The first clash between the English and the Scots came about because of the collapse of the post-Roman British power in the area around Hadrian’s Wall. At the time both the English and the Scots were small in numbers and occupied only a fraction of the territories now covered by England and Scotland. The battle which took place at Degsastan looked at the time to be decisive, but was in fact just the opening round in what proved to be over a thousand years of warfare.
The Scots were, in AD 600, one of the less significant peoples in what was to become Scotland. They were recent arrivals from Ireland, to which they retained strong cultural links and important blood ties.
The Scots had begun arriving some time in the early fifth century. At first they came as isolated bands of settlers along the coasts and islands of Argyll and neighbouring areas. For a while, the Scots kingdom was ruled from the ancestral base near Coleraine. Then, in about 500, the Scots King Fergus left Ireland and established the centre of his kingdom on the Kintyre Peninsula. He brought with him a large stone on which the Kings of the Scots had for generations stood when being inaugurated as kings. Fergus and his grandson Gabran were famous soldiers and Scots power increased steadily. By 600 the Scots ruled the lands from Loch Linnhe south to Loch Long and probably exercised some form of overlordship over Mull, Skye and the Hebrides.
The remaining lands north of the Forth and Clyde were occupied by the Picts, a wild people who had never been tamed by Rome and who may have been descended from the pre-Celtic population of Britain.
South of the Forth and Clyde the land was divided between two Celtic kingdoms. The east was ruled by Mynydawc, King of Gododdin, whose power stretched from the Forth Valley to beyond the Tweed. The West was held by Riderch, King of Clyde. As the name suggests, Clyde was centred around the fertile lands of the Clyde Valley, but it reached south as far as Carlisle. Both these kingdoms had bordered Hadrian’s Wall in the days of the Roman Empire. Their lands were criss-crossed by Roman-built roads and studded with Roman forts where legionnaries rested when on patrol. It is most likely that both Gododdin and Clyde had been client states of Rome – paying tribute and absorbing much Roman culture.
The English, meanwhile, had arrived in Britain in a series of waves of immigration from the 350s onwards. By AD 600 their power in northern Britain was based around two kingdoms: Deira and Bernicia. The Deirans were based around Driffield in Yorkshire and seem to have been the more numerous of the two English peoples. They were, however, more inclined to farming and trade than fighting. They seem to have lived on relatively good terms with their British neighbours. Bernicia was very different. Based on the fortress rock of Bamburgh, Bernicia was a warrior kingdom. Its kings were eager for power and they brought large numbers of land-hungry warriors over from Germany to help them secure it. King Athelferth came to the throne in 593 and began by raising a fresh army, before steadily increasing his lands and raiding deep into British territory.
In 598 the British of Gododdin marched south to fight the aggressive Bernicians. It is likely that Mynydawc was hoping for support from the British who still lived in large numbers around York, or even from the Deirans, for he led his army south on the west coast before crossing the Pennines to enter Bernician territory down the valley of the Tees.
The two armies met at Catraeth, now Catterick, and the English achieved an overwhelming victory. Mynydawc and nearly all his men were killed – later tradition says that only one man returned home from this expedition. With its army wiped out, Gododdin was helpless. Bede, writing a century later, recorded of Athelferth ‘He ravaged the Britons more cruelly than all other English leaders. He overran a greater area than any other king, exterminating or enslaving the inhabitants, making their lands either tributary to the English or ready for English settlement.’
Before long English warriors were stationed in the Forth Valley. It was this which brought the Scots into the picture. Their king, Aedan, could not ignore the growing might of the English, whose lands now bordered his around Callender.
Aedan realized that in Athelferth and the Bernician English he had a dangerous enemy. The Scots had traditionally recognized the Kings of Ulster as their overlords in some vague way. So Aedan asked the Ulstermen for help. Mael Uma, brother of the King of Ulster, promised to come to help in the expectation of acquiring rich loot.
It is most likely, though the chroniclers are unclear on this point, that Aedan also received help from King Riderch of Clyde. The two kings knew each other well and both owed religious allegiance to the Abbots of Iona. It is more than likely that they would have united against the pagan Bernicians. It is possible that Riderch may, in turn, have appealed to the Britons of Rheged, the land between Hadrian’s Wall and the Dee. However, Rheged was in the midst of a murderous civil war at the time and it is unlikely many men would have marched north to join the allies.
Athelferth, meanwhile, received news of the forces gathering against him. He sent out urgent orders to his scattered forces. They were to break off from pillaging or forcing tribute from the Britons of Gododdin and instead to gather for war.
The Opposing Armies
It is virtually impossible to know the sizes of the armies which met at Degsastan. The Dark Age chronicles tend to speak vaguely of ‘a large army’ or ‘a small force’. On a few occasions, however, they are more precise and a good idea of numbers can be gained. It is not unreasonable to assume that a kingdom could raise a similar sized army on different occasions.
The army which Aedan led to attack the English was made up of contingents from his own Scots kingdom, from Ulster and from the British Kingdom of Clyde. A few generations later, the Scots were able to field a force of 3,000, so perhaps they had a similar number in 603. It is reasonable to assume that Mael Uma brought less than half the fighting force of Ulster with him – perhaps another 1,500 men. The allied army may have numbered some 6,000 men all told.
The Ulstermen came from a land where cattle stealing and raiding were endemic. Lightly armed men, able to move swiftly, were ideally suited to such warfare. The Irish of the time would have fought on foot and been armed with two or three throwing javelins and a short sword about two feet long. They wore no armour and had only a small leather shield about twelve inches in diameter for defence. Richer men would have been armed with longer swords and are described as wearing richly coloured cloaks and gold jewellery into battle.
In Ireland the chieftains rode to war on chariots. These were light vehicles drawn by two swift ponies. However, it is unlikely these would have been brought over for the campaign of 603. The Irish crossed to Britain in boats known as curraghs. These were built by constructing a keel and ribs of supple saplings. Over this was woven a wicker skin, which was made waterproof with stretched cowhide. Even the largest curragh was no more than twenty feet long, too small to transport horses except in the calmest weather.
The Scots were, essentially, an Irish tribe. Archaeology reveals that in 603 they were still of a predominantly Irish culture, so it is most likely that their warriors would have been equipped in the Irish fashion. No records or archaeology have indicated that the Scots used chariots. Presumably the mountainous terrain of Argyll did not suit them.
The men of Clyde would have been quite different. Their military traditions and equipment were derived from late-Roman models. It was to rulers such as the Kings of Clyde that the Roman armourers and soldiers turned for employment when the money for their wages stopped coming from Rome.
The Clyde infantry would have worn a corselet of tough, boiled leather reinforced by metal strips and with leather flaps hanging down over the groin, backside and the upper arms. The conical helmet would also have been of boiled leather and metal. This boiled leather would not stop a determined sword thrust, but could turn aside spears or glancing blows. The men carried a large round or oval shield about three feet across. These were frequently painted with Christian symbols, such as a cross or image of Mary the Virgin. The weapons they carried were a stout, thrusting spear some seven feet long and a hand axe or large knife.
The Kingdom of Clyde also fielded a small number of cavalry. These men were armoured with short-sleeved tunics of mail and wore metal helmets. They carried throwing javelins and long swords for hand to hand fighting. In addition to this heavy cavalry there was lighter cavalry of unarmoured horsemen who would have been used for scouting and raiding.
Ensuring men of different backgrounds, different languages and different fighting styles would cooperate properly on campaign would have been a major challenge for Aedan. It is not clear that he succeeded.
The size of Athelferth’s army is more problematic. He could draw on the manpower of his own kingdom, but his fame as a warrior attracted adventurous young men from elsewhere in England and from Germany. It is clear that he made a major effort on this occasion, so his army may have numbered anything from about 4,000 to 8,000 men.
Being made up entirely of Englishmen, Athelferth’s army was more uniform in terms of equipment and appearance. The English of this period fought exclusively on foot, though some of the professional soldiers rode horses to reach the battlefield.
The majority of men carried a large round shield for defence and a seven-feet spear and a one-sided knife for weapons. The professional men of the King’s own troop would have had leather tunics and helmets. Only the king himself and the richest warriors would have carried mail tunics, metal helmets and long swords.