Battle of Chester
The Battle of Chester (Old Welsh: Guaith Caer Legion; Welsh: Brwydr Caer) was a major victory for the Anglo-Saxons over the native Britons near the city of Chester, in the early 7th century. Æthelfrith of Northumbria annihilated a combined force from the Welsh kingdoms of Powys, Rhôs (a cantref of the Kingdom of Gwynedd), and possibly Mercia. It resulted in the deaths of Welsh leaders Selyf Sarffgadau of Powys and Cadwal Crysban of Rhôs. Circumstantial evidence suggests that King Iago of Gwynedd may have also been killed. Or so the standard histories relate, in truth it is far less clear who was actually at the Battle of Chester.
Archaeological evidence demonstrates a large and violent conflict took place at or near Heronbridge, just to the south of Chester (see the link via the "walking man"). Notably, the Battle of Chester is also associated with the "massacre" of the monks of Bangor-on-Dee which potentially introduces a unique element of religious conflict during these troubled times. In any analysis of the historical record it is worth keeping in mind that Bede mentions the battle of Chester in the following context:
- Augustine arrives in the British Isles as representative of Rome and comes into conflict with the Celtic church. In effect Augustine curses them along the lines of "if you are not with us you are against us";
- The Celtic church gets its "punishment" by the wholesale destruction of monks and Celtic troops at the battle of Chester;
This article explores the circumstances which possibly led up to the battle, and its consequences. Various theories have been put forward as regards the causes of the battle and its aftermath. Among these are the conflict between the Celtic and Roman church, stirred up by Augustine and possibly the first stirrings of a wish to split apart the Britains of the north and west by finding a way to the Irish Sea. There are issues and controveries with each of these theories. The battle also needs to be seen in the context of a larger series of conflicts which took place between 600 CE and 679 CE. Many of these conflicts involved exiled "princes" and a heady brew of dynastic conflict and assasination.
Much of the period which followed the Battle of Chester was marked not only by internecine fighting between the Bernician and Deiran dynasties of Northumbria, but also by the contest for overlordship with the Mercians to the south. Both King Edwin (d. 633) and King Oswald (d. 642) were killed in battle with Penda, the powerful pagan king of Mercia. With his defeat of Penda at the Battle of Winwaed in 655, Oswiu of Northumbria established himself as the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kings. Penda’s death marked the end of pagan rule in Mercia. The histories of Gildas, Bede, Nennius and others were written by Christian historians whose religion undoubtedly coloured their view of events and their causes. Two of the most divergent descriptions of the events around the Battle of Chester are that of Bede and that of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Mounmouth used Bede as a source but manages to come up with quite different account of the battle. This article will look briefly at why Monmouth might tell his altered version.
There is not much to see at the battle site at Heronbridge and what there is could be better explained by some signage, as the battle is possibly quite important as being one of the few early English battles for which the site is actually known and one of two battle sites within easy reach of Chester (excluding the city itself), the other being the Civil War battle "site" at Rowton Heath.
Some puzzles about the Battle of Chester do not seem to have easy answers, and while it is possible to speculate key pieces of the solution appear to be missing. In particular it is unclear why the Northumbrians fought several battles on the Welsh marches, starting with the Battle of Chester. The most complete record of the battle is in Book II, Chapter II of Bede (the text of which is reproduced below).
- 1 Bede's Text
- 2 Britain after the mid 500's
- 3 So What Happened At Chester?
- 3.1 Protagonists
- 3.2 Gildas and Bede
- 3.3 Legends
- 3.4 Who was Brochmael?
- 3.5 Did Geoffrey Get It Right?
- 3.6 The Bodies
- 3.7 The Cataclysm
- 3.8 Conclusions
- 4 Why was the Battle of Chester fought at all?
- 5 Notes, sources, links etc
- 5.1 Chronology with links to sources
- 5.2 Related Pages
- 5.3 Sources and Links
- In the meantime, Augustine, with the help of King Ethelbert, drew together to a conference the bishops and doctors of the nearest province of the Britons, at a place which is to this day called, in the English language, Augustine's Ác, that is, Augustine's Oak, on the borders of the Hwiccas1 and West Saxons; and began by brotherly admonitions to persuade them to preserve Catholic peace with him, and undertake the common labour of preaching the Gospel to the heathen for the Lord's sake. For they did not keep Easter Sunday at the proper time, but from the fourteenth to the twentieth moon; which computation is contained in a cycle of eighty-four years. Besides, they did many other things which were opposed to the unity of the church. When, after a long disputation, they did not comply with the entreaties, exhortations, or rebukes of Augustine and his companions, but preferred their own traditions before all the Churches which are united in Christ throughout the world, the holy father, Augustine, put an end to this troublesome and tedious contention, saying, “Let us entreat God, who maketh men to be of one mind in His Father's house, to vouchsafe, by signs from Heaven, to declare to us which tradition is to be followed; and by what path we are to strive to enter His kingdom. Let some sick man be brought, and let the faith and practice of him, by whose prayers he shall be healed, be looked upon as hallowed in God's sight and such as should be adopted by all.” His adversaries unwillingly consenting, a blind man of the English race was brought, who having been presented to the British bishops, found no benefit or healing from their ministry; at length, Augustine, compelled by strict necessity, bowed his knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying that He would restore his lost sight to the blind man, and by the bodily enlightenment of one kindle the grace of spiritual light in the hearts of many of the faithful. Immediately the blind man received sight, and Augustine was proclaimed by all to be a true herald of the light from Heaven. The Britons then confessed that they perceived that it was the true way of righteousness which Augustine taught; but that they could not depart from their ancient customs without the consent and sanction of their people. They therefore desired that a second time a synod might be appointed, at which more of their number should be present.
- This being decreed, there came, it is said, seven bishops of the Britons, and many men of great learning, particularly from their most celebrated monastery, which is called, in the English tongue, Bancornaburg, and over which the Abbot Dinoot is said to have presided at that time. They that were to go to the aforesaid council, betook themselves first to a certain holy and discreet man, who was wont to lead the life of a hermit among them, to consult with him, whether they ought, at the preaching of Augustine, to forsake their traditions. He answered, “If he is a man of God, follow him. ”—“How shall we know that?” said they. He replied, “Our Lord saith, Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart; if therefore, Augustine is meek and lowly of heart, it is to be believed that he bears the yoke of Christ himself, and offers it to you to bear. But, if he is harsh and proud, it is plain that he is not of God, nor are we to regard his words.” They said again, “And how shall we discern even this?”—“Do you contrive,” said the anchorite, “that he first arrive with his company at the place where the synod is to be held; and if at your approach he rises up to you, hear him submissively, being assured that he is the servant of Christ; but if he despises you, and does not rise up to you, whereas you are more in number, let him also be despised by you.”
- They did as he directed; and it happened, that as they approached, Augustine was sitting on a chair. When they perceived it, they were angry, and charging him with pride, set themselves to contradict all he said. He said to them, “Many things ye do which are contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal Church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three matters, to wit, to keep Easter at the due time; to fulfil the ministry of Baptism, by which we are born again to God, according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and to join with us in preaching the Word of God to the English nation, we will gladly suffer all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs.” They answered that they would do none of those things, nor receive him as their archbishop; for they said among themselves, “if he would not rise up to us now, how much more will he despise us, as of no account, if we begin to be under his subjection?” Then the man of God, Augustine, is said to have threatened them, that if they would not accept peace with their brethren, they should have war from their enemies; and, if they would not preach the way of life to the English nation, they should suffer at their hands the vengeance of death. All which, through the dispensation of the Divine judgement, fell out exactly as he had predicted.
- For afterwards the warlike king of the English, Ethelfrid, of whom we have spoken, having raised a mighty army, made a very great slaughter of that heretical nation, at the city of Legions, which by the English is called Legacaestir, but by the Britons more rightly Carlegion. Being about to give battle, he observed their priests, who were come together to offer up their prayers to God for the combatants, standing apart in a place of greater safety; he inquired who they were, and what they came together to do in that place. Most of them were of the monastery of Bangor, in which, it is said, there was so great a number of monks, that the monastery being divided into seven parts, with a superior set over each, none of those parts contained less than three hundred men, who all lived by the labour of their hands. Many of these, having observed a fast of three days, had come together along with others to pray at the aforesaid battle, having one Brocmail for their protector, to defend them, whilst they were intent upon their prayers, against the swords of the barbarians. King Ethelfrid being informed of the occasion of their coming, said, “If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they assail us with their curses.” He, therefore, commanded them to be attacked first, and then destroyed the rest of the impious army, not without great loss of his own forces. About twelve hundred of those that came to pray are said to have been killed, and only fifty to have escaped by flight. Brocmail, turning his back with his men, at the first approach of the enemy, left those whom he ought to have defended unarmed and exposed to the swords of the assailants. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of the holy Bishop Augustine, though he himself had been long before taken up into the heavenly kingdom, that the heretics should feel the vengeance of temporal death also, because they had despised the offer of eternal salvation.
Analysis of Bede
There are a few things worth noting at once about Bede's account. The style is characteristic of an oral saga: expanded, leisurely, detailed, circumstantial and dramatic. Place names and proper names are recorded, and conversations reported verbatim. Proper names such as "Brocmail", "Bancornaburg" and "Dinoot" are all, at least in part, Celtic and this suggests that Bede's material is ultimately derived from a source familiar with the British context of the history. Bede is careful to note some names both in British and in Anglo-Saxon which implies that he had access to an early British source, possibly even an early British text which has been lost with the passage of time. Just looking at the structure of Bede's report there is more to see, especially as regards who is named and, just as importantly, who is not:
- Mention of Augustine of Canterbury starts and ends the account. While Augustine is not present at the battle (he died in 604 some ten years before it) Bede presents him, and his "prophecy" as a primary cause of the battle.
- Æthelberht of Kent provides assistance in setting up the meeting. Bede lists him as the third king to hold imperium over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Even with the assistance of the chief leader of the Anglo-Saxons it appears that the first delegation to meet with Augustine is incapable of making a decision.
- The "Anchorite" appears in Bede but in no other version of the story. Clearly Bede's record of his private discussions with the Celtic Bishops indicates that Bede had access to Celtic sources. Perhaps here Bede is seeking to reduce the apparent authority of the Celtic Bishops and Dinoot by having them resort to an Anchorite.
- "Abbot Dinoot", who appears only to be present at the second meeting, is Saint Dunod a late 6th/early 7th century Abbot of Bangor-on-Dee. Dinoot must be quite elderly by this date as he is said to have founded the monastery c.560.
- "Ethelfrid" is Æthelfrith of Northumbria King of Bernicia from c. 593 until his death in 616. Around 604 he became the first Bernician king to also rule the neighboring land of Deira, giving him an important place in the development of the later kingdom of Northumbria..
- "Brocmail" is the last person mentioned. He is discussed in further detail below.
Other than the mention of "Brocmail", Bede says nothing about any of the troops on the Briton (Welsh) side and does not identify any of their military leaders apart frpm Brochmail.
The Historia Brittonum, probably written in Gwynedd around AD 830 adds some detail to what is otherwise largely a transcription of Bede. The Historia Brittonum is commonly attributed to "Nennius", as some recensions have a preface written in his name. Some experts have dismissed the Nennian preface as a late forgery, arguing that the work was actually an anonymous compilation. Nennius was supposedly a student of "Elvodugus", commonly identified with the bishop Elfodd of Bangor who convinced British ecclesiastics to accept the Continental dating for Easter. Despite this being a Welsh work and the association of the ecclesiastical sites at Bangor-on-Dee and Bangor (Gwynedd) the Historia does not mention the Battle of Chester, which is odd given the number of monks slain, the death of noted Welsh rulers and the connection with Dunod. One explanation for this may be the issue of Easter, which seems to have been a part of the dispute between Augustine and the Welsh and was of considerable interest to Elfodd - perhaps that provided a reason for the battle to be omitted from the Historia, although that seems a relatively weak argument.
The names of the noted casualties at the battle are taken from Irish and Welsh "chronicle" sources. Some of these are reconstructions based on combinations of incomplete fragments of copies or derivative works dating from much later. The detail given these chronicles is generally very brief, and it is unclear whether they should be treated as separate sources or are all copies or derivatives from one source. Many of these chronicles were written with propaganda motives in mind rather than simply as factual history and such motives could provide reasons why certain names were introduced. This is explored in further detail below. Genealogies and poetic materials are even more likely to be modified from the truth for political and other reasons, such as boosting the reputation of supposed ancestors, and giving support to spurious claims of a long-standing noble family history.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth is the most detailed post-Norman source but one of Monmouth's major research resources seems to be his own fertile imagination. His major work was the Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), the work best known to modern readers. It relates the purported history of Britain, for example from its first settlement by Brutus of Troy, a descendant of Trojan hero Aeneas, to the death of Cadwaladr in the 7th century, covering Julius Caesar's invasions of Britain, Kings Leir and Cymbeline, and one of the earliest developed narratives of King Arthur. Geoffrey claims in his dedication that the book is a translation of an "ancient book in the British language that told in orderly fashion the deeds of all the kings of Britain", given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, and conveniently lost. Modern historians have dismissed this claim. The History of the Kings of Britain is now usually considered a literary work of national myth containing little reliable history. This has since led many modern scholars to agree with William of Newburgh, who wrote around 1190 (not long after Monmouth's death in 1155) that:
- "..no one but a person ignorant of ancient history, when he meets with that book which he calls the History of the Britons, can for a moment doubt how impertinently and impudently he falsifies in every respect. For he only who has not learnt the truth of history indiscreetly believes the absurdity of fable. I omit this man's inventions concerning the exploits of the Britons previous to the government of Julius Caesar, as well as the fictions of others which he has recorded, as if they were authentic. I make no mention of his fulsome praise of the Britons, in defiance of the truth of history, from the time of Julius Caesar, when they came under the dominion of the Romans, to that of Honorius, when the Romans voluntarily retired from Britain, on account of the more urgent necessities of their own state" (William of Newburgh: from his "preface")
Newburgh also wrote, in a further noted broadside of invective:
- "it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors, or indeed about his predecessors from Vortigern onwards, was made up, partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons."
Gerald of Wales was even more scathing about Monmouth. Gerald recounts the experience of a man possessed by demons:
- "If the evil spirits oppressed him too much, the Gospel of St John was placed on his bosom, when, like birds, they immediately vanished; but when the book was removed, and the History of the Britons by 'Geoffrey Arthur' [as Geoffrey named himself] was substituted in its place, they instantly reappeared in greater numbers, and remained a longer time than usual on his body and on the book."
Unfortunately, Geoffrey's text became the source material for many later works. Monmouth's description of the events surrounding the Battle of Chester reads as follows:
- "When Ethelbert, the King of the men of Kent, saw that the Britons were refusing to accept the authority of Augustine and were scorning his preaching, he bore it very ill. He stirred up Ethelfrid, King of the Northumbrians, and a number of other petty kings of the Saxons. A huge army was assembled and ordered to march to the city of Bangor [-is-Coed] and destroy Abbot Dinoot and the other churchmen who had scorned Augustine. They accepted Ethelbert’s orders, collected an enormous army together and set out for the land of the Britons. They came to Chester, where Brocmail, who was in command of that city, awaited their coming. A great number of monks and hermits from the city of Bangor had sought refuge in Chester, so that they could pray there for the people’s safety. Armies were drawn upon both sides and Ethelfrid, King of the Northumbrians, joined battle with Brocmail. Brocmail stood firm against him, although his force was smaller. In the end, however, Brocmail abandoned the city and fled, but only after inflicting enormous losses on the enemy. When Ethelfrid occupied the city and discovered the reason why these monks whom I have mentioned had come there, he immediately let his soldiery loose against them. That same day 1,200 monks won the crown of martyrdom and assured themselves of a seat in heaven. After this the Saxon tyrant marched to the town of Bangor. When they heard of this mad frenzy, the leaders of the Britons came from all directions to oppose him: Blederic, Duke of Cornwall; Margadud, King of the Demetae, and Cadvan of the Venedoti. Battle was joined. They wounded Ethelfrid and forced him to flee. They killed so many of his army that some 10,066 died that day. On the side of the Britons there died Blederic, Duke of Cornwall, who commanded the others in these wars."
As with Bede it is interesting to note who is mentioned and who is not and how the events recounted by Monmouth differ from those recounted by Bede. Monmouth would have had access to Bede's work and yet makes some significant changes:
- Mention of Augustine of Canterbury still occurs but his "prophecy" which Bede cites as a primary cause of the battle is not even mentioned.
- Æthelberht of Kent no-longer provides assistance in setting up any meeting. His role is now to direct the Saxons to destroy Abbot Dinoot.
- "Abbot Dinoot" (Saint Dunod) of Bangor-on-Dee is now still alive at the time of the Battle of Chester (616), this would make him 56 years older than when he is supposed to have founded the abbey at Bangor-on-Dee, quite a remarkable age.
- Æthelfrith of Northumbria is here subject to a Kentish overlord and despite being a pagan follows his orders when it comes to the Welsh christians disrespecting the teachings of Augustine. In Monmouth's version Æthelfrith fights Brocmail first and slays the monks second. Despite enormous losses he marches off to Bangor, loses a further 10,066 men in a single day and is himself wounded.
- "Brocmail" inflicts enormous losses on Æthelfrith who appears to drive him off by force of arms rather than deserting the monks at the first approach of the enemy.
- Blederic, Duke of Cornwall; Margadud, King of the Demetae, and Cadvan of the Venedoti also make an appearance, mustering and marching with remarkable haste and co-ordination to Bangor while Æthelfrith and his still huge army apparently hang around waiting to be attacked.
One view of Monmouth (see: Elen of the Hosts) is that he was a rather inept Norman propagandist who promoted the legend of Arthur in an attempt to prove that the Welsh had been "saved" by Arthur's Norman/Breton descendants. He even slips in a barely concealed reference to "1066" in his account of the Battle of Chester.
Britain after the mid 500's
Gildas, a monk writing in the mid 6th Century, produced a scathing religious polemic which says something of the history of the Britons before and during the coming of the Saxons. A portion of his work consists of a condemnation of five British kings, Constantine, Aurelius Conanus, Vortiporius, Cuneglas, and Maelgwn. As it is the only contemporary information about them, it is of particular interest to scholars of British history. Gildas was writing before the Battle of Chester but may be a useful source on events which led up to it.
By 550 CE the Roman empire had left Britain over a century before, and Roman civilization was a thing of the past now well outside of living memory. Britain had escaped the worst of the troubles of the third century, when much of the rest of the Roman empire had suffered at the hands of invaders and rebels. The first half of the fourth century was a period of peace and prosperity – some of the largest and most beautiful Romano-British villas date from this time. In 367, invasions from both Scotland and Ireland overwhelmed the frontier defences, but seem not to have penetrated to the south. Officially the Roman Empire was Christian at the start of the 5th century, but there is evidence of rural pagan temples being refurbished at the start of this period in western England. However, most temples seem to have been replaced eventually by Christian churches on the same site or nearby. "Celtic" churches or monasteries seem to have flourished during this period in the British areas. Prosperity continued until the Roman government withdrew its protection in 410. Soon after, a combination of renewed Pictish, Irish and now Anglo-Saxon invasions caused great destruction, from which Romano-British civilization, always confined to the towns and villas, never recovered. The period of "sub-Roman" Britain traditionally covers the history of the area which subsequently became England from the end of Roman imperial rule, traditionally dated to be in 410, to the arrival of Saint Augustine in 597. The date taken for the end of this period is arbitrary. Two primary contemporary British sources exist: the Confessio of Saint Patrick and Gildas' "De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae" (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain).
Gildas' De Excidio is a jeremiad: it is written as a polemic to warn contemporary rulers against sin, demonstrating through historical and biblical examples that bad rulers are always punished by God – in the case of Britain, through the destructive wrath of the Saxon invaders. The historical section of De Excidio is short, and the material in it is clearly selected with Gildas' purpose in mind. There are no absolute dates given, and some of the details, such as those regarding the Hadrian's and Antonine Walls are clearly wrong.
There are numerous later written sources that claim to provide accurate accounts of the period. The first to attempt this was the monk Bede, writing in the early 8th century. He based his account of the Sub-Roman period in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (written around 731) heavily on Gildas, though he tried to provide dates for the events Gildas describes. It was written by a Northumbrian cleric from an anti-Briton point of view. Later sources, such as the Historia Brittonum often attributed to Nennius, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (again written from a non-Briton point of view, based on West Saxon sources) and the Annales Cambriae, are all heavily shrouded in myth and can only be used with caution as evidence for this period.
The 5th and 6th centuries in Britain are marked by a sharp discontinuity in town life, perhaps always a somewhat artificial Roman imposition on the landscape, dependent on imperial military requirements and requirements of administration and tax collection; the exceptions are a handful of sites including York, Canterbury and Wroxeter amongst a few others. Writing perhaps about 540, Gildas gives an account of the history of Britain, but the earlier part (for which other sources are available) is severely muddled. He castigates five specific rulers in western Britain for their sins:
- Constantine of Dumnonia: "tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia";
- Aurelius Caninus: "thou lion's whelp";
- Vortipor of the Demetae: "who like to the spotted leopard ... tyrant of the Demetians";
- Cuneglasus: "guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the bear"; and
- Maglocunus (Mailcun or in later spelling Maelgwn of Gwynedd): "dragon of the island";
He also attacks the British clergy. Gildas gives information on the British diet, dress and entertainment. He writes that Britons were killed, emigrated or were enslaved but gives no idea of numbers. Gildas is writing at the time of the arrival of the "Plague of Justinian", which is as good a starting point as any for the series of events which led up to the Battle of Chester. As with much on this site, it should not be assumed that Chester played a more important role than it actually did, but rather to see history from Chester as a familiar viewpoint.
At about the time that Gildas was writing a plague visited Britain. Opinions vary as to it's severity and impact. The visitation did conincide with large social changes but whether these were a cause or a symptom, or even an artifact of an incomplete historical record is disputed.
The Plague of Justinian (541–542 AD, with recurrences until 750) was a pandemic that afflicted the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire and especially its capital, Constantinople, as well as the Sasanian Empire and port cities around the entire Mediterranean Sea, as merchant ships harbored rats that carried fleas infected with plague. Some historians believe the plague of Justinian was one of the deadliest pandemics in history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 25–50 million people during two centuries of recurrence, a death toll equivalent to 13–26% of the world's population at the time of the first outbreak, others see these figures as an exaggeration. However, the plague was almost certainly the most severe pandemic until the Black Death.
The cause of the Plague of Justinian was Yersinia pestis, the same bacterium responsible for the Black Death (1347–1351). It has been suggested that the expansion of nomadic peoples who moved across the Eurasian steppe, such as the Xiongnu and the later Huns, had a role in spreading plague to West Eurasia from an origin in Central Asia. Other theories have the plague originating in India, or Africa, possibly in the Nile delta. Another theory is that the plague was a longer-term consequence of the extreme weather event of 535–536, the most severe and protracted short-term episodes of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2,000 years. The event is thought to have been caused by an extensive atmospheric dust veil, possibly resulting from a large volcanic eruption. Its effects were widespread, causing unseasonable weather, crop failures, and famines worldwide. Various volcanos, either alone or in combination, have been suggested as the cause.
The plague weakened the Byzantine (Easter Roman) Empire at a critical point, when Justinian's armies had nearly retaken all of Italy and the western Mediterranean coast; the evolving conquest would have reunited the core of the Western Roman Empire with the Eastern Roman Empire. Although the conquest occurred in 554, the reunification did not last long.
It has been argued that the Romano-British may have been disproportionately affected because of trade contacts with Gaul and other factors, such as British settlement patterns, however the differential effects may have been exaggerated. British sources were then more likely to report natural disasters than the pagan Saxons, who hardly kept records at all.
Chester in 600 CE
Comparatively little is known about the population of Chester around the year AD 600. However Chester does re-enter the historical record with a synod held around 601.
More is known about the Roman center at Wroxeter (Viroconium) which became the site of the court of a sub-Roman kingdom known as the Wrocensaete, which was the successor territorial unit to Cornovia. Wrocensaete means the "inhabitants of Wroxeter". Town life in Viroconium continued in the fifth century, but many of the buildings fell into disrepair. Between 530 and 570, when most Roman urban sites and villas in Britain were being abandoned, there was a substantial rebuilding programme. The old basilica was carefully demolished and replaced with new timber-framed buildings on rubble platforms. These probably included a very large two-storey building and a number of storage buildings and houses. In all, 33 new buildings were "carefully planned and executed" and "skillfully constructed to Roman measurements using a trained labour force". Some of the buildings were renewed three times, and the community probably lasted about 75 years until, for some reason, many of the buildings were dismantled.
It has been proposed that an early christian community possiby maintained a shrine at the Amphitheatre in Chester, and that Chester was the site of an important synod around 601. Bede (writing in the 8th Century) provides the following information on the Battle of Chester:
- "..that very powerful king of the English, Aethelfrith, whom we have already spoken of, collected a great army against the city of the legions, which is called Legacaestir by the English, and more correctly Caerlegion (Chester) by the Britons, and made a great slaughter of that nation of heretics. When he was about to give battle and saw their priests, who had assembled to pray to God on behalf of the soldiers taking part in the fight, standing apart in a safer place, he asked who they were and for what purpose they had gathered there. Most of them were from the monastery of Bangor, where there was said to be so great a number of monks that, when it was divided into seven parts with superiors over each, no division had less than 300 men, all of whom were accustomed to live by the labour of their hands. After a three days’ fast, most of these had come to the battle in order to pray with the others. They had a guard named Brocmail, whose duty it was to protect them against the barbarians’ swords while they were praying. When Aethelfrith heard why they had come he said ‘If they are praying to their God against us, them, even if they do not bear arms, they are fighting against us, assailing us as they do with prayers for our defeat. So he ordered them to be attacked first and then he destroyed the remainder of their wicked host, though not without heavy losses."
Note that the Northumbrian Bede refers to Chester as a "city" ("civitas"). The battle is also refered to in the "Annales Cambriae" (Welsh) and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
- "Aethelfrith led his levies to Chester and there slew a countless number of Welsh."
Bede, generally considered a moderately accurate and careful historian throws in a few phrases which have been, for want of much additional material, laboured over by historians: the Britons are "a nation of heretics" and the Northumbrian warlord destroys "their wicked host". Bede is almost gleeful about the wholesale slaughter of the monks of Bangor, who, despite being "heretics" suit his religious agenda by dying in droves. If the monks were unarmed as Bede appears to suggest, then it makes no military sense for Æthelfrith to waste time and resources in killing them all. The numbers 7 and 300 are commonplace in the literature when describing armies and numbers of companions in many mythic or pseudo-historic "heroic" accounts.
So What Happened At Chester?
Today, there is relatively little to see at the battlefield of Heronbridge. It makes for a pleasant walk down the River Dee from Chester. From the Suspension Bridge with its confused coats of arms one passes the remnant of a Civil War bastion opposite Dee Lane and the Earls Eye. Eventually, the riverside path leads to Heronbridge, where there are the remains of some embankments, but little to be seen of the Roman archaeology also found here. There is no signage, but a WW2 bomb crater (and a well-hidden nearby pill-box) provides a reminder of war. Later battles are well commemorated at least by signage and other aids to interpretation, but the Battle of Chester, despite being the earliest British battle for which the location is known, is hardly commemorated at all.
Somewhat surprisingly this may not have been the first time that people from North Wales fought the Northumbrians. The Battle of Catraeth was fought around AD 600 between a force raised by the Gododdin, a Brythonic people of the Hen Ogledd or "Old North" of Britain, and the Angles of Bernicia and Deira. It was evidently an assault by the Gododdin party on the Angle stronghold of Catraeth, perhaps Catterick, North Yorkshire. The Gododdin force was said to have consisted of warriors from all over the Hen Ogledd, and even some from as far afield as Gwynedd in North Wales. Cunedda, legendary founder of the Kingdom of Gwynedd in north Wales, is supposed to have been a Manaw Gododdin warlord who migrated southwest during the 5th century. Little is known about exactly where the souther border of Northumbria lay, but it appears that to get to Chester the Northumbrians would almost certainly have to cross through intervening territories which were not allied to Northumbria. Knowing who was fighting at Chester migh give a clue as to what they were fighting about, but as will be seen there is very little known about who the protagonists were.
Since Bede’s account of the battle was subordinated to Augustine’s "curse", it was necessary that only Britons were represented as being present on the losing side and Æthelfrith and his Angles on the winning side. In practice, Æthelfrith’s ‘overkingship’ of the northern British kings implies that they would have been with his forces at Chester, particularly since this battle was fought on Æthelfrith’s terms and so presumably with the largest forces he could muster. If Mercian soldiers did share the Welsh defeat at Chester, or were subsequently defeated nearby, then there some reasons to suppose that Bede could have omitted to mention the fact so as to maximise the relevance of the battle to Augustine’s curse.
Other parties who may have been involved in or with the Battle include the exiled Northumbrian heir Edwin and "Brochmael".
Æthelfrith, king of Northumbrian Bernicia in about 593-616, was largely responsible for expanding the power of the Angles north of the Humber. Until he gained the throne, the kingdom of Bernicia, which had only existed for forty-six years, had probably only occupied a small area near the coast. This is supported by the Historia Brittonum's description of fighting between Bernicians and the native Britons of the area, indicating ongoing resistance. It is also supported by the scarcity of sixth-century Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds from further inland. This area was hemmed in by the British to the north and west, and by the Anglish kingdom of Deira to the south.
Bernicia occurs in Old Welsh poetry as Bryneich or Brynaich and in the 9th-century Historia Brittonum, (§ 61) as Berneich or Birneich. This was most likely the name of the native Brittonic kingdom, whose name was then adopted by the Anglian settlers who rendered it in Old English as Bernice or Beornice. Local linguistic evidence suggests continued political activity in the area before the arrival of the Angles. Important Anglian centres in Bernicia bear names of British origin, or are known by British names elsewhere: Bamburgh is called Din Guaire in the Historia Brittonum; Dunbar (where Saint Wilfrid was once imprisoned) represents Dinbaer; and the name of Coldingham is given by Bede as Coludi urbs ("town of Colud"), where Colud seems to represent the British form, possibly for the hill-fort of St Abb's Head. The first Anglian king in the historical record is Ida, who is said to have obtained the throne and the kingdom about 547 and died in 559. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 547 provides the usual geneology and reads:
- "This year Ida began his reign; from whom first arose the royal kindred of the Northumbrians. Ida was the son of Eoppa, Eoppa of Esa, Esa of Ingwy, Ingwy of Angenwit, Angenwit of Alloc, Alloc of Bennoc, Bennoc of Brand, Brand of Balday, Balday of Woden. Woden of Fritholaf, Fritholaf of Frithowulf, Frithowulf of Finn, Finn of Godolph, Godolph of Geata. Ida reigned twelve years. He built Bamburgh-Castle, which was first surrounded with a hedge, and afterwards with a wall."
The Historia Brittonum (§ 63) notes:
- "Adda, son of Ida, reigned eight years; Ethelric, son of Adda, reigned four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned seven years. Freothwulf reigned six years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism. Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderthen, and Guallauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut; and whilst he was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science. Eadfered Flesaurs reigned twelve years in Bernicia, and twelve others in Deira, and gave to his wife Bebba, the town of Dynguaroy, which from her is called Bebbanburg."
Eadfered Flesaurs is a reference to Æthelfrith "the twister", seemingly a reference to his duplicity. The Historia also introduces some confusion over the name of Æthelfrith's wife (Bebba) and the origin of the name of Bamburgh.
Little is known of Ida's life or reign and whether he died in battle or through another cause is uncertain. His sons spent many years fighting a united force from the surrounding Brythonic kingdoms until their alliance collapsed into civil war. It is unlikely that he was the first to build a "castle" at Bamburgh. Built on a volcanic dolerite outcrop overlooking the sea from 150 meters and with a natural harbour, the location is an ideal defensive position and within sight of Lindisfarne. The archaeology of Bamburgh Castle is complex. The site has been occupied since pre-historic times and, by the late Iron Age, was an important settlement of the Votadini tribe. A beacon was established on the site during the Roman era and it is possible Bamburgh acted as part of the warning system associated with the "Saxon Shore" defences. After Ida's capture of Bamburgh it evolved into the capital of the Kingdom of Bernicia. It remained important even after Bernicia merged with Deira to become the Kingdom Northumbria. Bamburgh was attacked and destroyed by the Vikings in AD 993. The Normans later built a new castle on the site, which forms the core of the present one.
Æthelfrith son of Æthelric is the first Bernician king to appear in history with any significant details. Bede tells of Æthelfrith's great successes over the Britons, while also noting his paganism (the conversion of Northumbria did not begin until a decade after his death): he
- "ravaged the Britons more than all the great men of the English, insomuch that he might be compared to Saul, once king of the Israelites, excepting only this, that he was ignorant of the true religion. For he conquered more territories from the Britons, either making them tributary, or driving the inhabitants clean out, and planting English in their places, than any other king or tribune."
It may have been Æthelfrith who destroyed the British army at the Battle of Catraeth (perhaps Catterick, c. 600); the battle is described in the early poem Y Gododdin. The Britons called him Flesaur, or "the twister". The Gododdin force was said to have consisted of warriors from all over the Hen Ogledd, and even some from as far afield as Gwynedd in North Wales and Pictland. The battle was disastrous for the Britons, who were nearly all killed. Another early victory of Æthelfrith was at Degsastan which was fought around 603 between Æthelfrith and the Gaels under Áedán mac Gabráin, a king of Dál Riada. Æthelfrith's smaller army won a decisive victory, although his brother Theodbald (Eanfrith) was killed amongst major losses on the Northumbrian side. Very little further is known about the battle, including the location, which was possibly on the Scottish borders. According to Bede's account in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Book I, chapter 34), Æthelfrith had won many victories against the Britons and was expanding his power and territory, and this concerned Áedán, who led "an immense and mighty army" against Æthelfrith. Bede reports that almost all of Áedán's army was slain, and Áedán himself fled. After this defeat, according to Bede, the Irish kings in Britain would not make war against the English again, right up to Bede's own time (130 years later). This could be taken as an indication that while the Northumbrians were the winners losses on both sides were so heavy - Bede states that Theobald was killed "with almost all the forces he commanded" - that the two sides came to treaty terms. This might explain why Æthelfrith's sons were later able to take refuge among the Irish of Dál Riata after Æthelfrith's own death in battle.
Áedán's army included the Bernician exile Hering, son of the former Bernician king Hussa (who possibly ruled from about 585 to about 592); his participation is mentioned by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (manuscript E, year 603), and has been taken to indicate the scope of dynastic rivalry among the Bernicians. Æthelfrith gained control of Deira around 604; the circumstances of this are unknown. That he gained Deira through conquest is suggested by the exile of Edwin, son of the former king Ælla, and Hering, Edwin's nephew, who were both notable members of the Deiran royal line; the short five-year reign of Æthelric of Deira, who ruled immediately prior to Æthelfrith's acquisition of Deira, may also indicate conquest.
Bede has frequently been interpreted as linking the battle of Chester to the meeting between the Roman representative Augustine and the extant Celtic church. This is discussed in more detail below, but presents the immediate problem that Æthelfrith was a pagan (something which Bede stresses). Bede is equally scathing about the "British" (Welsh) side, whom he describes as a "gens perfidia" (treacherous nation - possibly, when seen in the context of Gwynedd the first use of "Perfidious Albion"). Perhaps grudgingly, Bede excuses Æthelfrith's paganism as being due to his ignorance. Whether there is an actual link between religion and the Battle of Chester, or whether this was simply made-up by Bede, has been the subject of much speculation.
That Æthelfrith was present at the Battle of Chester is probably certain. However things become a little more murky when it comes to the opposing forces. Apart from "Brocmail" all of the other people said to have been killed on the Welsh side are mentioned neither by Bede or Monmouth.
Selyf (possibly Solomon) ap Cynan reputedly bore the nickname "Serpent of Battle" (Sarffgadau) son of Cynan Garwyn, King of Powys died in about 613 at the battle of the City of the Legions (Chester) fighting against King Æthelfrith of Bernicia and Deira (Northumbria). His death is recorded in the Annals Cambriae and the Irish annals. The Annals Cambriae entry for 613 reads:
- "The battle of Caer Legion [Chester]. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept [died]."
According to early Welsh poetry, genealogies and hagiography, which are often late and of uncertain value, his father Cynan Garwyn had been a major over-king in Wales in the previous generation. It is unclear whether the epithet Sarffgadau is meant in a positive or negative sense. On the one hand it could be a reference to treachery, on the other a reference to the "dragon" associations commonplace in Welsh mythology. Gildas refers to king Maglocunus (Mailcun/Maelgwyn of Gwynedd) as the head serpent of the isles, ie. pendragon (literally pen = head, dragon) in c545. This appears to be the earliest written reference to a dragon/serpent in mythology associated with Wales:
- "..And likewise, O thou dragon of the island, who hast deprived many tyrants, as well of their kingdoms as of their lives, and though the last-mentioned in my writing, the first in mischief, exceeding many in power, and also in malice, more liberal than others in giving, more licentious in sinning, strong in arms, but stronger in working thine own soul's destruction, Maglocune, why art thou (as if soaked in the wine of the Sodomitical grape) foolishly rolling in that black pool of thine offences?"
Selyf Sarffgadau ("Serpent of Battle" / Battle Serpent) is one of the best recorded of these "dragon" kings. Cadwallon of Gwynedd, Selyf’s reputed nephew, best known for killing Edwin of Deira, was also referred to as "dragon of the isles" in a fragmentary death song. However, as discussed below, the terms could be influenced by the polemic of Gildas, who swathes his condemnations in allegorical beasts from the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, likening the kings to the beasts described there: a lion, a leopard, a bear, and a dragon.
The Dragon or "Draco" ("dragon" or "serpent", plural dracones) was a military standard of the Roman cavalry. Carried by the Draconarius, the Draco was the standard of the cohort as the eagle (aquila) was that of the legion. The Draco may have been introduced to the Roman cavalry by auxiliary units in the 2nd century. According to Vegetius, in the 4th century a Draco was carried by each legionary cohort. It was rather like a wind-sock than a simple banner and may be derived from the Dacians. A tombstone showing a Dacian or Sarmatian rider with a Draco from Roman Chester is on display at the Grosvenor Museum. The missing portion of the stone would have shown that the rider is holding a dragon standard, for which the Sarmatians were known and feared. It consisted of a bronze dragon’s head, with fanged jaws wide open, mounted on top of a long pole. The back of the head was also open, and on to it was fastened a long tube made out of brightly coloured fabric. When the horseman rode into battle at full speed the wind rushed into the dragon’s mouth. The size and shape of the holes in the head were cunningly made, so that the force of the wind not only filled out the tail but made a terrifying shrieking sound.
A military diploma (dated to 146 AD) found at Chester mentions among the units of the released soldiers the name of Cohors I Aelia Dacorum. Therefore, the horseman depicted on the tombstone at Chester could be a Dacian cavalryman, belonging to a vexillatio of that cohort. This unit was first raised by the Roman emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-38) in the Roman province of Dacia not later than AD 125 and its last surviving record dates c. 400. It was deployed, for virtually its entire history, in forts on Hadrian's Wall, probably in conjunction with Legio XX from Chester. If the Romans left troops in the area or the sub-Roman Britons adopted the Roman type of standard this could explain how the dragon/serpent symbol passed into Welsh culture. The Romans certainly had cavalry units stationed at Conovium in the Conwy valley and these are associated with Chester through the use of milestones manufactured from sandstone as found at Handbridge in Chester. If the "Draco" survived as a tradition in sub-Roman military units derived from these auxiliary troops, who may well have settled in the area, then the name "serpent of battle" would have been very appropriate. Genetic evidence for the settlement of auxiliary troops in the Chester area is discussed under Legio XX: a rare male-line gene from the Balkans has a very high incidence in Abergele/Prestatyn.
The dragon symbol might also be the explanation for the shape of the characteristic Wirral Brooch and could also appear as a pair of serpents ("dragons"?) appears as a symbol associated with Segontium (Caernafon) in the Notitia Dignitatum although the heraldry in illuminated manuscript copies of the Notitia is thought to copy or imitate only that illustrated in the lost Codex Spirensis which itself could not have been a Roman document.
The dragon/Wyvern symbolism was also used in Wessex and others. Both Henry of Huntingdon and Matthew of Westminster talk of a golden dragon being raised at the Battle of Burford in 752. The historian Camden wrote:
- "... in Saxon Beorgford [i.e. Burford], where Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, then tributary to the Mercians, not being able to endure any longer the cruelty and base exactions of King Æthelbald, met him in the open field with an army and beat him, taking his standard, which was a portraiture of a golden dragon."
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts a fallen golden dragon, as well as a red/golden/white dragon at the death of King Harold II, who was previously Earl of Wessex. Dragon standards were in fairly wide use in Europe at the time, and an occurence of similar symbols on both the Saxon and Welsh sides could explain the red and white dragon symbolism in Arthurian myth as first noted by Nennius.
The Kingdom of Powys was a Welsh successor state, petty kingdom and principality that emerged during the Middle Ages following the end of Roman rule in Britain. It very roughly covered the top two thirds of the modern county of Powys and part of today's English West Midlands. During the Roman occupation of Britain, this region was organised into a Roman province, with the capital most likely at Viroconium Cornoviorum (modern Wroxeter: see maps linked to via the "walking man"), the fourth-largest Roman city in Britain. Archaeological evidence has shown that, unusually for the post-Roman period, Viroconium Cornoviorum survived as an urban centre well into the 6th century and thus could have been the Powys capital.
In 549, the Plague of Justinian – an outbreak of a strain of bubonic plague – arrived in Britain, and Welsh communities were devastated, with villages and countryside alike depopulated. However, the English were less affected by this plague as they had far fewer trading contacts with the continent at this time. Nevertheless, the impact of the Plague of Justinian on the history of Britain was significant. Some scholars have suggested that the plague facilitated the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, as its aftermath coincided with the renewed Saxon offensives in the 550s. Maelgwn, the "Serpent" (or Dragon) king of Gwynedd, was said to have died of the "Yellow Plague of Rhos" around 547 and, from 548 to 549, plague devastated Ireland as well. Saxon sources from this period are silent, as there are no 6th-century English documents. The common date of the arrival of the plague in 549 and the political changes in Bernicia may indicate a link between the two, especially if any Bernician sea-trade with Europe was dislocated.
Faced with shrinking manpower and increasing Anglian encroachment, King Brochwel Ysgithrog (died c. 560) may have moved the court from Caer Guricon to Pengwern, the exact site of which is unknown but may have been at Shrewsbury, traditionally associated with Pengwern, or the more defensible Din Gwrygon, the hill fort on The Wrekin. Selyf is believed to have been buried at Meifod on the upper Severn. Meifod is a short distance north-east of the royal residence of the Princes of Wales at Mathrafal, and the relocation of the royal mausoleum indicates how Powys was being forced westwards.
A number of places still identifiable in the Shropshire landscape today are mentioned alongside Pengwern in myth and poetry. The exact location of Llys Pengwern - the Court of Pengwern - is not known, and the problem is compounded by the fact that several other Pengwerns exist in Wales (e.g. near Denbigh in north Wales). A tradition, recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis in the late 12th century, associates it with the site of modern Shrewsbury (although that town has been known as Amwythig in Welsh since the Middle Ages). A number of alternative locations have been proposed. A more recent suggestion is the Berth, a dramatic hillfort at Baschurch, but the archaeological evidence shows only the Iron Age fort with possible Roman reuse.
According to the welsh pedigrees and hagiography, Selyf had four sons, none of whom succeeded him. The Life of St. Beuno claims that it was Beuno’s curse that prevented their succession. It seems just as likely that the utter destruction of Powys by Æthelfrith blocked his lineage from the throne. Some have suggested that under consistent Northumbrian pressure, Powys seems to have been ruled by multiple small dynasties in the early seventh century. Some of these dynasties appear to have allied themselves with Mercia against Northumbria. Most of the territory of Powys was probably annexed by Mercia to their immediate east. It seems likely that Selyf was the last Powysian king to rule over a large midlands kingdom that dominated the whole region, east and west. It is possible that the Brochwel/Brocmail who Bede reports abandoned the monks of Bangor-Is-Coed to Æthelfrith’s forces was one of Selyf’s kinsmen; Brochwel is a name common in his dynasty. When a single dynasty emerges again in Powys it does claim descent from Selyf’s kindred. Most claims are to a brother Eiludd but other lineages claim descent from a Beli ap Selyf, Eiludd ap Selyf, or Beli ap Mael Myngan ap Selyf. It is possible that none of them were truly related to Selyf but felt the need to claim a link to his lineage. It is possible that Selyf's teritory included Chester.
The Cetula of the Annals of Tigernach has been identified with Cadwal Crysban of Rhos. Rhos is identified as a small kingdom during the sub-Roman and early medieval periods in an Old Welsh genealogical document "Ancestry of the Kings and Princes of Wales" listing thirteen of its kings (including two who are known to have ruled the wider region of Gwynedd).
The most famous monarch of Rhos was perhaps Cynlas Goch (Cuneglasus), the son of Owain Ddantgwyn, who lived in the early 6th century and was denounced by the monk, Gildas, who wrote that Cynlas was the "guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the bear". The latter may refer to mythical characters from the Bible or to a "Fort of the Bear", possibly Dinerth, or more likely the name of a hillfort on Bryn Euryn in Llandrillo-yn-Rhos. The road that runs below the western side of the hill is still called Dinerth Road and Dinarth Hall is nearby: (Old Welsh: Din Eirth, "Fort Bear"). The Gwynedd Archaeological Trust have undertaken a trial excavation of this hillfort which revealed a massive defensive stone wall, "well built" and faced with good-quality limestone blocks originally rising to about ten feet high. The ramparts were eleven and a half feet thick. These defences are unlike those of Iron Age hillforts but comparable with similar Dark Age fortifications, so may represent a possible stronghold of the Kings of Rhos. Bryn Euryn commands extensive views south up the Conwy Valley, east and west along the coast. A rampart is intermittently visible on the small summit where lengths of a single course of limestone blocks protrude from the turf. What could be an enclosed terrace lies below the summit. The overall layout suggests a citadel and dependent outwork.
Accordin to Breeze (see Sources and Links) Cadwal Crysban (Cetula) could possibly have been, or believed to have been, the great grandson of Cynlas Goch.
Iago ap Beli
Iago ap Beli (c.540 – c.616) was King of Gwynedd (reigned c.599 – c.616). Little is known of him or his kingdom from this early era, with only a few anecdotal mentions of him in historical documents. Iago ap Beli (Latin: Iacobus Belii filius . English: Saint James son of Beli) was the son and successor of King Beli ap Rhun, and is listed in the royal genealogies of the Harleian genealogies and in Jesus College MS. 20. The only other record of him is the note of his death, which occurred in the same year as the Battle of Chester, but with no connection between Iago's death and the battle, and with no hard evidence that Gwynedd had any part in the battle. In his Celtic Britain, John Rhys notes that the Annals of Tigernach mention Iago's death and use the word dormitat (or dormitato, meaning sleep in the sense of a euphemism for death), contradicting the notion of a violent death. The line about Iago also appears on a separate line to the mention of the Battle of Chester. Further, as the word dormitato was generally used in reference to clerics, it is possible that Iago resigned his kingship and thereafter led a clerical life until a peaceful death. On the other hand in the medieval Welsh Triads the death of King Iago ap Beli is described as the result of an axe-blow by one of his own men, a certain Cadafael Wyllt (English: Cadafael the Wild).
He would be succeeded as king by his son, Cadfan ap Iago, whose own son was, according to traditional Welsh tales, Cadwallon a later king of Gwynedd and an enemy of Northumbria. Other traditional sources make Iago the great-grandson of the Maglocunus of Gildas, so not only does his name appear next to the mention of the Battle of Chester, but he also conveniently bridges a gap between two other noted historical figures. This might well have been sufficient for Iago to have been placed as "fallen asleep" at a battle he never actually attended, and could even have never been aware of (if he died before it, or was simply too old to care).
Gildas and Bede
Gildas takes four of his beasts from Daniel, which are described in the form of an apocalyptic vision. These, which also turn up in other apocalyptic literature, are generally taken to represent four civilizations after which the world comes to an end:
- Babylonian (Chaldean): a beast like a lion with eagle wings, which appears to be based on Mesopotamian figures;
- Medo-Persian (Achaemenid): one like a bear, with tusks (it could be a reference to a boar);
- Greek (Macedonian): a leopard, with four wings of a fowl upon it's back, and four heads;
- Roman: an entirely mythical beast with iron teeth and a plurality of horns;
The fact that Cadwal (Cuneglasus) and Iago are both (according to some souces) the great grandchildren of Gildas' targets for condemnation may be more than a co-incidence or a consequence of simple family history. It could be that Bede and other religious historians place them at the Battle to illustrate how the sins of their forefathers have not been spent and therfore hint at ongoing divine retribution dealt out down the gnerations. From the above it is possible to construct a list of the possible correspondences between those allegly present at the Battle of Chester and the rulers condemned by Gildas based on the family trees of Welsh monarchs. The early generations of these genealogies are traditional and their historical accuracy is debated by scholars. It is not at all clear who Bede might have believed to have been the descendants of those castgated by Gildas.
- It is not clear which character might be associated with Constantine of Dumnonia - "tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia". If "Damnonia" is meant to be Dumnonia this makes some kind of sense as Dumnonia (modern Cornwall) is an immense distance from Chester and even further from Northumbria. That distance will not stop Geoffrey of Monmouth later putting a Cornish troop in the field under "Blederic, duke of Cornwall".
- It is not known which part of Britain Aurelius Caninus - "thou lion's whelp" - is actually supposed to have ruled.
- Vortipor of the Demetae - "who like to the spotted leopard ... tyrant of the Demetians" - would, if a real figure, have ruled Dyfed (southwest Wales). Again this would place his descendants a long way from the action at Chester and little appears to have been known of his descendants even in the time of Bede. Again Geoffrey of Monmouth had no problem putting "Margaduc, king of the Demetians" at Bangor for "part II" of the Battle of Chester.
- Cadwal Crysban may have been believed to have been the great grandson of Cuneglasus - "guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the bear".
- Iago ap Beli was the great grandson of Maglocunus (Mailcun or in later spelling Maelgwn of Gwynedd) - "dragon of the island" - and Iago's supposed grandson was Cadwallon king of Gwynedd and an enemy of Northumbria. Selyf ap Cynan (or Selyf Sarffgadau) also has elements of the "dragon or serpent" connection in his nickname.
While it is by no means certain, it is possible that there is a connection between the rulers condemned by Gildas and the opposition said to be faced by Æthelfrith.
The struggles of the period prior to 600 perhaps gave rise to the legends of Uther Pendragon and King Arthur (dragons and bears again again put through the mincer of historical garbling). It is sometimes said that Ambrosius Aurelianus, a possible leader of the Romano-British forces, was the model for the former, and that Arthur's court of Camelot is an idealised memory of pre-Saxon Romano-British civilisation. The ninth battle of the legendary King Arthur was supposedly fought at The City of the Legion ("nonum bellum gestum est in urbe legionis"). Some have suggested that this is Chester, while others propose Caerleon, York or Carlisle. The list of battles is given by Nennius in his Historia Britonum compiled some time around 820, and whether Chester was the site has been the subject of conflicting theories. The legendary battle is not mentioned by Gildas writing in the early sixth century, who only mentions "Mons Badonicus", the last Arthurian battle. What is known for a fact is that there was a major battle at Chester in post-Roman times, and that may have later been drawn into the Arthurian legends (despite it being a Northumbrian victory over the Welsh). Dates given for the Battle of Chester vary, but 616 seems close to a reasonable estimate.
The battle had consequences for the religious development of England, as the 600-800 period opened with an important synod of the British bishops at "Urbs Legion" (Chester). This Synod of Chester was listed in the Annales Cambriae for the year 601:
- "The synod of Urbs Legionis [Chester]. Gregory died in Christ and also bishop David of Moni Iudeorum"
It has been suggested that "Gregory" was Pope Gregory (most date his death as 604), and even proposed that "David" is the Welsh Saint David (whose death has been variously estimated to have been between 589 and 601). A synod in c601 makes a good deal of sense and it is noteworthy that few other synods are recorded in the various chronicles. Augustine had recently arrived in Kent and Pope Gregory was making plans not only for a see in Canterbury but also for a second see in York. York would not be established for many years but the long-term plan already envisaged the "Roman Conquest" of Anglo-Saxon England by conversion. It is only possible to speculate how the Celtic church, and the leaders of the Celtic states would have viewed this. They could have considered it a threat, as christian Anglo-Saxons could form stronger alliances with the christian rulers of Europe and gain support for expansion westwards, displacing the Celtic church and state heirarchy and re-directing tithes and taxes eastwrds and to Rome. Clearly the Celtic church would want to meet and discuss this and decide how to respond.
Augustine was a Benedictine monk who arrived in Britain 597 and became the first archbishop of Canterbury. While he is considered the "Apostle to the English" and a founder of the English Church it should not be forgotten that the Celtic church was already flourishing, possibly as a survival of Christianity from Roman times, or possibly as a result to earlier waves of missionaries. St Patrick was Romano-British and had been active in the first half of the 5th century. By 600, in Kent, the Saxon king Æthelberht was in the process of converting to Christianity and obviously both the Celtic and the Roman Church saw the opportunities that this would bring. Augustine, tried to reach an agreement with the Celtic bishops who would not cooperate with the new arrival from Rome, and refused to give up their existing traditions regarding baptism and the dating of Easter. Augustine seems to completely ignore the fact that he is under the patronage of a foreign (Kentish) ruler as far as the Celts are concerned and that the Celts would have considered that ecclesiastical subordination to a bishop based in Canterbury would jeopardise their future independence from the Anglo-Saxons.
There is no hard evidence that Chester was the site of a synod between Augustine and the Celtic church or even a synod without Augustine present to discuss relation between the Celts and Rome. Reasons why such a meeting could have taken place in Chester are discussed below, but if it did occur at Chester it seems strange that Bede does not mention that fact, especially as he apparently seeks to link his story to northern Wales and Chester. In Bede’s representation of relations between the British church and the Roman church he refers to Augustine of Canterbury’s two meetings, c602-604, the first being with a group of British bishops at "Augustine’s Oak" on the border of the West Saxons and the Hwicce. Bede is the only source for the existence of these meetings. Although the specific location of Augustine’s Oak is unknown, Aust (Gloucestershire) has been suggested on aetiological grounds. The name is attested in the seventh century, rendered as "aet Austin" in a Worcester charter of the 690s. Its name, Aust, may alternatively be one of the very few English place-names to be derived from the Latin Augusta as it was at one end of a Roman road. Aust was in the land occupied by the Hwicce and the West Saxons held land to the south. Bede is less clear explicit the location of the second meeting. He first recounts that the meeting was "as they say" (ut perhibent) attended by:
- "Seven British bishops and many most learned men chiefly from their most famous monastery which is called in the language of the English Bancornaburg [ie Bangor-is-Coed] (VII Brettonum episcopi et plures viri doctissimi, maxime de nobilissimo eorum monasterio quod vocatur lingua Anglorum Bancornaburg). It is said (narratur) to have been ruled over at the time by Abbot Dinoot."
One conclusion that has ben drawn about Bede's description of the second meeting is that his source for the two meetings may be different, as Bede here describes the Britons as "most learned" and their monastery as "most famous". He also uses qualifying phrases such as "as they say". At Augustine's death (604) his influence had hardly extended outside of Kent, so the likely source for the second meeting is a British one. This second document clearly puts representatives of Bangor on Dee at the meeting with Augustine, and there is no reason why that meeting could not have taken place at some other spot close to the border with "Wales". Many historians have come to the view that the Chester synod was for internal discussions about the response to Augustine.
That Chester was possibly selected as the location of a synod suggests that some local infra-structure had survived. Chester was an important hub of the Roman road system, including that reaching into north Wales, and so was an obvious site for a synod to take place, especially if the participants were coming from many parts of Wales. The association religious sites and the Roman road network is clear when both are mapped together. A Celtic monastery had been established at Bangor-on-Dee in about AD 560 by Saint Dunod and was an important religious centre in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. According to Bede therfore, St Dunod was still alive at the time of the Synod and apparently chaired the meeting (although this may not have been the case). There was no major Roman road through Bangor on Dee but it lies at one of the few places where a crossing of the Dee was still possible at times of flood. There is no hard evidence for any religious establishment at Chester in 616, but the suggestion has been made that the Amphitheatre could have been a site associated with martyrs, and that this was one reason for the later founding of St Johns in Chester.
Arguments against Chester (or Bangor-on-Dee) being a location visited by Augustine can explain the fact that Augustine seems to have completely ignored, or been unaware of, the scope of the Celtic church. Had he visited Bangor on Dee he would have found a religious community far larger, richer in culture and better established than his newly founded see of Canterbury. He also seems to be completely ignorant of relations between the British and the Anglo-Saxons, something which he might have gained some grasp of by visiting Celtic territory.
Augustine died in 604. Shortly thereafter in 616 the Battle of Chester was fought between Æthelfrith of Northumbria (a Pagan) against Kings Selyf Sarffgadau of Powys (leading the army of Din Eirth) and (supposedly) Cadwal Crysban of Rhôs (with a smaller force from eastern Gwynedd) - and possibly also Iago ap Beli - although the latter has very weak evidence for his presence. If we are to believe Bede, a large number of Saint Dunod's monks were slaughtered. This is said to be in keeping with Augustine's prophecy (or curse) that if "they would not accept peace with their brethren, they should have war with their enemies".
Bede reports Augustine's differences with the Celtic church in what he presents as Augustine's own words:
- "Many things ye do which are contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal Church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three matters, to wit, to keep Easter at the due time; to fulfil the ministry of Baptism, by which we are born again to God, according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and to join with us in preaching the Word of God to the English nation, we will gladly suffer all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs."
It is possible that the real issue here was the subjection of the Celtic church to that of Rome, such that Rome could take a share of the income from the Celts and their territory, and that the date of Easter was just a symbolic issue. In late antiquity, it was feasible for the entire Christian church to receive the date of Easter each year through an annual announcement from the Pope. By the early third century, communications had deteriorated to the point that the church put great value in a system that would allow the clergy to independently and consistently determine the date for themselves. Additionally, the church wished to eliminate dependencies on the Hebrew calendar, by deriving Easter directly from the vernal equinox rather tha calculating it from the date of Passover.
According to Bede, who gives the matter a great deal of space, the Celtic church fixed Easter to the Sunday falling in the seven-day period from the 14th to the 20th of its lunar month: the Hebrew month of Nisan (נִיסָן), according to an 84-year cycle. That lunar month, and particularly that "week", had accumulated a very large number od pseudo-historical anniversaries and had been a "spring" festival since Mesopotamian times. The Jewish Passover is the 14th Nisan, so the Celtic calculation was simply "first sunday after passover". However, a computational error made the full moons in Britaain fall progressively too early. By the time that Augustine arrived this error had grown so large that there was a significant difference. Bede wrote two whole books, "De temporibus" (AD 703) and "De temporum ratione" (AD 725) on the calculation of the date of Easter before he completed his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum in about 731. His concern about the date of Easter, which perhaps borders on an obsession, effectively brings him to the conclusion that the Battle of Chester was fought over the date of Easter, which is clearly taking things too far.
The usually unreliable Geoffrey of Monmouth (in History of the Kings of Britain) states that one of leaders of the British was "consul urbis" (Consul of the City) and that:
- "After this all the princes of the Britons met together at the city of Legecester,(..possibly Chester/possibly Leicester..) and consented to make Cadwan their king, that under his command they might pursue Ethelfrid beyond the Humber. (Book XII part I)".
Holinshead repeats this:
- After that the Britains had cōtinued about the space almost of 24 yéeres without anie one speciall gouernour, being led by sundrie rulers, euer sithens that Careticus was constreined to flée ouer Seuerne, and fought oftentimes not onelie against the Saxons, but also one of them 613 against another, at length in the yéere of our Lord 613, they assembled in the citie of Chester, and there elected Cadwan that before was ruler of Northwales, to haue the souereigne rule & gouernement ouer all their nation, and so the said Cadwan began to reigne as king of Britaine in the said yéere 613. But some authors say, that this was in the yéere 609, in which yéere Careticus the British king departed this life. And then after his deceasse the Britains or Welshmen (whether we shall call them) chose Cadwan to gouerne them in the foresaid yéere 609, which was in the 7 yéere of the emperour Phocas, and the 21 of the second Lotharius king of France, and in the 13 yéere of Kilwoolfe king of the Westsaxons.
While one generally accepted date is 616, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says in 605 (in one version and 606 in another version) that:
- And her Æðelfrið lædde his færde to Legercyestre, & ðar ofsloh unrim Walena. & swa wearþ gefyld Augustinus witegunge. þe he cwæþ. Gif Wealas nellað sibbe wið us. hi sculan æt Seaxana handa farwurþan. Þar man sloh eac .cc. preosta ða comon ðyder þæt hi scoldon gebiddan for Walena here. Scrocmail was gehaten heora ealdormann. se atbærst ðanon fiftiga sum. (a rather free translation reads...And here Æthelfrith led his militia to the castle of the legions (Chester), and there slew innumerable Welsh. And so was fulfilled Augustinus's prediction (prophecy), that he said give the barbarians no peace with us, they shall owe their death to the hands of the Saxons. There were slain also 200 priests that came in order to pray for the Welsh soldiers. Brochfael was called their leader, and he escaped as one of fifty.)
Note that here only 200 monks are slain. The dates of the battle also remains troublesome and the following sources differ:
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - 607: This year Ceolwulf fought with the South-Saxons. And Ethelfrith led his army to Chester; where he slew an innumerable host of the Welsh; and so was fulfilled the prophecy of Augustine, wherein he saith "If the Welsh will not have peace with us, they shall perish at the hands of the Saxons." There were also slain two hundred priests, (18) who came thither to pray for the army of the Welsh. Their leader was called Brocmail, who with some fifty men escaped thence.
- Annals of Tigernach - 611: The battle of Chester where the saints were slain; and [where]Solon, Conan's son, king of Britons, and king Cetula fell. Æthelfrith was the victor; and immediately afterwards he died.
- Annals of Clonmacnoise - 613: The battle of Carleil or Carlegion, where Folinn, Conan's son, king of the Britons, was killed by Æthelfrith; who having the victory died himself instantly.
- Annals Cambriae - 613: The battle of Caer Legion [Chester]. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept [died].
- Annals of Ulster - 613: The battle of Chester in which the saints were slain, and Solon, Conan's son, King of Britons fell.
- Annals of Innisfallen - 614: The battle of Chester, in which hosts of saints fell, [was fought] in Britain between the Saxons and Britons.
So of the earlier dates can probably be discounted if the battle was in anyway connected to Edwin, as Edwin would not have been old enough to foment trouble against Æthelfrith - he appears to have been born around 586 and so would have been around 14 in 600.
Who was Brochmael?
Just who "Brochfael" was presents something of a problem. Some writers have suggested that "Brochfael" was Brochwel ap Cyngen, better known as Brochwel Ysgrithrog, who was a king of Powys in Eastern Wales (the nickname Ysgithrog has been translated as ‘of the canine teeth’, ‘the fanged’ or ‘of the tusk’ - perhaps because of big teeth, horns on a helmet or an aggressive manner). However Brochwel is believed to have died c. 560. Thomas Pennant even suggests that the Pillar of Eliseg identifies the Brochmael of the battle of Chester as the son of Eliseg.
Hollinshead writes thus:
- It chanced that he had espied before the battell ioined (as Beda saith) where a great number of the British priests were got aside into a place somewhat out of danger, that they might there make their intercession to God for the good spéed of their people, being then readie to giue battell to the Northumbers. Manie of them were of that famous monasterie of Bangor, in the which it is said, that there was such a number of moonks, that where they were diuided into seuen seuerall parts, with their seuerall gouernors appointed to haue rule ouer them, euerie of those parts conteined at the least thrée hundred persons, the which liued altogither by the labour of their hands. Manie therefore of those moonks hauing kept a solemne fast for thrée daies togither, were come to the armie with other to make praier, hauing for their defender one Brocmale or Broemael, earle (or consull as some call him) of Chester, which should preserue them (being giuen to praier) from the edge of the enimies swoord.
The event is also mentioned in Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum:
- ...rex Anglorum fortissimus Aedilfrid collecto grandi exercitu ad ciuitatem Legionum, quae a gente Anglorum Legacaestir, a Brettonibus autem rectius Carlegion appellatur, maximam gentis perfidae stragem dedit (..the warlike king of the English, Ethelfrid, having raised a mighty army, made a very great slaughter of that perfidious nation, at the City of Legions, which by the English is called Legacestir, but by the Britons more rightly Carlegion.)
The "200 priests" mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are reputed, according to the historian Bede, to have come from Bangor-on-Dee. They were later to be the subject of a poem by Sir Walter Scot which was set to music by Beethoven. Bede does not seem to be quite right about his "Brochfael" who he has guarding the monks and fleeing at the first sign of trouble and, who is probably not be the same character mentioned on Eliseg's Pillar. Further confusion is caused by many writers who have made "Brochwel" an ancestor:
- "Brochwel Yscithroc, Consul of Chester, who dwelt in a town then called Pengwerne Powys, and now Shrewsbury (Salopia), whose dwelling house was in the verie same place where the college of St Chad's now standeth." - Dr Powel's Historie of Cambrie (1584 edition)
The Brochwel at Chester is clearly not the same as the earlier Brochwel. Edmund Spencer in the Chronicle History in the Faerie Queen mangles the history even more as he writes:
- "Whiles thus thy Britons doe in langour pine, Proud Etheldred shall from the North arise, Serving th' ambitious will of Augustine, And , passing Dee, with hardy enterprise, Shall backe repulse the valiaunt Brockwell twise, And Bangor with massacred Martyrs fill, But the third time shall rew his foolhardise: For Cadwan, pittying his peoples ill, Shall stoutly him defeat, and thousand Saxons kill."
"Brocmael's" fortunes seem to swing wildly with the different versions of the story. In some cases he is seemingly a coward, in others just inept and again fighting a rearguard action which only succeeds when he is re-enforced: although in real life "Cadwan" did not turn up for several years (in 633). Perhaps the intention is to show that the enemy nation itself had no real faith it its own church.
Did Geoffrey Get It Right?
Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his pseudo-historical History of the Kings of Britain describes the battle of Chester thus (and has "Brocmail" as consul of the city):
- Therefore Ethelbert, king of Kent, when he saw that the Britons disdained subjection to Augustine, and despised his preaching, was highly provoked, and stirred up Ethelfrid, king of the Northumbrians, and the other petty kings of the Saxons, to raise a great army, and march to the city of Bangor, to destroy the abbot Dinooth, and the rest of the clergy who held them in contempt. At his instigation, therefore, they assembled a prodigious army, and in their march to the province of the Britons, came to Legecester, where Brocmail, consul of the city, was awaiting their coming. To the same city were come innumerable monks and hermits from several provinces of the Britons, but especially from the city of Bangor, to pray for the safety of their people. Whereupon Ethelfrid, king of the Northumbrians, collecting all his forces, joined battle with Brocmail, who, having a less army to withstand him, at last quitted the city and fled, though not without having made a great slaughter of the enemy. But Ethelfrid, when he had taken the city, and understood upon what occasion the monks were come thither, commanded his men to turn their arms first against them; and so two hundred of them were honoured with the crown of martyrdom, and admitted into the kingdom of heaven that same day. From thence this Saxon tyrant proceeded on his march to Bangor; but upon the news of his outrageous madness, the leaders of the Britons, viz. Blederic, duke of Cornwall, Margaduc, king of the Demetians, and Cadwan, of the Venedotians, came from all parts to meet him and joining battle with him, wounded him, and forced him to flee; and killed of his army to the number of ten thousand and sixty-six men. On the Britons' side fell Blederic, duke of Cornwall, who was their commander in those wars.
As usual Geoffrey is happy to mix fact with complete fiction: Æthelfrith wasn't a Saxon (he was Anglian) and he probably wasn't marching south at the behest of Ethelbert of Kent to destroy Bangor! Why March across the country to slay a group of presumably unarmed monks belonging to another religion for no military benefit whatsoever? It would be a waste of resources and a risk of needlessly exposing his forces. Losing 10,066 men killed seems a remarkably accurate tally and (not to mention getting wounded) would have been a military disaster for Æthelfrith - if it were even possible to raise and feed an army of that size except in the direst of emergencies: and why would a Northumbrian do this at the behest of a Kentish ruler who has a religious disagreement with the Britons?
However, there may just be more truth in Geoffrey than at first appears: Æthelfrith may however have been stirred into action by the activities of Edwin of Northumbria. Edwin had been disinherited by Æthelfrith. While the location of his early exile as a child is not known, later traditions, reported by Reginald of Durham (and Geoffrey of Monmouth), place Edwin in the kingdom of Gwynedd, fostered by king Cadfan ap Iago. This could have made him a childhood companion (some say rival) of Cadfan's son, Cadwallon ap Cadfan. However it may be that Edwin is merely placed at Iago's court by later writers to introduce an element of drama and to introduce yet another biblical metaphor.
By the 610s Edwin was certainly in Mercia, under the protection of king Cearl, whose daughter Cwenburh he married. By around 616, Edwin was in East Anglia, under the protection of king Raedwald. Raedwald, despite his conversion to Christianity (Roman rather than Celtic) is the most likely contender for the Sutton Hoo ship burial (the sole surviving witness to the excavation of the Sutton Hoo boat burial was living in Chester c 2007). Bede reports that Æthelfrith tried to have Raedwald murder his unwanted rival, and that Raedwald was minded to do so, only being persuaded otherwise by his wife (a woman of pagan custom and high moral principle whose name is unknown) with "Divine prompting". What Geoffrey seems to be hinting at is some clever manoeuvring by recent Christian converts to pit the pagans against the Celtic Christians. Regardless of the exact course of events, Raedwald was to face Æthelfrith in battle by the River Idle in 616 (where the Roman road from Lincoln to Doncaster crosses the River Idle near Bawtry), and there Æthelfrith was killed, along with one of Raedwald's son's, Rægenhere.
Why Ignore Bede?
Monmouth would certainly have had access to Bede's text and cites him as a source - so why does he write a version of events which is so different? There are several possible answers: first Monmouth might have access to sources which were unavailable to Bede, second he might have a different axe to grind, third he might just have made most of the story up after a brief glance at Bede.
Geoffrey of Monmouth probably wrote his history in the 1120's and 1130's, with copies circulating c.1136. Monmouth was aware of the massacre of the Bangor monks as he mentions it in his earlier "Prophetiae Merlini" (c.1130) although he confuses Chester with Leicester and might even have confused Bangor-on-Dee with Bangor Gwynedd. At the time the English king was Henry I. Henry's son William drowned (together with Richard of Avranches, Earl of Chester) in the White Ship disaster of 1120, throwing the royal succession into doubt as this left only illegitimate male children and a legitimate daughter. Henry took a second wife, Adeliza of Louvain, in the hope of having another son, but their marriage was childless. In response to this, he declared his daughter Matilda his heir and married her to Geoffrey of Anjou. The relationship between Henry and the couple became strained, and fighting broke out along the border with Anjou. Henry's attempts to install the Empress Matilda, as his successor were unsuccessful and on Henry's death in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois seized the throne with the help of Stephen's brother, Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester. Stephen's early reign was marked by fierce fighting with English barons, rebellious Welsh leaders and Scottish invaders. Following a major rebellion in the south-west of England, Matilda invaded in 1139 with the help of her half-brother Robert of Gloucester. So Monmouth was writing his history at a time when it would have been evident that civil war possibly lay ahead in the fairly near future. In fact, the civil war that came was so bad that it is remembered as "The Anarchy" (1135-1153). Amid political tension, Geoffrey reminds the nation that their foundation is based upon the valorous deeds of kings like Vortigern, Aurelius, Uther Pendragon, and the legendary Arthur. Geoffrey’s History was readily received because it offered a divided nation hope for a bright future. Another theme in Monmouth may be that the British had no ruler of their own since the death of Cadwallon ap Cadfan with whom he effectively ends his history, omiting any mention of the arrival of the Danes and the the victories of Alfred over them.
In Bede the Britons are the "heretical" and "impious" adversary of the Anglo-Saxon church who abandon their monks at the first sight of the Northumbrians. In Monmouth they are the heroic Britons who are attacked by the "Saxons", put up a staunch defence and, while unable to save the "martyred" monks, eventually drive the "Saxons" off with immense losses, although the Briton commander (Bledric ap Custennin) is killed.
Monmouth claims that he has access to special knowledge from Brittany, as provided by Walter of Oxford:
- "But as for the kings that have succeeded among them in Wales, since that time, I leave the history of them to Caradoc of Lancarvan, my contemporary; as I do also the kings of the Saxons to William of Malmesbury, and Henry of Huntingdon. But I advise them to be silent concerning the kings of the Britons, since they have not that book written in the British tongue, which Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, brought out of Brittany, and which being a true history, published in honour of those princes, I have thus taken care to translate"
Walter, archdeacon of Oxford was a real historical figure who knew Monmouth. Both their names appear together on certain charters. Walter died in 1151, well after Monmouth's work was circulated so either they plotted together or shared a genuine source together or Geoffrey’s claim would have been vulnerable to very easy contradiction. However Monmouth had very powerful connections, his patron was Robert FitzRoy, 1st Earl of Gloucester (c. 1090 – 31 October 1147) an illegitimate son of King Henry I of England. Geoffrey dedicated his History of the Kings of Britain to Robert:
- "To you, therefore, Robert Earl of Gloucester, this work humbly sues for the favour of being so corrected by your advice that it may be considered not the poor offspring of Geoffrey of Monmouth, but, when polished by your refined wit and judgment, the production of him who had Henry, the glorious King of England, for his father, and whom we see an accomplished scholar and philosopher, as well as a brave soldier and tried commander."
Robert was the half-brother of the Empress Matilda, and her chief military supporter during The Anarchy. Robert was probably the eldest of Henry's many illegitimate children. His daughter Maud of Gloucester (died 1189), later Countess of Chester would marry Ranulph De Gernon who was earl of Chester 1128–1153. Ranulph was noted for changing sides (1136 from Stephen to Matilda) in the civil war. There is evidence in the contemporary source, the Gesta Stephani, that Robert was proposed by some as a candidate for the throne, but his illegitimacy ruled him out:
- "Among others came Robert, Earl of Gloucester, son of King Henry, but a bastard, a man of proved talent and admirable wisdom. When he was advised, as the story went, to claim the throne on his father's death, deterred by sounder advice he by no means assented, saying it was fairer to yield it to his sister's son (the future Henry II of England), than presumptuously to arrogate it to himself."
Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136 referred to Robert as one of the "pillars" of King Stephen's rule, but after a quarrel with the latter in Normandy in 1137 and having his English and Welsh estates seized, Robert switched his support to his half-sister Matilda. Robert arrived back in England until 1138 and became the leader of the party loyal to the Empress Matilda he took back from Stephen most of western England and southern Wales and succeeded in capturing the king at the The Battle of Lincoln on 2 February 1141, Stephen was imprisoned at Bristol Castle. In covering Matilda's flight at the Rout of Winchester Robert of Gloucester was taken prisoner at Stockbridge on 14 September, 1141. Robert's freedom was obtained by an exchange for King Stephen. By the terms of the Treaty of Wallingford, Matilda's son eventually succeeded to the throne on the death of Stephen as King Henry II (1154), the first Plantagenet King. The Treaty of Wallingford (1153) was witnessed by none other than Geoffrey of Monmouth who by that time had become bishop-elect of St Asaph (1151) and ordained a priest (1152). There is no evidence that Bishop Geoffrey ever visited his see - during his entire bishopric the area was much troubled by the wars of Owain Gwynedd. Owain took advantage of the Anarchy, a civil war between Stephen, King of England, and the Empress Matilda, to push Gwynedd's boundaries further east than ever before. In 1146 he captured Mold Castle and about 1150 captured Rhuddlan and encroached on the borders of Powys.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was well connected with those involved with the struggle for power in the mid 12th Century, despite some of them changing sides. Could this have provided the reason why he "forged" a history of Britain that needed to be revised considerably away from Bede?
For many years it was not known whether the battle of Chester was actually fought close to the city, or to the south at or towards Heronbridge (where there are graves from the period). Raphael Holinshed suggests that the battle was fought outside the city:
- "The Britains that dwelt about Chester, through their stoutnesse prouoked the aforesaid Edelferd king of the Northumbers vnto warre: wherevpon to tame their loftie stomachs, he assembled an armie & came forward to besiege the citie, then called of the Britains Chester. The citizens coueting rather to suffer all things than a siege, and hauing a trust in their great multitude of people, came foorth to giue batell abroad in the fields, whome he compassing about with ambushes, got within his danger, and easilie discomfited."
Recent information has come to light due to the efforts of the Chester Archaeological Society, which does seem to pin the battle down to Heronbridge or nearby. The evidence takes the form of a mass grave pit containing only male skeletons, of no more than middle age who seem to have died from battle wounds. The care with which the bodies are laid out seems to imply that this is a burial by the victorious Æthelfrith. Radiocarbon dating places the remains at the right time for the battle. As the bodies are likely to have been buried on or very close to the battlefield, it seems likely that Heronbridge was the site of the battle. If it is accepted that this is the site of the Battle of Chester then this is the the earliest positively identified battle site in England, pre-dating the Battle of Maldon by some 300 years.
When the remains were first found it was thought that they were Roman, as Heronbridge was known to be a site of activity outside of Roman Chester. Dr Elwyn Davies, who wrote the bone report appended to the site report, suggested that the evident trauma were inflicted by Roman cavalry swords or spathae:
- "Nine crania show signs of injury. Long cuts traverse the vaults of the skulls and their clean–cut nature suggest they were inicted with a sharp-edged instrument of long leverage… some form of long sword or the spatha… it is of interest to note that these cuts are mostly along the vaults of the skull, which suggest that they might possibly have been inflicted by cavalry. If these injuries were received during life, and there is every appearance that this is the case, the individuals met with a violent death." (Davies 1933: 47)
Modern examination of the remains showed that one skeleton had suffered large sword injuries, mostly from the front, extending half way back across the calvarium (the portion of a skull including the braincase and excluding the jaw), as well as further sword injuries to the side of the head and through the forehead. In addition there are triangular holes in the skull, that could possibly represent stabs from pointed weapons such as spearheads, which is likely to be the weapon used by most of the rank-and-file at this period. In another case the individual suffered a large sword-cut halfway down the left parietal bone (above the ear). Indeed another similar sword-cut crosses the first at right angles and has penetrated through the bone. There is also a large, crushed, penetrating fracture down the frontal bone (forehead), originating in a blow from an edged weapon (probably an axe). There are numerous hairline fractures at many places in the calvarium of this second skeleton. The most severe of the injuries was a blow across the facial skeleton, cleaving the edge of the left orbit (eye-socket). In addition to other injuries to the skull, there appear to be cuts behind and to the side of the left knee and a cut to the right knee. A third casualty suffered even more extensive wounds including a deep, heavy sword or axe blow into the face, penetrating deeply and causing extensive fracturing and loss of internal bones of the skull. The injury appears to reach as far as the circle of Willis (the base of the brain), as well as indirect damage to the brain stem and cerebellum. In some cases the pattern of fractures of the skull suggest that the individual was wearing a helmet, however there are no associated finds with the skeletons. One would expect them to have been recycled on the battle-field or before burial. These gory details indicate how the lethal blows were ferocious. It may well be that the victims had been brought down by damage to soft tissues and then "finished off" with one or more blows to the head.
The only early descriptions of battlefield tactics from the Anglo-Saxon period date from long after the battle: the poems recounting the battles of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937 and Maldon, fought in AD 991. In the literature, most of the references to weapons and fighting concern the use of javelins, spears and swords, with only occasional references to archery. The typical later battle involved both sides forming shieldwalls to protect against the launching of missiles, and standing slightly out of range of each other. However, in earlier conflicts the shield was smaller and troops may have fought in more open order. The use of the horse in battle is very unclear and probably only the gedriht (personal followers of the chief) would have been mounted. However, horses at this period were small and would have had to be battle trained. On balance, the sources indicate that the Anglo-Saxons fielded a balanced and effective infantry army. It seems likely that horses would have been used either for scouting or transport. In the earlier period "Celtic" warriors were known for more fluid tactics, but the influence of Roman culture may have made them more disciplined.
The presence of some healed wounds on Anglo-Saxon war casualties indicates that some of them were veterans from previous conflicts. This, and other evidence suggests that there was a dedicated warrior class. From other evidence it certainly appears that this was the case in Northumbria.
Troops can be raised either when needed or a permanent war-band be maintained. A war-band might well be far more mercenary than a "conscript" lavy which might include some vererans.
The "Tribal Hidage" perhaps enables us to see the impact of troop raising and warfare. The Tribal Hidage is, according to D. P. Kirby's description, "a list of total assessments in terms of hides for a number of territories south of the Humber, which has been variously dated from the mid-7th to the second half of the 8th century". Most of the kingdoms of the Heptarchy are included. Mercia, which is assigned 30,000 hides, is at the top at the list, followed by a number of small tribes to the west and north of Mercia, all of which have no more than 7000 hides listed. Historians have not been able to agree upon the date for the original compilation of the list with the earliest dates in the mid 7th Century. There is near universal agreement that the text originates from Mercia, partly because the kings of Mercia are known to have held extensive power over other Anglo-Saxon territories from the late 7th to the early 9th centuries, but also because the list, headed by Mercia, is almost exclusively of peoples who lived south of the river Humber, although some have suggested that the list may be Northumbrian, possibly even from Edgar. A "hide" was a unit of assessment that was used to indicate in some way the number of households who lived in an area. One probable interpretation is that a hide was also considered to be the amount needed to sustain a freeman and his family. It has been proposed that a man from every five hides was expected to serve in the king's fyrd, or militia. As a rough approximation a major loss in warfare could therefore wipe out a fifth of the population of male freemen. This meant that even a war won could be a very costly affair in terms of manpower, potentially seriously affecting crop yields.
A war-band on a more permanent footing might consist of quite hardened fighters who probably raided across their borders on an annual basis. Every few years a bigger gathering could grab some new territory, loot and slaves.
The Northumbrians probably approached the battlefield from the direction of Chester along the Roman Road. It is possible that the Roman equivalent of the Old Dee Bridge still survived at this time and so the Northumbrians could have crossed there, about two miles north of the battlefield. Alternatively, they could have crossed the River Dee at a ford somewhere between Chester and Heronbridge, although no such ford has been established with any certainty. The River Dee did not have a weir until after the Normans, and so it is difficult to say what the detailed topography may have been. The river appears to have been banked-up along its sides and possibly straightened in some places. Bede suggests, through mention of the monks preparation by fasting, that the Welsh were aware that the Northumbrians were approaching and, therefore, it seems likely that they should have had the choice of the most favourable ground for battle, especially with the Northumbrians being in very unfamiliar territory.
It is possible that the two armies first faced each other as shown in the diagram. The Northumbrians would be on a small hill with a cliff and the River Dee on their left flank. That is a location very close to where Heronbridge House now overlooks the river. They would have an easy line of retreat down the Roman Road, and could form a shield-wall in a line cutting accross the Roman Road. The Welsh are at Eccleston, they are also on elevated ground on a small rise now occupied by the village centre. The monks are probably on the site of the original church, between the village center and the river. At this degree of separation the two armies are out of weapon range but the advantage is for he who stands his ground. Anyone attacking the other has to cross lower ground where the earthworks are. The ground here can also be a little boggy. The position just noth of the earthwork is probably a better defensive position than in the earthwork, where troops would be trapped against the River Dee, could be pelted with javelins from higher ground, and where counter-attack from the earthwork would be an attack uphill.
The Northumbrians might be more experienced in battle than the Welsh troops and they are immensely more experienced than most of the monks would be. Now is not the time for the monks to rush forward believeing that their faith, fasting and clamour of cries would bring about a miracle causing the Northumbrians to flee, die, or otherwise be dealt with. In such circumstances there would be a slaughter of monks. The monks may well have been aware of the supposed "Alleluja" victory which is said to have taken place in North Wales at a mountainous site near a river, of which Mold is the traditional location. With the enemy approaching, former general and now bishop Germanus of Auxerre put himself at the head of the newly baptised Christians. According to tradition Germanus led them into a vale between two high mountains, and ordered his troops shout when he gave them a sign. When the "Saxons" approached, he cried out thrice, Alleluia, which was followed by the whole army of Britons. The sound is traditionally said to have echoed from the hills with a noise so loud that the barbarians, judging from the shout that they were facing a mighty army, flung down their arms and ran away, leaving behind their baggage. Whether that battle actually happened is not known, but it has been suggested that the monks of Bangor might have been attempting something similar at Chester. Given the probable positions at the start of the battle it is likely that the monks would have been visible to the Northumbrians, who would be able to see that they were not combat troops.
However we do not know anything about the course of the battle other than that the monks were slaughtered. Any details of the kind discussed above are little other than speculation, but such a course of events would leave the Northumberland dead close to where they were buried. It would also mean there should be a mass grave of monks and perhaps also the fallen Welsh military.
The Missing Graves
Monks would like to see their dead properly buried. They believed in physical resurrection whereby a persons physical remails would rise from the grave on Judgement Day. Of the skeletons examined at least one had battle injuries which were well healed at the time of death, incuding a defence wound to a hand and a stab wound to the abdomen, as well as head wounds. The new, fatal, injuries were to the skull. Although the bodies were arranged neatly, they overlapped, which would not be ideal for a monk. They were tall for the period, and had well developed muscles which could indicate a warrior. The older of the two skeletons examined in detail showed some joint wear and tear from hard work and had considerable dental wear (but all his teeth) as well a fairly severe toothache. The skeletons were laid out facing to the east. They had been buried before much decay had set in as broken bones were still aligned. It is likely that these are the dead Northumbrians.
Curiously a Roman cemetary was found on almost the same spot. Enough remains to recognise a Roman tombstone of a woman named Justa Do----. The tombstone was decorated with the figure of a recling Justa and probably her servant beneath a pediment decorated with a triton or dolphin. It is now clear that those who built the earthwork fort over the site of the Roman settlement not only recovered what reusable stone they could from its ruined buildings but also removed tombstones, and presumably more elaborate sepulchral monuments, from the neighbouring Roman cemeteries. That three things are colocated: the Roman cemetary, the Northumbrian Cemetary and the the earthwork, is curious. Some answer may lie in the fact that the modern boundary of the City of Chester runs very close by. Perhaps there are relations between the the placement of these thinks, such as Heronbridge being the most easy point to offload goods onto the Roman Road before Chester itself is reached.
Æthelfrith would not long survive the Battle of Chester. By some accounts he perished in the same year, but that is unlikely. The cause was dynastic strife rather than invasion.
A Deiran exile Hereric (who may be the same as Hering son of Hussa) was poisoned while at the court of Ceretic, king of Elmet - who seems to have offered "sanctuarty" to exciled Nurthumbrians; Æthelfrith may have been responsible for this killing. Edwin ended up in East Anglia, under the protection of its king, Rædwald.
Æthelfrith sent messengers to bribe Rædwald with "a great sum of money" into killing Edwin; Bede reports that his first message had no effect, but Æthelfrith sent more messengers and threatened war if Rædwald did not comply (bribes and threats of this kind may have previously been used to accomplish Hereric's killing). Rædwald eventually agreed to kill Edwin or hand him over to Æthelfrith's messengers, but was reportedly dissuaded from this by his wife, who said that such a thing was unworthy of his honour.
Instead, Rædwald raised an army and marched against Æthelfrith, and around 616 Æthelfrith was defeated and killed on the east side of the River Idle by an army under Rædwald; Bede says that Æthelfrith had the inferior army, because Raedwald had not given him time to bring all his forces together. While presented by Bede as being fought simply over the issue of Edwin, this war may have actually involved questions of power and territory between the two rulers. Following Æthelfrith's death, Edwin became king not just of Deira but of Bernicia as well; Æthelfrith's sons Eanfrith, Oswald, and Oswiu fled to the north. Thus Æthelfrith's death in battle has been seen as causing "a near total revolution in the politics of what is now northern England". As with other elements of the story Bede is writing for a christian audience: Edwin and Raedwald will both eventually convert to christianity and Bede strongly hints that "rightful" king Edwin is pursued by the pagan Æthelfrith from exile to exile until Raedwald steps in. However it seems hard to believe that the battles of Chester and the River Idle were both fought simply for the sake of Edwin.
From around 616, Rædwald was the most powerful of the English kings south of the River Humber. According to Bede he was the fourth ruler to hold imperium over other southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: he was referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written centuries after his death, as a bretwalda (an Old English term meaning 'Britain-ruler' or 'wide-ruler'). He was the first king of the East Angles to become a Christian, converting at Æthelberht's court some time before 605, whilst at the same time maintaining a pagan temple. In receiving the faith he helped to ensure the survival of Christianity in East Anglia during the apostasy of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Essex and Kent. He is generally considered by historians to be the most favoured candidate for the occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, although other theories have been advanced.
From the above it is clear that the accounts of the Battle of Chester may well have been tainted with a little bias, and a good dose of historical confusion. A battlefield, or at least it's graveyard has been identified without any real doubt at Heronbridge. This almost certainly means that the battle was fought nearby, although we do not know how many founght and how many died. We are not even sure who actually fought in the battle.
A fairly good case can be made out that Æthelfrith of Northumbria actually turned up on the day, but as to his opponents there is some doubt. Selyf Sarffgadau, Cadwal Crysban and Iago ap Beli where all possibly alive at the date of the battle, although there is some doubt about Iago, who might just be unfortunate enought to have died peacefully in the same year. All of the potential opponents of Æthelfrith appear to have some connection, which may be actual or imagined, with the Welsh rulers singled out by Gildas, some generations earlier. There are at least curious parallels between the "insults" which Gildas throws at them: - "bear", "serpent/dragon" and those who supposedly fought at Chester. The supposed combatants also have forward links to the time of Bede, potentially creating a linkage between those Gildas singles out as rulers of a heretical people and those Bede might consider the enemies of Northumbria.
Geoffrey of Monmouth also throws in contingents from Cornwall and Dyfed who would appear to have no reason to get involved in the fight and who appear to be led by rulers he has simply made-up or borrowed from near contempory history. Perhaps Geoffrey made the connection between Bede and Gildas and simply added the Demetians and the Dumnonians back in. Geoffrey also makes Aurelius Conanus the nephew to the previous king Constantine, whom he kills after a reign of only three years. While the kingship should go to another, unnamed uncle of Aurelius', but Aurelius pursues a civil war, ultimately imprisoning his kinsman and killing his sons. However, Aurelius only rules for two years before he himself dies; according to Geoffrey he is succeeded by Vortiporius. So Geoffrey uses all the actors from Gildas in his Arthurian construct, and then throws their equivalents into the fray at the Battle of Chester.
Augustine is dragged in as a possible cause, despite having died about ten years before the battle. His "if you are not with us you are against us" prophecy is put into the mouth of a the pagan Æthelfrith, who seems remarkably familiar with Matthew 12:30:
- "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters" (and other similar quotes),
or as Æthelfrith, who is supposedly ignorant of the true religion, puts it:
- "If they are praying to their God against us, them, even if they do not bear arms, they are fighting against us".
Æthelfrith then uses his military force to eradicate the monks - of whose numbers estimates vary wildly - while his opponents apparently stand about doing nothing and Brochmael (whoever he was) runs away. Despite losing over 10,000 troops according to Monmouth, and being wounded and routed, Æthelfrith claims a victory. But it is not much of a victory if he is there to kill his rival Edwin, who by that time was in East Anglia under the protection of Raedwald.
It is almost as if Gildas, Bede and Monmouth are each providing a version of history which is in part the same repeated fable.
Why was the Battle of Chester fought at all?
So what was really going on at the Battle of Chester?
It has been estimated that at least 112 people died and were buried with reasonable care in the relatively small part of the Heronbridge site excavated. Isotopic anaysis of bones suggests that they were not local to Chester but came from the north and east. This is entirely consistent with Northumbrian origins. Their injuries are violent, in many cases extremely so, and some injuries suggest that at least some wore helmets. Evidence of earlier, healed injury to bones suggests past and protracted military service by veterans. The bodies do not appear to have been disturbed after burial but no grave goods were present. This is entirely consistent with a victorious Northumbran army removing useful armour and weapons then respectfully burying its dead. Then the Northumbrians left. They did not settle in the area. The "walking man" to the right will open map and LIDAR of Heronbridge. The site of the battle cemetary at Heronbridge is north of a modern bridge crossing, close to a moated hall and just downriver of the site of Eccleston Ferry.
The remaining earthworks at Heronbridge seem poorly located from a military perspective. They are located by a river but there is nothing to suggest that Æthelfrith had any kind of naval support, or indeed that such would have been practical given that his ships might have to sail half-way around the country to reach the Dee. As well as the damp, being trapped against a river and having a poor view out of the river valley the site has little to commend it. From the viewpoint of an invading Northumbran army the only thing to commend the site is that although there are no prolonged steep slopes on either side of the River, a sudden flood would not make it impassible. Both up- and down-stream towards the Earl's Eye or Aldford the river either has relatively steep banks or broad flood meadows. The Romans has a small dock here. If monks or others were engaged in travel or trade on the River Dee then this would have been a possible place to have an "outpost", possibly associated with an ecclesiastical site at nearby Eccleston. There is one small area of steepness, a marked cliff just to the north of Heronbridge House. and this might be put to some defensive advantage.
"Flood maps" make it easy to visualise where key choke-points in the landscape might lie. The flooding or waterlogging of low lying ground would make moving an army difficult, so military obstacles are best placed at these choke points, as are means to collect tolls or regulate or even engage in trade. Many of the "choke-points" along the River Dee would later attract one of the Cheshire Castles and otherwise contribute to the Road Transport network. If there was a recognised crossing point at Heronbridge there would be reasons for a rampart to have been on the site prior to the Battle of Chester. It has not been possible to determine whether the Anglian cemetery at Heronbridge is dated before or after the embankment as while the two are very close together they do not appear to overlap.
Tolley (see links) provides many other reasons why the embankment at Heronbridge could have been there: and notes that it was a substantial structure that would have been far too large for Æthelfrith's needs, estimating his army to a size of 500-1000. It is also suggested that it could have already been either an existing border post of some description and/or a sub-Roman, Briton, cemetary. On the other hand the rampart could have been built later, possibly by Edwin, on a site which was already known for a Northumbrian victory and adjacent a Northumbrian war-grave.
Æthelfrith's objectives are not clear. We do not know whether Æthelfrith's advance to Chester was an offensive move or a counter to an offensive against him. One interpretation is that the Welsh forces mustered to oppose an invading army. However, more than one Welsh Kingdom was involved. It has been suggested that Æthelfrith wished to dispose of Edwin and that Edwin was either in Wales, or trying to forge an alliance there with the intention of attacking Æthelfrith. There is scant evidence that Edwin ever went into exile in Wales, and that is of a late date. These late traditions, reported by Reginald of Durham and Geoffrey of Monmouth, place Edwin in the kingdom of Gwynedd, fostered by king Cadfan ap Iago, so allowing biblical parallels to be drawn from the struggle between Edwin and his supposed foster-brother Cadwallon. By the 610s Edwin was certainly in Mercia under the protection of king Cearl, whose daughter Cwenburg he married, and by 614 he even appears to be even further away in East Anglia.
It is not known whether and to what extent Mercia was involved in events leading to the Battle. In a later campaign against Wales and Mercia, Oswald struck down from Northumbria to Owestry in what seems like a plan to separate the Welsh and Mercians (and was defeated and killed as a result). However the idea of a lightning strike by Æthelfrith might falter if it is true that the monks of Bangor had the time to fast for three days before the battle - if Bede is to be believed they were certainly not surprised. Historians have noted the marriage between Edwin and Cearl's daughter as evidence for Cearl's independence from Northumbrian king Æthelfrith, since Edwin was Æthelfrith's rival and Cearl would not have married his daughter to an enemy of his overlord. The Historia Brittonum credits the later king Penda with first separating the Mercians from the Northumbrians, but if Cearl was able to make this marriage to Æthelfrith's enemy he must not have been subject to him — possibly any subject relationship only developed at a later date.
Bede hints at the suggestion that pagan Æthelfrith was dragged into a religgious conflict and possibly purposefully avoids any further reason. Monmouth is clear that the reasons were a religious disagreement but is often a dubious source. In the absence of evidence it is only possible to speculate why Æthelfrith should pick a battle so far south. If it was a defensive move then it seems foolhardy to advance so far into "enemy" territory which was perhaps largely unknown and would have presented potential supply problems. The idea that there was a personal reason has been broached (such as killing Edwin) and one might speculate that ther could be other personal reasons, perhaps going back as far as the Battle of Catraeth. Other arguments might be that this was essentially a looting expedition, possibly based on false impressions of the wealth of Chester and North Wales. In circa 893 a force of Vikings would also march across England and attack Chester for reasons which are also by no means clear (see: Amphitheatre).
What Happened Afterwards?
With the death of Æthelfrith, and of the powerful Æthelberht of Kent the same year, Raedwald and his client Edwin were well placed to dominate England, and indeed Raedwald did so until his death a decade later. Edwin expelled Ceretic from the minor British kingdom of Elmet in either 616 or 626. Elmet had probably been subject to Mercia and then to Edwin. The larger kingdom of Lindsey appears to have been taken over c. 625, after the death of king Raedwald.
Edwin and Eadbald of Kent were allies at this time, and Edwin arranged to marry Eadbald's sister Æthelburh. The fate of his first wife (Cwenburg) is not recorded. Bede notes that Eadbald would agree to marry his sister to Edwin only if he converted to Christianity. The marriage of Eadbald's Merovingian mother Bertha had resulted in the conversion of Kent and Æthelburh's would do the same in Northumbria.
So what of Cearl of Mercia? That some catastrophe did overwhelm king Cearl seems plausible. At a date no later than the spring of 616, Edwin had fled to Raedwald of the East Angles. Given his marriage to Cearl’s daughter and their co-parentage of Cearl’s grandsons, it is difficult to imagine that Edwin’s flight was voluntary. That successive embassies from Æthelfrith subsequently came close to securing his death by threat of war against Rzedwald demonstrates that Æthelfrith was, in 616, in a position to attack the East Angles. He had, therefore, secured passage through the Trent valley - that is through Cearl’s core territory. When Rredwald eventually marched against Æthelfrith he surprised him with only small forces, so not on campaign, inside the Mercian frontier on the banks of the river Idle. These several circumstances possibly demonstrate that Cearl’s kingship had evaporated by 616, at the latest. It had apparently been replaced by Æthelfrith’s own (brief) imperium over Mercia. Such is unlikely to have been achieved without a major clash between their two forces. The battle of Chester is the only battle known to have been fought by Æthelfrith against anyone south of Northumberland. Unless Bede omitted mention of another at least as important, Cearl was a victim of the Chester campaign. Bede might well have failed to mention Mercia's involvement simply because that would weaken his argument that the downfall of the Britons was the result of Augustine's curse.
King Edwin’s conversion may have followed his marriage to Æthelburh, who brought her bishop Paulinus of York with her. Both Æthelburh and her mother, Bertha, supposedly received letters from popes Gregory I and Boniface III respectively, urging them to do their Christian duty by converting their pagan husbands. Their daughter Eanflaed was one of the first to be baptized in Northumbria. After King Edwin was wounded, Æthelburh's alarm caused an early onset of childbirth. Both the mother, as well as the infant, appeared to be in danger. The prayers of Paulinus were offered for the queen and child. After they recovered, 12 of the royal households, as well as the baby, were baptized by Edwin’s permission and request.
The routine of kingship in Edwin's time involved regular, probably annual, wars with neighbours to obtain tribute, submission, and slaves. By Edwin's death, it is likely that these annual wars, unreported in the main, had extended the Northumbrian kingdoms from the Humber and the Mersey north to the Southern Uplands and the Cheviots.
The first challenge to Edwin came soon after his marriage-alliance with Kent, concluded at Canterbury in the summer of 625. By offering his protection to lesser kings, such as the king of Wight, Edwin thwarted the ambitions of Cwichelm of Wessex. Cwichelm's response was to send an assassin, which would result in the wound mentioned above. Edwin did not immediately respond to this insult, suggesting either that he felt unable to do so, or that Bede's portrayal of him as a rather indecisive ruler is accurate. Following the failed assassination, as noted, Edwin committed himself to Christianity, but provided only that he was victorious against Cwichelm (who was apparently defeated by Penda).
From about 627 onwards, Edwin was the most powerful king among the Anglo-Saxons, ruling Bernicia, Deira and much of eastern Mercia, the Isle of Man, and Anglesey. His alliance with Kent, the subjection of Wessex, and his recent successes added to his power and authority. The imperium, as Bede calls it, that Edwin possessed was later equated with the idea of a Bretwalda, a later concept invented by West Saxon kings in the 9th century.
Edwin's expansion to the west may have begun early in his reign. There is firm evidence of a war waged in the early 620s between Edwin and Fiachnae mac Báetáin of the Dál nAraidi, king of the Ulaid in Ireland. A lost poem is known to have existed recounting Fiachnae's campaigns against the Saxons, and the Irish annals report the siege, or the storming, of Bamburgh in Bernicia in 623–624. This should presumably be placed in the context of Edwin's designs on the Isle of Man, a target of Ulaid ambitions. Fiachnae's death in 626, at the hands of his namesake, Fiachnae mac Demmáin of the Dál Fiatach, and the second Fiachnae's death a year later in battle against the Dál Riata probably eased the way for Edwin's conquests in the Irish sea province.
Edwin's supposed foster-brother Cadwallon ap Cadfan enters the record circa 629, but Cadwallon was defeated and either submitted to Edwin's authority or went into exile. With the defeat of Cadwallon, Edwin's authority appears to have been unchallenged for a number of years, until Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon rose against him in 632–633. Edwin faced Penda and Cadwallon at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in the autumn of 632 or 633 and was defeated and killed. For a time his body was (allegedly) hidden in Sherwood Forest at a location that became the village of Edwinstowe (trans. Edwin's resting place), his head being eventually buried at York and the rest of his body at Whitby. Of his two grown sons by Cwenburh of Mercia, Osfrith died at Hatfield, and Eadfrith was captured by Penda and killed some time afterwards. Edwin's realm was divided at his death.
Edwin was succeeded by Osric, son of Edwin's paternal uncle Ælfric, in Deira, and by Eanfrith, son of Æthelfrith and Edwin's sister Acha, in Bernicia. Both reverted to paganism, and both were killed by Cadwallon. Eventually Eanfrith's brother Oswald later restored Northumbria's fortunes (Heavenfield: 634), but was himself defeated by the Mercians under Penda (Maserfield: 641-42)). Oswalds brother Oswiu got revenge on Penda (Winwaed: 655) but the Mercians were back on form under their temporary king Æthelred (Trent: 679). Having been defeated, the Northumbrian Ecgfrith turned his attention northwards and was destroyed with his army at the Battle of Nechtansmere c685. The Mercians came out on top.
Each of Gildas, Bede and Monmouth tell their story through the lens of a particular perception of the British. Gildas is writing after the time of Pelagius but before the Battle of Chester and seeks to condemn the acts of his contemporaries, both secular and religious, whom he blames for the dire state of affairs in sub-Roman Britain. Gildas uses the phrophecies of Daniel and others to boost his argument. Bede ia attacking the "heresy" of the Celtic church, especially as regards baptism and the date of Easter, and their failure to preach to the Anglo-Saxons people (of whom he is a member). Bede uses the prophecy of Augustine to boost his argument. Monmouth's propaganda seeks to demonstrate that the British were a noble race who had lost their way politically as much as spiritually, but would be "saved" with help from the Normans. He also uses prophecy but largely places this in the mouth of Merlin.
At present, the reasons for the Battle of Chester are still something of a mystery. It could be that an important trigger is hidden. On the one hand Æthelfrith seems to make a lightning attack, on the other hand the Monks of Bangor have time to fast and the Welsh time to muster. At one time Æthelfrith is prepared to simply pay to have an exile such as Edwin killed, at another he spends money on a military expedition. Edwin is still a pagan at the time of the Battle of Chester as is Æthelfrith, but it is suggested that both were caught up in the plots of popes, monks and bishops. The Battle of Chester really leaves a sense that there is part of the jigsaw missing. Teasing these threads apart, we see the following:
- The Romans had auxiliary troops in North Wales, possibly associated with Legio XX based at Chester. Some of these hailed from regions such as the Balkans and the Middle East. Genetic studies have shown at least one cluster of genes associated with the eastern mediterranean in North Wales, at a known Roman site. Some would have been cavalry and have settled here when mustered out. These cavalry used the "Draco" standard, an example of which can be seen at the Grosvenor Museum. This type of standard may possibly have developed into the "Serpent of Battle" symbol and become an epithet of the Welsh war-leaders. It is just possible that this "dragon" war standard of the Romans also evolved into the Welsh national flag.
- Roman infrastructure in the form of roads remained after the departure of the Roman troops. The early Christian church was well established in North Wales often at sites associated with Roman outposts and with the remains of Roman Chester. Myth systems such as that of Elen of the Hosts also link the Romans with the early history of North Wales and possibly the gradual withdrawal of the Kingdom of Powys from around Wroxeter and the Wrekin into mid Wales. The early history of Powys is still not well understood.
- The remaining traces of the Roman military in sub-Roman Britain may well have helped slow the incursions of the Anglo-Saxons significantly. Gildas alludes to this and connections are evident between the Brythonic peoples of Scotland and those of North Wales. These are mostly clouded by the accumulation of centuries of myth.
- There were established ecclesiastical communities along the River Dee: at Bangor-on-Dee, Eccleston and Chester (possibly associated with St Johns or the Amphitheatre). There may already have been a fortification of some kind at Heronbridge which acted as a trading or border post. Some of these sites, such as Bangor-on-Dee are problematic - supposedly there was a vast monastic settlement there, but there is little in the archaeological record to back that up. The extent to which this ecclesia was a survival from Roman times is not clear.
- There were doctrinal issues between Augustine, representing Rome, and the Celtic bishops, which possibly went back to the "Pelagian heresy" (see: Mold Cope), and included the dating of Easter (which was of major interest to Bede). However it is a step too far to make these differences the cause of the Battle of Chester as Bede appears to suggest.
- Augustine probably failed to recognise the scope of the Celtic church and the political issues between the Welsh rulers and the Anglo-Saxon ones. Bede, a staunch supporter of Rome seeks to portray the Celtic church in a very bad light. He is assisted by the works of Gildas and possibly drops hints that the destruction of the Bangor monks is something that has been due for a very long time. Bede makes Edwin (a fellow Northumbrian) into a more heroic and saintly figure than he actually was.
- There was a major battle at Chester, which almost certainly took place at Heronbridge. Some writers would have us believe that this was caused by the Augustine's curse or caused by Æthelfrith's pursuit of Edwin. Just what caused the battle to be fought is not clear. Æthelfrith did not survive long and Edwin was restored to Northumbria. However, the precise dates and circumstances of Æthelfrith's downfall are lacking in detail.
- The dead buried at the battle site are probably Northumbrians, one being a veteran and the other a younger man. The is no sign so far of a mass grave of monks. However Roman funerary remains have also been found associated with the earthwork including the sculpted head of a female figure and a banquet funeral scene. It is not clear how the presence of a Roman burial site should be integrated into the rest of the archeological landscape of the battle.
In summary, there is much still to be discovered about the Battle of Chester, much of which is concerned with separating the layers of myth and religious propaganda which have been placed on top of the layers of very evident material remains. Bede remains the best written source, but he needs to be handled carefully as he has a religious axe to grind and seems mostly concerned with the slaughter of the monks. The site, with archaeology from various periods still presents an imperfect picture and would greatly benefit from some signage to assist in interpretation and draw attention to its complex history.
Three substantive academic papers which have provided valuable input for this article are:
- Clive Tolley on the Battle of Chester;
- Aethelfrith of Nothumbria and the Battle of Chester: the bones;
- Nicholas Higham on the Battle of Chester;
Many of the dates in the following list are approximate. This is due to several reasons: the shortage of written records and having to date events by evidence such as coin finds; Chroniclers being unsure of dates or different dates being used in different chronicles; and, changes in the timing of the new year.
- 410: Romans leave Britain;
- 446: Bangor Tewdws burnt;
- 508: Bangor Tewdws rebuilt;
- 536: Great famine due to extreme weather events;
- 540: Gildas writes "The ruin of Britain", possibly at Bangor Tewdws. He mentions the martyrdom of Julius and Aaron;
- 547: Maelgwn Gwynedd dies of the "yellow plague"; quite probably the arrival of Justinian's Plague in Britain.
- 559: The Angles in Deira assert themselves at about the same time as Ida of Bernicia dies.
- 560: Posssible date for establishment of Celtic christian monastery at Bangor-on-Dee by Dunod. Dunod is best known as being the only Welsh ecclesiastic mentioned by name, in Bede's "Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum", as having been at the meeting of the Welsh bishops with Saint Augustine of Canterbury;
- 577: Saxons under Ceawlin of Wessex resume attacks on Britons;
- 593: Edwin is driven out of Diera by his brother-in-law, Æthelfrith of Bernicia.
- 597: Augustine of Canterbury lands in Kent;
- 601: Synod at Chester. Also, by 601, Pope Gregory was writing to both Æthelberht of Kent and Bertha, calling the king his son and referring to his baptism. Testimony to the revival of the city of Eboracum (York) occurs when Pope Gregory announces his intention to make York the home of the Northern see;
- 603: Battle of Degsastan between king Æthelfrith of Bernicia and the Gaels under Áedán mac Gabráin, king of Dál Riada;
- 604: Æthelfrith's hostile takeover of Deira;
- 613: Hereric was poisoned in the court of King Ceretic of Elmet probably at the instigation of Æthelfrith;
- 616: Battle of Chester, possibly at Heronbridge. Æthelberht of Kent dies;
- 617: Edwin begins a push westwards that will gain him the entire Pennine region, and in this year he uses the poisoning of Hereric father of Hilda of Whitby as a pretext for invading Elmet, holding Ceretic responsible. The Elmetians are outnumbered by Edwin's host and are defeated at a battle fought near Bawtry;
- 624: At Rædwald's death, Edwin replaced him as Bretwalda;
- 627: Edwin accepts Christianity, thanks to his Christian wife, Æthelburh (Ethelburga) of Kent;
- 630: Battle of Cefn Digoll (also known as the Battle of The Long Mynd) ended the Northumbrian domination of Gwynedd;
- 633: Battle of Hatfield Chase: decisive victory for Gwynedd and the Mercians: Edwin was killed;
- 634: Battle of Heavenfield: Oswald of Bernicia defeats a Welsh army under Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd;
- 641: Oswald dies at Battle of Maserfield;
- 650: Werburgh born;
- 655: Cynddylan possibly dies at the Battle of the Winwaed, together with Penda;
- 664: Synod of Whitby: Wilfrid becomes famous;
- 672: Ely Abbey founded by Æthelthryth (St Etheldreda), daughter of the East Anglian King;
- 679: Æthelred of Mercia defeats the Northumbrian Ecgfrith (his brother in law) at the Battle of the Trent;
- 689: St Johns founded possibly by Æthelred of Mercia (king from 675 until 704) and Wilfred (c. 633 – 709 or 710);
- 697: Bardney Abbey founded, possibly by Æthelred of Mercia;
- 699: Werburgh dies;
- Dark Ages: from the end of Rome to the coming of the Normans;
- Amphitheatre: possible early christian activity;
- Heronbridge: Roman and other remains;
- Bangor on Dee: the vanishing monastery
Sources and Links
Chronicles and other eBooks
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle;
- Bede Ecclesiastical History of England;
- Six old English chronicles: Ethelwerd's Chronicle, Asser's Life of Alfred, Geoffrey of Monmouth's British history, Gildas, Nennius and Richard of Cirencester.
N.B. Richard of Cirencester's De Situ Britanniae was faked by Charles Bertram prior to publication in 1747 although it was revealed to be a fake in 1845, it had by then provided misinformation which turned up in many other works.
- Battle of Chester on Wikipedia;
- The Past Uncovered, 2005;
- Chester Arch. Soc. report on Heronbridge;
- Heronbridge and Eccleston archaeology report;
- Carbon dating: Osteological Analysis of some remains from Heronbridge;
- Megalithic Britain;
- Skeletons rediscovered;
Bamburgh and Æthelfrith
- Æthelfrith's Growing Fyrd;
- Bamburgh Castle: at Castles, Forts, Battles;
- The Politics of Exile in Early Northumbria;
Powys and Selyf Sarffgadau
- Wrekin Archaeology;
- The Draco: the Late Roman military standard;
- The "Draco" standard;
Iago, Cetula and Rhos
- British Battles 493-937: Mount Badon to Brunanburh: (Breeze 2020)
- Bryn Euryn: a very interesting site that most people drive past;