Battle of Deorham

Coordinates: 51°29′20.76″N 2°22′25.34″W / 51.4891000°N 2.3737056°W / 51.4891000; -2.3737056
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Battle of Deorham
Part of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain

Earthworks around Hinton Hill,
just north of Dyrham, Gloucestershire
Result Saxon victory, permanently dividing Wales from the Celtic south-west of England
West Saxons Britons
Commanders and leaders

The Battle of Deorham (or Dyrham) is portrayed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as an important military encounter between the West Saxons and the Britons in the West Country in 577. The Chronicle depicts the battle as a major victory for Wessex's forces, led by Ceawlin and one Cuthwine, resulting in the capture of the Romano-British towns of Glevum (Gloucester), Corinium Dobunnorum (Cirencester), and Aquae Sulis (Bath).


Sixth- and seventh-century battles of West-Saxon kings according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The only evidence for the battle is an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the so-called 'common stock' of annals on which all manuscripts of the Chronicle build that was edited into its current form in the later ninth century.[1]: 26–34  As given in the earliest manuscript, the Parker Chronicle, the annal reads:

577: Her Cuþwine ⁊ Ceawlin fuhton wiþ Brettas, ⁊ hie .iii. kyningas ofslogon, Coinmail, ⁊ Condidan, ⁊ Farinmail, in þære stowe þe is gecueden Deorham. ⁊ genamon .iii. ceastro Gleawanceaster, ⁊ Cirenceaster, ⁊ Baþanceaster.[2]

577: Here Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against the Britons, and they killed 3 kings, Coinmail, Condidan and Farinmail, in the place which is called Deorham, and took 3 cities: Gloucester and Cirencester and Bath[3]

Scholars agree that the place-name Deorham here survives in the name of Dyrham in what is now South Gloucestershire, on the Cotswolds escarpment a few miles north of Bath, and that it is here that the battle is portrayed as taking place. The identification of the other cities is even less countroversial; they correspond to Corinium, a provincial capital in the Roman period (Cirencester); Glevum, a former colonia (Gloucester); and Aquae Sulis, a renowned spa and pagan religious centre (Bath).[1]: 33–34 


Nineteenth-century narrative of Anglo-Saxon settlement[edit]

In an influential lecture of 1849 on "The Early English Settlements in South Britain", Edwin Guest argued that the battle was (in the words of one of his audience) the culmination of

the long story of the gradual encroachments of the conquerors on the native tribes retiring step by step, only yielding up their territory after bloody defeats, the battles of Charford, and Badbury, and Barbury and Old Sarum, within a mile or two of the place of our meeting, until the decisive battle of Deorham sealed the fate of southern Britain, and the Weals [Britons], severed from one another by the broad expanse of the Severn Sea, were finally cooped up among the mountain ridges of Wales, or in the peninsula of Cornwall.[1]: 2 

Guest's conception of the reality of the battle and its place in a coherent narrative of Anglo-Saxon military conquest and settlement of southern Britain remained prominent among historians into the 1980s, partly on the basis of the natural strategic importance of the Severn Valley in British geography. These historians include Frank Stenton,[1]: 1–5  John Morris,[4] H. P. R. Finberg,[5] and J. N. L. Myres.[6]

Twentieth-century military-history speculation[edit]

The belief that the Chronicle account was substantially reliable—notwithstanding its obvious brevity—encouraged elaborate speculation by antiquarians such as Welbore St Clair Baddeley. In 1929 he supposed that the Saxons launched a surprise attack and seized the hill fort at the Hinton Hill Camp (near Dyrham) because it commanded the Avon Valley, and disrupted communications north and south between Bath and the neighbouring Romano-British towns of Gloucester and Cirencester. Once the Saxons were in occupation of the site (and, he supposed, had begun reinforcing the existing Iron Age defensive structures at the site) the Britons of those three towns were compelled to unite and make a combined attempt to dislodge them. Their attempt failed and the three opposing British kings were killed. Their routed forces were driven north of the River Severn and south of Bath where it appears they began the construction of the defensive earthwork called the Wansdyke in a doomed attempt to prevent more territory from being lost.[7]

The military historian Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Burne, employing his theory of 'Inherent Military Probability', opted for a simpler explanation for the battle than Baddeley. In his view, Ceawlin was methodically advancing towards the Severn and the three forces of Britons concentrated to stop him. Burne suggests that they formed up along two slight ridges across the trackway that skirted the Forest of Braden, with Hinton Hill Camp behind them as their stores depot. Burne speculated that if the Saxon attack drove the Britons back from their first line onto the second ridge near the edge of the escarpment, the slightest further retreat would leave their flanks open to a downhill pursuit. He imagined that this is what occurred, with the three Briton leaders and their main body being driven back into the fort while the flanking Saxons driving forwards swept round behind the promontory on which the fort stands. A last stand in this position would explain why none of the three Briton leaders was able to escape. Burne went so far as to speculate that the battle was the starting point for Welsh and Cornish becoming two separate languages.[8]


By the early 1980s, a new wave of source-criticism was underway regarding the fifth-to-seventh centuries in Britain, and the Battle of Deorham was prominently tackled by Patrick Sims-Williams.[1] He noted that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle shows no signs of being a contemporary record for the sixth century and many signs of being a later fabrication based on oral tradition and folk-etymologies of place-names, and that its material for the sixth century may reflect later West-Saxon attempts to legitimise their politics in the seventh, eighth, and/or ninth centuries by circulating stories of an imaginary past.[1]: 26–41  Showing how the Chronicle's 571 Battle of Bedcanford would have functioned to provide a West-Saxon right of conquest to much of the Chiltern Hills and the vale to their north-west following Mercia's conquest of that area in the eighth century, he noted that the Battle of Deorham too might have been used by West Saxons to counter Mercian claims in the Severn Valley.[1]: 33  But he thought more likely the possibility that the annal was based on a Welsh triad, itself unlikely to be historically accurate, arising from a similar tradition to medieval Welsh literature which places an English-battling seventh-century king called Cynddylan in the Wroxeter region.[1]: 33–34 

Scholars also argued that the importance given the towns more likely reflects ninth and tenth-century polities, of the time the Chronicle was given its present form, than the de-urbanised sixth century.[9][10]

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Sims-Williams, Patrick (1983). "The Settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle". Anglo-Saxon England. 12: 1–41. doi:10.1017/S0263675100003331. JSTOR 44510771..
  2. ^ " Manuscript A: The Parker Chronicle]", in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: An Electronic Edition, ed. by Tony Jebson.
  3. ^ Swanton, M. (1996). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. London: Phoenix. p. 18.
  4. ^ John Morris, The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973), pp. 5–6, 255–6; ISBN 0 297 17601 3.
  5. ^ H. P. R. Finberg, The Formation of England, 550–1042 (London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1974), pp. 22–23.
  6. ^ J. N. L. Myres, The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), , pp. 162–3, 168ISBN 0 19 821719 6.
  7. ^ The Modern Antiquarian
  8. ^ Alfred H. Burne, More Battlefields of England (London: Methuen, 1952).
  9. ^ Wacher, John (1995). The Towns of Roman Britain. London: Batsford..
  10. ^ Simon T. Loseby, "Power and towns in Late Roman Britain and early Anglo-Saxon England" in Gisela Ripoll and Josep M. Gurt, eds., Sedes regiae (ann. 400–800), (Barcelona, 2000), esp. pp 329f (on-line text).

External links[edit]

51°29′20.76″N 2°22′25.34″W / 51.4891000°N 2.3737056°W / 51.4891000; -2.3737056