Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Degsastan - a lost battlefield

Ethelfrid, king of the Northumbrians, having vanquished the nations of the Scots, expels them from the territories of the English, [a.d. 603.] At this time, Ethelfrid, a most worthy king, with ambitions of glory, governed the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and ravaged the Britons more than all the great men of the English .... where upon, Aedan, king of the Scots that inhabit Britain, being concerned at his success, came against him with an immense and mighty army, but was beaten by an inferior force, and put to flight ; for almost all his army was slain at a famous place, called Degsastan. In which battle also Theodbald, brother to Ethelfrid, was killed, with almost all the forces he commanded. ... From that time, no king of the Scots durst come into Britain to make war on the English to this day.
From the chronicler Bede.

In the year 603 a very important battle was fought somewhere in the Scottish borders.  It probably brought together several nations and races - Scots, Picts, Romano-British and English in a showdown that determined the future of the region for a hundred years and propelled the Northumbrian Kingdom into a dominance that led to its golden age as recorded by Bede in the 8th century.

It was so well known a location that Bede even says it was a famous place, called Degsastan. Yet today we do not know with any certainty where it may lie. So what do we really know?

Map of Northern Britain c 603.

The nations of Deira, Bernicia, Rheged, Strathclyde, Manau Godddin, Dál-Riata, Mercia and the lands of the Picts  are the players in this drama and came into conflicts and alliances with each other. 
What we have here are the four British races in a sandbox. Coming from the east the English tribes of Anglo -Saxons are expanding their holdings in Northumbria and moving west. They come into conflict first with the Romano-British or Welsh. The Battle of Catraeth - fought around 597 A.D.  between the fledgling English Kingdoms and the Romano-British natives of Rheged (Cumbria), Strathclyde (Dumbarton area) and Manau Goddodin  (around Edinburgh) weakened the British to the extent that Aethelfrith's Bernicians were able to move on into the lands "between the walls" - i.e to threaten that area between Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall.

This seems to have provoked the Scots under Aedann Mac Gabrhrain to become interested in Bernicia.  The Scots are actually an irish tribe from Ulster who in about 500 to 600 settle the west coast of Scotland. They come into conflict with the Picts and the British too. But in c AD 601 a diplomatic mission from the Scots to the Angles appears to have occurred . 

All we know is that the Scots princes Bran and Domanghast died at that meeting or shortly afterwards and that Aethelfrith was held to blame. The Scots response is not immediate however - not in fact for two years. There are references to a plague in the Annals Cambriae about the same time which MIGHT have explained why the Scots took two years to respond to the loss of two princes. Eventually they gather an alliance and march to Degsastan.

The actual location of the battle is not known with certainty. Historians have suggested that it occurred at Dawstone in Liddesdale. But others have criticized this saying the only reason for believing it is Dawstone is because of similar sounding words. Degsastan might come from Degga's stone - perhaps corrupting to Dawstone in time. Equally the has been a lot of discussion about  stones and monoliths - of which there are hundreds in the region including the Lochmaben stone not far away in the Solway Firth and itself a location often used for mustering armies and militia in later centuries.

As a writer of historical fiction a moment comes when you have to decide which way to jump. I was content to go with Dawstone when researching Child of Loki. I have visited this place with my family when writing the novel. It is a remote location and at first glance seems an unlikely place for a great battle. It does, however, have some supporting evidence. Geographically it occupies the watershed where rivers and streams flow away west and east and gives access to routes through the hills of the Scottish borders and Northern Pennines. Thus an army heading for Carlisle might just go that way.

Furthermore, archeological digs on the site in the early 20th century found evidence of iron weaponry and arrowheads in the area. There is even today in the southern valley the outlines of a circular fort, a settlement as well as a shallow ditch cutting across Dawstone Rig (the plateau). The top of the rig is littered with the vague remnants of stone cairns - possibly raised over the bodies of the fallen.

In the very old papers of a local archaeological society there is a record of a rather interesting monument which is now lost. There is a photo - of poor quality - of a black tombstone. It was supposed to be found in the south valley near the remains of old fortifications and a settlement. Could this indeed be the place where Theobald died as recorded by Bede?

The  Battle of Degsastan features in Child of Loki which is the second in my Northern Crown Series which follows the history of the late 6th and early 7th centuries.  Child of Loki has just come out in  paperback and on the Kindle.


  1. Every time I see photos and films of the British countryside, I am struck by the paucity of trees. It's easy to see why British seamen preferred to capture French ships rather than sink them. They didn't have sufficient timber to build there own. And then, I can imagine the thrill they felt when they explored North America and found endless horizons filled with forests. Just imagine...

  2. @ Jack Durish. To say we have a lack of trees is something of a misnomer. It is certainly less forested than it used to be (in fact it used to be covered in forest), and the ones in the past did provide the timber to build, amongst other things, English ships. There are examples of French countryside that would also show a lack of trees, though I'm sure they also have forested areas too. There are still beautiful forested areas in England, the New Forest being just one example.

  3. Really interesting post Richard. I have never read a lot about 1st century English/Briton history, apart from reading a brief account of all the Kings since the Roman Invasion a few months ago, so this was really fascinating and, considering the lack of evidence, I very much admire you for writing novels based in this time period - Well done!

  4. Its always interesting to see how the land reverts back over time. A thousand years ago a rolling green-hilled area like that might have been teeming with civilization and have been the place of a great battle.

    Thanks for the posting!

  5. It is not just the similarity of Dawston and Degsastan. Dawston Rig is at the head of the Liddle valley, and the river Liddle flows (eventually) to the Solway Firth in the West. A few hundred yards from the rising source of the Liddle is the rising source of the Tyne, which flows down through Northumbria and then to the sea on the East coast. The main communication routes in those days would be up through the river valleys and if you wanted to march an army from the ancient Strathclyde into the Kindom of Northumbria, it would have been natural to come up the Liddle valley and thence down the Tyne valley.


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