The Battle of Winwæd and the Rise & Fall of Pagan Mercia

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 Anglo-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 Anglo-Saxon paganism. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

In this year [655] Penda perished and the Mercians became Christians. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C-Text).

In this year [655] 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. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E-Text).

Alongside the Chronicle, 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 Chronicle, a designation derived from Bede that acknowledged a degree of ‘overlordship’ or recognised dominance among the Anglo-Saxon 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 Anglo-Saxon England. 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 Chronicle 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 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists Oswald among the bretwaldas.  At which point I should mention that no Mercian king is granted that title by the Chronicle. 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 Anglo-Saxon 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 Oswiu, withdrew from his alliance with Penda 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 Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Thus, in a very real way, the death of Penda did bring about the decline of Anglo-Saxon paganism. BUT it did not end it in a moment, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle implies. 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 ordinary Anglo-Saxons, 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 practiced long after the death of its last royal champion.

-Matt Firth

References:

  1. Feature image: The Battle Of Winwaed, Pat Nicolle
  2. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, translated by Leo Sherley-Price. 4th ed., London: Penguin Books, 1990.
  3. 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.
  4. D. P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings, London: Routledge, 1991.
  5. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
  6. Dorothy Whitelock, ed. and trans. English Historical Documents, C. 500 – 1042. 2nd edn. 10 vols. Vol. 1. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

King Eadwig, St Dunstan, and the Ménage à Trois – Propaganda in the Anglo-Saxon Court

Easter in Athelney – King Alfred and the Great Viking Army

Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

See our Chronicle Editions bibliography.

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