We've all heard of the Battle of Hastings 1066. That's where King Harold got one in the eye and the Nasty Normans took over England. So what about the Battle of Northam 1069?  Did you even know that this North Devon village was the site of a great battle?

OK - so it wasn't as big as the Hastings Battle - it was around half or even one third of the size.  But it did involve many of the same people.  In fact Northam was the place where an attempted comeback by King Harold's sons literally bit the dust.

It deserves to be better known - and better visited.

Survivors of Hastings

After Hastings wiped out King Harold and a lot of his supporters, the survivors backed the King's sons - teenagers named Godwine and Edmund.  The King of Ireland also backed them with his own army and in 1068 they began to raid the west of England.  This was a headache for the Normans, who were still fighting to control England.

The Appledore landing

On Friday 26th June 1069 luck ran out for Harold's sons.  They landed in Appledore in North Devon and raided nearby Northam.  At that time Queen Matilida, the wife of King William the Conqueror, owned these settlements - making them key targets for Godwine and Edmund and their Irish army.  But unknown to them an army of Normans and English led by Count Brian of Brittany prepared to pounce.  We can't be sure who tipped Brian off about the attack - but we can be sure that he knew.  He was there.

Fleeing invaders

The Norman knights attacked the Irish whilst they were busy burning Northam and chased the invaders towards their ships.  But the invaders couldn’t escape because the retreating tide had stranded their ships.  For the rest of that long summer's day the increasing weary line of Irish warriors held off the attacks of Brian's men. It was only at nightfall, when at last the tide was high enough to float the ships, that the survivors fled back to Appledore and sailed away.  At least half of them were dead - including many of their leaders.  Harold's young sons survived and they are thought to have ended up in Denmark.  Although Count Brian had won the battle he seems to have fallen out with King William because he lost his lands and left England soon after the battle.

An event that shaped our history

Although the Battle of Northam was less than half the size of the Battle of Hastings - it was still an important milestone in the Norman Conquest.  After Northam no-one could stop the Norman takeover of England - an event that shaped our history for the centuries to come.  Almost everyone has heard of the Battle of Hastings and over 130,000 people visit the site every year.  So how come no-one knows about the Battle of Northam?

The long-lost battlefield

Part of the reason is that none of the historical accounts name Northam or pinpoint the battlefield - as a result the site not identified until 2015.  However its location can readily be deduced from the historical accounts and times of dusk and high water on the date of the battle and there is no dispute that the battle was fought between Appledore and Northam - a gap of 1700 metres.  Allowing the invaders space to retreat to and from the battlefield narrows the gap further to 700 metres.  This is a battlefield-sized space - and it so happens there's the only possible defensible pinchpoint in the entire parish is here also.

Visiting the battlefield

Visiting a battlefield is totally unlike any other historic site.  There are no ruins to see, no earthworks.  All that remains is the physical shape of the landscape and its story.  But if you know the story - all you need to complete the picture is your imagination.

The best way to explore the battlefield is on foot and several footpaths cross the site. However if time or mobility is limited, much of the site is also accessible by car.  The battleofnortham.co.uk website has a free downloadable guide and map, whilst the Battle of Northam Facebook page has latest news about the site and details of forthcoming events such as guided walks

It's thought that the heaviest fighting took place on the A386 Churchill Way ((1) on map) and the also the Diddywell Road from Northam to Diddywell (2).  A good place to see this area is Marshford Organics on the A386 (3) (EX39 1NS).  In 1069 this land was marsh (hence Marshford) formed by the watershed of two streams.  The streams formed the defensible pinchpoint in the peninsular that lead from Northam to Appledore and the higher ground immediately to the north formed a good defensive position.  One of the streams still flows in the wood opposite Marshford (4).  The bend in the road a short distance to the south is where human bones were reportedly found in 1906.  It is evocatively named Bloody Corner (5).  Here you can see a Victorian monument set into the wall, which manages to commemorate the wrong battle with the wrong date! (Grid Ref: SS 454 292).

Across the road from Marshford Organics is Bidna Lane from which a path leads up the hill and offers a good view of the battlefield (6).  The battlefield may also be viewed from Windmill Lane (7) and the car park of the Northam Town Council Offices in Windmill Lane (EX39 1BY) (8).