Keys to the Past


Period Overview - Early Medieval


The Capheaton Bowl Copyright Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle
The end of Roman rule in Britain came in the early fifth century, probably around AD410. However, this did not mean that all the Romans left the country.

For most people life would have changed little, and there is increasing evidence that the many Roman soldiers and their families continued to occupy the forts of Hadrian's Wall.

Although the best evidence for continuation of life on Roman forts comes from just outside Northumberland at Birdoswald, it is though that the forts at Housesteads and Vindolanda were also refortified. It is quite likely that many other forts continued to be used in a similar way.

The end of Roman rule would have meant that the soldiers were no longer paid, so they probably turned to farming to support themselves and their families. Some army leaders may have used their military strength to control the areas surrounding their bases. The 5th century gravestone to a man called Brigomaglos found close to Vindolanda might record one of these post-Roman warlords.

These Roman forts are not the only evidence for early medieval power centres. Other local leaders may have used the change in power as a chance to increase their own importance. To the north of the wall the old tribes started raiding and fighting deep into County Durham. By the sixth century the tribe who controlled much of Northumberland, the Gododdin (a name coming from the Iron Age name for the tribe, the Votadini) were recorded as fighting with Anglo-Saxon armies as far south as Catterick (North Yorkshire). These native tribes would have quickly shed any Roman influence, and spoke a language similar to Welsh.

Archaeologists and historians often refer to these people as the British. However, despite the growth of these British kingdoms they were soon threatened by a new power, the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons were a group of tribes which originally came from northern Germany and Denmark, and began to settle in Britain from the mid-fifth century. There is much debate about how many settlers came over to England, and it is likely that only a small number reached the north-east. Although in other parts of the country very large Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are known, those in Northumberland and Durham are small. However, it is thought that they heavily influenced the local British population, who quickly acquired many aspects of Anglo-Saxon society, such as the way they dressed, the names they used and the language they spoke.

The new arrivals soon started forming powerful kingdoms, which seemed to have quickly conquered the small local powers which had grown up around the Roman forts. By the mid-sixth century the two most important kingdoms were Deira (south Durham, Cleveland and Yorkshire) and Bernicia (north Durham, Northumberland and south-east Scotland).

During the early seventh century Bernicia under King Aethelfrith began to expand and Deira was absorbed into the more northern kingdom. Although Deira occasionally regained its independence, it never remained separated from Bernicia for long.

Settlements and Buildings

The rulers of these British and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms did not have one capital; instead they probably travelled around, using a number of different palaces. Bamburgh Castle was probably one and it is likely to have been captured from the British by the Anglian King Ida in AD547. Another important palace was Yeavering, which is believed to have been one of the capitals of the great Northumbrian king Edwin.

At this site archaeologists have found the remains of a series of great wooden halls, as well as smaller timber buildings and the traces of an unusual wooden enclosure. This important site was probably succeeded by another palace at nearby Milfield.

As well as large palaces, a number of other early medieval settlements are known from the north-east of England. A series of sites, including New Bewick, Thirlings and Sprouston have been recorded in northern Northumberland and south-eastern Scotland. They had large wooden houses, as well as smaller buildings, which had been slightly dug into the ground. These are known by the German word grubenha├╝ser, which means 'dug building'. The purpose of these sunken floors is not known. These settlements were probably large farms or centre of estates. Unfortunately, little excavation has taken place on them, and they are best known from aerial photographs.

However, not all early medieval settlements included these types of building. In many upland areas, such as the Cheviots and the North Pennines, it is likely that round houses continued to be used until possibly as late as the seventh century.

By the eighth century the inhabitants of the uplands appear to have begun to build roughly rectangular buildings. An excellent example of such rectangular structures can be seen at Simy Folds, high up in Teesdale, where the houses are joined with enclosure walls to form courtyards.

Although it has been suggested that Simy Folds may have been built by Viking settlers, a late seventh century radiocarbon date suggests that it was probably built before Viking settlement began in this area. Stone rectangular buildings were not limited to the uplands. The stone foundations of at least five rectangular buildings have been uncovered by archaeologists at Green Shiel on Holy Island.

Animal bone has been found in all the buildings, and in some complete cattle skeletons have been found. It is possible that some of the buildings were used as barns or animal shelters. Other objects found include a spearhead, fragments of bone combs, iron knives and Anglo-Saxon coins; these date the site to the ninth century AD.

After the Romans left, the early towns that had began to form around their forts all declined. New towns only began to develop in the late Anglo-Saxon period. However, there is little surviving archaeological evidence for this phase of early towns.

In Newcastle, long the most important town in the region, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery dating from about AD700 until the 11th-12th century has been found. Slight evidence for early town occupation has also been found at Darlington and Durham. In Durham excavations at 64 Saddler Street revealed that settlement at this site was reorganised in the tenth century.

At Darlington a number of Anglo-Saxon ditches were recorded during excavations in the {Market Place D4812}. These appear to have been related to the nearby Anglo-Saxon {church of Saint Cuthbert D1512}. It has also been suggested that another defensive ditch excavated in Darlington may also be of Anglo-Saxon date, although this is not certain, and there is no dating evidence for this. It is thought, that as in Darlington and Durham, the presence of an important church at a site may have helped attract people and traders, causing the development of the first towns.

Although there is no direct evidence, it is likely that this process caused the formation of towns such as Alnmouth and Chester-le-Street, which had important early churches.

Economy and Agriculture

As Roman rule came to an end in Britain there was a major decline in the patterns of trade across Britain. Coins stopped being used, and the large Roman pottery industries came to a halt. In the north-east of England most people continued to make a living through farming and agriculture.

The evidence from ancient Pollen shows that in some places there may have been an increase in the number of trees in some areas, particularly around Hadrian's Wall. Elsewhere, in Teesdale, pollen evidence shows the environment did not change dramatically. This may suggest that the effect of the Roman withdrawal was not so deep.

There is quite a lot of evidence for the kind of crops grown in the early medieval period. The remains of cereal crops have been found at Kimmerston and oats, flax and barley have been found just outside the region at Old Penrith in Cumbria. Some historical evidence also points to the presence of organised agriculture. Written documents refer to a watermill at Corbridge.

Anglo-Saxon watermills were different from later mills as the water wheel was horizontal rather than vertical. It is also likely that many of the wooden and stone buildings from settlement sites may have been barns or some other kind of agricultural building.

Animals would also have been kept and provided a range of goods. Meat was obviously an important foodstuff, but it is clear from the presence of spindle whorls at sites such as Simy Folds that sheep were also kept for wool. Cattle, sheep and goats would also have provided milk from which butter and cheese could be made.

Animal bone was used to make simple items, such as combs and pins. It is possible that the large number of calf bones found at Green Shiel, Holy Island, may have been the remains of animals slaughtered to provide vellum, used for making books, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Not all animals were domesticated; there is some evidence that some wild animals were hunted. The bones of moorland birds, such as Black Grouse and Capercaillie have been found at the tenth century settlement site at Saddler Street in Durham. Fish, such as cod and ling, are known from Saddler Street and Green Shiels, show that the sea was also an important source of food for the early medieval population. Many of these fish can only be caught far out into the North Sea showing that there must have been an organised fishing industry.

Burial and Religion

Excavations at the early medieval cemetery in Bamburgh. Photo Northumberland County Council.
It is likely that at the end of the Roman period, many people had converted to Christianity, though many pagan practices probably continued. The man named Brigomaglus who is commemorated on a tombstone outside the Roman fort at Chesterholm was almost certainly a Christian. However, the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers were pagan, worshipping the gods of their native Germany and Scandinavia. We know little about their religious practices. It is possible that one of the buildings at Yeavering was a temple. A large number of cattle skulls were found next to it and these may have been sacrifices to the gods. Three post-holes nearby may have supported carved posts, perhaps depicting gods or mythological scenes.

Another possible pagan temple has been recognised at Thirlings, where a small building similar to that at Yeavering may have been a religious site. The conversion of the population of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria began in the early seventh century, though there may have been some small Christian communities surviving from the Roman period.

Find out about early Christianity.

Of the native British burial traditions we know little. There is the Brigomaglos tombstone from Vindolanda Roman fort - though notably this is the only such tombstone from the area.

Burial in a stone-lined grave may have been the usual practice.

Many such cemeteries are known to the north of the Tweed in Southern Scotland, and similar graves have been found at Sewingshields and amongst the earliest burials at Bamburgh Bowl Hole cemetery.This simple burial practice appears to have started in the late Roman period and continued as later as the 8th century.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to date such graves, and it is only the occasional object, such as the glass bead from {Blackhall Rocks D526} and the spearhead at Howick Heugh, Longhoughton that allows us to recognise early medieval British burials.

In stark contrast, the burials of the Anglo-Saxons generally contained many more objects. Grave goods typical of the period include beads, metalwork, and occasional glasswork - such as from the burial at Castle Eden and pottery. Men and women were buried with different types of objects; men were more likely to be buried with weapons, such as long knives, spears or occasionally swords. Women were mainly buried with jewellery.

Typical are the goods from Andrew's Hill, Easington. One particular brooch from Easington cemetery is of a special form and metalworking technique called shakudo. This was combined with an inlaid garnet and was a luxury object. Parallels for this form have been found elsewhere at Norton (Cleveland) and St Andrew's Hill. It is has been suggested that these were all products of a local workshop, working around AD500.

Burial evidence is complicated but several interesting points hint at the religion carried out. At several sites Saxon cemeteries reused older monuments. At Milfield South Henge both the north and south prehistoric henges were used for burial in the 500s to 600s. Prehistoric barrow sites at Capheaton and Barrasford were also used.

Cemeteries grew up around Roman sites, such as Binchester, where a large cemetery developed, and Corbridge, perhaps being amongst the earliest Anglian settlements in the mid-Tyne valley. A great emphasis was also placed on cemetery sites which had particularly good views - examples overlooked the coast at Andrew's Hill, Easington, Bamburgh Bowl Hole and Howick Heugh. At Bamburgh Bowl Hole the coastline would have lapped at the base of the point where the cemetery lies. This would have been visible from many directions.

With the growth of Christianity most people stopped being buried with grave-goods, though occasional burials, such as that at Capheaton continued contain precious objects well into the 7th century AD. Objects from this burial, included an elaborately decorate hanging bowl. One other, unusual, later burial is the possible grave of several Viking warriors found at Bedlington. Objects found include a bronze brooch and a bone comb, probably dating to the 10th century AD.


The Vikings, from Scandinavia, first arrived in the north-east in the late 8th century. At first they raided important sites along the coast, particularly monasteries, such as Lindisfarne (attacked in AD785), Monkwearmouth and Jarrow (AD794) and Tynemouth (AD800). However, after this initial stage of attacks and raids, the Viking began to settle permanently.

A large body of warriors known as the Great Army arrived in Britain in AD865. It was large enough to stay permanently and not return to Scandinavia during the winter. Two years later it marched north, crossed the Humber and took York and captured the southern parts of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia. In the following years they moved north and took control of the much of the land up to the Tyne. The warriors began to settle in these newly captured lands.

The evidence from place names shows that many names with Old Norse origins are to be found in upper Weardale and Teesdale, though a thin scatter of similar names can be found across the Lower Tees and between Sedgefield and Stockton-on-Tees. Further north, there is very little evidence for permanent Viking settlement, particularly beyond the Tyne. Although there are many Viking place names, the archaeological evidence for them is slight.

Only one possible burial is known - a poorly recorded grave in Bedlington, possibly of 10th century date. However, two possible hoards of Viking objects have been found. One from Lanchester, known as the The Hurbuck Hoard, contained many iron objects including two swords and several spearheads. At Old Spital on Bowes Moor a more extravagant Viking hoard was found - it contained nineteen silver bars!

The other major sign of Viking occupation in the area is the presence of large stone Viking grave markers of a type often known as hogbacks. In shape these are like small stone houses, and sometimes pretend tiles have been carved along the roof.

These monuments are typical of the Viking period, and were not used by the Anglo-Saxons. They belonged to the period when the Vikings had become Christian and are always found in or near churches. In the north-east of England they are mainly found in the south of Durham, and important groups can be seen at Sockburn and Gainford. The most northerly recorded hogbacks are a small number from the important Anglo-Saxon monastery at Hexham.