A Battle of Borders | Living North

A Battle of Borders


In August 1018 the Battle of Carham took place on the picturesque fields by the River Tweed. We spoke to Clive Hallam-Baker who is the Head of Research for the Carham 1018 Society who discovered the date of the battle following a phone call with NASA
‘Many disagreed over the date of the comet so I contacted NASA and they were most amused,’ Clive chuckles. ‘There's NASA, one of the biggest and highest tech organisations in the world, and they were asked about a battle 1,000 years ago.'

It’s hard to imagine the unthinkable level of brutality which occurred in the idyllic setting of Carham. What was once a battlefield, where many lives are believed to have been lost, is now a calm and peaceful site, bordering the River Tweed, on the cusp of both England and Scotland. Hundreds of years of battles raged along the border between the two, but Trustee of The Battlefields Trust Clive Hallam-Baker, who lives close to Carham, believes that a battle here 1,000 years ago in August defined the current border between England and Scotland for the first time. ‘I live on Flodden Field and I've been working on the Battle of Flodden for over 10 years. In 2013 we commemorated the 500th anniversary of that battle, and as we were researching Flodden we became aware of so many other battlefields locally.’ Clive says. ‘Carham cropped up and we knew nothing about it. We started to do a bit of research and found that nobody else knew much about it either. There's hardly a single uncontested fact about the battle, even the date was contested –some said it was 1016 and others believed it to be in 1018.’

Clive came across records from the Symeon of Durham, a priest who documented the battle as 1018 and wrote that the battle was preceded by a comet. ‘A comet in those times was seen as a prediction of doom and destruction,’ says Clive. The comet may have been a sign of doom and destruction for the soldiers, but for Clive it was a unique opportunity to put debate over the date of the battle at Carham to rest once and for all.

‘Many disagreed over the date of the comet so I contacted NASA and they were most amused,’ Clive chuckles. ‘There's NASA, one of the biggest and highest tech organisations in the world, and they were asked about a battle 1,000 years ago. They were helpful and put us onto the world expert in comets who agreed that comets were seen over 30 days in August 1018. Not only over Carham but throughout the world.’

This conversation with NASA and the leading world expert in comets confirmed the date of the Battle of Carham as August 1018, and also provided Clive with an interesting insight into the world at this time. ‘The world expert I spoke to shared some extraordinary astronomical records that were kept in the Far East, in China and Malaysia that documented the comet. They were the leaders in civilisation at the time, and so we think we're so darn clever but they were actually centuries ahead of us as far as actually writing anything down,’ Clive explains. ‘There's very little in written archives to go off, these were known as the Dark Ages not because they were dark (although they very well may have been because at this time there were many volcanic eruptions in Iceland) but they're known as the Dark Ages because so very little is documented.’

What we do know is that during the first millennium AD England endured many years of unrest and invasion from the Romans, Danes, Vikings, Anglos, Jutes and Saxons. The possession of places and the shifts in power saw the country split into many kingdoms. By 700AD Northumbria, stretching from the Humber to the Firth of Forth, was the largest and most powerful of these kingdoms. This did not last, and within two centuries Northumbria was under threat from the Danes in the south, the Scots in the north and the Galwegians in the west, and was losing territory.

So, by 1016 Northumberland had become part of a collaboration of smaller kingdoms with King Æthelred The Unready (meaning ill-advised) as the ruler of England. A successful invasion by vicious Viking leader Cnut the Great meant that many of the Earldoms were removed and replaced by his Nordic Earls, except for Bamburgh where Northumbrian leader Eadwulf Cudel (meaning cowardly) had claimed territory.

As this unrest occurred, Malcolm II King of Scots seized an opportunity to attack the Northumbrian land and, siding with Owain the Bald King of Strathclyde, they marched south with their armies to Carham. ‘Eadwulf has to gather an army quickly and he makes a strategic error, because he tried to stop them before he could gather a good enough army, and they meet at Carham. The reason we think it's Carham is because it was a place worth attacking. There was a minister there – a small monastery founded by Saint Cuthbert. People would revel in having any items that connected them to Saint Cuthbert as it was a sign of power and protection,’ says Clive. Across the Tweed from Carham there is a village called Birgham, which means river crossing. The through there was likely a Roman road which meant that access to Carham would be easy from both sides. ‘The battle would have been short, bloody and quite vicious. Shield wall against shield wall and axes, spears and javelins. The tactics were very similar to the Roman’s, lock shields together to form an impenetrable barrier and then you have irresistible force meeting immovable objects – something’s got to give,’ Clive explains. ‘The armies wouldn't have been that great and the Scots’ armies will have certainly had many more men than the Northumbrian's.’

The Northumbrians suffered a devastating loss at Carham and following the battle the border moved. ‘The whole border is, in my mind, an echo of this battle. If you stand at Carham you can look north into Scotland, you can look from the west into Scotland and from the top of the hill you can look south into Scotland,’ says Clive. ‘The Tweed becomes the border of the eastern edge of the country and within 100 years castles are built along it in Tweedmouth, Norham, Cornhill, Wark and Roxburgh. After 1018 the Tweed lines the de facto border, it’s not the de jure border until 1237 when it’s set in concrete by the Treaty of York.’

The border is therefore claimed to have been unofficially marked after Carham. Fortified on both sides, it stays more or less the same after that. It becomes something you can see and draw on a map as the River Tweed was essentially the physical marking of the border between Scotland and England. ‘History doesn't all just happen on a Thursday afternoon, the event may happen but it’s what follows that makes history. Carham was just the beginning of something much bigger,’ says Clive. 

To mark the 1,000th anniversary of the battle, and raise awareness of the Battle of Carham Clive arranged a live battle re-enactment (with the help of a lottery grant) on the site over the 7th–8th July. There was musical interludes with the Northumbrian Ranters and the Coldstream Pipe Band, weaponry and archery displays, theatrical drama and an exciting battle to watch. Clive hopes to start archaeological work over the next year to look for more evidence of the battle and continue the search for Saint Cuthbert’s early Christian sites, as well as arranging an organised battlefields trail crossing Carham and its surrounds – all rich in castles, old churches and historic battlefields.

Carham 1018 Society

Published in: August 2018

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