Tuesday, 23 October 2018

The Mercian Burhs: Shrewsbury

No one knows the origins of the Shropshire county town of Shrewsbury; we have no documentary evidence for the settlement until a Saxon charter of 901 AD, in which it appears as a fully fledged city (civitas). However, there is evidence of man's presence here thousands of years beforehand.

In 2017 archaeological excavations at at the Church of the Holy Fathers in Oteley Road unearthed a wooden post initially thought to be Saxon in date. But the results of carbon-dating revealed the post to be have been first placed in the ground around 2030 BC, the late Neolithic - early Bronze Age period. The existing early 13th century church had been built over an earlier Anglo-Saxon church which in turn was built over a prehistoric structure. The evidence indicates the site was used and re-used for religious purposes, perhaps continuously, for over 4,000 years, making it the earliest known sacred site still in use in Britain today.

Shrewsbury and the historic centre within the loop of the Severn
Tradition claims that the settlement at Shrewsbury, in a near complete loop of the River Severn, began when the inhabitants of Wroxeter (Viroconium), 5 miles to the south-east, deserted the Roman city when the legions left Britain. At just 9 miles east of the Welsh border, Shrewsbury occupies a strategic crossing into Wales; little wonder the Welsh name for Shrewsbury, Amwythig, translates as “the fortified place” closely echoing the Old English name 'burh' (byrig, bury) also meaning “fortified place”.

Shrewsbury could have been the site of Pengwern ('alder knoll'), citadel of Cynddylan, 7th century prince of Powys, which fell to the Anglo Saxons in 656 when Oswiu of Northumbria was briefly overlord of the Mercians. The destruction of Pengwern is recorded in the collection of early Welsh poems from the Red Book of Hergest known as Canu Heledd (The Songs of Heledd), including an elegy for the dead Cynddylan.  A separate poem, dated to the 7th century, known as Marwnad Cynddylan (Lament for Cynddlyan) records a Welsh attack on Caer Lwytgoed, identified as Wall (Letocetum) by Lichfield, by the sons of Cyndrwyn, i.e. Cynddylan  and his brothers, referred to in the poem as “the young whelps of great Arthur”; providing one of the earliest references to Arthur.

The devastation of Pengwern, probably at the hands of Oswui, may have been in retaliation for the attack on Caer Lwytgoed. However Oswui's reign was short-lived and by 658 Mercia was under control of Wulfhere, a son of Penda. On the otherhand, the date of the fall of the Welsh royal palace at Pengwern is remarkably close to the date of the Battle of the Winwaed, 655, when the Mercian king Penda fell.

Penda had formed a successful alliance with the Welsh king Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd, culminating in the defeat and death of the Northumbrian king Edwin at Hatfield Chase in 633. A year later Cadwallon fell to the forces of Oswald of Bernicia at the battle of Heavenfield near the Wall. Oswald himself was butchered by Penda at the battle of Maserfield in 642, said to have been fought near Oswestry in Shropshire. After the battle the pagan Penda ritually dismembered the Christian king's corpse, placing his head and arms on stakes, an act that elevated Oswald to sainthood. Known to the Welsh as Cogwy; Canu Heledd suggests the men of Pengwern were fighting for Penda.

Penda finally met his end at the battle of the Winwaed (Welsh: Maes Gai) when he invaded Bernicia in Northumbria with a large force led by 30 nobles, including Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd, Aethelhere of East Anglia and Aethelwald of Deira in pursuit of Oswiu of Bernicia. Penda's fate was sealed by a series of desertions;  Aethelwald, said to have been Penda's guide, pulled back to a place of safety and Cadafael withdrew with his army during the night before the battle earning himself the nick-name of “battle-shirker”. Many of Penda's forces, now much reduced in number, are said to have perished in the swollen river Winwaed on 15 November 655.

Why Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd deserted Penda the night before the battle is open to conjecture. Higham speculates that he lost the support of the Welsh through “territorial aggrandisement” along Mercia's western frontier from Herefordshire to Deeside, much at the expense of Powys; his expansionist policy causing such offence to the Welsh that they betrayed him at the Winwaed and may also have been the reason for the raid on Caer Lwytgoed.1

Around this time, perhaps 680, Merewalh, another son of Penda, king of the Magonsæte, whose territory covered the area around modern southern Shropshire and Herefordshire, founded a monastery at Wenlock, known as St Milburga's Priory, named after his daughter who became Abbess and died there in 722. Milburga is listed among the pre-Viking saints in the Old English text known as the 'Secgan', or 'On the Resting-Places of the Saints', which states that she lies at Wenlock by the Severn.2

Vikings in Shropshire
During Offa's reign (757 - 796) both the territory of the Wrocensæte, northern Shropshire,  and the Magonsaete, in the south, were consolidated into an expanded Mercia. Offa's power is demonstrated by his ability to mobilise large numbers of men to construct the huge earthwork bearing his name, Offa's Dyke, forming a permanent barrier between Wales and Mercia, just sixteen miles west of Shrewsbury at Buttington, near Welshpool, where the Severn is crossed by an important ancient ford. Rhyd-y-Groes. The construction of these huge earthworks eventually stabilised the Mercian – Welsh border, that is until the arrival of the 'Black Gentiles'.

The Welsh Annals record that Cynin (of Powys) died fighting “the gentiles” (Vikings) in 850.
In 854  “Y Llu Du” (the Black Host) attacked Môn (Anglesey). The following year, 855,  “Black Gentiles” attacked Gwynedd, their leader Gorm was slain by Rhodri Mawr, ruler of Gwynedd (844-78). Terms such as “Black Gentiles,”  "heathens" and “pagans” were commonly used at the time to describe Vikings.

These raids by the Norsemen were not just confined to coastal areas, they were also making their way inland down the major rivers, such as the Dee and Severn and soon arriving in Shropshire. A charter of 855 records the presence of “pagans in Wreocensetun” and around 870 Wenlock Priory was attacked by Vikings. Destroyed in the raid St Milburga's tomb was lost for many centuries until it was rediscovered by the Cluniac monks in 1101 following their refoundation of the priory. The rebuilt Abbey survived until the Reformation in the 16th century, the ruins of which we can still see today at the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock.

Eastern Mercia had fallen to the Vikings in 874 when king Burgred fled to Rome. A few years later King Alfred conceded an area of England to the Vikings, stretching from London to Chester it was named as the Danelaw. The Anglo-Saxon's held on to West Mercia under Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, but now they were under attack from Scandinavian raids launched from the Irish Sea during the mid-9th century. Yet in 894 a Viking army from their fortified camp on the east coast of England made their way along the Thames and then up the Severn to Buttington near Welshpool.

The Battle of Buttington
The Viking warlord Hastein had been raiding the Mediterranean countries from 859-862 before he settled in northern France where he continued to raid around the Loire country. He left Boulogne and sailed to England in 892 with a fleet of some 80 longships and landed in northern Kent. A larger contingent of 250 longships sailed with Hastein and landed in southern Kent.

After agreeing terms with King Alfred of Wessex Hastein settled at Mersea Island in Essex. His numbers were later swollen by the survivors of the larger Viking contingent from France who were heavily defeated by Alfred's son Edward at Farnham in the late spring of 893.

Hastein relocated his combined forces at a fortified camp at Benfleet, Essex. While Hastein's Vikings were raiding in Mercia the English army of Wessex captured the fort at Benfleet, taking booty, women and children, including Hastein's own wife and sons. Most of the Viking longships were destroyed by the English, their charred remains and parts of the Viking camp were said to be still visible in the 19th century. Hastein regrouped at a new camp at Shoebury in Essex, joined by Vikings from York and Guthrum's Repton army that had moved into East Anglia. After talks with Alfred, Hastein's wife and sons were duly returned.

Hastein struck out raiding along the Thames valley, likely in retaliation for the destruction of Benfleet by the men of Wessex. Pursued by Æthelred and an English army from Mercia and Wessex Hastein made his way up the Severn, where the combined English force strengthened with Welsh allies caught up with him at Buttington near Welshpool (modern Montgomeryshire). Following a lengthy siege lasting several weeks the Vikings managed to fight their way out, and, after loosing many men, returned to the camp at Shoebury.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records the Battle of Buttington in 894:

“Then they proceeded upward by the Severn.  Meanwhile assembled Alderman Ethered, Alderman Ethelm, Alderman Ethelnoth, and the king's thanes, who were employed at home at the works, from every town east of the Parret, as well as west of Selwood, and from the parts east and also north of the Thames and west of the Severn, and also some part of North-Wales.

When they were all collected together, they overtook the rear of the enemy at Buttington on the banks of the Severn, and there beset them without on each side in a fortress.  When they had sat
there many weeks on both sides of the water, ….. then were the enemy weighed down with famine.  They had devoured the greater part of their horses; and the rest had perished with hunger.  Then went they out to the men that sat on the eastern side of the river, and fought with them; but the Christians had the victory.”

The Buttington Skulls on display at the Welshpool Powysland Museum in 2017
During October 1837, while building a new schoolhouse at All Saint’s Church, Buttington, workmen unearthed three pits containing around 400 human skulls and other human remains, less than 300 yards from the ford. These were identified by local antiquarian William Boyd-Dawkins as the remains of the Viking army besieged at Buttington:

“A workman having been employed in the churchyard of Buttington, Montgomeryshire, to dig the foundation for a new school-room, was interrupted in his labour by a very extraordinary discovery of immense quantities of human skulls, and several cart loads of human bones. In one circular hole, three feet and a half in diameter and three feet and a half deep, were found one hundred skulls, all arranged in mechanical order, facing the east, and covered with a single range of thigh and leg bones, belonging respectively to each other.” 3

Many of the bones are said to have shown evidence of weapon trauma, there was even the skull of a horse which seemed to support the Chronicle account. The earthwork was still visible in 1873, closed on to Offa's Dyke, but sadly nothing remains of the site today, even the dyke, forming the back of the enclosure, was cleared to make way for a new roadway.

Doubts existed over the authenticity of the skulls and the location of the battle of Buttington; this was also the site of the battle of Rhyd-y-Groes, an important victory for Gruffydd ap Llewelyn over the English in 1039. Two of the remaining Buttington skulls, which had until recently been on display as “Viking Skulls” at Powysland Museum, Welshpool were subjected to radiocarbon dating which has shown these skulls to be of a much later date, therefore probably the result of graveyard clearance in or before the 18th century.

Location of the Battle 
There are only two places in England and Wales named 'Buttington' and both on the Severn. Scholarly opinion tends to favour the small settlement less than 2 miles from Welshpool about 300 yards from the River Severn as the site of the battle. Offa's Dyke meets the Severn just west of here at an ancient ford known as Rhyd-y-Groes.

Buttington Tump, situated in Tidenham, Gloucestershire, is the alternative at the southern end of Offa's Dyke. A road immediately east is thought to be the original access point through the Dyke crossing the Severn at its narrowest point for about 10 miles. Hill and Worthington see the Gloucestershire sections of the dyke, including the stretch at Buttington Tump, as different monuments and not connected to, the ‘true’ Offa’s Dyke.4

Offa's Dyke Llanfair Hill, Clun, Shropshire
Yet, Ray and Bapty argue in favour of the southern section of the dyke being part of the same continuous work of those from Herefordshire to Flintshire as evidenced by the similar styles of construction that can be seen in the north Herefordshire and Shropshire sections of the dyke.5

Surely it is beyond coincidence that the only two places in England and Wales so named lie on Offa's Dyke. A long section of the Dyke comes to an end at the school house at Buttington, Welshpool, after running north for 34 miles from Rushock Hill, Herefordshire. In his field survey of Mercia's western frontier archaeologist Sir Cyril Fox was of the opinion that the Welshpool Buttington marked the northern extremity of the earliest section of the Dyke. At the southern extremity of the Dyke at Buttington Tump, Fox observed that the well preserved section here was unusually large. Horovitz suggests that the term “butt” denotes the 'thick end of something' which would be appropriate for the Dyke at either Buttington.6 Unfortunately this does not help us identify the correct location of the battle.

The Mercian Burhs
In 896 the Vikings again journeyed up the Severn and camped at Bridgnorth. They dispersed the following year without confrontation. Historians have been puzzled with this Norse obsession with the Severn; perhaps they were trying to attack the English Mercians from the west in a pincer movement; or trying to reach Chester which the Anglo Saxon Chronicle reports was deserted at the time, but possibly occupied by Vikings. Roger of Wendover, considered a reliable chronicler, writes of the possibility of a Norse settlement at Buttington; were the Vikings following the Severn and attempting to reach this settlement? 7 The Vikings would come up the Severn again, this time in 910, resulting in the Battle of Tettenhall.

In response to the Viking threat up the Severn Æthelred and Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, built a series of fortified settlements, known as burhs, to control he movement of the Norse raiding parties. The Mercian Register records a series of burhs constructed mainly by Æthelflæd alone after Æthelred's death in 911, which included the restoration of Chester (907), Bremesburh (910), Scergeat and Bridgnorth (912), Tamworth and Stafford (913), Eddisbury and Warwick (914), Weardbyrig, Chirbury and Runcorn (915).

The Wessex burhs of King Alfred were constructed as a fortifed network, about 20- 30 miles apart. It has been argued elsewhere that Alfred's model was built on an earlier strategy used by the Mercian kings Æthelbald and Offa which was instrumental in their dominance south of the Humber.

It is likely that the relatively fast construction of these burhs was achieved as they were in close proximity to one another, such as Tamworth and Stafford, barely 30 miles apart in Staffordshire. The unidentified burh at Scergeat was probably close to Bridgnorth; Scergeat meaning “boundary gap” suggests a break in Offa's Dyke, possibly also on the Severn.

Similarly the unidentified burh at Weardbyrig must have been about a days ride from Chirbury, the same distance from Bridgnorth (40 miles). Weardbyrig was probably Whitchurch, known as Westune to the Saxons, said to be the only town in Shropshire on an original Roman site (Mediolanum), situated on the Roman (Watling Street) Road,where a church dedicated to St Alkmund sits on the highest ground and traditionally credited to being built by Æthelflæd in 912. Significantly, the Roman fort of Mediolanum was situated just a day’s march between the Roman settlements at Chester (Deva) and Wroxeter (Viroconium) underlying its strategic position from early times.

Other burhs not included in the Mercian Register such as Hereford and Winchombe were almost certainly burhs constructed in the time of Offa and refortified by Æthelred and Æthelflæd in the late 9th or early 10th century. Worcester and Gloucester were Roman settlements refortified by the Mercians, the later street plan mirroring that of Alfred's capital at Winchester. Shrewsbury is another fortified town, also absent from the Mercian Register, probably constructed during the time of Offa, as we have seen above, it appeared in a charter of 901 AD as a fully developed 'civitas' (city).

Æthelflæd and St Alkmund
We can suspect Æthelflæd's hand in the translation of Royal Mercian saint's relics into her new burhs to add a spiritual dimension, often with a church or minster situated near the centre of the fortification. The relics of St Werburgh were translated from Hanbury to Chester, St Bertelin into Stafford and Runcorn, and St Alkmund into Weardbyrig and Shrewsbury from Derby. Æthelflæd was certainly responsible for the transation of St Oswald's relics from Bardney, Lincolnshire, to the restored Roman fortifications at Gloucester.

St Alkmund's Church, Whitchurch, Shropshire
Oddly, of the six churches dedicated to St Alkmund, three can be found forming a straight line stretching from Gloucester to Chester; Shrewsbury – Whitchurch - Aymestrey 8 shadowing the direction of the great earthwork defining the Mercian – Welsh border named after Offa. Shrewsbury also possessed a church built on its highest point, dedicated to St Alkmund and credited to Æthelflæd. Aymestry may well have been another Æthelflædian fortification, built quickly for one specific campaign guarding the crossing over the River Lugg, and oddly enough it also has a church dedicated to St Alkmund. Surely it is beyond coincidence that these three churches dedicated to St Alkmund lying in a line did not form part of the defensive western border constructed by Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

The Wenlock Charter 
As we have seen Shrewsbury has developed on a key strategic position in a loop in the river Severn as a gateway between England and Wales, chosen as the Royal residence of the Princes of Powys, and later fortified by the English under Offa.

Yet the earliest recorded evidence for the existence of the settlement is a Saxon charter dated 901 in which Æthelflæd and Æthelred gave land and a golden chalice weighing thirty mancuses to the shrine of Saint Mildburga at Wenlock Priory. The charter was approved at ‘the City of Shrewsbury’ named as 'Scrobbesbyrig' derived from two Old English words “scrubb” and “burh,” meaning the fortified place in the scrubland. In addition to visiting Saint Milburga's shrine, the occasion probably witnessed the Mercian witan visiting the reconstructed burh at Scrobbesbyrig and the translation of St Alkmund's relics to the church constructed by Æthelflæd on the highest ground in this loop of the Severn.

Æthelflæd's burh building period concentrated on constructing fortified settlements to the north and west of English Mercia indicating the greater threat came not from Danish Mercia in the east along the boundary of the Danelaw but from Wales and the Wirral; Viking raids launched from the Irish Sea. Burh's were built along the Severn to counter frequent exploitation by the Vikings as an artery into the Mercian heartland; perhaps Roger Wendover was correct in claiming there was a Viking settlement in the territory of the Wrocensæte. As soon as the borders of English Mercia were secured Æthelflæd would use the burhs on the eastern border, such as Stafford, Tamworth and Warwick to push into the Danelaw for the reconquest. Once Æthelflæd and her army started to advance into Danish Mercia, the Viking settlements at Derby (917), Leicester and York (918) soon submitted to her rule.

Copyright © 2018 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. N J Higham, The Origins of Cheshire, Manchester University Press, 1993, pp.98-99.
2. David Rollason, Lists of saints' resting-places in Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon England Volume 7, 1978, pp. 61-93. In its current form the 'Secgan be þam Godes sanctum þe on Engla lande aerost reston' (Tale of God's saints who first rested in England) survives in an 11th century manuscript; Rollason argues that the text includes material from as early as the mid-9th century.
3. W. Boyd Dawkins, 'On Some Human Bones Found at Buttington, Montgomeryshire', Montgomeryshire Collections Vol. 6, 1873, p. 145.
4. David Hill and Margaret Worthington, Offa's Dyke, The History Press, 2009.
5. Keith Ray and Ian Bapty, Offa's Dyke: Landscape & Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain, Windgather Press, 2016.
6. David Horovitz, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the battle of Tettenhall 910AD; and other West Mercian studies, (Self Published) 2017, p.25.
7. Ibid. p.28.
8. Derek Taulbut and Marion Taulbut, St. Alkmund: His Life, Murder and Cults, (Self Published), 1998.

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Sunday, 7 October 2018

The Mercian Burhs

Continually ravaged by Viking raids in the first half of the 9th century, the situation deteriorated further for the Anglo Saxon kingdoms when the Danes changed tact and became intent on settling. A large Danish army plundered Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, London and parts of Wessex in the south-west. English Mercia was reduced to its western half, up to Offa’s Dyke, from Gloucester in the south to Chester in the north, while the Danes occupied the eastern part of the kingdom; the division was clearly in place many years before King Alfred's formal treaty conceding the 'Danelaw'.

Alfred's response in the recovery of Wessex was to construct a network of burhs, fortified towns, at strategic points, during the late 9th century AD. Expansion of the burghal system would prove decisive in the recovery of the Danelaw by Alfred's children Edward and Æthelflæd during the early 10th century. However, there is evidence for some earlier, 8th century burhs found in the kingdom of Mercia.

In the later 9th century Mercia was ruled by Æthelred, Ealdorman of the Mercians, who had shown strong allegiance to Alfred until the king's death in 899 and then his son Edward thereafter. Æthelred was king of Mercia in all but title until his death in 911. From that point on his wife Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, ruled on her own as the Lady of the Mercians.

Although the Mercian Register, included in several versions of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, records a series of fortifications, or burhs, constructed by Æthelflæd after Æthelred's death it is apparent that this Anglo Saxon defensive policy had been used by Æthelred across Mercia for many years.
In its current form the Mercian Register would appear to be limited to burh construction solely by Æthelflæd and does not, with the exception of the refortification of Chester, record those built jointly with Æthelred.

However, we may suspect Æthelflæd's hand in some unrecorded constructions, or refortications, of burhs across Mercia as evidenced by the translation of Royal Anglo Saxon Saints' relics. As the Mercian Register consists of a short list of annals centred on the Lady of the Mercians from 902 to 924, Æthelflæd is implicated in the translation of St Oswald's relics from Bardney in Lincolnshire to Gloucester in 909, interred in the very same crypt that both Æthelred and Æthelflæd would be laid to rest. Not only was the translation of precious saints' relics westward and away from the threat of desecration by the Vikings but Æthelflæd also introduced a spiritual dimension to the new burh's; St Weburgh from Hanbury to Chester; St Alkmund from Derby to Shrewsbury (and probably also Whitchurch); St Bertelin to Stafford and Runcorn. Many of these sites developed as cult centres for these saints.

Certainly the burghal system of defences was not new to Mercia; Æthelred and Æthelflæd together in the late 9th century, and after him in the early 10th century, continued a Mercian policy that had been used to exert Mercian dominance from the 8th century. Several Mercian burhs, such as Tamworth and Hereford, display evidence of earlier fortifications that were later enhanced by Æthelred and Æthelflæd.

These were centres of civil and ecclesiastical governance that, in many cases, developed into the administration centres of the later Shires. Tamworth is an oddity; a significant burh and Royal palace of Offa, but it did not go on to become the administrative centre of Staffordshire.

The increasing hegemony of Mercia during the 8th century (Wikimedia Commons)
The use of fortified towns to guard road and river crossings can be traced back to the so-called period of 'Mercian Supremacy' that emerged during the reigns of Penda (d.655) and Wulfhere (d.675), reaching its peak under Æthelbald (d.757) and Offa (d.796); a period of Mercian dominance which Stenton argued resulted in the unification of England south of the Humber. Offa's Dyke, the huge earthwork, shadowing much of the modern boundary between England and Wales, bears testament to this period and the Mercian kings ability to organise work parties on a massive scale. Wat's Dyke, running parallel to the northern sector of Offa's Dyke for 40 miles from Oswestry to Basingwerk, was probably built earlier by Offa's predecessor Æthelbald.

Toward the end of Offa's reign, the late 8th century, he constructed a series of burhs in 'Greater Mercia' as a system of defence against seaborne Viking raids. These burhs were associated with fortified bridges placed at strategic points to block access up river by the Viking longships. The fact that Offa extended this burghal system against the Vikings implies it was not a new defensive system. The Mercian king also introduced the three common military obligations to Kent; army service, bridge work and burh work.

Documentary evidence for the 'common burdens' of bridge work and burh work first appear in a charter during the reign of  Æthelbald (716 – 757), while army service first appears during the reign of Offa (757 – 796). These obligations may have developed as a consequence of 'bookland tenure' under Æthelbald in which grants of land were given for service to the king.

Grants of land and immunities to the church proved restrictive leaving the king without sufficient resource to reward his young warriors. To avert a potential military crisis the king would often come in conflict with the church. In response to a reprimand around 747 from Boniface for forcing churchmen to participate in manual labour on Royal projects, surely bridge work and burh work, Æthelbald issued a charter at Gumley in 749 which freed the church from such obligations. The implication being that such obligations were clearly in place prior to this charter.

In conclusion, although it must be conceded that the archaeological evidence for 8th century burhs is not abundant, documentary evidence for the development of military obligations, notably bridge work and burh work, as a condition of bookland tenure can be found in Mercian charters granting immunities to the Church during the reigns of  Æthelbald and Offa from the mid-8th century, if not before. It would appear that for the fortification of Wessex, Alfred was inspired by the burghal system used in Mercia at least 150 years earlier.

Jeremy Haslam, Market and fortress in the reign of Offa, World Archaeology 19 no.1 (1987), 76-93.
Steven Bassett, Divide and rule? The military infrastructure of eighth‐ and ninth‐century Mercia, Early Medieval Europe, Volume15, Issue 1, February 2007, pp.53-85.
 FM Stenton, The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings, English Historical Review, 33 (1918), 433 – 52.
Gareth Williams, Military Obligations and Mercian Supremacy in the Eighth Century, in Æthelbald and Offa: Two Eighth-Century Kings of Mercia. Papersfrom a Conference held in Manchester in 2000, Edited by D. Hilland M. Worthington. BAR British Series 383. Archaeopress, 2005.

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Friday, 31 August 2018

Alfred's Burhs

The Viking Wars
The Mercian Register records the construction of 10 fortifications by Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, commencing with Bremesburh in 910 and finishing with Runcorn five years later, in response to attacks by the Vikings. In addition Æthelflæd restored Chester in 907 and Shrewsbury in 901. Along with her husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, they restored fortifications at Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford as part of a Mercian revival. Possibly originating from the land of the Hwicce, Æthelred emerges from the shadows as ruler of English Mercia following the death of Ceolwulf II in 879.

There were few coastlines in western Europe that did not experience the violent raids of the Norsemen in the late 8th century. The Viking Age is a allotted a timespan of 793 to 1066, the raid on Lindisfarne to the Norman Conquest. In England the first encounter with seaborne raiders from Scandinavian is recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle in 787 at Portland. However, it seems these raids had started well before they were first recorded as Offa, king of Mercia (757-796), was constructing coastal defences in the later part of his reign.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Then the Vikings changed tact; the Great Heathen Army, a mixed Scandinavian army drawn from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, arrived in England in 865, no longer was their strategy to raid and pillage, now in much larger numbers they were intent on conquest and would focus on the Anglo Saxon kingdoms one after the other. After landing in East Anglia they overwintered at Thetford, unchallenged, before attacking York in 866. Seemingly able to roam around the country unhindered, they then marched on Mercia and wintered at Nottingham in 868. The Mercian's agreed terms and the Army returned to York. In 869 they went back to East Anglian, murdering King Edmund and overwintered into 870. The following year they headed for Wessex and engaged in nine battles, resulting in just one English victory, the Battle of Ashdown. Berkshire. Alfred became king of Wessex that year after his brother Ethelred died following the battle of Merton.

As the youngest of five brothers Alfred was never destined to be king. Born in 849 at Wantage, the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, he seemed destined for an ecclesiastical role, at the age of 5 he had been taken to Rome and confirmed by Pope Leo IV. He was a student of books and credited with initiating the production of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

The Danes appear to have lost interest in Wessex and after overwintering at London 871-72 headed for York the following year. After overwintering at Torksey 872-73 they then moved to Repton in Derbyshire on the river Trent. Overwinter 873-74 they dug in and fortified this settlement with the church of St Wystan, desecrating the Royal Mercian mausoleum, centred in the ditch and rampart. It would appear the Vikings had a rough time during their stay at Repton; excavations on the site have revealed several single burials and a mass burial containing the remains of at least 264 people. With no evidence of weapon trauma they probably died of disease.

In 874 they attacked and destroyed the Mercian Royal palace at Tamworth, said to have then lain in ruins until restored by Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, forty years later. Burgred, the king of Mercia, fled to Rome, driven out of the kingdom by the Vikings who installed Ceolwulf, described by the Chronicle as “a foolish king's thegn”, a puppet king who swore oaths to them. Presumably Ceolwulf's dominion was reduced to western Mercia, as the eastern half was now ruled solely by the Danes.

In less than 10 years of the arrival of the Great Army in England three of the four Anglo Saxon kingdoms had now fallen; Edmund of East Anglia had been murdered, Northumbria conquered, and Mercia split in two; English Mercia being reduced to Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire. The Vikings now set their sights back on Wessex again. But the heathens made a grave tactical error; the army, reduced in numbers from disease during their winter camp at Repton, now split in two, half followed Halfdan on to York, the other half, under Guthrum, heading south for Wessex, after stopping at Cambridge in late 874.

Halfdan returned to Northumbria and fought the Picts and the Strathclyde Britons, his army is not mentioned after 876. Guthrum's much reduced Great Army began the onslaught on Wessex in 875. In January 878 they nearly captured King Alfred in his winter quarters at Chippenham “in midwinter after Twelfth Night”. The King of Wessex was forced to flee to the Somerset marshes, spending the winter at Athelney, where he is famously said to have burnt the cakes.

In May 878 Alfred mustered the men of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire then attacked the Danes at Edington in Wiltshire. We are not told what happened to the men of Dorset and are forced to question if they participated in the Wessex revival? However, the battle was a resounding victory for the English which led to the baptism of Guthrum, Alfred being his Godfather, and a Treaty agreed in which the Danes were required to leave Wessex and return to East Anglia, where they were able to remain in control of much of the Midlands and eastern England, the boundary defined north of the Thames and east of Watling Street, an area that would become known as the Danelaw.

English Mercia was effectively now part of Wessex, it is clear that the two kingdoms were working together against the Vikings. Ceolwulf's fate is uncertain, yet by 881 Æthelred was ruling west Mercia when he led an unsuccessful raid into north Wales. He may have been installed by King Alfred of Wessex; they certainly enjoyed a close relationship with the betrothal of Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd, and in 886 when Alfred re-took London, a Mercian town from the 7th century, it was handed back to Æthelred. By now Alfred was deemed the king of the Anglo Saxons.

England 878 AD (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Æthelred led an alliance of Mercians, West Saxons and Welsh to victory over a Viking army at the Battle of Buttington, Powys, in 893. In the following years Æthelred fought alongside Alfred's son, Edward the Elder, the future king of Wessex. In 910 a combined force of Mercians and West Saxons inflicted a major defeat on a Viking raiding army that had come up the Severn at the Batle of Tettenhall. It seems likely that  Æthelred was severely wounded in this battle, he died the following year and Æthelflæd become the sole ruler of Mercia.

Fortress, Bridge and Fyrd
Alfred knew the Vikings were sure to return, yet during the period of relative peace that Alfred and Guthrum's treaty brought he began a policy of building fortified towns, or burhs, throughout Wessex, such that no place was more than 20 miles from another; some burhs were built at old Roman or Iron Age fortifications, some were restorations of existing towns protected within a perimeter ditch and earth rampart, topped with wooden palisade. The network of burhs was to essentially provide safe refuges for the local people of the district, complete with food and supplies. A charter makes it explicitly clear that the burh at Worcester was to “shelter all the people”.

There was no standard size for Alfred's burhs, some were fortified towns, centres of commerce and local government, complete with mint. The larger burhs were constructed in the Wessex heartland and along the river Thames, where a Viking longship attempting to sail upstream would face five burhs in succession.

Some would develop into municipal centres in modern times, such as Chester, Stafford, Hertford and Warwick. The word 'burh' evolved into 'burgh', 'bury' then 'Borough' which can be found in many English place names today, as in council administrative districts.

Other burhs were small fortifications at river crossings or on the coast, to block access upstream to Viking longships. Some of these never developed into towns and cannot be located today. With a series of lookouts and beacons the burhs controlled movement within the borders of Alfred's territory and nullify the possibility of the Viking key strategic weapons; mobility and the surprise attack.

To man these fortifications Alfred introduced military obligations which extended burh work to include fyrd service. A record of Alfred's defensive system can be found in the early 10th century document known as 'The Burghal Hidage', which lists 33 fortifications in Wessex and southern Mercia.

The size of each burh is recorded by a land measure known as a 'hide'; the length of  the ramparts determining the number of local men required to defend it. Early records indicate that each hide would be required to supply one man for each four feet of burh perimeter. Later Anglo Saxon fyrds would be required to provide one man for every five hides. Alfred also  made provision for permanent manning of the defences with half the fyrd on active service and half at home. He also founded a fleet of warships to tackle the Vikings at sea before they could get in land.

The defensive system was continued by Alfred's children Edward and Æthelflæd in the reconquest of Mercia where 22 burhs were built, over half of these the Mercian Register credits the construction, or restoration, to Æthelflæd. Burhs had previously been established in the heartland of the west Mercian kingdom at Gloucester, Worcester, Hereford, Winchcombe and Tamworth in the late 9th century by Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.

Alfred certainly had a vision for the defence of his kingdom, and the network of Wessex burhs is seen as considerable innovation on his part, but where he did get his inspiration?

In the 9th century Pope Leo IV ordered the construction of a fortified city to provide protection to the Papal City. The Leonine Wall was constructed from 848 to 852 in response to the sacking of Old St. Peter's Basilica in 846 by Saracens – the boy Alfred visited Rome shortly after its completion.

The Vikings attacked Paris for the first time in 845, and returned three times in the 860's,  in response the Frankish king Charles the Bald declared a series of military reforms, The Edict of Pistres included the fortification of bridges built at all towns on rivers to prevent the Viking longships from penetrating the interior, such as the Loire and the Senne. These fortified bridges fulfilled their intended purpose during the Viking Siege of Paris of 885–886 with the low-lying bridges blocking the passage of the longships.

But the first record of burh work in Anglo Saxon England is made in a Mercian charter c.749. In this case the earliest Mercian burhs have been seen as fortified bridges, thereby blocking land and river movements. Prior to the re-development of the burh during Alfred's reign, in early records the word 'burh' could be used for an Iron Age hillfort or a monastic site, often distinguished by a form of curvilinear bank. Yet from the 8th century in Mercia a 'burh' had come to describe a fortified settlement, often sited on or near rivers or the coast. This network of burhs would also have provided centres for commerce, protected within the defensive walls of the burh.

A network of burhs was almost certainly constructed across greater Mercia in the 8th century which may have been instrumental in the emergence of the kingdom as the most dominant in Anglo Saxon England, the years of the so-called 'Mercian Supremacy'. Here military obligations were supplied by the great estates in exchange for land tenure and consisted of service in the fyrd, bridge work and burh work; the 'Three Necessities' which emerged under the Mercian kings Æthelbald (r. 716 to 757) and reinforced by Offa (r. 757 to 796) in response to Viking coastal raids.

Further Reading:
Nicholas Brooks, The development of military obligations in eighth- and ninth-century England, in England Before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources Presented to Dorothy Whitelock, ed. Kathleen Hughes and Peter Clemoes, Cambridge University Press, 1971, pp.69-84.
Richard P Abels, Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England, University of California Press, 1992.
Jeremy Haslam, Early Medieval Towns in Britain, Shire, 2010.
Jeremy Haslam, Market and fortress in England in the reign of Offa, in World archaeology vol. 18, 1987, pp. 76-93.
Ryan Lavelle, Alfred's Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age, Boydell Press, 2010.
Ryan Lavelle, Fortifications in Wessex c. 800-1066: The Defences of Alfred the Great Against the Vikings, Osprey, 2003.
Chris Peers, Offa and the Mercian Wars, Pen & Sword, 2012
Gareth Williams, Military obligations and Mercian supremacy in the 8th century, in Æthelbald and Offa: Two Eighth-Century Kings of Mercia, ed. David Hill and Margaret Worthington, British Archaeological Reports, 2005, pp. 103-109.

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Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Annals of Æthelflæd

The Mercian Register
There is no biography of Æthelflæd. For such a remarkable warrior queen, who achieved significant success in the reconquest of Danish Mercia, it is a wonder that not a single contemporary account has survived. Yet, the history of the Lady of the Mercians can be reconstructed from a fragmented text, the original seemingly lost, as a series of simple entries integrated into some versions of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. 

The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’  is a collection of annals written in Old English between the 9th and 12th centuries. The Chronicle covers the first millennium, including the foundation stories of the Anglo-Saxon settlements, with additions up to the 12th century.

The oldest version, known as the 'A' text was produced at Winchester during the 9th century, unsurprisingly with the main focus on the West Saxon kings and events in Wessex. Copies passed to other ecclesiastical houses where they were copied and continued. The 'B' text was written in the late 10th century and was certainly at Abingdon Abbey by the mid-11th century where it formed the basis of another copy known as the 'C' text. Another version was produced at Worcester, the 'D' text, whose source appears to have been a northern version of the Chronicle.

Æthelflædian entries found in the 'B', 'C' and 'D' texts focusing on the years spanning 902 to 924, beginning with the death of Ealhswith, the widow of King Alfred and Æthelflæd’s mother, and ending with the accession of Æthelstan ‘chosen king by the Mercians’ were termed 'The Mercian Register', or 'Annals of Æthelflæd' by the historian Charles Plummer.

Bridgnorth Castle, built on the site of a Æthelflædian burh (Wikipedia Commons)

From the 'B', 'C' and 'D' texts it is therefore possible to reconstruct the Mercian Register:

902 - Here Ealhswith passed away
907 - Here Chester restored
909 - Here the body of Oswald was brought from Bardney to the Mercians
910 - In this year the English (i.e. the Mercians and West-Saxons) and the Danes fought at Tettenhall. The English gained the victory
910 - Æthelflæd built the burh at Bremesburh
911 – Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, departed
912 - Here Æthelflæd came to 'Scergeat' and built the burh
912 - Æthelflæd built the burh at Bridgnorth
913 - Æthelflæd went with all the Mercians to Tamworth and built the burh there, afterwards before Lammas built the fortress at Stafford
914 - In the next year in the early summer Æthelflæd built the burh at Eddisbury
914 – Late in harvest time Æthelflæd built the burh at Warwick
915 – After mid-winter Æthelflæd built the burh at Chirbury
915 - Æthelflæd built the burh at Weardbyrig
915 – Æthelflæd built before midwinter the burh at Runcorn
916 - Æthelflæd and and the fyrd broke down Brecenanmere and seized the wife of the king, one of thirty-four people seized
917 - Æthelflæd gained control before Lammas of the burh called Derby with all that belonged to it. Four of her thegns were also slain there within the gates
918 - Æthelflæd gained control of the burh at Leicester peacefully
918 - The people of York promised, some by pledge, some by oaths, that they were willing to be under her direction.
918 - Æthelflæd departed in Tamworth. Her body lay within Gloucester in the east porticus of St Peter's church
919 - Here Ælfwynn was also deprived of any power over the Mercians and led away to the West Saxons three weeks before midwinter.
921 - Here Edward built the burh at the mouth of the Clwyd.
924 - Here Edward departed at Farndon among the Mercians. Very soon (16 days) after Ælfweard departed at Oxford. Their bodies lay at Winchester.
924 - Æthelstan was chosen by the Mercians as king. He was consecrated at Kingston

In contrast, Æthelflæd's history is entirely absent from the 'A' text of Wessex which simply records her death; “[Edward's] sister Æthelflæd at Tamworth departed twelve days before midsummer; and then he rode and took the stronghold of Tamworth, and all the nation of the land of Mercia that was earlier subject to Æthelflæd turned to him......”

Notes & References:
Wainwright argues the date of Ælfwynn's depostion should be late 918; he sees this as a rare anomaly in the normally reliable chronology of the Mercian Register. See: F T Wainwright, appendix to North West Mercia, in HPR Finberg, ed., Scandinavian England. Collected Papers by F. T. Wainwright, Phillimore, 1975, pp.127-129.

F T Wainwright, The Chronology of the ' Mercian Register', The English Historical Review, Volume LX, Issue CCXXXVIII, 1945, pp.385–392.

Pauline Stafford, ‘The Annals of Æthelflæd’: Annals, History and Politics in Early Tenth-Century England, in Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters, Essays in Honour of Nicholas Brooks, edited by Julia Barrow and Andrew Wareham, Ashgate Publishng, 2008, pp.101-116.

Michael Swanton (trans. & ed.) The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Dent, 1997.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscripts, Medieval manuscripts blog, British Library.

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Saturday, 30 June 2018

Ælfwynn: Second & Last Lady of the Mercians

As the sun sets in June for the last time in 2018 it is time to close this chapter on the 1100th anniversary of the death of Ӕthelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians and the subsequent fate of the Anglo Saxon kingdom.

The Second Lady
Following the sudden death of Ӕthelflaed on 12th June 918 the Winchester [A] manuscript of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that her brother King Edward of Wessex took the stronghold of Tamworth1 and “all the nation of the land of Mercia which was earlier subject to  Ӕthelflaed turned to him” along with the kings of Wales Hywel, Clydog and Idwal” and “all the race of the Welsh, sought him as their lord”. Edward then went to Nottingham and captured the stronghold there and “all the people of the land of Mercia, both English and Danish, turned to him”. Edward now held dominion over all the lands and people south of the Humber.2

The Winchester manuscript, perhaps unsurprisingly considering its Wessex bias, fails to mention the succession of Ӕthelflaed's daughter, the first and only Anglo Saxon succession from mother to daughter. The Abingdon [C] manuscript records for year 919; “Here also the daughter of Ӕthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all control in Mercia, and was led into Wessex three weeks before Christmas; she was called  Ælfwynn.”3

This act led to the condemnation of Edward by later chroniclers; he may have acted so promptly to prevent Mercia breaking away into an independent state. Perhaps he had other motives? The chronology of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle becomes confused between the various manuscripts; one account claims the submission of the Mercians to Edward occurred before  Ælfwynn was removed and led into Wessex.

In truth, we know very little of Ælfwynn, grand-daughter of King Alfred the Great, the date of her birth is not recorded. It is thought she was born early in her parents’ marriage, probably between 882 and 887. She was the only child of their union and the 12th century historian William of Malmesbury suggested the birth of Ælfwynn nearly killed her mother and soon after she took a vow of sexual abstinence. We don't know William's sources, however, alternatively it has been suggested that Ӕthelflaed had no further children to avoid producing a male Mercian heir that could threaten the alliance with Wessex; it would seem the two kingdoms were destined to unite after her death.4

This view may have some merit as the eldest son of King Edward of Wessex, Ӕthelstan, was fostered in the Mercian court under the tutelage of Bishop Waeferth at Worcester, trusted friend of Ӕthelflaed and also her father Alfred before her. This remarkable woman's influence on the young Wessex prince was immense; with incredible military success he would go on to become the first monarch of all England.

Ælfwynn first appears as a witness to three charters in 903, then appears on another recording a lease of land in 904, presumably she was by then old enough to act as a witness, probably at least in her teens. From the sparse information we have there is no record of a marriage or any children; Ӕthelflaed's genealogical line was to end with her daughter, the second and last Lady of the Mercians, and unification of the realm with Wessex would be inevitable.

The Return of the Vikings
Shorty before her death Ӕthelflaed secured a promise of submission from the Vikings at York, but on her departure they would not be obligated to the new ruler of Mercia. Yet the main threat now was the Norwegian Vikings from Ireland, which had seen Ӕthelflaed construct burhs on the northern borders of English Mercia, such as Runcorn to guard the river Mersey and restrict their passage into northern Britain on way for York.

In the year of Ӕthelflaed's death, the Viking warlord Ragnall defeated a combined force of Scots, Britons and English at the battle of Corbridge. Following his victory in the north he declared himself King of York the following year. The chroniclers do not record any Mercian involvement in the conflict with Ragnall during the later half of 918 following Ӕthelflaed's death when we would have expected the Lady of the Mercians to lead her armies with Edward against them. Did the Mercians consent to the deposition of Ælfwynn because she did not prove a capable leader and consolidate her mother's gains, such as the loss of York?5

By 919 Edward had taken control of the Mercian army, constructing additional burhs at Manchester and Thelwell on the northern Mercian border along the Mersey frontier, consolidating these positions with further fortifications at Bakewell and Nottingham pushing into Danish Mercia. Following Edward's northern campaign the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (again the chronology is confused between manuscripts) records that all of the north, the Scots, the Strathclyde Britons, the Northumbians and Ragnall's Vikings at York submitted to him, choosing him as 'father and lord'.6

In 924 Edward travelled to northern Mercia to put down a Mercian-Welsh uprising at Chester. The construction of the fortification at Cledemutha (Rhuddlan) three years earlier indicates relations with the north Welsh was far from amicable. It has been suggested that this rebellion was in response to the division of the Mercian kingdom into Shires; it certainly seems too late to be a response to the deposition of Ælfwynn, yet, as we have seen, the chronology of the Chronicle manuscripts does become confused in recording these events.7

The Abingdon [C] manuscript tells us that Edward died at Farndon, on the river Dee, just south of Chester on the Mercian border, in 924; just sixteen days later his son Ӕlfweard died at Oxford, and Ӕthelstan, their own son, was proclaimed as king by the Mercians.8

But what became of  Ælfwynn who simply disappears from the historical record six months after her mother's death?  William of Malmesbury was of the opinion that she was forced to become a nun and spent the rest of her days at a West Saxon Abbey. Alternatively she may have lived out her last days in the Royal court; a 'royal' woman of this name is cited in a charter of 948.

Notes & References:
1. David Horovitz, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the battle of Tettenhall 910AD; and other West Mercian studies, (Self Published), 2017. Florence (John) of Worcester records that Edward 'reduced' Tamworth to submission; Horovitz adds that the term is usually used to describe 'destruction'.
2. Michael Swanton, trans. & ed., The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, JM Dent, 1996.
There are nine surviving manuscripts of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, all thought to derive from a common original, started in the reign of King Alfred the Great, distributed and then continued at other monasteries. The oldest manuscript is known as  the Winchester, or A text. This version of the Chronicle does not include the Mercian Register and concentrates on the achievements of the kings of Wessex. The Mercian Register was added to manuscripts B and C, forming a discreet, but significant, part of the Chronicle filling a gap in these versions of the Chronicle for the years 915 to 934. The Register also appears in manuscripts D and E (placing further emphasise on its absence from the A text of Wessex) focusing on events between 909-919, the major achievements of Æthelflæd's reign leading up to the reconquest of Mercia at the time of her death.
3. HPR Finberg, ed., Scandinavian England. Collected Papers by F. T. Wainwright. Phillimore, 1975. Wainwright argues the date should be 918; he sees this as a rare anomaly in the normally reliable chronology of the Mercian Register.
4. Joanna Arman, The Warrior Queen: The Life and Legend of Aethelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great, Amberley, 2017.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Nicholas Higham, The Origins of Cheshire, Manchester University Press, 1993.
8. Swanton, op cit.

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Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The Lost Tomb of Æthelflæd

"AD 918. This year Ethelfleda, lady of the Mercians, with the help of God, before Laminas, conquered the town called Derby, with all that thereto belonged; and there were also slain four of her thanes, that were most dear to her, within the gates.
But very shortly after they had become so, she died at Tamworth, twelve days before midsummer, the eighth year of her having rule and right lordship over the Mercians; and her body lies at Gloucester, within the east porch of St. Peter's church." - ASC

Buried with the Saints

12th June 918 Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, died at Tamworth. There is no hint of an illness or wound from a battle injury in the Chronicles, her death appears to have been unexpected at the very peak of her military power; earlier that year she had taken Derby from the Vikings and just a few months too soon to see the reconquest of the southern Danelaw completed by her brother Edward the Elder.

Her body was taken 75 miles to Gloucester to be interred alongside her husband Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians at St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle her body lies “within the east porticus of St. Peter's church”.

One might have expected Æthelflæd, the daughter of King Alfred the Great, to have been buried in a mausoleum in the family home at Winchester but this may have been seen as admission to her subordination to the kings of Wessex. Repton, traditional burial place of the Mercian kings, was out of the question following an earlier desecration by the Vikings. It seems very apt that the Mercian Lord and Lady should lie at St Oswald's Priory which they established in the last decade of the 9th century.

Gloucester was a strategic place in the kingdom of Mercia, controlling the crossing to Wales and routes up the Severn with a strong Roman past. It had been the site of a Royal hall at Kingsholm and a mint there struck coins in the name of King Alfred. But significantly, situated in south-west Mercia, Gloucester had largely escaped the attention of Viking raiding parties but for an army that overwintered there in 877.

An abbey had been founded at Gloucester in the late 7th century by Osric, ruler of the Hwicce and dedicated to St Peter. Yet, by the late 9th century Gloucester had the appearance of a ruinous walled Roman town, the old buildings used as quarries for other building projects. The Old Minster, St Peter's Abbey, was then likely to have been the only stone building inside the walled enclosure. The old Roman walls were still standing on three sides with the river and Roman quayside on the fourth, western side.

Æthelflæd and Æthelred founded a new minster, constructed from recycled Roman stones and dedicated to St Peter, within the refortified town (burh) at Gloucester in the late 9th century. On the arrival of the relics of St Oswald, Northumbrian king and martyr, in 909 the minster was rededicated to the Saint. The former priory stands in a ruinous state today, a victim of the English Civil War. By then it was little more than a parish church that had fallen from prominence many years before.

We have no record of the fate of the tombs of Æthelflæd and Æthelred and they may not have survived into modern times. However, in the 1970s an archaeological investigation at St Oswald's discovered a 10th century fragment of a highly decorated carved cover from the tomb of someone extremely important, perhaps that of a Royal Mercian? Decorative parallels have been found in the embroidery of the stole of St Cuthbert, which was commissioned by Ælfflæd, wife of Edward the Elder. A similar design was introduced to the saint's coffin by Æthelstan, fostered in the Mercian court of Æthelflæd and Æthelred.

Æthelflæd's grave cover?
Gloucester Museum
Further archaeological investigations at the east end of the church has identified a building suitable for a royal mausoleum where St Oswald's relics may have been interred in 909 after the Mercian raid into the Danelaw, probably arranged if not led by Æthelflæd and Æthelred, which recovered the bones of the saint. Burial next to the saint would be extremely prestigious for the Mercian rulers.

William of Malmesbury reported that the tombs of Æthelflæd and Æthelred were discovered in the south porticus during building works at St Oswald's in the 12th century. However, the normally reliable historian seems to have confused his cardinal points. The 'east porticus' referred to in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle would usually be the chancel but at St Oswald's there is another eastern building; the first church had a sunken crypt adjacent to the east end. This crypt may have been constructed to the same plan as the 8th century crypt at Repton, a direct copy of the earlier Royal Mercian mausoleum at St Wystan's church.

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Monday, 11 June 2018

The Battle of Tettenhall

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the Battle of Tettenhall (sometimes called the Battle of Wednesfield or Wōdnesfeld) as taking place near Tettenhall, Staffordshire, on 5 August 910 AD. A combined force of Mercians and West Saxons slaughtered a raiding army of Northumbrian Vikings somewhere near Wolverhampton.

Saints and Saxons
In 909 Edward the Elder of Wessex and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, sent a combined West Saxon and Mercian host against the Northumbrian Danes who controlled much of northern England. The Anglo-Saxon army harried the Danes for five weeks, who at the end of which were forced to accept the terms of the King of Wessex.

In the same year the bones of the Northumbrian royal saint Oswald were seized from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire in what seems to be an unrelated raid into Danish territory; the noble rulers of English Mercia, Æthelred and Æthelflæd, are thought to be responsible. Æthelflæd, The Lady of the Mercians, in particular was responsible to relocating saints' relics into her fortified towns (burhs), such as St Bertelin at Stafford and Runcorn and established St Werburgh's relics at Chester.

Oswald was the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria from 633 to 642. Bede tells us that he asserted his authority over all the peoples of southern England. Oswald died at Maserfelth, on 5th August 642 AD, commonly thought to be near Oswestry, in present-day Shropshire (later part of Æthelflæd's Mercia), at the hands of the last pagan king of Mercia, Penda. If the identification of the battle site with Oswestry is correct, and it is far from certain, Oswald was deep into Mercian territory. Penda is well known for regicide; five kings fell to his sword. In this case he ordered Oswald's head and forearms be hacked off and fixed on stakes at the battle site. The pagan warlord must have had good reason for mutilating Oswald's corpse, in what bears indications of some kind of pagan sacrificial tradition of desecration of the royal corpse.

St Oswald monument, Oswestry
A year after the conflict at Maserfelth Oswald's brother Oswiu journeyed to the battle site and collected Oswald's head and forearms. The head went to Lindisfarne priory and was interred with St Cuthbert, finally resting at Durham Cathedral where it remains to this day. An uncorrupted arm went to Bamburgh and Peterborough claimed another. Some years later, between 675 – 697, Osthryth (Oswald's niece) collected his remains, presumably just the torso and legs that remained, from the battlefield and brought them to Bardney Abbey in Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire).

In 909 Oswald's remains (in part) were rescued by a Mercian force and translated to the Mercian church of St Peter's at Gloucester, rededicated as St Oswald's Priory established by Æthelred and Æthelflæd.

Slaughter at Woden's Field
In the following year the Northumbrian Danes retaliated by invading English (western) Mercia. With King Edward in Kent, the Vikings raided as far as the Bristol Avon. Turning for home the Vikings crossed the Severn and harried along the western bank until they reached Bridgnorth. They then struck into the Midlands but by now an English army under King Edward was in pursuit. Somewhere in Staffordshire, just north of Wolverhampton they were ambushed by a force of Mercians, with the West Saxons coming up behind. The combined Anglo-Saxon forces annihilated the Viking raiding army, which must have been a sizeable force as three kings are named among the casualties. And the date of the slaughter; 5th August, the feast day of St Oswald.

The location of Tettenhall

The Chronicle of Æthelweard (d.998) records the battle:

“After a year the barbarians broke the peace with King Edward, and Æthelred, who then ruled the Northumbrian and Mercian areas. The fields of the Mercians were ravaged on all sides by the throng we spoke about, and deeply, as far as the streams of the Avon, where the boundary of the West Saxons and Mercians begins. Then they were transported across the river Severn into the west country, and there they ravaged great ravagings. But when rejoicing in rich spoil they returned towards home, they were still engaged in crossing to the east side of the river of the river Severn over a pons, to give the Latin spelling, which is called [C]antbricge by the common people. Suddenly squadrons of both Mercians and West Saxons, having formed battle-order, moved against the opposing force. They joined battle without protracted delay on the field of Wednesfield; the English enjoyed the blessing of victory; the army of the Danes fled, overcome by armed force. These events are recounted as done on the fifth day of the month of August. There fell three of their kings in that same 'storm' (or 'battle' would be the right thing to say), that is Healfdene and Eywysl, and Inwaer also hastened to the hall of the infernal one, and so did senior chiefs of theirs, both jarls and other noblemen.”

The Anglo-Saxon victory was a turning point in the recovery of the Danelaw from which the Northumbrian Danes never recovered and subsequently are not recorded venturing south of the River Humber again leaving Edward and his Mercian allies to concentrate on conquering the southern Danelaw in East Anglia and the Five Boroughs of east Mercia.

In 911, the year after the battle of Tettenhall, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, died. He was succeeded by his widow Æthelflæd who from that moment on was known as the “Lady of the Mercians.

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