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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