Saint Aidan and Saint-King Oswald.
In 635 at Heavenfield, pagan banners were unfurled, sword hilts were hammered on shields, and two native war bands faced each other to settle their fate in blood. Three years earlier at the battle of Hatfield Chase near Doncaster, the ferocious Welsh chieftain Cadwallon had smashed a Northumbrian army and killed Edwin its king. Military prowess combined with astute dynastic alliances had allowed Edwin to establish a kingdom which he oversaw from a warren of hill forts at Gefrin, known now as Yeavering, in the Cheviot Hills. But his untimely death meant that the kingdom of Northumbria now lay outstretched and vulnerable before the mighty Celtic warlord Cadwallon.
Leading the defence of his country was the new young king Oswald, a remarkable member of the Northumbrian aristocratic warrior caste who appears to have been as schooled in the Gospels as he was in sword play. If accounts of his greatest battle are to be accepted, Oswald’s strategic guile and prowess as a military commander far outweighed his tender years, for it is claimed he selected his fighting ground before giving battle. By assessing the battlefield today, his good judgement can still be appreciated. Resting on a high ramp of land, Heavenfield is an ideal battle location. It is wedged between rocky outcrops on the northern and western flanks, and protected to the south by Hadrian’s Wall and its defensive ditch which in the seventh century would still have presented a formidable barrier.
Another legacy of Roman occupation may have played a significant role in this battle. Their sophisticated network of roads continued in use long after their departure and would have been vital for relatively speedy troop movements. Stanegate from the west, Dere Street from the south, and particularly the sinisterly named ‘Devil’s Causeway’ which sliced diagonally across the region, were arteries of communication which led to Heavenfield. Cadwallon probably advanced north from his York stronghold along Dere Street, approaching its crossroads with Stanegate at the Northumbrian settlement of Corbridge where the River Tyne could be forded. His objective may have been to strike at the Northumbrian military base at Bamburgh as he continued north, crossing the Wall before becoming aware of an enemy force in the vicinity.
Seeking to draw Cadwallon away, Oswald’s troops could then move from their encampment to form up on Heavenfield, where they prepared to withstand the shock of the Welsh onslaught. In this battlefield scenario the trap was sprung and Oswald held open its jaws. Turning westward, the battle-hardened Cadwallon then bore eagerly down upon his waiting adversary.
Oswald advanced with an army small, but strengthened with the faith of Christ. Bede, eighth century.
As far as can be known, Dark Age battles were probably short but extremely savage clashes with no hint of quarter. Before fighting began, however, both sides may have faced each other to trade insults instead of blows, enacting a ritual still observed in the behaviour of urban street gangs today. It remains as effective as ever to instil collective confidence and intimidate opponents into hasty and uncoordinated attacks.
Scenting victory against an outnumbered opponent and an untried leader, Cadwallon’s warriors could then hurl themselves forward. Prior to this, to open the battle, there was possibly an exchange of slingshot and spears, weapons likely to have been favoured by most ordinary tribesmen of this period. Judging by the finely wrought sword blades that have been unearthed, metal working was a highly developed skill during this period. It is likely, though, that heavy battle swords, long axes and rudimentary but still expensive armoured protection would have been available only to the elite cadre of warriors who gathered around their leader. Most of the remaining war band would have been equipped with spears, axes and even simple farming implements. Some of these weapons may have been light and seemingly innocuous, but without doubt they would prove to be just as lethal in the brutal close-quarter combat into which these murderous encounters doubtless descended.
But as the Celts swarmed towards the Northumbrian line of battle, Oswald’s choice of battleground was vindicated. A broad mass of Welsh tribesmen would be squeezed into a narrow front by the contours of the land over which they charged. As with many sites of battle, topography could decisively affect the final outcome. At Heavenfield, Cadwallon’s momentum would be checked and his warriors tired by their ascent of the long rising slope which was defended by Oswald’s army. Because of this it was possibly here, on the crest where a small church now stands, that the first wave of the Celtic attack broke upon a wall of closely packed Northumbrian defenders.
Powerful but increasingly desperate Celtic attacks could then be blunted by the Northumbrian shield wall. To be effective it had to be locked tightly against the wedge of struggling warriors who slashed and cut at it. Shields of this period were robustly constructed from hide-covered wood and many of them may have been strengthened significantly by the addition of a central iron boss. This was probably smaller than the Roman model but it was equally effective in deflecting sword blows and forcing back opponents.
Steadily, Oswald’s men must have gained the upper hand as their assailants began to falter. Seizing the moment, the Northumbrian front rank could then spring forward and cut down the tiring warriors before them. At some stage of the bitter fighting, as always in battle, a critical turning point undoubtedly arrived. But whatever had caused the fatal loss of impetus, for Cadwallon the fight was effectively lost.
His routed men were said to have streamed away from the battlefield pursued by a bloodthirsty enemy. Many Celts were overtaken and killed in their headlong flight towards the south, including Cadwallon and his clansmen, who were overwhelmed as they attempted to escape across a stream. Two local waterways are associated with the death of the legendary Celtic warlord: Devil’s Water, a fast-flowing tributary of the River Tyne, and Deniseburn or Rowley Burn which is further to the south in what is now County Durham.
Scant evidence other than local tradition has set the death of Cadwallon in these locations. A near contemporary description of the battle itself was written by Bede, the monkish scholar and first truly English historian. Although it was written barely within a century of Heavenfield, and closely follows an earlier narrative by an Ionian abbot, Bede’s brief account should be treated with cautionary respect. Oswald’s victory is described in Bede’s famed Ecclesiastical History as the divinely inspired triumph of a Christian king over a satanic heathen. In fact Cadwallon was baptised, and the enmity between him and the Northumbrian kingdom was intensified by the rivalry between different strands of early British Christianity. As far as Bede was concerned, the Celtic chief was irredeemable, ‘an impious man’ who deserved an ignominious end. This is hinted at in the account, but given Cadwallon’s martial reputation it is just as likely that the Welsh leader was defiant to the end and died in the midst of his slain bodyguard.
Bede exploited the victory at Heavenfield as a eulogy to the princely state of Northumbria and a reinforcement of the cult of the warlike Oswald and his brother northern saints. Despite this, it is highly likely that across these now gentle acres of Northumberland there was once a furious struggle. Although there have been no recent archaeological surveys, for centuries after that decisive day of Northumbrian victory, the battle site gained a reputation for splintered human bone and twisted fragments of sword blades which were turned over by the plough. A field opposite the battle site, to the south of the road, is referred to as ‘Moulds Close’, well named because of its dark associations with burial and decay:
The place is still pointed out to this day and held in great veneration where Oswald raised the sign of the Holy Cross when about to engage in this battle. Bede, eighth century
As Oswald began to celebrate his great achievement and mourn his fallen comrades, the site of their death became a place of pilgrimage. Monks from the nearby religious settlement of Hexham quickly began to raise a permanent memorial to the day of their salvation. A small chapel may have shared the site with a simple wooden cross, said to have been erected by Oswald as a battle standard before fighting began. His crude cross was soon whittled away by pilgrims greedy for relics and miraculous cures, but it has been replaced over the centuries by a succession of others. One stands there today, carved at now only by wind and rain, but still proudly facing out across the Northumbrian battle line.
By destroying the Welsh invasion at Heavenfield, Oswald had saved his homeland, which prospered briefly until he too died in a storm of slashing blades and piercing arrows. A tiny church dedicated to Oswald now occupies the field of his greatest and most unexpected victory. It is modest yet inspiring. Perhaps it shares something with the plain Christian symbol that he was said to have used successfully as a call to arms so long ago. Beyond question, at any rate, Heavenfield is a seductive place for modern pilgrim and military historian alike.
Oswald’s short reign gave a breathing space which encouraged a cultural and religious flowering to take hold in Northumbria. Its apogee is expressed in the beautiful Gospel illustrations produced at Lindisfarne, and the priory church in Hexham, which was famed as a wonder of the Western world after it was built in 680. Northumbria’s kingdom vividly illuminated a darkened age until it reeled under a deadly sword thrust from across the grey Northern Sea.