If you didn’t know about this, you wouldn’t know it was there. If you know what I mean. A good friend told me about it – I’d been driving past for ages in blissful ignorance.
Just east of Chollerford in Northumbria, a little to the north of Hexham on the northern side of the B6318, you’ll see a large wooden cross. Exactly like the one in the picture, as a matter of fact. The field and chapel, St Oswald’s, behind the cross allegedly mark the spot of the Battle of Heavenfield. This took place in 634AD (or thereabouts). It was fought between the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians under King Oswald, and the British warriors of Cadwallon, or Cadwalla, of Gwynedd. The Northumbrians had been heavily defeated at Hatfield Chase, near Doncaster, by a curious alliance of Cadwalla and King Penda of Mercia – an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. It was a curious alliance because you would think they should have been poles apart. Bear in mind that ‘heathen’ Anglo-Saxon invaders had overrun most of what we now know as England, leaving the original Britons controlling lands in the west – including what we now know as ‘Wales’. It would be misleading to think of Gwynedd as Welsh in the 7th century; what we’re looking at here is a Celtic, British, territory occupied by the near descendents of the people that had lived in the whole of the southern part of the island of Britain since before the Romans came – until pushed westward by the Anglo-Saxons, including the ancestors of Penda and his Mercians. So you wouldn’t expect them to be that chummy with each other, would you? See ‘Dark Age Britain’ for more about this.
These are shadowy times in Britain’s history, though, and facts are scarce. But the King of Northumbria, Edwin, was killed at Hatfield Chase. His kingdom was divided into the older kingdoms of Deira, to the south between the Tees and the Humber, and Bernicia to the north. According to Bede, who wrote his ‘History of the English Church and People’ in the 8th century, Cadwalla was not only a pagan, but also a savage tyrant who then proceeded to ravage Northumbria ‘with ghastly slaughter’. Oswald, a man ‘beloved of God’ and the dead Edwin’s brother, returned from exile to raise an army against the pagan hoards.
We know little about the Battle of Heavenfield (in old English, Hefenfelth), but it appears that Oswald used nearby Hadrian’s Wall as a defensive position. Though heavily outnumbered, his tactics ensured that he could not be out-flanked and the result was a decisive victory for the Northumbrians. Cadwalla was cut down and killed at what Bede calls Denisesburn, or the Brook of Denis, now known as Rowley Brook. Bede also maintains that Oswald received heavenly assistance, not least by setting up a wooden cross before the battle, which later became a source of miracles. Allegedly, people used to pinch splinters from the cross because they were believed to have health-restoring properties when mixed with water. Presumably, that’s why the one that’s there now is somewhat newer than the original, which had been picked to pieces sometime before the National Health Service came to everyone’s rescue.
The result of the battle was the reunification of Northumbria under the Saxons and, again according to our friend Bede, it ensured the future of Christianity. Oswald was later made a saint. Some historians also suggest that the death of Cadwalla marked an end to Celtic British aspirations, secured the future of Saxon power in the whole island and therefore probably made the eventual creation of England inevitable. To see this as anything more than a power struggle seems fanciful and unrealistic, though; Cadwalla does not appear to have been any kind of Celtic unifier, and by the 7th century the Anglo-Saxons were no longer invaders but part of the landscape.
This is all very well, you may ask, but is there anything to see at Heavenfield? Well you won’t find the remains of Dark Age warriors, though I daresay it’s a bit spooky after dark. What you will find is a lovely little chapel dedicated to St Oswald. It stands on the site of an original Saxon one and was restored in the 19th century. According to legend, the chapel is where Oswald originally raised his cross. You’ll also find some fabulous views and have the privilege of walking in the steps of history, where part of this nation was forged. Don’t travel hundreds of miles especially, but there are plenty of other reasons to be in this part of the world and, while you’re there, have a little explore.
Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory listing for Heavenfield – and discover other battlefields.