The Battle of Maserfield was fought on this day – August 5th 642 (possibly 641) between the Kingdom of Northumbria under King Oswald on one side and an alliance between King Penda of Mercia and welsh allies, possibly from Gwynedd and Powys.
Maserfield was the old name for the area and probably meant ‘marshy field’ (perhaps a description of where the battle took place. But that is not what it is called today. The site of the battle is usually identified with Oswestry on the Welsh borders. What does that name mean and how was it reached? Read on to find out.
Background to the Battle
This battle was just the latest in the titanic struggles between the various English Kingdoms for dominance. For a long time the Kingdom of Kent was all powerful and its king was called BRETWALDA or lord of Briton. In the early 7th century the East Anglia king Redwald became Bretwalda and soon afterwards it was the turn of Northumbria to rise to dominance. Their ruler, Edwin had just returned from 14 years of exile, killing Aethelfrith who had sent him into exile and in turn leading to Aethelfrith’s own sons Oswald, Oswiu and their brothers fleeling to the North.
Edwin now set about expanding Northumbrian power. This expansion brought him into conflict with Mercia, Gwynedd and Powys (ironically nations that had sheltered him during his exile). Edwin was successful but in the end these enemies united under the leadership of the powerful Kings Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd.
They invaded Northumbria, killed Edwin in 633 at Hatfield chase and ravaged Northumbria. Oswald, Aethelfrith’s son returned from his own exile and defeated Cadwallon, killing him at the Battle of Heavenfield in 634.
The Battle of Maserfield
Oswald in turn became BRETWALDA and again expanded Northumbria power, pegging back Mercian dominance. In 642 he perhaps over stretched himself, driving deep into enemy territory to what is now the Welsh borders. There at Maserfield his enemies destroyed his army and slew him.
The actual location of the battle, like so many others is not known with certainty. But local tradition places it near Oswald’s Well (also linked to the story – the site of as spring that emerged where his arm was dropped by an eagle – see below). The fields of Oswestry school and maybe its carpark are thought to be the spot:
Oswestry – what is in a name?
After the defeat his enemies chopped up his body and according to legend, one of his arms was carried to an ash tree by a an eagle. Oswald was Christian and Penda pagan so this event became part of the Christian legend. Oswald was named a saint and miracles were then reported near the tree. What is more likely is his enemies hung his body in a tree, or on poles. Whatever the truth the name of the site derived from a reference to “Oswald’s Tree”.
Penda was now all powerful and maintained dominance for a good decade. He should really be named Bretwalda. But the official list of Bretwalda’s was drawn up be Bede, a Northumbrian scholar. The next Bretwalda was Oswiu, Oswald’s brother. Oswiu actually killed Penda at the Battle of Winwaed in 655