Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Battle of Heavenfield (NY937694)

Site of the Battle of Heavenfield, with 
St.Oswald’s Church in the distance.

The ‘Golden Age’ of Northumbria – the period of Dark Age cultural and military supremacy which spanned, roughly, the mid-seventh to the mid-eighth centuries – was probably the proudest phase of North-Eastern history. Out of this tumultuous century or so came the writings of Bede and the Lindisfarne Gospels (among other spectacular outpourings). And, as is so often the case with such epochs, it all came about as a direct result of a victory in the field – in this case the Battle of Heavenfield.

After the death of Edwin, king of Northumbria, in 632, the struggle was on for the overlordship of the English Heptarchy. Edwin had been the most prominent ruler of this patchwork of kingdoms which then existed in the land, and his demise very much put the cat squarely among the pigeons. Cadwallon, king of the Britons (Welsh) and Penda, a prominent Mercian prince – both of whom had scores to settle with the house of Northumbria – then unified in an alliance against the great northern kingdom. In the months following Edwin’s death, Northumbria was largely laid waste by this troublesome pair.

After months of turmoil, Oswald emerged from his long exile on Iona to seize the Northumbrian throne (his dynastic foes, Edwin and his sons, having been slain). Oswald, a son of Aethelfrith – who had ruled in Northumbria before Edwin – had grown up among the monastic community of Iona together with his younger brother, Oswy. They were both Christians of the Celtic/Irish bent, and determined that their father’s kingdom must be saved from pending collapse. Before Oswald could take the crown, though, Cadwallon and Penda would have to be swept from their old lands.

So, in late 633 (or 634), Oswald marched south with his warband – a motley collection of on-loan Pictish warriors and Irish monks, together with a few hundred Northumbrians which he was able to pick up on the journey south – until he reached the Roman Wall a little to the east of Chollerford. Cadwallon, on the other hand, moved north up Dere Street and along the Wall to the same point. It is likely that Penda did not take part in this phase of the war, though some of his forces may have been involved.

On the night before the battle, Oswald experienced a vision of St.Columba, who promised heavenly support for the young Northumbrian. A cross was erected before the battle, too, around which Oswald rallied his troops. Oswald’s subsequent attack – probably at night – proved devastating, and the Welsh were defeated with surprising ease. Using nearby Brady’s Crag and the Wall itself to their strategic benefit, the Northumbrians were able to nullify their numerical disadvantage – Cadwallon himself being slain in the rout, forever since known as the Battle of Heavenfield.

Oswald was then able to quickly stabilise the kingdom and take the throne. The threat from the Welsh and the Pagan Mercians had been put to bed, at least for the time being. Moreover, the new king dedicated his victory to God, eventually inviting Aidan to found his monastery at Lindisfarne, and thus sowing the seed of Christianity for the English nation-to-be…

… And hence laying the foundation for our ‘Golden Age’.

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