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Also known as the Battle of Winwaedfield, the Battle of Winwaed, the Battle of the Winwaed or indeed the Battle of Cai Campi (following Nennius), the Battle of the River Winwaed was fought in the year 655 somewhere in south-west Yorkshire between the forces of Northumbria and Mercia.

Mercia versus Northumbria

In the year 655 Northumbria was ruled by one Oswiu and as the Venerable Bede remarked was "exposed to the cruel and intolerable invasions of Penda, king of the Mercians".

There was indeed a recent tradition on conflict between the two kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia; Penda had already participated in an invasion of Northumbria in the year 633, that had left its ruler Edwin dead and defeated. Nine years later Penda resisted a retaliatory invasion attempt by Oswald, Oswiu's brother and predecessor on the throne of Northumbria, that led to Oswald's defeat at the battle of Maserfield near Oswestry in 642. After that particular battle Penda ensured that Oswald's body was hacked to pieces for good measure, with the head and limbs stuck on poles, so that no doubt remained about who had won that particular battle.

Victory at battle of Maserfield only seems to have whetted Penda's appetite, as in the following years he frequently raided Northumbria, in 651, he attempted to burn down the fortress of Bamburgh1, and now four years later, threatened to overrun Northumbria.

It would seem as if Oswiu had already been forced to surrender his son Ecgfrith as hostage to Penda2, and now with Mercia threatening invasion, his immediate reaction was to pay up once more and offered Penda "countless gifts and royal marks of honour greater than can be believed" if only Penda "would return home, and cease to waste and utterly destroy the provinces of his kingdom".

According to the Venerable Bede, Penda simply refused the offer; as he "had resolved to blot out and extirpate all his (that is Oswiu's) nation, from the highest to the lowest", but it is far more likely that Penda simply felt that he could defeat Oswiu and by that means gain even greater riches 3. He had after all, been successful in organising a formidable coalition against Oswiu; Bede refers to "thirty royal commanders, who had come to Penda’s assistance". Amongst these were not only Aethelhere, the king of East Anglia, a number of Welsh kings (if Nennius is to be believed) prominent amongst which was Cadfael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd, and also former king Oswald’s son Aethelwald.

The presence of Aethelhere is not surprising since he owed his position as king entirely to the force of Mercian arms and was, to all intents and purposes, Penda's man. Although Aethelwald, the son of Oswald held the position of sub-king of Deira, (the southern province of Northumbria) under Oswiu he clearly felt that his interests were best served by removing Oswiu and threw in his lot with Penda.

With all these various forces arranged together it is not perhaps surprising that Penda was confident of victory and refused to be brought off; and therefore Oswiu had no choice but to defend himself as best he could.

The Location

The Venerable Bede gives us two pieces of information regarding the location of the battle; firstly that it "was fought near the river Winwaed", and secondly that it was fought "in the district of Loidis". 'Loidis' we know to be 'Leeds' but the an exact identification of the 'river Winwaed' has yet to be made. It is almost certain that it was one of the tributaries the Humber, quite possibly the river Went but identification of the exact location of the battle remains elusive.

Suggestions have included Wentbridge near modern Wakefield where the Roman road crosses the river Went or at Whinmoor near to the Cock Beck close to the modern city of Leeds.

The Battle

Wherever the battle took place, Penda had the overwhelming superiority in numbers, as Oswiu had "a very small army" whilst the "pagans had thirty times the number of men; for they had thirty legions, drawn up under most noted commanders". Of course exaggerating the size of the opposition was common enough for the time (or indeed any time) as a means of magnifying the subsequent victory, but it seems very likely that Penda had a much larger force at his disposal.

The reference to "thirty legions" has led to some rather exaggerated estimates of the size of Penda's army. Since a Roman legion was composed of some 5,000 men, then Penda must have had an army of a 150,000 men. In truth, British Dark Age armies were rarely more than a few hundred strong, and the mightiest of kings would be hard pressed to place more than a couple of thousand warriors on the battlefield; these are much more likely to have been the size of the forces that clashed at the river Winwaed. 4.

Regarding the battle itself Bede has little to say. It took place on the 15th of November, "The engagement began, the pagans were put to flight or killed, the thirty royal commanders, who had come to Penda’s assistance, were almost all of them slain" and adding that "owing to the great rains, was in flood, and had overflowed its banks, so that many more were drowned in the flight than destroyed in battle by the sword". As far as Bede was concerned it was not necessary to go into any further detail, God had granted Oswiu the victory and that is was mattered.

We can only surmise that Penda, anxious to proceed with his invasion, drove his army across a ford of the river Winwaed despite the high water levels and that Oswiu seized the opportunity to launch a surprise attack on the enemy when they were at their most vulnerable. Whilst the Mercians were engaged in crossing the river they would not have been able to bring their superior numbers to bear on their enemy, and with the heavy rains no doubt rendering the ground nearest the riverbank soft and slippery underfoot, one can imagine them being driven back by an initial assault, panicking, trying to get away, losing their footing and being swept away by the river in flood.

In any event, Penda was killed as was Aethelhere of East Anglia, but Aethelwald survived as "during the battle, he withdrew, and awaited the event in a place of safety". Nennius says that Cadfael too survived, describing how he "rising up in the night, escaped, together with his army, wherefore he was called Catgabail Catguommed", that is 'Cadfael the battleshirker'.

The result in any case was fairly clear, Oswiu won the day and the forces of the Mercian alliance were killed or scattered.

Aftermath and Consequences : Politics and Religion

Oswiu naturally "returned thanks to God for the victory granted him", and in accordance with a promise made before the battle, his daughter Aelfled was consecrated to God 'in perpetual virginity', despite being only a year old at the time. That is, she was placed in the care Hilda the Abbess of Heruteu, and along with his daughter Oswiu gave Hilda some significant grants of land, including ten hides at 'Streanaeshalch' where Hilda later built yet another monastery. 5

With the Mercian army effectively destroyed at the river Winwaed, Mercia fell neatly into Oswiu's hands. Oswiu divided Mercia into two; that part north of the river Trent he kept for himself, whilst Mercia south of the Trent was placed under the control of one Peada, who in addition to being the son of the now deceased Penda was also Oswiu's son-in-law and a Christian to boot.

Thus Oswiu "governed the Mercians ... three years after he had slain King Penda" which is exactly how long Oswiu succeeded in maintaining his grip before the Mercians rebelled, assassinated Peada and installed Wulfhere as king of Mercia. The political consequences of the battle therefore proved short lived and ephemeral; Mercia rose again, and rose to dominate the British political landscape of the eighth century. A long line of kings from Wulfhere, through to Aethelbald and Offa established Mercia as the leading power of the island and both Mercia and Northumbria continued squabbling until the Vikings arrived in the late ninth century to settle the argument in their particular fashion.

To Bede and many later writers the significance of the battle was that it represented a victory of the Christian over the Pagan and hence was "to the great benefit of both nations". In the wake of his victory Oswiu appointed an Irish cleric by the name of Diuma as first bishop of the Mercians, and Mercia thus joined the Christian community of England.

But although a pagan, Penda was no fanatic and permitted Christian missionaries to operate within Mercia, had no objections to his sons adopting the faith and his main complaint against the Christian religion appeared to be the failure of its adherents to live up to the ideals that they professed. Even if Penda had won it is almost inevitable that when his sons succeeded that Mercia would have 'officially' become Christian even if Penda had won the battle.

Of course if Penda had won, installed Aethelwald as his sub-king in the north, it is possible that either he or one of his successor kings might well have been able to wield some kind of permanent authority over the divided kingdoms of the English. It raises the intriguing possibility that England might have emerged as a unified nation before the Viking assaults of the ninth century and not afterwards.

And that remains the most important consequence of the battle; that Penda didn't win.


NOTES

1 Saint Aidan was credited with the salvation of Bamburgh, as he prayed for the wind to change direction, which then blew the fire in Penda's direction.

2 According to Bede "his other son, Ecgfrith was then kept as a hostage at the court of Queen Cynwise, in the province of the Mercians"; but Ecgfrith survived his captivity and reigned as king himself from 8...

3 Nennius in any event tells a different tale and says that Oswiu paid up and that he "restored all the wealth, ... to Penda; who distributed it among the kings of the Britons".

4 For example, the seventh century law code of Ine, ruler of Wessex, defined an army as anything more than thirty-six men.

5 The monastery of 'Streanaeshalch' is much better known under its later Viking name of Whitby.


SOURCES

The Venerable Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum
Nennius Historia Brittonum
Arthur Bantoft The Battle of Winwaed from The Barwicker reproduced at http://www.winwaed.com/history/winwaed/barwick1.shtml
The Regia Anglorum website at http://www.regia.org

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