The First Battle of Otford 775 AD   6 comments

This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset;  the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the South-Saxons” Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.


Coin of King Offa

The first Battle of Otford or Ottanford occured in 775 AD when the client King Ecbert II of Kent (Cantware Cyning) re-asserted the independence of the Cantware (the Kentish Men).  The Mercians under King Offa had held dominion over the Kingdom of Kent which had been split between two Kings.  Offa signed himself “King of all the English” or “Regia Anglorum” on seals during this time and claimed overlordship of all of England from the South coast to Northumbria.  Under the influence of Archbishop (Saint) Jaenberht, King Ecgberht II and  the Cantaware rebelled and battle was met at Otford, located at a crossing of the River Darent on the North Downs.

The Battlefield

Otford was an important place in Roman times with a mill, villa, pottery and cemetery remains having been identified and likely remained so into the Dark Ages though the population was probably a lot smaller.  The Pilgrim’s Way crosses the River Darent here.  The Pilgrim’s Way is an ancient pre-historic route connecting the East and West of England to such important places as Winchester and Canterbury.  The Darent forms a natural boundary in Kent and connects to the Thames estuary.  It was likely navigable to at least Shoreham and possibly Otford in ancient times so would have formed a useful trade route in times of peace and invasion route for Saxon and Viking raiders in times of war.  It was heavily settled by the Romans as attested by the large number of Villas which later probably became more fortified as the earlier ones were destroyed.  In later times fortified farms and even castles would take their place along the river valley.

So we can easily imagine how a force of Men of Kent  would choose Otford as the place to intercept an invading force of Mercians.  The river splits the village into two  with the West of Otford likely being the most settled in Saxon times with a settlement at Twitton.   We also know that there was a field belonging to Mr Polhill in the past called Danes Field which was said to contain bodies of fallen warriors (possibly from a later battle) and that when the road leading south to Sevenoaks was widened skeletons were found in chalk banks.

So where would the battle be fought?  Did the Men of Kent defend the river crossing at the riverbank, forcing the Mercians to fight their way across?  Or did they wait with the forces arrayed for battle on the high ground to the East at Otford Mount allowing the Mercians to cross relatively unhindered?  Or did the Mercians cross the Darent at Dartford and then march South supported and supplied by their boats along the old road North from Shoreham?  Or did they deploy to the West of the Darent and East of Twitton knowing that the Mercians would need to get past them in order to cross here.   Looking at Old Maps of the period it is suggested that the battle was fought in this latter region of what is later known as Frog’s Farm ( ).  Of course this might just be where the cartographer found the space to write or the Cantaware may have surged forward from their defensive position at the river bank to this point once the initial attack had been beaten back.  At the junction of the Pilgrim’s Way with Rye Lane at Frog’s Farm in Roman times there was a Roman Cemetery with an Octagonal structure, probably a Mausoleum. ( The Ruins of this and possibly the boundary hedgerow bordering the road could well have been visible in 775 AD.

Frog Farm Cremation Cemetery

Frog Farm Cremation Cemetery; Kent Archeological Society

So this is where our battle will be fought.

The Scenario

A scenario for Hail Caesar rules using 28mm figures.

Army Lists:  HailCaesarOtfordFirst

The battle is to be fought in the river valley of Otford.  The flanks of the battlefield are impassable, consisting of the marshy ground near the River Darent, tributaries and streams and the steep densely wooded slopes of the North Downs.  Any troops leaving the table flanks are deemed to have left and become lost and  entangled in the terrain and will not return.  In addition, because this was mainly a clash of infantry and shieldwalls cavalry attempting sneaky outflanking manouevres are penalised in woods:  they are -1 in combat and -1 to command with no free moves.  Also they must follow the proximity rule strictly when within 12″ of enemy, even engaged enemy, they should attempt to close to support friends to the flank or rear.

The Mercians are the stronger force and are under pressure to force the Cantaware off their ground before the game ends.  The Mercians deploy from the Western edge advancing from the direction of the old Pilgrim’s way planning to cross the Darent at Otford.  The Cantaware are deployed ready and waiting with the Darent River and Otford to their rear to the East.  Ecbert has decided to tempt the Mercians  to give battle as opposed to merely defending river bank and crossing at Otford.  This probably would have deterred them and they perhaps would otherwise have sought a different crossing point.  I suspect Ecbert’s aim was to give battle in a place of his choosing in order to obtain a decisive outcome.  Knowing that the Mercians needed to cross at Otford if they wanted to reach deeper into Kent made this an excellent place to await their arrival.

I have made both forces equal in strength.  The Mercian force contains a fair number of Welsh Allies.  Parts of South Wales owed tribute to the Mercians and relied upon them for protection from their neighbours.  So the Mercians have the stronger cavalry force but since they are far from home I have removed the Welsh Cavalry Tough and Stubborn bonuses.  They are more reluctant to fight and more likely to ride their horses back home if things go wrong for Offa.

Any commanders wounded in the game lose their  command re-roll.  King Offa can only be killed on a roll of 1 and would take an otherwise killed result as a wound.


The Mercians must force the Cantware to retire from the field of battle, usually by breaking two or more of their commands.  The Cantware merely have to hold their ground until sunset (game end) thus proving their right to independence and allowing and encouraging more local forces to arrive to defend the resurgent King Ecgbert.  Perhaps even friendly forces from the neighbouring Kingdom of Wessex who were also struggling to retain their independence from the Mercians at this time.

Historical Outcome

The ASC does not record the outcome.  Kent does seem to have been independent for the next 9 years.   Offa returned in 784 and defeated Ealhmund, Ecbert’s son in battle.  The Mercians devestated the county exacting a terrible revenge.  However he was unable to remove Archbishop Jaenberht. Instead he marked his vindictiveness to the Archbishop by prevailing on Pope Hadrian to divide the province of Canterbury by establishing a new Archbishop at Lichfield, to prevent ecclesiastical ‘interference’ in the Mercian kingdom by a Kentish Churchman. He also confiscated church lands at Charing, Great Chart and Bishopsbourne and gave them to his followers. Jaenberht died in 792 and was buried in St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury.  He was remembered as a Saint by the people of Kent.

Coin of King Ecgberht

Posted May 19, 2011 by wargamesdiary

6 responses to “The First Battle of Otford 775 AD

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  1. Pingback: Saturday 7th July « wargamesdiary

  2. Wow! I bet you actually went out and reconnoitred the area too. Brilliant stuff!

  3. Thanks VWR,
    Am glad you liked it. Otford is not too far from here so was good to do a local battle. Always good to hear from you and nice to see you’re keeping up with the site. Maybe one year you can get down to SELWG or Salute?

  4. Thought it was superb. (A friend who went to SELWG this year recalled your game – so it must have made an impression). I’ll definitely have to try and get to SALUTE next year. I always try and keep up with your session reports… I should comment more often I guess – just blown-away with all the research and detail on this one!

  5. What a great bit of research. I live near enough to Otford that I sometimes cycle there and wondered about where this battle was actually fought.

    Such a beautiful and peaceful place, it blows my mind to think of Britain being made up of several warring kingdom. My father’s DNA comes a lot from Kent so no doubt ancestors of mine fought there.

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