03 August, 2010

Early medieval armies: campaigning range

In an earlier post, I reviewed the limited evidence on the size of early medieval armies and came to the conclusion that they appear to have been quite small, numbered in scores or perhaps hundreds.

Small-scale armies might be expected to engage in small-scale warfare, such as internal quarrels or border raids and skirmishes not too far from home. What do we know about the campaigning range of early medieval armies?


The following battles are mentioned in either Bede or Annales Cambriae between 550 and 700, and a location and/or the participants can be identified or inferred.

Battle of Arderydd
Date: 573 (Annales Cambriae)
Known participants: Gwenddoleu son of Ceidio (territory unknown); Peredur and Gurci (territory possibly York, as discussed in an earlier post)
Location: Uncertain, traditionally placed at Arthuret House near Longtown in Cumbria (see earlier post for evidence and discussion)

Battle of Degsastan
Date: 603 (Bede Book I Ch. 34)
Known participants: Aethelferth of Bernica; Aidan mac Gabran of Dal Riada (Bede Book I Ch. 34)
Location: Unknown; however the territories of Bernicia and Dal Riada are a fair way apart (see sketch map).

Battle of Caer Legion/Legacastir
Date: 613 (Annales Cambriae; see earlier post for discussion)
Known participants: Aethelferth of Bernicia (Bede, Book II Ch 2); Selyf ap Cynan of Powys (Annales Cambriae)
Location: Chester

Battle on the east bank of the river Idle in Mercian territory
Date: 617 (Bede Book II Ch. 12)
Known participants: Aethelferth of Bernicia; Eadwine of Deira; Raedwald of the East Angles and his son Raegenhere (Bede Book II Ch. 12)
Location: Probably Bawtry, since the River Idle flows north-south there and hence has an east bank

Campaign of Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria against the West Saxons
Date: 627 (Bede Book II Ch. 9)
Known participants: Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria; Cuichelm of the West Saxons (Bede Book II Ch. 9)
Location: Unknown*; however, the territories of Northumbria and the West Saxons are separated by a couple of hundred miles

Battle of Haethfelth
Date: 12 October 633 (Bede Book II Ch. 20)
Known participants: Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria; Penda of Mercia; Cadwallon of Gwynedd (Bede Book II Ch. 20)
Location: Usually located at Hatfield Chase near Doncaster

Battle of Hefenfelth or Denisesburn
Date: 634 (Bede Book III Ch. 1-2)
Known participants: Oswald of Bernicia/Northumbria; Cadwallon of Gwynedd (Bede Book III Ch. 1)
Location: Near Hexham (Bede Book III Ch. 2)

Battle of Maserfelth (Bede) / Maes Cogwy (Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae)
Date: 5 August 642 (Bede Book III Ch.9)
Known participants: Oswald of Bernicia/Northumbria; Penda of Mercia (Bede Book III Ch.9)
Location: Unknown. Traditionally located at Oswestry on the basis of the place name (“Oswald’s Tree”), though this is not certain.

Battle between Mercia and the East Angles
Date: 635 (Bede Book III Ch. 18)
Known participants: Penda of Mercia, Sigbert and Egric of the East Angles
Location: Unknown. East Anglia and Mercia may well have shared a border by then (depending on the position of the Middle Angles, who occupied a territory between Mercia and East Anglia and who were a sub-kingdom of Mercia in the 650s)

Battle of Winwaed (Bede) / Campus Gai (Annales Cambriae)
Date: 15 November 655 (Bede Book III Ch. 24)
Known participants: Oswy of Bernicia/Northumbria; Penda of Mercia (Bede Book III Ch. 24)
Location: Near Leeds. Penda had campaigned as far as Bebbanburgh in Northumbria some time earlier, as Bede mentions this casually as the background to a miracle story (Bede Book III Ch. 16).

Battle of the Trent
Date: 679 (Bede Book IV Ch. 21)
Known participants: Ecgfrith of Northumbria and his brother Aelfwine; Aethelwald of Mercia (Bede Book IV Ch. 21)
Location: Near the River Trent (Bede Book IV Ch. 21).

Battle of Nechtansmere (Bede) / Lin Garan (Historia Brittonum) / Dun Nechtan (Annals of Ulster)
Date: 20 May 685 (Bede Book IV Ch. 26)
Known participants: Ecgfrith of Northumbria; Bridei king of the Picts (Bede Book IV Ch. 21; the name of the king of the Picts is given in Historia Brittonum Ch. 57)
Location: In Pictish territory. The exact location is uncertain; the two leading candidates are Dunnichen in Angus and Dunachton in Badenoch (see Wikipedia)


Three of the battles in the list were fought at unknown locations (Degsastan, the battle between Northumbria and the West Saxons, the battle between the East Angles and Mercia). The battle between the East Angles and Mercia may have been fought between neighbouring kingdoms with a shared border. If we take the heartland of the kingdom of East Anglia to be King Raedwald’s home near modern Rendlesham in Suffolk, and the heartland of the kingdom of Mercia to be modern Tamworth, they are separated by about 120 miles as the crow flies. If the battle was fought near the halfway point – its location is not recorded – each army would have had to travel about 60 miles. This is a non-trivial distance to walk, or even to ride on horseback, but it isn’t vast. Bernicia and Dal Riada are separated by a similar distance. Northumbria and the West Saxon kingdoms are further apart – York to Winchester is about 200 miles, Bamburgh to Winchester is over 300 miles – so we can reasonably infer that in this battle at least one army had travelled a considerable distance from their home territory.

The battle of the Trent and the battle of Winwaed were fought between Mercia and Northumbria, who may have been neighbouring territories by then (depending on what had happened to the kingdoms that previously occupied the Leeds and North Midlands areas). Northumbria had more or less united Bernicia and Deira by the time of these two battles and so had become quite a large territory, extending from at least Bamburgh in the north to at least the York area in the south, a distance of around 130 miles or so. While warriors from the York area would not have had to travel far to a battle near Leeds (only twenty miles or so) or along the northern stretch of the Trent, any component of the army that had started from Bamburgh would have covered well over a hundred miles, and possibly anything up to two hundred miles from Bamburgh to the middle or upper Trent. From Mercia, the upper and middle Trent is very close at hand, only a few dozen miles from Tamworth, but Leeds or the northern Trent is more like 60 to 90 miles.

Maserfelth may also have been fought on or near a shared border, depending on its location. If it was in the Makerfield area near Wigan it may have been in a border zone between Mercia and Northumbria, although it would still have been 150 miles or so from Bamburgh and something like 90 miles from Tamworth. If Maserfelth was Oswestry, then Oswald of Northumbria was anything up to 200 miles from home.

If Arderydd/Arthuret was fought at its traditional location near Longtown in Cumbria, and if Peredur’s traditional association with York is correct (two ‘ifs’), then Peredur was about 100 miles from home at the battle.

At Caerlegion/Chester, Selyf of Powys may have been on his home ground if Chester was part of the territory of Powys, and in any case had not had to travel far. Aethelferth of Bernicia, however, was nearly 200 miles from the heartland of his territory at Bebbanburgh (modern Bamburgh).

At the battle on the east bank of the Idle, Raedwald of the East Angles was about 130 miles from his heartland at Rendlesham in what is now Suffolk, and Aethelferth was 160 miles from Bebbanburgh. Eadwine of Deira was in exile at Raedwald’s court at the time, so may have travelled to the battle with Raedwald.

At Haethfelth, Cadwallon of Gwynedd was about 140 miles from his territory (taking Degannwy, near Conwy, as the heartland of Gwynedd; the distance is greater if you take Anglesey as the core of Gwynedd).

At Hefenfelth, Cadwallon of Gwynedd was around 200 miles from his territory, and had been in Northumbria for a year according to Bede (Book III Ch. 1). Oswald of Northumbria had been in exile on Iona and had presumably travelled from there, also about 200 miles, to reclaim his patrimony.

Either of the leading candidate locations for Nechtansmere is a long way from home for Ecgfrith of Northumbria; both are about 150 miles from Bamburgh (travelling by land via Stirling).

So, of the twelve battles in the list, we can say with reasonable certainty that in five of them (Caerlegion, the Idle, Haethfelth, Hefenfaelth and Nechtansmere) at least one of the participating forces had had to travel 130 to 200 miles from the heartland of its territory to the battle site. This does not necessarily imply that every member of the army had travelled the full distance, as the distance from the closest region of the relevant kingdom could be a good deal less than the distance from its nominal heartland, and an army might operate in allied or subject territories beyond its own borders.

The battles in the list are most unlikely to be a representative sample. They are those which at least one chronicler thought worth recording and that have come down to us, so they probably represent battles that were considered especially significant or noteworthy at the time. Bede’s casual reference to Penda’s otherwise unrecorded campaign in Northumbria, mentioned in passing as the background to a miracle story, indicates that not all warfare was recorded. Long-distance campaigns may have been particularly worthy of note and thus especially likely to be recorded, in which case this would be a very biased sample. (Not that we are likely to get a better one).

Nevertheless, it does demonstrate that at least some early medieval kingdoms could field an army a considerable distance from their core territories, and in the case of Cadwallon of Gwynedd and his campaign against Northumbria, could do so for an extended time (over a year). It is not possible to say whether this was commonplace, unusual or exceptional, but it was clearly possible.

Sketch map showing the approximate locations of the various kingdoms here.

Map links

Dunachton, Badenoch
Dunnichen, Angus
Hatfield Chase
Longtown, Cumbria

Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum, available online
Annals of Ulster, available online

*There’s a legend that the battle took place in Derbyshire, but as this location depends on a pun in modern English, I have severe doubts as to its veracity.


Doug said...

I would agree with your opinion that we have a biased sample. The battles which were recorded would tend to be those involving a major campaign, not skirmishes when one kingdom tried to invade a neighbour but were rebuffed just over the border, probably a regular event.
I also doubt the legend of Eadwine's attack on the West Saxons taking place in Derbyshire. Eadwine, not surprisingly, waited for his revenge until he was physically recovered from the assassination attempt, and by then the West Saxons would have gone home (there is no record of a Cadwallon-style occupation). The battle(s) would be within Wessex or, if they were warned of his approach, maybe just outside. A pun in modern English would tend to make me more sceptical - when would that have been applied as a mnemonic?

Carla said...

Indeed. Pity we don't have things like administrative records that might give an idea of the type and frequency of warfare that was considered routine. As it is I don't think we can really say whether these long-distance campaigns were exceptional, regular-but-uncommon, or routine, although they were clearly possible.

Bede refers to the West Saxon assassination attempt as if it were carried out by a single individual, so at most it was presumably a very small group - and whether any of them survived to go home at all must be somewhat doubtful! Bede doesn't say where the campaign took place, but the implication from his account seems to be that it was at least partly outside Northumbrian territory. He says things like "...marched against the West Saxons..." and "Returning home after the victory...", both of which imply a journey away from Northumbria. How far away is anyone's guess. As so often, the interpretations aren't mutually incompatible; a battle in Derbyshire could have been part of a larger campaign that reached further afield into West Saxon territory. A battle in Derbyshire could be logically explained if the West Saxon king heard his assassination attempt had failed, feared the expected vengeance, and marched north to try and get his retaliation in first before Eadwine had recovered. So I don't think a battle in Derbyshire as part of that campaign is necessarily impossible. I just wouldn't count the legend about the place names as evidence in support!
One of the place names in question was still in its earlier form, which doesn't support the pun, in the late 13th century according to my notes from the English Place-Name Society's publication. So logically the pun came into existence some time after then. It's possible that there was already a tradition about a battle in existence and the place names just got attached to the story at a later date, and even that the existence of the story about a battle contributed to the development of the place names in their modern forms. It's also possible that the place names came into existence independently and then someone later made up a story about a battle to explain them. Hard to say which came first!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Assassination attempts and battles make for good stories, though. :)

It's a pity the chroniclers always picked what they thought was important. In my case, it's the Imperial family - as soon as any of its members is involved in a war it gets a detailed treatment (Germanicus' campaigns) but if there's just some legate, we have to do with one sentence: Marcus Vinicius fought an immensum bellum against the Germans. Argh.

Carla said...

Gabriele - ah, but on the other hand you then have the freedom to invent the story of Marcus Vinicius and the immense battle against the Germans. Silver linings, and all that :-)

Rick said...

The battles of note may not be typical, but they do indicate military capabilities.

Small armies of elite troops might be more mobile than larger armies, because they could live off the land more readily. Horse mobility would also increase range, even if they fought on foot.

But sustaining an army on distant ground for a year is a whole 'nother matter. I think they'd either need local allies to supply them, or seize some stronghold as a base. (Ambiguous intermediate cases can be imagined.)

Carla said...

Rick - yes, that's how I see them. They indicate what was possible, but don't necessarily say how probable it was.

There's limited evidence for mounted warbands (discussed here some time ago), which would certainly have improved long range mobility. An analogy could be drawn with the Vikings of Alfred the Great's time, who used horses for mobility but fought on foot. Shipping may have been used for long distance transport as well, which increases mobility although only within the constraints imposed by navigable waterways.

There's a trade-off between the ease of feeding a small force and its potential vulnerability should the locals decide to resist en masse. (Some of the disastrous long-distance forays, such as Ecgfrith at Nechtansmere, may have got on the wrong side of such a trade-off). Some sort of logistics and supply mechanism existed, as it gets a brief mention in one of Bede's passing remarks. I'll pick this up in a later post.

Catwallaun's year in Northumbria seems to have been a case of no effective opposition left, so he was effectively the ruler while it lasted. Bede says he 'ruled not like a victorious king but like a savage tyrant'. Leaving aside Bede's value judgement, which may be partisan, that indicates that Cadwallon was effective boss. He evidently did seize at least one stronghold, as Bede mentions an ineffectual attempt to besiege him in one (unfortunately, as usual, we don't know the location).

Rick said...

'ruled not like a victorious king but like a savage tyrant'

Which would make brutal sense for a warlord who does not intend to build a long term power base in the region, but simply squeeze the most out of it in the relatively short term.

Though, as you suggest, Bede may be partisan. Perhaps Catwallaun intended permanent annexation, and evicted landholders in favor of his own followers or supporters. If those he evicted were Bede's source, they obviously had nothing good to say about Catwallaun.

Carla said...

Quite. Bede's comment is interesting in that it implies that he thought there was a right and a wrong way to rule a territory after you'd conquered it by defeating and killing the previous incumbent.

Catwallaun's campaign in Northumbria was around 633-634, just less than a century before Bede was writing in 731. Bede was born in 670, so when he was a child or a young man there would have been people around who could remember Catwallaun's campaign and could give him eyewitness accounts.

Hard to say whether Catwallaun was intent on short-term plunder or long-term annexation. Staying around for a full year suggests either a very thorough plundering or some sort of long-term intent. If the story about Cunedda, who was Catwallaun's (legendary?) ancestor, having originally come from what's now north-east England are correct - or if Catwallaun believed it - he may have considered that he was engaged in some sort of reconquista of ancestral family territory.

Constance Brewer said...

A neat read on the status of battles and battle ready troops for the time. Thanks!

It's amazing I can travel 140 miles for dinner - one way- and think nothing of it. A lot different if I was walking!

Rick said...

Perhaps Catwallaun thought he would be greeted with flowers, but things didn't work out that way.

Anonymous said...

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Carla said...

Constance - glad you found it interesting. Yes, the internal combustion engine and the jet engine made a big difference in perception of distance :-) Perception of distance also tends to vary with factors such as population density and distance between settlements, too - there's an apocryphal story that when Marks and Spencer opened their first store in Inverness (Scottish Highlands) its catchment area turned out to be many times greater than they expected, because people in the Highlands were used to travelling long distances.

Rick - Maybe; who's to say what was expected?

Anonymous - good luck with your college assignment. Remember to cite your sources :-)

Unknown said...

'ruled not like a victorious king but like a savage tyrant'

But a few centuries we have the Harrying of the North, that we do actually have a written record of, and that proved very successful.

Considering Cadwallon was occupying Lloegyr he may have considered the current occupants as temporary.

Thanks again Carla for a very stimulating and well written article and thanks to to all the posters for additional deep thought.

Carla said...

Possibly successful in the Calgacus/Tacitus sense, "they make a wasteland and call it peace". Bede certainly regarded it as a deeply traumatic event, although the usual caveat applies that we may only have a partial picture. As Catwallaun was killed at the end of his year of occupation, and the rule of Gwynedd then passed (temporarily) to a king who was not from his dynasty, it was arguably a mixed (!) success even for him.