The Battle of Corbridge, 918

#TheLastKingdom

Overview

Fans of the Bernard Cornwell Saxon Series of books and the popular Netflix adaptation “The Last Kingdom” will be well aware of the historical setting of the Battle of Corbridge.  It occurred around eight years after the Battle of Tettenhall (August 910) which was covered in the book “The Pagan Lord” and episode four of Season Four of The Last Kingdom. 

As with most events during this period, the records are scant and there is some debate on the exact date and location of the battle, the numbers involved and even if it was only one battle or two separate engagements.  What is known, based on references given in the Annals of Ulster and the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, is that a battle was fought between the Norse-Gael leader Ragnall ua Ímair and his allies against the forces of Constantine II, King of Alba (Scotland) and Ealdred I of Bamburgh. 

The description given in the Annals of Ulster suggests that the Norse-Gael army was divided into four columns.  The combined Scottish army managed to defeat the first three columns but was ambushed by the fourth.  It seems that, following some fierce fighting, the Scottish army managed to disengage in some order and the outcome was indecisive.

However, following the battle, the Vikings did not march north into Scotland and Ragnall was able to exploit the weakness of Northumbria and establish himself as de facto ruler of southern Northumbria, taking the City of York in 919 and proclaiming himself King.

The Battle Site

It is unknown exactly where the battle took place other than it was on the banks of the River Tyne around the area of Corbridge.

The British Isles in the 10th Century

Map showing England in the late 9th and early 10th Centuries

At the time of the Battle of Corbridge the British Isles was a splintered mosaic of separate Kingdoms.  Modern notions of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland did not yet exist (although soon would).  The Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes had settled in the British Isles between the 5th and 7th Centuries, following the decline of the Roman Empire, displacing native Celtic tribes and pushing them to the fringes of Cornwall, Wales, West Scotland, Ireland and the many islands along the west coast.  By the 9th Century, Anglo Saxon England (the collective name for the various Germanic settlers of the British Isles) was formed of several Kingdoms: Wessex in the Southwest, Kent, Sussex and Essex in the Southeast, East Anglia, Mercia from the Thames to the Midlands and Northumbria occupying the lands north of the River Humber up to the River Forth in Scotland.  In the 8th Century, Norse warriors known collectively as the Vikings began raiding the coast and rivers of the British Isles.  In the North East, raids on Lindisfarne and Jarrow are particularly well known.  This was followed by a concerted effort to settle in these newly won lands and they quickly carved out the lands known as “Dane Law”.  This separated and truncated the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms severely and effectively cut off and isolated Northumbria in the North.  Northumbria was further weakened under Viking and Scottish attacks and almost ceased to exist.  The Norse invaders were pagan, worshiping the panoply of Norse Gods.  The Christian Saxons feared and reviled them and took it upon themselves to rid the land of these heathens in a holy war.  It was a difficult task.  The Vikings were ruthless fighters and the Saxons, being fragmented, struggled to coordinate their efforts.  Alfred the Great (849 – 899) began the fight back and his son Edward the Elder and grandson Athelstan finally succeeded in neutralising the Viking threat and united the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms to form the fledgling Kingdom of England (Angle Land) in 924.  Saxon hegemony would not last long and in 142 years (in 1066) descendants of other Norse “Vikings”, the Normans, would succeed in invading England.

Who were the Norse-Gaels?

Often included under the blanket term “Vikings” (which can be misleading), the Norse-Gaels were a people of mixed Gaelic and Norse ancestry and culture who were descended from Vikings who settled in Ireland and Scotland.  Eventually the Viking roots would become ever more diluted, but they left a lasting influence on place names, especially in the Isle of Man and Outer Hebrides.  Norse-Gaelic surnames, such as MacIvor, MacAskill and MacCotter are vestiges of the Norse influence.

Map showing the heartlands of the Norse-Gaels

The Norse-Gaels dominated much of the Irish Sea, Scottish coastal regions and islands from the 9th to the 12th Centuries.  They founded the Kingdom of the Isles, the Kingdom of Dublin, The Lordship of Galloway (which is named after them) and briefly they ruled the Kingdom of York. 

The Ui Ímair (“the grandsons of Ímair” or Ivor the Boneless) were one of the greatest dynasties of the Viking age.  For a time, at their height, they were the most fearsome and wide-reaching power in the British Isles.

Ragnall ua Ímair (died 921) was a grandson of Ímair (Ivor) and probably grew up in Dublin.  He was likely expelled from Dublin in around 902 following attacks by the Kings of Leinster and Brega, which drove the Vikings out.  He is thought to have then moved to southern Scotland or the Isle of Mann before following his kinsman Sitric Cáech to attack and retake Dublin in 917.  Ragnall then left for England with aspirations to become King in Northumbria.  This led him to the Battle of Corbridge following which he did indeed proclaim himself King in York.  His rule was immediately challenged by a group of Christian Vikings who opposed his paganism.  Ragnall died in 921 and was succeeded by his kinsman Sitric Cáech.

What was the Kingdom of Alba?

The Kingdom of Alba refers to the Kingdom of Scotland between the deaths of Donald II in 900 and Alexander III in 1286.  The collapse of the Kingdom led directly to the Scottish Wars of Independence.  Constantine II (c900 – 943), who fought at the Battle of Corbridge, was the second king to be recognised as King of Alba.

Map showing the Kingdom of Alba

The Importance of Bamburgh

Bamburgh, known as Bebbanburg (named after the Saxon Queen Bebba) was an important settlement (perhaps the capital) of both the Kingdom of Bernicia and then the Kingdom of Northumbria (following the merging of Bernicia with Deira in the 7th Century).  Before the idea of “England” became a reality, the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria were not united.  Following the defeat of Northumbrian forces by the Viking Great Heathen Army, at York in 867, the Kingdom of Northumbria was reduced to a rump state with most of their southern lands lost.  Bamburgh remained as a lonely outpost of Anglo Saxon Christianity surrounded by the Danes to the South and the Scottish Kingdoms to the West and North.  A fortress has existed on the site of Bamburgh Castle since Celtic times and, due to its elevated position and exploitation of natural defences, was all but impregnable before the age of gun powder. 

Who was Ealred of Bamburgh?  Following the deaths of Danes Eowils and Halfdan at the Battle of Tattenhall (910), Ealdred may have become ruler of what was left of Saxon Northumbria.  The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto states that Ealdred “was a friend of King Edward the Elder, as his father had been a favourite of Edwards father King Alfred the Great.”  Ealdred was driven from his lands by Ragnall ua Ímair sometime between 914 and 918.  He sought refuge at the court of Constantine II King of Scotland (Alba).  Following this he joined Constantine II to fight Ragnall at the Battle of Corbridge.  As the battle was inconclusive, Ealdred did not regain his former lands and in 927 he was one of the northern rulers to submit King Athelstan (Edward the Elders son).  He largely disappears from the sources after this and he is thought to have died sometime around 933.

Warfare in 10th Century Britain

Whilst we can’t know how the actual battle of Corbridge was fought, we can speculate. Battle in 10th Century Britain was a brutal and close quartered affair.  Most soldiers were not professionals but generally knew how to fight.  The shield wall was the most common battlefield tactic of the time, in which the two forces would form lines of locked shields before closing with the enemy to use short thrusting swords, axes and spears.  The two sides would slog it out pushing and shoving in unison until one side gave ground and broke the line.  Once a battle line was broken the army could easily be routed.

The fantasy depictions of this era, with warriors clad in studded, close fitting (and overly flattering) leather armour bedecked with a mass of fur around the shoulders is, alas, a myth (thanks Game of Thrones). As is the pointy helmet!

Shield Wall – The Last Kingdom

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