About twenty miles almost straight west of Bamburgh, on the edge of the Cheviot Hills, lies a small hamlet called Yeavering. Very few people live there now, it is mainly a scattering of farms in the area. But don’t be fooled by this sleepy bit of English countryside. This obscure little place has a history of great importance and was a significant place indeed in 7th century England.
Truth be told, it was a significant place long before the Anglo-Saxons even arrived, and so there is where our story of Yeavering must begin.
The name Yeavering comes from the Celtic name of Gefrin, which means “hill of the goats”. This name survives as our modern name of Yeavering. It lies at the end of a valley at the edge of the Cheviots. The most prominent feature of the area is the twin peaked hill known as Yeavering Bell. At the top of this hill is the remains of an ancient Iron Age hill fort, but there is evidence that there has been human activity in the area from at least 15,000 years ago, in the Mesolithic Age.
The hill fort was an extremely important one before the Romans arrived in the first century AD. It was the largest of its kind in Northumbria, and had stone walls constructed around both of the peaks of the Bell. Over a hundred Iron Age roundhouses had been constructed on the hill within the walls, which is evidence of a large population. There is archeological evidence of Romano-British occupation of the site in the 1st-5th centuries AD. So by the time the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons arrived, this area had been an important settlement for a long time.
North of Yeavering Bell the land drops off into a “terrace”, about 72 meters above sea level. It is on this terrace, known as the “whaleback”, that our interest is focussed, as this is where an Anglo-Saxon settlement was situated in the 7th century AD.
There is a theory that the Anglo-Saxon kings had two distinct populations to govern: the immigrant settlers from the Continent who had mainly settled along the coasts, and the native British population who were the descendants of the Romano-British, who lived inland.* So it is speculated that the Bernician kings set up two seats of royal power, one in Bamburgh to govern the Anglo-Saxons, and one in Yeavering, to address the native British population.
This theory of two distinct populations has some merit, but I’m not sure they were as clearly separated as that theory might imply, especially by the 7th century, when the Anglo-Saxons had been in England for a couple of hundred years. However, we do know that Yeavering was an important site for the Bernician kings. How do we know this? Because Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the British People, tells us so. He records that King Edwin of Bernicia, shortly after his conversion to Christianity in AD 627, brought the priest Paulinus to his “royal seat” at Yeavering, where he preached to the local population with the result of many conversions and subsequent baptisms in the nearby River Glen.
In 1949, following an unusually dry summer, some aerial photographs were taken of the area which gave some hints that this might be the location of the Anglo-Saxon settlement mentioned by Bede. The surrounding landscape fit perfectly with Bede’s account as well. So in 1952 archeological work began on the site, with a rich result.
Foundations of numerous buildings were excavated (ie post holes showing where the buildings were built and how large they were) as well as evidence of a large enclosure (presumably for cattle or livestock), a possible pagan temple, and a couple of burial sites.
There are two structures in particular that are very interesting. One is the Great Hall. This was a massive building, about 80 feet long and 40 feet wide. It also must have been very tall, as the posts were set into the ground eight feet deep. Possibly a second floor? We can’t say for sure. It had partitions at both ends of the building, giving two ante-chambers within.
Clearly this was a mead hall as described in Beowulf, the place for feasting and the giving and receiving of tribute, where the ale would flow and alliances made and broken. Here the kings would stay with their retinue for some time out of the year, doing the work of kingship.
The other interesting structure found at Yeavering is unique, in that a similar structure has never been found in any other Anglo-Saxon sites (yet!). It was a small amphitheatre of sorts, made out of wood, which could accommodate up to three hundred people. It faces a small stage area which had a curved wall built behind it, presumably to focus the sound from the speaker upwards to the seated audience. There is some speculation that this was built for Paulinus in his initial work of conversions, and later used by kings as a place to meet and discuss with the nobles the business of the kingdom. Historians are not exactly sure, but it is an amazing structure all the same, don’t you think?
The kings of Bernicia, like all Anglo-Saxon kings, would have spent much time throughout the year going on tours of their kingdoms, gathering tribute from the people and acting as judges over disputes. It is clear, both from Bede’s comment and from the archeological evidence, that Yeavering, along with Bamburgh, was one of the places that kings would live for part of the year, a major seat of kingly power, where the ale flowed liberally in the mead hall and the people could meet with their king.
Today the area where the settlement stood is a plowed field, a humble strip of land for hiding such a storied piece of history.
*Of course there were also the Celts, who more or less did their own thing on the furthest west and north of the island
Featured image is of the Great Hall and the grand enclosure at Yeavering, from pastperfect.org