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Where is/was Degsastan?
July 23, 2017
2:14 pm
Alturlie
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December 16, 2015
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Writing in 731 Bede (Book 1 Chapter 34) tells us about Aedan's efforts some three years later:

ETHELFRID, KING OF THE NORTHUMBRIANS, HAVING VANQUISHED THE NATIONS OF THE SCOTS, EXPELS THEM FROM THE TERRITORIES OF THE ENGLlSH. [A.D. 603.]

AT this time, Ethelfrid, a most worthy king, and ambitious of glory, governed the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and ravaged the Britons more than all the great men of the English, [....] For he conquered more territories from the Britons, either making them tributary, or driving the inhabitants clean out, and planting English in their places, than any other king or tribune. [.......] Hereupon, Ædan, king of the Scots that inhabit Britain, being concerned at his success, came against him with an immense and mighty army; but was beaten by an inferior force, and put to flight; for almost all his army was slain at a famous place, called Degsastan, that is, Degsastone. In which battle also Theodbald, brother to Ethelfrid, was killed, with almost all the forces he commanded. This war Etheifrid put an end to in the year 603 after the incarnation of our Lord, the eleventh of his own reign, [....] From that time, no king of the Scots durst come into Britain to make war on the English to this day.

But where was Degsastan?

The commonly held view (ie the only idea that "historians" and place name "experts" seem able to come up with) is the Dawston Burn at the head of Liddesdale – somewhere near Saughtree in the middle of nowhere (well, the Cheviot Hills). I think that this is crazy – no consideration to geography, Bede's clear assertion that it was in "Britain" and not even the most basic aspects of military constraints, necessities and purposes.

Aedan had free run in Manau (the territory of the Maeatae) and the Anglians surely held Bamburgh. I hesitate to guess how far they had encroached into Gododdin territory in the maximum of 3 years since Catterick (as opposed to merely laying the area under tribute), but it is not impossible that they had seized Traprain Law.

If only because of the ease of marching and the need for logisitics/resupply etc., history shows us how many battles were indeed fought on or very close to the main roads. So my working hypothesis is that Aedan was headed for Bamburgh. In essence he had a choice of three routes:
(i) the A1
(ii) The A68 and then the A697 via Coldstream
(iii) coming off the A1 at Duns to cross the Tweed at Norham/Upsettlington
[It is just about conceivable that he intended to drive further South in which case Carter Bar is an option, but that would leave him open to being cut off and/or attacked from the rear, so I think not.]

If the Bernicians had indeed occupied Traprain Law, then that would probably have been Aedan's initial objective. But as Traprain Law is basically on the A1 all this does is to open up more westerly options for the location of the encounter. The whole area is covered in Standing Stones so if we were to suppose an association, this does not narrow the options by much. There is the further problem that some places have been renamed since that time – Athelstaneford to cite but one….

From the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England we can see that there was no-one called "Daegsa" or anything like it (the nearest there is is
Deorsige, an Anglo-Saxon name meaning dear/beloved victory – surely Bede (see below) would not have been so confused.)

Meanwhile the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary is far more forthcoming about "Daeg-"

dæg [] m (-es/dagas) 1. day, period of 24 hours; 1a. day (as in one day), time of an occurrence; 2. day as opposed night; 3. day, time, (1) lifetime, the time of a man’s life, in pl days of life, (2) time during which an office is held, reign of a king; in pl days of a reign, (3) time during which something exists; 4. Last Day; 5. name of the rune for d; andlangne ~ all day long; ~es, on ~e by day; on ~ in the day, by day; tó ~, tó ~e today; ~ ǽr the day before; on ǽrran ~ on a former day; óðre ~ another day; sume ~e one day; ofer midne ~ afternoon; on his ~e in his time; ~es ond nihtes by day and by night; lange on ~e far on, late in the day; emnihtes ~ equinox; ealle ~ as always; geloten ~ after part of day
dǽge [] f (-an/-an) (female) bread maker, baker

dég see déag pres 3rd sing of dugan
dég- see déag-, díeg-, díg-

dugan [] irreg v/t 3rd pres déag pl dugon past dohte ptp gedugen (usu impersonal) to avail, be worth, be of use, be capable of, competent, or good for anything; thrive, be strong, able, fit, vigorous; be good, virtuous, kind, honest, bountiful, kind, liberal, (1) for a person (dat), (2) for a purpose; [dugan is the third of twelve Anglo-Saxon verbs called preterite-presents, and given under ágan. The infinitive dugan and the past déag/dugon, retaining preterite inflections, are taken from the past tense of a strong verb déogan, past déah/dugon, ptp gedogen, ascertained from déah/dugon, which shows the ablaut or internal change of the vowel in the past tense of the twelfth class of Grimm’s division of strong verbs, and requires by analogy of other verbs of the same class the infinitive deogan, and the ptp dogen; thus we find the original verb déogan, past déah/dugon, ptp dogen. The weak past dohte/dohton [= duhte/duhton], is formed regularly from the infinitive dugan.]

Conclusion: From the language and from Bede I think we may take it that the name Degsastan pre-dated the battle – hence implying a place already dominated and populated by Anglo-Saxons considerably before that time. I am pretty sure that this implies somewhere south of the Tweed. So I think that the focus on Dawston shows that "everyone" has been looking in the wrong direction (so too Walter Eliot and David Nash Ford who counter-propose Addinston Fort in Lauderdale – but this too is not in "Britain"). I am tempted by the "King's Stone" very near Flodden (misnamed and in any case a "new" name (dating from 1513)), but that it only at first glance and without considering the many alternatives.

Any ideas welcome!

[First published in "West Highland Notes and Queries.]

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