As we saw in an earlier post, a great deal of controversy still surrounds the exact point in time when a proper urban settlement was first established in the vicinity of Durham. Recent excavation on the site of the Cathedral’s Great Kitchen seems to suggest that some sort of human habitation on the Peninsular itself may be dated to the Roman Period, but thus far we have no definite record of a settlement to which we can put a name.
After the departure of the Roman Legions from Britain, many parts of the country fell into what can best be described as a ‘military anarchy’, with various factions, both foreign and indigenous, competing with one another to establish a basic sort of government. Sir Walter Scott, writing in the opening years of the nineteenth century speaks of this era in his “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border”, published in two volumes in 1802, in the context of the “Gododdin”; described by one of its greatest translators, Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, as “The Oldest Scottish Poem”. “If we may trust the Welsh bards in their account of the wars betwixt the Saxons and Danes of Deira and the Cumraig”, Scott writes, referring directly to the era c.570 A.D., “imagination can hardly form any idea of conflicts more desperate than were maintained on the borders between the ancient British and their Teutonic invaders. Thus the “Gododdin” describes the waste and devastation of mutual havoc in colours so glowing as strongly to recall the words of Tacitus.”
A thousand years or so before these words appeared in print an obscure cleric, generally referred to as Nennius, compiled a volume of collected historical traditions, part fact, part fable, in which these events are likewise referred to. The “Historia Brittonum” is unique in that it forms an indigenous British counterpart to “The Anglo Saxon Chronicle”. And, in a section of Nennius entitled “The Northern History”, we find a series of direct references to the dashing military exploits of King Urien of Rheged, a sixth century British war leader who was the original model for the Sir Uriens of Arthurian Legend.
After a series of tracts proclaiming the genealogies of “The Kings of the Deirans” and “The Kings of the Bernicians”, the principal elements within the incoming Anglo-Saxon population here in the North East at this time, the author then goes on to recount how “Four Kings fought against them, Urien, Rydderch Hen, Gwallawg and Morcant. Theodoric fought vigorously against Urien and his sons. During that time, sometimes the enemy, sometimes the Cymry were victorious and Urien blockaded them for three days and three nights in the island of Lindisfarne. But during this campaign, Urien was assassinated on the instigation of Morcant, from jealousy, because his military skill surpassed that of all the other Kings…….”
After the death of Urien, the British alliance collapsed and the flood of predominantly Anglian invaders rushed in. Elsewhere in Nennius’s book, we are informed of how “….Ida the son of Eobba, held the countries in the north of Britain, that is, north of the Humber Estuary, for twelve years, and joined Din Guaire, to Bernicia, and these two countries became one country, that is, Deur and Berneich, in English, Deira and Bernicia……” Thus, we find a formerly British enclave, referred to here as “Din Guaire”, literally “The Fortress on the River Wear”, being annexed by an early Northumbrian King who is known to have died about the middle of the Sixth Century, and incorporated into the Early Northumbrian Kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia.
So, is the place which is here referred to, in one of the earliest written sources relating to the history of the locality, to be found anywhere in the vicinity of Durham? All that we can say for sure is that the long vanished settlement to which the chronicler here refers is located somewhere in the area presently encompassed by the modern districts of Teesdale and Weardale. The reason for the uncertainty, as we shall see in a future post, is that there are at least two well documented candidate sites for the “Din Guaire” of the chroniclers. Possibly even three. And, as if that wasn’t enough, elsewhere, amongst the vast corpus of Arthurian poetry that has come down to us in the original manuscript collections referred to generally as “The Four Ancient Books of Wales”, we find direct references to an ancient North British stronghold known as “Caer Weir”.
The ardent in song.
I will extoll Baptism,
Baptism, the Grace of God.
The fortresses of Cunedda are
In Caer Weir and Caer Lliwelydd…..”
It is generally accepted that the final sentence of the above given tract refers directly to barbarian attacks on Weardale and Carlisle at the time when the English first arrived in Britain. As for the stronghold of Caer Weir, the exact location of it is still obscure, owing to the general lack of adequately assessed archaeological data at present. The nineteenth century translator, historian and antiquarian William Forbes Skene and others seem to have been generally convinced of it being located in the immediate vicinity of what is now Old Durham, most likely enclosed within the fortifications of the Iron Age camp referred to locally as Maiden Castle.
Old Durham in early Summer as dusk approaches
Maiden Castle itself is an Iron Age fortification of a type generally referred to by archaeologists as a Promontory Fort, standing on a steep hill directly above the remains of what was generally believed in Skene’s time to be the finest example of a Roman villa in Co. Durham. However, more recent assessments of the locality, in line with current advances in the science of Archaeology, have concluded that the evidence available to us is not necessarily as strong as was previously thought. Although it is generally acknowledged that a building with a bath house has been successfully located, the exact context in which the evidence for the bath house needs to be interpreted is still open to speculation. Excavations of another villa at Ingleby Barwick near Stockton-on-Tees, on the other hand, have been considerably more conclusive.
As for Maiden Castle, James Dyer, writing in “The Penguin Guide to Prehistoric England and Wales”, published in 1982, makes similar claims that, thus far, excavations of the site have been similarly inconclusive, only yielding artifacts of Mediaeval origin; although the nineteenth century Durham historian, Robert Surtees of Mainsforth, was to present evidence that some would interpret as contradicting this. It is, however, important to note that during the era of which we speak, large numbers of previously abandoned Iron Age fortifications were reoccupied by the native Britons and used as strongholds from which to repel the invading English.
Late Winter View of Maiden Castle from the A177
As to whether or not Maiden Castle was in any way used for such a purpose at this time is yet to be proven conclusively. What is also certain is that large numbers of Roman villas similar to the one generally believed to have existed at Old Durham are known to have been abandoned after the serious barbarian incursions which took place towards the end of the fourth century, when Hadrian’s Wall was breached in several places. And, the fact that there appears to be no archaeological data suggestive of any sort of reoccupation of many of these sites leaves one to suppose that it is not unreasonable to conclude that the area around Durham may well have been completely abandoned at this time.
The fact that place name evidence is similarly inconclusive might also mean that we could be looking for either one or two possible candidate sites worthy of further investigation, in relation to the specific written sources that have been examined above. Although it is very tempting to identify both Caer Weir and Din Guaire as a single location, and hastily jump to the conclusion that our original sources are referring specifically to Durham, the texts themselves are obscure and refer to events a century or so apart from one another. And, as we shall see in a future post, there are variant interpretations of the poetical and other sources in which King Cunedda, the Ancient British King whose dynasty is associated with Caer Weir in the verses of Taliesin, is himself referred to by name.