The Battle of Degsastan, 603 CE

The forces array for battle across Dawston Burn, with Degsta’s Stone in the centre. Saxons at bottom, Dal Riada and allies at the top.

After several cancelled games over the holiday period, Matt and I were finally able to get together on Dec 31st for a final game of 2021. I’ve been getting back into the 7th Century recently and developing my Midgard heroic battle rules, so the Battle of Degsastan was an easy choice.

Degsta’s Stone overlooks the place of slaughter.

Degsastan was, by the standards of British battles of the time, a pretty large affair. Many of the battles of this period probably involved no more than a few hundred warriors, but Degsastan seems to have been into the thousands. The conflict came about because of the growing power of Aethelfrith, King of Northumbria in the north of Britain; nicknamed the ‘Twister’ by the Britons (presumably because of his cunning rather that his wrestling moves), Bede tells us that he ‘ravaged the Britons with more cruelty than all other English leaders.’ Aedan mac Gabhrain, King of Dal Riada, raised a coalition of Dal Riadans, Ulster Irish and Britons to put the tyrant back in check.

The table arrayed for battle. Forces are entirely metal from my collection built up between 1995 and 2012 or thereabouts, using Gripping Beast, Foundry, Black Tree and others. The terrain mat is a home-made piece using sherpa fleece as a base. Dice trays are from Handiwork Games.

The battle was fought at Degsastan, ‘Degsa’s Stone’, an unknown location in Northern Britain in 603 (or possibly 604). Peter Marren’s book Battles of the Dark Ages presents the evidence for the most likely site being Dawston Rigg at Liddersdale in the Scottish Borders (there are other options but for simplicity I just followed his lead.) Guy Halsall’s article for Miniature Wargames magazine in the 1980s included a suggested map of deployment (reproduced in Peter Marren’s book), with the two opposing forces facing off across Dawston Burn, so I took this as my blueprint for the game. Historically, the battle was a mighty victory for Aethelfrith of Bernicia and paved the way for the Saxon domination of the north of England.

Terrain was simple – some sloping hills on either side, a stream running down the middle, and Degsa’s Stone itself placed near the action.

Hills have been created with polystyrene sheets under the mat. Sherpa fleece is a very thick material with some flex so works perfectly for this.

The opposing forces were as follows:

DAL RIADA

Aedan mac Gabrain, King of Dal Riada

King Aedan Mac Gabhran of Dal Riada (the shield bearers are from the Alternative Armies Erin range; Aedan is a heavily-converted Gripping Beast Saxon)

Mael Umai, Ulster Warlord

Irish warlord Mael Umai and his warriors

Domingart, son of Aedan

Domingart, son of Aedan, commands a mixed force of British and Pictish allies.

2 units of household warriors (Aedan and Mael Umai’s bodyguards)

18 units of warriors (without armour – shields, javelins, spears and swords)

6 units of skirmishers

BERNICIA

Aethelfrith, King of Bernicia

Theobald, brother of Aethelfrith

Theobald takes up position with his Saxons

Hering. son of Hussa [from the sources, we know that Hering was present at the battle but it’s not clear which side he fought on. It is quite possible that he was leading an exiled group of Bernicians as part of the Dal Riadan army. I have placed him in Aethelfrith’s force.]

Hering, son of Hussa (with red raven banner, centre)

3 units of household warriors (bodyguards for the three leaders)

11 units of warriors (better armoured than their opponents, armed with spears, javelins and swords)

3 units of skirmishers

Having deployed the forces, I took command of the Bernicians; my friend Matt took the reigns of the Dal Riadans and their allies. I attempted a solid Saxon advance which rapidly fell apart as my command rolls were dreadful! Aethelfrith and Theobald’s men were obviously intimidated by the size of the Celtic host. As a result, I ended up with a piecemeal advance, which was to cost me dearly later.

Saxon forces – Theobald is visible at front left throwing some shapes next to Degsa’s Stone

The Dal Riadans played a waiting game, standing on their hill above the burn. The skirmishers were sent forwards along with Domingart, Aedan’s Son, who was desperate to show his prowess and strike the first blows of the battle (we were trying out a new rule which gives a Reputation bonus to the hero who leads the first charge, and Matt was determined to get it.)

After a couple of turns trying to whip the troops into order, Hering son of Hussa managed to get the Bernicia right wing to charge into combat against the Pictish and British skirmishers at the burn. Domingart got his wish and led the first charge although his unit was driven off and he rejoined his main force.

When you roll dice like this, those skirmishers are going to cause trouble! Dice tray from Handiwork Games

The more numerous Dal Riadan skirmishers caused problems to the Saxons up and down the line, in one case dropping arrows right in front of Aethelfrith’s own hearthguard.

Trouble with skirmishers! If it hadn’t been for you pesky kids…

Hering’s Saxons on the right wing were heavily engaged in combat with Domingart’s men across the burn. The British and Picts fought bravely, punching above their weight, but were steadily driven back by the better-equipped and armoured Bernicians. Hering, finding himself almost face-to-face with Domingart, issued a challenge to single combat and duly dispatched his opposite number.

Hering son of Hussa takes down the rash Domingart

However, in the centre, Aethelfrith’s men were making limited progress, suffering casualties from the hail of missiles coming from the Dal Riadans. Driving off the archers, the Bernician king surged forward and was met by Aedan’s forces coming off the hill, resulting in vicious fighting along the whole length of the burn as Theobald’s forces also arrived on the left flank.

Wholesale fighting erupts along the burn

The Saxons were beginning to make their quality tell as Dal Riadan casualties mounted, but the early casualties and disorder started to play against them. Aethelfrith’s command was now outnumbered and taking casualties. In an effort to help them, the victorious Hering son of Hussa (on the right) began to swing his units around to assist his king – but was charged in the rear by an unbroken British unit. Hering, although wounded, managed to drive off the attackers with a hail of javelins, but the momentum was broken and casualties were mounting.

Hering son of Hussa’s men get charged in the rear by vengeful Britons

Fighting his way through the press of bodies in the centre, Aedan decided that he would have his slice of the glory and attacked the wounded King Aethelfrith. Calling upon Christ (and quite probably the Morrigan as well), Aedan cut down ‘the Twister’ and his gesiths perished around his body. This was the end for the Saxons – with the king and his brother dead, they started to flee the field. Hering son of Hussa was last seen, wounded, fighting a desperate last stand under his raven banner.

Turn 6: Aethelfrith and Aedan clash in single combat, but the wounded ‘Twister’ comes off worst and perishes.
With his Reputation crumbling and nothing to lose, Theobald calls out the mighty Ulster warrior Mael Uma to single combat.

With the final turn of the game in sight and Bernician reputation teetering on defeat, Theobald, brother of Aethelfrith, charged in on the left wing and issued a challenge to Mael Umai of Ulster. Although they should have been evenly matched, the Ulsterman made short work of the Bernician in the style of Cuchulain himself!

and…Mael Uma barely breaks a sweat, dispatching Theobald to Woden in short order.

And so we had a complete reversal of the historical outcome! The game was great fun and Matt played with true Celtic spirit. The outcome most certainly could have been different but the piecemeal advance of the Saxons and some poor luck was most certainly a game-changer. I love this period and will be playing more very soon!

The end – with Aethelfrith and Theobald dead, the Saxon Reputation crumbles and the Bernicians flee the field. Casualties are heavy on both sides but Aedan clearly holds the victory.

‘Tonight, the ravens croak over the head of Aethelfrith the Twister.’

4 thoughts on “The Battle of Degsastan, 603 CE

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