Archaeologists plan to investigate burial site which could re-write 7th century Battle of Hatfield

By Ben Miller | 15 June 2015

Report suggests bodies from Battle of Hatfield could be buried in Nottinghamshire rather than Yorkshire

A black and white photo of archaeologists sitting inside a church during the 1950s
The workmen of Eastwoods, a company which carried out an excavation at St Mary's Church in Hatfield during the 1950s© Stan Strickland
The battle which killed England’s first Christian king, Edwin, has long been accepted to have taken place at Hatfield Chase near Doncaster. But the Battle of Hatfield Investigation Society believes that the Pagan victory over the Northumbrians, in 632, could actually have been carried out in a Nottinghamshire village.

Suggesting that the connection with Doncaster exists primarily through word of mouth, they say there is a lack of evidence documenting the burials. Instead, they are seeking £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to explore a site in Cuckney.

A black and white photo of an archaeological trench during the 1950s
Bones are said to have been uncovered at the church© Stan Strickland
“In December 1950, the first skeletons - around 50 - were uncovered from the first mass grave at St Mary’s Church, in Cuckney, by subsidence contractors,” explains Paul Jameson, who says an ancient account by The Venerable Bede, giving first mention to the battle, could have referred to a much larger region of the country, rather than the area near Doncaster known as Hatfield.

“Subsequently, more were found in three or four mass graves, totalling around 200, with speculation that there could be as many as 800.

“The Reverend Ashworth Lound, of St Mary’s, personally counted some 200 skulls. And a present Cuckney villager, then a choirboy, remembers seeing 20 to 30 skulls on display in the church, most of which seemed to have pick type damage.

“He believes that this was not caused by contractors during the 1951 operations.”

Writing in 1975, historian Stanley Revill said that the bodies were set in nave trenches in the region of the church – “the bodies of men”, “heaped on one another” to a depth of up to seven feet.

“Interestingly, the north-west side of the church grounds may be un-naturally high, possibly indicating a burial mound, which might have provided an ideal base for the construction of the adulterine fort , probably in the 12th century (certainly before 1150) , by Thomas de Cuckney,” says Jameson.

“During the 1951 excavations, no artefacts were found to help date the bodies. Although Maurice Barley, the Professor of Archaeology at Nottingham University, did visit St Mary’s once, no dating of the skeletons took place and a wonderful opportunity to solve the mystery was lost.

“We have searched exhaustively for any pictures taken in 1950 or 1951 of the mass graves, to no avail.”

An initial bid for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant failed last October. But a second bid, submitted in April, is expected to receive a response this month.

“We have non-invasive permission from the Diocese of Southwell for ground-penetrating radar surveying and magnetometer work in the church grounds,” says Jameson.

“We also have non-invasive and invasive permission from the estates company regarding the fields surrounding the church.”

Maurice Barley’s original report on the possible burials from the Battle of Hatfield at St Cuckney’s Church

“The operations disturbed a number of modern and medieval interments, but the interesting discovery was also made of a large number of burials – possibly as many as 200 – which must antedate the building of the church.

They were in three or perhaps four trenches, dug north to south and wide enough for the bodies to lie in them with feet to the east.

A good deal of the information about the finds came second-hand, from questioning the contractor’s men; I was able to make only one visit to the church while the work was in progress.

It is most unfortunate that the plan to have some of the bones examined by an expert fell through. The skeletons, said to be those of young males, lay very close – indeed jostled each other – in the trenches; the first remains met with were at a depth of about one foot below the present level of the church floor, and in places they were found as much as seven feet down.

The burial trenches extended under the north aisle and the north wall of the church, though how far they continued outside it is not known.

It is impossible to be certain whether they similarly extended under the south wall of the church, as recent interments outside and the insertion of a damp course under that wall had disturbed the ground.

No finds of any kind were made which would have helped to date or explain the interments, although the contractor’s men had been asked to keep a watch. Nor was any evidence noticed which might have suggested that any of these young men met a violent end.

It may be remarked that in one of the trenches at least only the lower part of the bodies was encountered, and the whole of the skeletons was not exposed. When tie beams were laid under the chancel, no bodies were encountered, but Mr Lound pointed out that the floor of the chancel had been raised in recent times, and that possibly the trenches did not go deep enough to encounter any burials there.

It is plan that the church was built within the confines of an adulterine castle dating from the anarchy of the mid-12th century. According to Mr lound, there is a strong tradition in the village of a skirmish here during Stephen’s reign.

There is nothing in the apparent history of the fabric of the church to contradict the suggestion that the building was erected not long before or after 1150, and on this spot, to hallow the burials of the men who fell in fighting round the castle.

The bodies were, as one might expect, stripped of everything they wore and possessed before they were crowded into the long wide trenches.

There is much more that one might like to know: both the archaeologist and the romantic would like to hear of an iron arrowhead embedded in a skull, and to have expert confirmation of the statement that all the skeletons were male, and of men of fighting age.

The alternative explanation of plague burial seems unlikely: there were too many dead for plague to have carried off at one time in this poor and thinly-populated part of the county.

Our knowledge of the events in Nottinghamshire in the years 1139 to 1154 is too scanty for us to fit a battle at Cuckney securely into the story.

Nottingham and Newark castles were, as in the Civil War of the 17th century, key factors. Stephen was able to secure both at first; he lost control of Nottingham for a time after the battle of Lincoln, but recovered it in 1142 when William Painel left the county to get reinforcements for an attack on Stephen’s adherents who had fortified Southwell.

He never made the attack, and Stephen’s adherents in the county were left undisturbed.

We must be content to regard Cuckney Castle as an example of the kind of small private castle which was built by hundreds of lesser men in England when, for a decade or so, there was no royal authority to deny them the pleasure of tyrannising over their neighbourhood.

Such castles were no doubt used as bases for a good deal of raiding and petty skirmishing. There we must leave this matter, in which the only certainty is, after all, the discovery of 100 and more skeletons.”

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I think the battle took place close to cuckney Edwin when killed was moved through the forest 5 miles to my village edwinstowe Edwin king stowe hide name joined edwinstowe.
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