There were numerous battles, skirmishes, and conflicts during the Anglo-Saxon period (from the 5th century to the arrival of the Normans in 1066). Initially, the battles were mostly fought between the Britons and the invading Germanic tribes, but soon conflicts emerged between the different groups of settlers as a patchwork of rival territories began to emerge. Leaders jostled for power and alliances were forged and destroyed.
From the 9th century onwards, many of the battles were fought between the Anglo-Saxons and the Viking invaders and settlers.
Here are five important and famous Anglo-Saxon battles.
The Battle of Badon
Also known as the Battle of Mons Badonicus or the Battle on Badon Hill, this conflict was supposedly fought between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons and took place in the late 5th century or early 6th century. There are accounts of the battle in the works of Gildas, Bede, Nennius, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, but there is no consensus about the battle’s date, location, or the details of what actually happened during the fighting.
Writing in the mid-6th century, Gildas describes a battle being fought between an army of Britons led by Ambrosius Aurelianus, and the invading Anglo-Saxons. According to him, the resisting Britons were victorious.
In Historica Brittonum, written in the early-9th century, Nennius identifies a soldier called Arthur as the leader of the victorious Britons. In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth adds more details to the story. He seems to link Badon to Bath, and he develops the King Arthur character by introducing a Merlin character. In this embellished version of events, King Arthur and his knights charge, killing 470 enemy warriors.
There is much debate about the exact location of the Battle of Badon, but most modern historians would probably agree that the battle took place somewhere in the south of England at some point close to the beginning of the 5th century.
Several locations for the site of the Badon Hill battlefield have been suggested, including Badbury in Wiltshire, Badbury Rings in Dorset, Bath in Somerset, Bathampton Down in Somerset, Maesteg in Wales, Bowden Hill in Wiltshire, and Ringsbury Camp in Braydon in Wiltshire.
The battle is featured in the Bernard Cornwell novel Excalibur: A Novel of Arthur and the 2004 King Arthur movie.
The Battle of Ellendun
Sometimes referred to as the Battle of Wroughton, the Battle of Ellendun was thought to have taken place south of Swindon, Wiltshire in 825, and was fought between the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex (led by Egbert) and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia (led by Beornwulf).
The battle was won by the kingdom of Wessex, and this victory transformed the balance of power in England. Following the victory in the Battle of Ellendun, the West Saxons (Wessex) went on the conquer the kingdoms of Sussex, Kent, and Essex, doubling the territory controlled by Wessex.
By the year 829, East Anglia was once again independent, and Egbert (Echbehrt) occupied Mercia. Although the Mercians would reassert their independence a year later, the kingdom of Merica would never again regain the level of dominance it had in England before the Battle of Ellendun.
The Battle of Edington
In 878 Alfred the Great led the army of the kingdom of Wessex to victory against the Great Heathen Army of Vikings led by Guthrum. It is likely that the battle took place at Edington in Wiltshire.
The main reason for the Anglo-Saxon victory was probably mainly due to the size of the Wessex army, and the lack of unity and organisation between the different forces making up the Danish army. By 878, Guthrum was no longer supported by other Danish leaders such as Ivar the Boneless and Ubba.
The Wessex victory led to the signing of the Treaty of Wedmore. Guthrum was baptised in Somerset with King Alfred as his sponsor. He left Wessex with the remains of his army and returned, via Mercia, to East Anglia. Guthrum reigned as king in East Anglia until his death in 890.
The Battle of Edington is featured in numerous novels including The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell, Sarum by Edward Rutherford, and The Titus Chronicles: Eagle and Wyvern by R W Peake.
The Battle of Brunanburh
Fought in 937 between Athelstan, King of England, and the combined forces of Olaf Guthfrithson (King of Dublin), Constantine II (King of Scotland), and Owain ap Dyfnwal (King of Strathclyde), the Battle of Brunanburh is often said to be significant because it prevented the dissolution of England. Historian Michael Livingstone says the battle was “the moment when Englishness came of age”.
The location of the battle is not known. Many historians think it is likely to have taken place in the north of England. One good possibility is Bromborough in Merseyside.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the battle lasted a whole day before the invaders were routed by the combined forces of Wessex and Mercia. Apparently, Olaf fled back to Dublin, and Constantine returned to Scotland. The fate of Owain is not known.
The Battle of Hastings
On 14th October 1066, the Norman army of William, Duke of Normandy (William the Conquerer) defeated the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold II (Harold Godwinson) in a battle that took place close to Hastings in Sussex.
Harold’s army was mostly made up of infantrymen with few archers and no cavalry. Only half of the Norman army was infantry. The other half was a mix of archers and cavalry.
It is thought that the battle was fought from about 9 o’clock in the morning until dusk. Harold was killed towards the end of the day, and this caused his army to retreat, allowing the Normans to secure victory.
It is estimated that as many as 4000 of Harold’s army and 2000 of the Norman army were killed in the battle.
William was crowned on Christmas Day in 1066.
The events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the battle itself are depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 metre long embroidered cloth commissioned by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo, and manufactured in England (not Bayeux as previously believed) in the 1070s.
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