Legacy of Arthur paves the way for birth of Mitford

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An article by Andrew Breeze in the current edition of Northern History throws a new light on King Arthur.

According to Breeze, Arthur was not a king, nor a purely mythical character. He was a Strathclyder.

In 535, a huge volcanic eruption in the Americas blocked out the sun. Crops failed all around the Northern Hemisphere, and for the next two years people resorted to desperate measures to survive.

Arthur fought 13 battles across southern Scotland and into Cumberland and Northumberland, either to defend his people, or to steal cattle from other tribes, and was killed in a raid at a place called Camlan.

The capital of Strathclyde was Dumbarton. Camlan was probably Castlesteads, near Brampton, 100 miles away. Strathclyde was absorbed into the Kingdom of Scotland, and while cattle rustling and sheep stealing still went on on both sides of the border, the worst offenders became the Galwegians of Dumfries and Galloway.

The coastal lowlands of Northumberland and County Durham needed protection against two main threats — a military one from the Scots in the north, and cattle raiding by the Galwegians and others to the west.

In Northumbria's heyday, this was achieved by occupying the Lothians, the Merse (the lower Tweed valley) and Cumbria.

But after that came a slow decline, hastened by the Viking raids and ending in 954 with the death of Eric Bloodaxe. Northumbria became part of Wessex, but was never completely assimilated, being governed by earls, rather than by royal sheriffs.

Northumbria being semi-independent, William the Conqueror found it completely ungovernable. In 1069 he laid waste to Yorkshire and parts of Northumberland and Durham, and built castles at Newcastle and Durham. This did not solve the underlying problems.

First was the hostile peasantry. Their leaders had fled so they were unlikely to rebel, but they had neither love nor loyalty for the Normans.

Secondly, the most valuable districts, the coastal lowlands, were open to attack from the Scots in the north.

Finally, there was what William Kappelle, in The Norman Conquest of the North, 1979, calls the Free Zone, meaning the desolate high ground to the west.

It was inhabited by brigands and outlaws, and was a porous frontier through which the Galwegians could raid the settled communities of the eastern lowlands.

William died in 1087 leaving all three problems unresolved, but his son, William II, solved them up to a point.

He entered into a diplomatic friendship with Edgar, King of Scots (1097-1107), thus securing his northern frontier, and built Carlisle Castle to guard against the incursions of the Galwegians. Even to do this, however, he had to import settlers in order to create a reasonably loyal and reliable population in the surrounding area.

The baronies of Bywell, Callerton and Morpeth may date from this time, but William died in 1100, to be followed by his brother Henry.

Henry I realised that the way to secure Northumberland was to create a resident aristocracy. He chose obscure men of both Norman and Anglo-Saxon descent. Owing as they did their power and wealth to him, they were hardly likely to rebel, but got on with securing their newly granted estates.

And this brings us to Mitford. Essentially, it owes its existence to Henry I.

As our sketch-map shows, his network of baronial castles gave him defence in depth against the Scots, and at least partial cover against the outlaws and Galwegians coming out of the Free Zone.

The Tyne corridor was secured by Carlisle, Bywell, Prudhoe and Newcastle.

Mitford, Morpeth and Bothal on the Wansbeck formed a middle belt, opposing movements from both north and west.

Alnwick and Warkworth did the same on the Aln and Coquet, and Wark and Norham guarded the Tweed.

This, then, is why Mitford is where it is. The castle controlled the ford across the Wansbeck and was the first line of defence against incursions from the west.

The author of the leaflet on Mitford church, probably following Arthur Mee’s The King’s England, says that the castle was destroyed in 1318 by Alexander III of Scotland. But since Alexander III died in 1286, this is clearly wrong.

As to 1318, Hodgson, quoting Leland, says: “It was beten downe by the kinge; for one ser Gilbert Middleton robbyd a cardinall, and fled to his castle of Mitford.”

And in 1323 it was said to be “entirely destroyed and burnt”.

With the castle gone, the people moved away. The land there is low-lying and damp, whereas the present village is on rising ground and consequently better drained. It also stands on a road that goes somewhere, whereas the old site is quite secluded and out of the way.

The decline in population led to the north and south aisles of the church being demolished some time later in the 14th century, and in 1705 the nave was damaged by fire. It remained roofless for the next century, and was not fully restored until 1874.