07 October 2014

The Battlefield: Heavenfield, Northumberland 634

By Michelle Styles

It is amazing how battles can be forgotten. The seventh century boasts some of the most significant battles in terms of British history and yet most are forgotten. If you love Game of Thrones and its complexities, you will adore the 7th century. The only it is missing is dragons… and sometimes you have to wonder…

I first discovered Heavenfield when my mother insisted we stop beside a sign. There was a lonely church in the middle of a field. Churches are generally easy access so this in itself was strange. Reading the sign, I learnt about one of the more significant battles on English soil – literally the battle which decided if England would be Christian or if it would continue to be pagan.
St Oswald's Church Heavenfield

Conventional wisdom seems to hold that St Augustine came over to Kent and started Canterbury and everyone became Christian. It wasn't that simple. Christianity had been a part of British religious life for centuries before then. In Vindolanda, there are the remains of a 4th century church. Constantine was proclaimed emperor of Rome in York on 25 July 312. Constantine was famously the emperor who made Rome Christian. However in the years after the Roman legions left and the Angles  and Saxons settled, things changed and Christianity was not necessary the religion of choice of the ruling elite.

St Augustine’s mission became poised on a knife-edge because he was, according to British Christians arrogant. He expected obedience. The British church differed from the Roman church in the way they figured Easter, the way the monks wore their tonsure, the unique way of penance and how many bishops it took to consecrate another bishop. The last was surprising as  Britain sent three bishops to the council of Arles and signed up to that.  There were other differences but apparently the way monks wore their hair was a huge sticking point.
Another view of Heavenfield

In 632,the Northumbrian Bretwalda,  King Edwin who was nominally Christian in the Roman tradition (his wife had Kentish connections) lost a battle and his life to Penda of Mercia. Pagans then overran Northumbria.

In 634, the son of the previous Bretwalda Athelfirth and nephew to Edwin, Oswald made his bid for the Northumbrian throne. Oswald had converted to Christianity when he was exiled amongst the Dalriata in south western Scotland. He followed the Celtic tradition of Christianity.  He landed in the west and his war band which included warrior monks made their way to just outside the Roman town of Corbridge. There, in a field, Oswald raised his standard and a cross. This field became known as Heavenfield. He defeated the pagan Penda and drove his followers from the lands. Northumbria was restored to its previous prosperity.
St Oswald's Way

Unlike his late uncle who merely paid lip service to Christianity, Oswald decided his new kingdom would be Christian. He sent for monks from Iona. They started a monastery at Melrose and rapidly expanded to Lindisfarne (or Holy Island).  Oswald became the Bretwalda or High King of all Britain. Tolkien is supposed to have based Aragon on him.  After Oswald fell in battle, his brother Oswui became Bretwalda and was the only 7th century British king to die in his own bed after 40 years of rule. It was Oswui who convened the Synod of Whitby which decided to follow the Roman rather than the Celtic traditions of worship.

These days, Heavenfield is part of the St Oswald’s Way – a long distance walk which takes in some of the most beautiful parts of Northumberland and stretches from Chollerford (near to Heavenfield) up to Lindisfarne (Holy Island). It takes about a week to walk it.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance for Harlequin Historical. This month Harlequin historical are releasing 3 of her Victorian novels To Marry a Matchmaker, Compromising Miss Milton and Breaking the Governess’s Rules. You can learn more about Michelle and her books on www.michellestyles.co.uk