One of the most incredible events in this history of Britain. A story full of passion and intrigue, glorious and sinister characters, a battle that defined the political landscape of post-Roman Britain. An event which, for the first time, elevated a king of this island above all others to the status of Bretwalda. A point in our history that had shaped the world today. And yet most have never heard of the battle of the River Idle.
Edwin the Exile
King Aelle was dead. As King of Northumbria, he held a significant amount of power in the north of England. His descendants were many, as were his promises and alliances. Upon his death the north entered an epic dynastic succession crisis. This was not a new situation in the north of England where the politics and infighting make Game of Thrones and the Roman Senate look like children in a playground. As Aelle died his sons ran, they were young and had not yet established themselves as leaders and lacked the affiliations to survive as claimants to the throne. Most of these were illegitimate and had a mere tenuous claim. However one. Edwin, Now Edwin the Exile had a stronger claim to the north than the man who succeeded his father. He first made it to Gwynedd in modern day Wales.
Aethelric, the man who took Aelles throne, knew that he could not allow anyone with a claim as strong as Edwin’s to live. There would forever be a threat that his rival kings would strike under the banner of restoring the boy. Edwins guardians in Wales knew they could not protect the boy against the might of Northumbria, also not wishing to betray their honour by accepting the incredible treasures offered for the exile, dead or alive. So, they supported him in fleeing. The story was the same in Dunmonia, Wessex, and eventually Edwin ended up in the protection of Raedwald of East Anglia.
Raedwald of East Anglia
I am going to be honest I have more than a little man-love going on for Raedwald. He was a Théoden (High King) of the South. The only man who could challenge Northumbria. He was resistant to the new God of the Christians and celebrated in word and work his old gods. Gods of battle, and blood and honour. He knew a king must have equal measures of wisdom, cunning and courage. Under his protection Edwin learned the traits that would make him a King of the English.
By this time Aethelric had died and the seat of the North was held by his son Aethelfrith. Aethelfrith offered incredible wealth to Raedwald for Edwin, dead or alive. Raedwald who must have been tempted, these were treasures almost beyond the imagining of the greatest king of the South. Twice he declined, however on the third offer Aethelfrith stated further denial would mean war. Raedwald was absolutely no coward. However, he also was not stupid. Northumbria was vast, with great wealth and could call upon the largest army on the island. He would also have to consider the thoughts of his thanes, whilst a King reigned supreme, it was only so long as they brought glory, honour, and wealth to the thanes. War on this scale would be costly and if victory could be found it would likely be pyrrhic. He prepared himself to accept the bounty offered by Northumbria when the biggest badass of this piece intervened. Raedwald’s wife challenged his manhood, his honour, she ripped the greatest warrior-king in the south to pieces and told him if his honour could be so sold then it was worth nothing.
Raedwald did not hand Edwin over. Instead, he raised a great army. Strong and experienced warriors from his lands and all the kings of the south and he rode north, To War!
The Battle of the River Idle
The East Anglians approached the banks of the River Idle. There they saw a massive army, many times their size. Edwin was almost home; he could see the borders of his lands for the first time in over a decade. But between him and his home was an immense army of hardened warriors. But they were disorganised, they had only just arrived and had not formed their lines. They expected the army of the South to wait and allow them to form up. However, Edwin knew several things. Firstly, that the only victory for the men of the south would be found in the surrender or destruction of their foe. However, victory for the Northumbrians would be achieved through the death of one man, Edwin. Honour had gone out of the window when his enemy tried to buy his head rather than earn it by iron and blood as the Gods demanded.
He consulted with Raedwald and one of Raedwald’s sons who would be the third commander.
The Moment the World Changed.
Aethelfrith looked at the formation of the Southerners. He had done the same Mathematics as Edwin. He knew all he needed was for the exile to fall and the day would be won. He saw Raedwald leading the warriors of the centre, his son leading the left, and to the right, Edwin! Then surprise. The Southerners were charging! and his men were not yet formed. He quickly shouted to his commanders than the only goal, the only target could be Edwin. They were experienced warriors and threw everything at the right flank of the approaching army, they hacked and slashed and danced with incredible grace and skill and the weight of their numbers drove them to the man in the shining armour, and they cut him to pieces.
However, the man in the armour was not Edwin. It was Raedwald’s son. Sickening realisation struck Aethelfrith as the centre led by Raedwald, in a legendary fury at the death of his son, and Edwin leading the left smashed into their over extended line. The men of the north had no time or ability to reform, and their numbers were decimated. Within minutes Northumbria was beaten beyond the fight, Aethelfrith the usurper was dead, and his sons fled. Edwin was King of the North and in allegiance to one man, Raedwald the first Bretwalda!
It is worth remembering, we never really choose who writes our story. Most of the sources we have for this battle come from Christian priests who strove to either flatter Edwin into converting to Christianity or after his conversation using him as a shining example of what can happen if you embrace their God.
Having Said real tale puts the exceptional fictions of Game of Thrones and the Last Kingdom to shame. The sacrifice and strategy. Bear in mind the Anglo-Saxons did not use cavalry this was all done on foot but a people who thrived in war and combat. Even the farmers trained their lives for it. Their Gods celebrated the brave and the skilled in combat. We rarely get such examples of incredible strategy in Anglo-Saxon history. Deliberately overextending an opponent’s line with bait would even today be a skilled tactic to pull off.
I mentioned that the true hero of this piece, the legend, and the future we now live in was Raedwald’s wife. As she was a woman and the texts on which we rely are all written by medieval Christian clerics, they do not actually provide her name, and are largely dismissive of her part in this story. Her words, one conversation with her husband, changed the world forever. I have a very wise friend whose matra is “happy wife, happy life”, I wonder if the great warrior-king Raedwald had the same matra. I suspect given the influence she had over him that she had proven a wise and reliable consort for some time.
I also state that this battle shaped the world. I believe that to be true, without this battle Raedwald would not have become Bretwalda, nor Edwin after him. The events in their reigns set into motion events that created the world we live in today.
My first draft as a note “Theoden – Yeah Boi!!”. Until reading up in this I had no idea the Anglo-Saxon word for “High King” was Theoden, as a massive Tolkien nerd I am ashamed I did not know this.
Its worth mentioning that Raedwald is one of the most likely candidates for the Sutton Hoo ship burial. An archaeological site of international fame which is the subject of three planned posts.
I wonder what other critical events in our history have been largely buried by time. Any thoughts please comment below.