The period after the Romans left Britain in 410 is very confusing and is commonly called the Dark Ages because of the lack of written historical records. Details were passed on by word of mouth or in songs and only recorded in later years by monks, who often placed their own bias on them. Another term used for this period is “Romano-British”, to reflect how the Cornovii had adopted some of the Roman ways and took over their buildings and roads. They mostly retained their own religion and customs but sometimes copied Roman weapons and military methods.
The Celtic tribe living in the Shropshire area were the Cornovii and, in the early stages, many minor chieftains declared themselves as kings, fighting amongst each other to expand their lands. Eventually these local areas were merged into the kingdom of Powys, with the capital being Caer Uriconio (Wrekin hill fort) and a thriving city at Viroconium. Cadeyrn was the king of Powys and he was a son of Vortigern, who acted as a war lord controlling a number of British tribes. Angles Jutes and Saxons (commonly just referred to as Saxons) began to push westwards to gain territory and there were a number of battles between them and the British tribes.
The struggles of this period have given rise to the legends of Uther Pendragon and King Arthur.
500 – The incursions culminated in the Battle of Mons Badonicus, where the British warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus beat the Saxons and stopped the incursions for a number of years.
549 - A plague arrived in Britain and Welsh communities were devastated, with villages and countryside seriously depopulated. Faced with shrinking manpower and increasing Saxon encroachment, King Brochwel Ysgithrog moved his court from the Wrekin to The Berth hill fort at Baschurch.
570 – The kingdom of Powys split up and Shropshire became part of the new kingdom of Pengwern, with Iago ap Brochfael as its first king. Pengwern itself was made up of three sub-kingdoms based on the cities of Caer Luit Coyt (Wall), Caer Magnis (Kenchester) and Caer Guricon (Wroxeter), the first two with their own sub-kings. The division was based upon the traditional Celtic practice of providing an inheritance for all sons, not just the eldest
577 - The Saxons, under the command of Ceawlin and Cutha, won a victory over the Britons at Deorham, near Bristol, and began to push their way up the valley of the Severn. This defeat was a disaster, as it separated Pengwern from Dumnonia and Caer Celemion (Silchester).
584 – The Saxons had penetrated as far as Fethanleag (possibly in Staffordshire where Cutha was slain) and Ceawlin sacked many towns. Among them was Viroconium, which he left as a smoking ruin. The surviving Celts moved to the Berth hill fort, which appears to have escaped undamaged.
612 – Members of the royal family of Dogfeilion (based in Gwynedd) took over the territory of Pengwern, with Cyndrwyn the Stubborn becoming overall king.
613 - Cyndrwyn took part in the Battle of Chester where, as an ally of Powys, he shared a defeat at the hands of the invading army of Aehelfrith of Northumbria. At the commencement of the battle, Aehelfrith had 1,200 monks from the monastery of Bangor-Is-Coed slaughtered because he said "they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers". King Selyf of Powys was killed in the battle, leaving a baby son Manwgan ap Selyf as his heir. Seeing an opportunity, Cyndrwyn’s son Cynddylan helped his brother Eluan to replace the baby king. Cyndrwyn now controlled a large area of Shropshire, Cheshire and north-east Wales, with his sons being sub-kings, ie Cynddylan (Pengwern), Eulan (Powys) and Morfael (Glastenning).
620 – Upon the death of Cyndrwyn, his son Cynddylan took his place and the capital of all the three kingdoms became The Berth hill fort, which was re-named Llys Pengwern.
King Aethelfrith of Northumbria had been killed at the battle of the River Idle in 616 and his place taken by Edwin, who immediately banished Aethelfrith’s sons Oswald and Oswiu. King Edwin was declared Bretwalda (Lord of Briton) and set about expanding Northumbrian power.
This expansion brought him into conflict with Mercia, Gwynedd and Powys. Edwin was initially successful against them but in the end these enemies united under the leadership of the powerful King Penda of Mercia and King Cadwallon of Gwynedd. They invaded Northumbria and killed Edwin at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633, then proceeding to ravage Northumbria. Oswald returned from exile took over the throne of Northumbria, killing Cadwallon at the Battle of Heavenfield in 634.
Oswald in turn became Bretwalda and himself began to expand Northumbria power. In 642 he overstretched himself, driving deep into enemy territory to the Welsh borders. He was opposed by King Penda of Mercia, together with King Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn of Powys and King Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon of Gwynedd. They met at the Battle of Maserfield, where Oswald’s army was defeated and himself killed.
After the defeat his enemies chopped up his body and according to legend, one of his arms was carried to an ash tree by an eagle. Oswald was Christian and Penda pagan so this event became part of the Christian legend. Oswald was named a saint and miracles were then reported near the tree. It was said that the plain of Maserfeld was “white with the bones of the Saints". What is more likely is that his enemies hung his body in a tree, or on poles. Whatever the truth the name of the site derived from a reference to “Oswald’s Tree”. After the battle, Penda claimed authority over all of Mercia until his death against the Bernicians at the Battle of Winwaed in 655.
Maserfield was the old name for the area and probably meant ‘marshy field’. Local tradition places it near Oswald’s Well and the fields of Oswestry School (SJ284292) are thought to be the site of the battle.
655 - Cynddylan and his brother Morfael took part in the Battle of Lichfield, where they defeated a Saxon army. Soon after, following further Saxon incursions, he and his brothers Eulan and Morfael fought again at Battle of the River Tern, next to a ford at Wroxeter. Penda had meanwhile been having problems with Oswald’s son Oswui, who was now king of Northumbria. He thus persuaded Cynddylan and a number of other Celts to join him in an invasion of Oswui’s territory. Their army was ambushed near Leeds at the Battle of Winwaed and Penda plus nearly thirty of his allied commanders were killed, although Cynddulan escaped.
656 - A vengeful Northumbrian raiding party led by Oswiu overran Cynddylan's palace at Llys Pengwern in a surprise attack. Caught completely off guard, Cynddylan and his family were slaughtered. His sister Princess Heledd was the only survivor and fled to western Powys. The kingdom of Pengwern was then absorbed into the Saxon kingdom of Mercia which Oswiu had also taken over.
Gazetteer of Sites
Many of the remains from this period are confused with those of the Iron Age since the local tribe lived in a similar way to that before the Romans invaded. The term “Celtic” can thus be applied to the Cornovii before, during and after the Roman period. In most cases, remains have been identified as Iron Age and can be found on the page for that period. A few sites in Shropshire have been identified as being specifically Romano-British as follows.
A farm enclosure, measuring approximately 34m by 32m, with an entrance on the east side. Within this, in opposite corners, were two four-post buildings measuring 2.9m square. Other finds were post-holes, pottery and several shallow clay-lined pits. The enclosure was re-used as a graveyard somewhere between the late 7th-10th centuries.
A small lead spindle whorl was found on the site of the Midland Bank.
Settlement overlain by Edgmond Hall. Material found in the area included tesserae and pottery.
Settlement known locally as Little Cold Furlong.
Villa located near Rea Brook.
Lower Short Ditch (SO22248775)
A 5-8ft high earth bank
running from Ditch Dingle (SO22248775) 776 yards north to the Welsh border
(SO22338848). There is a 5ft ditch on its western side but it is too short to
be an effective defensive structure.
It is believed to be a hard causeway for crossing the peat beds.
Much Wenlock (SO62379990)
Several burials associated with a settlement.
Settlement probably called Stanchester as that is the name of the adjacent field.
Settlement located in Gallows Croft includes a cemetery.
Upper Short Ditch (SO191867)
An earth bank running 984 yards from Riddings (SO191868) to the Welsh border (SO192870) and onwards for a short distance. It is close to the Lower Short Ditch and may be for a similar purpose.
When the Romans left, local tribes started living in their city of Viroconium. A great number of Romano-British artefacts have been found.