The tactics of those who fought at Degsastan were simple and straight-forward. Most men were not professional soldiers and could afford only minimal time away from the farm for military training. That said, the styles of fighting of the various groups were quite different.
The Irish were accustomed to swift raid and retreat tactics and usually operated in small numbers. They preferred ambush or flight to fighting in open battle. When they did indulge in battle, however, the Irish would advance on the enemy and shower them with javelins. If the situation then looked favourable they would rush forwards to fight hand to hand with their short swords and knives. Otherwise they would retreat to fight another day.
The men of Clyde derived their tactics from those of the later Roman army. The armoured infantry formed up in a number of solid formations, bristling with spears. The heavy cavalry, of which there were rarely more than a couple of dozen present, lurked behind the infantry. If the enemy infantry became disorganized, the cavalry would charge forward to smash the formation apart. The enemy would then be vulnerable to an infantry attack or, if they ran, to pursuit by the light cavalry. If no such advantage could be obtained, the cavalry would remain inactive and the army would seek to disengage and fall back intact.
The English used more immobile tactics. They formed up in a single mass of infantry, often seeking to occupy a hill crest, gap between dense forests or some other tactically secure position. The better armed warriors formed the front rank. They would lock their shields together to create a solid obstacle known as the shieldwall. The spears would project forward from the shieldwall. When these were broken, the front ranks drew their swords or knives and stabbed forwards. The less well armed men, meanwhile, formed the rear ranks of the English formation. They showered javelins at the enemy and would step forward to take the place of any in the front ranks who fell dead or injured.
The contemporary accounts of the Degsastan campaign are infuriatingly vague. Bede gives some detail of the course of the fighting, and says the battle was fought ‘at a famous place known as Degsastan’, but obviously thinks the place so well known that he does not need to say where it is. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is even more vague saying merely ‘Aedan, King of Scots, fought Athelferth of Northumbria at Degsastan’.
There is no place in Britain today called Degsastan, though over the years such a name may well have become transformed into ‘Dawston’, ‘Dayston’ or something similar. There are several of these in existence, and it is not immediately obvious which was the site of the battle. Given the political layout of northern Britain at the time, however, it is possible to recreate the likely course of the campaign and so to identify which place was then known as Degsastan.
Aedan was the aggressor, so the course of the campaign would have been dictated by his war aims. These were to drive the English out of Gododdin and to secure the safety of both the Scots and of Clyde. He also needed to meet up with his allies, the Ulstermen and men of Clyde.
These factors would have meant that Aedan had to gather his army at a point on the west coast where the Irish could land their curraghs and which offered easy marching routes into Bernician territory. There are two such places. The first is the Clyde. However, to muster an army here would have given only one possible line of attack – straight east to the Forth. Athelferth would have known from where the attack was to come and could have gathered his entire army to face it.
The second possible mustering place was the Solway Firth. This would have involved a longer march for Aedan’s Scots, but allowed for men from Rheged to join the allied army. It also offered three routes into Bernicia, which would have kept Athelferth guessing and may have forced him to divide his army, which is what he did.
Assuming that Aedan chose the Solway Firth, he would most likely have gathered his army in the shelter of the stout Roman fortifications around Carlisle. From there the easiest route was the Roman road along Hadrian’s Wall to Corbridge from where Aedan could have turned north along another Roman road to strike at the very heart of Athelferth’s kingdom at Bamburgh. A second Roman road ran north up the valley of the Annan and over the Pentland Hills to reach the banks of the Firth of Forth.
The more daring option, however, would have been to abandon the Roman roads and advance up the valley of the Liddel. Some way up the river, the valley divides. The western spur offers a route over the Cheviots to the valley of the Teviot and thence to the Tweed. The eastern spur leads to the Tyne. The strategically vital fork in the Liddel Valley is occupied by the hamlet of Dawston – almost certainly the Degsastan where the battle was fought.
We can imagine Athelferth, knowing Aedan was mustering at Carlisle, being forced to divide his army. He sent one force under his brother Theobald to guard one route, perhaps the Roman road over the Pentland Hills, while he kept his main army under his own command, perhaps around Bamburgh. It is likely that Theobald’s force consisted of an elite troop of infantry mounted on horses, which would have given him more mobility.
Hearing that Aedan was marching up the Liddel, Athelferth would have wanted to block his advance at Dawston, otherwise he himself might have missed the invaders completely and his lands would have lain open to pillage. It seems that Theobald reached Dawston first and drew up his men in a shieldwall in a strong defensive position. No doubt he hoped to block the valley until the main Bernician army came up.
Aedan may have sent forward his Irish and Scots to skirmish with the English shieldwall. Perhaps he hoped to lure Theobald off his position and disorder the shieldwall. The javelins and darts of the Irish and Scots would have inflicted casualties, but would have been unable to break the English defence. We do not know if Theobald stood his ground or attacked. But we do know that he and all his men were wiped out in the savage fighting.
It was at this point, with Aedan’s army disordered after the victory over Theobald, that Athelferth and the main English army arrived. The disciplined English surged forward, cutting down the enemy and allowing them no time to reform. Both Mael Uma and Aedan escaped alive, perhaps they had horses, but the majority of the Scots and Irish were killed.
The fate of any men of Clyde involved is not mentioned. However, the Clyde army remained virtually intact and continued to hold off English attacks for years to come. Either it was not involved in the main fighting, or it had kept formation and not been caught in the disordered rout.
Writing a hundred years after the Battle of Degsastan, the English chronicler Bede boasted ‘From that day until the present, no King of the Scots has dared to do battle with the English’.
Bede may have been exaggerating, but the victory for Bernicia was, indeed, dramatic. Within a couple of years, Athelferth had completed the occupation of the east coast south of the Firth of Forth. English farmers settled densely in Lothian and along the Tweed. The Britons who remained were subjected to English rule and became inferior citizens. The kings of Clyde and the disunited rulers of Rheged went on the defensive, leaving the English free to complete their conquests on the east side of the Pennines.
By the 650s the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira had become united through dynastic marriage and all the English north of the Humber and south of the Forth were ruled by a single king. It would not be long before these Northumbrians would want to exert their power, leading to the next conflict with their northern neighbours.