I have been wrestling with a problem of dating, which may be associated with the translation of Bede that I am using. (Leo Sherley-Price A History of the English Church and People, 1955, revised R. E. Latham 1968, Penguin Classics.) Yes I know, I know, I should get hold of something more recent. Anyway, the problem is with chronology for the years 633-4.

The text explicitly states (Book Two, Chapter 20) that Edwin was killed on 12 October 633 at the battle of Haethfelth. So far so good. Then, Book Three, Chapter 1, Bede states (in the above translation) that ‘next summer’ Osric was besieging Cadwalla, king of the Britons, and that Cadwalla destroyed Osric and his army. This must, therefore, have been the summer of 634.

Bede goes on to say that ‘After this, for a full year, Cadwalla ruled the Northumbrian provinces …’ Logically, this takes the time through the autumn of 634 and the winter/spring of 635. With me so far? This is the year that Bede famously says was discounted because of Cadwalla’s tyranny and the apostasy of Osric in Deira and Eanfrid in Bernicia. Eanfrid was killed by Cadwalla at some time during this year 634/5.

Back to Bede again: ‘after the death of his brother Eanfrid, [Oswald] mustered an army small in numbers but strong in the faith of Christ…’ defeating Cadwalla at Deniseburn (following a vision at Hefenfelth). Logically, if Bede is correct that Cadwalla ravaged Northumbria for a full year after the summer of 634, this would put Deniseburn/Hefenfelth in the summer of 635.

Sign beside St Oswald's cross at Heavenfield

So why is it traditional to date the battle and Oswald’s accession to 634 (as on this sign at the site), or even 633?

Help, please!

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5 Responses to Deniseburn/Heavenfield

  1. Karen Jolly says:

    My somewhat newer English translation (McClure and Collins) cites two articles regarding the date confusion.
    M. Miller, “The Dates of Deira,” Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979): 35-61.
    S. Wood, “Bede’s Northumbrian Dates Again,” English Historical Review 98 (1983): 280-96.
    I have access to both, if you want to email me. However, I am betting there are post-1983 arguments about this but haven’t checked more current books on my shelf.
    Maybe try Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, edited by Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge (1995).

  2. Karen Jolly says:

    This from Wood’s article, p. 295 n. 2:
    “The converse would be the infaustus annus that the apostate kings Osric and Eanfrith brought on their peoples (iii. i and 9); the actual period of Cadwallon’s ravaging, as related by Bede, has to be a twelvemonth running from late 663, but the idea of the ‘unlucky year’ was perhaps focused on the disastrous campaigning season of 6 34 in which both kings fell. (That the actual year ran roughly from the battle of Hatfield to late 634, not from after Osric’s death in summer 634, is obscured by the Oxford Medieval Texts translation, B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, I979), p. 2I 3. The Latin is clear, and might be translated: ‘Then, when for a whole year he had [ravaged Northumbria], he finally [killed Eanfrith].’)”

  3. Sally says:

    AAAH! Many thanks for that Karen. So it is a translation issue. Much clearer now.

  4. Don’t forget that Bede also says that the awful year of the apostate kings was credited to Oswald. It should be in the next chapter. Bede is telling us that they fudged Oswald’s regnal years basically because of shame over Eanfrith and Oric’s apostasy. I think I’ve also heard that there was no real way to to credit a king with less than 1 regnal year. He either got skipped or the regnal years were fudged or inaccurate. Basically Eanfrith died in his first year as king wether he had been king for one month or eleven. Oswald died in the 8th year of his reign, subtracting the year given to Eanfrith, that his seventh regnal year, so he had not yet reached his 7th anniversary. I hope that all makes sense as I haven’t read this stuff in a while.

  5. Sally says:

    Thanks Michelle. Yes, I did wonder whether Oswald took over in 635 but was always back counted to 634 because they didn’t count Osric and Eanfrid, but the translation issue raised by Karen is also important and just adds to the confusion. As I am setting the next book in the year of Eadfrith’s death, which has to be after Oswald’s accession, I need to sort it out!

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