The Sieges of Durham – 1006 and 1040

The Siege of Durham – 1006


It all starts with St. Cuthbert.  Cuthbert, as he was simply known before his posthumous canonisation, was born in around 634 in Dunbar, which was in the very north of the Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria.  He lived a holy life travelling and preaching as a monk and hermit known as the “Wonder Worker of Britain”.  He retired in 676 with the intention of living out his days in quiet contemplation off the wind swept Northumbrian Coast. 

In 684 he was elected to be Bishop of Hexham, much to his dismay.  He finally agreed to become a Bishop but only if he could do a swap with Eata, Bishop of Lindisfarne, so he could stay put.  He didn’t last long in the role and died in 687.  After his death numerous miracles were attributed to him and he was revered as a saint.  Apparently, when it was inspected 11 years after his death, his body remined fully intact with no signs of decay.  More notable for national acclaim was when Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, had a vision of St. Cuthbert in a dream which inspired and encouraged him in his struggle against the Danes.  This was perhaps later embellished as a metaphor for the unification of Saxon England with Alfred in the south and Cuthbert representing the north.  He would go on to become the most important medieval saint of Northern England and his “cult” would attract pilgrims from all over Christendom. 

He was buried on Lindisfarne in a decorated oak coffin but, in 875, following repeated Viking raids, the monks of Lindisfarne fled carrying the venerated St. Cuthbert’s remains with them.  The monks initially settled in Chester le Street.  In 994 King Æthelread II the Unready (meaning “poor council”) of England paid a Danegeld (protection money) to King Sweyne I (Forkbeard) of Denmark and King Olaf I of Norway in return for peace.  Aldhun, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne (in exile), decided that it was now safe for the monks to move back to Cuthbert’s original resting place.   However, legend has it that a monk, named Eadmer had a vision in which he was told by St. Cuthbert that his coffin should be taken to a place called Dun Holm.  Unfortunately, poor Eadmer had no idea where Dun Holm might be.  As luck would have it, the monks came across two local milk maids who were searching for their dun coloured cow.  They decided to follow them thinking that this was probably a sign from their cryptic saint.  Eventually, they found themselves on a wooded peninsular formed by a loop in the River Wear.  Apparently at this spot St. Cuthbert’s coffin stuck fast and could not be moved.  Satisfied that this was indeed divine providence, they decided to stay. 

A settlement had likely existed in the area since around 2000BC but the foundation of Dun Holm or Durham is associated with the arrival of St. Cuthbert.  Initially, a very simple wooden structure was erected to house the remains of St. Cuthbert in the spot where Durham Cathedral stands today.  A more permanent timber structure was then built, called the White Church, which was in turn rebuilt in stone between 998 and 1018.  The foundation of Durham is generally accepted as the date of the consecration of the White Church (which was to become Durham Cathedral) in 998.  Aldhun became the first Bishop of Durham.

At this time Northumbria was still divided.  Northern Northumbria was under Saxon influence with its base of power in Bamburgh.  Southern Northumbria, south of the River Tees was still very much under the influence of the Danes with their seat of power in York. This roughly followed the areas of the former Kingdoms of Bernicia (in the north) and Deira (in the south).

It’s important to start with the above as it highlights just how soon after its foundation that the inhabitants of Durham found themselves under attack.  Not by Vikings this time but by our neighbours to the north and perhaps a taste of things to come. 

Durham benefits from occupying a position with strong natural defences and may well have been chosen for this reason rather than a hard to manoeuvre coffin.  The loop of the River Wear surrounds the peninsular on three sides so an approach by land, without having to cross the river, is only possible from the north.  Coupled with this is that Durham occupies a prominent position on high ground with steep, wooded slopes going down to the river which would be difficult to negotiate for an attacking army.  It is likely that the settlement was fortified with a simple wooden palisade.

Uhtred the Bold

One man who was present at the time of Durham’s foundation was Uhtred, known to history as “the Bold”.  He was from an ancient Bernician family who ruled from the fortress of Bamburgh on Northumbrian coast.  He helped to clear the site of the new Cathedral and married Ecgfrida, the daughter of Bishop Aldhun.  If this is all sounding a bit familiar it is not surprising.  Bernard Cornwell took the historical figure of Uhtred the Bold as his inspiration for his leading character, Uhtred of Bebbenburg, in his Saxon Stories.  Played by Alexander Dreymon in the Netflix series The Last Kingdom, he is depicted as a complex character, born a Saxon but raised by Danes.  They are great stories and I love the series but there has definitely been a bit of artistic licence taken with the character, his deeds and historical timing.  Nevertheless, we should not let the truth get in the way of a good story!  As it happens, apparently Bernard Cornwell got the inspiration to write the Saxon Stories after learning he was a descendent of Uhtred the Bold!

We digress, back to the historical Uhtred and the Siege of Durham.

The Siege – 1006

The main historical source for this and subsequent events are De Obsessione Dunelmi (“On the Siege of Durham”) which was written in the late 11th or early 12th centuries (possibly in Fountains Abbey, possibly in Hexham, possibly in Sawley – it’s still up for debate).

In 1006, Malcom II of Scotland invaded Northumbria.  Malcom was born in around 954 and was crowned King of Scotland in 1005, ruling until his death in 1034.  It is thought that the invasion of Northumbria was an example of the rech rig (translated as “royal prey”), a customary raid by a new king to demonstrate his capabilities in war.

Malcom headed for the newly founded settlement of Durham and laid it under siege.  At the time, the Danes were raiding southern England and King Æthelred was unable to assist the Northumbrians.  Uhtred’s father, the elderly Ealdorman of Northumbria, Waltheof, was too old to fight and remained in his fortress of Bamburgh.  Similarly, Ealdorman Ælfhelm of York was also unable or unwilling to assist.  Uhtred took it on himself to raise an army of Northumbrians and Yorkshiremen.  We do not know the details of the ensuing battle to relieve the siege, but it resulted in the complete defeat of the invading Scottish army.  It is said that local women were paid the sum of one cow to wash the heads of the Scottish dead before they were displayed on spikes along the walls of Durham.  Malcom would be back, however.

Uhtred and England After the Siege

Following the victory Uhtred was rewarded by King Æthelred by being made Ealdorman of Bamburgh (even though his father was still alive!).  Æthelred then had Ealdorman Ælfhelm of York murdered allowing Uhtred to succeed to that position too which united northern and southern Northumbria under his governance.  This was a political move by Æthelred to bind Northumbria together under Saxon hegemony.

Following his rise to prominence Uhtred dismissed his wife Ecgfrida and married Sige who was the daughter of a man named Styr, a wealthy Danish citizen of York.  This seems to have been a political marriage, again to stabilise and unify Northumbria.  It came with a price though and a condition of the marriage was that Uhtred had to kill a man named Thurband the Hold, who was an enemy of Styr.  Thurband was a Danish nobleman.  His title “the Hold” denoted him as a land holder and was a somewhere in rank between a thegn and ealdorman in prominence.  His name is perhaps given to the region of Holderness on the North Yorkshire coast which he owned.  Seemingly Uhtred was unable to make good on assassinating Thurband with disastrous consequences as we shall see.   

In 1013, King Sweyne Forkbeard of Denmark, invaded England, forcing King Æthelred to flee to exile in Normandy.  Forkbeard was crowned King of England at Christmas 1013.  Probably seeing that there was no other option, Uhtred submitted to him.  Forkbeard did not last long however, and five weeks later he was dead.  This allowed Æthelred to return and resume his reign, and Uhtred submitted to him once more.  Perhaps as a reward or perhaps as a means of ensuring his loyalty Æthelred gave Uhtred his daughter, Ælfgifu’s hand in marriage.

Uhtred’s End

In 1016 England was invaded once more, by Forkbeards son Cnut with the help of his ally Eadric Streona, Ealdorman of Mercia.   Uhtred seemed to have served his King loyally and he went on campaign with Æthelred’s son Edmund Ironside to try and repel the invaders.  While he was away from his lands Cnut and his army invaded Northumbria and over the next few months, he conquered most of the rest of the England. To make matters worse Æthelred died in April 1016.  His son Edmund Ironside was declared King by the citizens of London, who were under siege by the Danes.  However, the Witan (the council who “elected” Anglo Saxon Kings), perhaps under some coercion, chose Cnut as king.

Around this time, Uhtred may have faced Malcom II of Scotland for a second time at the Battle of Carham.  The date for the battle and even the presence of Uhtred is contentious.  The date given for the battle by Symeon of Durham is 1018 but this is problematic, as we shall see following the events which are likely to have occurred in 1016.  We will go into more detail on the Battle of Carham in the next blog. 

The battle resulted in defeat for Uhtred and the Northumbrians and, in response to Cnut occupying Northumbria, he saw no other option than to submit.  He was invited to meet with Cnut who welcomed him to his hall.  After he was received by Cnut, Uhtred and forty of his men were ambushed by Thurband the Hold (the man Uhtred was meant to kill as a condition of his marriage to Sige).  Taken completely by surprise, and perhaps with the assistance of Uhtred’s own servant, Uhtred was murdered.  It is most probable that the order for Uhtred’s death came directly from Cnut to allow him to install a Dane and a man he trusted as Ealdorman of Northumbria,  Eiríkr Hákonarson,. 

De Obsessione Dunelmi describes Uhtred’s death as follows:

After King Æthelred’s death, when Cnut had laid hands upon the whole kingdom of England, he sent to the earl ordering him to come to him as his new lord. He did so, having accepted safe conduct for his journey and return. On the appointed day, he entered the king’s presence at Wiheal to discuss terms of peace; through the treachery of a powerful king’s thegn, Thurbrand, known as “Hold”, the king’s soldiers who had hidden behind a curtain spread across the width of the hall, suddenly sprang out in mail and slaughtered the earl and forty of his chief men who had entered with him.

The killing initiated a bloodfeud between Thurband’s family and the descendants of Uhtred that lasted for generations.  Uhtred’s eldest son Ealdred avenged his father and killed Thurband in around 1024.  Ealdred was then killed by Thurband’s son Carl and two of Carl’s sons were in turn killed by Ealdred’s grandson Earl Waltheof.  The book, Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England, by Richard Fletcher is well worth a read.

Saxons Defeated

Edmund Ironside, in a last ditch effort to defeat Cnut, raised an army in the south.  Following several inconclusive engagements Edmund was decisively defeated at the Battle of Assandun in October 1016.  Edmund died of wounds or was murdered, soon after in November.  This left the throne open to Cnut, known to history as Cnut the Great, who reigned in England until his death in 1035.  He would go on to become King of Denmark (1018) and Norway (1028) creating a North Sea empire.  He is perhaps most commonly remembered today as the king who thought he could command the tide.

The Second Siege – 1040

After his death in 1035, Cnut was succeeded by his son Harold Harefoot, who had a difficult reign before dying in 1040. He was never really legitimately King and his younger half brother Harthacnute had a stronger claim. When Harold died in 1040 his half brother had his body exhumed, beheaded and thrown in a fen. It was a different time.

Anyway, back north and the successor to Malcom II was spoiling for a fight. This was Duncan I, nicknamed An t-llgarach (the “diseased”) and was the historical bases for “King Duncan” in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth.

Following the blood feud murder of Ealdred of Bamburgh in 1038 (by Carl, son of Thurband) Duncan sensed weakness in Northumbria and in 1039, he led a large Scottish army south. Ealdred was succeed as Ealdorman of Bamburgh by Uhtred’s other son Eadwulf. Remembering the disaster of the Battle of Carham the Northumbrians decided to retreat to their strongholds and not meet Duncan’s army in the field. Eadwulf took refuge in Durham and in 1040 Duncan laid siege to the City. Details of the siege are scarce but it clear that the Scots were defeated and Eadwulf ravaged Scottish lands in retaliation.

Eadwulf did not have long to bask in the glory of his victory and a year later, in 1041, he was betrayed and murdered by the new King Harthacnute.

The Battle of Corbridge, 918



Fans of the Bernard Cornwell Saxon Series of books and the popular Netflix adaptation “The Last Kingdom” will be well aware of the historical setting of the Battle of Corbridge.  It occurred around eight years after the Battle of Tettenhall (August 910) which was covered in the book “The Pagan Lord” and episode four of Season Four of The Last Kingdom. 

As with most events during this period, the records are scant and there is some debate on the exact date and location of the battle, the numbers involved and even if it was only one battle or two separate engagements.  What is known, based on references given in the Annals of Ulster and the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, is that a battle was fought between the Norse-Gael leader Ragnall ua Ímair and his allies against the forces of Constantine II, King of Alba (Scotland) and Ealdred I of Bamburgh. 

The description given in the Annals of Ulster suggests that the Norse-Gael army was divided into four columns.  The combined Scottish army managed to defeat the first three columns but was ambushed by the fourth.  It seems that, following some fierce fighting, the Scottish army managed to disengage in some order and the outcome was indecisive.

However, following the battle, the Vikings did not march north into Scotland and Ragnall was able to exploit the weakness of Northumbria and establish himself as de facto ruler of southern Northumbria, taking the City of York in 919 and proclaiming himself King.

The Battle Site

It is unknown exactly where the battle took place other than it was on the banks of the River Tyne around the area of Corbridge.

The British Isles in the 10th Century

Map showing England in the late 9th and early 10th Centuries

At the time of the Battle of Corbridge the British Isles was a splintered mosaic of separate Kingdoms.  Modern notions of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland did not yet exist (although soon would).  The Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes had settled in the British Isles between the 5th and 7th Centuries, following the decline of the Roman Empire, displacing native Celtic tribes and pushing them to the fringes of Cornwall, Wales, West Scotland, Ireland and the many islands along the west coast.  By the 9th Century, Anglo Saxon England (the collective name for the various Germanic settlers of the British Isles) was formed of several Kingdoms: Wessex in the Southwest, Kent, Sussex and Essex in the Southeast, East Anglia, Mercia from the Thames to the Midlands and Northumbria occupying the lands north of the River Humber up to the River Forth in Scotland.  In the 8th Century, Norse warriors known collectively as the Vikings began raiding the coast and rivers of the British Isles.  In the North East, raids on Lindisfarne and Jarrow are particularly well known.  This was followed by a concerted effort to settle in these newly won lands and they quickly carved out the lands known as “Dane Law”.  This separated and truncated the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms severely and effectively cut off and isolated Northumbria in the North.  Northumbria was further weakened under Viking and Scottish attacks and almost ceased to exist.  The Norse invaders were pagan, worshiping the panoply of Norse Gods.  The Christian Saxons feared and reviled them and took it upon themselves to rid the land of these heathens in a holy war.  It was a difficult task.  The Vikings were ruthless fighters and the Saxons, being fragmented, struggled to coordinate their efforts.  Alfred the Great (849 – 899) began the fight back and his son Edward the Elder and grandson Athelstan finally succeeded in neutralising the Viking threat and united the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms to form the fledgling Kingdom of England (Angle Land) in 924.  Saxon hegemony would not last long and in 142 years (in 1066) descendants of other Norse “Vikings”, the Normans, would succeed in invading England.

Who were the Norse-Gaels?

Often included under the blanket term “Vikings” (which can be misleading), the Norse-Gaels were a people of mixed Gaelic and Norse ancestry and culture who were descended from Vikings who settled in Ireland and Scotland.  Eventually the Viking roots would become ever more diluted, but they left a lasting influence on place names, especially in the Isle of Man and Outer Hebrides.  Norse-Gaelic surnames, such as MacIvor, MacAskill and MacCotter are vestiges of the Norse influence.

Map showing the heartlands of the Norse-Gaels

The Norse-Gaels dominated much of the Irish Sea, Scottish coastal regions and islands from the 9th to the 12th Centuries.  They founded the Kingdom of the Isles, the Kingdom of Dublin, The Lordship of Galloway (which is named after them) and briefly they ruled the Kingdom of York. 

The Ui Ímair (“the grandsons of Ímair” or Ivor the Boneless) were one of the greatest dynasties of the Viking age.  For a time, at their height, they were the most fearsome and wide-reaching power in the British Isles.

Ragnall ua Ímair (died 921) was a grandson of Ímair (Ivor) and probably grew up in Dublin.  He was likely expelled from Dublin in around 902 following attacks by the Kings of Leinster and Brega, which drove the Vikings out.  He is thought to have then moved to southern Scotland or the Isle of Mann before following his kinsman Sitric Cáech to attack and retake Dublin in 917.  Ragnall then left for England with aspirations to become King in Northumbria.  This led him to the Battle of Corbridge following which he did indeed proclaim himself King in York.  His rule was immediately challenged by a group of Christian Vikings who opposed his paganism.  Ragnall died in 921 and was succeeded by his kinsman Sitric Cáech.

What was the Kingdom of Alba?

The Kingdom of Alba refers to the Kingdom of Scotland between the deaths of Donald II in 900 and Alexander III in 1286.  The collapse of the Kingdom led directly to the Scottish Wars of Independence.  Constantine II (c900 – 943), who fought at the Battle of Corbridge, was the second king to be recognised as King of Alba.

Map showing the Kingdom of Alba

The Importance of Bamburgh

Bamburgh, known as Bebbanburg (named after the Saxon Queen Bebba) was an important settlement (perhaps the capital) of both the Kingdom of Bernicia and then the Kingdom of Northumbria (following the merging of Bernicia with Deira in the 7th Century).  Before the idea of “England” became a reality, the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria were not united.  Following the defeat of Northumbrian forces by the Viking Great Heathen Army, at York in 867, the Kingdom of Northumbria was reduced to a rump state with most of their southern lands lost.  Bamburgh remained as a lonely outpost of Anglo Saxon Christianity surrounded by the Danes to the South and the Scottish Kingdoms to the West and North.  A fortress has existed on the site of Bamburgh Castle since Celtic times and, due to its elevated position and exploitation of natural defences, was all but impregnable before the age of gun powder. 

Who was Ealred of Bamburgh?  Following the deaths of Danes Eowils and Halfdan at the Battle of Tattenhall (910), Ealdred may have become ruler of what was left of Saxon Northumbria.  The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto states that Ealdred “was a friend of King Edward the Elder, as his father had been a favourite of Edwards father King Alfred the Great.”  Ealdred was driven from his lands by Ragnall ua Ímair sometime between 914 and 918.  He sought refuge at the court of Constantine II King of Scotland (Alba).  Following this he joined Constantine II to fight Ragnall at the Battle of Corbridge.  As the battle was inconclusive, Ealdred did not regain his former lands and in 927 he was one of the northern rulers to submit King Athelstan (Edward the Elders son).  He largely disappears from the sources after this and he is thought to have died sometime around 933.

Warfare in 10th Century Britain

Whilst we can’t know how the actual battle of Corbridge was fought, we can speculate. Battle in 10th Century Britain was a brutal and close quartered affair.  Most soldiers were not professionals but generally knew how to fight.  The shield wall was the most common battlefield tactic of the time, in which the two forces would form lines of locked shields before closing with the enemy to use short thrusting swords, axes and spears.  The two sides would slog it out pushing and shoving in unison until one side gave ground and broke the line.  Once a battle line was broken the army could easily be routed.

The fantasy depictions of this era, with warriors clad in studded, close fitting (and overly flattering) leather armour bedecked with a mass of fur around the shoulders is, alas, a myth (thanks Game of Thrones). As is the pointy helmet!

Shield Wall – The Last Kingdom