Wuffa’s Sword (1)
The king’s wooden hall was filled to capacity; at its centre stood the great brazier that heated the hall. Its walls were lined with expensive, richly coloured wall hangings made by the finest artisans.
Below where Wuffa’s mighty sword and shield hung, sat Rædwald, lord and undisputed king of the East Angles. To his right sat his two sons Rægenhere and Eorpwald and their uncle Eni, Rædwald’s younger brother; to Rædwald’s left, his wife Eabæ the mother of his beloved sons.
Rædwald glowered at the cause of his current torment, who was seated with Rædwald’s thanes and ceorls, to one side of the hall.
Edwin, the true heir to the throne of Deira, brother in law of Æthelfrith of Northumbria had sought Rædwald’s protection after attempts were made on his life at Æthelfrith’s command.
At first Rædwald was all in favour of either killing him, or simply returning him to Æthelfrith, but his wife Eabæ and Paulinus, a monk and member of the Canterbury mission had reminded him of his recent religious conversion and his new Christian duty to honour his gift of sanctuary.
Reluctantly Rædwald had sent Æthelfrith’s ambassadors back to their lord empty handed after Eabæ had admonished Rædwald to listen to the monk, reminding him that he now served two sets of gods, the Christian god and his old Anglo-Saxon gods, Tiw, Wodin, Thor and Freya.
Completing the picture that day, Rædwald’s faithful wolfhound Ceolwulf lay at his master’s feet gnawing on a cow’s thigh bone, snarling should any other hound stray too close. His master was king; Ceolwulf was the leader of the pack, both here in the hall and on the battlefield.
Rædwald had succeeded his father Tytila at the tender age of twenty, inheriting his crown and his badge of office, Wuffa’s great sword and shield. Now, many years later, Rædwald had barely a month since driven out his stepson Sigeberht, forcing him into exile in Gaul to prevent any attempt by Sigeberht to remove Rædwald’s two natural sons.
Rædwald had learned of his stepson’s treacherous plot to murder Rægenhere and his younger brother Eorpwald in order to place himself next in line to the throne. Sigeberht was lucky to escape with his life.
Because of Edwin, Rædwald now had no option but to declare war on Æthelfrith and his Northumbrian kingdom. He had already sent his most trusted thane Egfrid to spy on Æthelfrith’s army near the River Trent at the western boundary of the kingdom of Lindsey, two days earlier. When Egfrid returns, plans would be made for a surprise attack.
The massive carved doors of Rædwald’s hall swung open and Egfrid, together with his ceorls entered; Egfrid motioned for his men to go and eat, as he strode forward to the high table where his king and old friend sat.
Rædwald stood to greet him. “What news of Æthelfrith’s army?” Rædwald asked. “My lord, Æthelfrith has an army already assembled near the River Idle. He is not there yet; he tours his kingdom gathering more to his banner. His thanes are thirsty for blood.”
“Then we have no time to lose. Lord Edwin, will you fight or will you cower here?” Edwin stood up knocking back the bench he had been seated on. Drawing his sword, he strode to the centre of Rædwald’s hall. “Great king I stand by your side ready to do battle with my brother in law Æthelfrith and his army. He sought to kill me, denying me my right as the lawful king of Deira.”
Rædwald nodded then sent word to all his thanes along the route to the River Idle to prepare for battle. The march north began that very night.
Rædwald rode at the head of his steadily growing army dressed in his magnificent polished and ornately carved steel helm, with its protective cheek pieces, cranium ridge overlaid with gold, protective face mask with its gold brow ridge ends decorated with tusked Boar heads, nose and moustache inlaid with gold, together with his beautiful solid gold shoulder clasps inlayed with garnets to hold his rich cloak in place, and at his waist his belt, with its ornately designed solid gold belt buckle.
Sheathed at his back was Wuffa’s magnificent sword, beaten from welded rods of iron, edged with steel, creating a beautiful shimmering wavy pattern along its length, with its pommel of gold, inlayed with garnets, its hilt guard of solid gold was also inlayed with garnets.
Striding effortlessly beside him was his faithful thane and shield bearer Egfrid proudly carrying Wuffa’s mighty circular wooden shield with its outer covering of thick hide, its edge covered in ornate gold inlay depicting writhing serpents and at its centre stood an exquisitely carved gold clad shield boss.
Rædwald’s faithful wolfhound Ceolwulf trotted beside his master’s horse, closely followed by his own wolfhound army ready to rip throats.
As dawn broke on the mist covered east bank of the River Idle, Rædwald had formed up his considerable army into three columns, similar in appearance to the old long established Roman legions.
To his left Edwin stood ready with his men and to his right Rædwald’s oldest son Rægenhere and his men prepared for battle. Rædwald sat motionless at the head of his central column with his old friend Egfrid ready to protect his king’s back.
Across the marshy meadow the mist began to lift as the sun slowly burnt it away, revealing Æthelfrith’s encampment. At Rædwald’s command, the three columns formed their shield walls and began to shout “Out, out!” banging their iron tipped spears against their shields.
Æthelfrith’s more experienced fighters attacked the three shield walls in a ragged open formation, believing that their superior numbers and skills would win the day. With each charge at Rædwald’s shield walls, Æthelfrith’s crazed warriors fell in great numbers.
Ceolwulf and his brethren savagely tore flesh from bone, biting Northumbrian throats in their own frenzied attack.
Æthelfrith’s men, who were attacking Rægenhere’s shield wall, believed they were fighting Edwin, and in the ensuing carnage Rægenhere was killed in the course of the battle.
The tide of battle slowly began to turn in Rædwald’s favour as his three column shield walls steadily drove forward to where Æthelfrith stood surrounded by his most faithful thanes, ready to die for their king.
Rædwald, on hearing of the death of his beloved son, with Egfrid at his back, sought out Æthelfrith and slew him with Wuffa’s great sword.
With Æthelfrith now dead, the few survivors of his Northumbrian army fled the battlefield.
Edwin succeeded Æthelfrith as ruler in Northumbria which also gave him the English Kingdoms of the North Deira and Bernicia. He became the first Christian king of the Northern English of Northumbria. His now considerable military strength enabled him to conquer the Brythonic kingdom of Elmet, and also to lead his army to victory as far south as the Saxon-English Kingdom of Wessex.
Æthelfrith’s sons fled into exile among the Picts and Scots.
Greif stricken at the death of his son Rægenhere, Rædwald broke Wuffa’s great sword and returned home a broken man. Soon after, in his forty-fourth year king Rædwald died and was buried in all his finery in his boat at a site in the English county of Suffolk known as Sutton Hoo. His like would never be seen again…