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A History of the Border Counties
Chapter III


CONVERSION OF NORTHUMBRIA — AIDAN — OLD MELROSE — BOISIL—CUTHBERT: HE EMBRACES THE RELIGIOUS LIFE; HIS MISSION - WORK ; MIRACLES ; CALLED AWAY FROM MELROSE ; SUBSEQUENT LIFE AND DEATH ; CHARACTER ; LOCAL ASSOCIATIONS—LATER HISTORY OF THE NORTHUMBRIAN KINGDOM—THE DANES—BATTLE OF BRUNANBURH— NORTHUMBRIA AN EARLDOM—BATTLE OF CARHAM.

It is pleasant to turn from records of pillage and slaughter to the history of noble enthusiasm and the triumphs of the spirit, and such is the change which at this point awaits the student of Border story. To ^Ethelfrith, fallen in the midst of a career of conquest, succeeded Eadwine (617), who in turn was succeeded by his nephew Oswald (635-642), and it was in the reign of the last named that the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity was accomplished. For though it is true that Eadwine’s Kentish queen had brought with her the apostle Paulinus from that Kent where St Augustine’s labours were now bearing fruit, yet the efforts of Paulinus in Northumbria were on the whole a failure. And it was not from the east, but from the west—from a Scottish or Irish rather than a Roman source—that the great wave of religious enthusiasm which soon overspread the country was to rise.

Of Oswald, Bede quaintly tells us1 that he not only learned to hope for a heavenly kingdom unknown to his progenitors, but also obtained larger earthly kingdoms than they had held.

During a period of banishment in early life Oswald had visited Iona, the Holy Island of the west, hallowed by the memory of Columba, the contemporary of Kentigem, and had there been baptised into the Church; and it was thither that in the day of his prosperity his thoughts now gratefully returned. Despatched in response to his invitation, Aidan, a monk of Iona, was by him installed, within sight of the royal city of Bamborough, at the tidal island of Lindisfarne, which was erected into an episcopal see, and from this source spring the religious establishments of Northumbria. Among these it is with that of Mailros that we are concerned. Among the missionaries now sent out by Aidan to convert the land was Boisil—“a priest of great virtue and of a prophetic spirit”— who proceeded with his followers up the banks of Tweed. Perhaps it may be fanciful to credit this holy man with a love of natural beauty, but certainly the spot where he chose to rest, besides its convenience, is strikingly distinguished thereby. The river has made a sudden turn in a north-easterly direction, and after flowing on for half a mile or so, till it encounters the high precipitous red-sandstone cliffs of Gladswood, abruptly turns again and doubles back on its course. It was on the peninsula thus formed, and now known as Old Melrose, that the monastery was founded. No traces of the old buildings are now visible, though there is record of the foundations of an old wall, cutting off the peninsula from the mainland. Perhaps, however, our fancy of the natural beauty of the scene, inspired by its present sweet verdure and tangled hanging woods, may be untenable; for, as a great historian observes, if we would see the Lowlands as they were in Cuthbert’s day, we must sweep meadow and farm away, and replace them by “ vast solitudes, dotted here and there by clusters of wooden hovels, and crossed by boggy tracks.” It is round Cuthbert, of course, that the glory of the old monastic foundation centres. With Cuthbert, also, it is that the reader leaves the doubtful footing which has hitherto marked his path, to emerge upon the firm ground of authentic biography. For, notwithstanding his preoccupation with the miraculous, and the credulity of the age in which he lived, it is manifest that Bede, the saint’s biographer, who was a boy at the time of the saint’s death, was a most conscientious historian, and one who would omit no available means of testing the accuracy of the facts which he records.

Over Cuthbert’s birth, indeed, there hangs a mist of legend and uncertainty. But, according to Border tradition, his early years were passed at Wrangholm,3 near Brotherston, and it may even be said that the earliest glimpse afforded us by history of the home-life of the Borders is in that scene—in itself so like a scene of to-day, yet in its purport so unlike— where we are shown the boy Cuthbert, at play among his companions, accidentally vexing to tears a boy much smaller than himself. There, at that unlikely moment, it was that there came to him the chance winged word for which unconsciously he waited. “Wherefore,” exclaimed the child, “dost thou, the holy Cuthbert, elder and bishop, thus contravene thy nature and high calling. It becomes not thee, whom the Lord has appointed to instruct in virtue thine elders, to be thus playing among babes!”—words which the thoughtful boy surely pondered in his heart. And, to touch in passing on a less serious subject, no Borderer surely will read this passage in the original and not note with pleasure that in leaping, wrestling, running, and all other manly sports, the future saint at this age excelled his fellows.

It was an age of moral and religious exaltation—of the first freshness of a faith—when students of the Scriptures took their meaning literally, and were prepared to find like things happen to themselves. In such an age, fact, subjected to the alchemy of devout imagination, passes swiftly and easily into legend. Watching his flocks by night in the lonely places of the Border hills, whilst his fellow-shepherds slept, Cuthbert, like the shepherds of old, saw a vision. The heavens were opened to his view, and angels descending therefrom received into their midst a spirit of exceeding brightness. In that moment, as he learnt next day, the holy apostle Aidan had passed out of life. Accepting the token as a call from Heaven, he forthwith resolved to renounce the shepherd’s calling and devote himself to a religious life. If Border tradition may be trusted, the place where he saw the vision was Haly (or Holy) Dean, near Bemerside; but it is difficult to reconcile this with Bede’s account of the journey made by Cuthbert immediately afterwards. As he drew near the monastery of Melrose, which he had chosen as the place of his retirement, Boisil, who was now prior, stood at the doors. He caught sight of the young man, and the spirit of prophecy descending upon him, he cried to the bystanders, “Behold the servant of the Lord!” His words proved true. He applied himself to the care and training of the novice; and when, some years later, he died of the pestilence which was at that time periodical in the country, Cuthbert, who through life remembered him lovingly, was appointed his successor. The village of St Boswells, neighbouring the monastery, to this day keeps alive the memory of the minor saint.

From this time forth Cuthbert devoted himself with enthusiasm to the work of an evangelist. A thirst to hear the Gospel was abroad, and of this, after the example of Boisil, he sought to avail himself to the utmost. Having grown up among the people, unlike his predecessor Aidan he had no need of an interpreter with them. As he passed from village to village, sometimes on horseback, but oftener on foot, they crowded to hear him ; and among these Border villages it was to the poorest, and to those which, because of their mountainous situation, were the most inaccessible, that he gave his special care. As a preacher his gifts of oratory, his glory in his high vocation, endowed him with a strange power over the people, drawing them to him as it were in spite of themselves. They beheld the light of inspiration which streamed from his angel-like countenance, and of their own accord unlocked for him the secret places of their hearts. On mission-journeys such as these he would sometimes spend as much as a month at a time before returning to the monastery at Melrose.

Seeing the holy man attain this phenomenal success, it is not to be wondered at if his simple hearers soon credited him with powers miraculous. For in those days it seemed not wonderful that he who could subdue the flesh should command the elements also, and ’twas an article of faith that our dominion over the lower creatures is lost only through neglect of His laws who has made all things. Thus we soon hear of Cuthbert’s being healed in sickness by a heavenly minister, and in turn of his own miraculous healing of the sick; of his being supplied with food in a supernatural manner; of his turning water into wine, stilling the stormy waves, casting out devils, vanquishing the Evil One, displaying marvellous powers over the brute creation. One touching story tells us how a brother, privily watching him, when, on a visit to the monastery of Coldingham, he had chosen to spend the night in prayer on the sea-shore, beheld him, by way of penance, enter the sea until the water reached to his neck. And, as he came forth from it, there followed him two otters, which, abasing themselves before him on the sand, tenderly dried his wet feet with their fur, and breathed on them to warm them. In like manner an eagle brought him food whilst on a journey, and crows which had molested him received his rebuke with penitence and made amends. Of course much of all this belongs to the quaint naive literature of early Christian legend. It was his power in preaching the Word of God which had caused the crowd to credit him with these attributes; but in spite of that great popular success, his spirit continued through all to hunger after a life of solitude and austerity. To be alone with nature, and with nature’s God, was the object now and ever of his desires.

After many years spent at Melrose, he had been called to act as abbot at Lindisfarne, whence—after displaying the most winning patience and humility in the performance of duties often rendered irksome by those who should have most helped him—he obtained the wish of his heart, and was permitted to withdraw into retirement. The scene of his isolation was the lonely rock-islet, far out at sea, now known as the Inner Fame, a haunt of echoes and of the seal, the porpoise, and sea-bird. But in those days it had less desirable tenants also; for, according to Bede, it was haunted by evil spirits. At the saint’s approach these fled. Here Cuthbert built himself a cell, and having scooped out a well of brackish water, gave himself up in the midst of winds and waves to a life of prayer, meditation, and austerity. He had raised the wall of his enclosure so high that over it nothing but the heaven was to be seen. Thither, when the saint had shown great reluctance to accept a call to the episcopal see of Lindisfarne, came Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, with his nobles and councillors, and knelt to him in entreaty. Fain would Cuthbert have lingered in his hermitage; but the king’s tears moved him, and with tears on his own part too he consented to appear before the Synod, where, yielding to the wishes of all present, he submitted to take upon him the episcopal dignity. He was consecrated at York in the presence of Ecgfrith, of Theodore the primate, and six other bishops, and thus was fulfilled a prophecy of his old superior, Boisil. As a bishop he revisited Melrose at the invitation of the venerable Eata, who had been abbot there when he entered the monastery. In his bishopric, as elsewhere, Cuthbert supplied a shining example of virtue and of grace, and after holding it for two years, having received warning from above of the approach of death, he resigned, and withdrew once more to the Fame Islands, there to make an end that was in harmony with his life.

Thus passed away the earliest, and, assuredly, one of the greatest of Border worthies—a man distinguished alike for the sweet lovableness of his character and the depth of his emotional nature. Witness the records of his daily life, of his lifelong affection for Boisil, or for the hermit Herbert, the presiding saint of Derwentwater Lake; witness his tears to Ecgfrith, or those, “drawn from the bottom of his heart,” with which he would offer up to God the sacrifice of the mass. But through life, in one form or the other, it was the passion for holiness that chiefly distinguished him. Whether in solitude or in the service of his fellow-men, he gave himself wholly and without reserve to God. In Roxburghshire the churches of Ednam and Maxton commemorate his name, which has also been associated by tradition with a fish-pond and a “holy” well at Old Melrose, and with the petrifying well at Maxton.

If a measure of the troublous times now in store for Northumbria were required, it might be found in an itinerary of the dead saint’s bones. For, though we are accustomed to regard as hyperbolical the phrase which speaks of the dead not being allowed to rest in their graves, in his case it might be applied literally. Upon his death in 687 his remains had been interred at Lindisfarne; but having been exhumed, and proved of virtue in wonder-working, it became the task of the faithful, when danger beset the land, to protect them from desecration. And so we read that for seven long years the coffin which contained the precious relics was transported from place to place, throughout the north of England and south of Scotland, upon the shoulders of pious bearers. This, however, was not as yet.

Already, ere Cuthbert’s death, Ecgfrith, decoyed by a stratagem of the Picts into the fastnesses of their mountains, had perished with his army in battle upon the field of Dunnichen. His death was the precursor of the fall of Northumbria. That state had in its time attained to the supremacy in England, had produced or found a field for the labours of such rulers as the Bretwaldas Eadwine, St Oswald, Oswy — such ecclesiastics as Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop, Theodore of Tarsus, and Bede; and through these, shining as a centre of religious fervour and intellectual light, it had amply performed its share in forwarding the work of civilisation, and so justified its existence. But its glory was now to pass away. The details of the succeeding period supplied by contemporary historians are extremely meagre, yet, in spite of this, it is easy to see that from henceforth Northumbria played not merely a small but a contemptible part in history. To Ecgfrith had succeeded his illegitimate brother Ealfrith. The three kings, Osred, Kenred, and Osric, who in turn followed the latter, are to us no more than names. Ceolwulf, Kenred’s brother, succeeded Osric, and of his reign, Bede, who was completing his history at the time, relates that it was “so filled with commotions that it cannot yet be known what end these will have.” For the present the troubles were internal, for, beyond the kingdom, there was peace with Piets and Scots, whilst the Britons had to some extent been brought into subjection. Yet, such as they were, these troubles sufficed to drive Ceolwulf to the refuge of a cloister; for in 737 we find him seeking “Peter’s tonsure for the love of God,” and handing on the kingdom to his cousin Eadhert. Eadbert was a warrior, under whom the glory of Northumbria was for a time revived, for not only did he beat back the inroads of his neighbours the Mercians, but also overran the British kingdom of Strathclyde, and captured its capital of Alcluyd or Dumbarton. But, though successful against external enemies, l}e was powerless against those at home, and accordingly, twenty years later, we find him reduced to following the example of his predecessor. From henceforth kingship in Northumbria became more and more impossible. In the year following, Oswulph, Eadbert’s son and successor, and the last direct descendant of Ida, was treacherously slain by his own servants; then Ethehvald abdicated ; then Alcred was deposed. Without pursuing the record further, the fates of these kings may be allowed to stand as typical of those of their successors. Meantime the kingdom became plunged in misery. Ethelwald’s reign had witnessed a pestilence of nearly two years’ duration, and, about the time which we have now reached, the chronicler records portents—lightnings and whirlwinds, the moon eclipsed, and dragons seen flying in the air — as if to justify which, a famine followed. But the worst was not yet.

Under the date 787 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that three strange vessels appeared upon our coast, and that the reeve, or headman, of the locality, hastening to interrogate their crews, was by them slain. This characteristic entry is the earliest intimation we have of those piratical descents and invasions which, for so many years to come, were to make England taste to the dregs of the cup of misery and humiliation. The pressure of a firmer government at home was at this time driving the more turbulent spirits from the Scandinavian kingdoms to find a field for their energies elsewhere, and the Danes, as they were collectively called—heathens, without pity, and lacking equally in the virtues of the nobler barbarian, fidelity and truth—had fallen on England as their prey. As we disentangle the confused records of the Chronicle, we again and again catch glimpses of them, stealing in their boats up the creeks and rivers upon their murderous errands. A single incident may suffice to paint the ferocity of hatred with which they had inspired their victims in Northumbria. After sacking the monastery of Wearmouth, they had betaken themselves to their ships, and were making off, when a tempest drove them back. Many of their ships were thus wrecked, and many of themselves drowned, but those who succeeded in escaping from the waves were put to death upon the beach. But the Danes were not long in effecting a more permanent settlement in the country; and then it is that we begin to read of the astonishing forced marches of their army—how they would cross the country, mounted upon horses which at a pinch they slaughtered for food, and, with their terror-striking banner called the Raven floating above, sit down before some ill-defended town. And for two hundred years to come we read of little else.

Times such as these are not favourable to the historian, and the consequence is that sheer dearth of information forbids us to do more than trace in briefest outline the history of Northumbria during these centuries of struggle. The brunt of the battle had been borne by the remote West Saxons, and, unlike Wessex, Northumbria can boast of no ideal hero moulded in the furnace of the contest. On the contrary, torn by internal dissensions, she seems to have been among the first and easiest of the Danish conquests. In 798—four years, that is, after the fight at Wearmouth—we read again of a “great fight” in Northumbria. Then in 867—during the second and greater Danish invasion—we are told that the army of the heathen visited York, and that there was fighting and great slaughter of Northumbrians; but when in 869 and 873 the visit was repeated, we no longer hear of resistance. In 875 the army wintered there, and extended its ravages to the territory of the Britons of Strathclyde. For by this time the Danish leader Halfdan, a son of Ragnar Lodbrog, the “man without a tear,” had brought the whole country under his dominion, apportioning it among his followers—who thenceforward continued to cultivate it—and even setting up a king of his own choosing over the part of it north of the Tyne. Peace, however, was not yet Northumbria’s portion; for, besides these ravages from the south and east, that unhappy country was at this time being constantly overrun from the north, where, some years earlier, the kingdoms of the Piets and Scots had been united under Kenneth MacAlpin. Thus, if we include the Britons of Strathclyde on the west, we may see that—whatever might be its fortune in later years—the country which we may define as the dales of Teviot and Tweed was now the battlefield of four distinct nationalities, and that, amid the varying chances of war, it would not be easy, were it possible, to trace the different transitory influences brought to bear upon it.

At last, in 924, this state of matters seemed like to be terminated, for in that year the inhabitants of Northumbria —Danes as well as English—as also the Strathclyde Britons, and the Scots, under Constantine II., chose the English king, Edward the Elder, to be their overlord—in other words, they acknowledged his superiority, and placed themselves under his protection. But the prospects of concord which this arrangement seemed to hold out were too favourable to be realised. Two years later Edward’s successor, Athelstane, found it necessary to expel an unauthorised, though from his own point of view legitimate, Danish ruler from Northumbria. The King of Scots espoused the cause of the pretender, and this led to an invasion of Scotland. At length, in 937, Athelstane found a formidable coalition of Danes, Scots, Irish, and Britons associated together for the recovery of Northumbria. As they marched southward he met them on the unidentified field of Brumby, or Brunanburh. As it recounts the great battle which followed, to the reader’s surprise the crabbed and matter-of-fact Chronicle breaks forth into a strain of exultant song—telling of the lifelong glory won that day by the English king, and how from sunrise to sunset his army slew the enemy and pursued the fugitives. “Five lay on the battle-stead, youthful kings by swords in slumber laid.” Among these was the son of Constantine, who himself escaped to Scotland to end his days in monastic retirement. Athelstane’s victory was complete—“ carnage greater has not been in this island ever yet since from the east hither Angles and Saxons came to land.”

It may seem that with the battle of Brunanburh the whole of Eadwine’s Northumbria ought to have passed to the English crown, and that so, at last, a settled government might have been secured to the northern kingdom. But apparently Athelstane was not strong enough to turn his victory to the best account. At any rate, Northumbrian history still continued to be characterised by the same factiousness and lawlessness which had distinguished it ever since the days of Oswy’s successors, and which, we may add,—as if inbred in the people, — were to distinguish it for many a day to come. Ridpath1 enters into particulars of the successive changes of rule which ensued during the next few years; but these are really of very subordinate interest in our subject, and to note them in the brief manner which is here alone possible would probably have the effect, by overloading it with detail, of obscuring rather than of illuminating the main thread of our narrative. So we may content ourselves with summarising matters by stating that, after both forcible and friendly measures had been resorted to without producing improvement, in 954 the English King Edred, having expelled the last King of Northumbria, Eric by name, turned that kingdom into an earldom, to be governed by an earl under himself.

In the next reign, that of Edwy, Dunstan, the great abbot of Glastonbury, set up a rival to the king, whereupon Northumbria (as was to be expected from its previous history) became art and part in the rebellion. But Edwy’s death, and the accession in 958 of his brother Edgar, Dunstan’s nominee, brought the country again under one ruler. Among the acts of this powerful monarch was the division of the great earldom of Northumbria into two,—the northern division—which was conferred on Eadulf, surnamed Ewelthild or Yvelchild—extending from the Forth to the Tees, the southern from the Tees to the Humber. Besides this, it has been stated that Edgar, being visited by Kenneth III., King of Scots, in response to the representations of that sovereign made over to him amicably the province of Lothian, comprising that portion of the more northerly of the two earldoms which lay north of the Tweed. This statement, in itself somewhat surprising, is, however, open to doubt, though the character of the inhabitants of the province, its remoteness, and the consequent difficulty of protecting it and of maintaining order within its bounds, together with a vague claim of hereditary right advanced by Kenneth, may be held to combine to give it plausibility. It also gains support from the fact which, though not mentioned till now, is of great importance in our history, that some thirty years earlier—namely, in 945—the British kingdom of Strathclyde, having been conquered by the English king Eadmund, had by him been granted to Malcolm I. of Scotland as a territorial fief, to be held under himself in return for military service by land and sea. To revert to the story of the cession of Lothian, it may be mentioned that Mr Skene dismisses it “as having no foundation in fact,” attributing its origin to partisanship in the later controversy as to the dependence of Scotland. At any rate, if Lothian were really given up by Edgar at this time, subsequent history shows it to have been afterwards resumed. The history of the next thirty or forty years in England is almost solely occupied with the third great invasion by the Danes, and with shameful records of helplessness and demoralisation on the part of the people, and of cowardice and treachery on the part of their leaders under Ethelred the Unready. Among the first to submit to the Danish leader, Swegen, were the Northumbrians—a fact which, however, need not be viewed in too unfavourable a light, as it may have been due to the large Danish admixture among the population, although, against this, it must be acknowledged that later on, with their accustomed fickleness, they espoused the cause of Edmund Ironside, and had to be forced into submission by Canute.

Malcolm II., who by this time had ascended the Scottish throne, had not been slow to note in the prostration of the neighbouring kingdom an opportunity for seizing Lothian— which, if it had ever been joined to Scotland, had by this time become separate from it again. His first attempt to do this was repulsed by Uchtred, a son of Waltheof, the aged Earl of Northumbria, who had succeeded Eadulf. Some years later, however—in 1018—Malcolm renewed his attempt, and, being supported by Eugenius the Bald, king of the Strathclyde Britons, marched southward at the head of an army, and gained a brilliant victory at Carham, on the south bank of the Tweed, over Eadulf Cudel, the degenerate brother of his former adversary Uchtred, who was now dead. In this battle, which, according to Symeon of Durham, had been heralded in Northumbria by the ominous appearance of a comet in the sky, nearly the whole of the population between Tees and Tweed are said to have been cut off by the Scots; and by it Malcolm at last secured possession of the coveted province, which was never afterwards retaken. And thus the capture of Lothian and Teveth-dale, following upon the annexation of Strathclyde, brought the whole of the territory now comprised in the Border counties, which till these events had formed parts of a British and an English kingdom, at last into the condition of dependencies of the Scottish crown!

With the battle of Carham closes what we may call the introductory period of Border history. During this period there has been revealed to us, by the light as of a “false dawn,” the earliest authentic event in that history — the entrance into the dales of Tweed and Teviot of Agricola with his army, intent on spreading northward the conquests of the Roman arms. We see him overrun that country, and endeavour to secure it—but with incomplete success. And thus, for more than three centuries to come, the tide of Roman conquest fluctuates across it — now advancing, now swept back. At the end of that period the direct influence of Rome is permanently withdrawn; yet the wear and tear of wellnigh fifteen centuries have not sufficed to efface the traces of that mighty race of conquerors and civ-ilisers which, at such places as Cappuck and Newstead, as “Watling Street” and Lyne, confront us to this day. With the withdrawal of the Roman forces darkness sets in deeper than before—a darkness peopled and haunted only by such dreams and unsubstantiated phantasms as the mythic, or more than half-mythic, Arthur and Merlin—characters to us scarcely more actual than those of the ancient North-country romance of “King Horn.” Of this period the wreckage in our country may be seen in such monuments as the Catrail, the prehistoric town of Eildon, the broch of Torwoodlee, and a hundred other strong places on our hills or by our watersides. And through these that period speaks to us, but speaks with an uncertain voice—delivering messages of oracular dubiety, from which we extract nothing clearly save a record of the struggle of native races against a Saxon or English invader. To pursue our metaphor, late in the seventh century the Venerable Bede, from his monastic cell at Jarrow, throws a light backward over scenes and figures of great spiritual beauty and elevation ; for the epoch of the Northumbrian Bretwaldas, of the foundation of Old Melrose, of the lives and mission-work of Boisil and Cuthbert, is one to which any country may well look back with fondness and pride. Alas! that it should be but an oasis in a desert. For during the epoch that follows, it is not alone the ruthlessness of the Danes that we have to deplore; it is lawlessness, perfidy, fickleness, and subserviency at home, the dying down and almost the extinction of the flame kindled by the saints of “Heaven’s Field" and Lindisfarne—three centuries with scarce a gleam of moral or intellectual light, the veritable Dark Ages of a land. And yet even now—to push our figure still further — though the day breaks slowly, the dawn has begun, and better times are at hand. In these we shall see those untamed forces, which till now have worked chaotically upon themselves, gradually subjected to discipline and reason, until in the sequel there is formed from them one of the strongest and most serviceable of existing varieties of local or national character. For, in the restless spirit which for so long plunged Northumbria in anarchy, we may recognise the raw material of the sturdy independence and industrial enterprise of the Borderer of a later day. For us the fact of importance resulting from this long, dark, and troubled period is the predominance of the Teutonic element in the population of the Border counties. And we may, likewise, specially note that that tract of country has through successive changes approached its ultimate shape and condition, until with the battle of Carham we at last see it consolidated as a southern portion of the kingdom of Scotland.


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