Offa and the Mercian Wars - the Rise & Fall of the First Great English Kingdom, Chris Peers.Looks at the rise and fall of Mercia, the dominant English power of the Eighth Century, first emerging under the pagan Penda, before reaching its greatest power under Offa, one of the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon kings. Does a good job of dealing with the more obscure corners of Mercian history, and tells the interesting story of a kingdom that might have formed the nucleus of a united England(Read Full Review)
Although the battle is said to be the most important between the early northern and southern divisions of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, few details are available. The two armies met on the banks of a river named the "Winwaed", but this river has never been identified. Possibly it was a tributary of the Humber. There is reason to believe it may have been the river now known as Cock Beck in the ancient kingdom of Elmet, which passes Pendas Fields, Leeds, before joining the River Wharfe (which eventually feeds into the Humber). Another possibility is the River Went, a tributary of the River Don, situated to the north of modern-day Doncaster. It could also be in Oswestry or Winwick. 
The roots of the battle lay in Penda's success in dominating England through a number of military victories, most significantly over the previously dominant Northumbrians. In alliance with Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd he had defeated and killed Edwin of Northumbria at Hatfield Chase in 633, and subsequently he defeated and killed Oswald of Northumbria at the Battle of Maserfield in 642. Maserfield effectively marked the overthrow of Northumbrian supremacy, and in the years that followed the Mercians apparently campaigned into Bernicia, besieging Bamburgh at one point the Northumbrian sub-kingdom of Deira supported Penda during his 655 invasion.
In November 655 AD (or perhaps in 654, according to one interpretation of the chronology), the Battle of the Winwaed took place around the Whinmoor/Cock Beck/Swarcliffe area, with the Christian King Oswiu of Bernicia's army defeating the pagan army of King Penda of Mercia, although historians admit that few details are available. A road to the south of Whinmoor was later named Penda's Way. 
In addition, during the First English Civil War, the Battle of Seacroft Moor, 30 March 1643, was fought over the two moors of Winn Moor and Bramham Moor, near Leeds. There is no exact records of Army positions, due to the amount of movement during the battle. As Sir Thomas Fairfax was instructed to capture Tadcaster, the Royalist Northern major-general, Sir William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne planned to intercept the smaller opposition. He sent his Lieutenant-General, Lord George Goring to do so leading a large force of Horse. Fairfax had a problem, due to having a force made up of mainly clubmen (Locally recruited soldiers) and only three troops of Cavalry this was going to be a 'wake-up-call' for the Parliamentary forces in the North. He was literally 'thrashed' by Goring, beaten back over the moor, with many casualties. Fairfax escaped with just some of his surviving Horse to Leeds, mainly because of bad communication in the ranks. Fairfax quoted that it was "the greatest loss we ever received".
Crime in Whinmoor has slowly decreased, although there are still reported crimes of drug dealing and car theft.
Leeds City Council purchased Whinmoor from the Tadcaster Rural District Council to build homes as an extension of the Seacroft housing development. In the early 1960s the council had planned to build 5,000 dwellings, a small shopping centre and other amenities with a pedestrian link to Seacroft. Work has begun on new homes off A64 near Red Lion public house. Planning for more homes near Wetherby Road and improvements to the Ring Road will see more change in the coming years.
Whinmoor is often classed as a part of Seacroft, a name which is used as a catch-all term for extensive council estates of eastern Leeds (also including Swarcliffe). It formerly had a large proportion of council housing, of which most are now privately owned.
Until 2010, the area was part of the Elmet constituency. Colin Burgon served as the Member of Parliament for the area for 13 years having defeated the long-serving Conservative MP, Spencer Batiste, in 1997. It now sits within the Leeds East constituency, which includes Cross Gates, Whinmoor, Seacroft, Gipton, Harehills, Killingbeck, Temple Newsam, Halton Moor, Halton, Whitkirk, Colton and Austhorpe. The current MP is Richard Burgon. 
Whinmoor was also the eastern terminus for First Leeds "Overground" bus services 4 (ftr route) The 16, 16a and 56 now run to Whinmoor terminus. Unilever Leeds is on Coal Road.
Several events led to the battle of the Winwaed. King Oswald of Northumbria was considered the bretwalda or overlord over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England.  Penda of Mercia defeated and killed Oswald of Northumbria in 642 at the battle of Maserfield.  This left Penda the most powerful king in England.  Penda did not claim to be the overlord, however. [a]  When his brother Oswald was killed, Oswiu of Northumbria claimed the throne of Bernicia but was not able to rule Deira.  It was a year before Oswiu felt it was safe enough to recover his brother's body from the battlefield where he was killed.  To appease Penda Oswiu gave his daughter in marriage to Penda's son Peada. Also Oswiu agreed to the marriage of his son Alfrith and Penda's daughter Cyneburh.  Still, Penda was not satisfied. He was determined to destroy Oswiu.  In 654 Penda raised a large army of some thirty 'legions'. [b]  Then, about 653, Penda began raiding into Bernicia. 
In a series of battles fought all across Northumbria, Oswiu kept being pushed back until he reached the far north of his kingdom.  When Osiwu wanted peace, Penda took Oswiu's son Ecgfrith as a hostage.  Oswiu also made an offer of tribute to Penda if he would bring an end to the hostilities.  According to Nennius, Oswiu gave Penda all the treasure he had which Penda gave to his Briton allies.  But Bede claims Penda turned down the offer of treasure as tribute.  Penda took his army and left Bernicia. It was at this point, according to Bede, that Oswiu with a much smaller force [c] attacked Penda's army.  He caught up with Penda on the banks of the flooded Winwaed river. Some of Penda's allies deserted him and decided not to fight.  But probably catching Penda's main force by surprise Oswiu's army fell upon the Mercians without mercy.  Penda and most of the leaders of his 'thirty legions' were killed.  Also killed with Penda was king Aethelhere of East Anglia.  One of those who also withdrew and did not engage in the battle was Oswiu's nephew, King Athelwald of Deira. He had guided Penda through Northumbria and been his ally against his uncle.  Because of the flooded river, more were killed by drowning than in battle. 
The death of Penda and the rise of Oswiu to dominance had a major impact in 7th century England.  Athelwald was either killed or went into exile.  From this time Oswiu became the bretwalda or overlord over all the southern English people including Mercia.  Mercia was then divided. North of the River Trent was controlled directly by Oswiu. He made Peada of Mercia, Penda's son, king over the part of Mercia south of the Trent.  Peada had married Oswiu's daughter, Alflaed. Peada was murdered five months later by Alflaed, possibly on Oswiu's orders.  Mercians rebelled against Oswiu and Peada's brother Wulfhere became king of Mercia. 
Osthryth, Queen of the Mercians
Osthryth was one of the few women mentioned by the Venerable Bede in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”. She was born into a time of great strife. There was much tension and bad blood between the ruling houses of the various kingdoms in England before unification, especially between Mercia and Northumbria. It was also the era of the Christianization of the realm and there was conflict between Christians and pagans. She was married to a Mercian king, possibly in the hope of making an alliance.
We don’t know when Osthryth was born but she came from royalty. She was a younger daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria and his queen Eanflaed. She had two elder brothers Ecgfrith and Aelfwine and a sister Aelflaed. Oswiu was the brother of the revered saint King Oswald of Northumbria, whom Bede much admires in his “History”. Oswald had been converted to Christianity.
King Oswald had come into conflict with the powerful pagan King Penda of Mercia. In 642, they clashed at the Battle of Maserfield where Oswald was killed and his body dismembered. Bede tells us that Oswald ended his life praying for the souls of his soldiers when he realized he was about to die. Upon his death, his brother Oswiu became king of the Bernicians as a vassal of King Penda of Mercia. In 655, Oswiu defeated and killed Penda at the Battle of Winwaed. Oswiu ended up dominating much of Britain until a revolt in Mercia established Penda’s son Wulfhere as their king. When Oswiu died in 670, Osthryth’s brother Ecgfrith succeeded his father as king.
When Wulfhere of Mercia died in 676, he was succeeded by his younger brother Aethelred. Somewhere during this time Osthryth married Aethelred. Aethelred may have been surprised by his succession to the throne of Mercia. He was the third son of Penda and most likely would have devoted himself to the church since he proved to be a pious and devout man. Osthryth and Aethelred were zealous in the promotion of Christianity in Mercia. The monastic house of Bardney in Lindsey was heavily endowed by the couple.
Bede tells us a story about Osthryth and the relics of her uncle King Oswald. Osthryth’s father had retrieved Oswald’s remains about a year after he died in battle. Sometime after 681, Osthryth wanted to translate the revered saint’s relics and place them in her favorite abbey at Bardney. The Mercian monks of Bardney were sensitive and retained an aversion to the prior attempts by the Northumbrian kings to dominate them and refused to accept the bones of the saint even though they knew he was a holy man.
The carriage with the relics was stopped at the abbey gate in the evening and covered with a tent. During the night a shining pillar of light appeared over the carriage that shone up into the sky, bright enough to be seen throughout the kingdom of Lindsey. This proved the sanctity of the slain king. The monks who had refused the bones the day before began to pray that they be deposited among them and accepted them into the abbey. The bones were washed and placed in a sacred place. The water used to wash the bones was poured into the dirt in a corner of the sanctuary. Bede tells us later Queen Osthryth met with a holy abbess named Aethelhild and gave her some of this soil. Aethelhild took the holy soil back to her abbey and used it during an exorcism of a possessed man, curing him of his demons.
Despite the alliance of Osthryth and Aethelred, the two kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia were in perpetual war against each other. Aethelred continued the feud by warring against Osthryth’s brother Ecgfrith, who was defeated at the battle of the Trent in 679. Osthryth’s brother Aelfwine was killed in this battle. Bede tells us Aelfwine was beloved in both kingdoms and there was so much grief over his death it nearly resulted in a blood feud between the Mercian and Northumbrian royal families. Peace was only reached with the intervention and mediation of Archbishop Theodore and appropriate compensation was paid.
Sometime before 697, it seems Osthryth had retired to her favorite monastery at Bardney and become a nun and Aethelred had married another woman. In a most unfortunate event, Osthryth was murdered by Mercian noblemen that same year. The reason for the murder is not divulged in the chronicles. The most likely explanation is a blood feud related to her involvement in the killing of her sister’s husband King Peada of southern Mercia in 646. Osthryth was buried at Bardney. In 704, Aethelred abdicated this throne to his nephew Coenred and retired to Bardney where he was shorn as a monk, became an abbot and died in 716. It is unclear whether Aethelred’s son named Ceolred was born to Osthryth or his second unnamed wife. Ceolred succeeded his cousin Coenred when he died in 709.
Further reading: “Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” edited by Judith McClure and Roger Collins, “The Kings & Queens of Anglo-Saxon England” by Timothy Venning, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, Entry on Osthryth in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 42 written by Edmund Venables
The Battle of [the] Winwæd in 655 is a little known and sparsely recorded battle, yet one of critical importance to the social, political and religious evolution of the various English and Saxon kingdoms from the seventh century. While the death of the pagan king of Mercia, Penda, and significant numbers of his allies was not enough to permanently arrest Mercian political ascendency, it is often considered to be the catalyst for the decline of English paganism. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:
In this year  Penda perished and the Mercians became Christians. (C-Text).
In this year  Oswiu killed Penda at Winwædfeld and 30 princes with him, and some of them were kings. One of them was Æthelhere, brother of Anna, king of the East Angles. (E-Text).
Alongside the Chronicles, our other main sources are Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the Historia Brittonum, usually attributed to Nennius, and as such it is important to note that all of our sources are overtly Christian. While this is not unusual – literacy often accompanied the spread of the church – it does complicate the picture of paganism’s decline. The Historia’s declaration that ‘[Penda] was not baptised, and never believed in God,’ Bede’s assertion that ‘[God] alone could save the land from its barbarous and Godless enemy,’ and the Chronicle’s statement that upon Penda’s death ‘the Mercians became Christian,’ should leave us in little doubt of the bias present in narratives of the battle. We are meant to be on the side of the Christian king, Oswiu of Northumbria. We are meant to consider the heathen king Penda as the enemy. Oswiu’s victory is to be attributed to his deep faith and god’s favour, and this victory brought an end to paganism in Mercia.
The background to the battle and the legacy of the battle are, of course, far more complicated than this. The origins of the conflict derive from the transition of political and military supremacy from Northumbria to Mercia. Northumbria had only became a united kingdom in 604, when the King of Bernicia, Æthelfrith, gained the throne of the neighbouring kingdom of Deira. This marked the beginning of a period of Northumbrian dominance. Æthelfrith retained the joint throne for twelve years until defeated in battle and replaced by a descendent of the Deiran kings, Edwin. Edwin grew in power and converted to Christianity, being numbered among the bretwaldas by the Chronicles, a designation derived from Bede that acknowledged a degree of ‘overlordship’ or recognised dominance among the English kingdoms. However, in 633 Edwin was defeated at the Battle of Hatfield Chase by Penda, and his son and heir was killed. It was quite simply a disaster for Northumbria which once more divided into the independent kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. With Northumbria in disarray, an earlier victory over the Hwicce granting him control over their kingdom (think Gloucestershire and Worcestershire), and a firm alliance with the Britons of Gwynedd, Penda was ascendant.
Yet this ascendency may not have lasted long. Only a year later, King Oswald of Bernicia defeated Penda’s Welsh allies at the Battle of Heavenfield and parlayed that success into once more unifying Northumbria. From this time it appears Northumbria and Mercia began to compete for effective control over all the English kingdoms. It certainly seems clear that, between 633 and the Battle of Winwæd, Penda focused his efforts on stripping away Northumbria’s hegemony and power. Yet it is once again important to note that our sources are sparse and biased. Notably, there is something of an anti-Mercian bias in the pro-Northumbrian Bede and pro-Wessex Chronicles which, alongside the anti-pagan sentiment, means that Penda is not well-served by the historical record. Bede paints a picture in which Oswald was the greater of the kings, and the Chronicles list Oswald among the bretwaldas. At which point I should mention that no Mercian king is granted that title by the Chronicles. Not only is Penda ignored, though his power rivalled both that of Edwin and Oswald, but even the later Christian Mercian king Offa, founder of St Alban’s abbey and correspondent of Charlemagne, was overlooked. Irrespective of any impression our sources give that this was fundamentally a conflict derived from religion, it should not be doubted that every battle between Hatfield Chase and Winwæd was primarily motivated by politics. Unfortunately, none of our chroniclers were recording events from the Mercian side of the political divide.
Despite any resurgence of Northumbrian dominance after Heavenfield, it seems that at some stage between 633 and 642 Penda managed to establish hegemony over the East Angles, a region with strong associations with Northumbria from the time of Edwin’s coronation. The next key event, however, was Penda’s victory at the Battle of Maserfield in 642, in which Penda emphatically ended any question of his dominance over Oswald by leaving the Northumbrian king’s body dismembered on the battle field. Having died in hostilities against a pagan king, it did not take long for Oswald to be considered to have experienced a martyr’s death, and a cult and sainthood soon followed. Yet with the Northumbrian hegemony weakened in real-terms, Penda was able to exert his influence over the other English kingdoms. Around 645 he drove the West Saxon king into exile, reigning the territory by proxy for three years. Bede indicates that Penda led raids into Northumbria numerous times throughout the years 650 – 651. In 653 Penda established his son as a sub-king over the midlands territories that abutted his own Mercian holdings and the previously conquered kingdom of the Hwicce. This territory had likely been under Mercian control for some time, yet with a stable Mercian court established, Penda had a platform to continue meddling in East Anglian affairs, culminating in the death of the East Anglian king in 654.
Which returns us to 655 and the Battle of Winwæd. Apparently gathering forces from his new client kingdom East Anglia, as well as his Welsh allies, Penda marched on Oswiu in Northumbria with an army that Bede clearly considers to be huge – much larger than the native Northumbrian forces. Note once more Bede’s Christian world-view and that such a size-disparity in armies, where the smaller is relying on God to aid them, is a common biblical trope. Nonetheless, both Bede and the Historia portray Oswiu’s desperation to avoid battle in his attempts to pay Penda off. Bede indicates that Penda, bent on destruction, refused the offer of treasure, while the Historia states that Penda took the treasure and distributed it among his allies. Whatever the case, battle was still joined at Winwæd – likely an unidentified river crossing, a suggestion borne out by Bede’s statement that as many men died by drowning as by violence in battle. It would seem that Penda suffered desertions before battle. Bede indicates that the Deiran king, whose father had been killed by Penda, withdrew from his alliance with the Mercian king to more-or-less ‘see how things went,’ while the Historia mentions that one of the Welsh ‘kings’ deserted Penda during the night before he even got his cut of Oswiu’s treasure. There is no indication that these desertions denied Penda a numerical advantage, yet it would nonetheless have been significantly damaging. But, of course, Penda was also battling God. Oswiu prayed for victory prior to the battle, cutting a deal with his deity – victory in exchange for a daughter dedicated to a monastic life (St Ælflæd of Whitby), and the establishment of twelve religious houses. God looked at this deal, and saw that it was good. Victory was given the Northumbrians (no source provides details of the battle), Penda fell on the field of battle, as did the allied King of East Anglia, and numerous other war leaders. Oswiu then pledged his daughter to ‘[God’s] service in perpetual virginity,’ and gave twelve grants of land to establish monasteries.
Thus, Northumbria once more took the ascendency, and there is little question the Oswiu enjoyed his success. Within a year he had slain Penda’s eldest son (who was Christian) and established a Northumbrian hegemony over Mercia. It is here that it may be said ‘the Mercians became Christians.’ The new overlord of the region was a Christian and it not only seems likely that Oswiu extended his policy of establishing religious institutions into this new territory, but that this was where he found twelve parcels of land to grant the church. In 656 the Mercians threw off the Northumbrian yoke, but the next son of Penda to take control, Wulfhere, too was Christian and, though Mercia and Northumbria continued to vie for dominance over the next fifty years, Mercia was on its way to two centuries of political dominance as a Christian kingdom. Thus, in a very real way, the death of Penda did bring about the decline of English paganism. BUT it did not end it in a moment, as the Chronicles imply. There is little doubt that, over the subsequent centuries, paganism as a belief-system was to some degree appropriated by the church, devolved into folklore, and lost much of its potency. Yet this was not an immediate event and it is important to remember that our records are not relating the lives of the ordinary folk of England, but the elites. While the conversion of the elite necessarily had a trickle-down effect, this would have taken generations and it is likely that, in rural areas particularly, paganism continued to be practised long after the death of its last royal champion.
- Feature image: The Battle Of Winwaed, Pat Nicolle
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, translated by Leo Sherley-Price. 4th ed., London: Penguin Books, 1990.
- Nicholas Brooks, ‘The Formation of the Mercian Kingdom,’ in The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, edited by Steven Basset, Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1989, pp. 159 – 170.
- D. P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings, London: Routledge, 1991.
- Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
- Dorothy Whitelock, ed. and trans. English Historical Documents, C. 500 – 1042. 2nd edn. 10 vols. Vol. 1. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.
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Battle Of Whinmoor.(655.AD) Possible Medieval Defence System In This Area ,Cock Beck @ Whinmoor Leeds.14 ,UK
Leeds side. This would certainly give an advantage to the Oswy with dryer ground underfoot and higher position. Penda's men would have been up to their knees in mud and on the edge of freezing water.
The Farm that has been recently destroyed on the north side of the York Road was called Grimes Dyke Farm after the defence system and which can still be seen on it's land.(click map for exact location).previously unseen parts of Cock Beck Whinmoor Leeds.England,UK . A lot of the area has now been cleared just off the A64 Leeds. There is also an area not too far away where there are 100's of old bottles , also had a couple of finds with my metal detector too.
previously unseen parts of Cock Beck Whinmoor Leeds.England,UK . A lot of the area has now been cleared just off the A64 Leeds. could this be the remains of the defensive ditch Alan Wallace mentions in this e-mail to another history site.
" I came across your interesting site whilst studying the history of Whinmoor where I now live.
With regard to your exact location of the river may I suggest that it was in fact the stream that is today known as the Cock Beck which runs along the bottom of the hill and passes under the York Road.
The reason that this was so dangerous was that a medieval defence system had been constructed from Whinmoor to Swillington which consisted of a deep and wide ditch with an earth banking some 15ft high on the
moors of Winn Moor and Bramham Moor, near Leeds. There is no exact records of Army positions, due to the amount of movement during the battle. As Sir Thomas Fairfax was instructed to capture Tadcaster, the Royalist Northern major-general, Sir William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne planned to intercept the smaller
In November 655 AD (or perhaps in 654, according to one interpretation of the chronology), the Battle of the Winwaed took place around the Whinmoor/Cock Beck/Swarcliffe area, with the Christian King Oswiu of Bernicia's army defeating the pagan army of King Penda of Mercia, although historians admit that few details are available. A road to the south of Whinmoor was later named Penda's Way.
In addition, during the First English Civil War, the Battle of Seacroft Moor, 30 March 1643,
In 655, Penda invaded Bernicia with a large army, reported to have been 30 warbands, with 30 royal or noble commanders (duces regii, as Bede called them), including rulers such as Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd and Aethelhere of East Anglia. Penda also enjoyed the support of Aethelwald, the king of Deira and the successor of Oswine, who had been murdered on Oswiu's orders in 651 Bede says Aethelwald acted as Penda's guide during his invasion.
The cause of this war is uncertain. There is a passage in Bede's Ecclesiastical History that suggests Aethelhere of East Anglia was the cause of the war. On the other hand, it has been argued that an issue of punctuation in later manuscripts confused Bede's meaning on this point, and that he in fact meant to refer to Penda as being responsible for the war. Although, according to Bede, Penda tolerated some Christian preaching in Mercia, it has been suggested that he perceived Bernician sponsorship of Christianity in Mercia and Middle Anglia as a form of "religious colonialism" that undermined his power, and that this may have provoked the war.Elsewhere the possibility has been suggested that Penda sought to prevent Oswiu from reunifying Northumbria,not wanting Oswiu to restore the kingdom to the power it had enjoyed under Edwin and Oswald. A perception of the conflict in terms of the political situation between Bernicia and Deira could help to explain the role of Aethelwald of Deira in the war, since Aethelwald was the son of Oswald and might not ordinarily be expected to ally with those who had killed his father. Perhaps, as the son of Oswald, he sought to obtain the Bernician kingship for himself.
According to the Historia Brittonum, Penda besieged Oswiu at Iudeu this site has been identified with Stirling, in the north of Oswiu's kingdom. Oswiu tried to buy peace: in the Historia Brittonum, it is said that Oswiu offered treasure, which Penda distributed among his British allies. Bede states that the offer was simply rejected by Penda, who "resolved to extirpate all of [Oswiu's] nation, from the highest to the lowest". Additionally, according to Bede, Oswiu's son Ecgfrith was being held hostage "at the court of Queen Cynwise, in the province of the Mercians"—perhaps surrendered by Oswiu as part of some negotiations or arrangement. It would seem that Penda's army then moved back south, perhaps returning home, but a great battle was fought near the river Winwaed in the region of Loidis, thought to be somewhere in the area around modern day Leeds, on a date given by Bede as 15 November. The identification of the Winwaed with a modern river is uncertain, but possibly it was a tributary of the Humber. There is good reason to believe it may well have been the river now known as Cock Beck in the ancient kingdom of Elmet. The Cock Beck meanders its way through Pendas Fields, close to an ancient well known as Pen Well on the outskirts of Leeds, before eventually joining the River Wharfe. This same Cock Beck whilst in flood also played a significant role in the much later Battle of Towton in 1461. Another possibility is the River Went (a tributary of the River Don, situated to the north of modern-day Doncaster). It may be that Penda's army was attacked by Oswiu at a point of strategic vulnerability, which would help explain Oswiu's victory over forces that were, according to Bede, much larger than his own.
The Mercian force was also weakened by desertions. According to the Historia Brittonum, Cadafael of Gwynedd, "rising up in the night, escaped together with his army" (thus earning him the name Cadomedd, or "battle-shirker"), and Bede says that at the time of the battle, Aethelwald of Deira withdrew and "awaited the outcome from a place of safety". According to Kirby, if Penda's army was marching home, it may have been for this reason that some of his allies were unwilling to fight. It may also be that the allies had different purposes in the war, and Kirby suggested that Penda's deserting allies may have been dissatisfied "with what had been achieved at Iudeu". At a time when the Winwaed was swollen with heavy rains, the Mercians were badly defeated and Penda was killed, along with the East Anglian king Aethelhere. Bede says that Penda's "thirty commanders, and those who had come to his assistance were put to flight, and almost all of them slain," and that more drowned while fleeing than were killed in the actual battle. He also says that Penda's head was cut off a connection between this and the treatment of Oswald's body at Maserfield is possible. Writing in the 12th century, Henry of Huntingdon emphasised the idea that Penda was suffering the same fate as he had inflicted on others.
Oswald’s brother, Oswiu had taken control of the northern half of Northumbria. Raised in the Gaelic parts of Scotland and Ireland, Oswiu was a devout Christian and found himself embroiled in conflict with his pagan neighbours in the southern parts of Northumbria and neighbouring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Avoiding battle with Penda for the early part of his reign, Oswiu spent most of his time squabbling with his southern neighbours. In 655, the Mercian king invaded at the head of a large army, aiming to crush Oswiu’s Christian kingdom and stop the spread of the religion in his pagan lands.
The two armies met at the Winwaed, somewhere in West Yorkshire. Penda’s force was riven by unrest with many of his allies deserting him in the run-up to the battle. While crossing the river, Penda’s forces were set upon and destroyed by Oswiu’s smaller force of Northumbrians.
Thirty Mercian chieftains, including Penda himself, lost their lives, with many of his footsoldiers drowned in the river, swollen by heavy rain. The battle of the Winwaed signalled the end of Mercian dominance and the demise of Saxon paganism in the British Isles.
Aftermath and Legacy
The battle had a substantial effect on the relative positions of Northumbria and Mercia. Mercia’s position of dominance, established after the battle of Maserfield, was destroyed, and Northumbrian dominance was restored Mercia itself was divided, with the northern part being taken by Oswiu outright and the southern part going to Penda’s Christian son Peada, who had married into the Bernician royal line (although Peada survived only until his murder in 656). Northumbrian authority over Mercia was overthrown within a few years, however.
Significantly, the battle marked the effective demise of Anglo-Saxon paganism Charles Plummer, in 1896, described it as “decisive as to the religious destiny of the English”. Penda had continued in his traditional paganism despite the widespread conversions of Anglo-Saxon monarchs to Christianity, and a number of Christian kings had suffered death in defeat against him after Penda’s death, Mercia was converted, and all the kings who ruled thereafter (including Penda’s sons Peada, Wulfhere and Æthelred) were Christian.
Prehistory and course of the battle
Since the Northumbrian defeat in the Battle of Maserfield in 642, Penda tried to cement his supremacy over Northumbria, which led to several campaigns against Northumbria. In the second half of the 1940s he was even able to advance into Bamburgh , which is located far north , and after 651 again penetrate deep into Northumbrian territory. The aim of these military operations was the annihilation and complete integration of the Northumbrian kingdom in Mercia. The campaign that ended with the Battle of the Winwaed must also be seen in this context, as its aim was to prevent the reunification of Northumbria under Oswiu, which explains the presence of Æthelwald , king of Deira , among Penda's allies. Penda invaded Bernicia with an army that is said to have consisted of 30 legiones led by 30 noble leaders ( duces regii ) . Among his allies, several British kings, for example Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of were Gwynedd and Æthelhere , King of East Anglia . He was also supported by Æthelwald, king of Deira, whose predecessor Oswine was murdered on behalf of Oswius in 651. Penda's army was successful enough to push back the army of Northumbria far into what is now Scotland, to enclose it and to besiege it in Iudeu , what is now Stirling . It appears that Oswiu then offered tribute payments, which Penda distributed among his allies. The army, led by Penda, then began to withdraw. Some of the allied rulers left the force. Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd rose at night together with his army and escaped, whereupon he was nicknamed Cadomedd (who avoids the battle). King Æthelwald of Deira also withdrew and waited for the outcome of the battle from a safe distance. It is possible that with the army on the way home, the allies were unwilling to fight, and that those leaving the Penda were dissatisfied with what had been achieved at Iudeu . Oswiu was able to catch up with the retreating Penda. Penda's army was strategically poorly positioned, which enabled Oswiu to attack. The battle broke out between Penda and his allies with the army of Northumbria. Penda lost battle and life. King Æthelhere was also among the dead in the battle, as were nearly all of the 30 duces regii who had followed him, with a greater number of those fleeing drowning in the flooding river than were killed by the sword.
3rd May 664. What’s in a Date?
Today was the day in 664 which the Venerable Bede incorrectly ascribed to the solar eclipse, of that year, when as he would have known, and the available evidence confirmed it as happening on May 1st.
In a letter [In translation from the Latin]: ‘In the same year of our Lord 664 an eclipse of the sun occurred about ten o’clock in the morning on the third of May and a sudden plague…later spread into the province of the Northumbrians.'(1)
It refers to a total eclipse of the sun, which had a path of totality across northern England and Ireland, which would have included the Celtic, Ionian monasteries on the North-East coast such as Hartlepool (Hart’s Pool), Whitby, Lindisfarne.
This was followed by an outbreak of plague so one can imagine that King Oswy of Northumbria would have thought he had brought down God’s wrath on his resurgent Columban Church and the monasteries.
Could the portents be saying the Roman way was the true way, especially as his wife followed the Roman dating of Easter, so they celebrated at different times. He decided to call a Synod at Whitby to decide matters.
However, the Easter Tables of the Roman Calendar were incorrect by stating the date of the new moon as May 3rd, and Bede knew that any eclipse would have preceded that.
Thus the eclipse was confirmed as being at the 9th hour on 1st of May, as reported in the Annals of Ulster and other Irish Annals. This has been proved beyond dispute.
So why did Bede go along with the discrepancy by pandering to the erroneous Roman Calendar and why did Bede believe he needed to bring it into line with Dionysias’ 19 year cycle, and why didn’t he correct them?
Bede knew that the date of the eclipse was crucial in its implications for the acceptance of the Easter dating tables developed by Dionysias Exiguous to be endorsed by the Celtic Church at Whitby in 664.(2)
The answer could be that it was a sensitive issue, for his Celtic Church, only a few decades after the event. Another consideration was the fact that Bishop [St] Wilfred was a friend of Bede and still alive when he was writing, and he and Bishop Biscop, had brought back from Rome their Easter dates, so Wilfred would have been keen to promote these.
So the question arises was Bede persuaded to be economical with the truth?
It was Archbishop Ussher (1581-1656), who was the first to point out the disparity of the two dates, which favoured Dionysias, and which were to form the reckoning, from the 8th century of western ecclesiastical calculations, and set to go unchallenged until 1582.
The Roman calendar tables were in any case 4 years adrift despite any other considerations, as they were based on Dionysias’ computus of 532, which had attempted to allocate a date to the birth of Jesus.
But he had made a fatal mistake regarding a key date, throwing him out by 4 years. So beware of twisting facts to suit one’s purpose.
(1a) The eclipse date, of May 1st 664, has been calculated since with precision. Much research has been done by Daniel McCarthy and Aidan Breen, whose computations also allow for the deceleration of the earth’s spin over millennia.
(1b) The 664 eclipse was the first to be have been definitely recorded in English and the link between the Synod of Whitby (before birth of Bede c 672).
(2) When Rome changed its calendar in 46 ACE to a solar based system which was only somewhat lunar, the Irish were unaware of the change, and of the Council of Nicea which established Easter dating. Only when Columbanus (543-615), the Irish monk scholar travelled to Europe with a different date, did the variation become apparent.
Ref: Ecclesiastical History of the English People: Bede’s letter to Egbert.