When people talk of a ‘backs-to-the-wall’ fight, it conjures up images of a desperate scrap.
But the phrase took on a quite literal meaning at one little-remembered but important battle in Northumberland, where heaven became hell for an invading Welsh army.
In 635, Hadrian’s Wall was still largely intact and an impressive 20 foot tall divisive structure cutting through the heart of the county.
The Romans had left Northern Britain a couple of centuries earlier, meaning it was already on its way to becoming an ancient monument.
But it was to prove invaluable to the Northumbrian Prince Oswald, who was descended from the Angles and had been brought up by Scottish monks on Iona.
The Celtic Welsh, under Cadwallon of Gwyned, had slaughtered the Northumbrian King Edwin and his son at a battle near Doncaster in Yorkshire in 633, which led to the division of the kingdom which at the time ran from the Humber to the Forth and was one of the most powerful in the whole of Britain.
With Northumbria divided into its former kingdoms of Bernica and Deira and the bloodshed continuing for two years in a desperate power struggle, it fell on to the shoulders of 29-year-old Oswald to return to Bamburgh, the ancient seat of power and capital of the kingdom, to re-united the divided lands and claim the crown.
Oswald was the younger brother of Eanfrid, nephew of the dead King Edwin, an heir to the throne who had also fallen under the sword of a Celt.
Step up our hero, who is reputed to have brought some Scots fighters with him as he prepared for what would be the Northumbrian equivalent of The Alamo.
Oswald assembled his army at Bamburgh and marched them across the county into Tynedale to a spot four miles north of Hexham.
The Northumbrian army chose a spot in from of the wall to face their enemy, who also included an army of Mercians and outnumbered them, which was to prove a stroke of tactical genius.
Not only could the Northumbrians not be out flanked, but the invaders would have to channel through a narrow pass between Brady’s Crag and the Wall to get at them.
Oswald was a firm Christian and is reputed to have had a vision the night before the battle where Saint Columba foretold victory.
The Prince also led his army with a wooden cross that was placed in the ground among them as they awaited the enemy advance – a spot that is now occupied by St Oswald’s Church.
Whatever happened that fateful day will never really be known, but the Welsh were routed and hacked down as they fled by Northumbrians keen to avenge the two years of suffering that they had endured at the hands of their enemy.
Cadwallon was reputed to have been slaughtered near the Rowley Burn south of Hexham and the Northumbrian victory was decisive. The battle site has forever after been known as Heavenfield and is just off the B6318 Military Road with the St Oswald’s tea rooms nearby for a convenient cuppa, should you wish to step back in history and remember a time when Northumberland’s backs were really up against the wall.
Category: Northumberland History