Interlude: Ovingham to Newcastle

Dark Age rules—shires and renders—navigable Tyne—Wylam and George Stephenson—tidal waters—Newburn and Ad Muram—Tyne bridges—Newcastle’s origins—Rome’s legacy

EARLY MEDIEVAL societies were not chaotic, but constrained by rules. Until they were codified in the first written laws—Anglo-Saxon in the early seventh century, Irish not much later; Viking during the late ninth and Welsh in the tenth century; Scottish in the twelfth century—these rules operated as custom. Kings, lords, reeves, chæpmen, traders, travellers, monks, drengs, ceorls and serfs knew what they owned and owed. Gift, exchange, obligation and reciprocity were bound tightly into an oral rubric. Much legislation written down during the Early Medieval period is concerned with compensation for crimes committed, rights encroached upon, responsibilities neglected. A lake of scribal ink was spilled in royal attempts to limit blood feud; that is why every member of each caste (slaves excepted) had a wergild, or blood-price, so that if they were murdered or wrong was done to them or their kin a price, under the king’s writ, could be imposed rather than vengeance taken. Blood feuds, as the people of the Anglo-Scottish borders would know only too well in the Medieval period, meant anarchy.

Even at the time of the Norman Conquest many rules had not been written down; they did not need to be because their authority was unchallenged: they were customary, oath-bound. Those rules defined relationships between lord and patron, land and church, king and subjects, farmer and neighbour. Over the centuries their interpretation and implementation became increasingly complex, often bewilderingly so. Sometimes, even in their own time, administrators had trouble teasing out some of the inherited nuances that had accumulated since the Christian kingdoms emerged. And those that were not written down at all have to be reconstructed. For much of England, Domesday Book, compiled in the late eleventh century for William I so that he would know who owed whom what, is the first and most detailed comprehensive guide to those rights and obligations, particularly renders and services due from villeins to their lords. Boldon Book, a survey of the bishopric of Durham compiled a century later, partly supplements that survey in the north-east of England where, otherwise, there are large gaps in our picture of the region’s economic geography.

It is only through the painstaking work of historical geographers and landscape archaeologists that we can begin to come to an idea of how rural society operated here. We now have a reasonable model of how Northumbria’s shire system worked: based on townships, like those which developed, and which survive, along Hadrian’s Wall, whose central place—the forts—attracted renders from surrounding farms, the system was hierarchical. Farm rendered to vill,75 whose effective render territory would become the township; township rendered to the king. The royal township, or villa regia, sat at the centre of a shire from all of whose vills (the model was a group of twelve contiguous townships, honoured as much by the exception as in the observance) it collected renders and services. Over the centuries, and particularly after the reintroduction of coinage in the late seventh century, these renders in kind and service—a tax on agricultural produce, woodland rights, labour and military service—were increasingly commuted to rents; often landholdings were divided by inheritance, forfeit or alienation to the church.

The foregoing account oversimplifies reality, but it at least gives us a framework from which to work back towards the very late Roman period when an imperial monetary system failed and had to be replaced by local, then regional, renders. That Northumbria’s shire system partially survived into the twentieth century is a remarkable testimony to the success and conservatism of that system inherited across fifteen hundred years.

In the fifth century, when the beginnings of this postimperial model were felt in the countryside, there were no functioning towns as we would understand them. The evolution of their customs presents a more difficult problem. Resuming my eastwards pursuit of the River Tyne one day in February, I set out from Prudhoe station, over the river from Ovingham. The well-known rickety steel bridge here, barely wide enough for a small van, was undergoing major repairs, but pedestrians can still reach the other side via a footbridge. There has probably always been a crossing here. Just upriver is the site of an old ferry; there may have been a ford too, as there was below the old road crossing at Corbridge. The Tyne, now just ten miles shy of Newcastle, is here still a wild river, full of salmon and trout and supporting a healthy population of otters, and often bearing its teeth in white-water rapids. After two days of heavy rain it was in spate, and the idea of it ever having been navigable up as far as Corbridge seemed absurd. But rivers change. Lead mining higher up in the Pennines changed the topography of this valley for ever in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scouring rivers out and releasing great quantities of rock and sediment. So we cannot say how it would have looked to the Romans; the thought that the bridge and fort at Newcastle and the supply depots near Tynemouth were not directly connected to the town at Corbridge seems equally hard to believe.

I kept to the south bank, with Prudhoe Castle high on its promontory behind me. It is such a strategic location that I have often wondered if the Norman motte here, constructed to tame a very hostile Borders population, had a Dark Age or prehistoric forebear. Below it, on the narrow floodplain, are industries heavily reliant on water: paper mills and chemical works. The wooded slopes opposite, at Horsley, formed part of the vast Percy estates of the Middle Ages: they have been continuously managed for as long as records go back, and are a reminder that the entire succession of human communities relied on a close relationship with trees, for fuel and materials, for hunting and grazing pigs. Early Medieval crafts were as dependent on wood as they were on water. Charcoal fuelled traditional industries like ironworking and gunpowder manufacture; wood ash was used in potteries and in glass-making. Later, the hard black coal that lay beneath these lands fuelled the belching engines that drove the Industrial Revolution.

A little further downstream, where the narrow upland course of the Tyne broadens out to reveal flood plains on either side, I crossed the river, over a now-disused industrial railway bridge to Wylam. This was the birthplace, in 1781, of George Stephenson, whose whitewashed cottage I passed on the line of an old waggonway. In 1812 or 1813 Wylam colliery acquired its first locomotive, Puffing Billy; nothing to do with George Stephenson, as it happens, but an indication of where he got some of his inspiration for later projects. The steam locomotive, brainchild of Richard Trevithick but largely developed in these coalfields, is an industrial equivalent of the stone church: the petrification of an ancient idea, that the secrets of nature can be bent to human endeavour. If at Ironbridge the new concept of iron construction was founded on the mindset of carpenters, then the locomotive was a product of blacksmiths, whose dark arts now unleashed unimaginable power on the imaginations of a new global empire.

At Wylam, a fashionably pretty village with a railway station that provides Newcastle with commuters, a weir runs under the present road bridge. A change in smell and muddy marks on the banks show that the highest tides reach here from the sea, although they did not always do so; dredging lower down the river caused it to scour a deeper course here. The present landscape on this north bank has been de-industrialised—country parks and long-distance cycle paths are the order of the day. Young trees, cinder tracks and picnic benches are its furniture. In the Early Medieval landscape archaeologists regard the regeneration of trees as a sign of sub-Roman decline, of rural depopulation and the abandonment of fields: the onset of a Dark Age. These days it is a sign of investment in landscape; but it is a heavily constructed landscape.

Almost no boats come up this far now; just the odd rower in a scull or a tourist cruise up from Newcastle. Before the eighteenth century, when the shipment of coal along rivers and waggonways became vitally important to the economy of the north-east, the tide rose only as far as Newburn, another three or four miles downriver, where I stopped for an indulgent pie and chips and sat in sunshine on the riverbank. Newburn was the site, in 1640, of a pre-Civil War battle between a Scottish Covenanter army and an English/Royalist force. There is a bridge here too, and anciently it was supposed to be the lowest fording point across the river. Early Medieval credentials are provided by those who identify Newburn with Bede’s Ad Muram, a villa regia that hosted a politically important conversion and wedding ceremony in the 650s; and by its church, whose tower bears the same tell-tale signs of Romanesque architecture as those at Ovingham, Bywell and Corbridge: double round-arched windows piercing the tower. Its first, wooden church was burned down in 1067 during a Northumbrian rebellion against William I. The ford was marked earlier by a Roman fort; and the Wall passes less than a mile to the north. The presence of a fifth (or sixth) significant early church on the north bank of the river at an ancient crossing point increases, I think, the likelihood that a road ran alongside the river here in the Roman and Early Medieval periods. One wonders if it was used as a foundation for the industrial waggonways that followed this route during the age of the coal barons. No trace of it survives.

The identification of Bede’s Ad Muram (literally ‘at the Wall’) bothers Early Medieval historians the way Corbridge bothers them. Bede says, unhelpfully, that the ‘famous’ royal estate lay close to the Wall, and that it was about twelve miles from the sea. It has been tentatively identified with either Newburn (with its early church and ford) or Wallbottle, whose name derives from something very like ‘at the Wall’. But neither is, as Bede would have measured it (that is, by travelling the line of the river from its mouth downriver from his monastery at Jarrow) the right distance from the sea. From Tynemouth, twelve miles inland takes the traveller only as far as Newcastle. Newcastle did not exist in Bede’s day; but a great bridge had crossed the river there. The Romans called itPons Aelius, the ‘bridge of the Aelian family’ which included those two great wall-builders, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius; and the Wall again passes very close to the river. A major fort, the site of whose West Gate still lies on the main road heading out of Newcastle, stood here, perhaps providing a focus for a royal township. An important monastery was founded on the south bank at Gateshead (ad capram: the ‘goat’s head’); and by the later pre-Conquest period a settlement near where the Norman New Castle was constructed in 1080 was called Monkchester, indicating the one-time presence of a monastery there too. But archaeologists have as yet uncovered only fragmentary evidence of a substantial settlement here in the seventh century. It is the lot of our city archaeologists that their raw material is so hard to get at—brief pinhole glimpses of centuries of urban accumulation clutched at before a hole closes and another hotel or office block grows on deep-sunk piles. The big question is: was the Roman bridge, close perhaps to the line of the city’s Victorian Swing Bridge, still standing and passable in Bede’s day? If so, it would have retained its value as a crossing place and been a suitable venue for a grand ceremony; if not, it may have remained obscure until William I’s eldest son, Robert Curthose (an unflattering nickname: it means ‘short-arse’), built his keep here in 1080. Newburn may still have a trump card to play. Two of the most important royal inauguration sites in Britain, at Scone and at Kingston in Surrey, were located at tidal reaches on, respectively, the Rivers Tay and Thames.76 Did Newburn on Tyne boast a similarly significant site for Northumbria’s Dark Age kings?

Newcastle’s physical origins as a town are obscure. But a very rare surviving twelfth-century document, the Customs of Newcastle, appears to contain legal clauses of extreme antiquity that carry echoes not just of Anglo-Saxon burghal rights but of Roman and British laws on freehold, taxation, redress and conflict. The burgesses of the town in Henry II’s day took great pains to defend rights and privileges that they regarded as customary and inalienable. These included the right to distrain (seize goods as compensation) upon foreigners without permission from the Borough Court; the right to first choice of goods unloaded at Tynemouth (surely a royal prerogative gifted to the town’s freeholders); the acquisition of precious burghal status, including the inheritance of freehold land in the borough; and an exemption from the Norman mode of trial by battle. Burgesses were also exempt from merchet (a tax payable on a daughter’s marriage), heriot (an inheritance tax); bloodwite (a fine for drawing blood) and stengesdint (a fine for striking someone with a stick). They claimed the right to own and operate an oven and a corn mill and a monopoly of cloth and wool trade in the town. Brewsters and baxters77 were protected from arbitrary forfeits outwith the jurisdiction of the provost.

This is a powerful set of protections, whose origins have been very carefully analysed in a brilliant essay by Robert Fulton Walker78 and shown to derive from a range of Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Welsh (that is, native British) prototypes. We know that Roman legionary veterans settled incolonia (see note 84) enjoyed special rights of freehold and exemptions from certain taxes. Protectionist customs designed to encourage urban economies might have been introduced as variants of native law from the late seventh century onwards. It is striking that sets of customs defining the rights of Alfred’s burgesses are dominated by church privileges; Newcastle’s burghal customs are entirely secular. The Norman town’s burgesses seem to have been successors to a very early set of customs; if so, the origins of the town lie deep in its obscure Early Medieval past.

I came to Newcastle’s Quayside along the miles-long, smooth river promenade from where great battleships were once launched but where industry has been emasculated by the success of efficient foreign competitors. Across those muddy waters, Dunston’s wooden coal staith—a rollercoaster with a fatal terminal drop—now lifeless apart from nesting gulls, is a monument to a lost race of subterranean delvers. It is flanked by desirable luxury properties for the north-east’s aspirant office workers and a new generation of entrepreneurs. Car showrooms, swanky-looking hotels and science parks line the roads entering the city from the west. Soaring bridges carry road and railway a hundred feet above the Tyne while the incoming brown salty tide meets the fresh waters of the Pennines in a struggle as old as the hills. In the vacuum left by industry and mining, the powerhouse of the north-east attempts to reinvent itself as a shiny urban paradigm, and as a tourist destination.



I climbed away from the river along Forth Bank, the site of the world’s first railway factory where George and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket was built and whence the Stockton–Darlington and Liverpool–Manchester railways were plotted. A few hundred yards closer to the city centre, between the nineteenthcentury railway station, which stands on top of Roman Newcastle’s civilian settlement, and the massive Norman stone keep which sits above the fort, a fragment of the Wall line can still be seen poking through the pavement outside the city’s Literary and Philosophical Society. The Lit & Phil, as it has been known since its founding in the Age of Enlightenment, houses one of the great libraries of Britain. The permanence of the Romans’ civilising presence in Britain is recorded in a landscape of stone monuments—walls, roads, forts, inscriptions and early churches. It is also recorded in the institution which above all mapped the great Mediterranean project: the town. If the physical form of most of our towns now owes little to their Roman forbears, then at least their role as central places, where literate, thoughtful people might gather to debate the nature of the world, survives and thrives.

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