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Luton in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

 An Anglo-Saxon spearhead from Biscot shown in William Austin's History of Luton
An Anglo-Saxon spearhead from Biscot shown in William Austin's History of Luton

The Romans eventually left Britain, in 410AD. The period between this date and the Norman Conquest of 1066 was traditionally called the Dark Ages as, unlike the Classical World, there was perceived to be a paucity of written material available to shed light these 650 or so years. Today the term has largely fallen out of favour with historians for a number of reasons, not least the information now available from archaeology. Nevertheless the term still means something in most people's minds whereas the term Early Medieval is, for most people, less well defined.

One source which shed light on these Dark Ages even before the advent of archaeology was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is not one book but a number of manuscripts, some of them with different dates for the same event than those in other manuscripts. In total the Chronicle (more correctly chronicles) cover years from 60 BC to 1154 and it was probably begun during the reign of King Alfred [871-899]. Luton is mentioned twice. The entry for 571 reads: "In this year Cuthwulf [or Cutha in one manuscript] fought against the Britons at Biedcanford and captured four towns, Limbury, Aylesbury, Bensington [or Benson] and Eynsham; and in the same year he died" [one manuscript adds "This Cutha was Ceawlin's brother"]. The entry is interesting for a number of reasons. Biedcanford might, at first glance, be associated with Bedford, but those who study language have stated that the name Biedcanford is inconsistent with the name Bedford, so it seems as if this place must remain unidentified.

When one looks at the four towns given one notices that Limbury is the furthest east and is eighteen miles as the crow files north-east of Aylesbury [Buckinghamshire], which is a similar distance north-east of Benson [Oxfordshire], which is sixteen miles south-east of Eynsham [Oxfordshire]. The order in which the towns are listed suggests that this was the route Cuthwulf or Cutha's army took. Why were these towns remembered, three hundred years later, as having fallen to Cuthwulf/Cutha? He obviously went through, or took, other settlements on the way and one can guess that they were not later remembered because they were of no significance. But was the significance that of the 6th or 9th century? Whichever date is more likely it shows that the Luton area was reasonably important in the years after the Romans left, presumably because of its position at the source of the River Lea, which ran south and emptied into the Thames in London. This, in itself, might suggest the significance was that of the 9th century when rivers were extremely important because they were the routes used by the Vikings to raid and conquer far inland.

The Lea was part of the boundary of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex from the Danish Kingdom of East Anglia [the Danelaw]. The boundary ran from the city of London up the Lea as far as Luton, then in a straight line to Bedford. The river is mentioned in the Chronicle for the year 895 [or 896 in some manuscripts], which reads: "And in the same year the aforesaid army [the Danes] made a fortress by the Lea, 20 miles above London". One wonders how far this was from Luton. In 913 [or 914 or 916] the Chronicle records: "In this year the [Danish] army from Northampton and Leicester rode out after Easter [28th March] and broke the peace, and killed many men at Hook Norton [Oxfordshire] and round about there. And then very soon after that, as the one force came home, they met another raiding band which rode out against Luton. And then the people of the district became aware of it and fought against them and reduced them to full flight and rescued all that they had captured and also a great part of their horses and their weapons". If only we knew where this battle happened!