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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