The Fallen of Ancient Time

Weymouth Bay

James Lloyd visits forgotten battlefields and pays homage to some of those who laid down their lives in England’s oldest wars.

Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we commemorate the millions of Britons, both military and civil, who lost their lives to save their country and our future in the two World Wars and in every conflict since. The First World War was unprecedented in its capacity for slaughter. Only the Civil War killed a greater proportion of the population of the British Isles and, in terms of sheer numbers, no other war, even including the generally more destructive Second World War, killed as many Britons as the First.

It is for this reason that the national observance (one can hardly call it a festival) was inaugurated in the wake of this, Britain’s grimmest victory and subsequent wars have been added to the tragic tally and yet, as worthy of commemoration as the heroes of the twentieth and twenty-first-century wars are, there is something inconsistent in this. The First World War was hardly the first war Britain had ever fought. In fact, it was not even Britain’s first world war. Millions of Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen and Irishmen had already been sacrificed over the centuries to save their country from the French, the Spanish or one another. The names of most of them are lost to history but they are all, both named and unnamed, as deserving of the gratitude of those alive now as are the dead of more recent conflicts. Today The Rural Voice will pay its dues to just a few of them.

In the year 789 an unfamiliar ship beached off the peninsula of Portland in Dorset. The sailors were from Hordaland in Norway. Despite their paganism, the Norse were generally considered a friendly people and the locals assumed that this party had come to trade. Even in that period, trading was regulated by the government, so Beaduheard, the reeve of the King of Wessex, rode to Portland to meet the arrivals and instruct them to announce themselves at the palace in Dorchester.

These Norse, however, were not here to barter. They had discovered a much more direct means of securing wealth from these effete Christians. These Norse had come to raid and rob the country and they began by killing Beaduheard. This was one of their earliest attacks on English territory and the first to leave a victim whose name has survived on record. Beaduheard was the first named English casualty of the Viking Wars.

Those wars would continue, on and off, for well over two hundred years, not really ending until the fall of Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in 1066. They would be the mood music to the respective unifications of England and Scotland but they would also shed an incalculable amount of blood. Over a hundred years after the death of Beaduheard, half of what would later be England was under Danish occupation, with only Wessex holding out.

Alfred the Great, King of all the English not under Danish rule, died in 899 and was succeeded by his son Edward. However, Alfred’s older brother had also left a son, Æthelwold, who felt aggrieved at being passed over. He defected to the Danish-occupied lands in East Anglia, made an alliance with the Danes and led a raiding-army through Wessex. In 904, King Edward retaliated by leading an army made up of contingents from across southern England on a counter-raid through the Fens. Satisfied that the job was done, he ordered the army to turn about.

His order was ignored by the contingent from Kent, led by their ealdormen Sigewulf and Sigehelm. For reasons that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not make clear, they remained at a place called the Holm, which cannot now be identified. The King sent seven successive messengers to order them to withdraw but they stood their ground, apparently determined to face the enemy. They soon had their wish.

Holme Fen, Cambridgeshire

The ensuing battle was bloody and merciless. On the English side, both ealdormen lost their lives, as did Sigewulf’s son, Sigeberht. The Danes won but it was a Pyrrhic victory, for their king was killed, as was the troublesome Æthelwold. Edward the Elder would spend the rest of his reign conquering the lands in East Anglia and the Midlands that were occupied by the Danes. His campaign was crucial in the formation of the Kingdom of England. It was a campaign that started in the Battle of the Holm, so the ealdormen and the other Men of Kent who were killed that day were among the very first who could say that they gave their lives for England.

Yet not all those who have given their lives for England over the centuries have been English. In the constant, drawn-out war between England and Denmark that dominated the pathetic reign of Æthelred the Unready, when ealdormen became almost proverbial for their cowardice and treachery, one of the few names to emerge with credit was in fact Danish.

The descendents of the Danes who settled East Anglia and the east Midlands in the late ninth century, the Danes who won their self-annulling victory at the Battle of the Holm in 904 and whom King Edward spent the rest of his reign conquering, seem to have adjusted to the rule of Edward’s descendents. They were allowed to live according to their own laws (hence the area’s designation as “the Danelaw”) and Old Norse has significantly influenced English (including such words as “law” and even “they”). Within a generation of the English conquest of the Danelaw, an Englishman with a Danish name, Oda, had become Archbishop of Canterbury and in his war with Swein Forkbeard Æthelred was served with unmerited loyalty by another Englishman of Danish descent, Ulfcytel of East Anglia.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Ulfcetyl as leading the East Angles in battles with the Danes at Thetford in 1004 and at Ringmere in 1010. He lost both and yet, like the ealdormen of Kent at the Holme, his defeats left the Danes in a worse position than formerly. Eventually Ulfcytel was killed fighting for Edmund Ironside against Cnut in the fateful Battle of Ashingdon in 1016. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle did him the honour of recording his name among the fallen because of his military reputation, a reputation that was also recognized by the enemy. After their costly victory at Thetford, the Danes are reported to have said that they had never met harder fighting in England than they met in Ulfcytel and he was still appearing as a figure in Norse saga for hundreds of years thereafter, dubbed Ulfcytel the Valiant.

War is not glorious but what is glorious is the bravery of those who fight in wars, their glorious willingness to lay down their own lives to save their family, friends and countrymen from a fate more terrible than the war itself. Today we commemorate the millions of Britons, including Britons who were not from Britain or who were British not by blood but by spirit, who showed that glory. We honour them because they honoured us and our country is made glorious by what they had the courage to do for it.

Yet that history of glory did not begin in the trenches of Flanders in 1914. It has no beginning but has been part of our history for as long as that history has been told. Beaduheard at Portland in 789, Sigewulf, Sigehelm and Sigeberht at the Holm in 904 and Ulfcytel at Ashingdon in 1016 deserve their minutes of silence also, as do all the other numberless heroes whose names are written in ancient chronicles, or not written at all. They all showed that glory. They all deserve to be remembered.

Ashingdon Church, built by Cnut to commemorate his victory

Photo credits: Weymouth Bay from White Nothe (Nigel Mykura) / CC BY-SA 2.0

View towards Holme Lode Covert (Andrew Tatlow) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Saint Andrew, Ashingdon, south side (David Kemp) / CC BY-SA 2.0