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Finding Ad Murum

By Luan Hanratty
Ad Gefrin at Yeavering. The power base for Bernician kings, near Bamburgh. Ad Murum was the Deiran equivalent. Drawing by Peter Dunn

The only mention in history of the Anglo-Saxon palace of Ad Murum (At-the Wall) is from the Venerable Bede, and its whereabouts has baffled antiquaries for centuries.

“He [Prince Paeda of Mercia] was therefore baptised by Bishop Finan, together with all who had come with him, the earls and soldiers, and all their servants, in the village of the illustrious king [Oswy], which is called At-the-Wall“, and having received four priests, who seemed qualified both by learning and life to teach and baptise his people, he returned with much joy.”

[…]

“they [the court or Sigeberht, King of Essex] all agreed and gave their approval, and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the royal villa above spoken of, which is called “At-the-Wall”, for it is near the wall with which the Romans once enclosed the island of Britain, at a distance of twelve miles from the eastern sea.”

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Book III, Ch. XXI-XXII (731). NB: This is a precise translation. Beware of the plethora of fuzzy and spurious versions of this and other passages from Bede.

King Oswald began converting Northumbria to Christianity after his victory at the Battle of Heavenfield, near Hexham in 634. In order to do this, Oswald brought over the Irish priest Aidan, and based him at Lindisfarne. Successive Northumbrian kings used force and coercion to bring the other English kingdoms to the new religion.

Aidan had been close friends with Oswald’s successor, King Oswin, who later became Saint Oswin, the patron saint of Tynemouth and Wylam. The pious King Oswin had, according to 16th century antiquary John Leland, been born at the former Roman fort at South Shields, which was at that time called Caer Urfa.

Northumbria was at this time split into its two constituent halves, Bernicia and Deira, with Oswin ruling over the southern portion, Deira, possibly from Ad Murum. While Oswin had a powerful spiritual ally in Aidan, he was a feeble ruler and his cousin Oswy, who ruled north of the Tyne, from Ad Gefrin, had him tracked down, betrayed and slain. In order to atone for his sins, Oswy fervently progressed Christianity throughout the country, particularly after defeating and killing the more powerful pagan King of Mercia, Penda, at the battle of Winwaed in 655. This made Oswy pre-eminent in Britain. Oswy later instituted the Synod of Whitby to consolidate the Church and bind his power.

Northumbria around 700

Oswy did a lot in his short reign. According to Bede, above, he lived at a village called At-the Wall. It was at this palace in 653 that he received Penda’s heir, Paeda, along with his court, to be baptised by Aidan’s successor, Finan. Incidentally, it is said to be the later defeated, Paeda, whose treasure was unearthed as the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009.

In the second passage from Bede, King Sigeberht ‘the Good’ is also baptised at the palace, also in 653. Sigeberht was King of the East Saxons and regularly visited his chief, Oswy, in Northumbria, whereby he was eventually persuaded to return his kingdom to the faith.

Where was At-the-Wall?

The location of Ad Murum has baffled antiquaries for centuries. Several candidates along the north side of the Tyne Valley have been proposed for being both near the Wall and supposedly 12 miles from the sea:

  1. Medieval village of Pandon, just outside Newcastle (Saxon ‘Monkchester’). An argument for this location was made by Gray (1649), Brand (1789) and Bruce (1863).
    (8 Roman miles from the sea as the crow flies. 11 by river.)
  1. Monkchester itself. Perhaps the site of St Andrew’s Church. Mackenzie (1827)
    (9 Roman miles miles from the sea as the crow flies. 12 by river.)
  1. Denton Burn, possibly on the site of Denton Hall. Auth., speculative based on the actual distance from the sea.
    (12 Roman miles from sea as the crow flies.)
  1. Walbottle (meaning ‘wall dwelling’), on the western border of Newcastle and Northumberland. This seems to be the most commonly proffered opinion, including by Craster (1914) et al.
    (15 Roman miles miles from the sea as the crow flies. 20 by river.)
  1. Newburn, was possibly a key Roman port. Auth., speculative based on Horsley’s (1732) description of ‘Castle-steeds’ in the vicinity.
    (15 Roman miles miles from the sea as the crow flies. 20 by river.)
  1. Heddon-on-the-Wall, a mile to the west of Walbottle and a mile east of the wall fort Vindobala (Rudchester). A persuasive argument for this location was written by Bates (1886).
    (16 Roman miles miles from the sea as the crow flies.)
  1. Rudchester, the hamlet immediately south of Vindobala fort. Longstaffe (1860).
    (16 Roman miles miles from the sea as the crow flies.)
  1. Medieval village of Welton, north west of Horsley. Camden (1586).
    (21 Roman miles miles from the sea as the crow flies. South of Milecastle 17.)

Yet none of these places have definitively yielded the site of the palace. In order to penetrate this question, Bede’s statements and background need further examination. Where did he consider the sea to begin?

Bede was from Jarrow and he lived there all of his life, within sight of the sea, and next to a large tidal lake at the mouth of the River Don. This was later known as Jarrow Slake and is now mostly built over. In Bede’s day it was called Egfrtih’s Port after the king and son of Oswy, who helped to found and support the monastery where Bede resided.

Map of the River Tyne from Heddon in the west to the North Sea in the east. It gives an idea of the scale and tidal nature of Jarrow Slake, albeit 1000 years after the period.

Close by this practically coastal peninsula at Jarrow, was Wallsend, across the river and in plain sight. On the subject of the Roman Wall and its terminus, Bede wrote the following two descriptions:

“Thus Severus drew a great ditch and strong rampart, fortified with several towers, from sea to sea

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Book I, Ch. V (731)

“[the departing Romans] thinking that it might be some help to the allies [Britons], whom they were forced to abandon, constructed a strong stone wall from sea to sea, in a straight line between the towns that had been there built for fear of the enemy, where Severus also had formerly built a rampart.”

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Book I, Ch. XII (731)

Clearly, Bede believed the Wall began at the sea. This was a time when the Tyne was far wider and far more tidal than today. Therefore, in plotting 12 miles from the end of the Wall as the crow flies, we get to the coincidentally placed, Milecastle 12 on Hadrian’s Wall, at Heddon-on-the-Wall.

The small village of Heddon features a church dedicated to St Andrew, adjacent to the site of the Milecastle. The church forms the centrepiece of the village and sits high on a mound with commanding views of the Tyne Valley. St Andrew’s is said to date from the 7th century.

The name ‘Heddon’, originates from ‘He Dun’, meaning ‘High Fort’, indicating an Iron Age stronghold, while a host of prehistoric discoveries nearby as good as confirm this. The general area upwards from the river between Newburn and Wylam to the collection of hills surrounding Heddon, seems to have been a notable place of ancient activity.

St Andrew’s at Heddon-on-the-Wall is, I believe, where the royal baptisms took place in 653. But where was Oswy’s royal residence at Ad Murum? Was it beside the church or somewhere a short distance away?

In the second part of this post, I will make the case for a new site for the royal village.

Part 2 to Follow

References

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Book III, Ch. XXI-XXII (731)

William Gray, Chorographia, p26 (cf. p. 37) (1649)

John Brand, The History and Antiquities of the Town and County of Newcastle, p382-384 (1789)

John Collingwood Bruce, Handbook to Newcastle, p5 (1863)

Eneas Mackenzie, A Descriptive and Historical Account of the Town & County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Including the Borough of Gateshead, p5-6 (1827)

HHE Craster, History of Northumberland, Vol 10, p28-29 (1914)

John Horsley, Britannia Romana, p138 (1732)

Cadwallader J. Bates, Archaeologia Aeliana, Vol. 11, p240-294 (1886)

Longstaffe, Archaeologia Aeliana, Series 2. Vol 4, p56 (1860)

William Camden, Britannia, p1054-1058, 1087 (1586)

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