The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 9 (Oct 2006)

Oswald, King and Saint: His Britain and Beyond   |   Issue Editor: Michelle Ziegler

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Holy Kingship

Locating Maserfelth

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Locating Maserfelth

Tim Clarkson  
Independent Scholar, Manchester, UK

2006 by Tim Clarkson. All rights reserved. This edition copyright 2006 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  The military campaigns undertaken by Oswald during his kingship are largely invisible in the historical record. However, the likelihood that he secured many significant victories is suggested by the wide imperium that accrued to his authority. His hegemony spread beyond his core domain of Bernicia to encompass not only neighbouring Deira but also territories far beyond the borders of Northumbria. Bede, however, shows interest in only two of Oswald's major battles, both of which provided useful vehicles for his own literary objectives. The first of these conflicts was the victory at Denisesburna near Hexham, in 634, where Oswald secured his political position by defeating and slaying the British king Cadwallon. The other notable engagement occurred eight years later at Maserfelth, where Oswald himself was slain at the hands of the Mercian warlord Penda (HE 3.9).

§2.  Modern observers generally identify Maserfelth with Oswestry in Shropshire, an equation not made by Bede nor indeed suggested by any source until the twelfth century. Lack of an earlier identification does not, by itself, detract from Oswestry's claim, the place being situated in an area where seventh-century Northumbrian armies might reasonably be expected to engage in hostilities with Mercian or British foes. Edwin of Deira, whose political aspirations were at least as ambitious as Oswald's, is attributed by Bede with hegemony over Gwynedd and presumably campaigned in North Wales to achieve it (HE 2.9). Later Welsh tradition sees Edwin warring at Meigen on the frontiers of Powys and, while such a site seems a long way from Deira, it should be noted that the rather more reliable testimony of Bede depicts Edwin's warbands ranging even further to the south, in the territory of the West Saxons (HE 2.9).

§3.  Shropshire seems, therefore, to lie within the parameters of a west midland conflict zone that Bede and later writers regarded as an appropriate sphere for seventh-century Northumbrian military campaigns. There is, at first glance, no political or geographical reason to refute Oswestry's claim to be the site of Maserfelth. The first explicit statement of this claim, made in c.1165 by Reginald of Durham in his vita of Oswald, seems therefore to be broadly consistent with current scholarly perceptions about Oswald's military career. According to Reginald, the site of the famous battle was still identifiable at Oswestry in the twelfth century and retained the name Maserfeld, though no such name has survived into the area's modern toponomy (Vita Sancti Oswaldi 1.14). Reginald strengthens the claim by drawing on folklore from the locality to identify the tree of the original place name as a sacred ash that marked the site of Oswald's martyrdom. The derivation of Oswestry from Old English Oswaldestreow, "Oswald's Tree", is not disputed etymologically (Gelling 1990, 229-31). That the Oswald from whom the place received this etymology might have been a sacred or cultic figure seems to be supported by the Welsh name for Oswestry, Croesoswald, "Oswald's Cross" (Gelling 1990, 230).1 In addition, Bede's mention of a Briton travelling near to the site of Oswald's death has been employed in support of a Welsh borderland location for the king's martyrdom (Stancliffe 1995, 92). The claim that Oswestry marks the site of Maserfelth, as recounted by Reginald in the twelfth century, therefore seems to possess considerable merit.2

§4.  There are, however, a number of objections to Oswestry's claim, not least of these being Bede's own statements regarding Maserfelth. For example, by telling his readers that Oswald was slain pro patria dimicans, "fighting for his fatherland," Bede seems to be suggesting that Maserfelth was a battle fought in defence of Oswald's core territory (HE 3.9). In its widest sense, Oswald's patria could represent his imperium over client kings far beyond his core domains. Taken at face value, this might direct the reader to envisage the site of the king's death as a place within Northumbrian territory or close to its frontier. In its narrowest and most literal sense Oswald's heartland lay in Bernicia, but his hegemony over Deira could be seen as extending the concept of a unified Northumbrian fatherland to the Humber, though no further. In this context, Oswestry seems an unlikely candidate, being situated not only a considerable distance from Northumbria's nearest border but closer to the core territory of her foes. Indeed, the place is much nearer to the Staffordshire heartland of Oswald's Mercian rivals than to his own patria. Supporters of the Oswestry identification dismiss this objection by reminding their critics that Oswald formed a key element in Bede's attempt to write a providential history of the English people, a history in which heroic Christian kings fought "just wars" rather than aggressive campaigns of conquest. By this argument, Oswald would necessarily be depicted by Bede as fighting defensively, and therefore justly, regardless of whatever real motivations lay behind the conflict (Stancliffe 1995, 93). In a spiritual sense the term patria could even encompass the concept of a Christian king's patria aeterna (Wallace-Hadrill 1988, 103). Bede may nevertheless be referring here not to a celestial "eternal country," nor to an abstract notion of wide imperium, but to Northumbria alone. This is in fact what Alcuin assumed to be the case (Godman 1982, 30). If this is indeed the correct interpretation, then a question arises as to why Bede, who had a keen interest in geography and who possibly knew the exact location of Maserfelth, chose patria in reference to a place that no contemporary reader would regard as part of the Northumbrian "fatherland." This point is an obstacle to adherents of the Oswestry identification and is not adequately explained away by seeing the words pro patria dimicans "as indicating the view which Bede wished to convey, rather than interpreting them literally" (Stancliffe 1995, 93). It is difficult to believe that Bede's intimate knowledge of the vocabulary of Old Testament warfare would not have presented a more appropriate analogous phrase for a "just war" if Oswald's demise had indeed occurred in Shropshire.3

§5.  A second objection to Oswestry's claim is the assertion, again made by Bede, that Oswald's remains were recovered from their resting-place by the Mercian queen Osthryth and transferred by her to the monastery of Bardney in Lindsey (HE 3.11). This event is of enormous significance in the matter of the location of Maserfelth and warrants close examination, not least because Bardney lies a long way from Oswestry and the alleged site of the battle. Bede depicts Osthryth, a niece of Oswald and wife of the Mercian king Aethelred, placing her uncle's remains on a cart and conveying them to Bardney. The latter was destined to become a major church of the Mercian dynasty, having been earmarked for this role by Aethelred and his queen, its royal associations therefore making it an ideal repository for the bones of a pious king. The brethren of Bardney did not, however, show immediate enthusiasm for the idea, even refusing to receive the remains of this Northumbrian warlord who had forcibly asserted his authority over Lindsey. A miracle persuaded them to change their minds and thus their monastery became an early focus of the cult that subsequently grew around Oswald.

§6.  The possible reasons for Bardney being selected as the resting-place of Oswald's remains are a source of dispute among adherents and opponents of the Oswestry-Maserfelth hypothesis. Those who support the hypothesis argue that the distance between Shropshire and Lindsey need not detract unduly from the identification. One supporter of Oswestry's claim draws attention to the place being situated in the borderland between Mercia and Powys, a volatile setting which justified Osthryth removing the relics "to distant Bardney, in Lindsey, rather than build a church on the actual site of Oswald's death" (Stancliffe 1995, 92). The weakness of this argument is that it fails to acknowledge that Bardney itself lay on the edge of a war zone, the frontier province of Lindsey being bitterly contested by Northumbria and Mercia. A further justification for Osthryth bringing the remains from Shropshire to Lindsey is that Aethelred and Osthryth regarded Oswald as a useful sanctifying tool in their scheme to develop Bardney as a key monastery for the Mercian dynasty (Stancliffe 1995, 93 n. 55). There is, however, the simple logistical objection that an overland journey by cart from Oswestry to Bardney would entail a long and arduous traverse of the midlands, presumably via the former Roman road network that had seen no adequate maintenance for three hundred years.4 Osthryth's best option in simple logistical terms would have involved a substantial south-eastward detour along Watling Street to the key junction at High Cross, where Foss Way would have borne her entourage north-eastward towards Lincoln.5 On the other hand, it might seem rather more plausible if Oswald's remains were recovered from the site of his death, loaded onto a cart and conveyed a relatively short distance to the most important Mercian church in the locality. This scenario would place Maserfelth not in Shropshire but in a region closer to Bardney. The latter's subsequent role as a key focus of the martyred king's cult would then be due not so much to its association with the Mercian dynasty as to its geographical position as the primary ecclesiastical centre in the region where Oswald's final battle was fought (Higham 1995, 221). To this a counter-objection can be raised by drawing attention to the fact that Bede nowhere explicitly states that Oswald's remains lay at Maserfelth until their retrieval by Osthryth and so they could, therefore, have already been removed to a site more accessible from Bardney before the queen arrived to fetch them. The likeliest context envisaged for this scenario is a gruesome display, presumably by Penda, at a pagan ritual centre in the Mercian heartland. However, such a heathen ritual had already been performed on the battlefield, during which the Northumbrian king's head and limbs had been hacked off and exhibited on stakes.6 Additional rites of mutilation and exhibition were surely not required, the dismembered torso presumably remaining close to the site of the martyrdom until its retrieval (Plummer 1896, 2:154).

§7.  It is worthwhile to note that Oswald's head was retrieved by Oswiu a year after Maserfelth, a raid into Mercian territory being sufficient to perform the rescue. The ease with which the relic was retrieved by the warband of a king whose predecessor's imperium lay in tatters suggests not only that the head's current location was well-known to the raiders but also that its retrieval could be achieved without a major military campaign against the Mercian overking.7 In the years immediately following Maserfelth Oswiu's authority seems not to have extended beyond Bernicia, though his aspirations stretched further afield. His brother's death had arguably released Deira from Bernician overlordship while the Deiran dynasty restored in 644 acknowledged Penda's imperium. In the person of Oswine, however, the revived Deiran kingship appears to have been militarily weak, its army shunning a confrontation with Bernicia in 651. Thus, while it is unlikely that Oswiu could have contemplated a large-scale or long-distance assault on Mercia in the aftermath of Maserfelth, a raid via Penda's ineffectual Deiran clients to retrieve Oswald's head may have seemed a viable venture. It is difficult to imagine Oswiu's warband penetrating as far south and west as Oswestry during a period when his realm and resources were severely weakened, a point which makes any site in the western midlands seem an unlikely target for the raid. Such a campaign would have necessitated a deep incursion into hostile territory, entailing strategic and logistical risks that even his late brother might have found daunting.8 It seems improbable, too, that his brother's head had been removed from a stake on a Shropshire battlefield to somewhere closer to the Northumbrian border. If the head had been so removed, its new location would surely be a site of dynastic or ritual importance to Penda and therefore a place situated not on the frontier of his hegemony but within the core territory of his dynasty. The most plausible scenario for Oswiu's raid is that Oswald's head remained as a prominent exhibit at Maserfelth until its retrieval from the battlefield, the latter being accessible to the warband of a Bernician king whose diminished authority rendered him incapable of a more substantial military campaign. In this scenario the identification of Maserfelth with Oswestry seems particularly implausible and allows alternatives to be suggested.

§8.  Another difficulty for supporters of the Oswestry hypothesis is that Bede appears to know a lot about the miracles that occurred at Maserfelth after Oswald's demise. These presumably arose in local folklore and oral tradition in the vicinity of the battle before being collated and disseminated by a designated center of the martyr's cult. That this center was Bardney seems likely, given the Lindsey monastery's selection by its royal Mercian patrons as a repository for Oswald's relics, but it is less easy to imagine the brethren there gathering anecdotal information relating to a site in Shropshire. The notion that the Bardney monks heard the miracle stories from Queen Osthryth as she tried to persuade them to accept her uncle's remains is of course possible, and has indeed been suggested by a leading adherent of the Oswestry hypothesis (Stancliffe 1995, 94-5). However, the suggestion seems less believable than a much simpler alternative scenario in which Bardney was able to gather the Maserfelth miracle stories because the monastery lay close to their source.

§9.  Returning again to Reginald's claim that Oswestry is the site of Maserfelth, supporters of the identification are faced with the difficulty that the claim is unattested before the hagiographer's own era. Reginald is no doubt reporting genuine Shropshire tradition when he refers to local beliefs that Maserfelth and Oswestry are one and the same, but such traditions do not constitute real history unless their transmission can be traced to a reliable source. None of the Oswestry folklore about Oswald's martyrdom is attested before the mid-twelfth century, when Reginald reported them. Already by that time the cult of Oswald was strong in many areas of Britain, with several cult centers claiming ancient associations with the saintly king. Oswestry's emergence as the premier candidate in the search for Maserfelth should come as no surprise, its claim gaining considerable weight from Reginald's account as well as from the "Oswald's Tree" etymology. The naming of a nearby field as Maserfeld is actually unsurprising and is perfectly consistent with efforts by local churchmen to strengthen the link between their church and the martyred king. Both the field name and the Welsh Croesoswald are likely to owe their origin to popular tradition in the area but neither they nor the folklore necessarily represent unbroken tradition dating back to 642, nor does any of this data provide verifiable support for Oswestry's claim. The latter, despite the justifications and explanations offered by its adherents, seems to be the product of an era in which the cult of Oswald enabled prominent religious houses to formulate their own traditions about Maserfelth because the true location of the king's demise was no longer known.

§10.  It has been suggested above that the site of Oswald's martyrdom should be sought instead in the northeast midlands, specifically in the area around Hatfield and Lindsey, this region fitting better with the information given by Bede.9 Here, too, on the fringes of the erstwhile native kingdom of Elmet, Bede's sources would not have been surprised to hear of a Briton witnessing a miracle at the site of Maserfelth. Shropshire and the borders of Powys may have been teeming with native travellers in the seventh century but Britons dwelt also in the lands east of the Pennines and were probably more noteworthy there. Easy access by land and water makes the northeast midlands strategically important and it emerges as the principal conflict zone between Northumbrian and Mercian interests during the seventh century. Major engagements, such as Aethelfrith's final battle in 617, Edwin's demise in 633, Oswiu's defeat of Penda in 655, and the Mercian victory on the Trent in 679, were fought in this zone or along its periphery. Among the factors that made the zone important to early medieval kings were the Roman roads linking the northeast to the midlands, these highways facilitating communication between the English power-centers of southern and northern Britain. Seventh-century armies are unlikely to have utilised Ermine Street and the erstwhile Roman ferry route across the Humber estuary but would have been compelled to follow the Lincoln-to-Castleford road during major north-south campaigns (Blair 1948, 117). Western routes, such as those which crossed the Mersey, presented greater topographical difficulties and normally necessitated an arduous traverse of the Pennine passes to reach the Northumbrian heartlands. Bede recognizes the northeast midlands as a bone of contention between Mercian and Northumbrian ambitions until the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the wake of the Trent battle of 679 (HE 4.21). The archbishop brokered a peace that, outwardly at least, was designed to settle once and for all the question of Lindsey, a territorial unit that both sides claimed as their own. That the supreme head of the English Church should mediate in the dispute testifies to the importance of the conflict zone, the long-running strife between England's two most powerful dynasties threatening national ecclesiastical policy as formulated in Canterbury.

§11.  Some historians see Maserfelth as an episode in this strife and envisage the battle taking place in Lindsey or its environs (Thacker 1995, 99; Gelling 1989, 188-9; Higham 1995, 221). It is immaterial that the region contains no modern version of the place name, which is evidently lost and will not be found on any modern map. As noted above, the site had presumably been forgotten before the twelfth century, when Oswestry's claim makes its first documented appearance. Nor will a modern cognate of Cogwy, the Welsh name for the battle, be readily discerned among the plethora of possible candidates in the northeast midlands.10 The Welsh name is first attested in the Historia Brittonum of c.800, a document that most historians rightly regard with caution, but the name might reflect oral traditions about the battle that were contemporary with, and independent of, the sources available to Bede.11 Cogwy looks at first glance like a river name, the first element perhaps meaning "red," but there are many places in the northeast midlands that could fit such a description and several rivers that show a reddish pigment. It is undoubtedly safe to assume that Cogwy, like Maserfelth, is not only a lost and forgotten place name but also an irretrievable one.

§12.  Non-survival of either of these names in the northeast midland conflict zone, together with the likelihood that the site of the battle was eventually forgotten in local tradition, seems to demand an explanation, for Oswald's martyrdom was a cornerstone of his cult and its precise location was surely important. Here, the fate of the monastery at Bardney is perhaps a key issue, the place having been destroyed in the 860s but refounded under Norman patronage in the late eleventh century (Dugdale 1830, 628-9). Between 909, when Oswald's relics were removed to Gloucester, and the refoundation, the erstwhile Mercian royal monastery lay in ruins. This period of abandonment ended when the Normans built a new church, whose triple dedication included Oswald alongside Peter and Paul, but, as one observer has remarked, "it seems highly unlikely that authentic traditions or relics could have survived from the earlier house" (Tudor 1995, 190). In such a scenario the tradition that Maserfelth occurred in a region close to Lindsey could have dwindled or perished with the ninth-century destruction of Bardney, being quickly supplanted by counter claims nurtured elsewhere. These claims were undoubtedly driven by churchmen seeking to gain from Bardney's demise by promoting their own religious houses as cult centers of a prestigious home-grown saint. Oswestry's claim was evidently made with particular vigor, its supporters encouraging the creation of folklore around the "Oswald's Tree" place name and ultimately receiving decisive support from Reginald's vita.

§13.  If, as suggested here, the lost battlefield of Maserfelth should be envisaged as a site in the northeast midlands, the recovery of Oswald's remains by Osthryth can be seen as mirroring a similar initiative undertaken by her sister. The latter, Aelfflaed, shared the abbacy of Whitby with her mother Eanflaed, whose father was Edwin of Deira. Sometime after 680, Aelfflaed discovered the headless body of Edwin at the site of his final battle on Hatfield Chase, bringing the relic in reverence to Whitby, where it became the focus of a short-lived cult (Colgrave 1968, 47-8). It is significant that the precise location of this holy king's death was not known among even his close kin nor, arguably, among his Deiran subjects whose territory shared a frontier with Hatfield. The location was eventually provided by a local layman who lived in the vicinity of the battlefield.

§14.  The finding and translating of the remains of Edwin and Oswald by two powerful women of the Northumbrian royal kindred suggests a single initiative rather than a pair of distinct episodes (Thacker 1995, 105-6). Aelfflaed retrieved Edwin's body and enshrined it at Whitby; her sister found Oswald's torso and conveyed it on a cart to Bardney, instructing the brethren there to venerate the relics. The two events might even have been coordinated, the sisters undertaking their respective expeditions in unison. Or, maybe, the women merely shared a common purpose, the one sister emulating the other's action through imitation or rivalry. Whatever the underlying motives for these parallel initiatives, they were possibly closely linked, both corpses perhaps being recovered not only around the same time but also in the same geographical area. If Osthryth did indeed recover her uncle's remains from Maserfelth the latter might feasibly be envisaged as a site within the eastern conflict zone that included Hatfield, Lindsey, and the southern marches of Deira.

§15.  Pinpointing a plausible location for Oswald's last battle within this region is impossible, given the dearth of clues in the documentary record and the non-survival of the place name. The element -felth might direct scholarly attention towards the northern part of the conflict zone, the southern portion of Yorkshire being an area where place names containing "-field," the modern version of this suffix, are fairly numerous (Higham 1995, 221). A Welsh poem of probable ninth-century origin refers to Maes Cogwy, "the Field of Cogwy", but it is not known if this was a genuine local name employed by seventh-century Britons or a construct of later traditions in Wales (Rowland 1990, 168-9). It may have been a Welsh literary attempt to translate Maserfelth if the latter was a name of wholly English origin that had supplanted an earlier native toponym. The meaning of maser in either language is in any case difficult to discern but has been associated with the modern element "masser," which reportedly appears in the area around Epworth in Lindsey. Here, according to one observer, the old place names Masser Pool and Masser Close, together with red rocks that recall the Welsh coch as seen in Cogwy, suggest a possible location for Maserfelth (Walker 1948, 396).12

§16.  In a strategic context the location of such a decisive battle should perhaps be sought in meadows near a major river-crossing or at some other significant topographical feature that warranted the description felth. The northeast midlands include many such locations as well as a substantial network of Roman roads and ancient trackways, any of which could have been utilized by the protagonists for the movement of troops. The easiest points of access between Northumbria and the Hatfield-Lindsey region have always been the places where Roman roads traverse major rivers such as the Don, the Idle, and the Trent. The battlefield of Maserfelth may have lain in the vicinity of one of these crossings, but, in the absence of precise geographical clues, the actual location must be regarded as forever lost. Like the site of his father's great victory at Degsastan, the place where Oswald fell is likely to remain unidentifiable, thereby creating a large void in scholarly reconstructions of this pious hero's military career. Nevertheless, the many uncertainties surrounding Oswestry's claim should deter historians from seeking to solve a problem of seventh-century history by using a convenient solution rooted in twelfth-century ecclesiastical propaganda.13


1.   It is interesting to note that the hillfort at Old Oswestry was known to the Welsh as Caer Ogyrfan, a name associated with the Arthurian legends (Williams 1926-7, 62).   [Back]

2.   The claim has considerable support among historians. See, for example, Charles-Edwards (2001, 93), Finberg (1964, 73) and Williams (1926-7, 60).  [Back]

3.   A reference by Gildas (6.2) to dimicare pro patria has a wholly different context and is unlikely to shed any light on Bede's use of similar phraseology. For further discussion of medieval literary usage of patria, see Kantorowicz (1965). [Back]

4.   I have addressed the logistical difficulties of overland travel during this period in my doctoral dissertation (Clarkson 2001, 129-57).  [Back]

5.   The Roman roads mentioned here can be seen in their geographical and logistical contexts on the maps appended to Margary (1973).  [Back]

6.   On the ritual and pagan aspects of dismemberment, see Damon (2001).  [Back]

7.   Plummer's observation is relevant here: "It is noteworthy that Oswy should be strong enough to do this at the beginning of his reign" (1896, 2:157).  [Back]

8.   See, for instance, the comment made by Charles-Edwards: "It is not generally appreciated how far into Powys Oswald had penetrated and how isolated his position must have been at Old Oswestry" (1977, 36).  [Back]

9.   The suggestion that Makerfield in Lancashire preserves the name of the battle is easily discarded on etymological grounds. For the suggestion, see Kenyon (1991, 77-8).  [Back]

10.   Several hypothetical modern versions of Cogwy are listed in Williams (1926-7)  [Back]

11.   Historia Brittonum, 65: bellum Cocboy. On Bede's sources in general see Kirby (1965-6, 341-57).  [Back]

12.   I have been unable to find the "Masser" names on modern Ordnance Survey maps of Epworth, even at a scale of 1:25000.  [Back]

13.   I am grateful to Michelle Ziegler for many useful and stimulating discussions on the themes covered in this paper.  [Back]

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