The UK news today is dominated by a meeting between the UK prime minister and the Scottish first minister about the possibility of Scotland declaring independence. There is much talk of the 1707 Act of Union, and of James VI/I, but in fact the first union between the English and the Scots was negotiated right here in Cumbria on 12thJuly, 927CE.
At this point in history, it wasn’t about England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. There was Mercia and Wessex; Northumbria and Dublin; Strathclyde and Cumbria; the Scots; various Welsh provinces and a whole lot more. There was no concept of a combined Britain, never mind UK. The man to change all this was the saxon king Athelstan. Grandson of King Alfred the Great (who burned the cakes) and son of Edward the Elder, Athelstan achieved a messy succession to his father’s kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex in southern and central England in 924/5CE. Perhaps it was his difficulties here which made him ambitious, or nervous, about his northern neighbours; within a year, he’d arranged the marriage of his sister Eadgyth to Sihtric Cáech, the viking king of Northumbria, and converted him to christianity. But Athelstan’s cunning plan didn’t quite go as he hoped as Sihtric renounced both his wife and his new religion soon afterwards. Things started to look better for Athelstan when Sihtric died within a year, and his heirs fled north. Athelstan claimed Northumbria for himself.It’s easy to imagine how that went down with Northumbria’s neighbours to the north and west. Records are poor for this period, but it seems that the northern and western rulers agreed to sign a peace treaty with Athelstan at Eamont Bridge in 927CE. They pledged not to support non-christian kingdoms, which meant they couldn’t ally with the vikings who still held or claimed kingdoms in Northumbria, York and Dublin. The signatories included King Owain of Strathclyde and Cumbria, Constantine, King of the Scots, Hywel Dda of Deheubarth (southwest Wales) and Ealdred, a noble from Bamburgh.
They met by the River Eamont, in central eastern Cumbria, on the pre-1974 Cumberland and Westmorland border and the southernmost edge of Owain’s territory. There’s some debate about the exact location, with suggestions it might have been at the monastery at Dacre or the Roman site at Brougham but it seems most likely that it took place at the ancient crossing place or pen rhyd at the village of Eamont Bridge, a mile to the south of Penrith.
Eamont Bridge is a strange place these days, a little left behind by modern development despite a rash of new housing. It has a main street with 17th and 18th century cottages fronting closely onto the main A6 through the Eden Valley; its recent history as a refreshment stop for the coaching trade is apparent in pubs too large for this small settlement. There’s a busy mini roundabout where the tourist traffic hangs a left towards Ullswater, then the remaining cars are funnelled over the narrow bridge at the northern edge of the village. Up the slope there is a large, busy roundabout with the A66, and a hideous modern fried chicken place that marks the edge of Penrith.
But Eamont Bridge has the most illustrious and ancient of histories, with several prehistoric sites. The fields to the left before the Ullswater turning are, in fact, a pair of impressive Scheduled Ancient Monuments. Mayburgh Henge is a 117m-diameter neolithic or Bronze Age earthwork with a 6.5m bank and a single massive monolith nearly 2m high. Right next door is King Arthur’s Round Table – which has absolutely nothing to do with King Arthur! – a 90m-diameter neolithic henge which once had several standing stones. A third henge to the south was destroyed in the 19th century.
Today, Eamont Bridge may be the last set of traffic lights before Penrith. In the prehistoric period, it was probably the biggest ceremonial complex in Cumbria, or possibly even the north of England. Was the meeting held here in 927CE because it was on Owain’s border, or did it still hold echoes of its impressive past?
It’s possible that the Cumbrians and Scots got off lightly in their treaty with Athelstan. Shortly after Eamont Bridge, Athelstan arranged a meeting with the remaining Welsh kings at Hereford, and compelled them to pay an annual tribute of vast quantities of gold and silver, oxen, and hunting dogs and birds.
But Athelstan didn’t have it all his own way. Seven years after Eamont Bridge, Constantine of the Scots rebelled. Athelstan sent his army and fleet north – some say as far as Caithness – to defeat Constantine’s army, and it seems likely (although we have no record) that Owain suffered the same in Cumbria and Strathclyde. Certainly we know that immediately after the northern campaign in 934CE, both kings were based in the south at Athelstan’s court, co-signing paperwork as vassals of their saxon overlord.
This was when Athelstan decided he was ‘King of all the Britons’, adding the words rex totius Britanniae to his coinage.
That still wasn’t the end, though. There was a famously vicious battle at Brunanburh in 937CE, when Athelstan went to war against Owain, Constantine and Olaf of York and Dublin. Five kings and seven earls were killed, including Owain and some of Constantine’s sons.
Even after that, the Cumbrians refused to lie down and accept saxon dominance. In 945CE, Owain’s heir, Dunmail, led an army against Athelstan’s half-brother, Edmund. Dunmail lost, and went into exile. And the Scots? Constantine’s heir, King Malcolm of the Scots, changed his kingdom’s allegiances – perhaps he saw the writing on the wall – and sided with Edmund, the English king, in return for overlordship of their old friends’ territory in Strathclyde and Cumbria.
These things are never simple, it seems.
See Athelstan, the First King of England by Sarah Foot (2011) pp 160-185
See The Men of the North by Tim Clarkson (2010) pp 175-189
See Prehistoric Cumbria by David Barrowclough (2010) pp 119-125