Keys to the Past


Period Overview - Medieval

On the eve of the Norman Conquest in 1066 the north of England had already seen much recent upheaval. In 1055 the Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, made Tostig, a noble from the south of England, the new Earl of Northumbria. He had great difficulty in controlling Northumbria and many quarrels broke out, particularly between Tostig and the Bishop of Durham.

While he was away in 1065 a rebellion broke out and the rebels made a man called Morcar the new Earl. Tostig tried to reclaim his title with the help of a Viking army, but he was defeated and killed bin 1066 at the Battle of Stamford Bridge by his brother Harold, who died just two weeks later at the Battle of Hastings.

The Normans were not able to control the north-east immediately. William the Conqueror made a man named Copsig the new Earl of Northumbria. However, he was soon burnt to death by his enemies in the church at Newburn. Although the King continued to try and control the north there were further uprisings against his power and authority.

Finally, after many Normans were massacred in 1069 the King came north with a powerful army. He defeated his enemies and laid waste to large areas of land in County Durham, burning houses and fields. Even this did not lead to peace. In 1080 Walcher, the bishop of Durham, was murdered along with 100 of his soldiers at Gateshead. More punishment raids followed. This time they were harsh enough to ensure that the nobles of Durham and Northumberland did not rebel again.

Although this raid ensured that the north-east of England became loyal to the king, it was not the end of violence and danger in the region. This time, however, the armies came from the north, not the south. Scotland had long attempted to gain control over Northumberland and Cumbria and they made an attack in 1070, though this was quickly fought off.

Further invasions took place in 1091. The border between the two countries was a matter of dispute, and many raids and attack took place between England and Scotland throughout the medieval period, making the borders a difficult and violent place to live.


The Norman kings settled many important families in the north-east in an attempt to increase the security of the region. Norman noble families were given estates across Durham and Northumberland. Many built simple earth castles, known as motte and baileys, on their lands to provide them with some protection against both hostile locals and raids from Scotland.

The castle at Norham on the river Tweed was built in 1121, and was just one of many such defences built in Northumberland. A chain of motte and bailey castles was built along Tynedale and Redesdale to protect the English border. The Barons also built castles at many other settlements, including Alnwick, Mitford, Morpeth and Wark Castle in Northumberland.

At Mitford, an important Anglo-Saxon village, the new lords cleared the local inhabitants from the site of their new castle and moved the village to lower ground, where they built a new church. Many castles were also built across County Durham. A {castle D1202} had been built for the Bishop of Durham as early as 1073. Many of these controlled important routeways, such as Bowes, which protected the Stainmore Pass into Cumbria, and {Barnard Castle D1970} which stood on a major crossing over the Tees, and controlled the mouth of Teesdale.

Although many of these castles were originally motte and baileys, they were soon expanded. Many grew to be extremely large and well-protected strongholds, such as Alnwick, the home of the Dukes of Northumberland, Bamburgh Castle and {Raby Castle D1692}.

Some castles, particularly those close to the Scottish border where warfare was frequent, remained military strongholds, others were also the homes to the mighty noble families of the north-east. These powerful households wanted a comfortable as well as a secure life, and many castles contained luxurious accommodation. As the area became more peaceful in the 15th and 16th centuries, many castles had large windows added to their living areas. These were harder to defend, but made life more pleasant for those who lived in them.

Agriculture and settlement

Despite the frequent warfare, for most people life was dominated by living and working on the land. Most land was owned by the powerful noble families or the monasteries. They often controlled large blocks of land made up of several separate estates. These were usually largest in upland areas, such as the Cheviots, Weardale and Teesdale, where the land was poorest. Other very large areas of estates, included Bedlingtonshire and Norham-Islandshire, which were owned by the Bishops of Durham.

The landowners kept some of their land for their own farms, but most was given to followers to farm in return for their help in times of war and contributions of money and food. Most of the workers on the land would have had a small area of land on which they could grow food for themselves, but they mainly worked on the land held by their lords.

The form of the villages varied widely across the region. In many areas the Norman raids had destroyed the Anglo-Saxon villages. This meant that completely new settlements were often built. These new villages, usually had two rows of houses arranged either side of a central road. Other villages grew up around a large village green, such as at Gainford (Durham). In upland areas these villages were not always so well organised, and may have been nothing more than a scatter of houses and farms.

Most people's houses would have been simple, wooden structures. These small buildings were easy to build, which was important as they were often destroyed by Scottish raids. Surrounding the village would have been two or three large fields, divided up into strips, and shared by the villagers. Horse or ox ploughed these fields; this work left large banks and hollows, known as ridge and furrow. The remains of such fields can be seen at East Matfen and Edlingham.

In upland areas fewer crops were grown because of the harsher weather. Instead cattle and sheep were grazed on the rough moorland. In the summer the animals were taken up to the hilltops and the shepherds lived in small temporary houses, known as shielings. Although most settlements on the hilltops and moorsides would have been shielings, there were also some more permanent villages, such as Aldensheles, which stood high in the Cheviots.

In winter the animals were brought down to lower-lying land and the valley bottoms. The houses in the uplands had rough stone walls and turf walls and were often divided into two parts. The family would have used half the house, but the other half would have been used as an animal shelter or byre.

Traces of many medieval villages can still be seen. Although most early remains are buried beneath later buildings, many villages shrank in size or disappeared altogether leaving behind the earthwork remains of the buildings. Usually the site of the houses can be seen as simple earth platforms. They are sometimes surrounded by earth banks, which outlined their small gardens. Houses were often arranged along sunken trackways, which lead out to the surrounding fields.

In upland areas, the stone foundations of the buildings can still sometimes be seen. The two different sections of the house are frequently visible, marked out by a short cross-wall. These building remains are sometimes surrounded by simple stone walled enclosures, which like the earth banks in lowland villages surrounded small gardens. Excellent examples of these medieval earthworks can be seen at Thornley (Durham) and Leafield Edge (Northumberland).

If the simple houses of most villagers were not strongly built, those of their lords were. Simple stone towers were often part of the lord's residence. In some cases the tower would stand apart from the main hall; in other cases the two would be part of the same structure. Naturally, such towers were more common in Northumberland, where the risk from Scottish raids was greatest, but examples are known as far south as the Tees. The lords were not the only people to occupy fortified stone towers. Similar buildings were often provided for the vicar or priest of the parish church. Excellent examples of these so-called Vicar's Peles can be seen at Corbridge and Ponteland.

Churches and Religion

The other common type of stone building was the church. By the end of the medieval period most villages had either a church with a priest or small chapel served by the priest from a nearby village. The earliest Norman churches are not unlike late Anglo-Saxon churches, and were simple structures with plain rounded arches. However, church architecture changed, and the plan and decoration of churches became more complicated.

The growth of the Gothic style in the 12th-5th centuries led to many churches being altered. It was particularly common for small Norman windows to be replaced by larger, pointed, Gothic-style windows which sometimes contained elaborated stained glass. Medieval stained glass showing scenes from the bible can still be seen at the Church of St Mary in Morpeth. In wealthy areas the local community or the lord was able to give substantial amounts of money to the church, and they were often expanded with the addition of extra chapels and aisles. Although the inside of many churches are quite plain today medieval churches were often extravagantly painted with religious scenes.

The people of the villages would have been buried in the graveyard of their local church. Gravestones were not as common as they were in the post-medieval period, but wealthier people sometimes had a long stone slab placed over their graves. These were usually decorated with a cross, and sometimes symbols of their jobs. Such grave slabs can be seen in the church at Blanchland and Stamfordham.

The nobility and other very wealthy people sometimes had stone effigies built for them inside the churches. Some excellent examples survive in the north-east of England; many can be seen in the church at Staindrop (Durham), including effigies to Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. Brass memorial tablets were also sometimes erected; several can be seen in {Durham Cathedral D5561}.

Many of the medieval churches survived into the post-medieval period, even if the surrounding village shrank leaving them isolated, such {Brignall D1950}. However, some churches and small chapels fell out of use and are now either in ruins, such as at the {Mary Magdalene Chapel D1266} in Durham and Brandon, Northumberland, or have even completely disappeared. A few of these have been excavated by archaeologists, for example Chevington allowing as a detailed knowledge of the way in which these simple churches developed.

As well as the parish churches and chapels there were many other religious buildings in the medieval landscape of the north-east England. Many abbeys and priories were founded in the years following the Norman Conquest, sometimes on the site of earlier monasteries, such as at Lindisfarne and Hexham. Many of these abbeys, such as Newminster and Blanchland were great landowners and gained great wealth through the produce of their farms.

Larger abbeys often had smaller priories which were dependant on them. For example, the great abbey at Durham gained control of the nearby priory at {Finchale D1295}. These monastic sites were not always large centres with many monks. They would often be very small, perhaps with only one or two monks and involved in the farming of the monastic estates, sheltering travellers and pilgrims or giving medical help to the poor and needy.

Not all monks and nuns lived together in these establishments; others spent a solitary life devoted to prayer. Some, known as anchorites, lived in small rooms built onto parish churches, where the local parish would give them food. The remains of one of these cells can still be seen at Chester-le-Street. Others lived in remote sites, such as caves or islands, where they might create themselves a simple church. A small rock-cut hermitage was built near Warkworth Castle. Islands used as hermitages include Coquet Island and St Cuthbert's Island.

The monastery at Durham Cathedral deserves a special mention. In this period it was one of the most important religious sites in England. There were around 100 monks in the 13th century together with many cathedral staff, such as scribes, teachers, choirmasters and clerks. The monastery owned huge estates which gave it immense wealth. The Bishop of Durham also had great political as well as religious power. In 1081 William the Conqueror had given the bishops the same powers as a prince. They ruled over Cleveland, Durham, Tyne and Wear and parts of North Northumberland.

Towns and Industry

Although in the 11th century there were no real towns in Northumberland and Durham, by the end of the medieval period there were many, both large and small. Although Newcastle was the largest, many other smaller towns grew, particular when they were given permission to hold fairs or markets, which would draw in money and visitors from the surrounding areas.

Local lord would encourage such trade so that they could make money from taxation. This meant that these early towns often grew up close to the strongholds of the leading nobles, such as Morpeth and Barnard Castle. Other towns developed around important religious sites, such as Durham and Hexham. The Bishop of Durham granted charters to many towns under his control, including Bishop Auckland and Darlington.

The north-east of England would be known for its mining and great centres of industry in the post-medieval period, and there were already stirrings of this greatness to come in the medieval period. The Bishops of Durham owned coalmines at Darlington, Ferryhill and Hett, and the Prior of Tynemouth had mines at Wylam. Lead from mines in South Tynedale and Weardale was carried to Newcastle, where it was shipped to the south of England and abroad, where it was used to make pipes and for roofing.

The Late Medieval Period

During the 14th century life in the north-east had been badly affected by the Black Death, which reached Durham in 1349. In 1379 almost the entire population of Newton (Northumberland) died of the plague. This came after a series of famines between 1315 and 1317, as well as many epidemics among animals in the 1320s.

There were also changes in the climate. The weather became rainier and colder, which made farming in upland areas much harder. Some settlements, such as Belling Law, were completely deserted, and others such as West Whelpington shrank in size.

However, from the 15th century there was a revival in farming in the region, though this improvement came latest to north Northumberland. Some of the villages, which had decreased in size, became larger again. West Whelpington was rebuilt in the early 15th century. Elsewhere farming expanded into areas which had previously not been used for growing crops, such as forests and wasteland. The Bishop of Durham's hunting forest in Weardale was increasingly given over to agriculture, and by the early 16th century was no longer used for hunting.

There were also changes in the organization of farming. Instead of farming small strips of land scattered across several large fields, these strips were increasingly lumped together into blocks making ploughing and harvesting easier. In some places powerful families were able to reorganize the fields for their own advantage. The Delaval's did this at Hartley and Seaton Delaval.

By the end of the medieval period life in the north-east was very difference from life in the 11th century. Although for most people life was still dominated by farming, there were an increasing number of towns, and the industries which would dominate the area from the 17th century were coming into being.

As well as the great noble families, the church had become one of the most important landowners, although its power would have disappeared by the end of the 16th century. However, these changes were as nothing compared with those that were about to begin in the post-medieval period.