De Obsessione Dunelmensis (‘Of The Siege Of Durham’) is a 12th century account of hostilities between England and Scotland at the dawn of the second millennium. It was written by an Englishman, possibly Symeon of Durham, and describes an assault launched by the Scots king Malcolm II. The event was noted briefly by the Irish annalists…
1006: A battle between the men of Alba and the Saxons. And the rout was upon the Scots, and they left behind them a slaughter of their good men.
The bane of the Scottish army in this battle was a young English earl called Uhtred, son-in-law of the bishop of Durham. Gathering an army from Northumbria and Yorkshire he fell upon the besiegers and lifted their blockade of the town. The Scots suffered extremely heavy casualties and were forced to flee, their king barely escaping with his life. After the slaughter a grim fate awaited a number of Malcolm’s warriors, even as their bodies lay dead on the battlefield. De Obsessione Dunelmensis gives the gruesome details, telling how Earl Uhtred
“caused to be carried to Durham the best-looking heads of the slain, ornamented with braided locks as was the fashion of the time, and after they had been washed by four women – to each of whom he gave a cow for their trouble – he caused these heads to be fixed upon stakes and placed around the walls”
Just as the lifeless Scottish heads were selected on the basis of their good looks, so the four Durham women were presumably chosen by virtue of their lack of squeamishness. A strong stomach would indeed have been a desirable quality, unless Uhtred’s promise of cattle provided a sufficient incentive to volunteer for the messy task.