Dominant Northumbria

The monasteries founded by Columbanus in France and Italy inspired many others to follow in his footsteps. Many Irishmen followed him to the continent either in self-exile, or as a religious penance. It was very different for the English, who, according to Bede, were inspired by Egbert to go abroad to save their Germanic cousins from paganism.

Egbert was a Northumbrian who lived in Ireland for years. At his suggestion, Wihtbert and Willibrord went to convert the Frisians in the Netherlands and North Germany. Also at his instigation, two men called Hewald, went to convert the Saxons.

The most notable English missionary was Boniface. He was a West Saxon who reorganised the central German and Bavarian church, and thrn led the reform of the Frankish church. In 751, Boniface presided at the coronation and anointed the first Frankish king, later called the Carolingians. Boniface was murdered in 754 by a band of Frisians.

Northumbria was not as powerful in the early eighth century as it once had been. The defeat of King Ecgfrith’s army at the hands of the Picts at Nechtansmere (Dunnichen, in Angus) in 685 quashed their northern expansion. The increasing powers of Mercia in the south also curbed ambitions in that direction.

Nevertheless, Northumbria’s position at the crossroad between Ireland, England and Rome delivered much:

  • In the seventh century Benedict Biscop, the founder of Bede’s monastery of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, near Tyne and Wear, travelled to Europe to collect books on five occasions. He created a stunning library, which was rumoured to be one of the best libraries ‘north of the Alps’.
  • Indeed Bede’s role as one of the greatest scholars in Europe in the early eighth century, is probably thanks, in part, to the works of Biscop to create such a library.
  • Northumbria produced outstanding works of sculpture, like the Ruthwell Cross in Dumfries and Galloway, and the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels’, which is recognised as one of the most beautiful books of all time.
  • It also produced Cædmon, the first known English poet of the time, who lived on the estates of the monastery of Whitby in North Yorkshire.
  • Alcuin of York, a scholar and Latin poet, who was recruited in 782 by Charlemagne, king of the Franks, to lead the educational revival on the continent, also hailed from Northumbria.