Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Battle of Pinhoe, Devon, in the year 1001

After being repulsed, but not defeated, at Lydford in 997 the Norwegian Vikings spent the winter in a fortified camp at the mouth of the Tamar. Rather than face the Devon militia they then headed east to continue with their strategy of moving quickly to strike at unprepared areas before making off in their ships and avoiding any local armies which could be mustered.

In 998 the Norwegians attacked Dorset and the Isle of Wight, in 999 they plundered Kent and in 1000 contented themselves with living off food and beer extorted under threat of violence in East Anglia. They began the campaigning season of 1001 by attacking Hampshire. A battle was fought at Dean, where the Vikings killed 81 Englishmen, including the county’s High Reeve, Leofwine. Although the English fled, the Vikings had suffered losses and chose to get out while they could. In around July they returned to Devon.

This time they did not raid the valley of the Tamar, but instead landed at Exmouth. There they constructed a fortified base where their beached ships could be securely guarded against the Devon men. Only then did the Vikings begin their raiding.

The first strike was successful. A force of Vikings went by sea to the River Teign, rowing up the broad estuary to reach the fortified town, or burgh, of Teingnton, now Kingsteignton. The attack achieved total surprise, the burgh being taken and burned without trouble. The Vikings moved on to loot and burn surrounding villages and manors for several days without interference.

On their return to base the Vikings found a force of ships approaching along the coast from the east. The ships were filled with armed men and the two fleets approached each other warily. The newcomers turned out to be a force of Danish mercenaries commanded by the famed Viking raider Pallig Tokesen, who was married to Gunhild the sister of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark with whom Ethelred had a treaty of friendship. Sweyn claimed overlordship of Norway and was engaged in a long-running feud with King Olaf of Norway so there was little friendship between Pallig and the Norwegians.

This Pallig and his men had been hired England’s King Ethelred the Unready and given the task of cruising off the southern coasts of England to protect them against the hit and run tactics favoured by the Danes. Ethelred was presumably of the opinion that he should set a thief to catch a thief but, as so often, he proved to be a poor judge of character.

Although Ethelred had paid Pallig in cash, and given him a comfortable manor on which to live, he chose to join the Norwegians instead of fighting them. The size of the combined Viking force is not entirely clear, but was probably around 4,000 or 5,000 men all told. Feeling emboldened by the newcomers, the Viking force rowed up the River Exe to attack the wealthy city of Exeter.

The city was, however, ready for the attack. It was still surrounded by its Roman walls, which had been kept in good repair over the centuries since the legions had left. As soon as the Vikings had arrived the inhabitants of the nearby villages had, according to the usual English plan for local defence, fled to the city taking with them all their livestock and valuables. The walls were now manned by the men of the area. The Vikings, as usual, mounted a display of their armed might and then demanded instant surrender or payment of tribute. The defenders refused. Unable to do much against stone walls, the Vikings clambered back into their ships and returned to their base at Exmouth.

The invaders next move was to begin a determined and thorough sacking of the Exe Valley. The livestock and moveable wealth of the area might have been safe inside Exeter, but the buildings, standing crops and various amounts of tools and equipment were not. The Vikings spread out and moved north from Exmouth methodically destroying everything they could find but could not carry off as loot. Topsham went up in flames, so did Clyst St Mary. Then the Vikings moved on to Pinhoe, a small village just northwest of Exeter. It came as something of a shock to find the county army of Devon mustered just outside the village.

Pinhoe in 1001 was a small rural village but is now a suburb of Exeter that grew up in Victorian times around the railway station built on the main line from Exeter to London. The Vikings reached the village as they marched north. The English army was almost certainly gathered on Beacon Hill to the north. From this naturally defensive position they could look south over the Clyst Valley up which the Vikings were advancing. If the invaders chose to push deeper into Devon the English could cut them off from their base. Clearly the Vikings needed to defeat the Devon county army if they were to gain anything much from their stay in the area. They paused to loot Pinhoe and set fire to the buildings, then sat down to eat a meal before pushing on to face the English in battle.

It was somewhere on the open hillside above the River Clyst north of Pinhoe that the Battle of Pinhoe was fought. Details of the fighting are scarce, though it is possible to reconstruct the outline of what happened.

The English had been camped on the hilltop, perhaps trusting to the strength of the position to deter an attack. In terms of numbers we do not know how many Englishmen were present. However they were led by the High Reeve for Devon, Kola, and his deputy Eadsige was also present. This would indicate that the main army for Devon was assembled.

There were, at this date, around 8,000 families for taxation purposes in Devon. These could probably put into the field some 2,000 properly equipped warriors who had some form of training for battle. In theory all men were liable for military service in local defence, but it was probably the more select fyrd, or militia, that were present at Pinhoe. Some of these men would have been on duty elsewhere, not least on the walls of Exeter, but even so some 1,500 English warriors must have been there on the day of battle.

This means that the English were outnumbered by perhaps 2:1 by the Vikings. The Vikings had the advantage not only of numbers but also of being better trained and more used to battle as well as forming a coherent unit that had been together for some years of campaigning.

The Vikings attacked uphill without hesitation and, although details are lacking, they seem to have been successful in their first charge. The English fought well, but they eventually gave way and fled back toward the safety of the walls of Exeter. Neither of the English commanders was killed. This would indicate that the withdrawal was made in good order as the death or capture of enemy leaders was usually a key ambition of a Viking army.

Although they won the day – “The heathens had the power of the battlefield” as one contemporary chronicle puts it – they gained little. As soon as the battle was over they returned to their ships at Exmouth. Within days the temporary alliance broke up. Pellig led his ships hurriedly east to London to make his peace with King Ethelred while the Norwegians moved to the Isle of Wight where they established a new fortified camp for the winter.

It must be presumed that although they lost the battle, the men of Devon had inflicted such losses as to cause the Vikings to leave the county.

After the battle a small chapel was built on the spot where the English bodies had been buried. This was replaced by a more substantial church in the 13th century - it is still there to mark the site of the fighting. 

This is an extract from Battlefield Walks Devon by Rupert Matthews

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