AGE OF HEROES - 11: FOOL'S GOLD, The Chase Is On To Bring Penda To Book
Unearthed near Lichfield, at the heart of Mercia...
'Bring me my sword and shield, we are to take the road north! King Oswy has seen fit to take our land. Is Lord Cadwallon here yet?' Penda pulls on his mailcoat, helped by a youth of his household. 'Belt!'
The youth looks around and, seeing it, strides back to his lord and master. Just then the Lord of Gwynedd enters, a small troop of followers close behind.
'You.are ready to take on the world, Lord Penda?' Cadwallon beams broadly and takes Penda's outstretched hands. 'You are well?'
'Aye, I am well you Welsh rogue! When have you seen me not ready? We ride when I have taken wine with you. The ride was not too taxing?' Penda slaps Cadwallon's back and bellows, 'Wine for my guests!'
'There are two other Welsh lords', Cadwallon tells Penda after taking a long draught of the red wine brought to him, emptying his cup. He holds it out for more before adding, 'We meet them near Chester before we cross the Dee'.
When all is ready and Penda has mounted the army sets out from the encampment near Maserfield.
Penda is seen variously as an anti-hero in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, or by his friends as a stalwart of the old beliefs. He is held answerable for the deaths of several Christian kings. Latterly he had lured the Northumbrian king Oswald to Maserfield, had he not? Had him bound to a tree and flayed alive. Now, when he catches him he will do the same to his younger brother Oswy, for his cheek in taking Mercian land as well as overwhelming the Mercians in Deira. Bede had nevertheless also allowed that he let Christian missionaries preach within his domains - as long as they did not come too close to Tamworth.
Penda is seen as 'vir strenuissimus', a gifted warrior king, first showing in the annals of AD 626 fighting for mastery of the 'Hwicce'* against the West Saxons. Allied with Cadwallon of Gwynedd he first confronted the Northumbrians at Heathfield in AD 633. He also fought the East Angles in two major battles.
He increased Mercian controlled territories considerably, establishing an overlordship in Deira and parts of Wales as well as some southern midland regions once ruled by the West and Middle Saxons. But now, well into his prime, Penda's overlordship of Deira was challenged. He will be drawn deep into Deira. Thinking he has the upper hand he will cross the Tees into Bernicia with his Welsh allies. As a sop Oswy gives Penda treasure from his store at Bamburgh, provided he leaves the land well alone.
Penda's Welsh allies, happy at such riches, draw back to the Dee and cross into Gwynedd unhampered. This leaves Penda laden with his share, making his slow way back to Mercia. As if not hindered enough by the slow progress of the packhorses, the River Winwaed is swollen by the Pennine rains. And Oswy's Northumbrians shadow him through the hills, waiting for the right moment to strike.
'Lord Penda the river is in flood, the water too strong for us to ford!' The Mercian king's men have ridden hard, back to the main body of the army to warn him. There is the threat to their withdrawal from Deira back into northern Mercia. Laden with the booty given them by Oswy of Northumbria as a sop to prevent their sacking his kingdom...and to slow them down on their way back.
'We must cross!' Penda stares angrily at his underling and waves him away. 'We have all this gold and silver, and our Welsh friends have left us. There is no other way to go but forward, so see to it! Get back to the ford and help with the packhorses.'
Men look over their shoulders through the drizzle. The pounding of hooves frightens those at the back and they press through the ranks. Packhorses taken by Penda to bear the weight of the treasures file past him... and suddenly the Northumbrians are upon him and those around. Swords and spears slash and jab. Mercian shields are hacked to shreds and all is a whirl.
Somehow in the maelstrom of battle Penda and his ealdormen reach the River Winwaed, try to cross and those not swept under are set upon by their foe. The river runs red, men fall screaming, blood pours from gashes on their shoulders, necks and chests where they have turned to hold back Oswy's mounted Northumbrians with their throwing spears. A trickle of the fittest Mercian warriors had reached the far bank and, thinking themselves safe, they stand shouting for their king and friends to cross after them.
It is too late for Penda. Despite lashing out at the men who close on him, standing amid a ring of his household warriors and lords, he is wounded by a downward cut on his right shoulder. The pain sears, like the strike of lightning. Taking the sword in his left hand, losing grip and bending to pick up his sword he is struck again. He falls forward and rolls over onto his back - to see a spear rammed downward into his stomach. His head will be a trophy, spiked and planted into the wet ground at the head of the river bank.
The river swirls around the dead, corpses washed clean of blood, and the packhorses, still piled with treasure and weaponry, are driven away, back to the north through Deira.
Mounted Northumbrians cross the river to give chase. Those Mercians who had achieved the southern bank have spurred their horses and gone through the woods, fled the arrowstorm that followed them. The bowmen lower their bows and set off northward after their lords with the treasure. Will they ever regain the rest?
Bereft of his Welsh allies, Penda is trapped...
Near Lichfield they stop to hide some of the bags of gold and silver. A little way to the north is a Roman military highway named Watling Street by the incoming Angles in the north and midlands, and Saxons in the south. Dusk approaches, and with it the Northumbrians.
Is it possible the fleeing Mercians may have tried to lighten their load by burying the bags near Watling Street before trying to flee onward? If they were slain it is likely no-one else knew of the whereabouts of Oswy's treasure. Or they may have been stopped and questioned as to where the bags were buried, died under torture? The Northumbrians might have returned empty-handed, but they had dealt the Mercians a hard blow.
The 'Winwaed' is thought to be the a) River Went, a tributary of the River Don that rises north of modern-day Doncaster, or b) Cock Beck, a tributary of the River Wharfe that passes Penda's Fields near Leeds (near where a little over eight hundred years later the Lancastrians were beaten at Towton by Edward IV)..
The Staffordshire Hoard is not grave goods...
There is no burial mound or 'howe' nearby, and it was scattered over a large area - now a field near the A5 Trunk road, 'Watling Street'. Buried goods were usually in one place and in containers that were considerably more durable than bags or sacks. The treasure is a mix of Northumbrian, Byzantine and other origin, perhaps also Pictish. The Northumbrians in the 6th Century overran the territory between the Tweed, the Forth and the Tay where the Picts dwelt before the Scots pushed east from Dalriada in Western Scotland.
The distribution of the goods across the field suggests to me that they were buried in haste, later unearthed, scattered by the plough. Until the 18th Century few knew about 'antiquities', and by the soil-encrusted nature of the gold and silver items they would have been unrecognisable as treasure by most, metal detectors not being widely available in Britain before the latter part of the 20th Century (although there were mine detectors after WWII that might have done the same job).
Local metal detectorist Terry Herbert had been here before, as had others without success. He had asked farmer Fred Johnson again for permission to track across the field in the summer of 2009, fallow at the time. He said he found an artefact and showed it to Mr Johnson, who disbelieved him. There was still a considerable amount of dried mud on it, although Terry Herbert could see the gold gleaming.
Valued at £3.285M, the collection was bought by the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery as well as the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, with Messrs Herbert and Johnson receiving a percentage of the value as finder and landowner respectively under laws applied to 'Treasure Trove', as assessed in September, 2009.
What is known historically is that Penda and his Welsh allies crossed from Mercia into Deira (at times a separate kingdom, at this time southern Northumbria) in the reign of Oswy/Oswiu. It is also known that Oswy gave Penda and his allies treasure from his store at Bamburgh to send them away again. Penda had earlier annexed Deira after the death of King (later Saint) Oswald at Maserfield in Shropshire. Oswy in turn took back Deira and annexed part of eastern Mercia (now Nottinghamshire/Lincolnshire). Penda's march north was to punish the Northumbrian king, and came away laden with gold and silver. Having stripped the gold and silver from swords and other weaponry to lighten the load, Penda had taken the loot back but was intercepted in southern Deira before he could cross back into Mercia.
What happened after that is conjecture on my part, although it is feasible that - having slain their king - Northumbrians had crossed into Mercia after the survivors and caught up with them after they had buried the treasure near the old Roman road they knew as Watling Street. Experts have dated the items between the reigns of Penda and Offa. Much of it, probably from trade with Byzantium, others Pictish (now eastern Scotland) was older.