The Hidden Halls of the Saxon Kings

Northumberland is positively dripping with medieval history, and every period of the thousand years following the departure of the Romans around 410 AD has left its mark on the land. Some of these historical legacies, however, are far less obvious than others, particularly when it comes to the early medieval period and the county’s rich Saxon past. But thanks to the skill and dedication of archaeologists some remarkable discoveries have been made that tell us about life in an age of wooden buildings and warring kings. While we were there I was keen to track down some of Northumberland’s early medieval sites, so on a day of shifting shadows and moody skies we set out to roam the imposing Cheviot Hills and to find a special place that was once home to a spectacular palace of the early Northumbrian rulers. And when we pulled up beside the monument marking the site my heart beat a little faster, because although on the surface the ancient royal township of Yeavering is now but a quiet grassy meadow bisected by the quiet road between Wooler and Kirknewton, its stunning setting speaks of its important past, and the ground we roamed holds the secrets of early Saxon kings and the dawn of Christianity in the North.

The quiet road that bisects the site of Yeavering

The monument marking Anglo-Saxon Yeavering

Guarded by tranquil rolling hills, Yeavering has attracted people for some five thousand years as a prime location for religious ceremonies, rituals and gatherings. There was a Neolithic burial site here as well as bronze age activity, and one of Northumberland’s most impressive iron age hill forts occupies the crest of neighbouring Yeavering Bell. Around the middle of the sixth century the incoming Anglo-Saxons took over the British Kingdom of Bernicia with its capital at Bamburgh, and the new ruler, Ida, and his sons ruled over their new domain that stretched between the Tweed and Tees rivers. But in these early times one power base in a growing kingdom wasn’t enough, so in order to collect tribute and rule effectively the kings moved around their territories, and they needed suitable accommodation to stay in. By 600 AD Ida’s grandson, Aethelfrith (593-616), who was busy expanding his rule by absorbing the neighbouring kingdom of Deira, had established a royal township at the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Yeavering, hoping to capitalize on its ancient mystical power. Apartments fit for a king and his retinue were erected, along with a structure resembling a segment of a Roman-style open air amphitheatre to seat around 150 people, presumably within which Aethelfrith could address his people. But it was in the early seventh century when Yeavering, or Ad Gefrin, meaning ‘near the hill of the goats’, as it was then known, would reach the pinnacle of its regal splendour.

Yeavering Bell, with it’s great iron age hill fort, keeps watch over the Anglo-Saxon royal centre

One of the carved gate entrances into Yeavering today that capture the Saxon feel…

…and another evocative post helps to set the scene

Aethelfrith’s successor was his brother-in-law, King Edwin of Northumbria, who became the most powerful Anglo-Saxon ruler to date. Under Edwin, Ad Gefrin received a massive makeover, with the amphitheatre being extended to seat some 320 people and the construction of a huge royal hall complex. Excavations of the site during the 1950’s revealed evidence of a grand building some eighty feet in length with a footprint of 250 square meters, dating to Edwin’s reign. There were entrances on all four sides, and the hall would likely have been elaborately decorated with carvings, perhaps also painted, and the main building was connected to a smaller structure to the west by a rectangular enclosure. Built on the site of earlier large halls, it’s hard to conclude anything other than that Edwin had a strong desire to impress and overawe all around him.

A reconstruction of Edwin’s palace
(Source: Past Perfect
)

Edwin and his great hall are mentioned in the writings of our earliest English historian, the venerable Bede, an eighth century scholarly monk based at the monastery of Jarrow in modern Tyne and Wear. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede paints a vivid picture of how comfortable and civilized such royal halls would have been through a conversation between the king and one of his chief priests, when the latter speaks of Edwin feasting with his nobles and thegns during a harsh winter, as ‘the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging’. Even today, as the days begin to darken in the race towards the colder months, the idea of a goblet of mead in Edwin’s hall sounds highly inviting…

If only it was still here… wandering among the Saxon halls

Bede also tells us of an event that took place at Ad Gefrin that encapsulates the seismic religious changes making inroads across our islands in the seventh century that saw the Northumbrian people turn their backs on their pagan past to embrace Christianity. Having married a Christian Kentish princess named Aethelburgh, Edwin was the first Northumbrian king to convert to the new religion, and he was clearly keen to spread the Christian doctrine to his subjects. Bede tells us of a visit to Ad Gefrin by the queen’s priest, Bishop Paulinus in 627 AD, when he ‘came to the king and queen in their royal palace at Yeavering’, and ‘spent thirty-six days there occupied in the task of catechising and baptising’. Crowds, we are informed, ‘flocked to him from every village and district in the teaching of Christ’, and the many converts were baptised in the ‘waters of regeneration’ of the nearby River Glen. Bede’s account of this event at Ad Gefrin is a graphic portrayal of a pivotal time in the religious history of Britain when the old ways, with their hazy concept of what to expect in the afterlife, were cast aside in favour of the certainty of everlasting life offered by the new Christian faith.

The River Glen flows beyond the grassy meadow site that hides such a rich past

However grand the king’s hall at Yeavering may have been, such seventh century timber palaces were not to last, and royal halls came and went, as did the rulers. In 633/4, Northumbria was attacked by an alliance of the Welsh King Cadwallon and King Penda of Mercia, and Edwin was killed in battle. Ad Gefrin was subsequently destroyed by fire, and although rebuilt by the next ruler, Oswald, the palatial residence never regained its former glory and was eventually abandoned in favour of a new site at nearby Mælmin, or Millfield.

Protective hills and beautiful views all round…

What remained of Ad Gefrin was lost to the ravages of time, swallowed by the earth and centuries of obscurity, until an aerial photograph taken in 1949 revealed crop marks in the field indicating a great enclosure and buildings that sparked the interest of archaeologists. Led by renowned scholar Brian Hope-Taylor, the excavations that began in the 1950’s unearthed the shadowy remnants of Ad Gefrin through its sequence of fascinating Anglo-Saxon buildings, and Yeavering became one of the most important ‘Dark Age’ sites in Britain. In fact, its significance is such that research continues today, and recent geophysical surveys undertaken by the University of Durham’s department of Archaeology have produced compelling evidence of a range of new structures as yet unexplored. It seems that Yeavering has yet more secrets to reveal…

Recent research has revealed that Yeavering still has more to tell us

Perhaps it was the weather, the soundlessly drifting clouds or the gilded shafts of sunlight creeping across the hills, but even without the above-ground structures there’s a definite atmosphere about the place, and in many ways you don’t need to see Edwin’s palace to imagine Yeavering at its most magnificent. With so much history beneath our feet, just walking in the footsteps of Edwin and his followers is enough to feel connected with our Saxon forebears, and I look forward to the next chapter in the ongoing story of Ad Gefrin.