Monday, 12 October 2015

The Site of the Battle of Hatfield Chase

Bede records that Edwin met his end in “a great battle being fought in the plain that is called Haethfeld, Edwin was killed on the 12th of October, in the year of our Lord 633”.

Edwin, martyr-king of Northumbria
Edwin (Eadwine) was the first Christian king of Northumbria, son of Ælle the king of Deira, later venerated as a Saint after his death at the battle of Hatfield Chase (Haethfeld) at the hands of the pagan king Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon ap Cadfan, king of Gwynedd.

Following Ælle of Northumbria's death a Deiran noble named Æthelric took control of the kingdom. He may have been the father of Æthelfrith who later became king of Northumbria, a realm consisting of both Deira in the south, and Bernicia in the north of the kingdom. During Æthelfrith's reign Edwin was forced into exile, hunted by Æthelfrith. Around 616, Edwin was in East Anglia under the protection of king Raedwald. Following the death of Æthelfrith at the battle of the River Idle that same year, Edwin was installed as king of all Northumbria.

The Venerable Bede records in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People) that in the seventeenth year of Edwin's reign he was slain by Cadwallon, king of the Britons, supported by Penda of the Mercians, in a great battle fought in the plain that is called Heathfield, on the 12th of October, in the year 633 AD.

Edwin's son Osfrid was killed in the battle in which all of the army of the English was either slain or dispersed. Another of Edwin's sons, Eanfrid, “compelled by necessity”, went over to Penda. Bede implies that great slaughter of the Northumbrians ensued, with Cadwallon striving to remove the whole race of the English from Britain.

The kingdom of the Northumbrians fell into disarray and the subsequent collapse of the ecclesiastical community at York saw Bishop Paulinus flee by sea to Kent, taking with him Queen Ethelberga. [Bede, HE, II.20] In the aftermath of the battle Edwin's head was taken to York, and afterwards into the church of St. Peter the Apostle. Later, when Eanfled, widowed queen of Oswiu (d.670), had her husband buried at Whitby Abbey she then had her father king Edwin's remains moved there from the battlefield. His head was later taken to the chapel of St. Gregory at the new minster in York

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle follows Bede but differs in stating that the battle on Hatfield moor was fought on the fourteenth of October.

The Welsh accounts of the battle tell more-or-less the same story; the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) states that Edwin and his two sons, Osfrid and Eanfrid, fell at the battle at Meicen, with the kingdom of the Deiri lost to his family. Following Edwin's death Oswald, an exiled son of Æthelfrith, would return to claim the kingdom.

The Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) record Edwin's death in the year 630 at the battle of Meigen on the Kalends of January when he was was killed with both of his two sons and Cadwallon was the victor.  A Welsh poem, Gofara Braint, claims that Edwin's head was taken to Aberffraw, the palace of the Welsh kings on Mon.

The battle sites
Edwin, enemy of the Welsh 
Early Welsh poetry refers to 'Edwin' as symbolic of the English opponent in prolonged conflict against the North Wales king Cadwallon, ultimately ending in his defeat. A Triad included in The White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch c.1350) refers to Edwin, king of Lloegr, as the 'third Great Oppression of Mon', (The Isle of Anglessey).

Drawing on Welsh traditional sources for his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136), Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that following the battle of Chester, c.616, the Northumbrian king Æthelfrith banished his own wife and married another. She, being with child, went to live with Cadwan (Cadfan) in Gwynedd and had a son called Edwin who grew up with Cadwan's son Cadwalla (Cadwallon). Needless to say, after a period of exile in Brittany, eventually Cadwalla and Edwin fall out over who will wear the crown of Britain and the Welsh campaign against Edwin's English begins.

In addition to Geoffrey's account and reference to Edwin's exile in the Triads, we find a further tradition in the Life of Oswald, thought to be written by Reginald of Durham in 1165. This 'Life' is an account of Oswald the Northumbrian king who was also killed at Oswestry in 642, again at the hand of Penda. As with Geoffrey, Reginald's account tells of Edwin's residence in Gwynedd.

It is of course possible that the Triads and Reginald's account were influenced by Geoffrey's story of Edwin's Welsh exile in his History of the Kings of Britain and must be treated with some caution as the account is absent from both the Welsh and Irish Annals, but Æthelfrith's pursuit of Edwin and his heirs in exile is documented by Bede who asserts that Edwin had spent long periods in exile before he came to the throne of Northumbria. [Bede, HE, Book II.]

Edwin certainly appears to have spent sometime in the midland realm of Mercia as he married Cwenburh, daughter of king Cearl, and had two sons, Osfrid and Eanfrid, while in exile. An exile in North Wales could certainly have been a motive for Æthelfrith's attack on Chester, Edwin his target, in order to prevent him returning to claim the Deiran throne. Indeed, it is Æthelfrith's pursuit of Edwin, the Deiran heir, that ultimately brings about his own death; just a year after the Battle of Chester, the death of Æthelfrith is recorded when he is slain in battle on the east side of the River Idle after King Raedwald of East Anglia refused to handover Edwin, who was now in residence at Raedwald's court, to the Northumbrians. [Bede, HE, II.12] The site of this battle is typically identified as the place where the Roman route of Ermine Street running from Lincoln to Doncaster fords the River Idle at Bawtry, situated close to the modern borders of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, and the old boundaries of the kingdoms of Deira, Mercia and Lindsey.

Following the death of  Æthelfrith, Edwin was re-instated on Deiran throne, with Æthelfrith's seven sons going into exile, interrupting the domination of Northumbria by the Bernicians. Edwin became the most powerful king the country had yet seen; his overlordship stretching from the Scottish borders to southern England, while making war on the northern Welsh and taking possession of the Menavian islands, Man and Anglesey (Mon).

Following the baptism on 12 April 627 of Edwin and a large number of his court in the river at York by Paulinus, Edwin embraced Christianity and evidently received the approval of Bede. But to the Welsh he was “Edwin the Deceiver” and his bitterest enemy was his supposed foster-brother Cadwallon ap Cadfan who Edwin at one time had driven into hiding on the little island of Priestholm (Puffin Island) off Anglesey. However, Cadwallon was not beaten yet.

In 633, Cadwallon, united with the Mercian king Penda, marched on York. Edwin was caught off guard with the two armies meeting at Hatfield Chase on 12th October.

The Traditional Battle Site
As with many ancient battles the site remains uncertain, however, the favoured location for the battle of Hatfield Chase is just east of Doncaster where the old Roman road crossed the River Thorne where much of the area is now covered over by the construction of the M18 motorway.

The accepted view of historians is that Hatfield was a small kingdom centred on Hatfield Chase bordered by Mercia, Lindsey, Emet and Deira, in South Yorkshire. Saxon Haethfeld was both a settlement and a sub-province of low lying land between the Don and the Humber, essentially a no-man's land, according to Bede, between the Southern and Northern English, an area which the modern Hatfield Chase is just part of today, much of it still heath and bog.

Today Hatfield Chase is contained to the west by the M18 motorway and the Isle of Axholme to the east. The river's Ouse and the Idle mark the northern and southern boundaries respectively. The Chase was a royal hunting ground until drained by Charles I in the 17th century but still contains two large peat bogs known as Thorne and Hatfield Moors.

A local antiquarian, Reverend Abraham de la Prynne, recorded in the 17th century that the battle had taken place at The Lings near Hatfield where he claimed a burial mound situated at the meeting of Lings Lane and the A18:

“The next day, when that the army was marcht away, several of the country round about that fled to save themselves from the heat & fury of the enemy, came to view the slain, & found them to amount to above 10,000; among the rest they found the body of poor King Edwin all plaistered over with Dirt, Blood, & Gore: whose head they cut off and sent it to York to some of his Nobles there that buryd it with great sorrow in St Peter’s Church which he was then building. As for his body, & that of his son Osfrid and the rest of his nobles, they were cast in a great Hole all together, and a large hill of earth thrown over them, which hill remains to this day in Hadham field, near the Lings, called now Sley-burr Hill, that is the hill where the slayn were buried.”

Historians seems stuck on the idea since William Camden first identified the site of Haethfeld as Hatfield Chase near Doncaster in the 16th century. Camden had probably identified the site of the battle of the River Idle.

Yet, there are still many “Hatfield” (Haethfeld merely means 'heath field'), sites in existence across the country; in addition to Hatfield Chase near Doncaster there is also High Hatfield near Cuckney, Nottinghamshire.

The Alternative Battle Site
In 1951 excavations by work men carrying out under-pinning revealed some two hundred skeletons, believed to be evidence of a medieval massacre, beneath St Mary's Church at Cuckney near Mansfield in Nottinghamshire. There has been no further excavation at the church since the discovery of the mass grave over sixty years ago.

Excavations at St Mary's Church, Edwinstowe, 1951.
The church was built within the confines of a castle during the unrest of the mid-12th century. It has been suggested that the building was erected around 1150 to consecrate the burials of the men who fell in fighting round the castle during Stephen's reign. The possibility that the skeletons date from this period cannot be dismissed without further investigation.

However, local legend claims that Edwin’s body was transported by some of his troops fleeing the battle, for a few miles to what became known as Edwinstowe where the king's body was originally hidden; 'stowe' meaning 'resting place'. The village of Edwinstowe is just 5 miles across Sherwood Forest from Cuckney. Edwin's head, according to the English account, was then taken and buried in the church of St Peter at York.

The Battle of Hatfield Investigation Society (BOHIS) has been awarded £15,600 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) support to explore and share the history of Cuckney, Norton and Holbeck.

“In December 1950, the first skeletons - around 50 - were uncovered from the first mass grave at St Mary’s Church, in Cuckney, by subsidence contractors,” explains Paul Jameson, chairman of the BOHIS.

St Mary's Church, Edwinstowe
“The Reverend Ashworth Lound, of St Mary’s, personally counted some 200 skulls. And a present Cuckney villager, then a choirboy, remembers seeing 20 to 30 skulls on display in the church, most of which seemed to have pick type damage. He believes that this was not caused by contractors during the 1951 operations.”

During the 1951 excavations, no artefacts were found to help date the bodies. It is now hoped that funding from the Heritage Lottery grant will provide opportunity to obtain dating material.
BOHIS is currently liaising with Mercian Archaeology.


See: The Battle of Hatfield Investigation Society



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