The Battle of Winwaed: The Barwicker Article

The first volume of The Barwicker (Journal of the Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society) has an article entitled 'The Battle of Winwaedfield', and is reproduced below, with permission.

This article attempts to cast doubt on the popular view regarding the battle as a crusade; and the possible location. Reading the accounts which I have managed to find, I would agree that the battle was not a crusade. But, it does appear to be instrumental in bringing about the Synod of Whitby.

A possible location near Nostell (west of Wakefield) is proposed from a paper by Walker (1947). If so, the River Winwaed would, in fact, be the River Went.

The Barwick-in-Elment Historical Society

also has a website, which may be of interest.

The Battle of Winwaedfield, Arthur Bantoft
The Barwicker v1

(reproduced with permission)

In the north aisle of the parish church there is a window depicting "Oswy, King of Northumbria. He destroys heathenism at Winwaedfield, A.D. 655." The window was dedicated in 1912. In the battle, Oswy, a Christian, defeated and killed Penda, the heathen king of Mercia. Bede, in the 8th Century, tells us that King Oswy "both delivered his own people from the hostile depredations of the pagans and having cut off the wicked king's head, converted the Mercians and the adjacent provinces to the grave of the Christian faith." The twentieth century, rector-historians of Barwick see the battle in similar terms. Butcher describes it as "the last great battle on English soil between Christianity and paganism." Colman says of the victors "the memory of their deeds is as imperishable as the blessing they brought to England."

The popular local view is that the battle took place on Whinmoor; according to Butcher "possibly in that area now contained within the angle of the York Road and the Ring Road, immediately east of Seacroft and crossed by Thorner Lane, Red Hall Lane and Coal Road."

The Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity by missionaries from the Celtic church in Scotland and from the Roman church, at the instigation of Pope Gregory the Great. The spread of the faith seems to have had little to do with battles and conquest. The simplistic view of Winwaedfield as a battle between Christianity and paganism, between good and evil, must be re-assessed. It was, in fact, one of a series of bloody encounters between the Anglian kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia to decide which should be the dominant force in central and northern England. This power struggle went on for many years before and after the battle.

Northumbria was united under King Edwin in the early seventh century and became the dominant kingdom in northern England. Later in the century, Mercia, under King Penda and allied to the Welsh, grew in power and influence in central England. Was Penda the threat to the spread of Christianity that the above writers supposed? In 'The Formation of England', H.P.R.Finberg reports that "Penda remained a heathen to the last, but even he felt that Christianity was a good religion if only its followers would live up to it. He place no obstacle in the way of its propagation in Middle Anglia, where four missionaries, three of them English and one Irish, were already at work before his death."

Between these two expanding nations was the small Kingdom of Elmet. This was incorporated into Northumbria by Edwin, when he expelled Cerdic, its last British King. The ensuing battles between the two kingdoms cost the lives of Edwin, his two nephews, Eanfrith and Oswald, who succeeded him, and Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd and Penda's ally. When Oswy, Oswald's brother, became king of Northumbria, Penda, with a large force of Mercians and Welsh, moved against him. Oswy tried to buy peace with a large treasure, but in vain. The two armies met near the River Winwaed (assumed to be Cock Beck). The night before the battle, Cadafael of Gwynedd took his share of the spoils and went back to Wales. Oswy's smaller force unexpectedly defeated the Mercians, and Penda, with other leaders, was killed. It is said that the river, swollen with flood water, ran red with blood.

The battle, then, was concerned more with power and conquest than with the spread of Christianity. The struggle for dominance continued for many years, when all the participants were nominally Christian. The battle ended neither the power of Mercia nor the succession of Penda's heirs. Northumbria, under Oswy, became the strongest power but only temporarily, as Mercia grew to become the dominant kingdom again under Penda's three sons, all of whom were baptised into the Christian faith. When unit did come to England, it was not under Northumbria or Mercia, but under the royal house of Wessex; of Alfred and of Athelstan.

If the Christian versus heathen nature of the battle can be questioned, so too can its siting on Whinmoor. J.W. Walker (Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, v36) accepts the ecclesiastical historians' view of the battle, but places it near Nostell, west of Wakefield, "on the high ground whereon now stands the church of Wragby, and that the Went was the river named by the Venerable Bede as Winwaed, for his statement that the battle was fought 'in regionis Loidis' is quite definite. Nostell and the River Went are within the territory known as Loidis in the kingdom of Deira." Walker attributes the siting of the battle on Whinmoor to Thoresby, writing in 1715.

In 671, Oswy died in bed, most unusually for a Northumbrian king. A more fitting epitaph than the Battle of Winwaedfield would be, perhaps the Synod of Whitby, which he instigated and in which he played a prominent part. This meeting ensured that it was the Roman and not the Celtic church that became the dominant influence in English spiritual life. As Finberg says: "The Anglo-Saxons never forget their debt to Gregory the Great. King Oswy had hoped to spend his last days in Rome, but death prevented him. Many another king formed the same intention and lived to carry it out. The See of Rome had so secure a place in English affections that a continental write in the ninth century described the Anglo-Saxons as conspicuous above all other peoples for their devotion to the papacy. They had good reason. Under the guidance of the Roman Church their leaders had emerged from barbarism into civilisation."

Arthur Bantoft

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