Get involved! Send photos, video, news & views. Text SWINDON NEWS to 80360 or email us
The river of blood
4:00pm Monday 21st January 2013 in News
West Saxon warriors drive the invading Mercians into the stream as arrows fill the sky during the “long and fiercely contested” engagement. In his 1920 painting The Battle of Ellendune, artist George Derville Rowlandson graphically captured the fighti
On a hot September morning nearly 1,200 years ago a palpable air of doom and foreboding descended on the normally hectic, noisy West Saxon settlement located beneath the chalky downs some three miles south of modern-day Swindon.
For days warriors from all over Wiltshire and further afield had traipsed wearily into the village and to nearby, newly refortified Barbury Castle with a single purpose… to prevent their way of life from being destroyed and their communities subjugated.
What happened over the next few hours shaped the history of not just Wiltshire and the West Country but of England as a whole. Leading 20th Century historian Sir Frank Stenton (1880-1967) proclaimed it “One of the most decisive battles of English history.”
The fighting was so fierce that medieval chronicler Henry of Huntingdon described a stream-cum-river – possibly Wroughton Brook or Swindon’s River Ray which it flows into – as running “red with gore.” Writing 300 years after the event he said the water was “choked with the slain and became foul with carnage.”
Despite numerous theories, debate and intense scouring of the few available records, the precise location of the Battle of Ellendune, named after the settlement that centuries later formed part of Wroughton, remains a mystery.
What is known is that it took place in or near Wroughton in September 825 and that the men of Wessex, although greatly outnumbered, thoroughly defeated an invading army from Mercia, the kingdom of the Midlands.
Had the Mercians triumphed the kingdom of Wessex – today’s South West – would have disintegrated. Alfred the Great, born 24 years later, would not have become the King of Wessex who defeated the Vikings and “founded the English nation.”
Distinguished military historian Alfred Burne (1886-1959) said that Ellendune “finally decided the long contest for pre-eminence between Mercia and Wessex. The Kings of Wessex thus became the Kings of England… and their descendants still sit upon its throne.”
Today Wroughton is sprinkled with references to Ellendune; its main shopping complex, the village community centre and even the Ellendune Chinese Takeaway. However, it is unlikely that few people who use these facilities are aware of the name’s significance in history.
The crucial encounter between Wessex and Mercia was the result of more than 100 years of dominance by the latter, the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom in England.
Crossing the Thames near Cricklade, Beornwulf, King of Mercia, invaded Wessex to “reinforce his rule and expand his territory.” He chose his time well. Egbert, King of the West Saxons, had been busy engaging the Britons in Cornwall and his army was tired and battle-worn.
Thought to have been written by Richard of Devizes in late 12th Century, The Annales de Wintonia (Winchester Chronicles) describe Beornwulf as “deriding the ability of King Egbert” and keen “to play him at the game of war.”
“He invited and provoked the latter's army to battle in order to make him pay homage. Egbert consulted his noblemen and the choice was made to drive off shame with the sword. It was more honourable to be slain than to submit their freedom to the yoke.”
The scribe tells how “the kings came together to fight with unequal forces.” Against each hundred soldiers of Egbert, it was claimed that Beornwulf had a thousand.
This was probably an exaggeration though it is generally accepted that the West Saxons were greatly outnumbered.
The annals go on: “They clashed valiantly, each man giving his best. The Mercians were put to the sword without mercy, but as much as they were conquered, so they excelled themselves with valour, and threw themselves back into the conflict regardless of the danger.
“They fell more copiously than hailstones, with more of them overcome from sweating than the battle. The ground was covered with the bodies of men and horses.”
Beornwulf took flight while Egbert mourned the loss of his great friend Hun the Ealdorman of Somerset, and had his body brought to Winchester for burial.
In his 1949 book The Battlefields of England, the aforementioned Alfred Burne said it was clear that the engagement took place on a hot day that it was “long and fiercely contested” and that Mercia’s defeat “was absolute and prodigious.”
Also apparent was that Beornwulf fled, and that the battle resulted in the disappearance of Mercia as a power and the rise over the next few years of Wessex.
A painting by George Derville Rowlandson from Hutchinson's Story of the British Nation published in 1920 graphically captures the scene at the Battle of Ellendune as Mercian warriors are swept into the brook by the charging West Saxons.
In Wroughton History Part Two, published in 1984, local historian Hilary Dunscombe gives an “imaginative impression” of the battle entitled “The Day Wroughton Changed the History of the Nation.”
She writes of “several thousand well equipped, ruddy, noisy adventurers” confidently heading towards Ellendune; of them being met with a hail of arrows from skilled Wessex archers; and of the well ordered West Saxons foot soldiers moving in for the kill.
Today Miss Dunscombe, a founder member of the Wroughton History Group, says: “The problem with the Battle of Ellendune is that we have very little information about it. We’d love to prove where it actually took place, but that seems unlikely.”
Miss Dunscombe believes the battle may have taken place somewhere along Wroughton Brook, which was wider then than it is today and was also bordered by marshy, boggy land.
The brook rises in Clouts Wood and wends its way through the village before running into the River Ray in what is now West Swindon.
Pioneering military historian Sir Charles Oman (1860-1946) also suggested Wroughton as the battle site. But Burne claimed it was more likely to have been in the parish of Lydiard Tregoze two to three miles away – possibly on farmland adjoining what is today Windmill Hill business park where two streams meet.
This, he said, was where Egbert’s men probably encountered the advancing Mercians along a pre-Saxon road connecting Iron Age Barbury Castle with Cricklade.
Other suggestions have included Lydiard Park, which is within Lydiard Tregoze, and in the vicinity of nearby Shaw, West Swindon, where both the Ray and another stream run.
Another member of Wroughton History Group, Danny Hicks, says: “The soldiers of Wessex defeated the Mercians and saved the day. A brook on the site of the battle was said to have run red with blood.
“But where exactly did this happen? I don’t think we’ll ever know – not unless someone uncovers a burial ground.”
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Egbert – also spelled Ecgberht, Ecgbert or Ecgbriht – was King of Wessex from 802 until his death aged about 70 in 839.
At the time Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset and Dorset formed the heartland of Wessex.
Egbert took the throne upon the death of Beorhtric of Wessex in 802.
For more than 20 years he maintained Wessex’s independence against Mercia, which dominated the other kingdoms in the South.
At Ellendune in 825 he trounced Beornwulf of Mercia and proceeded to take control of surrounding southern kingdoms.
In 829 Egbert defeated Wiglaf of Mercia and later that year received the submission of Northumbria.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle subsequently described Egbert as “Ruler of Britain”.
His bones are said to be contained in a mortuary chest in Winchester Cathedral.
In 878, 53 years after Ellendune, Egbert’s grandson Alfred the Great defeated the Danes at Edington near Westbury “giving birth to English nationhood”.