Following 9th century monks as they flee from invading vikings with the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels – and undertake a momentous journey that helps shape England
Norham, supposedly sheltered between the Cheviots to the south and the Lammermuir Hills to the north, where Cuthbert worked as a shepherd boy and saw a vision of Aidan’s soul being born to heaven.
The churchyard, its field of gravestones, as different as the people they stand above, weathered mostly, but strong and proud. Those closest to the church are weathered so much almost nothing can be read on them. I run my finger gently along the flaked stone and return to a gravestone I can read.
In loving memory of Agnes Crosby Davies, wife of William Bruce,
who died at Tweedmouth, 2nd December 1900, aged 22 years.
Daughter of James and Ellen Davidson, late of Norham.
“A few short years of evil last we reach that happy shore,
where death divided friends at last all meet to part no more.”
Eleanor Bell Hand, wife of William Hand, of Horncliff,
who died 11th August 1859, aged 35 years.
Also the above, William Hand, who died 16th February 1901, aged 80 years.
A man who survived his wife by 42 years; let’s hope they are together in peace.
Everywhere; the signs of age, of slow decay, of clinging lichen and sheltering moss holding on for dear life. A hardiness and a beauty, while gunshots of a different kind echo in the hills around us, rupturing reminders of the wars and carnage that destroyed so many lives in this now tranquil village. Inside the church we go, huge and impressive, its stately pillars, dominant arches and amazing stained glass windows showing how important Norham was. There’s no one about. We wander upstairs, climb a spiral staircase that leads from the kitchen to a window of St Cuthbert carrying St Oswald’s head, and another of St Aidan, a modern day cobweb hanging from his neck, captured flies that have given up the struggle.
Norham was given to the See of Lindisfarne by King Oswald. The Community of St Cuthbert seemed to have moved temporarily to Norham around 830, forty five years earlier than their final leaving, because of Viking raids. Up to the castle we walk, built as a border stronghold in the 12th century by the Bishop of Durham, tiny windows to my left created to defend the crossing of the River Tweed that loops underneath it and past the village. Aidan would have crossed the Tweed down there, Cuthbert too, as they walked through the countryside and villages to their new calling. It was the usual route for monks and clerics, for travellers and pilgrims, and soldiers too.
This castle was captured by Scotland a number of times, razed to the ground in its wooden infancy by King David in 1138, its far hardier stone substitute besieged and blockaded on numerous occasions, sometimes for more than a year. Norham was once called ‘the most dangerous place in England.’ In 1513, James VI invaded England, capturing Norham and other castles along the way. Henry VIII was out ‘campaigning’ in France. And it was this invasion that would lead to the disastrous Battle of Flodden, where James would lose his life in conflict, the last British King to do so on British soil, and where he would be joined on that marshy battleground by thousands upon thousands of his men. And when the Anglo–Scottish wars finished, they left behind not peace, but the environment they’d fostered, lawlessness of a tribal kind, the cattle raids and rampaging of the Border Reivers.
I’m sat on the grass on top of Branxton Hill and it’s blowing a gale up here. In front of me are beautiful curves; undulating gently down in delicate green and then upwards through smooth ploughed fields. A line of trees straight from a horror movie or creepy cartoon slice upwards and divide the view into two halves. They look as if they should be full of ravens’ nests, shrieking and mocking visitors as they make their way up to a haunted castle at the top. But there’s just a small farmhouse on the flat summit before us.
If there were ravens here, five hundred years ago this September, then they’d have flown away when the two great armies came to clash. The Scottish were surprised and outmanoeuvred. And they were stuck in the marshland too. The English soldiers, marching under the banner of St Cuthbert, massacred fifteen thousand Scots, including King James himself. The Battle of Flodden, in the hills near Norham, was the biggest and most deadly war fought on British soil.
The ravens wouldn’t have had to wait long. Four hours is all it took. The English soldiers would have taken what they could from the dead. And then the ravens would have come down and had their pickings too.