|Oswald and his followers erect a wooden cross on "Heaven's Field"|
on the night before his victory over the Celtic king Cadwallon.
In the early 7th century the kingdom of Northumbria, which at its greatest extent spread from the River Humber to Edinburgh, was ruled by Edwin. He was an English King, a descendant from the Angles who had gained control of various areas of the country after the Romans departed. He was thus a traditional enemy of the Celts and Britons who had been displaced by the Angles. Worried by the rapidly expanding kingdom, an alliance was formed between Cadwallon of Gwynedd (North Wales) and Penda of Mercia. This led to a major attack being launched against Edwin who was killed with his son in a battle near Doncaster in 633.
There followed 2 years of slaughter and destruction by the Celtic Cadwallon during which Northumbria was divided again into its two former kingdoms, Bernica and Deira. During this period both of Edwin's direct heirs, his cousins Osric and his nephew Eanfrid were also killed. Finally, the future of the kingdom became dependent upon the 29 year old Prince Oswald, Eanfrid's youngest brother. From the age of 12 Oswald had been raised by the Christian monks of Iona in Scotland.
It is thought that Oswald returned to Bamburgh Castle, the ancient capital of the Kingdom, and from there marched south for a general rendezvous of his troops in the North Tyne Valley. Meanwhile Cadwallon set out from York along the old Roman road, Dere Street, to challenge his latest rival. The two forces met here, at a place which ever since has been known as Hefenfeith or Heavenfield.
|Picture taken from the south side of the B6318|
looking towards Saint Oswald's Church, which
stands on the site of the original wooden cross.
Standing in this spot and looking north on the morning of the battle in AD635 you would have had a very poor view of the fighting. For only a few yards away stood the mighty Hadrian's Wall. This is likely to have been largely intact in those days and could have been as much as 20 feet high and 10 feet wide. King Oswald appears to have specially chosen the wall as the ideal southern defence for his battle position.
On the night before the battle, while Cadwallon and his troops were in Hexham, Oswald erected a wooden cross on the high ground where the church now stands. He then gathered his men to pray for victory. The position overlooked a long sloping hill which Cadwallon had to climb before he could attack.
Not much is known about the actual battle, but it is thought that Cadwallon had far superior forces and that he felt fairly complacent about victory. In the event, Oswald's men, fighting for the very existence of Northumbria and charged with religous fervour, proved to be considerably stronger than Cadwallon's.
The available evidence suggests that the battle spread over a number of sites as cadwallon and his men fled in various directions. A large number of skulls and sword hilts have been uncovered in a field known as Mound's Close on the south side of this road, indicating that at some stage the battle surged over Hadrian's Wall. Other evidence suggests that some of Cadwallon's men made their last unsuccessful stand at the village of Haltington, 5 miles north of here. Cadwallon himself was killed on the banks of Rowley Burn, 3 miles south of Hexham.
The battle re-established a Christian as king of Northumbria and one of Oswald's first acts was to invite the monks of Iona to set up a monastery in the Kingdom. This they did at Lindisfarne or Holy Island, under the guidance of Saint Aidan, and from there Christianity spread to be the principal religion of the whole nation.
It should be remembered that information about this period of English history is very fragmented and that several different interpretations of the events exist. For example, some sources state that the battle of Heavenfield took place in 633 rather than 635 and refer to 'Cadwalla' rather than 'Cadwallon'.
The wooden cross located to the left of this board was erected by a group of local people in the 1930's to commemorate the battle.
The present church of St. Oswalds was rebuilt in 1717 leaving no trace of the original church which had been built on the site where Oswald erected his cross.