The area was once part of the Roman Empire and as Northumberland it was the scene of many wars between England and Scotland. As evidence of its violent history, Northumberland has more castles than any other county in England, including the castles of Alnwick, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Warkworth.

The region of present-day Northumberland once formed the core of the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia, which was later united with Deira south of the River Tees to form the kingdom of Northumbria. The historical boundaries of Northumbria under King Edwin stretched from the Humber in the south to the Forth in the north, though it was reduced to having its traditional northern border of the River Tweed after the area from the Tweed to the Forth was ceded to the Kingdom of Scotland in 1018, including Lothian, the region which contains Edinburgh. Northumberland is often called the "cradle of Christianity" in England, because it was on Lindisfarne, a tidal island north of Bamburgh, also called Holy Island, that Christianity flourished when monks from Iona were sent to convert the English. Lindisfarne was the home of the Lindisfarne Gospels and Saint Cuthbert, who is buried in Durham Cathedral.

Bamburgh is the historic capital of Northumberland, the "royal" castle from before the unification of England under one monarch. In contemporary times, although Northumberland County Council's offices are in Alnwick and Morpeth contest which of the two is the county town.

The Earldom of Northumberland was briefly held by the Scottish Royal Family via marriage from 1139-1157 and 1215-1217. Scotland relinquished all claims to the region as part of the Treaty of York. The Earls of Northumberland once wielded significant power in English affairs because, as the Marcher Lords, they were entrusted with protecting England from Scottish invasion.

Northumberland has a history of revolt and rebellion against the government, as seen in the Rising of the North in Tudor times. These revolts were usually led by the then Dukes of Northumberland, the Percy family. Shakespeare makes one of the Percys, the dashing Harry Hotspur, the real hero of his Henry IV, Part 1.

The county was also a centre for Roman Catholicism in England, as well as of Jacobite support after the Restoration. Northumberland became a sort of wild county, where outlaws and Border Reivers hid from the law. However, the frequent cross-border skirmishes and accompanying local lawlessness largely subsided after the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England under King James I in 1603.

Northumberland played a key role in the industrial revolution. Coal mines were once widespread in Northumberland, with collieries at Ashington, Bedlington, Choppington, Netherton, Ellington and Pegswood. The region's coalfields fuelled industrial expansion in other areas of the country, and the need to transport the coal from the collieries to the Tyne led to the development of the first railways. Shipbuilding and armaments manufacture were other important industries.

Today, Northumberland is still largely rural. As the least densely populated county in England, it commands much less influence in British affairs than in times past. In recent years the county has had considerable growth in tourism due to its scenic beauty and the abundant evidence of its historical significance.

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