BBC History Magazine: the battle of Hengest’s Hill

The September issue of BBC History Magazine is still on news-stands, featuring my article on forgotten battles of the Viking Age. I was delighted to make it onto the cover:

Here’s an extract from the pre-publication draft:

The Battle of Hengest’s Hill, 838

‘King Ecgbehrt (Egbert) of Wessex was not a man to be trifled with. In 825, he had established himself and his kingdom as the pre-eminent power in Britain, crushing the Mercians at a place called Ellendun (just outside Swindon). It had been a memorably bloody business. A fragment of poetry recalled that ‘Ellendun’s stream ran red with blood, was stuffed up with corpses, filled with stink’. This, however, was only one front in Ecgbehrt’s campaign to subdue the other kingdoms and peoples of Britain. In 815, he had raided Cornwall ‘from east to west’ – a reminder to the still independent Cornish kingdom of the limits of their autonomy. In 838, however, the Cornish decided that the time had come to push back against West Saxon domination. This time they had allies – Viking allies.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that a ‘great ship-horde came to Cornwall’ which combined forces with the native Cornish and immediately set about challenging King Ecgbehrt’s power. Ecgbehrt led an army into Cornwall, bringing his strength to bear at a place called Hengest’s Hill (Hengestesdun). This was most probably Kit Hill, the massive prominence that dominates the valley of the Tamar, one flank of which is still known as Hingsdon (Hengestesdun). We know very little about what happened, except that the Vikings and the Cornish were put to flight. This, it would transpire, was to be the last gasp of Cornish independence. The people of Britain’s south-western peninsula would never again pose a military threat to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The same cannot be said of their erstwhile Viking allies.

Since the 790s, Viking fleets had been striking from the sea without warning, raiding monasteries and coastal settlements and capturing slaves and treasure. By the 830s, these attacks had become increasingly brazen, targeting substantial settlements like Carhampton in Somerset and defeating Anglo-Saxon armies. But this was the first time (that we know of) that Vikings had marched to war alongside a native people in Britain. Although (and sadly for the Cornish) it was not a successful experiment, it would certainly not be the last.’

Back to the trenches: Bannockburn and battlefield archaeology on the BBC

This evening BBC Scotlandwill be airing the first part of a new series investigating the Bannockburn battlefield. The series is obviously timed to coincide with interest in the battle arising from the Scottish independence debate and coming referendum, but work to precisely locate the site has been ongoing for some time. The series promises to shine a welcome spotlight on a still emerging branch of archaeology and the challenges associated with locating (and protecting) locations that have a powerful resonance in modern political engagement with the past. If the site of Bannockburn can be identified with  security (and archaeological proof) then it will join the tiny corpus of pre-Civil War battelfields in Britain that can be identified archaeologically, alongside Bosworth (1485) and Towton (1461). The series is presented by Neil Oliver and Dr. Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University. The latter’s involvement should ensure that the series is sensible and insightful, and recalls the days when the pair presented the battlefield archaeology programme Two Men in A Trench before Neil Oliver’s ascent to the dizzy pinnacle of archaeo-presenting megastardom.

The website has lots of content, and several entertaining clips of people hitting each other with authentic looking fourteenth century hardware. Excellent.

 

The Battle of Wesenberg/Rakvere: medieval warfare in the far north

(c) Milek Jakubiec/Medieval Warfare Magazine

I have just recently had another article published in Medieval Warfare magazine, this time – in a bit of a departure from my usual sphere of study – on a battle that took place in the context of the northern crusades that pitched the forces of Catholic western Europe and Scandinavia against the Pagans and Orthodox Christians of the eastern Baltic and beyond. In this case the belligerents comprised the armies of the Russian city states of Novgorod and Pskov (and elsewhere) pitched against a combined army of Danes, Teutonic Knights, Estonians and other crusading forces – perhaps from Germany.

The article is triumphantly illustrated by Milek Jakubiec. The scene depicts the single combat supposedly fought between the Lithunian-Russian Prince Dovmont (Daumantas) of Pskov, and the Master of the Livonian Branch of the Teutonic Knights, Otto von Lutterberg, during the rout of part of the Catholic army. This may or may not have happened, but it certainly makes for an exciting scene to illustrate the battle.

The magazine is full of interesting material relating to the life and times of Alexander Nevsky, prince of Novgorod and hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film that depicted the Teutonic Knights as proto-Nazi invaders. Absolute propagandist bosh of course, but stirring stuff nonetheless!

Heroic Russians ...

Heroic Russians …

... wicked Germans

… wicked Germans

 

Book Reviews: Alfred’s Wars and Viking Warfare

Two reviews (by me) of titles published in the last couple of years on the subject of early medieval warfare can now be read online.

The first is a review of Ryan Lavelle’s Verbruggen-prize-winning Alfred’s Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age (Boydell 2010) which, apart from its slightly misleading title (it happily ranges far more widely than the mention of Alfred implies), thoroughly deserves all the praise it has received. It is also, as of last year, out now in paperback for a very reasonable price.

The second is my review of I. P. Stephenson’s Viking Warfare. This has the distinction of being my most read article on academia.edu, although I suspect that this is testament to the popularity of ‘Viking Warfare’ as a search term, rather than any great desire on the public at large to discover my opinions of Mr Stephenson’s book. In hindsight, I would soften my criticism of Stephenson’s approach, and in particular his comments regarding the shift in military fashions over the tenth and into the eleventh centuries. However, I still take issue with some of the assumptions made by the author given the paucity of the material evidence. Nevertheless, this is still one of the better efforts addressing this subject currently in print.

Ringmere

Yesterday I visited the site that has long been associated with the Battle of Ringmere (as named by John of Worcester and called Hringmaraheiðr in various Norse saga accounts which include some fascinating contemporary skaldic verse relating to the battle). The connection of the battle to a remarkable geological feature – Ringmere – on Wretham Heath is a long-standing one, which has only recently been seriously challenged in a well reasoned article by Keith Briggs that appeared in ‘Notes and Queries’ [read it here]. Nevertheless, the site at Wretham remains a compelling one, not least due to the preservation of an open and atmospheric landscape thanks to the designation of Wretham Heath as a nature reserve (run by the Norfolk Naturalists Trust).

Ringmere 4

Ringmere, Wretham Heath, Norfolk

A feature of this landscape that – to the best of my knowledge – has not previously been remarked upon in discussions of the battle is the presence of a small circular ditched enclosure of indeterminate date that lies very close to the pool now labelled on maps as Ringmere. Briggs’ comments on the possible origins of the ring/hring element notwithstanding, the possibility must exist that the mere was named in relation to the earthwork enclosure nearby. Given the location of this place at the juncture of seven parishes, it is conceivable that this structure may have served as a moot-site of some kind.

Ringmere enclosure

Circular enclosure on Wretham Heath

There is a demonstrable pattern of association between early medieval battlefields and circular prehistoric structures (most strikingly at the Kennet battlefield and at one of the contenders for the Hengestes dune battlefield: both situated at henge monuments) which may derive from the use of established meeting points and landmarks as muster-points and battlefields (Halsall 1989). If East Wretham Heath was the site of the battle, it is possible that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s reference to ‘the place Ulfcytel was with his army’ refers to a mustering point for the East Anglian and Cambridgeshire levies focussed on this ring-shaped man-made structure and the extraordinary lake nearby.

As I wandered about the site, a great cloud of Rooks billowed up into an ominous sky to swirl madly in the gathering dusk. Their hoarse cries were a timeless echo in that bleak landscape – it was hard not to imagine the wild expanse of heathland strewn with the corpses of Saxons and Danes as the birds of battle wheeled in anticipation of their coming feast.

Ringmere ravens 3

[Originally posted 21st September 2012]