The Birth of the Saxon Kingdoms

Raedwald decided that his best interests now lay in installing Edwin as a client ruler in his old kingdom and getting rid of Aethelfrith once and for all. Using his powers as a Bretwalda, Raedwald raised an army in the south and east and in the summer of 616AD, rode for York. Aethelfrith was wrong footed and hurriedly assembled an army by the River Idle near Bawtry in Yorkshire where the two forces met.

The Battle of the River Idle, which was particularly bloody was fought in an area between Gainsborough and Bawtry where Raedwald formed his army into three divisions, led by himself, his son Raegenhere and Edwin. Aethelfrith, confusing Raegenhere’s division for that of Raedwald’s, threw his forces forward, killing Raegenhere. Raedwald furiously attacked the flanks of the enemy and overran them, killing Aethelfrith and many Northumbrians. Edwin took over as King of Northumbria and Aethlfrith’s sons fled to north exile among the Picts.

Raedwald was one of the first East Anglian kings to receive Christian teaching and baptism although his conversion was not total. He is said to have hedged his bets by having erected two separate altars in his private temple, one for Christ and one for his pagan gods. It is thought that the famous longship discovered at Sutton Hoo was his burial site. Edwin then set about subduing the remaining British resistance in the region and launched an attack on Elmet, a Cumbric speaking territory in the west of Yorkshire, bordering Wales proper and drawing him into conflict with Cadwallop (or Cadwallon) ap Cadfan, British King of Gwynedd.

Edwin felt sufficiently strong to invade Gwynedd and for a while, achieved some success. Bede records that Edwin established his rule over what he calls the Mevanian Islands which include Anglesey while another source tells of Cadwallop being besieged on Priestholm which is off the coast of Anglesey. Cadwallop then formed an alliance with the great grandson of Creoda, the former King of Mercia, whose name was Penda, and though not king at that time was governing the kingdom and in 626AD, overthrew King Cearl and took the throne.

 Penda had made an alliance with the joint kings of Wessex, Cynegils and Cwitchelm, who were in fact, father and son, and sealed it with the marriage of his sister to Cynegil’s son Cenwalh. Things went awry when Cwitchelm tried to assassinate Edwin, the puppet king of Northumbria and sent an assassin called Eomer who only succeeded in wounding him, but in the process, killed Edwin’s Thanes, Lilla and Forthere, bringing the wrath of the Northumbrians down on them and in the ensuing confusion, Penda invaded his one time allies and defeated the Wessex force at the Battle of Cirencester in 628AD. He took control of the northern section of Wessex in what is now Gloucester.

Over the next two years Penda extended his territory and invaded South West Britain, the land of the Dumnonii and it was at the siege of Exeter that Penda first met King Cadwallop of Gwynedd who had recently returned from exile in Britanny, having been sent there by Edwin of Northumbria in an earlier squabble. Penda raised the siege and forged an alliance with Cadwallop and the two armies recaptured Gwynedd for Cadwallop at the Battle of Long Mynd and then marched against Northumbria.

Penda and Cadwallop met Edwin’s army at Hatfield Chase on marshy ground about eight miles North East of Doncaster on 12th October 633AD. The battle was a disaster for Northumbria with both Edwin and his son Osfrith being killed and his other son Eadfrith being captured and later killed by Penda, whose own brother Eobba was also killed in the battle. The kingdom was split back to its two former parts with Eanfrith, the exiled son of the old King Aethelfrith ruling Bernicia and Edwin’s cousin Osric ruling Deira. Writing of the sons of Aethelfrith, Bede notes, “For all the time that Edwin reigned, the sons of Aethelfrith and all the old nobility, lived in banishment among the Scots or Picts and received the grace of baptism”.

Penda and Cadwallon went on to devastate the lands of Edwin without mercy; a contemporary Irish annal tells of “the kindling of fires in the land” and the burning of York. On the same theme, Bede writes of “the terrible slaughter took place among the Northumbrians, more terrible because it was carried out by two commanders, one of whom was the Pagan Penda and the other (Cadwallon) a barbarian more savage than a pagan”.

Cadwallop continued to wage a ruthless war against the two states and Eanfrith, wearied of the fighting, went to Cadwallop to sue for peace but was killed. Eanfrith’s brother Oswald raised an army and fought and killed Cadwallon at the battle of Heavenfield in 634AD, thereafter reuniting Deira and Bernicia again into the Kingdom of Northumbria.

Penda meanwhile turned his attention to the East where part of the old Mercian homeland had come under the control of the East Anglians, in 635AD he invaded and quickly overran the area, killing its two sub kings, Sigebert and Egric. Mercia was peaceful for the next seven years, but the Northumbrians were not happy with so powerful a neighbour and in 642AD, King Oswald marched into Mercia. Penda had moved his forces westwards to be closer to his Welsh allies and the two sides met at Maserfield near Oswestry on the 5th August.

Penda had with him King Cadafeal Cadomedd of Gwynedd, Eluen of Powys and Cynddylan of of Pengwern. During the battle, Penda’s brother Eowa was killed, but so was Oswald of Northumbria. Oswald’s body was interred at Bardney, while his hands were buried at Bamburgh and reportedly never corrupted, causing pilgrims to visit the site and tell of miracle cures and other wonders occurring there.

Oswald was succeeded by his brother Oswiu or Oswy and ruled as a subking of Bernicia under Penda for the next ten years.  Relations were not good between the two rulers however and in 655AD Penda invaded Bernicia, initially sweeping all before him until the two sides met at the running Battle of Winwaed where Penda was finally killed. Initially Oswiu, being greatly outnumbered, tried to buy Penda off by offering him “an incalculable quantity of regalia and presents as the price of peace”. Penda refused, and declared that he would “wipe out the entire nation from the highest to the humblest in the land”. Oswiu then turned to God and offered his one year old daughter to the service of the church together with twelve estates to build monasteries if he could be granted victory. The two sides met on the 15th of November near a river called Winwaed by Bede.

Welsh accounts refer to it as “Maes Gai”, meaning the slaughter of the field of Gai. The autumn rains had swollen the river and flooded much of the surrounding pasture. Oswiu and his men, standing on higher ground, had the stronger position and Penda’s forces had to struggle through water and mud to reach them. The battle became a rout and many of Penda’s men were drowned while trying to escape. Penda himself was cornered and slain “by the sword he had drawn too often”. Oswiu assumed the crown of Mercia and the title of Bretwalda over much of Britain, setting up his son in law, Peada (Penda’s son) as a sub king. The Mercians were understandably not happy with this outcome and rose up in revolt to drive Oswiu out, electing Penda’s other son Wulfhere to rule.

Meanwhile, in Kent, King Aethelbert died, the first English king to receive baptism. He was the son of Ermenric of Kent and the great, great grandson of Hengist, the first of the Saxon conquerors of Britain. Aethelbert had ruled for fifty six years and his military might gave him some influence and control over all the other Saxon kingdoms, stretching as far north as Northumbria and gaining the title of Bretwalda, or leader of the Saxon confederation. Following his baptism on Whitsun Day 597AD, he gave St Augustine the church of St Martins in Canterbury in which “to sing, to pray, to say mass, to preach and to baptise” and gave them permission to build new churches and to rebuild those destroyed by the pagan Saxon invaders.

His son wanted nothing of Christianity and reverted to heathenism, even taking the old king’s wife for his own. The leader of the East Saxons, King Saebert also died at this time and his three sons divided up the kingdom between them under the old pagan rule and drove out bishop Mellitus, making Raedwald’s the only Christian kingdom in the country, situation that would remain until his death in 624AD, by which time, Christianity had been re-established in the two kingdoms, albeit temporarily.

This maelstrom of plot and counterplot, alliances, treacheries and invasions indicate just how unstable the country was following the departure of the Romans. It was as if all the tribes of Europe and Scandinavia were picking over the corpse of this once stable outpost of empire and the native population could only hide and watch from their mountain hideaways as the country was occupied by these savage invaders who, having only recently driven the Britons from their land, were now engaged in territorial war between themselves.

It is a universal truth that expediency can make strange bedfellows and for Penda, an ambitious Angle who claimed to trace his lineage back to Wodin, to ally himself with the Celtic/British King of Gwynedd, Pengwerm and Powys, illustrates the shifting nature of relationships and alliances of the time. Penda does not get “a good press” from Bede who disliked him for being an enemy of Bede’s native Northumbria and also for being a pagan. Bede does allow however, that it was Penda who first gave permission for Christian missionaries to preach in Mercia.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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