Kingdoms and Norse Settlers AD 410 - 1092

by Emma Bray

Banner Image: Herdwick in cotton grass © Gordon Lightburn

Celtic Kingdoms

The lack of written evidence from this period makes it difficult to understand precisely what happened historically. After the Romans retreated from England in 410AD, several Celtic kingdoms emerged, the most powerful being Rheged. It has been assumed that this was centred on modern Cumbria, but there is a lack of archaeological evidence and recent excavations in Galloway have suggested that the centre of power may have been further north. Rheged’s most famous king was Urien who, by legend, married King Arthur’s daughter. Urien is said to have driven back Anglo-Saxon invaders, but by 630 AD Cumbria had been absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Around 945 AD, Cumbria was incorporated into the Kingdom of Strathclyde when the Kings of England and Scotland joined forces and defeated King Dunmail at Dunmail Raise.

Christian missionaries

It is thought that the Christian religion was spread in Cumbria by missionaries from the fifth century AD. Legend has it that St Patrick passed through Patterdale in this period and that the place name is derived from his visit – St Patrick’s Dale – although this is not certain. The historian Bede left written evidence of a monastery in Dacre. The date of its foundation is not known, but his chronicle records its existence by 728 when, Bede wrote, a priest called Thrythred possessed a piece of St Cuthbert’s hair which cured a monk who would otherwise have gone blind.


St. Patrick' window, courtesy of Patterdale TODAY

Norse Settlers

By the early 900s, peaceful Norse settlers began to arrive from Ireland and the Isle of Man. They favoured the upland areas which had not previously been colonised, generally at a height of around 900 – 1,000 feet. Evidence of colonisation can be found in place names derived from Norse. In Matterdale, for example, Ulcat Row, a linear settlement, may derive from the Norse meaning house where the owls are. The name Ullswater may come from the Norse for Ulf’s Water, Ulf being a Nordic chief, or alternatively from the Norse word Ulf meaning wolf. Many other names associated with the Ullswater landscape are derived from Norse such as beck, dale, force and fell. The word Herdwick, the breed of sheep for which our area is famous, comes from the Norse “herd-vic” meaning the pasture where the sheep are kept. There is genetic evidence that these sheep were brought here by the Norse settlers and were ideally suited to upland grazing.

Herdwick tupp © Jane Firth

Cumbria is not mentioned in the Domesday Book because it was not until 1092 that the Normans began to gain a hold on the region. King Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, took Carlisle at this date and built the castle there marking the start of Norman rule.

by Emma Bray

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