Wednesday, 20 April 2016

A Curious Carved Sword, a Bloody 8th c. Battle, and a Hidden King

Ebberston: A Curious carved sword, a bloody 8th c. battle, & a hidden King
Hurtling along the A170 between Scarborough and Pickering the other day, my eye was caught by a distinctive, fire-blackened old tree and, just beyond that, a beautiful old church, nestled in a sloping and wooded dell. Not being one to pass such an opportunity by, and, knowing I had a wee bit of time to spare, I had to investigate....

Fire-blackened tree at Ebberston, Yorkshire
Fire-blackened tree

St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston, Yorkshire
St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston, Yorkshire

A quick U-turn later and I was parked up and walking the path to the church of St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston.

An impressively large coniferous tree (wish I knew what it was) towers over the church, and my first discovery was a partially consumed gravestone, gradually disappearing into its trunk.

Large conifer consuming a gravestone, Ebberston Church, Yorkshire
Large conifer consuming a gravestone

Large conifer consuming a gravestone, Ebberston Church, Yorkshire
How many more years before it's gone......

Like many old churches, St Mary the Virgin has had many rebuilds, alterations and restorations over the years, and is rooted in a Saxon past. Also like other churches, fragments and echoes of this past reveal themselves at every turn.

Outside is the old base and shaft of the 15th c. churchyard cross.

Shaft & base of 15thc. churchyard cross, Ebberston, Yorkshire
Shaft & base of 15thc. churchyard cross

Old bench at St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston, Yorkshire
I loved this sturdily built old bench too

Behind the church, further into the valley, is Ebberston Hall, a minor stately home that (I think) was at one time open to the public, but is now a private residence.

The actual village of Ebberston is a little distance away, on the other side of the busy road. 

Ancient Ironwork

The next interesting discovery around the church was the south (main) door through the more modern porch, which features ornate ironwork, including a dove carrying an olive branch. 

South door with 12thc. ironwork, St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston

Picture from Project Woruldhord, University of Oxford 

©Kelly A. Kilpatirck  CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

South door with 12thc. ironwork, St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston

Picture from Project Woruldhord, University of Oxford 

©Kelly A. Kilpatirck  CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

It's possible that this ironwork dates from the late Saxon period, making it contemporary with the first building of the church in the 11th c.(1.) It is also similar in style to the ironwork on the door of St Helen's in Stillingfleet, near York.

A curious carved sword

Old stones are often reused, and I love searching old church walls for these reused echoes of the past. St Mary the Virgin is no exception, and, although there are only a handful, including a couple of grotesque heads, I also found something quite unusual on the back (north side) of the church, a curious carved sword, that to my eye, looked distinctly Viking.

Carved 'viking' sword, St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston, Yorkshire
Carved 'viking' sword, St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston, Yorkshire

Here's what my later research turned up:

From the Antiquarians Journal 'Persistence of Viking types of sword, 1938 (2):'

"Mr L.R.A. Grove published a carving of a sword of Viking type now built into the wall of the church of Ebberston, near Scarborough. It formed, perhaps, part of a grave-slab...."

The sword is also mentioned in several other texts: (sources and further information are at the bottom of this article.)

Carved 'viking' sword, St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston, Yorkshire
Carved 'viking' sword, St Mary the Virgin

How interesting! Such a find always sets my imagination rolling. Whose sword did it represent? Where are they buried? What was their story?

It was time to go, I had my photographs and was already late for my next destination. I set off back for the car, determined to research my finds further. Before I set off, I walked along the road a bit to get one last picture of the church. On the way back, and not looking where I was going, I walked straight into a low branch of the beautiful yew tree at the end of the path to the church, causing a bleeding gash several inches long on my head. Not as serious as it sounds but it was a funny happening considering what had probably happened very near here in times gone by.....

A bloody battle, a wounded King and a cave 


"On the hill, north-east of the house, beyond the plantations, are some vestiges of a cave, called by the country people, Elfwin's or Elfrid's Hole, now almost filled up, over which was once placed, (as some old people now living can recollect) a stone, and afterwards a board, with an inscription to the following purport- "Alfrid, King of Northumberland, was wounded in a bloody battle nigh this place, and was hid in a cave; and from thence he was removed to Little Driffield, where he died," The battle, it is said, was fought on the west side of the village, now called the Bloody Field - Young" (3)

This was the first reference I came across, as I researched Ebberston. It seemed there was even more to the place than met the eye. Who was this King, and was there any truth to the story?

The Ordinance Survey map shows there is indeed a 'Bloody Field' next to Ebberston, with a corresponding 'Bloody Beck' running alongside it, another reference stating it was reputed to have 'run red with the blood of long-dead warriors.' (4)

It's possible that this King could have been Aldfrith, King of Northumbria from 685, and a man described by Bede, Alcuin and Stephen of Ripon as a man of great learning. Bede states that he 'ably restored the shattered fortunes of the kingdom' and his reign saw the creation of works of art such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus. It is often seen as the start of Northumbria's Golden Age (5).

The lion symbol used on Aldfrith's coinage By John Yonge Akerman (1806–1873) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The lion symbol used on Aldfrith's coinage (10)

There is no reliable historical source that I could find to prove that it was indeed this King Aldfrith who fought in a battle near Ebberston, and sheltered in the cave, sore wounded. Oft stated on the internet is that Aldfrith was fighting against Oswy (his father) in the battle of Ebberston, but his father had actually died 35 years previously.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, (original manuscript created late in the ninth century - surviving copies independently updated until mid 12th c.) do record that 'King Aldfrith of Northumbria died at Driffelda in the year 705 AD,' but do not mention a battle, and other sources claim he died after a long and painful illness.(6)

Coin of Aldfrith Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Coin of Aldfrith via Wikimedia

There was a church at Little Driffield in the Saxon period, according to both archaeological and historical evidence, and the presence of four 6th c. cemeteries suggests an important area. It has been suggested that Great Driffield may have been a Saxon royal seat. (6)

Apparently, by the late middle ages there was an inscription on the wall of the chancel in the church at Little Driffield, stating:

"Within this chancel lies interred the body of Alfred, King of Northumberland, who departed this life, January 18, AD 702, in the 20th year of his reign. Statutum est omnibus semel mori. (It is appointed for all once to die.)" (7)

So the aforementioned cave, the bloody fields, the bloody beck and the sheltering of the wounded King in a cave probably does have some truth, but whether it is a story of King Aldfrith of Northumbria or another character that has become confused with him, we will probably never know, but it certainly does make for a good story!

The cave does exist, and was excavated in the 1951 by WH Lamplough and JR Lidster. They found the remains of seven humans, (5 adults and two children,) along with flints, pottery, antler and animal bones. The finds were assumed to be early Neolithic but no dating was done and the finds have gone missing. The cave was sealed after the excavation, with a large boulder. (8)

King Aelfrid of Northumbria Memorial postcard via
King Aelfrid of Northumbria Memorial: postcard courtesy Ray Blyth

There is still something to see though, for the interested walker. In about 1790, Sir Charles Hotham-Thompson erected a 'grotto' to commemorate King Aldfrith / Alfrid / Ilfrid etc. which still stands. (9)

King Aelfrid of Northumbria Memorial: use courtesy ©
King Aelfrid of Northumbria Memorial: courtesy ©

I fully intend to return and walk these various locations, but, in the meantime, I am so glad that I took the time to u-turn and investigate when something caught my eye.....

St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston, Yorkshire
St Mary the Virgin, Ebberston, Yorkshire

I am constantly surprised and humbled by the wealth and depth of interesting stories out there in our beautiful landscape, just waiting for us to discover them.

Thanks for reading


Justbod Team

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Sources and further information:


Dove Door Hinge:
1.  Woruldhord, University of Oxford
Norse Ironwork on door at St Helen's, Stillingfleet

Carved Sword:
2. The Antiquarians Journal: Persistence of Viking types of Swords  
Some neglected Late Anglo-Saxon Swords by David M. Wilson
The Medieval Soldier by Vessy Norman
The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature by Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson

A bloody battle, a wounded 'king' and a cave
3.Thomas Langdale - a Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire
4. Visit UK - Scarborough/Ebberston
5. Aldfrith of Northumbria - Wikipedia 
6. St Mary's Little Driffield History 
7. History, Directory & Gazeteer, of the County of York Vol II 1823 by Edward Baines
8. North York Moors Caving Club: King Alfreds Cave 
9. A History of the County of York North Riding Vol2 1923 

Aelfrid's Memorial, Ebberston - The Scarborough News

Others Photographs/Pictures Used
South door ironwork pictures:Pictures from Project Woruldhord, University of Oxford ©Kelly A. Kilpatirck  CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
10. Lion Symbol used on Aldfrith's coinage - by John Yonge Ackerman (1806-1873) Public Domian via Wikimedia Commons 
Coin of Aldfrith via Wikimedia Commons 
King Aelfrid of Northumbria Memorial photo and postcard courtesy 


  1. Great bit of research there Bod, amazing what you can turn up. Like you I am looking in to a Battle and will be writing a blog in due course

    1. Many thanks Bill! My head is still spinning a bit from it all. Very intriguing though! I hope you have as much fun researching your battle - looking forward to it :)

  2. Great post and research. Elements of everything I find fascinating about history and standing archaeology. Wish we lived nearer so we could go and check it out for ourselves.

    1. Many thanks Bovey! I hope you do get chance to visit it someday :)

  3. Great post Bod and a lovely comment at the end echoed by myself and I guess many others, Truly intrigued and fascinated .

    1. Many thanks Dave - I did get quite excited by what I found. There are just so many interesting stories out there. I love it :)

  4. I really enjoyed your post. Good stuff!

    1. Many thanks Laurie - it was a really enjoyable quest. Love wee mysteries :)

  5. A nice tale, beautifully told and excellently researched. I don't know how I missed this when it first came out!

  6. GREAT blog! Maybe you like my travelling experiences along Viking and Anglo-Saxon monuments and sites where I have blogged about last year.. see for example:

    I have to improve my website towards a WordPress website, but that may take some time. In the meantime, I hpe you enjoy my stonecoalish English website. Kind regards, Thomas Kamphuis (a Dutch viking ;)

    1. Many thanks Thomas! Had a quick look at your blog, and looks great - what a lovely adventure to have travelling all those sites! Will take a closer look when I get chance. Good luck to you in the move to Wordpress :)

  7. The tree could be a Yew there are Yew's in Beltingham Church yard in Northumberland which look just like this one

    1. Thanks Malcolm. It did look similar to a yew, but I'm fairly sure it wasn't. Have had it suggested (see comment below) that it could be a Sequoia, which (looking at pictures on the internet) does seem likely.

  8. Many thanks for a fascinating post. A couple of points:
    1. I'm pretty sure that tree is a sequoia -- so despite its venerable appearance almost certainly no more than 150 years old (they grow fast!).
    2. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was originally compiled in the late 880s or early 890s (in Wessex), so information from all earlier events, including this battle, would have been gathered and written down at that time, not c. 1100.

    1. Many thanks Jonathan, glad you enjoyed it.
      Looking at pictures on the internet, the sequoia does seem a good match - thank you!
      Thanks also for the info re the Chronicles - I'm nowhere near a historian, and had read the original manuscript was created in the ninth century, but that the distributed copies had been continuously updated until the mid 12th c. I have not seen any original sources for this piece, just relied upon information on the internet. That particular reference was from the 'St Mary's Little Driffield History' on their church website, and the date is from there - I don't know if the original source was from a later update of the Chronicle, but I have updated the blog to clarify the date a bit. Please do let me know if you have any extra information to make it clearer.

  9. Thanks Justbod. Yes, after the original compilation brought the chronicle up to the (late-9th-century) present, it was then updated with an entry each year -- as it were, in real time. So the later updates didn't involve revising or adding to any of the earlier entries, just a steady accumulation of one entry per year as it happened. Once Alfred had sent out copies to the various parts of Wessex and Mercia, their real-time updates were then carried out by generations of monks in each of those places, so each year's entry reflected what was considered important in that place. Therefore the seven surviving copies show considerable uniformity in the entries of the original compilation (up to the early 890s), and then begin slowly to diverge from each other as they each take on a distinctive local flavour. The Peterborough copy was the last to continue to be updated, until the mid-1150s.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to clarify things Jonathan - much appreciated & also interesting & helpful :)