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In the shadow of the mighty Yeavering Bell hillfort to the south was built one of Northumbria’s ancient royal palaces, Ad Gefrin. This was around 580-600AD, a little before the dawn of the kingdom’s ‘Golden Age’. Within a century or so it had been abandoned, but enough of it remained for it to be dramatically rediscovered in the late 20th century and identified as one of England’s most significant Anglo-Saxon sites.
Yeavering had long been a centre of attraction for Northumbria’s early settlers. From the Stone Age to the end of the Iron Age, its hillfort had been the subject of reverence. We’re not quite sure what became of this lofty settlement during the Roman period (by which time it was falling out of use), but when the legions had gone and were replaced by new invaders from the continent, the Angles, the area was to make a spectacular return to prominence.
Such was the strength of the collective memory in these parts that the new palace of the Anglian royal family was given the name Ad Gefrin, a clear corruption of the old Yeavering placename. It wasn’t a permanent abode for the top brass, but more of a temporary affair – with the king travelling his kingdom non-stop, dispensing justice and favours and collecting rents as he went. It is thought that a place such as Ad Gefrin may have been utilised once or twice a year. Perhaps the most famous of these stop-overs was when King Edwin, following his marriage to a Christian princess, invited a Roman missionary up from Kent in 627AD to baptise most of the local population. At Ad Gefrin there appears to have been a huge Main, or Great, Hall, a theatre, several specialist outbuildings (some of them very large) and a ‘great enclosure’.
The writings of Bede, compiled a few years after Ad Gefrin passed into history (probably before 700AD), kept the loose story of the famous old site alive for the ensuing millennia or so. Then, with the development of aerial photography in the mid-twentieth century, traces began to be unearthed of the site and the pieces were gradually put back together. During 1953-62 extensive archaeological work brought the palace back from the dead, and it was obvious to all concerned that this was a major discovery. Bede’s famed Ad Gefrin had been found.
As well as the size of the buildings and the extent of the site, it is apparent that the royal complex was built into an existing landscape of occupation. There is even a suggestion that the Christian temple which was found had most probably been converted from a pagan equivalent. The experts reckon, too, that the site may have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt twice during its relatively short lifetime. In time, though, the rulers thought it best to move on, and the magnificent venue at Yeavering was left to rot.
See also the official website.