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.

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