Alnham : The Early Medieval Period
Little is known of settlement patterns in the Northumbrian uplands in the centuries following the collapse of Roman imperial authority. It is likely that the enclosed farmsteads which were such a feature of rural settlement in the preceding period, continued to be occupied well into the early medieval era, but diagnostic dating evidence is lacking.
The first piece of firm evidence relating to the development of Alnham itself is provided by the large quoins (corner stones), at the NE and SE corners of the nave in St Michael's Church (see Ryder: The Church of St Michael the Archangel for more detail). Their size and form is characteristic of Anglo-Saxon construction, demonstrating that there was already a church on this site by the 11th century or even earlier. This church or chapel may have been founded by the local lord to serve an extensive upland estate perhaps coterminous with the later parish. Alternatively the building may have been established and owned by a line of hereditary priests.
Many medieval parish churches are thought to have begun life as estate chapels established by local landowners during the 9th - 11th centuries, with the possible result that the parishes associated with those churches may, effectively, have fossilised the boundaries of the original estates (cf. Winchester 1987, 13, 22-7).
Alnham does not fall into the toponymic pattern observable in the case of the parochial centres of Redesdale and North Tynedale which all have toponyms incorporating personal names, e.g. Elsdon (Ellesden in the earliest sources, i.e. Elli's or perhaps Aelf's valley), Corsenside (Crossensete, i.e. Crossan's, saetr, combining an Irish personal name with the Norse term for hill pasture; Beckensall 1992; Mawer 1920, 55, 74) or Simonburn ('Simondeburn' in 1228-9, i.e., Sigemund's burn; Mawer 1920, 180).
In such cases it is tempting to infer that such place names preserve some memory of early estate holders. Nevertheless the presence of Saxon architectural features in the church not only confirms the latter's antiquity, but also strongly implies that the site of Alnham was already established as the centre of the surrounding district before the Norman Conquest.
One other feature associated with the church is noteworthy. Reference was made above to the ditch along the east edge of the churchyard. The church stands on westward sloping summit of a rounded ridge which separates the river Aln from an almost parallel tributary. The broad flat-bottomed trench effectively cuts off the west end of this ridge. A possible causeway interrupting the ditch has been recognised opposite the east end of the church.
The apparent terracing on the other sides may, however, have been accentuated by the typical build up of the level of the churchyard and was perhaps nothing like as pronounced originally. Nevertheless the evidence that the church was located within some kind of ditched enclosure at the west end of the ridge remains intriguing.
If the suggestion that this was a Roman fortlet can now be rejected, an alternative possibility that the ditch represents a defensive enclosure around the original church and an associated late-Saxon thegn's hall is more interesting. It has also been suggested that it could represent some kind of late-medieval defensive work (a ditched barmkin?) enclosing both the church and the adjacent vicar's tower (SMR no. 1339). However no trace of such a combined enclosure is shown on Norton's map of Alnham Township in 1619, where the roughly square churchyard is very clear.