Heavenfield

The Cross at the side of the B6318 marking the site of the Battle of Heavenfield.

Oswald didn’t have time to raise an army; he was accompanied by a few thousand men. The Welsh under Cadwallon and Penda must have had a force between five and six times greater.

The Welsh came north along the line of the old Roman road of Dere Street to Corbridge, where they camped for the night eating and drinking and making merry.

Oswald took up a position a few miles north of Hexham. With his warriors facing towards what is now Newcastle he was was protected to the north by a rocky outcrop, and to the south by Hadrian’s Wall itself. The Wall was still a massive structure and enabled Oswald to restrict the front on which he had to fight. Though the Welsh had greater numbers they would not be able to bring them to bear because of the narrow front on which they were forced to fight.

As morning came the heathen forces came north from Corbridge to Stagshaw and then west along the north side of the Wall. Full of courage, born of an expectation of an easy fight, and fuelled by the drinking and merriment of the night before the Welsh hordes pushed on towards the Christian army of Oswald.

Accompanied by a band of Christian monks Oswald set up a wooden cross to act as a standard for the Northumbrians. As the first Welsh warriors appeared over the skyline the Northumbrians knelt in prayer. Many a heart must have fluttered at the sight of such a vast enemy force, but with many a silent prayer the King’s men stood shoulder to shoulder.    Soon the Welsh warriors broke upon Oswald’s line. In the battle that followed neither side could make any impression on the other. The Northumbrian’s defence was stout , solid and determined, the Welsh could not out flank Oswald and as the battle drew on, the Welsh began to realise that it was not going to be an easy victory.

The battle could have lasted all day, but we do not know. During this period in our history we did not record such things in writing, they were passed on through a tradition of story telling and in song and poem. The deeds of the warriors that day would have been sung about, stories would have been told in homes and mead halls through the land, but scant record of this has come down to us today.

The oral history handed down has alas been lost in time, but a good example of the type of poem-story told can be found in the ‘sixth century’ poem ‘Beowulf’.

Who was the first to break ranks and run is also lost in the passage of time, but as one of Cadwallon’s followers broke so more turned to follow. The Welsh had had enough, their lines broke and like a river in flood they rushed south. The Wall, still a formidable obstacle, blocked their path and the Northumbrians exacted a terrible revenge. The battle became a massacre, as the Welsh ran southwards they were cut down by Oswald’s avenging warriors. No quarter was given, the greatest massacre occurred just over the Wall, but the bodies of Cadwallan’s countrymen littered the crags of Fallowfield Fell, down across Acomb Fell and down the length of Devil’s Water. Legend has it that Cadwallon met the same fate as many of his warriors and he was cut down and killed somewhere along Devil’s Water.

The battle at Heavenfield had been won. His Kingdom and the Church were safe, though Northumbria as a mighty kingdom would eventually fade, the candle flame of Christianity so nearly snuffed out by the heathen hordes would never again be so threatened with extinction. Oswald had laid down a marker in the struggle between pagan (heathen) and Christianity, though it is terrible that it was at the expense of a bloody massacre.

© Holy Cross Church Haltwhistle 2013