Keys to the Past


Period Overview - Post Medieval


The medieval period is often said to end in 1540, when King Henry VIII died, and Elizabeth took the throne. However, in the [north-east of England] there were many changes that crossed this period.

The area had long been notorious for its violence, and was the battlefield over which the kingdoms of England and Scotland fought their ongoing wars. These wars finally came to a bloody end in 1513 when the two warring sides fought the Battle of Flodden, one of the largest and bloodiest battles to take place on British soil.

The Scottish had invaded Northumberland, capturing the castles at Norham, Etal, Wark and Ford. The Scots were met by the English force on 8th September on the slopes of Branxton Hill. The Scottish king, James IV, and many of the Scottish lords were killed in the decisive English victory.

This massive defeat marked the end of major warfare between the two countries in the north-east, though there were further battles, such as another Scottish defeat at Solway Moss in the north-west in 1542, and most of the later battles took place north of the Border. Relations between the two countries improved in the late 16th century as the rulers of both kingdoms had chosen to become protestant, and more importantly the Scottish king James VI was the heir of Queen Elizabeth.

Border Reivers

Although the kingdoms may have ended their fighting there was a new form of violence known as 'reiving'. 'Reiving' is the name used to describe the on-going small-scale warfare between the local family groups or 'graynes', who were similar to the clans of the Scottish Highlands.

The most important graynes included Charlton, Dodd, Milburn and Robson. Each family was led by a headman who represented them in law courts and also organised and led their criminal activities. These included blackmail (demanding money with the threat of violence), reiving (stealing animals) and kidnapping. There was also the constant threat of murder which would lead to a series of revenge attacks. Reiving was most common in the upland areas of Northumberland, such as Cheviotdale and Tynedale, and the most dangerous time was October to March, when the nights were longest and there was little work to be done on the farms.

The on-going violence led to the growth of a new form of defensive building, the bastle. These were strongly built farmhouses, with thick stone walls. The ground floor was used to house the animals, whilst people lived on the first floor. In some areas these were isolated farmhouses, but in some border towns, such as Haltwhistle, almost every house was a bastle. Although bastles were most common in the northern areas of Northumberland, where the reiving was heaviest, some are known south of the Tyne, such as those recently identified in Allendale.

Reiving finally came to an end in the late 16th century and early 17th century, as the English and Scottish authorities began to take action against the lawless families. As society became more peaceful many bastles were turned into normal farmhouses and more windows were added. Equally many castles began to fall out of use, as the local lords of Northumberland and Durham began to build large stately homes. In some cases, such as at Belsay, the new house was built next to the original defences. In other cases the new houses were built further away, and the castle just fell into ruin.

Despite these general move towards peace, some castles were re-used during the English Civil War, and one or two towns, particularly Berwick had large defences built around them to protect against possible further violence.


The great religious changes of the Reformation encouraged Henry VIII to dissolve the monasteries and convents of England. The land and buildings were sold off, and many of the buildings were turned into new houses by members of the nobility.

The Reformation also led to the formation of the Church of England as the Roman Catholic church was forbidden. This meant that all the parish churches became protestant. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were several periods when some Protestants wanted to destroy many religious symbols and objects because they believed they were associated with the Catholic church- this means that many examples of stained glass, wall paintings and stone carving were damaged or completely destroyed.

This was not the only religious change. Many Protestants remained unsatisfied with the Church of England and several new churches were established. The most important of these were the Quakers, a religious group founded in the mid-17th century. They did not worship in parish churches; instead they first worshipped in houses, but soon set up simple meeting houses.

Many Quakers took up causes promoting industrial, scientific and social improvements. Edward Pease of Darlington was involved in financing the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Another important group were the Methodists, founded in the mid-18th century. Methodism was especially common in the industrial areas where people had little status or wealth. Like the Quakers they set up a network of simple chapels.

Most parish churches had been built by the end of the medieval period, though the 19th century saw another period of church building. The growth of industry led to a great increase in the population and many settlements, that had previously not needed their own parish church, were given a new church to serve the local people. There was also an increased interest in the history of the Middle Ages and many medieval churches were restored. Some were restored to their former glory, but others were badly damaged in the process.

The Rise of Industry

The most important change in the north-east in the post-medieval period was the rise of industry. The most important industry was coal mining, which came to dominate life in south-east Northumberland and east Durham. In the early to mid 19th century the increasing amount of coal produced led the owners of collieries to start experimenting with the best ways to move the coal from the mine to the seaports.

At first simple wagon ways were used, but further experiments led to the use of the steam engine to move the coal trucks. These were the first driven railways; the first commercial steam railway to carry passengers ran from Stockton to Darlington. Soon there was an expanding network of railways running throughout the region. However, the rise of the railways was not the only change.

In the 18th and early 19th century there was a great period of road improvement. Many old roads were repaired and made stronger; in other cases entirely new roads were built. At this time road construction was paid for by the government, instead private companies, or groups of wealthy individuals would provide the money. For example, there was no road running the full length of Upper Teesdale and over to Alston until one was built by the London Lead Company. People using many of these roads would have to pay a small fee or toll- these would be collected at turnpikes, where there would be a gate across the road and a small house for the toll collector.

Much more information can be found out about history and archaeology of the region in our Industrial overview.

Many other industries grew up around the coal mines. Much of the coal was turned into coke in coke ovens. This was then used to fuel iron and steel blast furnaces. Although some of the earliest blast furnaces date to the mid-18th century, most were built in the 19th century. In the west of Durham and south-east Northumberland there was little coal mining. Instead the slight medieval lead mining industry flourished in the 18th and 19th century. Entire villages were built by the large lead companies and the remains of many of the lead mines and the earthworks that surrounded them can still be seen.

Agriculture and Farming

Despite the rapid growth of industry much of Northumberland and Durham remained agricultural. Farming became much more efficient; the prices of crops rose which gave farmers the money to invest in their farms. They also began to experiment with new crops and breeding better livestock. During this 'Agricultural Revolution' , the landowners of Britain carried out a great architectural experiment.

Inspired by the ideas of beauty, usefulness and profit, they constructed an enormous range of picturesque or classical buildings on their farms. There was also an increased use of mechanical power; some machines were powered by horse-driven gin gangs, others were powered by steam engines.

The remains of the buildings that housed these engines can still be seen at some farms, even though the machinery itself has been removed. There other moves to improve farming- increasingly lime was used to try and improve the quality of the soil. This led to the construction of many limekilns in the region. Although much of the lime was spreas on fields and uses as a fertiliser it was also used for other purposes, such as making cement for building.

However, not all farming was carried out on the more fertile lowland areas of the region. Much of the north-east of England is harsh upland moorland, such as the North Pennines and the Cheviots. In these areas sheep farming is more common - the sheep range freely on the moorland hillsides and are only brought down to the valley bottoms when lambing.

During the medieval period the shepherds often lived in temporary summer settlements high in the hills known as shielings. However, from the 17th century shielings stopped being used; many developed into permanent farms. Others fell into disuse, and the ruins of some can still be seen in the Cheviots. There are also many other remains relating to sheep farming that can still be seen; some are still used by modern farmers.

Simple sheepfolds are square or round enclosures in which sheep were gathered before being moved; there are also smaller pens used during lambing. There are also several different types of shelter used to protect sheep during bad weather. Some of these carricks are simple drystone walls, others are more complicated, such as the three cornered shelters found in the Cheviots. A number of sheep washes are also known; sheep would be washed in these troughs in order to keep them free from pests. In other cases sheep were washed in nearby rivers or streams, such as at Dubby Sike.

In the 19th century these upland areas were also increasingly used for shooting wild birds, particularly grouse. Many of the great landowners would hold large organised shooting parties for friends. The shooters would often stand in shooting butts, simple stone shelters, from which they would fire at the birds which had been driven into the air by beaters. A staff of gamekeepers would be responsible for looking after the birds before they were shot. Some birds, such as pheasants, were bred in special shelters.

Rebellion and Invasion

Despite the end of reiving and the wars with Scotland the north-east remained prepared for violence throughout the post-medieval period. The introduction of guns and canon meant an end to the old style medieval castles, but new fortifications were built. The greatest threats of invaders arriving by land appeared first in 1715 and then 1745 when the Jacobite rebellions broke out. These were trying to replace the English king with the 'Old Pretender' and the 'Young Pretender', the son and grandson of Kings James II who had been forced to give up the throne because of his Catholic faith. However few defences were built against these attacks, though Codger Fort, Rothbury, was believed to have been built after the 1745 rebellion in case of further attack. At Berwick-upon-Tweed, which had long been an important military outpost on the Scottish border, the first modern army barracks were built in 1717, to house soldiers in case of another rebellion.

Once the 1745 rebellion had been repressed there was no further conflict between England and Scotland, instead towards the end of the 18th century there was increased worry about possible invasion from across the sea, though unlike in the south of England there were no defences to protect against the threat of attack by Napoleon.

By the later 19th century the Germans had replaced the French as the perceived threat. The Duke of Northumberland paid for the construction of a gun battery at Alnmouth, which would have protected the seaward approaches to his castle at Alnwick. Another Coastal Defence Battery was built further down the coast in Northumberland at Blyth, to protect the important shipyards in the town.

Following the outbreak of the World War I there were more new coastal defences built, and some of the older defences such as the Alnmouth and Blyth Batteries were redefended and provided with bigger, more powerful, guns.

The area was also attacked from the air by German Zeppelins and an early air raid shelter was built at West Hetton colliery. The threat of attack from air became increasingly important during World War II and many light anti-aircraft gun emplacements were built, such as that at Elsdon.