The Battle of the River Idle – 616AD   Leave a comment

King Raedwald of East Anglia circa 620AD

The Battle of the River Idle was an engagement between the armies of two early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Bernicia and East Anglia, the latter kingdom being led by King Raedwald, the most likely contender to be the noble buried at Sutton Hoo and owner of the now world famous helmet.

The cause of the battle begins a number of years earlier, from when Aethelfrith became the King of Bernicia (the northern part of Northumbria) and began to exert his authority in neighboring regions. His ascent to power is a bit of a mystery, however one consequence of his kingship appears to be the exile of Edwin of Deira (a kingdom at the southern part of Northumbria). Aethelfrith soon styled himself as King of Northumbria in total, and began to threaten the kingdoms bordering his. Meanwhile Edwin found himself seeking refuge wherever he could find it. Edwin first found sanctuary in Gwynedd in Wales, but after several attacks by Aethelfrith’s Northumbrian army on the Kingdom of Gwynedd he decided to move on, Mercia being his next refuge. When that ended he moved further east to East Anglia and the court of King Raedwald.

Replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet

Aethelfrith initially tried to bribe Raedwald to either kill or hand over Edwin, but the newly converted christian Raedwald refused, and after allegedly being lectured to by his wife on his moral duties he instead decided to raise an army and march on Aethelfrith in an attempt to restore Edwin to his kingdom.

Gathering together as many men as he could, he, his son, and Edwin marched north towards the southern Northumbrian border in modern day Yorkshire, taking the old Roman Road running from Lincoln to Doncaster. Hearing of the advance, Aethelfrith also mustered his forces, but with the pressure of time was unable to match the numbers of men advancing towards him. Despite this, his men were largely experienced veterans and they decided to make a defensive stand at the River Idle where the Roman Road crossed it via a gravelly causeway, prone to flooding in bad weather.

Taking position on the west side of the river, they waited for Raedwald approaching from the east.

Suggested initial set up for The Battle of the River Idle 616 AD

Historical Note

The Battle of the River Idle took place at the height of the Dark Ages, and many accounts of events and the people involved were later destroyed by Viking raids on religious buildings where most documents of the time were written and stored. We have put this account together having studied and cross referenced over fifty books and articles relating to this engagement, to create what we feel is a very probable summation of events and the forces fighting. It is though, as with so much early history, subject to different opinions and interpretations of the evidence available.

Wargaming Note

We have again listed forces both by the numbers of actual men involved, for those who wish to scale down accordingly for their own preferred rules, and we have also suggested numbers of bases to use for those playing the more modern rules such as MeG or ADLG.

The battlefield should be completely flat, as the whole area was a flood plain. The battle appears to have been fought in summer months, so in addition to the causeway road, an area either side (denoted on the map by black dots), which was gravel used to build the road on is also passable for soldiers. The rest of the river should be impassible.

ORDERS OF BATTLE

Northumbrian Army

King Aethelfrith – Commander-in-Chief – Experienced, veteran, warlord, feared leader

Noble Warriors (1000 men) 2 or 3 bases – heavy infantry, experienced, veteran, elite, swordsmen, “shieldwall”

Warriors (1000 men) 2 or 3 bases – heavy infantry, experienced, veteran, swordsmen. “shieldwall”

Atheling Eanfrith – Sub-Commander – Modest experience, respected leader, impetuous

Noble Warriors – (500 men) 1 or 2 bases – heavy infantry, experienced, veteran, elite, swordsmen, “shieldwall”

Warriors (1000 men) 2 or 3 bases – heavy infantry, experienced, veteran, swordsmen. “shieldwall”

Allied British Cavalry (300 men) 1 or 2 bases – Medium cavalry, experienced, good morale, spear, shield

Skirmishers (400 men) 6 to 8 bases – light infantry, open order, experienced, good morale, half bows, half javelins

East Anglian Army

King Raedwald – Commander-in-Chief – Experienced, veteran, warlord, inspirational leader

Noble Warriors – (500 men) 1 or 2 bases – heavy infantry, experienced, veteran, elite, swordsmen, “shieldwall”

Warriors (1500 men) 3 or 4 bases – heavy infantry, experienced, veteran, swordsmen. “shieldwall”

Atheling Raegenhere – Sub-Commander – Experienced, veteran, warlord, inspirational leader

Noble Warriors – (500 men) 1 or 2 bases – heavy infantry, experienced, veteran, elite, swordsmen, “shieldwall”

Warriors (1000 men) 2 or 3 bases – heavy infantry, experienced, veteran, swordsmen. “shieldwall”

Levy (500 men) 1 or 2 bases – medium infantry, basic training, levy/militia morale, spear, shield

Lord Edwin – Sub-Commander – Experienced, veteran, inspirational leader

Noble Warriors – (500 men) 1 or 2 bases – heavy infantry, experienced, veteran, elite, swordsmen, “shieldwall”

Levy (1500 men) 3 or 4 bases – medium infantry, basic training, levy/militia morale, spear, shield

Skirmishers (400 men) 6 to 8 bases – light infantry, open order, experienced, good morale, half bows, half javelins

THE BATTLE AS IT HAPPENED

As King Raedwald approached the River Idle he divided his army into three battle groups, Edwin on his left flank with largely Levy infantry who had been hastily mustered to make up numbers, himself in the centre with his best men, and his son and heir on the right flank with more warriors and a small amount of Levy. He sent his skirmishers forward first to capture the crossing, but they were met by Aethelfrith’s skirmishers on the opposite bank and they faced each other off exchanging arrows and javelins while the main army units came forward on both sides.

Aethelfrith decided his best tactic would be to kill Edwin, he was after-all the reason that Raedwald had attacked, and maybe if Edwin was dead a truce could be made. With that in mind he charged his battle group across the causeway supported by the British cavalry, as he reached the opposite bank he veered off to his side to attack Edwin’s battle group while his son Eanfrith, followed his father and hit into Raedwald’s group. However a grave mistake had been made, Aethelfrith had veered off in the wrong direction, towards Raegenhere rather than Edwin. He and his men fought like like demons to break into the opposing shieldwall and kill the commander, thinking it was Edwin. The British cavalry made a flank charge and between the two attacks Raegenhere’s group began to break up formation, allowing the enemy to cause mayhem in a killing spree.

Several sources claim that the blood chilling roar of Raedwald when he heard his son had been slain, momentarily brought everyone to a silent halt in the fighting. More than likely a Saxon legend rather than fact, but roar or not, the news his son had been killed made Raedwald into a berserk killer. His men crushed down Eanfrith’s shieldwall and scattered them, cutting down anyone who stood to fight. The real Edwin and his men chased them over the causeway in pursuit while Raedwald turned to take on the now trapped and isolated men of Aethelfrith. Sensing disaster the British horsemen fled, leaving the two veteran warlords with their best men to slug it out.

Splintered Light Miniature “King Raedwald”

The two sides reformed and faced each other before they both launched themselves into a charge, neither shieldwall holding. As the melee tuned into a brutal hacking and stabbing of men, the more experienced Northumbrians began to take the advantage, but before they could seize victory Raedwald pushed through to Aethelfrith and with his heart full of vengeance for his son’s death he cut him down, before decapitating him and holding his head aloft to show his victory. Aethelfrith’s men ran for their lives and Raedwald had won the day.

THE AFTERMATH

In killing Aethelfrith, Raedwald had effectively taken the Kingdom of Northumbria, and could at this point have declared himself king, but true to his promise to Edwin, he escorted him north and ensured he was installed as King Edwin of Bernicia, Deira, and Northumbria.

Eanfrith, Aethlfrith’s son, went into exile with the Picts in Scotland, where he married a Pictish princess. Years later in 633, after King Edwin was killed battle at the Battle of Hatfield Chase by King Penda of Mercia and King Cadwallon of Gwynedd, Eanfrith crossed the border and seized the crown of Bernicia, a title that lasted only a few months. After travelling with a small bodyguard to Wales to make an alliance with Cadwallon, Cadwallon had him and his men murdered. Eanfrith’s brother Oswald then became king and would go on to become one of the better known Saxon kings in history as well as Saint.

King Raedwald would continue his reign until 624, during which time he was granted the title of Imperium by the Church of Rome for defending the faith in England. He was, more than likely, buried at Sutton Hoo, laid out with weapons, jewels and armour in a 90 foot long Saxon longboat, before it was covered by a giant mound of earth where he lay undisturbed until 1939.

 

Posted 13/09/2021 by The Little Corporal in The Dark Ages

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