The Battle of Deorham, A.D. 577

Saxon warriors at Deorham (Dyrham). National Trust Re-enactment.

The Deorham campaign.

There is a general agreement that the battle of Deorham was one of the most important battles ever fought in this country. After nearly a century of slow and chequered progress, the Saxons at a single blow finally split the British forces into two parts, the northern portion becoming the inhabitants of Wales, the southern of Cornwall.

In the middle span of the sixth century the Anglo-Saxons were pushing steadily north-westwards through what is now Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, and Gloucester. In the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (our only real authority):

‘A.D. 552. This year Cynric (son of Cerdic) fought with the Britons at the place that is called Sarum and put them to flight.…

‘A.D. 556. This year Cynric and Ceawlin (his son) fought with the Britons at Beranburh [Barbury Castle, six miles south of Swindon]…

‘A.D. 577. Cuthwin and Ceawlin fought with the Britons and slew three kings,… on the place that is called Deorham and took from them three cities Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath.’

Seven years later Ceawlin is reported fighting in the north Midlands.

The implication of all this seems to be that Ceawlin made his first objective the Severn estuary, thus cutting Britain into two parts for all practical purposes, and that being accomplished he turned north to extend his sway over central England.

It is almost universally assumed that the three kings, whose capitals were Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath, had concentrated their armies inside the triangle made by these three cities, and that the modern Dyrham represents the Anglo-Saxon Deorham. Here unanimity ceases. As to the line of Ceawlin’s approach and the precise place of the battlefield there have been marked divergences of opinion through the centuries. Roughly speaking there are three schools of thought. One school makes Ceawlin, the Saxon commander, advance along the Roman road from Cunetio (Marlborough) to Bath, and thence northwards. A second gives bis route as along the Roman road towards Cirencester, skirting to the south of that city and approaching Dyrham from the north-east, Bath being his objective. A third school pictures him advancing along an ancient road between Braden Forest and Box Brook, on a road running approximately east-west. A fourth school (if Major Godsall may be so described) makes the Saxons approach Bristol and Bath from a position on Wansdyke to the south, with the co-operation of a fleet on the Avon. This last theory is so fanciful that it need not be seriously considered.

Let us now see how these varied schools of thought arose. The literature of this subject is surprisingly meagre. We will start with Camden—the usual starting-point. He places the battle at Hinton Hill Camp, one mile north of Dyrham; he asserts that the Saxons occupied the camp and the Britons concentrated against it from both north and south. Next comes Samuel Ryder, writing in 1774. He follows Camden for the most part, but does not go further than saying that the Saxons ‘are supposed to have occupied’ the camp. Dr. Guest is the next antiquary of note to contribute to the subject. He held that Ceawlin took the northern route, just short of Cirencester, with Bath as his objective. T. G. P. Hallett adopted this theory in 1884, and worked it out in some detail. According to his theory Ceawlin marched along the Fosseway towards Bath, but found his route blocked at the combe on which is sited Castle Combe, and forced to make a detour to his right. To do this he took the old track leading through Nettleton straight on to Hinton Hill Camp, which was occupied by the enemy. Thus came about the battle at that spot.

We now jump to 1904, when the Rev. C. S. Taylor throws out an entirely fresh theory. Ceawlin advanced along the old track south of the Forest of Braden, via Christian Malford, Stanton St. Quinton, Netdeton, to Hinton Hill, making for the Bristol Channel. This we will call the Middle Road. In 1907 F. F. Fox brought the Roman camp on Sodbury Hill into the picture, stating (like Ryder) that the Saxons were ‘supposed to’ have occupied that camp on the day before the batde. Presumably therefore they were advancing south on Bath, as Hallett had affirmed.

The last reference is in 1929 by St. Clair Braddel. He adopts the middle road, but places Ceawlin inside the camp, where he is attacked by the Britons.

It will be noted that none of these writers sponsor the southern route via Bath (though some historians, notably Sir Charles Oman, voice that view)—still less the Godsall theory.

Let us now test these theories in the light of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and of considerations of inherent military probability. The first thing to note is that six years elapsed between the campaign of Cuthwulf in the Chilterns (571) and the campaign of Deorham (577). Modern historians are apt to foreshorten the events of ancient history and to picture Ceawlin advancing from Oxfordshire to the Cotswolds in six days rather than in six years. Now a great deal can happen in six years (the whole of the World War was comprised within that period). This six-year silence in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle probably conceals a series of swings of the pendulum, several advances and retreats by the Saxons, from different directions, though no decisive battle was fought and the general upshot was to push the Britons further back towards the Cotswolds and the west. If Ceawlin consolidated as he advanced there could be little element of surprise in that advance. He had been under arms fairly continuously for a quarter of a century and any youthful dash that he may once have possessed had probably been replaced by caution—especially if the battle of Barbury was a moral defeat for him, as I suspect it was.

Not only would Ceawlin have grown cautions, but prudent too. I cannot see him advancing by either the northern or southern route, skirting the hostile strongholds respectively of Cirencester or Bath. If his objective were Bath I can see no object in approaching it by a circuitous route that would run him into gratuitous danger en route. Nor, conversely, if his objective were Gloucester, is it likely that he would pass Bath, leaving it a menace to his communications. If Ceawlin was a strategist (and there is every reason to suppose he was), he would realize the immense strategical advantage in an advance to the Bristol Channel, for such a move would cut the enemy’s armed forces in two. If that were his objective he would naturally select a route that avoided passing near either Cirencester or Bath. Alternatively, if he knew that the enemy were concentrated on the Cotswolds he would prefer to strike at the hostile army in the field rather than at fortified towns. For that has always been sound strategy: if the hostile field army can be disposed of the towns will fall like ripe plums into the victor’s lap. (Naseby spelt the knell of Bristol and Oxford.) By either of these suppositions Ceawlin would be expected to take the central road south of Braden Forest, as suggested by C. S. Taylor.

Now we know that when Ceawlin did reach the Cotswolds the concentrated army of the enemy was there, and it is a reasonable assumption that it was the combined army of the ‘kings’ of Cirencester, Gloucester, and Bath. (No doubt the Chronicle exalted the local leaders into kings to add prestige to the victory.) One theory (Carden’s) is that they concentrated upon the Saxon army at Dyrham from north and south. This may look attractive on paper, but all history emphasizes the practical difficulties of concentrating on exterior lines against a centrally situated enemy. It is much more likely that the Britons were already concentrated before the Saxons approached. It is usually the simplest that happens in war. In this case the simplest solution would be that Ceawlin’s advance was slow and methodical, heading straight for the Bristol Channel, that the Britons were alive to the strategical danger threatening and that they consequently took up a position barring the enemy’s approach. Where would one expect to find such a position? Surely astride the main existing trackway. This we may presume to have been the ‘middle’ road. How far along it? One might expect them to take up a position as far east on the Cotswold massif as possible, say about Nettleton. But for reasons we do not know this did not prove possible, so they fell back to a position covering the hill fort of Hinton Hill, which would serve for them as a sort of depot or arsenal of stores and food. The position thus taken up would be strikingly similar to that at Barbury—a not surprising coincidence if, as I believe, the Barbury position had served them well. In each case the position adopted was just on top of the massif or plateau, with the escarpment only a few hundred yards in their rear; in each case there was a broad valley immediately in their rear; in each case they held a position a few hundred yards in front of, and covering a hill fort situated on the very edge of the escarpment—in each case a ‘promontory’ camp. Finally (if I locate the actual line held correctly) in each case the position was on commanding ground, sloping gently down towards the enemy, with sharp slopes on or near the two flanks.

Full of confidence then, in the strength of their position and encouraged by the recollection of that battle at Barbury twenty-one years before, Kings Commail, Condidan, and Farinmail arrayed their combined hosts in battle order. The seriousness of the situation must have been clear to all in that army. Each man had only to glance over his shoulder, over a dozen miles of flat ground to the gleaming waters of the Bristol Channel. There would be little hope of escape if they were worsted, nor for their country if the Saxons prevailed. It was do or die!

If the above premises be accepted, the precise site of the battlefield should not be difficult to define. A glance at the sketch-map will show that 300 yards in front of the camp there is a slight ridge, running astride of and exactly perpendicular to the road by which the Saxons were approaching. What could be better for a line of defence? But there was one objection to it. Six hundred yards further forward there is another and slightly higher ridge. (Though only a very gentle ridge it is as well marked as that probably occupied by Egbert at Ellandun.)

This forward ridge also runs astride of and perpendicular to the road, and in front of it the ground slopes very gently down, affording a splendid distant view of the approach of the enemy. This strikes me as being as near ideal for the purpose as could well be conceived. Here then, on the line marked AA on the sketch-map I place the defending army of the three kings, their reserve line being on the ridge BB in the rear.

As for details of the battle we only know one fact, but the full significance of that has not, I believe, been sufficiently recognized. (Godsall hints at it.) This fact is that all three commanders of the allied army lost their lives. Such an event was, so far as I know, unique in Wessex warfare. At Ashdown one Danish commander was slain, but the other leader got away. Here all were ‘put in the bag’. The implication seems inescapable: they were surrounded. How did this come about? To get at the probable answer let us once more look at the map.

As the pressure of the attackers increased the Britons would be gradually pushed back to the line BB. Now the flanks of this line would rest almost if not quite on the escarpment. The least additional retreat, or the least overlapping of the line by the attackers, would enable the flank men to charge headlong and exultantly down the steep hill. Swinging inwards instinctively (as troops do) they would join hands below and in rear of the camp. All this would happen in a matter of a few minutes, and long before the defenders could organize any counter-action.

In this fashion, then, I picture the course of this historic battle. The three kings, falling back to the refuge of the camp, would find their further retreat cut off. They would be besieged, if still alive; and such a siege, unless speedy relief came, could have but one end, for water would be unobtainable in the hill fort. Commail, Condidan, and Farinmail would be captured by Ceawlin, and summarily knocked on the head. The battle of Deorham thus marked the downfall of the defenders of this land.

Lt-Col Alfred H. Burne, More Battlefields of England, London: Methuen, 1952.

H.P.R. Finberg, The Formation of England, 550–1042, London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1974/Paladin, 1976.

John Morris, The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973, ISBN 0 297 17601 3.

J.N.L. Myres, The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements, Oxford: Clarendon, 1986, ISBN 0 19 821719 6.

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