Yeavering is a very small hamlet in the north-east corner of the
civil parishof Kirknewton in the English county of Northumberland. It is located at latitude 55° 34’ longitude 2° 07’, on the River Glen at the northern edge of the Cheviot Hills.
According to Book 2 Chapter 14 of the "
Ecclesiastical History" of the Venerable Bede(680-735), in the year 627Bishop Paulinus of Yorkaccompanied the Northumbrian king Edwin and his queen Æthelburg to their royal villa (the Latin term is "villa regia"), "Adgefrin", where Paulinus spent 36 days preaching and baptising converts in the river Glen. The placename "Gefrin", which is a Brittonic name meaning ‘hill of the goats’, survives as the modern Yeavering.
Yeavering's most prominent feature is the twin-peaked hill,
Yeavering Bell(361 metres above sea level), which is encircled by the wall of a late-prehistoric hillfort, a tribal centre of the Votadini. To the north of the Bell, the land drops off to a terrace 72 metres above sea level (usually known as the ‘whaleback’) through which the river Glen has cut a channel at 50 metres above sea level.
400 years ago, the antiquarian
William Camdenrecognised that Bede’s Gefrin was the place known as Yeavering. But the exact site of the royal villa remained a matter of speculation until 1949when Kenneth St Josephof the University of Cambridgerecorded as cropmarksthe outlines of a number of rectangular buildings on the whaleback. St. Joseph did not at first recognise the identity of the site: he speculated that it might be an early monastery (see Gates 2005); but in 1952 Brian Hope-Taylor, who had by then seen St. Joseph’s aerial photographs, inspected the site and made the connection with Bede’s text.
1953Hope-Taylor embarked on a programme of excavations which lasted until 1957and which he resumed in 1961-2. Contemporaries such as Professor Philip Rahtz have recognised these excavations as innovative in technique and outstanding for their elucidation of a complex sequence of inter-cutting foundations. In 1977Hope-Taylor, who had by then been awarded a doctorate at Cambridge University for a study of Yeavering, published the definitive account of his findings in the monograph "Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of Early Northumbria". This text has come to be acknowledged as a landmark in British archaeologicalpublication and Yeavering has come to be seen as a defining example for an Early Medievalroyal centre in much the same way that Sutton Hooin East Angliadefines royal burialof that era.
The palace (this is the translation normally used here for the Latin "villa") was, according to
Bede, abandoned some time after King Edwin’s reign and, because its buildings were of timber and not of any more durable materials, it eventually disappeared completely from view. Only the earth-cut foundations of buildings, gravesand other monuments survived below the land surface and these are the features that registered as cropmarks in 1949.
Excavations by Brian Hope-Taylor
The components of the site, as revealed by the cropmarks and Hope-Taylor’s excavations, are:
1) A double-palisaded enclosure, the Great Enclosure, on the terrace edge at the east end of the complex. This was not a fortification in a military sense but acted as a meeting place or cattle corral.
2) A sequence of rectangular buildings west of the Great Enclosure (Area A) with massive foundation trenches (in some cases, more than two metres deep). Four buildings in the set (A2, A4, A3a, A3b) had floor areas of up to about 300 square metres. Hope-Taylor called these Great Halls.
3) A set of nine concentric foundation trenches west of the set of halls, whose outline forms a wedge shape. Hope-Taylor interpreted this as a tiered auditorium with a capacity to seat some three hundred people.
4) Other rectangular buildings, broadly similar to the first set of Great Halls though smaller, at the west end of the site (Area D) and to the north (Area C).
5) Inhumation burials at the east and west ends of the site including, among these, graves set into already-existing prehistoric burial monuments, the Eastern and Western Ring Ditches.
These, then, are the principal features of this royal palace; and it is the buildings which have attracted most attention in secondary literature, as royal halls of the sort which the poet of
Beowulfhad in mind when he wrote of Heorot, the hall of King Hrothgar. Typically the halls are rectangular buildings, massive in construction with (in A4, for example) square-section timbers of 140mm placed upright side-by-side along the wall lines; twice as long as their width, arranged as a single large room or, sometimes, with a small space partitioned off at one or both ends. In the later stages (A3a and A3b) annexes appear at the ends and the interior space becomes divided into rooms. Here then, at Yeavering, was demonstrated the reality of the poet’s creation. The buildings were constructed to high standards, with timbers carefully measured and shaped to standard sizes. Hope-Taylor argued that a standard unit of measurement was employed in the buildings and also in the overall lay-out of the site. The ‘Yeavering Foot’ was slightly shorter than the modern imperial unit (300mm).
Hope-Taylor understood Yeavering as a place of contact between an indigenous British population and an incoming
Anglianelite, few in number: an Anglo-British centre, as he expressed it in his monograph title. He developed this view from the complex archaeological stratificationwhich, he judged, could not be compressed into the seventh century but which implied a much longer period of use at the site. This led him to a wider thesis on the origins of the kingdom of Bernicia. The then current view (as expressed, for instance, in the final (1971) edition of Sir Frank Stenton’s ‘Anglo-Saxon England’), was that the early Bernician kings were hemmed into their coastal stronghold at Bamburgh by aggressive British neighbours until Aethelfrith (592-616) succeeded in overcoming the Britons and expanding the kingdom. Yeavering convinced Hope-Taylor that the Berniciankings had developed interests inland from Bamburghthrough peaceful collaboration with the Britons at an earlier date. The archaeological underpinning of this thesis has three elements:
1) The building sequence at Yeavering showed a progression from a British style of building with walls of post-and-panel construction, through to a hybrid style which drew on both continental Germanic traditions and those of Roman Britain. The solid, load-bearing walls of his Styles II, III, and IV, he termed ‘Yeavering Style’.
2) The burials show a continuity of ritual tradition from the
Bronze Agethrough to the 7th century.
3) The Great Enclosure, which in its most developed state took the form of a double palisade, had evolved through a series of palisades constructed according to local traditions. Its first stage was the earliest feature of the site and, as such, it gave a link with the old tribal centre on
No other structure comparable to the auditorium has been observed in post-Roman Britain and Hope-Taylor suggested that its affinities lay with the Roman world; it was a realisation in timber (the normal building material of Germanic Europe) of the architecture of the Roman theatre, with the wedge shape being one segment of the theatre’s semi-circular form. Roman influence, or an evocation of Roman forms, was evident also in the render which was applied to the outer surfaces of the walls of the principal halls.
In Building D2a, one of the group of buildings at the west end of the site, cattle bones were piled up alongside one wall in a way which led the excavator to suggest that this was a temple, used in cult practice. Numerous inhumation burials occupied the site, and amongst them, the grave of a child, tightly trussed up in foetal position. The body occupied only half of the grave area, while in the other half was placed a cow’s tooth; another hint of cult practice involving cattle. A grave on the threshold of the Great Hall A4 contained a goat’s skull which might indicate another animal cult associated with the name of the place, the goat’s hill. The two prehistoric burial monuments which were already on the site, the Western and Eastern Ring Ditches were brought back into use. The centre of each was marked with a post (a totem pole) and burials were set out around these. Some of the burials are undoubtedly of pagan tradition; but Yeavering runs into the Christian era: Bede’s text is the narrative of a conversion episode in 627. It is suggested that the refurbishment of the ‘temple’ building D2a (re-built in the same position as D2b) was a Christianisation as recommended by
Pope Gregory I(see Bede’s " Ecclesiastical History", Book 1 Chapter 30). Building B, associated with the cemetery in the late stages of occupation of the site, is interpreted as a church.
The chronology for the excavated features is not securely established. Hope-Taylor found few closely datable objects (a belt-buckle of 570/80 – 630/40 and a coin 630/40) and there are no
radiocarbondates. He constructed a relative sequence for the site from the stratigraphicconnections for the Area A complex and the Great Enclosure and he drew other areas of the site into this scheme through a typology of building styles. He established a fixed chronology for the scheme by arguing that a fire which destroyed the Great Hall A4, the auditorium and other buildings was the result of an attack following the death of King Edwinin 633. A later fire is attributed to an attack by Penda, King of Mercia, in the 650s. The set of four Great Halls of Area A, which are shown by excavation to have succeeded one after another, are judged to be the halls of four successive kings, Aethelfrith (592-616), Edwin(616-633), Oswald(635-642) and Oswiu(642-670) (numbers A2, A4, A3a and A3b respectively). Critics have noted that there is no confirmation in written records that Yeavering was sacked on in 633 or the 650s. It would be reasonable to say that Hope-Taylor’s chronology is a working construct founded on secure stratigraphic sequences and extended beyond that.
Critical commentary on Yeavering since Hope-Taylor has challenged some of his ideas and developed his thoughts in other respects. Two elements of his culture contact thesis (the Anglo-British centre) have come under review.
First, the buildings. Roger Miket (1980) questioned the identity of the Style I post-and-panel buildings (A5, A6, A7, D6) as British and then Christopher Scull (1991) developed a more extensive critique of Phase I: the post-and-panel buildings are much like those from Anglo-Saxon settlements anywhere else in England; Hope-Taylor gives them a date around 550 but there is no reason why they should not be much nearer 600, and therefore in an Anglo-Saxon cultural context; Hope-Taylor pushes them back to 550 to accommodate the needs of the building typology which he has constructed, which calls for a Style II (D1a, D1b, D2a) to intervene before Style III which begins with D2b and Aethelfrith’s Great Hall A2. This leads to what might be called a minimalist view, as articulated recently by Tim Gates (2005), which sees the site originating as an ordinary Anglian farming settlement of the sixth century, subsequently elaborated.
Second, the burials. Richard Bradley (1987) drew on ideas developed in social anthropology to argue that the claim for ritual continuity cannot be sustained, depending as it does on treating as equivalents the linear time of an historical era (the Early Medieval) and the ritual time of prehistory. In place of a literal, chronological continuity, he proposed the idea of a ‘creation of continuity’ (akin, perhaps, to Eric Hobsbawn’s idea of the ‘invention of tradition’) to suggest that the burials in the Eastern and Western Ring Ditches are a deliberate re-use (long after the original use) of these features as a strategy by a new elite group to appropriate to themselves the ideological power held in the memory of the traditional burial places. This use of burial practice is comparable, Bradley suggests, with the way in which Anglo-Saxon royal houses developed for themselves genealogies which showed their descent from the god
The Great Enclosure, the third element supporting the culture contact idea, has been less closely studied, despite the fact that for Hope-Taylor this was the first feature on the site, beginning when a Romano-British field system went out of use. Tim Gates (2005) has shown that there was no field system but that Hope-Taylor misunderstood some periglacial features which he interpreted as field boundaries. Colm O’Brien (2005) has analysed the stratigraphic linkages of the Great Enclosure, showing, in the light of the arguments of Scull and Gates, how uncertain is the chronology of this feature. In one comment, Hope-Taylor compared the Great Enclosure to a Scandinavian "Thing", or folk meeting place and behind this lies the idea that the Great Enclosure carries forward into the Early Medieval era functions of assembly which had once belonged at the hillfort on
Yeavering Bell. Thanks to recent field survey by Stuart Pearson (1998; and see also Oswald and Pearson 2005) the stages of development of this hillfort and its 105 house-foundations are accurately defined; but it remains unclear when it was occupied and what role, if any, it had during the Roman Iron Age.
Hope-Taylor’s thesis on culture contact can no longer be held in the terms in which he expressed it but Leslie Alcock (1988) has shown how a number of sites associated with Northumbrian kings in the 7th and 8th centuries, Yeavering among them, developed from earlier defended centres in what is now northern England and southern Scotland (England and Scotland had not at that time come into being as separate states). Similarly, Sam Lucy (2005) looked to the tradition of
long cistburials in Scotland for affinities with those at Yeavering, as Hope-Taylor had done. So, as archaeological studies have developed, the idea that some aspects of Yeavering can be placed within a northern tradition has gained support.
In the first detailed study of the Auditorium since Hope-Taylor’s, Paul Barnwell (2005) was persuaded of Hope-Taylor’s understanding of its structure and also of its reference to the Roman world; the theatres is an instrument of Roman provincial governance rather than imperial presence. Barnwell has considered how the structure might be used in formal administrative functions and suggests that for these it draws upon practice from the Frankish world.
Paul Barnwell’s analysis moves beyond the study of structure, phasing and chronology which have been the concern of much of the scholarship around Yeavering to a consideration of how a structure was used. Carolyn Ware (2005) has proposed a similar sort of approach to study of the Great Halls through an examination of openness and seclusion and of sight lines within the buildings. Together, these studies begin to suggest how a king may present himself at this place and how the architectural structures allow for formal behaviour and ceremonial.
The question of how Yeavering functioned in relation to its hinterland has been considered by Colm O’Brien (2002). The Latin term "villa regia" which Bede used of the site suggests an estate centre as the functional heart of a territory held in the King’s demesne. The territory is the land whose surplus production is taken into the centre as food-render to support the king and his retinue on their periodic visits as part of a progress around the kingdom. Other estates in the territory, such as the nearby Thirlings whose central settlement has been excavated (O’Brien and Miket 1991), stand in a relationship of dependency to the central estate, bound by obligations of service. This territorial model, known as a
multiple estateor shirehas been developed in a range of studies and O’Brien, in applying this to Yeavering has proposed a geographical definition of the wider shire of Yeavering and also a geographical definition of the principal estate whose structures Hope-Taylor excavated.
ummary – the present state of knowledge
While there are still some large questions to resolve on matters of chronology, Yeavering offers a number of insights into the nature of early Northumbrian kingship. It sits within the wider Germanic tradition of a life centred around the hall and its occupants drew upon forms, practices and ideas from the Roman and Frankish worlds. But at the same time it drew on local, regional traditions for structures and in burial rites. Its importance for the Northumbrian kings was, perhaps, as the traditional place of local assembly and as a cult centre at which deep-rooted, traditional ideologies could be appropriated. It is not clear why it was abandoned: Bede says that it was replaced by
Maelmin. This site is known from cropmarks at Milfielda few kilometres north-east (Gates and O’Brien 1988). Perhaps, as Rosemary Cramp suggested (1983), as the Northumbrian kings gained in authority they had no need of the traditional assembly and cult site in the hills.
The Gefrin Trust
In April 2000 archaeologist Roger Miket returned to north Northumberland after sixteen years living on Skye. While in Sale and Partners, an estate agent in Wooler, the secretary, knowing Roger's interest in the history of the area, informed him of their recent instruction to handle the sale of 'a funny bit of land at Yeavering with a history'!
The 'funny bit of land' was, in fact, the site of Ad Gefrin.
Northumberland County Council, Northumberland National Park and a number of private bidders all showed an interest in the site but the final successful bidder was Roger.
Roger's initial aim was to place the management of the site on an even footing before transferring ownership to an independent charitable trust. When this was in place Roger began contacting interested experts for guidance on the best way to establish the Gefrin Trust. It was decided that the trust should be made up from representatives of local government, English Heritage and the academic world with the ability to co-opt other members to address specific needs and issues should they arise. Community involvement was considered very important.
From its initial meeting in the spring of 2004 the trust has met every four months to discuss progress, planning and the way forward for the site.
Trust members are:
Professor Rosemary Cramp (Chairperson)
Roger Miket (Secretary)
Dr Christopher Burgess (Northumberland County Council)
Paul Frodsham (Archaeologist)
Tom Johnston (Glendale Gateway Trust)
Kate Wilson (English Heritage)
Chris Gerrard (Durham University)
Public access to the palace site has been granted. The site has been re-fenced and the stone walls have been repaired. New gates, kissing gates and paths have been installed to improve access. Information panels have been set up. The trust have entered a ten year partnership agreement with DEFRA and now hold a 999 year lease for the site and all management decisions affecting it.
The magnificent goat-head gateposts and other carvings you will see today at the site are the work of local Northumbrian artist Eddie Robb. As well as the goat heads you can find a carving of the head of a Saxon warrior and representations of the 'Bamburgh Beast'. They are very much in the style and spirit of the illustrations done by Brian Hope-Taylor himself in the pages of his book 'Yeavering, An Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria'.
The Trust is developing its own website though continue to use [http://www.gefrin.com/ Gefrin.com] (maintained and developed voluntarily by Brian Cosgrove) as the main information point for the project. This allows the Gefrin Trust website to concentrate on reporting news, comments and decisions relevant to the Trust.
The Trust organised the first Open Days at the site in June 2007. The main purpose, in the words of archaeologist Roger Miket, is simply to... "Create a presence for these two days and be on hand to meet and greet anyone who might wish to come to the site. We will also be there to demonstrate and explain how remote-sensing works, as well as carry out guided tours of the site. On the Sunday we are also offering a guided walk up Yeavering Bell."
Archaeologist Roger Miket leads a tour around the Palace site.Image © B. Cosgrove. www.gefrin.com
History of Northumberland
Battle of Humbleton Hill
Edwin of Northumbria
Paulinus of York
Battle of Yeavering
* [http://www.gefrin.com/ Gefrin.com... Information, maps, diagrams, access routes and more about Yeavering, Gefrin and the hillforts in the north Cheviot hills]
* [http://www.northumberland-national-park.org.uk/visitorguide/thenationalpark/archaeology/peoplingthepast/yeaveringbell.htm Northumberland National Park]
* [http://www.northumberland-national-park.org.uk/virtualtours/ 360° photo]
* [http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=4899 Prehistoric web]
* [http://www.keystothepast.info/durhamcc/k2p.nsf/k2pdetail?readform&prn=N1448 Keys to the past]
* Alcock L (1988) "Bede, Eddius and the Forts of the North Britons". Jarrow: Jarrow Lecture.
* Barnwell P (2005) Anglian Yeavering: a continental perspective. 174-184 in Frodsham and O’Brien (eds).
* Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Edition and English translation by B. Colgrave and R Mynors (1969). Oxford: Clarendon Press
* Bradley R (1987) Time Regained: the creation of continuity. "Journal of the British Archaeological Association" 140, 1-17.
* Cramp R (1983) Anglo-Saxon Settlement. 263-97 in J C Chapman and H Mytum (eds) "Settlement in North Britain 1000BC – AD1000". Oxford: British Archaeological Reports
* Frodsham P and O’Brien C (eds) (2005) "Yeavering: people, power, place". Stroud: Tempus Publishing
* Gates T (2005) Yeavering and Air Photography: discovery and interpretation. 65-83 in Frodsham and O’Brien (eds).
* Gates T and O’Brien C (1988) Cropmarks at Milfield and New Bewick and the Recognition of Grubenhauser in Northumberland. "Archaeologia Aeliana" 5th Series, 16, 1-10.
* Hope-Taylor B (1977) "Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria". London: HMSO
* Lucy S (2005) Early Medieval Burial at Yeavering: a retrospective. 127-144 in Frodsham and O’Brien (eds).
* Miket R (1980) A Re-statement of Evidence from Bernician Burials. 289-305 in P. Rahtz, T. Dickinson and L. Watts (eds) "Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries 1979". Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.
* O’Brien C (2002) The Early Medieval Shires of Yeavering, Bamburgh and Breamish. "Archaeologia Aeliana" 5th Series, 30, 53-73.
* O’Brien C (2005) The Great Enclosure. 145-152 in Frodsham and O’Brien (eds).
* O’Brien C and Miket R (1991) The Early Medieval Settlement of Thirlings. "Durham Archaeological Journal" 7, 57-91.
* Oswald A and Pearson S (2005) Yeavering Bell Hillfort. 98-126 in Frodsham and O’Brien.
* Pearson S (1998) Yeavering Bell Hillfort, Northumberland. English Heritage: "Archaeological Investigation Report Series" AI/3/2001.
* Scull C (1991) Post-Roman Phase 1 at Yeavering: a reconsideration. "Medieval Archaeology" 35, 51-63.
* Stenton F (1971) "Anglo-Saxon England". Oxford: Clarendon Press
* Ware C (2005) The Social Use of Space at Gefrin. 153-160 in Frodsham and O’Brien (eds).
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