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Welsh History Review


Vol. 17, nos. 1-4 1994-95

The Kingdom of Northumbria, A.D.350-1100. Book review.

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THE KINGDOM OF NORTHUMBRIA, A.D. 350-1100. By N. J. Higham. Alan Sutton;
Stroud, 1993. Pp. 296. £ 25.00.
This is a sumptuous publication, worthy of a great historical region within Britain
which was home to the golden age of Northumbrian Christianity and the Scandinavian
kingdom of York. Books like this rarely succeed at all levels, and Dr. Higham's
magnificent pictures and informative captions are not matched by a text which reveals
a scholarly familiarity with all aspects of this vast subject. This cannot be entirely
attributed as a criticism of the author, since it would be impossible for one scholar to
unravel the mysteries of sub-Roman settlement patterns, explain the complexities
behind the Synod of Whitby and successfully grapple with Scottish involvement in
Anglian affairs of the eleventh century. Dr. Higham's strengths lie in his unique
understanding of settlements and landscapes, and as a historical geographer he has
valuable insights to offer those early medieval historians who concentrate on political
and diplomatic to the exclusion of ancillary disciplines. But the author's own
excursions into political history too frequently have an unhappy outcome. He is indeed
correct in stating that decisions at the Synod of Whitby were driven by political
considerations (p. 135), but pronouncements that Eanfled, daughter of King Edwin,
was 'raised as a Roman Christian' (p. 134) appear to betray a misunderstanding of the
basis of the ecclesiastical disagreements and suggest-quite wrongfully-that there
were two separate Christian churches involved in the dispute. When we were told that
Æthelflæd's daughter 'held the Crown (sic)' of Mercia in 918 (p. 186), we are made
aware of the author's lack of familiarity with the complex issue of the nature of
Mercian autonomy in the reign of Edward the Elder. Dr. Higham's location of the site
of the all-important battle of Brunanburh in Cheshire (p. 193) takes no account of
detailed studies carried out independently by Michael Wood, Cyril Hart and myself on
this subject. Although we have all reached different conclusions on points of detail, we
are agreed on a location east and south of the Pennines and with all the implications
that has for the relationship of Scandinavian York with the Southern Danelaw. The
throw-away suggestion that Healfdene, leader of the Great Army of Danes, might have
been slain in Devon in 877 (pp. 180-81) is an error, presumably based on a misreading
of secondary material on this subject. It was not Healfdene, but rather his brother,
who was slain in Devon, and the year is more likely to have been 878 rather than 877.
This book is weak on bibliography-a serious shortcoming in a survey covering eight
centuries of history which is devoid of footnotes. Some important works are ignored
altogether. Others are cited with insufficient or inconsistent detail, and others such as
an enigmatic History of the Kings are cited in the text (p. 153) without any indication
as to whether we are dealing with a work attributed to Symeon of Durham, Geoffrey
of Monmouth, William of Malmesbury, or some other medieval writer.
With these harsh but necessary comments behind us, it needs to be stressed that this
book does have its strengths, and when the author returns to his sure ground of
settlement and place-name studies, he supplies the student of medieval Northumbria
with a series of maps and perceptive commentary which lead him step by step up the
precarious ladder of cultural sequence from Roman to Norman. Dr. Higham's
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