Landscape and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England and the Viking Campaign of 1006

Landscape and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England and the Viking Campaign of 1006

By Thomas J. T. Williams

Early Medieval Europe, Vol.23:3 (2015)

William Stukeley’s drawing of the Sanctuary and related topography in 1725 ,in  Abury, a Temple of the British Druids   (London, 1725 )

Abstract: This paper outlines the state of research into early medieval conflict landscapes in England and sets out a theoretical and methodological basis for the sustained and systematic investigation of battlefield toponymy and topography. The hypothesis is advanced that certain types of place were considered particularly appropriate for the performance of violent conflict throughout the period and that the social ideas that determined the choice of locale are, to some degree, recoverable through in-depth, interdisciplinary analysis of landscapes, place names and texts. The events of 1006 and the landscape of the upper Kennet are introduced as a case study that reveals the complex interplay of royal ideology, superstition and place that were invoked in the practice of violence in late Anglo-Saxon England. In the course of the discussion, this paper seeks to demonstrate the value of applying a similar approach to the full range of evidence for conflict landscapes in early medieval England and beyond.

Introduction: The holistic understanding of early medieval battlefield landscapes in England remains limited and only a handful of key publications have addressed the subject directly and in general terms. It is true enough that individual early medieval battlefields have been a frequent subject of enquiry for historians. This, however, has generally been in the context of a desire to fix a location for an iconic event or to reconstruct the probable movement of troops on the battlefield. Studies of the former sort – often resting heavily on the evidence of place names – abound in local history and place-name publications. Indeed, the number and specificity of such studies militates against a systematic review; some iconic battles have spawned minor publishing industries in their own right. Nevertheless, attempts to establish the location of most early medieval battlefields with precision have generally been unsuccessful and, as John Carman has recently pointed out, the nature of enquiry has long been dictated by the preoccupations of military historians, arguably arresting the development of battlefield archaeology as an independent sub-discipline.

The last twenty-five years have seen huge advances made in the way that battlefields can be recorded and understood through archaeological techniques, but these methods have only recently been accepted as a useful complement to traditional military history. Only since 2012 has English Heritage formally included archaeological approaches in the selection guidance for designating sites for the English Heritage Register of Historic Battlefields. The seminal work combining historical and archaeological approaches to battlefields was undertaken in the late 1980s at the Little Bighorn, but these techniques have not so far been applied successfully to any early medieval battlefield – a situation that arises in part from the difficulties in securely identifying battlefields of the period to the degree of precision that the techniques of the archaeological method demand. Of the forty-three battlefields that English Heritage has included on its register, only three date from before 1100. Two of these – Hastings and Stamford Bridge – are from the same year (1066).The other is the battle of Maldon (991).

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