Will skeletons help archaeologists to rewrite history of the Battle of Hatfield?

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With the discovery of the remains of Richard III under a council carpark in Leicester last year and the subsequent row between the city and the people of York about where he should be laid to rest - archaeology has been in the news recently.

Despite the antics of screen archaeologists, it is a meticulous science that relies on the detailed study of artefacts, buildings and local geography to eek out the clues of the past.

In the words of one Fedora-donning, bullwhip-cracking member of the profession, “We do not follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot.”

Although a group of enthusiasts from Cuckney, with the help of a professional archaeologist, may well be about to prove Mr Jones wrong - and relocate the site of the death of England’s first Christian king from Doncaster to a small village located just to the north of Warsop.

King Edwin may not be as household a name as Richard III - he was not demonised by Shakespeare’s quill and portrayed as a corrupt and child-murdering monster for theatre audiences to the present day. Although his end was just as bloody.

And with the ongoing row about Richard’s remains, the village of Cuckney could soon be embroiled in its own battle for its place in Edwin’s story, with the real possibility that the village is the actual site of the Battle of Hatfield in 633, and not the town of Hatfield, located to the north east of Doncaster some 40 miles away.

There have been clues before - at the time of the battle, the Cuckney area was known as Hatfield, while nearby Edwinstowe mean’s Edwin’s resting place.

Then there is St Edwin’s Cross, which marks the site of a former chantry chapel erected in 1201 by King John, where a hermit was installed to pray for the soul of Edwin, who was made a saint by the Catholic Church in the years following his brutal demise.

Legend has it that Edwin’s body was taken from the battlefield by his own troops and secretly buried to protect his remains from his pagan conquerors.

But it was a macabre discovery by a group of workmen underpinning columns at Cuckney’s St Mary’s Church in 1951 that really got historians interested.

As they dug down through the floor of the church to support the Norman structure against recent mining activity by the British Coal Board, they discovered skeletons. Not one or two, but hundreds - maybe up to 200 souls, all laid out in rows, all with their feet facing to the east.

Some villages who remember the discovery have described skulls being piled up in the corner of the church for weeks after they were unearthed, before records refer to them being reburied.

And that is the first problem for archaeologists and the Battle of Hatfield Investigation Society, who have banded together to try to prove that Edwin died near to Mansfield, and not in Yorkshire as official history tells us.

Whilst records say that the bodies were placed back in the earth, they do not say where, which provides the team with its first real issue. Were they simply placed back in the recently dug trenches and covered over?

Were they buried at the site of the former Cuckney Castle - a motte-and-bailey construction located in a distant corner of the church yard? Or were they taken to farmland further up the lane and buried there?

Andy Gaunt, director of Mercian Archaeology, which is working with the group, believes that the bodies represent the site of a massacre. He also believes that the most likely explanation for their current whereabouts is that they were simply put back where they were found.

He said: “Often churches were built on the sites of burial mounds and it is reasonable to assume at this stage that the bodies pre-date the church.

“Where you get a lot of bodies buried together, it can suggest that they’ve been caught in a bottle neck during a battle, as people were typically buried close to where they fell.”

St Mary’s sits at the foot of a gentle valley, quite close to the river, and Andy believes that the men were possibly driven down the hill in the battle and slaughtered, trapped between the invading force, steep hills and the river.

Another problem is that Andy has an alternative explanation for the bodies - they may also date from the Anarchy, a period of civil war between the Normans and Saxons following the Conquest of 1066.

A church at the site is mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1086, but as we know that the existing building dates from the 12th Century - around the time of the Anarchy period of 1135 to 1153, historians can’t be sure.

Joseph Waterfall, from the Battle of Hatfield Investigation Society, said: “We believe King Edwin was slain in the fields near Cuckney, hence the reason for the 200 or so skeletons.

“But the history books state that he was slain north east of Doncaster and no evidence was ever produced to support this claim.”

The answer probably lies with modern science and access to the remains, Andy said. Back in 1951, the discovery raised a stir within the local community but there was no time for a thorough exploration, although renowned archaeologist M.W. Barley did pay a visit.

Now, with modern carbon dating technology, access to the skeletons would allow archaeologists to date them to the specific period - hopefully excluding the Anarchy hypothesis and dating the remains to the approximate time of Edwin’s death.

And more importantly, along with the other evidence from the local area, it may pinpoint the site of the death of England’s first Christian king and earliest English martyrs to Nottinghamshire - losing Yorkshire its claim on a second monarch in as many years.

“Edwin is England’s first Christian king and he was killed by pagans, so historically that makes him hugely significant,” Andy added.

“We know from the records that bodies were discovered from about 18 inches down and they may have gone down to about seven feet deep.

“If we can gain access to the bodies and date those bodies to the time of Edwin’s death, then with all the other evidence around us, we can reasonably conclude that Cuckney is the actual site of the Battle of Hatfield.

l The Battle of Hatfield Investigation Society are currently attempting to raise funds to allow a formal archaeological investigation to take place at St Mary’s, which they hope will engage local community volunteers in the dig.

To make a donation, please contact Joseph Waterfall on 07583 545269 or 01623 845456.

PICTURED: Archaeologist Andy Gaunt (left) discussing the planned dig with Joseph Waterfall from the Battle of Hatfield Investigation Society.