The Battle of Carham – 1018

Carram (Carham) shown on Saxton’s 16th Century County Map of Northumberland

Every so often there is a pivotal event in history, a watershed moment, which has wide reaching cultural and socio-economic impact.  Normally, these events are widely known, almost to the point of cliché; Bosworth, Trafalgar, Waterloo, 1066 and all that.  It can be argued that the Battle of Carham was one of those events.  The battle was fought between the Kingdom of Scotland (Alba) and their allies against the Northumbrians (English).  Before the battle, the Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria extended from the River Tees to the River Forth (the southern part of the Kingdom of Northumbria, from the Tees to the Humber was under Danish control at this time).  After the Scottish victory, Lothian, the area between the River Forth and the River Tweed was annexed.  This shifted the border between the Kingdom of Scotland and Anglo Saxon England south, to roughly the line of the River Tweed.  It resulted in a huge expansion of Scottish territory and humbled the once mighty Kingdom of Northumbria.  The Scots held on to this new territory and, a couple of hundred years later, Alexander II signed the Treaty of York with Henry III of England, which officially defined the Scottish / English border which exists today.  But, without the victory of Scots at Carham, that border would probably look very different.  

The battle itself is shrouded in mystery.  The Dark Ages is so called because of the scarcity of surviving written evidence.  The Battle of Carham is definitely a casualty of this “darkness” and there are few primary sources to rely on.  Of those that survive, most were written over one hundred years after the events they describe.  Few agree on important matters such as the date of the battle, who the leaders were and exactly where it took place.  Most scholars, who have focussed their studies on the battle, are true detectives, piecing together the fragments to build a picture of what might have happened. 

The sources which historians can draw upon are few enough in number and content that they can be reproduced in full within this blog.  I have replicated the Latin and English translations of the following accounts of the battle, drawing heavily on the work of Neil McGuigan in his article The Battle of Carham: An Introduction, which is part of the wider collection of essays presented in the book: The Battle of Carham – a Thousand Years On (2018).

Roger of Howdens Chronica

Roger of Howden was a chronicler writing in the 12th Century.  He began to compile his Chronica, a general history of England from 732 to his own time, in around 1192.

The original Latin reference to the battle is simply:

Ingenus bellum inter Anglos et Scottos apud Carrum geritur

The English translation:

A massive battle between the English and the Scots is waged at Carham

Historia Regum

The Historia Regum is one of the most important surviving collections of sources for the history of the north of England in the 12th Century.  The copy, known as Manuscript 139, was bequeathed to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, by Matthew Parker in 1575.  It is attributed to Symeon of Durham and was written before the end of the 12th Century.  It was continued by John of Hexham and further added to with the History of Richard of Hexham.

The original Latin text relating to the Battle of Carham is as follows:

Igens bellum apud Carrum gestum est inter Scottos et Anglos, inter Huctredum filium Waldef comiten Northymbrorum et Malcolmum filium Cyneth regem Scottorum.  Cum quo fuit in bello Eugenius Calvus rex Clutinensium.

The English translation:

A massive battle was fought at Carham between the Scots and English, between Uhtred son of Waltheof earl of the Northumbrians and Mael Coluim son of Cinaed King of the Scots, with whom in battle was Owain the Bald king of the Clyde Folk.

Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de Exordio

The Libellus de exordio atque procursu istius, hoc est Dunhelmensis, ecclesie or Tract on the Origins and Progress of this the Church of Durham is, like elements of the Historia Regum, traditionally attributed to Symeon of Durham.  It was compiled in the early 12th Century and it documents the history of the Bishopric and Church of Durham and its predecessors at Lindisfarne and Chester-le-Street.  It is sometimes referred to as the Historia Dunelmensis ecclesiae.

The original Latin text relating to the Battle of Carham is as follows:

Anno Incarnationis Dominice mille duodeuicesimo, Cnut regnum, Anglorum disponente, Northanhymbrorum populis per triginta noctes cometa apparuit, que terribili presagio futuram prouincie cladem pre-monstrauit. Siquiden Paulo post (id est post triginta dies) uniuersus a flumine Tesa usque Twedam populus, dum contra infinitam Scottorum multitudinem apud Carrum dimicaret, pene totus cum natu maioribus suis interiit.  Episcopus audita populi sancti Cuthberti miseranda nece, alto cordis dolore attacus grauiter ingermuit, et ‘O me’, inquit, ‘miserum! Ut quid in hec tempora seruatus sum?’

The English translation:

In the year of our Lord 1018, while Cnut was ruling the Kingdom of the English, there appeared to the Northumbrian peoples a comet, which persisted for thirty nights, presaging in a terrible way the future devastation of the province.  For soon afterwards (that is after thirty days) the whole people between the river Tees and the river Tweed fought a battle at Carham against a countless multitude of Scots and almost all perished, including even their old folk.  When the bishop heard of the miserable death of the people of St. Cuthbert, he was stricken with deep sorrow of heart and sighed, saying “O why – wretched as I am – was I spared to see these times?”.

Annales Lindisfarnenses et Denelmenses

Another text attributed, in part to our friend Symeon of Durham was again written in the 12th Century.  It covers the period 532 – 1199 AD.

The original Latin text relating to the Battle of Carham is as follows:

Cometa late spargens flammas visa est per Northymbrian per XXX noctes. Transactis post hoc XXX diebus fuit Carrum illud famosum bellum inter Northanhymbros et Scottos, ubi pene totus sancti Cuthberti populus interiit, inter quos etiam XVIII sacerdotes, qui inconsulte se intermiscuerant bello; quo audito prescriptus episcopus dolorem et vitam morte finivit.

The English translation:

A comet spewing flames was seen across Northumbria for thirty nights.  When it passed after thirty days, the infamous battle of Carham was fought between the Northumbrians and Scots, where the entire populus of St Cuthbert met with the penalty of destruction, among them eighteen priests who had rashly got themselves involved in the fray; when he heard the news, the bishop, having ordered his affairs, ended his sadness and his life with death.

Dating the Battle

The Battle of Carham nicely follows my last blog on the Sieges of Durham in 1006 and 1040, as it sits in the middle of those events and involves many of the same historical figures…or does it.  You’ll have no doubt picked up on the fact that mention of Uhtred (The Bold) as the commander of the Northumbrian forces only occurs in one of the source texts discussed above (Historia Regum).  Uhtred had faced King Malcom II of Scotland previously at Durham in 1006.  On that occasion Uhtred defeated the Scots and put them to flight.

If you read my last blog (https://northeastlore.com/2020/11/30/the-siege-of-durham-1006/), Uhtred’s presence at the Battle of Carham in 1018 may strike you as problematic, given that he was killed after submitting to Cnut the Great in 1016.  As my title suggests, the modern scholarly consensus on the date of the battle seems to be hedged towards 1018.  This is on the basis that, of those sources which give a date, the only date given is 1018. 

Another fascinating piece of evidence, which has been used to corroborate the date of 1018, is the reference to the portentous astronomical event preceding the battle, described as a comet.  This is mentioned in both Libellus de Exordio and the Annales Lindisfarnenses et Denelmenses.  What is interesting, is that there is documentary evidence from other contemporary sources of a comet being seen in the night sky during the summer of 1018.  Multiple medieval accounts of the Battle of Vlaardingen, fought between the German Emperor and the Bishop of Utrecht against Count Dirk III of Holland, mention a comet in the same year.  There are also accounts as far away as China which record a comet during August 1018, with a tail 30 cubits long!  In a genius move, Clive Hallam-Baker, who is the Head of Research for the Carham 1018 Society (http://www.carham1018.org.uk/), contacted NASA, who provided him with examples of some of this documentary evidence.

Uhtred or No Uhtred?

So, if the Battle of Carham was fought in 1018 and Uhtred died in 1016, who else could have been in command of the Northumbrians?  The most logical choice is Uhtred’s brother, Eadwulf.  He was named as Uhtred’s successor in the Anglo-Norman era list of Northumbrian Earls.  Another source adds credibility to this argument.  In De Obsessione Dunelmi it is stated that Eadwulf, not Uhtred, was forced to give up Lothian to the Scots, which we know was a direct consequence of the battle.  It is interesting though that the same source, which covers the same time-period, does not mention the Battle of Carham at all.  Eadwulf was known as “Cudal” meaning cuttlefish or cowardly…could this have been an epithet given to him following his defeat?  Symeon of Durham describes him as “a very lazy and cowardly man”.  He died in the early 1020’s and was succeeded by Uhtred’s son Ealdred.

If we look at it from another angle and assume that the date of the battle was earlier, to allow Uhtred to not be dead, it perhaps adds to the reasons why Uhtred felt that there was no other course than to submit to Cnut (see my last blog for the full story).  Following defeat at Carham, Uhtred would have been significantly weakened without the means to resist Cnut invading Northumbria.  It is an interesting thought but, short of new historical sources coming to light, it is likely that we will never know for certain the date or if Uhtred fought in the battle or not.

The Location of Battle

The Battle of Carham Society has done some excellent work on researching potential battle sites.  Local memory had it that the battle was fought on the south side of the River Tweed, just to the east of Wark.  The earlier editions of Ordnance Survey mapping similarly put the location of the battle to the east of Wark (the date is sometimes 1018 and sometimes 1016). 

Site of the Battle on the 1888 – 1913 OS Map – Shown to the east of Wark

However, following the work done by members of the Society and archaeologists (Passmore and Waddington in their work, Managing Archaeological Landscapes in Northumberland) the site of the battle is now thought be further west, to the north of the settlement of Carham itself, on the banks of the River Tweed.  There are several lines of evidence to support this.  Carham was, at the time, an important ecclesiastical centre.  The settlement lies on the line of the Roman road linking Tweedmouth to Dere Street and it is likely that there was river crossing over the Tweed between Carham and Birgham (on 16th Century map by Saxton Birgham is called Long Bridgham).  All signs that this area was a cross roads and likely invasion route.  To the south of Carham is an area called Wallace Croft in relation to its use by William Wallace as an encampment for his invading army in 1296 (OS Six Inch, 1888 – 1913).  There is a weir or ford crossing the River Tweed, at the end of an ancient path which leads from Brigham Church, which could suggest the location of the former crossing.  Crossings can still be made at low water levels during the summer.  Interestingly, again on old OS mapping, a point on the river adjacent to this area is referred to as Bloody Breeks. Descriptive names such as this are commonly associated with battlefields (Bloody Meadow at Towton for instance).

1888 – 1913 OS Map with annotations

Interestingly on the older OS maps there is also reference to a battle fought in 833AD just to the south of Carham, in a place called Dunstan Wood.  John Leland (16th Century poet and antiquary) tells us that in the 33rd year of Ecbright (probably referring to King Ecgberht of Wessex 802 – 839) the Danes arrived at Lindisfarne and fought with the English at Carham where Eleven Bishops and two English Countes were slayne, and a great numbre of people.  Human bones have been known to arise from time to time in this area.

The Battle Itself

Unfortunately, no written account of the battle survives and all that can be made is an educated guess as to the number of combatants and their dispositions.  Despite the exaggeration of chroniclers of the time in relation to other battles, it is likely that the numbers engaged were not great, perhaps even counted in the hundreds.  The total population of England in 1066 has been estimated to be somewhere in the region of 2 – 2.5 million.  To put this into context, the current population of London is somewhere around 8.98 million.  It was no mean feat to muster a sizeable army in 1018.

The Battle of Carham, as a historical event, is worthy of wider acclaim.  I’ll be honest, for some reason, I’ve always avoided learning about this period in history but having read the wider context to prepare for these blogs I find it utterly fascinating.  Saxon Britain was a changeable political minefield, where fortunes ebbed and flowed like the tide that Cnut the Great tried to tame.

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