The opposing forces of King Egfrid (or Ecgfrith) of Northumbria and King Ethelred (or Æthelred) of Mercia met around the year 679 to do battle near the River Trent, in England. According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, King Elfwin (or Ælfwine) of Deira mobilized his own force to assist his brother and liege, King Egfrid of Northumbria, at the battle near the Trent. Ultimately, the battle turned out to be a victory for King Ethelred of Mercia, or at least a costly draw for the Northumbrians. Most importantly, Elfwin of Deira was killed in the fray. Even though Mercia gained the most advantage from the results of the battle, the death of Elfwin also made King Egfrid honor-bound to seek vengeance for the death of his brother. The war only ended when Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, negotiated a reprisal payment to be sent from King Ethelred to King Egfrid, as compensation for the death of Elfwin.
The monk and historian, Bede (c. 673-735), recorded or created an interesting story that related to the battle of Trent. The tale is blatantly folklorish and heavily features religious miracles, yet the tale’s insight into war and life amidst the feuding kingdoms of 7th-century England is deemed valuable by historians.
Bede’s The Tale of Imma
A Northumbrian thane (a rank similar to a knight), known as Imma, was one of the many soldiers that King Elfwin of Deira commanded at the battle near the River Trent. Imma, just like his king, did not fare well in the battle—during the fight, Imma was injured, knocked unconscious, and left for dead on the blood-soaked battlefield. The poor unconscious man spent a day and a night lodged between the dying and the dead. When he finally woke, Imma pulled himself from the decaying corpses and scrounged together a crude bandage. Patched up to the best of his abilities, Imma finally limped away from the field of dead warriors, hoping to meet up with his Northumbrian comrades.
Despite his hopes and wishes, the injured thane instead found himself caught by his enemies, the Mercians. Imma was brought before one of King Ethelred’s noble vassals, who began interrogating the captive. As the battle of the Trent River had been costly for both the Northumbrians and the Mercians, Imma decided to withhold the fact that he, himself, was a nobleman and thane of the late King Elfwin. Instead, he claimed to be a neutral peasant that had been merely a laborer in the Northumbrian army’s baggage train. The Mercian noble may have had a few doubts about the man’s story, but he shrugged his suspicions aside and promised to give the captive food and medical treatment. The Mercian also swore that the captive would not be executed.
Meanwhile, a certain priest named Tunna was searching through the scattered dead that still remained at the site of the battle near the Trent River. The priest had been told that his brother, Imma, had died in the battle, along with King Elfwin. After searching the faces of the slain, Tunna found a battered corpse that looked vaguely like that of his brother. With a heavy heart, the priest brought the body back home for a proper burial and then embarked on a continuous stream of prayers for his brother’s soul.
It was at that moment, when Tunna began to pray for his brother, that the Mercians tried to restrain the captured Imma. Nevertheless, no matter how they tried to fetter the man, no bonds would hold. Ropes would not tie; locks would not shut, clasps refused to stay secure. Imma openly confessed to his captors that he had a theory of what was occurring. Imma guessed that his brother, a priest named Tunna, was praying and delivering masses in honor of his soul, which somehow created in him a divine resistance to fettering.
As the Mercian noble who was questioning Imma listened to this explanation, his suspicions of the prisoner began to reemerge. The captive’s grammar and rhetoric sounded more intelligent than that of a common peasant. The prisoner stood with the aura of command and influence. His clothing, though dirty, was expensive and beyond the price-range of the average peasantry. Signs such as these convinced the Mercian vassal that the captive was anything but common. When pressed on the issue, Imma confessed that he was a nobleman and a thane to the deceased King Elfwin. The Mercian captor grimly claimed that if he had known this earlier, he would have had Imma executed. Yet, he had already promised that no harm (except imprisonment) would come to the captive.
In the end, the Mercians managed to sell Imma to a buyer from the land of Frisia, who had set up shop in London. Nevertheless, the same problem remained—the thane was a slave who could not be chained. After failing to bind Imma with all of the materials available in London, the Frisian decided to strike up a pact with the enslaved nobleman. He agreed to let Imma leave captivity if the nobleman swore on his honor to return with enough money to buy his own freedom. If Imma failed to produce this ransom money, then he was honor bound to voluntarily return to slavery.
Imma agreed to the deal and left London to meet with King Hlothere of Kent. Hlothere was related to Imma’s deceased liege, and other than King Egfrid of Northumbria, was one of the men most likely to pay Imma’s ransom. According to the story, the king of Kent did, indeed, give the thane enough money to purchase back his freedom. With money in hand, Imma returned to London to settle his debts with the Frisian, and then traveled as a free man to see his brother, the priest named Tunna.
When Imma reached the monastery in which Tunna was living, he told his brother (and others) about all that had happened to him ever since he was wounded at the battle near the River Trent, including his miraculous resistance to fetters. Bede claimed that his source for this interesting tale was one of the people who personally witnessed Imma recount his odd experience.
Written by C. Keith Hansely.
Top picture attribution: (Bayeux Tapestry – Scenes 29-30-31- (cropped) the coronation of Harold II of England. Depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1070s, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), Book 4-Chapter 22, translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer (Penguin Classics, 2003).