Famous Wars in Medieval History: Aethelbad’s War

Aethelbad’s War
Date: 733 – 750

Aethelbad’s War involved the kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex, and Northumbria. The Mercian king, Aethelbad (r. 716 – 757), and his cousin Offa — who was to be Athelbad’s successor — invaded Wessex and Northumbria with the vision of unifying England under Mercian rule. At the time, Mercia was one of the richest and most powerful kingdoms in all of Anglo-saxon medieval England. Using his power and wealth as leverage, Aethelbad invaded and conquered Wessex in 733 and Northumbria in 744. He encountered some setbacks, especially in Northumbria, and in 749, he invaded the Northumbrian kingdom again and solidified his rule over that region. As an additional part of his plan to gain complete control and unify England, Aethelbad assisted the kings in the west of England — in those areas bordering Wales — to help them defend against Welsh invasions.

After his complete conquest of Northumbria in 749, Aethelbad achieved the first meaningful unification of England and was recognized by many, including Charlemagne, as “King of Britain.” This achievement, however, did not bring peace to Anglo-Saxon England. An intense period of civil war followed his conquest, and in 757, Athelbad’s own bodyguard assasinated him, and his cousin Offa (r. 757 –  796) — who actually opposed Athelbad in the civil war — ascended to the Mercian throne.

Sources:

Phillips, Charles, and Alan Axelrod. “Aethelbald’s Wars.” Encyclopedia of Wars, vol. 1. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE49&iPin=EWAR0012&SingleRecord=True (accessed December 3, 2008).

Additional Reading:

Albany F. Major, Early Wars of Wessex (Poole, U.K.: Blandford Press, 1978); David A. E. Peteret, ed., Anglo-Saxon History: Basic Readings (New York: Garland, 2000).

The Anglo-Saxons in Medieval England

Anglo-Saxon, Medieval England, Medieval History, History of Britain, Britons

The Angles and Saxons arrived in England sometime during the 5th century, not long after Rome had fled the island and left the Britons to fight against their northern aggressors, the Picts. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in A.D. 449:

In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Wurtgern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them. The king directed them to fight against the Picts; and they did so; and obtained the victory wheresoever they came. They then sent to the Angles, and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land. They then sent them greater support. Then came the men from three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the men of Kent, the Wightwarians (that is, the tribe that now dwelleth in the Isle of Wight), and that kindred in Wessex that men yet call the kindred of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the people of Essex and Sussex and Wessex. From Anglia, which has ever since remained waste between the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all of those north of the Humber.

The Britons had sent for help to these German tribes, and the Angles and Saxons obliged, but after having defeated the Picts, they did not return across the channel but stayed in southern England. They eventually turned on the Britons and drove them into western England, in what is today Wales. The name Wales is in fact Anglo-Saxon in origin, coming from the word “Walha,” which means foreigner or stranger.

The early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, sometimes as many as seven and sometimes with more than one ruler, subjected their populations to fiscal and military obligations. The more powerful kings succeeded in establishing stronger and larger states, such as in Mercia, or in Wessex under King Alfred the Great (the only English king ever to be given the title of “Great”). These kingdoms lived in a somewhat peaceful state until the Viking invasions began in the 8th century. Viking aggression lasted until the 11th century, and during this time, England was in a constant state of warfare. The Danes conquered nearly all of Anglo-Saxon England, capturing the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia. Only Wessex held out against the invaders, due in large part to the leadership of King Alfred.

Between 924 and 939, King Aethelstan of Wessex achieved some sort of unification in England, as did King Edgar from 959 to 975. From 1016 to 1035, the Scandinavian Canute sat the English throne, followed a few years later by the Anglo-Saxon Edward the Confessor. Harold Godwinson succeeded Edward after Edward’s death, but Duke William of Normandy challenged his succession and defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon king to sit the English throne.

Despite the political turmoil and centuries of warfare that accompanied medieval Anglo-Saxon England, the Anglo-Saxons did make many cultural and economic contributions to the rest of Europe. They created substantial wealth through their various skills of craftsmanship, seen in their detailed metalwork, embroidery, stone and wood sculptures, and architecture. They also possessed great artistic talent in manuscript decoration and wall paintings, and they produced some 30,000 lines of poetry (much of it written in the common vernacular), including the most famous epic poem of Beowulf. Some of the most famous artistic works from the Anglo-Saxon medieval period include: jewelry from the Sutton Hoo excavation, the Franks Casket, the Ruthwell Cross, the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Codex Amiatinus, the Vespasian Psalter, and certain churches such as Jarrow, Brixworth, and Bradord-on-Avon. Bede and Alcuin are probably the most well-known authors from that period.

Sources:

“Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” Trans. James Ingram. London: 1847. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE49&iPin=amdoc001&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 24, 2008).

English, Edward D. “Anglo-Saxons.” Encyclopedia of the Medieval World, vol. 1. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE49&iPin=EMW0080&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 24, 2008).

*image retrieved from Facts on File, Inc.

Additional Reading:

F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971); James Campbell, ed., The Anglo-Saxons (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982); Stephen Bassett, ed., The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1989); H. M. Taylor and J. Taylor, Anglo-Saxon Architecture, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965–1978); John Beckwith, Ivory Carvings in Early Medieval England (London: Harvey, Miller and Medcalf, 1972); J. J. G. Alexander, Insular Manuscripts 6th to the Ninth Century (London: H. Miller, 1978).

Today in Medieval History: The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Battle of Stamford Bridge - Medieval England - Medieval History - Middle Ages - Harold Godwinson - Harald HardradaThe Battle of Stamford Bridge took place on September 25th, 1066, between Harold Godwinson (Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England) and his brother Tostig, who had allied himself with Harald Sigurdsson (“Hardrada”), the King of Norway. This battle proceeded the famous Battle of Hastings between Duke William of Normandy and King Harold, and some historians believe had Harold not had to fight off his brother and then force march from York to Hastings to defend London against William, the Norman invasion of England might have turned out quite differently.

Tostig, prone to rebellion against his brother, was formerly the earl of Northumbria, but Harold had exiled him to Flanders, and still seething over his expulsion, Tostig raised an army and descended on the Isle of Wight. Harold’s fleet, already being built up in preparation for Duke William’s invasion, drove Tostig back, and so Tostig sailed around the coast of Lincolnshire and then up the Humber River and began ravaging the surrounding countryside. Two northern earls, Edwin and Morkere, gathered the fyrd and met Tostig in battle and succeeded in pushing him out of the region. Tostig then sailed north along the coast to Scotland, where the Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore, gave him protection and provisions, and Tostig remained there through the rest of the summer of 1066.

Near summer’s end, Tostig left Scotland and went to Denmark to seek an alliance with the Danish king, who refused the offer, and so Tostig then turned to Hardrada for an alliance with Norway. Hardrada accepted, and eager to take English lands, the King of Norway swooped down on the northern coast of England with a fleet of more than three hundred ships, by some accounts.

Hardrada was a battle-hardened warrior. He had fought with his half-brother Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestadt when he was only fifteen years old, and by stature, he was quite imposing, standing at nearly seven feet tall, though this is probably an exaggeration. He first made for the Orkney Islands, which at the time was under the rule of the sons of Norseman Earl Thorfinn. He then sailed down the coast of Scotland to meet Tostig, and together they continued on to Cleveland and Scarborough, sacking both cities, and then on to the mouth of the Humber and up that river and the Ouse, and they landed at York.

The two earls Edwin and Morkere, who had challenged Tostig earlier, came out to meet the invading army, and at the Battle of Fulford, Tostig and Hardrada utterly defeated the two earls, who escaped alive but could do nothing from that point forward. Tostig and Hardrada easily entered York and captured the city.

Harold Godwinson, hearing of the invasion and the sack of York, gathered together the fyrd with lightning speed and marched to Tadcaster and then on to York.

On September 25th, 1066, Harold met his brother and the King of Norway at Stamford Bridge, seven or eight miles east of York on the Derwent River. There, King Harold of England took them by surprise. Tostig and Hardrada were expecting to receive hostages offered by Yorkshire for its loyalty, but instead, they saw the mighty fyrd of Harold along with his housecarls marching to meet them, axes and spears flashing in the sunlight.

Before the battle commenced, Harold offered his brother a third of his kingdom in return for peace, but Tostig refused, and the great slaughter began. The battle lasted the entire day, and finally, the English — fighting in their column and line formation — smashed through the enemy’s shield wall and surrounded Tostig and Hardrada’s armies. The English then rained arrows down upon them, and Hardrada — mad with the bloodlust of battle — surged forward to the front of his line, axe swinging wildly, eyes flaring with anger as he cut into the English ranks. In the end, an arrow pierced Hardrada through the throat, and he fell dead upon the field of battle.

There was a brief respite in the fighting then, and Harold Godwinson offered his brother peace once more, but Tostig refused, and the remaining army of Norwegians refused, and they came at the English one last time. Tostig died in this second assault, and the English scattered his army and what was left of Hardrada’s army, and Harold took the bridge and took back Yorkshire, and the Battle of Stamford Bridge was done.

And England was safe … for only a few weeks.

Sources:

Hunt, William. The Political History of England. Longmans, Green, 1906.

Ridpath, John Clark, Ridpath’s History of the World. The Jones Brothers Publishing Company, 1940.

*Painting by Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892)