On 8th January, Cameron Robertson told TillVAS members and visitors the fascinating story of William Cowe and Sons, founders of the well-known shop on Bridge Street famous for Berwick Cockles.
William Cowe had started a tea and grocery business in Marygate in 1848. When he died in 1867 his wife ran the business until his children came of age. The business grew, and when the Weatherhead family decided to sell their larger premises on Bridge Street in 1886, Mrs Cowe bought it. Mr Weatherhead had been a confectioner making a speciality boiled sweet called a Berwick Cockle and the recipe was passed on with the purchase of the shop.
The business flourished, thanks partly to the shop being in prime position for visitors to Berwick. Everyone crossed by the old bridge and passed the tempting window displays showing not only groceries but tins of cockles and bags of ‘Cowes muck’ – the scraps of sweet left after the cockle shapes had been sieved. Two vending machines had to be installed close by to prevent visitors going home disappointed when the shop was shut.
The family was also very skilled in advertising, mentioning their sweets as ‘original cockles’, implying their superiority to those made by their local rivals. By about 1900 they were able to add ‘By Royal Appointment’ to their slogan thanks to Princess Mary Adelaide. While she was unlikely to have ever eaten them she was well known for being a bit short of money. It may have been beneficial to both parties to register her approval of the cockles!
The actual workshop where the cockles were made was very modest, providing work space for a master and his apprentice. When Andrew Hay, master Cockle maker, was imprisoned in Germany during the war he came home to find the workshop in a dangerous state. He made repairs and began work again. When the business up and running again it was helped back onto the map by a visit from Richard Dimbleby on ‘Down Your Way’.
Perhaps for a number of reasons cockle production ceased in 2002. The shop closed completely in 2010 and in 2013 the building was bought by ARCH. It was in a dangerous condition and had to be demolished but the frontage and other artefacts such as the original door were retained. To help understand the story of the building, the demolition was documented by photographer Cameron Robertson. Many artefacts were found including the moulds for the cockles and photographs showed the two hooks for pulling the hot sugar mixture, one for the master and one for the apprentice, still on the wall. The history of the building was revealed in more detail with evidence of a very early thatched structure and a fireplace of the 1500s.
The audience responded warmly to this excellent talk which for many was also a walk down memory lane.
Iron Age Day
Following two years of successful digging at the Iron Age enclosure on Mardon farm, TillVAS held a special event at Etal Village Hall earlier this summer. This was a completely free event, giving opportunities to share what we had learned about the Iron Age and engage the community with their local culture and heritage. Early crafts and skills were demonstrated and visitors were allowed some hands-on experience of what life might have been like for those living at Mardon. We were pleased to welcome visitors of all ages who joined in enthusiastically with the activities, displays and demonstrations offered.
Building a replica Iron Age roundhouse proved one of our most popular activities and thanks go to Jane Miller and her team of helpers and young archaeologists for a splendid demonstration of what can be achieved by willow, straw and team work.
Bread making was another popular activity and must have been successful as barely a crumb was left afterwards. Replica Iron Age artefacts were displayed by costumed re-enactors and the real finds on display were very popular.
A loom and spindles were available for visitors to try weaving and spinning. There was a good supply of charcoal and ochre to make pictures of animals around in the Iron Age and a steady queue of children made replica beads. Dressing-up outfits were available for the braver visitors, including a roman soldier or two. A special thanks go to Byr Reeds for all her hard work and Peregrini for lending their dressing up box.
Another great success was pottery making where both children and adults could make small pots using locally sourced clay. The results were very good, some even being decorated using sticks and feathers. Other dried pots, made on a pottery course earlier in the year, were fired in an adjoining field using Iron Age technology.
We were blessed with fine weather and had between 250 and 300 visitors on the day. It was gratifying that a number of people asked whether we would do it again next year. The answer is yes, we would like to do another similar event linked to future excavation and research, but perhaps in two years time when we might be looking at a different era of history.
Many thanks go to Ford and Etal Estates, who were very supportive of our event and thanks also go to Mattia at the Black Bull who provided a simple light meal using ingredients available at the time. Lastly thanks to Richard at the Lavender tearooms for allowing us generous access to the hall to prepare for the day.
Vikings in Scotland
Standing room only at Crookham Village Hall was narrowly avoided when Trevor Cowie spoke to members of Tillvas recently. His topic was Vikings in Scotland for which he selected 3 examples of evidence from the west coast, drawing on his work for the National Museum of Scotland. His presentation was enhanced by carefully-selected photographs.
The first example was Kiloran Bay on Colonsay. Discovered by the brother of the local laird in the late 19th century when archaeological procedures were in their infancy, we cannot be certain that the finds were preserved as they would be nowadays. A slab-lined enclosure was found among the dunes around a sandy bay along with quantities of clinker nails. Within was a crouched burial, various weapons and other grave goods including a sword, axe head and magnificent scales and weights of bronze, iron and copper. Excellent evidence that creatures of “fearsome reputation” had visited! The remains were that of a male about 40 years old. Sadly, poor conservation of the day may have destroyed some of the original features. However, the finds were painted in water-colours in 1883 and have fortunately survived as they preserve the state in which they were found. An important feature is that it was discovered that an inverted boat had been placed over the grave forming an early example of a Viking boat burial in this country.
The decorated hilt of a sword, typical of 9th century Norwegians, with twisted silver wires and a chequer pattern of silver, was notable among the grave goods. Others were a long-handled pan and a folding knife. The scales and weights were in better condition when found, the weights being decorated with metalwork probably made from recycled loot. £ Anglo-Saxon coins minted in 9th century Northumbria were also present. Outside the enclosure was the skeleton of a horse and further boat nails.
The second example was found on Lewis in 1979 by campers who spotted bones on machair. The Procurator Fiscal investigated immediately before archaeologists were called in. It proved to be the burial of a young female accompanied by an antler comb, brooch, needle case with needles, buckle, knife and whetstone. Later children found a skull which led to the eventual identification of a cemetery.
Trevor’s final example was of Balnakeil in Sutherland, like the other sites, set on a sandy bay. Human remains were spotted amongst sand dunes. Although the feet and legs had disappeared, the grave goods were in place. Included were an iron sword in its scabbard, an antler comb, gaming pieces, beads, pumice stone, knife and fish hook. The remains were of a boy aged 8-13 years about 4ft 11” tall. 3D modelling was used for facial reconstruction and we were shown a photograph of the face.
The audience enjoyed this visit along the western coast up to the northern end and many were envious of the holidaymakers who had chanced upon such amazing discoveries.
The next Tillvas talk will be on Wed 5 June when Lindsay Allason-Jones will enlighten us on Roman Cavalry Gravestones.
Alex Sotheran - The Nightingale Project
Before the talk by Alex Sotheran on Wednesday 6th February, TillVAS Members and Friends took a few moments to remember Tom Turnbull of Branxton and Gerald Tait Coldstream, both highly regarded members who sadly passed away recently.
Alex began by explaining that he was part of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation who play a vital role supporting the many different aspects of the M.O.D., including the repair and maintenance of the training grounds, buildings and environment and more recently the rehabilitation of injured servicemen by introducing them to archaeology. The training grounds which cover many thousands of acres, are scattered throughout the UK and contain a wealth of archaeology, from the prehistoric to more recent times and the remit of the four archaeologists currently employed is to maintain the historic environment and support those who work and visit.
Among the main sites in the UK are Portsmouth, Catterick, Fort George, Otterburn and Salisbury Plain and as they were established many years ago, have not been affected by modern agriculture or urbanisation. Working mainly in the north of England, Alex has first-hand knowledge of the Warcop area near Catterick, Otterburn, Kirkcudbright and Spadeadam, and it is not unusual to find cup and ring stones, hillforts, medieval ridge and furrow and a deserted medieval village quite close to military installations. In the Warcop area are the remains of the Skeldale Mines, which were severely damaged in the floods of 2008. These have now been conserved using the veterans from Operation Nightingale with interpretation boards for the public. During the work a stone carved with a Pictish dragon was found in a stream and also in the area a Viking house and prehistoric hut circle. Accidents can happen and the Military has been warned off the Deserted Medieval Village and Kings Fish Ponds!!
Spadeadam in Cumbria is unusual as although only fifty years old it is now a scheduled monument. There are many sheilings; the sites of medieval summer grazings in the vicinity; but is also the home of Blue Streak, the first intercontinental missile.
In Kirkcudbright where the film “Wickerman” was made, are cup & ring stones, medieval ridge and furrow and a hillfort at Doon Hill which incorporates a hidden tank firing platform from the 1950’s - now scheduled, as well as the remains of medieval churches and manor house with accompanying ridge and furrow.
Otterburn is the largest training camp in the north where 1917 WW1 trenches were excavated in 2006, again using the veterans, which uncovered the wooden duck boards and post holes which supported the breastworks. WW2 Observation posts still remain, with a mock-up Afghan village, which looks from a distance not unlike the Roman marching camps found along Dere Street, and in a remote corner, the shrine to Coccidius, a Roman War God, close by a spring in a landscape almost unchanged since Roman times.
The huge white balls of Fylingdale Early Warning System were once a familiar sight and we were shown images of their construction. These have now been replaced by more sophisticated equipment, but the cost of scheduling the originals was prohibitive. On the same stretch of moorland not far away, are ancient stone crosses!
St.Kilda is an R.A.F. Radar Tracking Station and is also part of the D.I.O. Overseen by the National Trust for Scotland, Alex worked there recently with GUARD from Glasgow University, when old accommodation blocks were demolished prior to rebuilding, and it was the first opportunity for any excavation on the island. Deserted in the 1930’s after the population became unsupportable, any interference with the ethnology of the island is forbidden and the remains of the village, the cleets for storage, the St. Kilda Wren and St. Kilda Field Mouse are unique to the island.
As previously explained, Operation Nightingale supports servicemen injured in battle, often by IED in Afghanistan. Many of them have worked on Barrow Clump on Salisbury Plain at a Saxon burial mound damaged by badgers. One completely novice digger unearthed a Saxon skeleton complete with sword, spear and shield boss, items now in the British Museum – I wish!
Barry Buddon near Dundee, is a WW1 trench complex similar to that at Otterburn, excavated by a team of Operation Nightingale volunteers and professionals from Wessex Archaeology and thought to be possibly a model of the Hindenburg Line. This was a unique site for the veterans as a quantity of spent shells dated to 1911 were found. Obviously from WW2, mess plates dated 1940/1943 were found, together with an army shovel and the “Barry Buddon Hoard” of rusty food tins!
Breaking Ground Heritage is part of Operation Nightingale and a group of volunteers has recently worked at the WW1 battlefield at Bullecourt on the Hindenburg Line; a disaster for the Australian Imperial Force; excavating the remains of a tank destroyed in the battle. At Alex’ request, in lieu of any expenses, a donation was made to Breaking Ground Heritage.
TillVAS will next meet on Wednesday 6th March, 7.30 pm in Crookham Village Hall, when Dr. Chris Fowler will speak on “Bronze Age Burials in NE England and SE Scotland”. All welcome. Members Free, visitors £4.
James IV lecture 2018- The Mary Rose
On the 7th October the annual “James IV Memorial Lecture”, supported this year by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, was held at the Coldstream Community Centre. To a full house, Dr. Alex Hildred gave a fascinating illustrated talk explaining how and why the iconic warship ‘The Mary Rose’ played an important part in the Battle of Flodden 1513.
Along with Nelson’s Victory the Mary Rose is one of our most famous warships. Many in the audience had watched the extended TV coverage, including the Blue Peter programme, covering the lifting of her from the seabed in 1982.
Dr. Hildred, now head of research and curator at the Mary Rose Trust, was involved in the excavation from the very beginning. She gave a detailed account of the difficulties encountered and techniques developed to save the wreck and its contents.
It seems that wooden warships were in a continuous state of repair and improvement: new rigging, new sail patterns, new woodwork, and new guns. This meant that the ship which sank in unexplained circumstances in 1545 was very different to the ship which unloaded soldiers and cargo at Newcastle in 1513. But, as Dr Hildred explained later, her cargo played a pivotal role in the English victory.
Hidden in the seabed for nearly 500 years, the wreck and its contents have proved to be a treasure trove of life in Tudor times: clothing, medical instruments, horn lanterns, a carpentry chest full of tools, musical instruments, and the poignant remains of 179 individuals. 19,000 objects carefully retrieved and conserved: many of which are on display at the new state-of-the-art museum at Portsmouth dockyard.
So why was the Mary Rose, a seagoing war vessel, so influential in the outcome of a land battle? Artillery was still in its infancy 500 years ago. Bronze cannon were heavy (more than 3 tons), difficult to move, and slow to reload through the muzzle. The army of James IV was encamped in a strong position on Flodden Hill, heavy guns facing south towards the oncoming English army. The English were indeed advancing from the south. Amongst the cannon taken from the Mary Rose were relatively lightweight (just over 1 ton) breech loading iron cannon called Serpentines and Minions. They were neither powerful nor accurate but breech loading cannon had a faster fire rate and could be more easily moved. These lightweight cannon from the Mary Rose were secretly brought across Twizel Bridge during the night by the English army and when dawn broke on the 9th September the Scottish army found that they had been outflanked. The English therefore, attacked from the north and there was no time to move the superior Scottish guns to new positions. The Scots fought bravely but in vain; the lightweight guns from the Mary Rose tipping the balance of the battle.
During the short time remaining, Dr. Hildred expanded on several points raised by a well-informed and appreciative audience. The vote of thanks was proposed by Lord Joicey.
TillVAS visit to Ancrum, near Jedburgh.
At the end of July, several members of the Ancrum & District & Heritage Society welcomed a number of TillVAS members to Ancrum to see some of the interesting archaeological remains in the area.
It was a beautiful warm day and we gathered at the village green at the remains of the Market Cross, moved from its original site, and now mounted on a stone-built plinth. Regular markets were held here from ca.1490. We then walked through the village along a narrow track, once the main road into the village, to view the site of what is now agreed was probably the medieval “Bishop’s Palace”, also known as “Mantle Walls”, presently under a cereal crop. This was suspected to be the palace of Bishop de Bondington of Glasgow in 12thc. (who is known to have died in Ancrum) and appears as an ‘L’ shaped building on an old map from the 1770’s, but strangely, on no other map. An excavation was carried out by Glasgow University in 2012, who found stone foundations of a substantial building and the site is now scheduled.
We then drove a short distance to the old Kirkyard. The original kirk was built ca.1116, but no trace remains. The present Kirk was built in the 18th c. repaired in 1832 but abandoned in 1890 and now ruinous. Visible across the river and at the top of a steep hill are the remains of a ‘fort’, easier to access from the opposite side on another day.
The next stop was the “Monteath Mausoleum” a short drive further north and an outstanding monument, although not readily noticeable. This is the last resting place of General Sir Thomas Monteath Douglas, KCB (1787 – 1848) of Stonebyres in Lanarkshire, who married the only surviving daughter of Sir William Monteath Scott of Ancrum. From modest beginnings, he obtained a commission in the army and served with the Bengal 35th Infantry during the first Afghan War. At the end of his career and having no issue he commissioned the building of the mausoleum and it was completed by 1846, with the instructions that it was kept permanently locked, and a man was specially employed to oversee maintenance. Unfortunately over time the doors have been broken open and the interior vandalised but funds have been raised and a programme of works to restore the building is due to commence at the end of August this year.
After lunch at a nearby Garden Centre, our “borders raid” concluded with a visit to Monteviot House, the home of the Marquis of Lothian. A guided tour had been arranged and we enjoyed the lovely atmosphere of a lived in “big house”, with family photographs and the extensive collection of works of art by various well-known artists. There was still time for several of the party to visit the beautiful gardens before setting off for home.
Many thanks to everyone at Ancrum who made us very welcome and we hope to continue this friendship in the future.
Six members of TillVAS went to the Durham University laboratories to see how and where our finds from Mardon were processed. It was a really interesting trip and we learned a great deal. Our thanks go to the members of staff who were kind and patient enough to show us around and answer our many questions. Thanks also go to Dr Richard Carlton for organising the event. We have now had our finds returned to us and look forward to adding to them around September when we dig at Mardon again.
Photos courtesy of Brian Reeds
A hob nailed shoe or boot stepped onto a roman clay tile before it dried.
Heather Pentland examining charcoal under a microscope. The patterns for each species were very different.
Looking at a sample of finds from other digs.
Lady Waterford Bicentenery
There was an opportunity to explore Ford Castle on the weekend of the 14th and 15th April when Lady Waterford's contribution to the Ford and Etal estate was celebrated. There were various displays showing the history and development of the castle and a chance to see local metal detecting finds from as long ago as the Roman era. TillVAS also created several information boards reflecting member's research on the school, church and various buildings on the estate. The attendance was very good. Visitors enjoyed walking around the castle and church and listening to a number of short talks.
Till Valley Archaeological Society AGM and talk by Dr Richard Carlton
Prior to the talk to be given by Dr Richard Carlton on 4th April at Crookham, TillVAS held their AGM. The meeting was well attended and membership numbers last year were a healthy 125. Those present were reminded that committee members are always needed to help run TillVAS and to consider coming forward. George Farr was proposed and accepted as an honorary member.
Dr Richard Carlton’s excellent talk was about the 2017 dig at Mardon. After describing the process of choosing a suitable dig site for the Village Atlas project, Richard went on to explain the reasons for deciding on the Iron age hill top feature at Mardon. There was clear evidence of a rectangular enclosure from aerial photographs and the area had never been excavated before. He outlined what was already known about similar sites across the country including what artefacts, if any, might be found.
David Astbury had laid a grid to help identify where the digger should begin clearing the top soil. These large cleared areas were then ‘cleaned’ using mattocks and trowels to enable archaeologists to choose where to place the trenches. TillVAS were pleased to welcome the valuable help given by a band of volunteer diggers, some of whom had travelled many miles to support the dig. At this stage it was easy to identify the location of the enclosure ditch terminals, a circular feature within, an area of dark material and cobbling, plus other areas of interest.
The ditch terminals at the enclosure entrance were each split into two for some metres, which was very unusual. All the ditches were deep, particularly that on the north side, and very productive in terms of datable material including cattle bones and turf or bedding. The deposits at the bottom were almost certainly laid down when the ditch was in use. All of this evidence is being analysed and the results are due soon. The ditch sides showed signs of being re-cut several times and would have been a serious undertaking for the builders of the day.
Two smaller trenches were also opened at the North and North West side of the enclosure (across that part of the ditch furthest from the entrance) and although the perimeter ditch was found, it contained no datable evidence. Again the trench sides were steep and showed evidence of being cleared or re-cut etc during their useful lifetime.
The circular feature was actually only a semi circle. The shallow ditch where small groups of stones were found could have contained posts to hold a structure or a fence for shelter or protection. The area of dark material and areas of cobbling were perhaps where animals had been kept, leaving rich dark soil as evidence. There was also a small flattish area of ‘hard standing’ which would have created a drier area for working ie shearing, or a stack stand. A plough share was found embedded in these stones and must have caused some anger when it broke perhaps a hundred years ago or more. Some small shallow post holes were also excavated.
The finds were richer than expected and included a small cup marked stone, iron-age pottery, shaping stones, ochre, and a beetle found at the bottom of the deep trench. Given the success of the 2017 dig and the support received by land owner George Farr, Dr Carlton felt it would be worth revisiting the site in 2018.
James IV Memorial Lecture 2017
The TillVAS James IV Memorial Lecture was held at Etal Village Hall on Sunday 8th October and given by Jordan Evans, previously a guide at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh and now attached to the Royal Household. The title of the lecture most appropriately was “Mary, Queen of Scots”, as she was of course, the granddaughter of James IV who died at the ill-fated Battle of Flodden in 1513.
Mary was described as a most controversial monarch, a romantic Princess and a Catholic martyr who spent 19 years of her life in captivity. Born in 1542 she was sent to France where in 1558 she was married to the Francoise, the heir to the French throne. One year later following his death, she was left a widow and returned to Scotland as the heir to the Scottish throne, but with some opposition as she was a Catholic – “One mass is more fearful than 1000 troops”. Despite this she was apparently doing a fairly good job until the question of an heir raised the subject of marriage and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley; grandson of Margaret, sister of Henry VII; was chosen as Consort. Meanwhile in England, Elizabeth’s right to be Queen was questioned as she was possibly born out of wedlock, meaning that Mary and any issue had a better claim to the English throne.
Darnley however proved to be most unsuitable for several reasons, not least the murder of Mary’s favourite, David Ritzio at Holyrood Palace in 1566 and a plot supposedly led by the Earl of Bothwell, James Hepburn, led to his death in mysterious circumstances later the same year, leaving his son, James at 8mths old, the heir to the throne. Bothwell, previously a champion of Mary and with a good following, also appeared to have designs on the Scottish throne and attempted to persuade Mary to marry him, but following several refusals she was taken to Dunbar Castle, raped and kept there as a virtual prisoner. Finding that she was pregnant, she finally agreed to marry Bothwell, to avoid giving birth to a bastard and losing the Crown. This was apparently not an agreeable relationship and Mary wrote to Elizabeth, “I find his doings rude”!
The Scottish Lords were also concerned at the obvious ambitions of Bothwell and following a battle at Carberry Hill in June 1567, Mary agrees to surrender on condition that Bothwell is allowed to return to Dunbar and eventually go into exile. Mary is once again a prisoner and taken firstly to Edinburgh Castle and then to Loch Leven Castle where she miscarries. There she is persuaded to renounce the throne in favour of her baby son, who became James VI of Scotland. Dressed as a laundry maid she eventually escapes, raises an army of about 6000 men and marches on Glasgow but the rising is crushed and Mary flees to England seeking the protection of her cousin Elizabeth, with whom she has always been on good terms.
Unfortunately the protection she sought became 18 years of imprisonment in various castles in the Midlands, as Elizabeth, persuaded by her advisors that Mary was a threat, and finally presented with details of a plot to assassinate her by Anthony Babbington, Elizabeth authorises Mary’s trial. The alternative for Mary would have been another 10 to 20 years imprisonment. Mary appeared at her trial dressed as a martyr and said “I am a True Queen; look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the Kingdom of England”.
This talk gave much insight into the life of Mary and was well received by the capacity audience, who responded with a number of pertinent questions.
Report by Maureen Charlton on the final event of the Flodden 500 Project
Etal Village Hall was the venue on Saturday 3rd December for the final meeting of those involved in the Flodden 500 Project. There were many familiar faces from the last four years, all listening attentively to the experts who have worked on the project since the beginning. Missing was the familiar face of Chris Burgess, the original Director of the project who was unable to be there.
We heard from Richard Carlton who continued the programme of excavations at various site across the border, and in conjunction with David Caldwell traced the Scottish “Routes to Flodden”. John Nolan described the excavation work on Flodden Hill and the surrounding area and Jenny Vaughan displayed and explained some of the various finds - the culmination of many hours of work, both cleaning and cataloguing – with a very little help? from inexperienced volunteers!
Linda Bankier from Berwick Record Office described her work with documentary research and the recruitment of the volunteers for the transcription of these, many of which had not previously been seen or associated with Flodden and a veritable ‘goldmine’ of information.
After a sumptuous buffet lunch provided by Richard and Victoria Baker from the Lavender Tearooms across the road, we were asked amongst other things, what we had most enjoyed during the project and what we considered remained to be done. High on the lists were the identification of the actual site of the battle and the finding and recording of the burial pits, which although reported more than once during the last 200 years, had never been actually identified. This was one of the original objectives – to find, record and register these as “War Graves”. The Scottish army who fought at Flodden did so out of loyalty to their Clan, their King and national pride. They died only five miles from their homeland and to misquote from “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke, 1887-1918 – “There is a corner in another land which is forever Scotland”.
Many friends were made during the Flodden 500 Project from all over Northumberland and the Borders resulting in a network of contacts willing to help in many different ways to promote the history of this northern county which many southerners consider to be in Scotland anyway!
Press Report by Maureen Charlton on the “JAMES IV MEMORIAL LECTURE”.
On Sunday, 11th October in Etal Village Hall, Max Adams, author, historian and archaeologist, gave the TillVAS “James IV Memorial Lecture” to a capacity audience.
By way of introduction, Max described Britain as it was in the 5thc, with a number of “kingdoms” ruled by self-styled “kings” – in the north, Goddodin, Strathclyde, Deira and Bernicia, with Rheged to the west. Although boundaries have changed, geographical features can still be easily identified. Britain at that time was a brutal place of kill or be killed; the many battles, if not due to petty rivalries were for the acquisition of land and a way to reward warriors with plunder to keep a battle-force in the King’s pocket. In 604, Aethelfrith defeated Dal Riata, the finale of a long-running war, causing that kingdom to become another tributary to Bernicia, and consolidating his position as overlord of North Britain.
Oswald Iding, born 604, eldest son of Aethelfrith, King of Bernicia and Deira, was overlord of North Britain. His wife Acha was the daughter of Aelle, King of Deira, who was deposed either by Aethelric (Oswald’s grandfather) or Aethelfrith himself. Acha had two brothers, Edwin, the eldest, therefore became an atheling without a homeland, a free-lance warrior and of great interest to Aethelfrith, who attempted to have him killed on several occasions. The tables turned however when in 616 Aethelfrith was killed at Bawtry in East Anglia by Raedwald, with whom Edwin had taken refuge. Edwin therefore reclaimed the two northern kingdoms for himself, but Acha, fearing for herself and young family, fled to Dunadd, in Dal Riata for safety.
King Edwin brought Christianity to the North and he and his family were baptised by Bishop Paulinus, followed by a mass baptism in Yorkshire and at Edwin’s new palace of Yeavering in Glendale. This is described in detail by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History and excavations by Brian Hope-Taylor in 1950/60s confirmed the existence of the “palace”. Bede also wrote “There was a great peace in Britain wherever the dominion of King Edwin reached….” However, in 632, Edwin was killed in battle near present day Hatfield, along with his son, by the combined forces of Gwynedd and Mercia, led by Cadwallon and Penda, who during the following two years ravaged Bernicia and the northern kingdoms. Edwin’s family and Paulinus were forced to flee to Kent for safety.
Oswald and his brother Oswiu had been growing up in Dal Riata where they had kin, training to be warriors, and being a sea-board kingdom, they would have become familiar with the use of boats. They had also been tutored by the community headed by Columba on Iona, who had a great influence in the area, had been baptised and become thoroughly Irish. It may be that the monks thought to send Oswald home to set up a “daughter house” in Northumberland at Lindisfarne. By 632 Oswald would have become a skilled warrior and had already earned himself the nick-name “Flashing Blade”.
No doubt fully aware of the situation in his homeland, Oswald sought assistance from Dal Riata to recover his kingdom of Bernicia and it was likely that he used the Solway as the easiest route south, there obtaining horses and moving east along the Tyne Valley to where Cadwallon had set up camp near Corbridge. Arriving at a place near to present day Heavenfield just north of Corbridge, Oswald had a vision of St. Columba and interpreted this as an omen of success. As a result, according to Bede, a cross was set up and the whole war-band promised, after the battle, to accept the faith and be baptised. Cadwallon was apparently ignorant of the impending clash, possibly due to local sympathies lying with Oswald. The battle supposedly took place at Denisesburn, now identified as Devils Water near Corbridge where Cadwallon was killed. Oswald had no difficulty regaining control of his kingdom of Bernicia, so in the following year, 635, he sent for Aidan, an Irish monk from Iona to convert Northumbria to Celtic Christianity, and established a monastery on Lindisfarne, followed by others at Melrose, Hartlepool and Coldingham. During the following years, Oswald embarked on a capital revolution. Funded by tribute, he began to gift lands and treasure to churches and his warriors; cemeteries and townships appeared and trade links were established across to Ireland.
In 642, Oswald, a battle-hardened commander of repute at the height of his powers, and with a following of elite warriors, died on a battlefield somewhere near Oswestry, in a campaign against Penda of Mercia and a King of Powys. Such was the slaughter, none of his close companions survived to retrieve his body, which “on the orders of the king who slew him” was dismembered and displayed on stakes, thereby depriving the Bernicians of the accustomed funeral rites. Oswald was succeeded by his brother Oswiu who in 643 went back to Oswestry to bring back the body parts presumed to be those of Oswald. Several unexplained mystical events were associated with the area around the battlefield, including visions and healing. Oswiu collected “arms”, which were interred at Bamburgh and a “head” was given to Lindisfarne. A skull, reputed to be that of Oswald was found in St. Cuthbert’s coffin. The last time this was opened by Canon Greenwell in 1899, the fragments of the skull were examined in detail, and showed clear signs that its owner had been felled by an edged weapon, leaving a huge gash across the brow. Such was his renown, various other “pieces” of Oswald can be found in many places on the continent. Oswiu followed in his brother’s footsteps and despite several incursions by Penda and others, survived until 670, aged 58.
Much of the history of the time was recorded by the Venerable Bede, one of the greatest of early historians, who wrote “the stability of a kingdom depended on land, warriors and defence, but most importantly, knowledge.”
As a bonus to a most successful afternoon, it was with great pleasure that we welcomed our President, Dr. Chris Burgess, and Nevenka, “on leave” from hospital where he has been recovering after taking ill earlier this year. He spoke for a short while, expressing his appreciation of the multitude of cards and messages of goodwill he had received during this time. We look forward to seeing him again in the near future.
We are returning to our zoom talks for the winter moneths. Our next webinar will be on Wednesday 3rd February.
Our speaker will be
Emily Freeman from the National Museum of Scotland talking about
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