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Northumberland


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Is a large county of ancient origins as an independent kingdom and one of the earliest centres of British Christianity. A great border region, it is full of peel houses and castles. The industrial development of Tyneside is confined to the south‐east corner. The rest is a shire of high fells and deep valleys, thinly populated, with small market towns like Corbridge, Haltwhistle, Morpeth, Hexham, Rothbury, Wooler, and Alnwick. Berwick‐on‐Tweed is part of Northumberland geographically, though a county in its own right.

The main northern tribe in pre‐Roman times was the Brigantes. The crossing of the Tyne at the Pons Aelium must soon have become a settlement, the nucleus of Newcastle itself. In early Saxon times, the area formed part of the kingdom of Bernicia, which joined with Deira to the south in 651 to constitute Northumbria (the land north of the Humber), which for centuries disputed supremacy with Mercia and Wessex. In the late 8th cent. the area began to suffer from Danish raids and in the following century was in conflict with the Viking kingdom of York. In 920 it submitted to Edward, king of Wessex, at Bakewell, and subsequent attempts to recover its independence were of no avail.

Northumbrian resistance to the Normans after Hastings led to William I's despoiling of the area in 1069. It was not included in the Domesday survey, having yet to recover from the devastation. In the later Middle Ages it was the first line of defence against the Scots, the border region being divided up into marches. Vast power was wielded by the local lords, particularly the Percies of Alnwick. The remoter parts of the county like Redesdale, Coquetdale, and Allendale were under fitful control, border raiding was common, and bloody encounters, like Otterburn in 1388 when Percy fought Douglas, were not uncommon. The union with Scotland in 1603 gave some respite from cattle‐raiding. The last spasm of lawlessness was produced by the Jacobite movement. Thomas Forster was supported by a number of shire gentlemen in the ‘15, though they did little save proclaim the old pretender at Warkworth and occupy Holy Island for one day.

In so large a county, administration was bound to be decentralized. The assizes were held in Newcastle, but the elections for the shire at Alnwick. Quarter sessions were held at Newcastle, Alnwick, Morpeth, and Hexham in turn. But Newcastle had always been by far the most important town and in the 19th cent. it grew disproportionately to its neighbours. From a base of about 28,000 in 1801, it was 87,000 by 1851, and by 1914, having swallowed its surrounding villages, had reached 271,000. The explosion was due, in the main, to coal‐mining and shipbuilding. The long‐established tradition of shipbuilding was transformed after 1850. Armstrong's works at Elswick were opened in 1847, Parsons at Heaton in 1889. The political effect of this economic development was acknowledged in 1974 with the creation of a new county of Tyne and Wear, and although the new authority was itself abolished in 1986, the areas immediately north of the Tyne did not return to Northumberland.

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Subjects: British History.


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