Tales and Traditions of the High Peak

By William Wood (1862)

Transcription by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2009

The Battle of Winhill

and LOSEHILL.

(A Tradition of the Peak)

“The green hills, with aged oaks, surround a narrow plain;
the blue course of a stream is there”. - OSSIAN.

IN the year of the Christian era 626, Cynegils and Cuichelm reigned over Wessex; they had, on the death of their royal father, Ceolwulf, divided his kingdom between them, with a perfect understanding to support each other in every emergency; consequently this partition did not diminish, during hostilities, the strength and power of the warlike kingdom of Wessex. According to Malmsbury, Edwin, the aspiring and powerful King of Northumbria, had just before the death of Ceolwulf made some encroachment on the kingdom of Wessex; but Edwin's power and acknowledged prowess deterred the two kings from invading Northumbria in retaliation. Cuichelm had, however, recourse to another [indirect? can't read] mode of revenge; he send his confidant Eumer as envoy to Edwin, with whom Eumer demanded an [Page 118] audience in the name of Cuichelm; but no sooner had he approached Edwin, than he drew a two-edged poisoned dagger from under his garment, and aimed a desperate stroke at Edwin's heart. The dark design of Eumer did now, however, escape the eye of Edwin's faithful attendant, the beautiful and faithful Lilla; she threw herself between the assassin and his intended victim, and fell dead at her master's feet. Numbers rushed to the place, and Cuichelm's bloody agent was cut down, and as he lay bleeding from a hundred wounds, disclosed the full particulars of the intended and secret plot against the life of Edwin.

The hapless Lilla, who had so heroically and devotedly sacrificed her life to save that of her master was mourned over by Edwin and the whole of his royal attendants; and for some generations her name was revered and cherished throughout the whole of Northumbria. Edwin's bosom burned with revenge; he raised a powerful army and marched against the perfidious King of Wessex. Cuichelm being apprised of the failure of Eumer's mission, prepared to meet the impending storm. Cynegils, who history clears from having any participation in the attempt on Edwin's life, drew out his forces in aid of his brother, who had also secured the assistance of Penda, King of Mercia; the latter had been for some time jealous of Edwin's growing power, and on this account alone he entered into a coalition with the brother kings of Wessex, against the mighty Northumbrian monarch.

[Page 119] Winhill and Losehill are two hills in the vicinity of Hope and Castleton, in the Peak of Derbyshire. Winhill is higher and more precipitous than Losehill. The latter slopes more gently down into the intervening valley, through which runs a brook or small river called the Nowe, or Noa. The two hills at their summits are near a mile apart; Losehill is a sloping formation of schistus or shale, now overspread with a rich greensward; Winhill has a more towering form, capped with millstone grit; hence the poet sings of -

“Winhill's stony diadem”;

the base of the hill is of the same formation as Losehill. Winhill is of great altitude at its highest pinnacle, and from its central position in the Peak commands a prospect containing a grand panorama of mountain wonders. On these memorable heights or hills were encamped a great portion of the army of Edwin on the one hand, on the other, the combined armies of Cuichelm, Cynegils, and Penda, for near one day and night before the terrible conflict. The West Saxons, or the forces of Cuichelm and Cynegils, had advanced from the west to form a junction with the Mercians, under Penda, who had approached by a route from the south-east; Edwin had entered Peakland by a north-east line, and encamped his troops on the highest of the two hills, a little in advance of his enemies, who were, as he was apprised, approaching the opposite height in terrifying numbers. Hence he issued orders that [Page 120] from the innumerable masses of large stones which lay around, the largest should be brought to the ridge of the hill, to form a strong breastwork of near half a mile in length, with open spaces along the line for the advance or retreat of his forces. The eve of the day preceding the battle saw the two opposing heights or hills covered and crowned by innumerable hosts; the West Saxons were engaged in great numbers throwing up breastworks of earth, while the Northumbrians still continued to pile stone upon stone for the seemingly same defensive purpose. Evening came at length, and her broad expansive shadows crept gently down each sloping mountain side; the manifold distant peaks put on their sable robes, and mute expectation walked forth between the vengeful foes. Darkness came, and of the countless numbers on the opposing heights, only a comparative few were awake, - the rest lay in the balmy arms of sleep. In a thousand directions are stretched their gaunt and brawny limbs; their strong and massive chests alternately rise and fall, and many are smiling in their dreams of captives and spoils fallen to their happy lot. An immense watch-fire on either hill sent forth vast lurid flames amidst the darkness, and monster shapes and fearful shadows were seen on every hand. Long before the break of day, the brother kings of Wessex and the monarch of Mercia were awake, and long they counselled together on the probable termination of the coming conquest. The Northumbrian king also had risen from his heathy bed [Page 121] and in a tone of impassioned confidence, spoke to his listening thanes of the approaching conflict; assuring them, by the blood of his self-sacrificed Lilla, that certain triumph on their side would crown this, his long wished-for coming battle-day.

The sun arose in unwonted splendour,

“And twilight grey
Turned up her misty skirts and fled away”.

while on every side the tops of the surrounding hills were crowned with silver light. Along the opposing heights, there were an all-pervading movement and bustle, accompanied by frequent shouting. After some hours of preparation, both armies presented themselves to each other; the Northumbrians, however, being much inferior in number, but in a far more advantageous position. Ere the battle commenced, it had been agreed (as was frequently the custom in those times) for each side to depute an envoy to meet midway between the armies, and there declare the cause of hostilities, and to express the sentiments, opinions, or denunciations of their respective chiefs or kings, and to address each other as if they were the chiefs or kings themselves. The envoys descended into the valley and stood on two elevated points facing each other, when the representative of Cuichelm stretched out his arm and said, “Robber of my father's inheritance, this day thou shalt his son's proud vengeance feel! Come forth with thy chiefs and let this gushing stream of the vale [Page 122] witness the might and strength which justice ever yields!”

To this Edwin's envoy replied, “Perfidious wretch! dust thou boast of justice? Hast thou not another assassin at command to effect a coward's purpose? Vain boaster, ere night this stream shall leave its sandy bed and flow among the mangled remains of thy dishonoured dead!”

After a few more words on each side the envoys returned to their respective hills, and there stated what had transpired, which was the immediate signal for battle. One long and tremendous shout arose from each army; the eagles frightened moved high in the air; the red grouse flew about in every direction; the red deer start,

“And trembling gaze around,
And heaven and earth rebellow to the sound”.[1]

[Page 123] Through the openings of the breastworks on either side rushed forth the warriors with battle-axe and spear; next came the archers, and arrows flew from each slope of the valley like driving hail, or as the prince of poets sings,

“As sheets of snow
Descend, and whiten all the fields below,
So fast the darts on either army pour”.

On the banks of the already blood-dyed Nowe the conflict raged hand to hand; the bloody strife and clang of arms re-echoed among the surrounding hills. for some time, during the first onset, the advantage seemed to rest with the Northumbrians; but the overwhelming numbers of the Saxons, who continued to pour down into the valley, compelled the former, after terrific slaughter on both sides, to slowly retire within their stony ramparts along the ridge of the hill. The Saxons remained on their own side of the banks of the Nowe, elated with signs of seemingly certain victory. Echoing shouts from the forces of Cuichelm, Cynegils, and their confederate Penda, rent the air; consequent partly, on an inclination of the three kings to cross the stream, ascend the opposite steep, and force the stone-piled entrenchments of their enemies. Meanwhile, Edwin, secure in a certain secret resource, which he had confided early to a few of his thanes or chiefs, ordered a much stronger force to encounter his now exalting foes, and again, as the courageous Northumbrians descended [Page 124] into the valley, the arrows flew from side to side, thick and “rapid as hail they flew, which stormy winds shake down from heaven”. In the bloody valley the battle recommenced with terrific fury; the increasing numbers of the Saxons pressed the courageous Northumbrians first on one side, and then on the other side of the Nowe, which now ran through the valley like a stream of flame. The combat raged for hours, in which time the most deadly slaughter ensued. Evening began to approach, and the Saxons maintained the strife with increasing success, while the Northumbrians retreated to the slope of their own hill, and at this juncture, a sudden signal was given, which caused Edwin's diminished forces to effect a speedy retreat within their stony breastworks along the summit of the hill. This sudden movement of the Northumbrians was construed into certain retreat by the Saxons, who now began to ascend the hill of their vanquished enemies in all their pride of numbers. They had reached rather above midway, their exulting shouts resounding like thunder among the hills, when Edwin's terrible expedient became manifest to his troops; their whole number, in bodies of twenty or thirty each, were ordered at a given signal to poise over, along the whole length of the precipitous ridge, the massive stones, and sweep down their enemies in horrible, certain, and overwhelming death. Upward and onward came the heart-elated Saxons: the awful signal is given, and hundreds of millstone - massive stones - are poised over the dreadful [Page 125] eminence, and at each crashing bound

“And urged amain,
whirls, leaps, and thunders down impetuous to the plain”.
[Ed: The Iliad]

Thus the greater part of the army of the doomed brother kings and their confederate Penda were swept down, and dashed to pieces. Mutely aghast they hear the dreadful sound!

“Heaven trembles, roar the mountains, thunders all of the
ground”.

The valley was literally filled with the destructive stones, the dying, and the countless dead, the crimson-dyed Nowe leaped from its wonted channel, and spreading itself in tumultous confusion over the ground, carried the bloody impress of the murderous conflict to the headlong rolling, dark deep-bosomed Derwent.

“Deep groaned the water with the dying sound;
Repeated flows the red'ning river dyed,
And the warm purple circled on the tide”.

Cuichelm, Cynegils and Penda, with a remnant of their army, escaped to their respective dominions. Edwin repaired immediately to Northumbria, having lost almost one-half of his forces.

Such are a few particulars of the battle of Winhill and Losehill, of the truth of which no one can vouch - the story and its several incidents being mainly dependent on tradition. In support of the truth of the tale, there are the two hills, on which tradition insists were encamped the conflicting armies: and the [Page 126] Winhill is so called on account of the army stationed thereon being the victors; and Losehill from its army being vanquished. There, in the intervening valley, runs the Nowe, now singing its song of peace in happy seclusion. On its banks, and on the opposite sides, a many bones have been found at sundry times - supposed to be human - although much decayed; and, it is added, that the massive stones, said to have been so terribly destructive in the battle, have been cut up into millstones.

Notes
[1] Eagles were very common in the Peak in past ages. The last eagle nest known was in the year 1668; it was met with (says Willowby) near the River Derwent. The nest consisted of two long strong sticks, one end of which rested on the ledge of a rock, the other on two birch trees. It was composed of alternate layers of heath and rushes, was quite flat, and about two yards square. It contained one eaglet, “as black as a hobby”, about the weight of a goose; there was one addled egg, besides a lamb, a hare, and three poults. Red deer abounded very much in the Peak until the reign of Elizabeth (some say James I), when they all perished in a most severe storm. Antlers or horns are met with all over the Peak.

Transcribed by Rosemary Lockie in January 2009.

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