03 April, 2007

Dating the Battle of Chester

One of the delights - if that's the word - of the early medieval period in Britain is the patchy nature of the history. There's hardly an undisputed date in the two centuries between the Rescript of Honorius in 410 AD (when the then Emperor told the British civitates to look after themselves) and the arrival of St Augustine's missionary party from Rome in 597 AD. And precious little for a half-century after that, too. This makes writing historical fiction in the period great fun (!) and definitely a challenge. You know an important event took place that would have had a major effect on characters and plot, but when did it happen? The battle of Chester, some time in the early seventh century, illustrates the problem.

In The Reign of Arthur, Christopher Gidlow says there is a discrepancy between Bede and Annales Cambriae in the date for the battle of Chester, with Bede dating it to 603 AD and Annales Cambriae at 613. He considers that the Annales Cambriae date is defective due to a scribal error, and says, “This is an easy mistake to explain away, caused by placing the event in the next numbered decade.”

Quite true, such a mistake could easily be explained in that manner. But I don’t think there is a discrepancy. My reading of Bede is that his account does not provide an exact date for the battle and that the information he does provide can accommodate the Annales Cambriae date without having to postulate a scribal error. Here’s why.


Annales Cambriae
“613. The battle of Caer Legion. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept.”

Bede, Book II Ch. 2
“Augustine urges the British bishops to cement Catholic unity and performs a miracle in their presence. Retribution follows their refusal. [A.D. 603.]
[...] Augustine summoned the bishops and teachers of the nearest British province to a conference.... They asked that a second and fuller conference might be held.... The bishops would not recognise Augustine as their archbishop, saying among themselves that if he would not rise to greet them in the first instance, he would have even less regard for them once they submitted to his authority. Whereupon Augustine, that man of God, is said to have answered with a threat that was also a prophecy, that if they refused to preach to the English the way of life, they would eventually suffer at their hands the penalty of death.
[...] Some while after this, the powerful king Ethelfrid... raised a great army at the City of the Legions – which the English call Legacastir, but which the Britons more correctly named Carlegion – and made a great slaughter of the faithless Britons... It is said that of the monks who had come to pray about twelve hundred perished in this battle and only fifty escaped by flight....Thus, long after his death, was fulfilled Bishop Augustine’s prophecy.”

Bede, Book II Ch. 3
“In the year of our lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated two bishops, Mellitus and Justus.”

Bede, Book II Ch.4
“Augustine was succeeded in the archbishopric by Laurence... on the 27th of February 610, Mellitus brought back [from Rome] letters from the Pope to God’s beloved Archbishop Laurence.”

(Translation by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-044565-X)

Archaeological excavations by the Chester Archaeological Trust at Heronbridge, south of Chester, have discovered a ‘battle cemetery’ of approximately the right date.

“Part of a mass grave pit was exposed in which the bodies (all seemingly male like those excavated in the 1930s), aligned west-east, had been laid side by side in partially overlapping rows. Within a space measuring only three metres by two metres, there were at least fourteen individuals. Two skeletons were fully excavated and removed for analysis and radiocarbon dating. Both had clearly sustained fatal head injuries. The results of subsequent osteoarchaeological study (by Malin Holst of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd) confirmed them as males and showed that both had died as a result of several sword blows to the head. They were both well-built individuals and the elder, aged around forty, if not both, had been in battle before, suggesting that they may have been experienced soldiers.
Bone samples from the two skeletons removed from the mass grave, along with two flax seeds from the fort ditch fill, were submitted to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre for Carbon 14 dating. The results for the former were as follows: Sample 1 = 95% probability within range AD 430-640, 59% probability within range AD 530-620. Sample 2 =95% probability within range AD 530-660, 51% probability within range AD 595-645.
The date of the Battle of Chester – circa AD 613 – lies right in the middle of these date ranges and, in the absence of any other known substantial engagement in the area, the mass grave seems likely to be associated with that event.”


It seems quite clear from Bede’s account that the first of Augustine's conferences happened in 603 and the second conference may have been later the same year, and then there was a gap of unspecified length (“Some while after this”) before the battle at Carlegion/Legacastir (modern Chester).

Bede says unequivocally that the battle took place after Augustine’s death. He does not give the year of Augustine’s death, except to say that it occurred in the reign of Aethelbert of Kent. However, a date range for Augustine’s death can be deduced. He cannot have died before AD 604, as Bede says that Augustine consecrated bishops Mellitus and Justus in AD 604, and he must have died before 27 February 610 when the Pope sent letters to his successor Archbishop Laurence.

So the battle of Chester cannot have happened in AD 603, since Bede says it happened after Augustine’s death and Augustine was still alive in 604. The Annales Cambriae date of 613 would be 9 years after the earliest date for Augustine’s death (604) or 3 years after the latest date (610), which would be consistent with Bede’s statement that it happened “long after” his death.

The radiocarbon dates for the skeletons from the Heronbridge excavation are consistent with this date. Though radiocarbon dating is not precise enough to differentiate between 603 and 613, it is consistent with the identification of ‘Carlegion/Legacastir/Caer Legion’ as Chester, rather than as Caerleon-on-Usk (whose name also means ‘city of the legion’).

As Christopher Gidlow argues, the dates in the Annales are unlikely to be exact to the year. Some of the other entries in the Annales around the same period can also be linked to events recorded by Bede, and these may give an idea of the likely range of error around the date. Here are all the events in the Annales that I can also find in Bede from 595 to 631 inclusive (18 years either side of the Battle of Chester):

595 Augustine and Mellitus converted the English to Christ.
Bede says that Augustine arrived in Kent in 597 (Book I Ch. 25). Annales Cambriae is 2 years earlier than Bede.

601 Gregory died in Christ.
Bede says Pope Gregory died in 605 (Book II Ch.1). Annales Cambriae is 4 years earlier than Bede.

617 Edwin begins his reign.
Bede says that Edwin was killed on 12 October AD 633 and his reign lasted 17 years (Book II Ch. 20). If this means 17 full years, then he began his reign on or before 12 October 616, if it means he was killed in the 17th year of his reign then he began his reign between 12 October 616 and 11 October 617. Annales Cambriae agrees with Bede or is one year earlier.

626 Edwin is baptized.
Bede says Edwin was baptised on 12 April 627 (Book II Ch 14). Annales Cambriae is one year earlier than Bede.

631 The battle of Cantscaul in which Cadwallon fell.
Bede says that in the summer after Edwin’s death (i.e. the summer of 634 AD), Cadwalla killed Edwin’s successor Osric and after this ruled in Northumbria for a full year until he was killed by Oswald in battle at a place called by the English Denisesburn (Book III Ch. 1). Bede doesn’t give the British name for Denisesburn so it may well have been Cantscaul. If one takes this text at face value, Cadwalla/Cadwallon was killed in the summer of AD 635. However, Bede also says that Oswald died on 5 August 642 having reigned “nine years if we include the fatal year made abhorrent by the British King Cadwalla” (Book III Ch. 9), which would mean that the ‘fatal year’ began in 633 and Oswald’s actual reign (after he had killed Cadwallon in battle) began in the summer of 634. This would be more consistent with Cadwalla/Cadwallon having ruled in Northumbria for a full year after Edwin’s death, rather than for a full year starting in the summer after Edwin’s death, and would place Cadwalla’s death in 634. Annales Cambriae is three or four years earlier than Bede, depending which way one reads Bede.

So the dates in Annales Cambriae are 0-4 years earlier than the equivalent dates in Bede. Applying this to the date for the battle of Chester would suggest that the battle occurred some time in the period 613 to 617 AD, which is consistent with Bede’s statement that it happened “long after” Augustine’s death.

So on balance I would say this is the likeliest date range for the battle, and I would need a good reason to place the battle outside this date range.

Isn't this fun?


Gabriele Campbell said...

Oh yes, it is fun. But writers of historical fiction have a somewhat weird definition of 'fun' :)

I've posted yesterday about some of the problems but also advantages a writer of hist fic has re. sources.

Bernita said...

My A-S Chronicles (Ingram) give the battle at 607 - "and so was fulfilled the prophecy of Augestine" - but doesn't claim that Augustine was dead at the time!

Kathryn Warner said...

Isn't this fun?

I couldn't agree more!

Carla said...

Gabriele - sources for Arminius and the Varus disaster are also fairly pathcy, aren't they? Tacitus and that's about it. It's interesting trying to fit the bits and pieces together and fill in the gaps with something halfway plausible.

Bernita - The ASC entry looks like a summary of Bede, doesn't it, but with 200 slaughtered monks instead of 1200 (an easy scribal error, I should think), and the date added. I wonder where the date came from? It's not inconsistent with Bede's account since 607 could be after Augustine's death if he died shortly after consecrating Mellitus and Justus. I tend to treat the dates in the early part of the ASC with caution because it sometimes contradicts itself, e.g it has Edwin baptised by Bishop Paulinus in 601 and again in 627; seems unlikely that both can be right (!). Bede says that Paulinus arrived in Britain in 601, so maybe the ASC compiler muddled up the dates and the events - which always makes me wonder what else they muddled up or miscopied. But I agree the ASC date can't be disproved. Assorted medieval chroniclers put the battle in 616 or 617, just to complicate the picture further - but the post was already rather long!

Alianore - isn't it just?

Meghan said...

The more ancient the history the more problems one runs into. It's called the Dark Ages for a reason, and it sounds like a pain to look up that time in Briton's history.

I have different books about the Greco-Persian wars and keep getting different dates for different events. It doesn't help Herodotus is rather Spartan on chronological details...

Meghan said...

I'd also like to add, that I can't spell.

Carla said...

Megumi - at least the seventh century is starting to acquire a bit of information. I'm very grateful to Bede for his history :-) One of the hardest things is trying to disentangle the small amount that's actually recorded from the speculation built up around it by modern scholars, some of whom don't always clearly indicate where the fact stops and the interpretation/speculation begins. I do like authors who give references! (Which is probably why I tend to gravitate to Bede when in doubt, because he does at least sometimes give his sources).
I like the idea of Herodotus being Spartan :-) Are there contemporary sources that contradict each other, or is it mostly later authors?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Carla, there are some more surces besdies Tacitus, but they don't clear the mess. :)

Gaius Velleus Paterculus (19 BC - 30 AD)
Has been in Germania but some years after the Varus battle. He is the one responsible for putting the blame on Varus' incapability rather than Arminius' capability.

Lucius Annaeus Florus
Lived in the times of Hadrian, about 100 years after the events.

Cassius Dio (155-229 AD)
He said he collected material for his History for 10 years, but we can't know how good his sources were. His advantage is that his 'report' of the Varus battle is the most detailed.

Wrote about Augustus, not the German wars. He's the one to report the "Varus, give me back my legions!"

Carla said...

Gabriele - Cassius Dio is the most detailed source for Boudica's revolt, too. I wonder if he had access to sources that Tacitus didn't use, or if he filled in the gaps Geoffrey-of-Monmouth-style?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, he said he was collecting information, but we can't know how good it was. He might indeed have had sources that are now lost, but I doubt any of them represented the German / British POV. :)

Meghan said...

Both modern historians and contemporaries of Herodutus tend to disagree about certain things.Speculation by moderns authors just makes things confusing sometimes (it doesn't help they've admitted they can't fit all the pieces of the puzzle together). But at least fiction allows for some wiggle room, and it seems like you're doing a great job, so I wouldn't sweat the details too much. Happy holidays! :)

Gabriele Campbell said...

One can be grateful that they provide wiggle room. Else writing historical fiction would be half as much fun. :)

Rick said...

I wonder what sources Bede had for events well before his own time? Presumably there was some kind of ecclesiastical record keeping, but likely sketchy in the extreme about secular events.

Wasn't Bede himself one of the major early proponents of AD dating? I wonder if one motive might have been his own difficulties in reconstructing past events. We are so accustomed to a general dating scheme that it is hard to imagine the difficulties for historians of events beyond (and even within!) living memory when no such system was in general use.

I'm thinking especially of the nightmare faced by ancient historians, when primary record keeping just went by the names of magistrates elected annually. (My understanding is that AUC dating was not at all general in ancient Rome.

Imagine trying to reconstruct events of 100 years ago, if your source materials only said "in the second year of Taft's presidency" or the like. I know the US presidents and their terms of office for the 20th century, but it breaks down in the 19th - and that's with 4-8 year terms, normally, plus I was helped in the first place by dates. It would be a maddening effort just to work out the basic chronology of events if you first had to tabulate lists of archons, consuls, etc.

In fact, the whole mental image of the distant past must have been different - and much hazier - for people with no "1588" or "1776" to provide a framework of when things happened.

Carla said...

Gabriele/Megumi - indeed, filling in the gaps and the contradictions is the fun of writing fiction. Some historians writing non-fiction do it as well, though I much prefer the ones who clearly indicate the line between facts and speculation.

Rick - Bede had access to Roman historians like Pliny and Orosius, letters from the Pope to various English kings), and his British material for the 5th and 6th centuries seems to be mostly Gildas. He also mentions 'traditional story' from time to time (e.g. the famous story of Pope Gregory and the Deiran slave boys) and eyewitness accounts (e.g. King Aldwulf of the East Angles testifying that he remembered King Raedwald's dual-purpose temple). As he gets within a century or so of his own time his account gets a lot fuller and more detailed, which presumably reflects an increase in the sources available to him.

Bede is credited with inventing the AD dating system, probably for just the reasons you mention. It seems clear that kings' reigns were also used to reckon time in his day in the same sort of way as Roman consular years, as he refers to agreeing to assign the year of Catwallaun's rule in Northumbria to Oswald's reign, and he quite often dates major synods both as AD and by assorted king's reigns (In the Xth year of King Y of Kent, in the Nth year of King Z of Mercia, etc...). When you see a big synod with half a page of dates according to different kingdoms' kings, it becomes very clear how cumbersome the system must have been! No wonder Bede thought it could do with being tidied up. It must indeed have made life terribly difficult for chroniclers and historians working from regnal or consular years, which is one reason why dates that post-date Imperial Rome and pre-date Bede are probably likely to be rather approximate.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Not to mention kings in those times often had a shorter life expectancy than the coach of an unsuccessful soccer team in Germany. :)

Rick said...

Not to mention kings in those times often had a shorter life expectancy than the coach of an unsuccessful soccer team in Germany.


But at least kings often reigned for a few years, and sometimes for decades. In antiquity, republican magistrates almost always changed yearly, making the list that much more cumbersome.

As an odd side note, I know by memory the kings of England/UK from Billy the Bastard to Edward VII (though not regnal dates), but it breaks down in this century - I'm not quite sure of the ones between Edward VII and Liz II!

Carla said...

Gabriele/Rick - reminds me of a joke that was doing the rounds when I was at school, "Which lasts longer, a Pope or a wine gum?"
People probably said the same in the Year of the Four Emperors :-)
Some early English kings lasted for 20+ years, so they didn't all have the life expectancy of mayflies, though perhaps the unsuccessful ones didn't get recorded (as per Bede's comment about assigning Catwallaun's year to Oswald - even if you disregard Catwallaun as an invader there were at least two 'legit' short-lived kings, Eanfrith of Bernicia and Osric of Deira who apparently got airbrushed out of the record on Bede's say-so). Pity there isn't a complete sample of reign lengths to do any statistics with.

At least the magistrates changed on a regular cycle, which might have made it easier than regnal dates.

Regnal dates really fall apart in times of civil war when you have two or more kings at the same time in different bits of the country and/or rapid back-and-forth changes between them. Wouldn't it have been fun trying to make any sense of the Wars of the Roses if all you had was regnal dates? Cummins argues that some of the Pictish king-lists represent something similar, if memory serves.

elena maria vidal said...

Interesting post and discussion. Yes, total fun!

Carla said...

Elena - glad you found it interesting.

Anonymous said...

For Bede on dating, the book is _On the Reckoning of Time_ and discusses in GRUESOME detail how dates should be settled on. His primary focus is the dating of Easter, but for that he basically writes a history of the world since creation. It's pretty interesting in parts, deadly in others. There was a recent translation/reprint from, I think, the U of Liverpool Press. Bede was really THOROUGH in his analysis!

Carla said...

Hello, Lynne, and thanks for dropping by. Yes, I have a copy of the Liverpool translation and am plugging my way through it :-) Some of it is extremely interesting, like his comments about eclipses and tides.

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