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United Kingdom
Cheviot Hill countryside - - 290451.jpg
Lumsdon Law from Carter Pike
Flag of Northumberland
[Interactive map]
Area: 2,018 square miles
Population: 797,006
County town: Alnwick
Biggest town: Newcastle upon Tyne
County flower: Bloody crane's-bill [1]

The County of Northumberland is a rugged, mountainous shire whose coast stretches from the mouth of the Tweed to that of the Tyne, with Berwick-upon-Tweed and its lands stretching north of the Tweed.

Four counties surround Northumberland: Berwickshire and Roxburghshire to the north, Cumberland to the west and County Durham to the south, while its eastern side is washed by the North Sea.

Until the union in 1707, Northumberland was on the border of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, leaving it a restless land often tumbled in war until the accession of King James VI to the English throne in 1603. In that unquiet time, the site of many battles, Northumberland became in 1603 not a shire on the edge but the heart of the land King James called "the Middle Shires".

The landscape

The contrast between the southeast and the rest of the county is dramatic: the largest town of Northumberland is Newcastle upon Tyne, which stands on the north bank of the Tyne, and surrounding it is a small but dense conurbation stretching to both banks of the river and along the coast, but beyond these areas Northumberland is rural and sparsely populated.

The coast begins at Tynemouth, a major port and a busy industrial gateway to the Newcastle conurbation, built on the coal which made Newcastle famous and prosperous in past ages. North of the Tyne up to Blyth are a number of coastal towns but beyond is that undisturbed rural Northumberland seacoast. The coastline is generally low-lying and rocky, with numerous little bays and modest villages.

In the north are sites resonating with history: Bamburgh Castle sits perched on a precipitous rock which was the first seat of the Bernician kings, though the castle itself is rather more recent. Opposite Bamburgh are the Farne Islands stretching into the North Sea and well known for their abundant birdlife, and north of them the largest and most famous is Lindisfarne or Holy Island, which was the first Christian missionary centre in Northumbria and the seat of a bishop for many centuries.

Berwick-upon-Tweed is a sturdy town at the northernmost reach of Northumberland. On the north bank of the Tweed, it was once a wealthy port and the county town of Berwickshire and there is still debate about whether it belongs to Northumberland or to Berwickshire, or whether it is a free burgh in neither as it was once declared.

Inland, Northumberland is a county of fells and dales, part of the Pennine chain. The fells fill most of the county, bleak and beautiful and largely unpopulated. In the north of the county the Cheviot Hills, spreading into Roxburghshire, rise to 2,676 feet. A great deal of this high moorland is protected as a National Park.

Castles and peel towers abound; reminders of more lawless times.

Hadrian's Wall crosses the south of Northumberland east to west, from Wallsend-on-Tyne out to the Solway coast in Cumberland.


The Cheviot Hills, in the northwest of the county, consist mainly of resistant Devonian granite and andesite lava. A second area of igneous rock underlies the Whin Sill (on which Hadrian's Wall runs), an intrusion of Carboniferous dolerite. Both ridges support a rather bare moorland landscape. Either side of the Whin Sill the county lies on Carboniferous Limestone, giving some areas of karst landscape.[1]

Lying off the coast of Northumberland, the Farne Islands are another dolerite outcrop.

There are coal fields in the southeast corner of the county, extending along the coastal region north of the river Tyne. The term 'sea coal' likely originated from chunks of coal, found washed up on beaches, that wave action had broken from coastal outcroppings.

River Coquet

Protected areas

  • The Northumberland National Park covers almost a quarter of Northumberland. It is an area of outstanding landscape that has largely been protected from development and agriculture. The park stretches south from the Roxburghshire boundary and includes Hadrian's Wall. Most of the park is over 800 feet above sea level.
  • The Northumberland Coast is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.


The Bush, Farne Islands

There are a variety of notable habitats and species in Northumberland including the herd of Chillingham Cattle on the Chillingham Estate, Holy Island; Farne Islands; and Staple Island.


Roman occupation

Hadrian's Wall, near Housesteads

During the Roman occupation, Northumberland was part of the tribal territory of the Brigantes. The Emperor Hadrian built his frontier line, Hadrian's Wall, across the land here from sea to sea, so that most of what became Northumberland was outside immediate Roman control. The Wall is the finest surviving example of Roman defensive limes standing and the excavation of its forts and mile castles have been given a rich insight into frontier life. Here too has been found the earliest example of a runic carving, carved on a roe deer's antler apparently by a German soldier stationed on the frontier, saying simply rehan ("roe deer"), a pre-echo of those who would come after the wall was abandoned.


The English settled here in great numbers probably from the late fifth century and Northumberland formed the core of the Kingdom of the Bernicians (Beornica rice), a name believed to be taken from the Old Welsh Bryneich from the Brigantes tribe, of which Bamburgh was the capital. Bernicia was later united with Deirans south of the River Tees to form the Kingdom of the Northumbrians (Norþanhymbra rice or later Norþhymbraland). Northumbria by the time of King Edwin stretched from the River Forth in the north to the Humber in the south, and occasionally included Lindsey.

Northumberland is often called the "cradle of Christianity" in England, because it was on Lindisfarne, a tidal island north of Bamburgh, also called Holy Island, that Christianity flourished when monks from Iona were sent to convert the English. Lindisfarne was the home of the Lindisfarne Gospels and St Cuthbert, who is buried in Durham Cathedral.

After the Norse broke upon Northumbria and occupied Yorkshire and Lancashire, Bamburgh became a capital once again, for the High Reeves of Bamburgh who ruled the English beyond the Tees. Further territory was nibbled away in time; the King of Scots seized all the lands north of the River Tweed and after the Norman conquest the Bishop of Durham held an independent fief south of the Tyne, leaving of once mighty Norþhymbraland the fell country we now know as Northumberland.

Borders and Berwick

The date at which the lands between the Forth and the Tyne were ceded to the King of Scots is uncertain, though the Battle of Carham in 1016 (or 1018) is taken as a convenient date. According to Simeon of Durham the border between Northumberland and "Lothian" was then the River Tweed, and Roxburgh was on the border. The border crept a little further south in later years and appears only to have settled down in 1237 after the Treaty of York.

In 1216 King John captured and burnt the port of Berwick and in 1296 King Edward I captured it. It changed hands numerous times during the Middle Ages until last conquered by Richard Duke of Gloucester, the future King Richard III, in 1482. The cannon on the town's ramparts fired for the last time to welcome King James VI of Scotland as King of England, the first English town he entered on his progress to London.

Mediæval border wars

Alnwick Castle

In the Middle Ages, Northumberland, the route between the cities of England and Scotland, was a frequent battlefield, as a legacy of which it has more castles than any other county in England,[2] the most famous of which are those at Alnwick, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Warkworth. At Alnwich sat the Earls and later Dukes of Northumberland, as indeed they do today.

The Earls of Northumberland once wielded significant power in English affairs because, as the Marcher Lords, they were entrusted with protecting England from Scottish invasion.

Another power in the land was the Bishop of Durham, who held a palatinate jurisdiction in County Durham, but also in some small enclaves within Northumberland, granted to him by virtue of a connection between those parishes and St Cuthbert or the old see of Lindisfarne. These enclaves, Islandshire, Bedlingtonshire and Norhamshire, were removed from the palatine jurisdiction only in 1844 (by which time the palatinate had been vested in the Crown).

Northumberland has a history of revolt and rebellion against the government, the last of which was the Rising of the North in Tudor times. These revolts were usually led by the then Dukes of Northumberland, the Percy family. William Shakespeare makes one of the Percys, the dashing Harry Hotspur, the real hero of his Henry IV, Part 1.

Reiver country

The Vicar's Pele, Corbridge

Trouble in Northumberland came from the Border Reivers, whose activities left it a lawless, unquiet land. The reivers came from each side of the border and exploited the position of the shire, raiding and burning then fleeing back across the border whither the law could not pursue them. Co-operation between the Commissioners of each kingdom was largely ineffective. Cross-border raids and skirmishes went on for centuries, and within the county was associated lawlessness and armed resistance by the great reiver families to the enforcement of the law. Landowners and even clergymen built fortified peel towers to defend themselves against reiver attacks, many of which can be seen in the county. In Northumberland and the other border counties a specific "border law" was enforced to try to suppress the lawlessness.

At the accession of King James VI to the English throne as King James I in 1603, the border law was revoked and the normal law of the land imposed. A single commissioner, Lord Dunbar, was appointed on both sides of the border and the reivers were ruthlessly suppressed, bringing peace at last to the lands henceforth to be known as the Middle Shires.

Modern period

Tyne Bridge, Newcastle

Northumberland played a key role in the industrial revolution. Coal mines were once widespread. Newcastle was the primary coal port for the kingdom for centuries. Elsewhere in Northumberland, collieries stretched up the coast. The region's coalfields fuelled industrial expansion in other areas of the country, and the need to transport the coal from the collieries to the Tyne led to the development of the first railways. Shipbuilding and armaments manufacture were other important industries.

Today, Northumberland outside the densely urban southeast is still largely rural and it commands much less influence in British affairs than in times past. In recent years the county has had considerable growth in tourism due to its scenic beauty and the abundant evidence of its historical significance.


Northumberland has traditions not found elsewhere in England. These include the rapper sword dance, the clog dance and the Northumbrian smallpipe, a sweet chamber instrument, quite unlike the Highland bagpipe. Northumberland also has its own tartan or check, sometimes referred to in Scotland as the Shepherd's Tartan. Traditional Northumberland music sounds similar to Lowland Scottish music, reflecting the common culture across the Middle Shires.

The Border ballads of the region have been famous since the late Middle Ages. Thomas Percy, whose celebrated Reliques of Ancient English Poetry appeared in 1765, states that most of the minstrels who sang the Border ballads in London and elsewhere in the 15th and 16th centuries belonged to the North. The activities of Sir Walter Scott and others in the 19th century gave the ballads an even wider popularity. William Morris considered them to be the greatest poems in the language, while Algernon Charles Swinburne knew virtually all of them by heart.

One of the best-known is the stirring Ballad of Chevy Chase, which tells of the Earl of Northumberland's vow to hunt for three days across the Border 'maugre the doughty Douglas'. Of it, the Elizabethan courtier, soldier and poet Sir Philip Sidney famously said: 'I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet'. Ben Jonson said that he would give all his works to have written Chevy Chase.

Linguistically, Northumberland has distinctive dialects, of which the best known is the "Geordie" of Newcastle upon Tyne, often incomprehensible to outsiders.

Overall the culture of Northumberland, as with the north east of England in general, has more in common with the Scottish Lowland shires and northern English culture than that of southern England. Firstly both regions have their cultural origins in the old Kingdom of Northumbria, which is borne out by the linguistic heritage preserving many Old English words and forms not found in other forms of Modern English, such as bairn for child.[3][4]

Whatever the case, the lands just north or south of the old border have long shared certain aspects of history and heritage and thus it may be said that this border is political rather than cultural.[4][5]

Attempts to raise the level of awareness of Northumberland culture have also started, with the formation of a Northumbrian Language Society to preserve the unique manners of speech ("Pitmatic" and other such dialects of this region), as well as to promote home-grown talent.[3][4]

Symbols of the county

Bloody Cranesbill - - 471116.jpg

Northumberland's county flower is the bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum), a flower which adorns the county's cliffs and dunes and also spread inland on the rocks of the Whin Sill. It recalls the romantic but undeniably bloody history of border wars and coastal raiding.

Northumberland's flag is a banner of the arms of Northumberland County Council. The shield of arms is in turn based on the arms mediæval heralds had attributed to the Kingdom of Bernicia (which the first County Council used until it received a regular grant of arms). The Bernician arms were fictional but inspired by Bede's brief description of King Oswald's banner, a flag hung above the king's tomb in the 7th century.[6]

The current arms were granted to the former county council in 1951, and adopted as the flag of Northumberland by its successor in 1995.[7]

Towns and villages

Rural parishes

The rural part of Northumberland has the following parishes:

Things to see in Northumberland

Cathedral/Abbey/Priory Cathedral/Abbey/Priory
Accessible open space Accessible open space
Amusement/Theme Park Amusement/Theme Park
Castle Castle
Country Park Country Park
English Heritage English Heritage
Forestry Commission Forestry Commission
Heritage railway Heritage railway
Historic house Historic House
Museum (free)
Museum (not free)
Museum (free/not free)
National Trust National Trust
Zoo Zoo


  1. Northumberland National Park Authority, n.d. "The topology and climate of Northumberland National Park."
  2. Long, B. (1967). Castles of Northumberland. Newcastle, UK: Harold Hill.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "North East England History Pages". Retrieved 2010-09-25. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "Northumbrian Language Society". Retrieved 2010-09-25. 
  5. "Lowlands-L • a discussion group for people who share an interest in languages and cultures of the Lowlands". Retrieved 2010-09-25. 
  6. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book III, Ch. 11: "And to furnish a lasting memorial of the royal saint, they hung the King's banner of purple and gold over his tomb."
  7. "The Northumberland Flag Northumberland Northumbria England UK GB (page 113)". 2005-06-24. Archived from the original on 2005-06-24. Retrieved 2010-09-25. 


  • Sharp, Thomas (1937). Northumberland and Durham - a Shell Guide. B T Batsford. 
  • Tomlinson, W.W. (1968) [1888]. Comprehensive guide to the county of Northumberland. Trowbridge: Redwood. 
  • Thompson, Barbara; Norderhaug, Jennifer (2006). Walking the Northumberland Dales: Hadrian's Wall Country. Sigma Press. ISBN 1850588384. 

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