Staffordshire Treasure and a Welsh Cannae
29 Mar 2012
A Welsh sting-raid inveigled a pursuing Mercian Anglo-Saxon force into an ambush of annihilation . In the process , the bait (the Staffordshire Treasure) got lost .
Militarised refugee remnants of Romano-Britons in the Welsh mountains gained in confidence and audacity as the pressure from Anglo-Saxon Mercia decreased . Mercia was suffering from a bad case of military over-stretch , and under increasing pressure from surrounding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms . The Danes were also starting to appear in larger numbers . (This eventually resulted in Offa’s Dyke about 770 AD)
A daring cattle raid (see “Marwnad Cynddylan”) led to a more ambitious undertaking .
The Staffordshire Raid .
Like all cattle raiders , they delighted in elaborate ambushes and counter-ambushes .
An elite (read a bunch of hot-heads , with a nominal wiser elder) bunch of about 100 slipped deep into Mercia to near their religious capital (Lichfield) . Their target was a three senior Christian clergymen , with a strong escort of 92 elite (noble) Mercians and about 200 trained , professional cavalry .
Their personal prizes were the weapons , armor and especially horses . Gold was not a treasure to them , since they had no way to exchange it . The aim of their chiefs was to give Mercia such a bloody nose that they would pause .
Both aims succeeded beyond their wildest expectations .
The raiders managed to surprise the escort (probably by a pre-dawn attack) , massacred them and loaded the loot on the captured horses . They then took off for the shortest-time route towards the West , hotly pursued .
Mercia had to answer this insult . The pursuit was commanded by a senior officer , probably a brother or son of the king .
Then , as now , this was the Old Roman Road west of Lichfield . This linked up to three other old roman roads , one a T-junction after a southern junction . These old Roman roads were specifically built to keep the hill-bandits in check , but now served as fast transit for the ambush forces .
The Staffordshire Treasure .
While on the gallop , the Welsh raiders broke off the golden ornamentation from the weapons (hence their bent and broken shapes) . At some convenient and obvious spot , they buried them rather shallowly. They were decoys , meant to slow down the Mercians as they stopped to loot .
The Mercian commander ,realising it was a ploy , was senior enough to browbeat his immediate followers into ignoring it and to trample their horses all over the site , hiding any trail from subsequent followers .
They then pursued , rallying the countryside as they went .
The Welsh raiders had sent three of their best riders on their fastest horses ahead , to tell the jaws of the trap to move into position . (Hence the attempted delaying tactics) . No smoke signals were used , as this would have alerted the experienced Mercian commander of a possible ambush .
The Welsh Cannae :
See Annexure I about size of the armies .
The ambush wiped out the cream of the Mercian Anglo-Saxon troops , as well as their most experienced commanders . It was a battle of annihilation . Ethnic cleansing memories going back generations . No one in the pursuing Mercian force survived . With them went the memory of the Staffordshire Treasure .
This had far-reaching effects on English History .
1.Offa’s Dyke . Mercia settled into a defensive posture on the western frontier .Wales is still one of the Kingdoms of United Kingdom .
2.Wessex Survived . King Alfred the Great et al .
3.Mercia succumbed to the Danes.
Why is it not better known ?
Jealousy . This was a raid cobbled up by a bunch of young hotheads , supported by some chiefs of frontier tribes , that succeeded beyond wildest expectations .
An inverse of military disasters . (Murphy was on the raid)
The politicians scrambled to take credit , and in the process the Welsh treasure got lost as surely as the Staffordshire Treasure .
Why do I call it a Treasure , and not a Hoard ?
It was meant to be a treasure , to distract loot-hungry Mercian troops . Not to get lost for 1 300 years .
Murphy must have been there . Humans elaborately hide treasure , which is immediately looted , but when they hide it in the open , it takes 1 300 years to find it .
Itemizing it will illustrate it :
The items are all gold or garnets . (Garnets from India , Bohemia ,Portugal) or gold (melted down Roman Solidi) . Valueless to Welsh hill dwellers without trade .
Note the absences :
1.No useful weapons .
2.No armour , especially ringmail , which was far more valuable than gold at the time .
3.There were no horse-bridles .
These would have been an inherent part of the looted horses (the most valuable loot of all) . Their bridles had gold as functional parts . No raider would have parted with them except under the direst circumstances .
4.No coins : Valueless to a raider : left as a distraction .
5.No women’s accoutrements : it was a religious caravan , with no women .
The Gold Treasure :
1. Sword Hilt fittings : 300 (ie 300 cavalry . all elite )
2. Sword Pommel Caps : 92 (elite of the elite : Nobility)
3. Scabbard Pendants : 10 Officers .
4. Religious artifacts: 3 . A bishop and two attendants .
At the time , from Roman cultural diffusion and illiteracy , military units were organized in centuries : The treasure represents three centuries of elite cavalry , of which one century was aristocracy . Ten were officers .
Add one bishop and two prelates .
No wonder the King of Mercia (probably Offa) was furious .
Notice the sharp decline of Mercia’s power from this point .
And so it goes .
Number of troops :
Difficult to get . I approximate it :
The Kingdom of Wessex had about 500 000 population . Half were women , and of the remaining half , if we exclude children and the elderly) , gives about 100 000 ablebodied men . These were mostly agricultural workers . We know that a modern army requires about 90% of the workforce as support . That is with the benefit of agricultural mechanization .
This gives a set of boundaries for professional troops Wessex or Mercia could support :
Upper Boundary : 10 000 (10% of 100 000)
Lower Boundary : 1 000 (10 % of Upper Boundary)
The pursuing troops of Mercia must have numbered about 1 500 – 2 000 , including some of their best officers and troops .
Their annihilation was as shattering blow to Mercia , from which it never recovered .
Where was the ambush ?
Archaeologists can get hard evidence .
On the Old Roman Road west of Lichfield , past the junction of the first roman road from the south and before bifurcation of the road a bit further on . In a valley that squeezes from the left side .
The raiders knew they had to turn around and fight , and wanted the Roman Road on their right-hand (sword) side when they did .
The ambush depended on a ridiculous number of factors to work perfectly . Four forces had to arrive nearly simultaneously at the schwerpunkt , with very little communication and very ill-disciplined troops .
As I said , Murphy must have been riding with them .
The raiders and the forces from the T-junction blocked the front and sides , and the force from the old Roman road from the south behind them blocked retreat for the pursuers .
A perfect battle of annihilation .
A Welsh Cannae.
Not one Mercian survived .
This blow crippled their kingdom . Most probably , the King of Mercia’s brothers and sons perished there .
Find it using Google-Earth .
Or walk it with a detector .
Is there any gold left ?
Yes . The pursuers included many high-status individuals . After the first shattering impact of the ambush , they would have scattered . There were no survivors to tell where they fell , and the Welsh weren’t particularly interested in gold . They had to skedaddle quickly , most probably back along the old roman roads . Look for discarded thingies on right hand verges of the old roman roads from the ambush site .
King Offa. Roughly speaking, the 7th century was the age of Northumbrian ascendance, with Mercia playing second fiddle. In the 8th century these roles reversed. The most powerful and well known of the Mercian kings was Offa, who ruled from 758-796. A successful warrior (which is a given for anyone in those days who managed to hold onto power for so long), he defeated kings in Sussex, Anglia, and Wessex, proclaiming himself King of the English.
Penny of Offa of Mercia
Offa's Dyke. Offa caused to be built the earthwork that still bears his name, Offa's Dyke, which stretches the 150 mile length of the Welsh border. Begun in the 780's, the purpose of the dyke seems to have been as a fortified frontier barrier, much as Hadrian's Wall some six centuries previous.
In most places the ditch was 25 feet from the bottom of the cut to the top of the bank, with wood or stone walling on top of that. The work involved has been compared to the building of the Great Pyramid. This gives us some idea of the power wielded by Offa. It seems that the dyke was not permanently manned, relying instead on the warning given by a series of beacons.