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Post-Roman Britain

The Question of Cumbria

by Mick Baker, 24 April 2007

Personal research has shown that there was much fluidity when using the epithet 'Cumbria'.

The territory was ruled at various times by the Brigantes-descended Romano-British, the Angles, the Scottish, and the English. Some northern British rulers are referred to as kings of Strathclyde, whilst others are referred to as kings of Cumbria.

However, there seems little doubt that Strathclyde, land of the Cumbrians, Cumberland, and Strathclyde-Cumbria are all one and the same place. There are several conclusions which can be reached when studying the available data, along with one or two certainties:

  • South Rheged fell to Æthelfrith of Bernicia in 613.
  • Bernicia merged with Deira in 655 and Rienmelth ferch Royth of the royal house of Rheged married Oswy, the first king of a united Northumbria. This, in effect, drove a wedge of Anglo-Saxon territory between the Strathclyde Welsh and Wales proper.
  • Once the Vikings had taken Northumbria and the old kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira were separated again, the Strathclyde Welsh found a new kinship.
  • However, the English King Edmund (940-946) detached Strathclyde from Norse loyalties in 945, and granted it to Malcolm, king of Scotland, as a vassal state; although in reality Strathclyde had been dependent upon Scotland since 870.
  • Later kings of Strathclyde secured control of Cumberland (and Westmoreland), possibly encouraged by the Bernicians, preferring the protection and patronage of a well-established Christian neighbour to that of Scandinavian powers.
  • There is a smattering of dedications to St Kentigern and a few other British place names in a region which, for three centuries, had been Northumbrian (ie. Anglo-Saxon).
  • Constantine II of Scotland granted Strathclyde-Cumbria to Owen II in 925. From that point on it would appear that the two royal houses were closely connected; kings of Strathclyde often progressing to the senior crown (Indulf, Dubh, Duncan I).
  • Scottish kingship and succession was very complex and it would appear that Strathclyde's succession had become part of this complexity.
  • A further complication arises when one realises that it is entirely possible that Strathclyde's sovereignty extended over Cumberland and Westmoreland for only short periods.
  • It would appear that Strathclyde proper lay to the north of the Solway. After the Battle of Brunanburh (937), Strathclyde could well have abandoned to England all land south of the Solway. Whether this supposition is true or not, the harrying in 945 of this area by the Anglo-Saxons, and its being commended to the Scottish king, make it clear that it was sometimes called Strathclyde, sometimes Cumbria.
  • The supposed existence of two kingdoms would depend only upon the two names and the assumption that Cumbria must lie south of the Solway.
  • A great deal of twelfth century evidence disproves this.

Dunmail Raise cairn
Although probably 'improved' by later generations - the Victorians were notorious for such works - the cairn at Dunmail Raise supposedly marks the burial location of King Dunmail (Donald II) of Strathclyde)

One can safely deduce that Strathclyde-Cumbria was one kingdom even if this kingdom did not always control the entirety of its lands.

From 945 it was a kingdom which was closely allied to Scotland, first as a tributary and later through kinship. It is also accepted that dependence upon Scotland commenced around 870, when the power of the Strathclyde Britons was broken by the Vikings.



Text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature for the History Files.