Yesterday Dan Snow called it the most important British battle you never heard of. He was right.
In AD 685 the Northumbrian “… King Ecgfrith was marauding and laying waste to the Pictish region”… Ecgfrith “had taken an army against the Picts & was devastating their kingdoms with cruel & savage ferocity”. This invasion was not deemed wise however, for the “king rashly lead his army to ravage the province of the Picts, much against the advice of his friends, & particularly of [St] Cuthbert”. His reason?
The Northumbrians were seeing large scale resistance to their rule and after pacifying other enemies, marched north to punish the Picts. King Bridei of Fortriu, son of Beli, was not impressed however and in a curious repeat of Celtic strategy before Mons Graupius he gathered the Pictish forces & drew the Northumbrian host into northern Scotland.
“The enemy made show as if they fled, and the king [Ecgfrith] was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains,”. What followed was a Saxon version of the loss of the Ninth Legion.
No one knows the size of the armies. They are guessed to have been between over 600 Saxons, and about 1,000 Picts, though Northumbrian king might well have been able to bring 2,000 men to the fight, Ecgfrith did not have many infantrymen. The field itself could either have been in Angus or in Badenoch. Many think the Picts chose to make a stand at modern Dunnichen in Angus, others think it could be near Loch Insh in the heart of the Cairngorms. Either way Ecgfrith rashly decided to attack. The Picts formed up in a long infantry block at the foot of a slope near a loch, in reserve was a number of supporting cavalry. Ecgfrith’s army was mainly composed of fast riding, well armed cavalry, high status troops hardened by previous war as opposed to a much humbler assemblage of Picts. Ecgfrith’s plan seems to have been simply to either break the Pictish line by force, or disorganise it & ride them down. When combat was joined “The roar of battle was lifted up”… “shrill battle cries”… “Like waves across the face of the land” filled the air. The Pictish line held firm against the waves of Northumbrian cavalry. Sensing weakness they & their horsemen attacked. Suddenly the Northumbrian professionals were in flight. Many were “slain either by the sword or taken into servitude”. Other Northumbrians not captured or killed, or drowned in the bogs “escaped by flight from the land of the Picts”. In the carnage Ecgfrith, “his bodygrd slain around him, was laid low by the sword of an enemy” put another way he was “Slain in battle against iron swords” it was a disaster for Saxon Northumbria, but a huge victory for the Bridei. Ecgfrith was “slain with the greatest part of his forces, on the 20th of May in the fortieth year of his age”.
“Ecgfrith’s Battle” marked the end of Northumbrian dominion over the Picts, & ensured their independence until it merged into the Kingdom of Scotland.
See you again for another adventure in Historyland.