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The emergence and transformation of medieval Cumbria
By Fiona Edmonds
The Scottish Historical Review, Volume 93, Number 2, 2014
Introduction: The Cumbrian kingdom is one of the more shadowy polities of early medieval northern Britain. Our understanding of the kingdom’s history is hampered by the patchiness of the source material, and the few texts that shed light on the region have proved difficult to interpret.
A particular point of debate is the interpretation of the terms ‘Strathclyde’ and ‘Cumbria’, a matter that has periodically drawn comment since the 1960s. Some scholars propose that the terms were applied interchangeably to the same polity, which stretched from Clydesdale to the Lake District. Others argue that the terms applied to different territories: Strathclyde was focused on the Clyde Valley whereas Cumbria/Cumberland was located to the south of the Solway.
The debate has significant implications for our understanding of the extent of the kingdom(s) of Strathclyde/Cumbria, which in turn affects our understanding of politics across tenth- and eleventh-century northern Britain. It is therefore worth revisiting the matter in this article, and I shall put forward an interpretation that escapes from the dichotomy that has influenced earlier scholarship.
I shall argue that the polities known as ‘Strathclyde’ and ‘Cumbria’ were connected but not entirely synonymous: one evolved into the other. In my view, this terminological development was prompted by the expansion of the kingdom of Strathclyde beyond Clydesdale.
Photo: Cumbrian cairn, looking at the cliffs of Little and Great Carrs / Wikimedia Commons