In my travels I have chanced upon two 12th-century battles sites: Coleshill and Crogen. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on medieval military history and certainly not Welsh medieval history. Still, the current physical form of these locations deserve an Archaeodeath perspective, especially as both sport modern memorials.
For researchers, medieval battles are ghostly juggernauts. They are giant events that are pivotal in deciding the fate and trajectories of medieval communities and kingdoms, yet rarely do they leave satisfactory historical or archaeological traces. This is in stark contrast to medieval fortifications which litter our landscapes as vestiges of royal and lordly power, status, residences and military endeavours.
Written accounts rarely boast details sufficient to paint an accurate picture of how battles were planned, how they were conducted and what their aftermath was for their localities and regions.
In archaeological terms, this is an intense and diverse subfield of medieval archaeology and there is plenty to explore and discuss, from town and castle fortifications to war graves like Towton. Still, many medieval skirmishes and battles leave few physical traces at the sites themselves: few have revealed burial sites, small-finds or earthwork features connected with the battle itself, although some can be proximal to contemporary or later castles. I’m hoping conflict archaeologists can qualify this gross generalisation for me. Still, my current understanding is that before firearms and cannon, one cannot use artefacts to ‘piece together’ medieval conflicts.
Often it is only a crude appreciation of local topography and historical geography that can help historians create an imaginative understanding concerning why battles took place where they did. Sometimes these dimensions are used to shed light on how they actually transpired in the fashion they did: why those that won actually won, and why those that lost might have lost. Castles, topography, folklore and ancient monuments can conjure legends rather than convey detailed traditions passed down from the historical events themselves.
For these reasons, commemorating battle sites in the British landscape is something I personally have very mixed feelings about. Often we are commemorating fantasies rather than events. Yet from Hastings to Culloden, there are many different attempts to create battlefields as heritage experiences and commemorative locales, a tradition that started in a fashion in the Middle Ages itself in founding monastic institutions and raising crosses and chapels at sites of battle.
The skirmishes and battles of the wars between the English kingdom and its neighbours are particularly intriguing in this regard, where age-old prejudices and romanticism can flourish unchecked. The two examples are interesting because they are so low-key. They are also important because they commemorate Welsh victories and therefore their presence, and their modesty, as key heritage locations sheds light on their still-contested nature in perceptions of frontier and borderlands in the March of Wales.
Also of significance is that both battles are close to castles that, in terms of their historical and archaeological evidence, have zero to do with the battles. In both cases they date to far later than the battles associated with them. Equally interesting for me is that both are close to early medieval linear earthworks that sought to control and dominate the frontiers between Welsh kingdoms and Mercia in the 8th and 9th centuries AD.
Coleshill – A Bridge for the Dead
In Wepre Country Park, one walks up through woodland in a steep valley to the striking late-13th century and underappreciated castle of Ewloe. This is a Welsh castle, reflecting a mid-13th-century domination of the area by the prince of Gwynedd: Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, in around 1257. The site has never been subject to detailed archaeological investigation, so on current evidence we can only assume that there was no castle here a century earlier. However, it was in the vicinity of the castle, in July 1157, exactly a century before we know of the castle’s existence, Henry II’s forces were ambushed at Ewloe by the men of Owain ap Gruffudd (Owain the Great) and defeated.
The strategic importance of this area for those traversing the Flintshire coast is evident in that the early 9th-century Wat’s Dyke runs close to the south-west near Northop and Sychdyn and then to the east of Mold. Indeed, there might have been a prehistory to the 13th-century castle at Ewloe, as yet unattested by archaeological investigation and unknown to history.
The modern visitor is afforded details of the battle in the visitor centre, and there is a carving of a Norman knight’s head in the woods beside the path to the castle. The battle site itself is located for modern visitors at a post-medieval bridge and there is a further plaque, now nearly eligible. So en route to the castle, the walker is prompted to reflect on a Welsh victory associated with the castle’s prehistory.
This morning I went on a walk in cold and rain to explore Offa’s Dyke from Craignant to Chirk. Although I have regularly visited Chirk Castle, because I usually have kids in tow, I haven’t descended along Offa’s Dyke before to the Ceiriog. Here lies the Gate of the Dead!
Henry II’s forces were ambushed in the Ceiriog Valley in 1165: the Battle of Crogen. Here, there is more than topography and a later castle. In this case the historical site attributed to the battle is the very spot where Offa’s Dyke is physically present to this day, on the valley slopes descending to the valley. There is also an ancient oak tree and a dedicated place-name – the Gate of the Dead: Adwy’r Beddau.
In addition to Offa’s Dyke and the ancient oak tree, the modern visitor has two commemorative dimensions. There are a trio of well-placed signs telling of the battle, just inside the neo-medieval gate that leads up a path beside Offa’s Dyke to Chirk Castle. Then there is a plaque on the bridge over the Ceiriog itself. Finally, on Offa’s Dyke high above on the valley side, there is a display board explaining the dyke and the battle, helping to tie the battle into wider landscape narratives.
Yes, this post’s title is a Tolkein homage.
The memorial dimensions of both sites are modest but evocative in terms of the landscape features of water, wood and valley-bottoms. These locales call forth imaginary ghosts of battle for the modern visitor, enhanced by only modest signs and memorials.
I’d like to call them ‘neglected’ and call for more to ‘celebrate’ these events. However, I fear that way leads to medieval military madness and the kinds of sick fantasising over mass-killing that our society loves to revel in. I’d hate these sites to get a Culloden or Flodden attenion, let alone the kind of hero-cults we have seen with Richard III.
Still, to say these battle sites are well known, well visited and fully recognised and acknowledged would be incredibly misleading. They have an important place in the modern cultural landscape and that place needs telling in a richer and more nuanced fashion. It also needs telling at other locations: tied into the broader fabric of the historic landscape. I suppose a good example of a steer in this direction at both sites can be identified, with information at the Wepre Park visitor centre about Coleshill, connecting it into the landscapes’ broader story. Likewise, the heritage board on Offa’s Dyke tells of the linear earthwork, Chirk Castle but also about Crogen.
Still, these are but impressions. I haven’t visited many medieval battle sites and I invite comment on comparisons with others. However, I suspect that these particular battles, so close to the English-Welsh border, are heralded by some for modern political agendas, and best forgotten by many. My feeling is that the easiest way to let narrow modest nationalists and extremists adopt these sites is to leave them fallow and open to interpretation. Hence, I think it is best to claim them for everyone and make sure there is clear, open and balanced engagement with these battle sites, and to make sure they are set in appropriate context.