Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Battle-site of 'Heavenfield'

Someone asked my - adult - daughter once if I travelled to many locations in the course of my research. Her answer was: 'She stands around in fields a lot and gets emotional, does that count?'

Well, it's largely true. There are a few buildings that can be dated to the Anglo-Saxon period (see my post here about Escomb Church) but when it comes to battle fields, many are still missing, presumed lost. 

While historians continue to argue about the exact location of Brunanburh, there are some sites which are less disputed, one of which is the site of the battle at Heavenfield, where St Oswald's Church stands close to Hadrian's Wall. So close, in fact, that there are bits missing from the wall at this point, and it's thought that stones from it were used to build the church.

What we know of the battle is this:~

Edwin, king of Northumbria, had been killed in battle in 633 by the combined forces of Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd. According to Bede, (HE ii 20) Cadwallon was in rebellion against Edwin, suggesting some sort of overlordship, evidently resented, and after the battle the land of the Northumbrians was ravaged and Edwin's wife and surviving children fled to Kent.

Edwin had been expanding his kingdom at the expense of the British kingdoms, and while there are some traditions which suggest that initially Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon had been enemies, they were at this point in alliance, although there is some debate over whether it was an enterprise of equals, or whether Cadwallon was the leader. 

Edwin had been in exile for many years before he became king, and one of his first acts upon gaining the throne had been to attack the British kingdom of Elmet (centred around modern-day Leeds) and in so doing, he removed a 'buffer' between his own lands and those of the Welsh.

After Edwin's death, the kingdom of Northumbria briefly split back into its two separate kingdoms, and Edwin's cousin came forward to claim Deira in the south, while an exiled member of the old ruling dynasty claimed Bernicia in the north.

Cadwallon, who clearly had a hefty axe to grind, killed the former, who had 'rashly' tried to besiege him, and a year later, also slew the latter, who had come to make peace with the Welsh king bringing 'only twelve chosen thegns' with him. Bede's verdict was that Cadwallon had executed a 'just vengeance on them, though with unrighteous violence'. They had, he said, reverted to the 'filth of their former idolatry'. (HE iii 1)

The latter's half-brother, Oswald, had also been in exile, and returned now to claim both the kingdoms of the north. Oswald was also the nephew of the previous king, Edwin, and having both Deiran and Bernician blood, was acceptable to both realms. There was just the small matter of the Welshman - a Christian whom Bede called 'a barbarian in heart and disposition' who spared neither women nor innocent children' - to deal with...

Oswald came, according to Bede, with an army, small in numbers but strengthened by faith, and I imagine that they might have followed the line of the wall as they travelled from what is now the west of Scotland. Before the battle, Oswald is said to have set up a holy cross, and it is on this site that the present church was built.

Excavation at this part of the wall has revealed fragments of human bone and weaponry, suggesting that this is indeed the site of a battle.

The church sits on top of the hill, and as I stood in the churchyard and looked down at the fields below, I couldn't help but picture the landscape as it might have looked then, with soldiers and equipment.

Cadwallon was slain. Possibly his forces were depleted, for it seems he had been campaigning in the north for a while. He is said to have been killed at a place called Deniseburn which has been identified with Rowley Burn*. If so, then he was chased for some miles before he was killed. I drove to Rowley Burn, and tried to envisage what it must have looked like in 634, when a mighty Welsh king drew his last breath, but the scene was a tranquil one.

Of the site of the church, Bede said that it was a place still 'held in great veneration' (HE iii 2) but no trace of the Anglo-Saxon church remains.  Inside the existing church, which dates from the nineteenth century, there is a Roman altar stone,

and the building is peaceful, simply presented, and so calm and quiet it's hard to imagine the clamour of battle which once rang out. 

Given the location and the archaeological evidence, I feel confident that I was in the right place. It's not often that I can stand somewhere and know that the people I write about once stood in the same spot. So yes, I do often stand in fields and get a bit emotional.

These characters all feature in my latest novel, Cometh the Hour

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

* Peter Marren, Battle of the Dark Ages, pp74-75


  1. The imagination runs wild at sites like this, especially when they feature in your own book. I can imagine the welling tears and your mind becoming fixed in the past. Your book sounds wonderful Annie and I can't wait to read it. But, oh dear ... the stones of poor old Hadrian's Wall have so many new homes now. Fabulous area to visit, for whatever reason.

    1. Thanks Millie. As you know yourself, it's not often we can get so close to the 'Dark Ages' characters so it was quite emotional for me. With few buildings still standing from the period, fields are pretty much all we have, along with artefacts. This was a very special day for me :-)