. The Vikings introduced new farming techniques and tools, which improved the efficiency of agriculture in the region. They also brought with them certain crops and livestock that were not previously common in Yorkshire. In terms of architecture, the Norse left their mark with distinctive styles of building, particularly in the construction of houses and farmsteads, which often featured long, rectangular structures with thatched roofs.

Craftsmanship and trade were other areas where the Norse culture made its presence felt. The Vikings were skilled craftsmen, known for their metalwork, especially in silver and iron. They produced various goods, including weapons, jewellery, and everyday household items, which were traded both locally and across the Viking trade networks that stretched throughout Europe. The Viking influence on trade in Yorkshire was profound, as they established York as a major trading centre, which facilitated the exchange of goods and ideas.

Social structure and law were also influenced by the Norse settlers. They introduced a more collective form of governance, with local assemblies known as ‘things’ where free men could participate in decision-making. This system contributed to the development of a more democratic form of governance in the region. Norse laws and customs were integrated into the local legal system, influencing the development of Yorkshire’s legal traditions.

Merging Beliefs

Religion, too, underwent changes with the arrival of the Vikings. Initially, they brought their pagan beliefs and practices, which coexisted alongside Christianity for a time. This religious blending is reflected in some of the artifacts found in Yorkshire, which show a mix of Christian and pagan symbols. Over time, however, the Norse settlers in Yorkshire converted to Christianity, leading to the establishment of new churches and the integration of Norse artistic styles into Christian art and architecture.

Cultural activities such as storytelling, poetry, and music were also influenced by the Norse. The sagas and tales brought by the Vikings enriched the local storytelling tradition, and some elements of Norse mythology and literature can still be detected in the folklore of Yorkshire. Music and dance styles of the time were likely influenced by Norse traditions, contributing to the cultural diversity of the region.

The Norse culture left a multifaceted legacy in Yorkshire, influencing its agriculture, architecture, craftsmanship, trade, social structure, law, religion, and cultural activities. This rich heritage continues to be a source of fascination and pride for the people of Yorkshire, and it contributes to the unique character of the region.

Religious sites

The Dark Ages in Yorkshire were also marked by the establishment of religious sites, such as the Whitby Abbey, which hosted the Synod of Whitby, a pivotal moment in the unification of English Christianity.

Among the most notable religious sites established during this era was Whitby Abbey, founded in 657 AD by the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria, Oswy. This monastery became one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world, not least because of its association with the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD.

The synod was a landmark event, convened by King Oswiu of Northumbria, to resolve a pressing dispute within the church: how to calculate the date of Easter. This debate reflected deeper divisions between the Roman and Celtic Christian traditions, particularly in their liturgical practices. The Synod of Whitby’s decision to follow Roman customs, such as the method of calculating Easter and the style of tonsure, was a turning point that effectively aligned the Northumbrian church—and subsequently English Christianity—with the wider Roman Catholic Church.

This unification under Roman practices facilitated the integration of the English church into the broader European Christian community, strengthening ecclesiastical ties and promoting a more cohesive religious identity across England. The outcomes of the synod had far-reaching implications, including the relocation of the episcopal see from Lindisfarne to York, which became a pivotal ecclesiastical hub.

The legacy of the Synod of Whitby and the establishment of sites like Whitby Abbey underscore the period’s significance in shaping the religious landscape of Yorkshire and the evolution of Christianity in England. The abbey itself, though now in ruins, remains a symbol of the spiritual and historical heritage of the region, reflecting the complex interplay of political power, religious belief, and cultural change during the early medieval period.

A rapidly changing cultural dynamic

Yorkshire became a melting pot of religious beliefs and practices. The indigenous Celtic faiths, with their deep-rooted traditions and local deities, encountered the Christian doctrines brought by missionaries and the Norse paganism of Viking settlers.

This period saw a fascinating intermingling of cultures and religions. The Vikings, often remembered as fierce raiders, gradually adopted Christian beliefs, integrating them with their own Norse gods. This syncretism is evident in the archaeological record, where Christian burial practices supplanted the pagan ritual of grave goods, reflecting a shift towards the Christian way of life.

The adoption of Christianity by the Vikings facilitated their assimilation into the local society, particularly in trade, as Christians were discouraged from trading with pagans. Marriages between Vikings and locals led to households that were at least partially Christian, further blending the religious landscape. The coexistence of these diverse traditions is also reflected in the numismatic evidence, with coins minted in Jorvik (York) bearing Christian inscriptions alongside pagan symbols.

Art and architecture from this era also depict the convergence of styles. Stone crosses and hog-back tombstones feature a mix of Christian iconography and Scandinavian motifs, illustrating the cultural and religious synthesis of the period. The artistry of the time was a testament to the cohabitation of the Celtic, Christian, and Viking traditions, with each group influencing the other, creating a unique regional style that can still be observed in Yorkshire today.

The Celtic Church, which had established its presence in England well before the Viking incursions, also played a role in this religious tapestry. The marriage of Princess Ethelburga of Kent to King Edwin of Northumbria in 625 marked the restoration of Christianity in York, setting the stage for the interplay of beliefs that would follow. The Celtic Church’s influence persisted alongside the newer traditions, contributing to the rich spiritual heritage of the region.

The indigenous Celtic faiths, Christianity, and Viking traditions coexisted in Yorkshire during the Dark Ages through a process of cultural exchange, adaptation, and integration. This period of religious and cultural fusion left a lasting imprint on the region’s identity, one that can still be appreciated in its historical relics and enduring traditions.

Re-use of existing Celtic sacred places

During the Dark Ages, a period marked by the migration and settlement of various peoples and the spread of new religions, there was indeed a significant overlap and repurposing of sacred sites. The Celts, with their rich spiritual traditions, had established numerous sacred sites across the British Isles, often in groves or natural settings.

As Christianity spread, it was common for new faiths to build upon these existing sacred places, integrating them into their own religious practices. This process of cultural and religious synthesis allowed for a smoother transition and acceptance among the local populace, who were already accustomed to the sanctity of these sites.

The Vikings, known for their raids and later settlements, also encountered these sacred spaces. While initially pagans, many Vikings converted to Christianity and likewise adopted these sites, further entwining the old with the new. This layering of religious significance over time has left a rich tapestry of history that can be traced through the archaeological record, place names, and historical accounts. The adaptation of Celtic sacred sites by the Christian and Viking faiths is a testament to the fluidity and adaptability of spiritual and religious expression during the Dark Ages.

Examples of the intermingling of belief from elsewhere

The British Isles are dotted with numerous sites that hold a deep historical and spiritual significance, many of which have origins in the ancient Celtic religion and were later adopted by Christian and Viking settlers. One of the most renowned examples is the Isle of Iona in Scotland, which became a pivotal centre for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland after St. Columba founded a monastery there in the 6th century.

Another is Glastonbury in England, associated with legends of King Arthur and believed to be the site of one of the earliest introductions of Christianity to the area. In Ireland, the monastic settlement of Glendalough is a prime example of a pre-Christian sacred site that was later used by Christians; its name, meaning “valley of two lakes,” reflects the Celtic reverence for natural water sites. Similarly, the island of Lindisfarne, located off the northeast coast of England, became known as the “Holy Island” after a monastery was established there in the 7th century.

These sites often feature in pilgrimage routes, such as The Celtic Way, which traces a path through landscapes rich with historical religious significance. In Wales, places like Llanwnda and Llandeilo hold remnants of early Christian inscriptions and stone crosses, marking them as places of worship that likely succeeded earlier Celtic sites. The transition from pagan to Christian worship can also be seen in the use of hilltops and natural springs, which were sacred to the Celts and later became the foundations for churches and chapels. For instance, many churches dedicated to St. Michael are found on hilltops, echoing the Celtic veneration for high places.

The Vikings, upon their arrival and eventual settlement, encountered these sacred spaces and, over time, as they converted to Christianity, began to respect and utilize these sites as well. This is evident in the Norse influence on place names and church dedications in regions like the Scottish Isles and parts of northern England. The interweaving of Celtic, Christian, and Viking traditions has left a legacy that is not only etched into the landscape but also into the cultural and spiritual identity of the British Isles.

The Brigantian intermingling

In the area once known as Brigantia, the intertwining of Celtic, Christian, and Viking traditions is evident in the region’s rich tapestry of historical and spiritual sites.

One such example is the church of St. Michael the Archangel in Kirkby Malham, which is believed to stand on a site once held sacred by the Celts. The presence of a holy well nearby, often a sign of pre-Christian worship, adds to this belief. Another significant site is the ruins of the Bolton Abbey, which was built on land with a long history of spiritual significance, likely extending back to Celtic times.

Ancient crypts

The village of Lastingham is another noteworthy location; it is home to St. Mary’s Church, which was founded by St. Cedd in the 7th century on a site that was probably sacred to earlier inhabitants. The crypt beneath the church is particularly evocative, with its ancient stonework hinting at a much older, possibly Celtic, origin.

The crypt at St. Mary’s Church in Lastingham is a remarkable architectural feature that offers a unique glimpse into the ecclesiastical history of Northern England. This subterranean chamber, dating from the late 11th century, is believed to incorporate elements of the stonework from an earlier church that stood on the site. The crypt’s significance is manifold; it is not only an architectural marvel but also a spiritual nexus that connects the present to the distant past.

The history of the site begins long before the crypt’s construction, with the establishment of a monastery in 654 by St. Cedd, a significant figure in the spread of Christianity in the region. The Venerable Bede, a prominent historian of the period, documented the founding of this early Christian community. The monastery served as a beacon of faith and learning until it was destroyed, likely during the Viking raids of the 9th century. The crypt, as it stands today, was built under the direction of Abbot Stephen and his monks between 1078 and 1088, following the Norman Conquest, which brought about a new wave of ecclesiastical construction across England.

Architecturally, the crypt is distinguished by its solid, short pillars and the use of Romanesque design elements, which were prevalent during the Norman period. It is organized into a nave and chancel, with side aisles, resembling the layout of a miniature church. One of its most extraordinary features is the presence of an apse, a rounded end typically found in churches but rarely seen in crypts, making it a unique structure in England and possibly beyond. The crypt’s design reflects the religious and cultural influences of the time, blending the Norman penchant for grand, sturdy structures with the spiritual continuity of a site revered for centuries.

The crypt also holds historical significance due to its association with St. Cedd. After his death in 664, he was initially buried in the open air, but later, a church was constructed around his resting place. Although the original structure no longer exists, it is believed that some remnants of St. Cedd’s presence, such as Saxon preaching crosses, have been preserved within the crypt. This connection to St. Cedd adds a layer of historical depth to the crypt, as it serves as a tangible link to the saint’s legacy and the early Christian heritage of the region.

Today, the crypt continues to be a place of pilgrimage and reflection, drawing visitors who are interested in its architectural uniqueness and historical importance. It stands as a testament to the enduring nature of spiritual sites, which can carry forward the legacy of faith through the ages, adapting to the changing tides of history while maintaining a sense of sacred continuity. The crypt at St. Mary’s Church in Lastingham is not just a relic of the past; it is a living part of the historical narrative, inviting exploration and contemplation of the profound religious transformations that have shaped the British Isles.

Ripon Cathedral

Ripon Cathedral, a remarkable structure with a history that stretches back over thirteen centuries, is a testament to the enduring nature of places of worship and their significance in the community. The cathedral’s crypt, which dates from the 7th century, is the oldest part of this edifice and is a rare surviving example of Anglo-Saxon architecture, reflecting the continuity of religious practice from the early Christian period in England.

This crypt was part of a church founded by St. Wilfrid in 672, who brought craftsmen from across Europe to construct a stone church in the Roman style, replacing an earlier timber structure. Over the centuries, the cathedral has undergone numerous transformations, reflecting the changing architectural styles and religious practices of the times.

The current cathedral, which dates from the 13th to the 16th centuries, showcases a blend of Gothic styles, with its west front being a prime example of the Early English Decorated style. Despite these changes, the crypt has remained intact, serving as a direct link to the cathedral’s ancient past and to the Celtic era, which predates the Anglo-Saxon period.

The site’s use as a place of worship for over 1,300 years indicates a remarkable continuity of sacred use, suggesting that the location held religious significance even before the construction of St. Wilfrid’s stone church. This continuity is further evidenced by the cathedral’s role throughout history, not only as a place of worship but also as a centre of learning and community life. Today, Ripon Cathedral continues to be a vibrant part of the community, offering services, music, and cultural events, while also attracting visitors from around the world who come to marvel at its historical and architectural significance.

York Minster

The crypt of York Minster holds an extraordinary historical significance, as it is the resting place of the remains of the original 7th-century church. This ancient structure was part of a complex that has seen continuous Christian worship for over 1,300 years. The crypt itself offers a unique glimpse into the past, showcasing remnants from the Roman era as well as the subsequent Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods. Visitors to the crypt can marvel at the ancient stone foundations that once supported a church commissioned by King Edwin of Northumbria in 627 AD.

The site’s early Christian history is illuminated through interactive displays in the Undercroft, which also reveal artefacts and remnants of the Roman fortress that predated the church. York Minster, formerly known as the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York, is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and is renowned for retaining most of its medieval stained-glass, a significant survival among European churches.

The current Gothic structure of the Minster, which dominates the skyline of York, was built over a period of 250 years, from the 1220s to the 1470s, but the crypt serves as a reminder of the site’s extensive and varied history, stretching back to the Roman occupation of Britain. The Minster’s importance in the history of England’s Christianity cannot be overstated; it has been a centre of worship, learning, and pilgrimage for centuries, reflecting the religious and political changes of the country throughout its long history. The crypt, therefore, is not just a physical space but a symbolic one, representing the deep roots of faith and tradition in the British Isles.

Other sacred places

In the Yorkshire Dales, the Gordale Scar, a dramatic limestone ravine, is believed to have been a place of Celtic worship, its awe-inspiring natural beauty making it a likely candidate for spiritual significance.

Similarly, the natural springs at places like Knaresborough, with its chapel dedicated to St. Robert, a hermit who lived there in the 12th century, may well have been considered sacred by the Celts long before Christian times.

These sites, among others scattered throughout Yorkshire, reflect a pattern of spiritual continuity and adaptation. They embody the layers of belief and practice that have shaped the region’s identity, with each successive culture adding its own chapter to the story of these sacred landscapes. The absence of Whitby in this account does not diminish the overall narrative of Yorkshire’s sacred heritage, which is vast and varied, encompassing countless locations where the ancient and the medieval, the pagan and the Christian, converge and coexist.

Changing cultures

During the Dark Ages in Yorkshire, the local Celtic and Romano-British populations experienced significant transformations. The withdrawal of Roman authority in the early 5th century led to a power vacuum that altered the political landscape. Tribal kingdoms re-emerged, and the region known as Yr Hen Ogledd, or “The Old North,” became a patchwork of small Celtic kingdoms.

These kingdoms shared a common Brittonic language and cultural customs, from which modern Welsh is descended. The Romano-British culture, which had developed under Roman rule, began to fragment as the influence of Rome waned. Settlement patterns shifted, with evidence suggesting that later Iron Age communities lived in small, dispersed farmsteads, focusing on mixed agriculture, though pastoral production may have been predominant.

The societal structure likely became more localized and tribal, with less emphasis on the urban centres that had been established during Roman times. The language and culture of the Britons fragmented further, and by the 11th century, distinct groups such as the Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons had emerged from this Brittonic-speaking population. The Dark Ages also saw the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement in eastern and southern Britain, which further influenced the cultural and linguistic landscape of Yorkshire. This period of transition was marked by both continuity and change, as the Celtic and Romano-British people adapted to new realities while maintaining aspects of their heritage and identity.

Significant Battles in Yorkshire During the Dark Ages

Yorkshire, with its rich and tumultuous history, witnessed several significant battles during the dark ages.

Possibly, the earliest known, described in Y Gododdin, is a medieval Welsh poem, revered as one of the earliest surviving examples of Welsh/Brythonic poetry, and is attributed to the bard Aneirin. The poem is an elegy to the warriors of the Brittonic kingdom of Gododdin who, according to tradition, fell in battle against the Angles of Deira and Bernicia at a site identified as Catraeth, around AD 600.

This site is often associated with Catterick in North Yorkshire, which ties the poem to the region and the era in question. Y Gododdin is composed of a series of elegies, lamenting the fallen heroes who fought valiantly but were ultimately overwhelmed by the opposing forces. The poem is not a narrative but a collection of stanzas that honour the courage and sacrifice of these men, reflecting the ethos of heroic poetry where glory in battle is a central theme.

The manuscript known as the Book of Aneirin is the sole surviving source of this poem, believed to be from the second half of the 13th century. The text within is partly in Middle Welsh orthography and partly in Old Welsh, indicating its long-standing heritage and the linguistic evolution of the region.

The poem itself has been dated variously from the 7th to the early 11th centuries, with the earlier date suggesting it was composed not long after the battle it describes, possibly in the Hen Ogledd, the ‘Old North’. This would place its origins in the Cumbric dialect of Common Brittonic, spoken in what is now southeast Scotland and Northumberland, part of the Hen Ogledd.

Y Gododdin stands out not only for its historical significance but also for its literary value. It provides a window into the culture and values of the time, emphasizing the heroic ideal of fighting for glory and honour. The poem also holds the distinction of containing what might be the earliest known reference to the legendary figure King Arthur, although this is subject to debate as some scholars consider it a later interpolation.

The warriors of Y Gododdin, assembled from various regions including Pictland and Gwynedd, are described as having feasted for a year at Din Eidyn, now Edinburgh, before marching to Catraeth. The poem recounts their bravery in the face of insurmountable odds, with nearly all of them meeting their end on the battlefield. This tragic tale of heroism and loss has cemented Y Gododdin’s place in the annals of British literature and history, making it a poignant reminder of Yorkshire’s dark age battles and the enduring human spirit.

The first mention of Arthur

There is an Arthurian connection to the poem “Y Gododdin” which is both subtle and significant, reflecting the enduring legacy of Arthurian legend in early British literature. The poem contains a stanza that makes a fleeting reference to Arthur, not as a king but as a paragon of martial prowess. The line in question states, “He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress / Though he was no Arthur,” suggesting that while the warrior in question was formidable, he was not comparable to the legendary Arthur. This mention is crucial because if it is not an interpolation, it would be one of the earliest known references to Arthur, dating back to a time close to his supposed historical existence.

The stanza serves as a benchmark for heroism, using Arthur as a measure against which the valour of other warriors is judged. It implies that Arthur’s reputation as a warrior was already established by the time “Y Gododdin” was composed, and his feats were the stuff of legend, setting a standard for bravery and skill in battle. The reference is indirect, praising the warriors of the Gododdin, with one, in particular, being lauded for his bravery, though he is acknowledged as falling short of Arthur’s legendary status.

Scholars have debated the authenticity of this reference, with some suggesting it may be a later addition to the text. However, if accepted as part of the original composition, it provides a tantalizing link between the historical battles of the dark ages and the mythic figure of Arthur, who has become a symbol of chivalry and British identity. The poem does not elaborate on Arthur’s deeds or his kingship, but its mere mention of him in a work that commemorates a real historical battle adds a layer of mythic resonance to the historical narrative.

The Arthurian connection in “Y Gododdin” is not just a matter of literary interest but also of cultural significance. It reflects the way in which Arthurian legend was woven into the fabric of early medieval British society, with Arthur becoming a cultural icon whose name and reputation transcended the boundaries of history and myth. The poem, therefore, stands at the crossroads of history and legend, offering a glimpse into the heroic culture of the time and the process by which historical figures are transformed into legends.

Other battles

Other, less well documented battles include the Battle of Heathfield in AD 633 and the Battle of Winwidfield in AD 654 are notable examples, marking the region’s early medieval strife. These conflicts were pivotal in shaping the cultural and political landscape of Yorkshire.

The Battle of Heathfield, also known as the Battle of Hatfield Chase, was a significant conflict where King Edwin of Northumbria faced the combined forces of Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia. The outcome was a devastating defeat for Edwin, which led to a period of instability in the region.

Similarly, the Battle of Winwidfield, though less documented, reflects the era’s endemic warfare and the fractious nature of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

In addition to these, the region was a focal point during the Viking invasions, with battles such as the Battle of Edington in 878 AD, where King Alfred the Great defeated the Great Heathen Army, leading to the establishment of the Danelaw. This period was marked by frequent skirmishes as the native kingdoms and Viking settlers vied for dominance over the land.

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    Yorkshire’s history during the Dark Ages is a tapestry of cultural shifts and invasions, beginning with the departure of the Romans in the early 5th century. This period saw the region become a melting pot of Celtic Britons, and later, the Angles and Vikings, each leaving a distinct imprint on the cultural landscape.

    [See the full post at: Brigantia during the Dark Ages]

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