England in Autumn and the Death of Edwin of Deira

I have been travelling over the last few weeks, reminding myself about what the natural world is doing at this time of year in England. According to Bede, Edwin of Northumbria’s final battle was on the 12th of October 633 ‘on the field called Haethfelth.’ (History of the English Church and People, Book Two, Chapter 20). Edwin was defeated by a coalition of British warriors under the leadership of Cadwallon and English warriors under the leadership of Penda of Mercia. I have imagined a great storm on the afternoon of the battle, but anything is possible at this time of year, including misty mornings followed by brilliant sunshine. The leaves were probably beginning to turn colour then, as they are now, the oaks becoming golden, followed by the beach trees. It would have been a time of puddles and blowing leaves, a promise of frosts to come on the night air.

Because Bede is such a wonderful source of information, it is easy to slip into the habit of taking him literally, but is this wise? As Michelle Ziegler’s recent post indicates (http://hefenfelth.wordpress.com/), sometimes what Bede has to say sets off alarm bells for the historian. He is so much the Roman Christian, so inclined to discount the importance of the Celtic Church. Reading Bede literally, anyone would think that Paulinus brought Christianity to northern Britain, but of course, he did nothing of the sort. He brought Christianity to Edwin’s court, which is not the same thing at all and when Edwin was killed, 1379 years ago today, Paulinus ran away, back to Kent. After less than ten years of teaching and baptising by Paulinus and a handful of followers, it is hard to imagine that Christianity had gained much of a hold outside of the court, mass baptisms notwithstanding. But clearly over the ensuing decades, Celtic Christianity brought by Aidan and his followers under King Oswald’s sponsorship did take hold quite widely in the north.

So are we to believe Bede when he argues that the battle of Haethfelth was followed by widespread slaughter? Inherently, of course, it is not unlikely, but there is something about Bede’s choice of language that makes me wary. He directs his greatest ire not at Penda of Mercia, the pagan, but at Cadwallon, the Celtic Christian. I cannot read the original Latin, but the translation by Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1955) reads as follows: ‘[Cadwallon] was set upon exterminating the entire English race in Britain, and spared neither women nor innocent children, putting them all to horrible deaths with ruthless savagery, and continuously ravaging their whole country. He had no respect for the newly established religion of Christ. Indeed, even in our own days [c.730] the Britons pay no respect to the faith and religion of the English and have no more dealings with them than with the heathen.’ (Ibid, Book 2, Chapter 20). As always, it is wise to remember that Bede was not writing a history of Northumbria; he was writing a history of the English Church and People, with the emphasis very much on the church. His prejudice against the British (and their church) is apparent throughout the text.

I have tried throughout my story about who murdered St Hilda’s father to avoid such prejudice, whether against the British or the English. While I imagine that the battle of Haethfelth was followed by the usual degree of payback/revenge/opportunistic plunder and military rape and pillage, I do not imagine that Cadwallon was more guilty of inciting this than other commanders before or since and neither do I imagine that he was more guilty of directing the mayhem than Penda of Mercia. Is this a reasonable interpretation of the evidence? Well, my readers will have to decide for themselves.


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