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Battles of Anglo-Saxon England: Hatfield Chase, AD 633

One of the most significant battles of 7th-century England

It’s been a while since I added to this ongoing series on the battles of Anglo-Saxon England, so I thought it was time to return to it, with a look at the Battle of Hatfield Chase.

This was an extremely important battle, featuring the most powerful kings in England and one significant up-and-comer, and it laid the ground for the political landscape that followed for decades to come.

As with all things Anglo-Saxon, there is a lot we don’t know about this battle, especially where, exactly, it was fought. More on that later. But we do know, thanks to Bede, that the date of the battle was October 12, AD 633, some forty years before Bede wrote about it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

A great battle being fought in the plain that is called Haethfelth, Edwin was killed on the 12th of October, in the year of our Lord 633, being then forty-eight years of age, and all his army was either slain or dispersed. 

Bede doesn’t mention who fought against Edwin, but in the context of both his writings and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, we can determine that Edwin was brought down by a combined force of Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia.

Background to the Battle

So, just how and why did Edwin get defeated at Hatfield Chase? He was arguably the most powerful king in England at the time, who had combined Bernicia and Deira into the large realm of Northumbria, and who had been on the throne for seventeen years at this point. He was also Northumbria’s first Christian king and had made an alliance with the powerful kingdom of Kent by marrying the sister of the king.

Edwin’s story is a long and fascinating one. He was the son of Ælle, the first king of Deira. At Ælle’s death, Edwin was forced into exile by Æthelfrith, king of Bernicia, who became king of a united Northumbria. Later sources from the twelfth century state that Edwin found refuge in Gwynedd and became foster-brother to Cadwallon, but we can’t know that for sure. We do know that eventually, he ended up under the protection of Rædwald of East Anglia. It was Æthelfrith’s pursuit of Edwin that led to a battle between Rædwald and Æthelfrith, in which Rædwald and Edwin were victors.

This sent the seven sons of Æthelfrith (including Oswald and Oswy) into exile and placed Edwin on the Deiran throne. He then set about expanding his kingdom through wars and alliances, ending up as the powerful bretwalda of all of England. He conquered territory as far west as Anglesey (an island just north of Gwynedd, or modern-day North Wales) and the Isle of Man. In this excursion, he forced Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd, into hiding.

But Cadwallon wasn’t going to take his defeat lying down. He immediately set about building an army and started his revenge by re-conquering Anglesey, driving the Northumbrians out of his territory. He then looked for allies who would join with him to go against Edwin directly.  The most important ally that joined with Cadwallon was Penda of Mercia, the kingdom directly to the southeast of Northumbria’s borders.

It is likely Penda was not yet king of Mercia at this time, but rather a powerful thegn or warlord who had been making a name for himself in battles for his king. This point is a bit murky historically, and, if true, it begs the question as to why the actual king was bypassed by Cadwallon in his search for an ally. There are all sorts of things we can conjecture about that, but suffice it to say, Penda it was. A fortunate choice for Cadwallon and Penda both, as it turned out.

Location of the Battle

With Bede’s designation of Hæthfelth as the place of the battle, it seems like it would be simple to figure out where this was. The first connection of the battle with Hatfield Chase, near Doncaster in Yorkshire, was made in the 16th century by medieval historian William Camden, who matched the name “Hæthfelth” with “Hatfield” near Doncaster.

The problem is, hæthfelth or hæth felth, literally means, “place of unattended land”, so it could refer to many places. There is more than one place named Hatfield in England. So, we really don’t know exactly where this battle took place, except that it would likely have been somewhere between Northumbria and Gwynedd.

Aftermath

As I mentioned earlier, this battle had significant repercussions. Edwin died, along with two of his sons. One, Osfrith was killed in the battle, the other, Eadfirth, was captured by Penda and later killed. Northumbria divided once again into Bernicia and Deira, and Eanfrith came back from exile amongst the Picts to take Bernicia’s throne. Eanfrith might in fact have had an alliance with Cadwallon in which he helped oust Edwin in return for kingship over Bernicia. Deira’s throne went to Osric, a cousin of Edwin. Both Eanfrith and Osric renounced their Christian faith and reverted back to following their pagan Anglo-Saxon deities. Osric mounted a campaign against Cadwallon but was promptly defeated and killed by the Welsh king. If there had been some kind of alliance between Eanfrith and Cadwallon, it quickly soured, and Eanfrith went to Cadwallon to discuss a truce. But Cadwallon was not interested and killed Eanfrith, too.

After that, Cadwallon was in charge, and he took his revenge on the people of Northumbria in a particularly cruel manner. According to Bede, he ruled “not like a victorious king, but like a rapacious and bloody tyrant.” 

News of these terrible events filtered back to the other exiled sons of Æthelfrith in Dál Riata, setting the stage for Oswald, the brother of Eanfrith, to return to Northumbria to attempt to wrest the throne away from the cruel Cadwallon and to rescue his people from his thorny grip.

As to what happened then, you’ll have to wait to find out!

More posts in this series:

Battles of Anglo-Saxon England: Badon

Battles of Anglo-Saxon England: Weapons and Armour

Battles of Anglo-Saxon England: Chester, AD 616


Can’t get enough of Anglo-Saxon England? My historical fantasy trilogy, The Traveller’s Path, is set in Northumbria in AD 642 and features a young man whose shadowed destiny leads him to the past, where he could change our world forever. Wilding and Bound are both available, and Book Three is coming SOON!

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