The Site - Early Mediaeval

Yeavering in Northumberland is a benchmark site that has exerted a profound influence over narratives for both the late prehistoric and Anglo-Saxon periods. It was one of the first early medieval sites identified through aerial photography and was extensively excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor in the 1950–60s, bringing to light almost unique evidence, at the time, for an Anglo-Saxon royal palace, argued to have operated in the 6th and 7th centuries AD. The site is well-known from the Venerable Bede’s 8th-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People for the description of a royal visit in 627 to the royal township of Adgefrin, during which the Christian missionary Paulinus instructed and baptised, in the river Glen, many people who gathered there from surrounding settlements and places.

Adgefrin has been associated with the hamlet of Yeavering in the parish of Kirknewton since some of the earliest antiquarian accounts of Britain (e.g. Camden), but its actual location was only identified through air photographs in the 1940s. Traces of sub-surface features delineating a series of rectangular ‘hall-like’ buildings could be made out on these early photographs situated on the elevated natural gravel plateau overlooking the floodplain of the River Glen and lying in the shadow of the Cheviot Hills and Yeavering Bell. With a threat of damage posed by the re-opening and exploitation of an adjacent quarry, Hope-Taylor’s excavations started in 1952 and over a decade revealed a complex settlement, with a sequence of great halls, a string of ancillary buildings, a large enclosure, a remarkable timber theatre, four areas of burial, structures thought to represent a pagan temple and a Christian church, all laid out in relation to antecedent, multi-period prehistoric activity and monuments.

Yeavering, brought to life by Hope-Taylor’s in his 1977 publication (link to report on the website), has since captured the imagination of prehistorians and medievalists alike. Through the advances of aerial photography and major field investigations, the site is no longer considered unique but instead recognised as an influential exemplar of a broader phenomenon of elaborate early medieval royal palace complexes founded in England and Scotland, such as Sutton Courteney (Oxfordshire), Lyminge (Kent) as Rhynie in (Aberdeenshire, Scotland).

Yeavering remains significant because of the extensive excavations by Hope-Taylor and later additional work by Anthony Harding in 1976 that have revealed, alongside prehistoric monuments that acted as structuring agents for early medieval activity, an extensive settlement complex. The first early medieval activity, whether post-Roman or Anglian, comprised a number of small structures to the east by the Great Enclosure and a surviving Bronze Age barrow, to the west, focused upon an old henge in the western ring-ditch cemetery and a structure lying to the north of the terrace. The first early medieval graves at Yeavering were dug in relation to a western ring-ditch cemetery and were set out in a radial arrangement around a post-setting, situated within what had been a small henge with standing stones.

This complex acquired a square timber surround or enclosure set within the remains of the henge, although the graves spilled slightly beyond it. Within half a century the settlement developed substantially and emerged as an elaborate 7th-century palace complex with substantial halls and enclosures, ancillary buildings for craftworking and a timber ‘theatre’ connected to assembly practices. A second cemetery, linked to the Western Ring Ditch, was expanded and apparently became associated with a potential church structure after the Great Enclosure had gone out of use. Activity at the site seems to have ended in the 8th century, with Royal power resituated at a larger palatial complex at nearby Milfield. New excavations by Durham University and The Gefrin Trust are adding new information to current understanding of the dating of the complex and the activities that took place in and around its timber structures.

Yeavering, remarkable in itself as a complex of multiple Anglo-Saxon buildings and activity areas and several phases of development, with grand, palatial structures, is located in a local landscape well known for additional rich evidence of early medieval settlement activity. This has been located largely by aerial photography although recent additional discoveries have been made as a result of large-scale open area soil stripping in advance of development. Within the environs, settlements of early medieval date include Yeavering and Milfield, Thirlings and Cheviot Quarry. Settlement evidence ranges from sunken-featured buildings at Cheviot Quarry with post-built buildings, to the nearby excavation at Thirlings of an unenclosed settlement comprising some 12 timber hall structures of typical early medieval form in use during the 7th century.

Milfield, known through aerial photography and excavation, has a density of prehistoric but also early medieval features. Numerous markings indicate huts and halls and excavations focused on the Milfield North and South henges and produced evidence for furnished early medieval burials activity of the 6th/7th centuries AD.