Searching for Brunanburh

Brunanburh
The battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937, was a notable victory for the English king Athelstan. On the losing side stood an alliance of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Britons, led by their respective kings. Contemporary annals, later chronicles and an Anglo-Saxon poem have left us in no doubt of the battle’s importance. Some modern historians regard it as a defining moment in the history of Britain: the moment when ‘England’, the territory of the Anglo-Saxons, became a true political entity.

But where was Brunanburh?

Where was Wendune, another place associated with the battle?

Where was the stretch of water called dinges mere – mentioned in the Brunanburh poem – if indeed this is a place-name at all?

Many theories have been put forward to answer these questions, but none has so far solved the mystery. Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula is often promoted as the best candidate for Brunanburh, primarily because it was recorded as Bruneburgh and Brunburg in twelfth-century documents. The place-name argument for Bromborough is certainly strong, but it is by no means decisive. Even if it was once known as Brunanburh, there is no certainty that the great battle of 937 was fought nearby, for we have no reason to assume Brunanburh was a unique place-name in Anglo-Saxon England. There might have been several places so named, in different areas, with not all of them being identifiable today behind modernised forms. It is also worth considering the position of Bromborough relative to tenth-century political geography: the Wirral peninsula is a long way from Scotland. Why would a combined force of Scots and Strathclyders choose to fight a battle there? If these northerners wanted to raid Athelstan’s territory and challenge him to a showdown, they could achieve both objectives without marching so far south.

Professor Andrew Breeze of the University of Navarre has recently proposed Lanchester in County Durham as an alternative candidate for Brunanburh. Andrew draws our attention to the nearby River Browney as a possible source of the Brun- element in the name. Could he be right? Lanchester clearly has a body of support and could even emerge as a strong rival to Bromborough, especially if the local media keep it in the spotlight.

For myself, I prefer to look west – not east – of the Pennines. I’ve said so in a couple of comments at Revealing Words, the fascinating blog run by Anglo-Saxon specialist Karen Jolly. Fans of the Brunanburh debate might like to know a few of us have been discussing the battle at Karen’s blog in the past week or so. Some interesting ideas are being bounced around, with input from various points of the spectrum.

The map below shows Lanchester, Bromborough and other candidates. More places could be added, but then things would get rather cluttered. These five sites should, however, be enough to show that Brunanburh has not yet been identified.

Brunanburh

I’ve been working on a Brunanburh-related blogpost of my own, to show where my thoughts are heading at the moment. It means I’ll be dusting off my old thesis to refresh half-forgotten memories of early medieval military logistics, as well as reading some newer stuff. I now have in my possession a pristine copy of the ‘Brunanburh Casebook’, which I’ll be examining closely in the next couple of weeks. Not sure when the blogpost will appear, but it won’t be imminent. It will be preceded by a couple of others from the Senchus backlog, one of which will be on St Columba.

I will also be looking at Brunanburh in my fifth book, which I’m due to start very soon. It’s about the kingdom of Strathclyde and will probably include an entire chapter on the Brunanburh campaign. An announcement of this new project will appear here at Senchus and at my other blog Heart of the Kingdom.

In the meantime, here are some interesting links to explore….

Karen Jolly’s blogpost on Brunanburh (with discussion)

Andrew Breeze on Lanchester as a candidate for Brunanburh

The case for Bromborough, summarised by Michael Livingston, editor of The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook.

A concise blogpost from three years ago, written by Diane McIlmoyle.

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37 comments on “Searching for Brunanburh

  1. badonicus says:

    Very interesting Tim and I hadn’t heard of the Lanchester theory until now. (I grew up playing football against Lanchester St. Bede’s!). Not sure if I’m convinced of this siting, however, but, never say never.

    • Tim says:

      Well, Mak, it’s always good to hear of Northumbrian schools being named after Northumbrian saints. I could even imagine Bede passing through Lanchester on his fairly limited travels. More difficult, though, to picture the battle of 937 being fought there. Still, as you point out, who knows?

  2. Steve says:

    Thanks again Tim ,I Agree , Up North and probably west of the Pennines , my favourite candidate is Brougham ( as proposed by J Jackson of Cumbria Heritage) , which is pronounced Broon or Broom to this very day , close to the treaty site at Eamont Bridge or Dacre and a place with which Athelstan would strike on his very borders if he was to try and teach them a lesson (Athelstan saw this land and coveted its richness).nearby Whinfell means PRECISELY Wendune and Vinheath and also can lie between a river and a forest . I admit that its not particularly near the Sea but neither was Stamford Bridge where if we didnt know precisely where that was we wouldve assumed it was near the coast for Hardradas ships , besides its only 18 miles to Carlisle .Its thought that Brougham was once much larger and the population moved to Penrith after flooding , but something also devastating couldve caused an upheaval. (its also my site for Bregouin) but thats another matter .

    • Tim says:

      I think the Cumberland/Westmoreland border area is worth considering in the Brunanburh debate. However, I’d steer clear of any connection between Brun- and the place-name Brougham, which is a straightforward Anglo-Saxon name meaning ‘village by the fort’ (i.e. the Roman fort of Brocavum). Also, none of the modern Whin- names can be confidently pinned to Wendune or Vinheath - too many possible candidates, like looking for a needle in a haystack.

    • Steve says:

      In the Brittania Version of the ASC in modern English they call Brunanburh : Brumby!
      Here Athelstan king,
      of earls the lord,
      rewarder of heroes,
      and his brother eke,
      Edmund atheling,
      elder of ancient race,
      slew in the fight,
      with the edge of their swords,
      the foe at Brumby
      note ; in the Ogilvy 1675 map and another Ancient map i noticed they call Brougham “Broom” or Broome. which is pronounced like this to this very day.
      erm …
      I think it was a fleeing rout till dark as the remnants of seamen found their ships at Carlisle.

  3. kljolly says:

    Thanks, Tim, for the link to my blog. I am happy to see this conversation shift to Senchus now that you have started your posts. I was about to do a second one, trying to move forward with placing Aldred in that landscape during the 930s.
    I am taken with Steve’s suggestion of Brougham near Eamont Bridge, and not just because I visited the region last summer. What are the usable coastal landing sites in Cumbria for Irish Sea transit? Morecambe Bay (Urswick), Ravenglass, and Workington? At ISAS last summer, Rosemary Cramp called into question the use of any other Cumbrian sites due to silting, noting work by Fiona Edmonds, although the context was 7th-8th century.

    • Tim says:

      I wonder if Fiona Edmonds’ research is published somewhere? Morecambe Bay seems a possible escape-route for Dublin Vikings fleeing from a battle fought in the Penrith area (whether near Brougham or further west). As I’ve said in my reply to Steve above, I still think this area is a realistic part of the Brunanburh debate.
      I hope you go ahead with your follow-up blogpost, Karen. I’m starting to focus on the tenth century for my new book.

      • kljolly says:

        Fiona Edmond, ‘The practicalities of communication between Northumbrian and Irish Churches, c. 635–735’, in J. Graham-Campbell and M. Ryan (eds.) Anglo-Saxon/ Irish Relations before the Vikings, Proceedings of the British Academy 157 (Oxford: OUP, 2009), pp. 129–47.

  4. Thomas Gavin says:

    Hi Tim, looking from the outside objectively a little, Bromborough would have been easily reached via a Sea route by Vikings or Scots from Argyll, it’s also in the middle of all the kingdoms. Furthermore, the combined force seems to be the attacking? so they would probably go to the English Army as aggressors?

    • Tim says:

      I guess it boils down to whether we envisage the Scots arriving by land or sea. If Brunanburh had occurred 200 years earlier, I’d be happy to imagine a war-fleet sailing south from Dal Riata. But the tenth-century ‘Scots’ were ruled from a power-base in the old Pictish heartlands of Perthshire, with royal centres at Forteviot and Scone. I don’t see them retaining enough authority in the West to mount a major seaborne expedition from Argyll. Hebridean Vikings presumably had the western seaways sewn up by then, and some of them maybe answered a call to arms from Anlaf of Dublin in 937, but the Scots surely travelled to Brunanburh by marching overland. Strathclyde may have faced a similar situation, with Gall-Gaidhil longships perhaps controlling the Firth of Clyde from harbours along the Ayrshire coast.

  5. […] Durham (with the possibility of another, at present unnamed option entering the fray by means of a forthcoming post on the rather good Senchus blog). This would integrate the various forms of evidence and accord the same treatment to each, […]

  6. kevin halloran says:

    Tim, I look forward to your piece but hope you will examine all aspects of the battle with a critical eye. For example, what exactly is the evidence that Brunanburh was a ‘notable victory’ for Athelstan? As I argue in my Academia paper this interpretation is open to question. So far as we can tell the kingdoms of Strathclyde and Alba are left unmolested: there is no repetition of the forced appearances of Owain and Causantin at Athelstan’s court as in the year or so following the 934 invasion and there is no record of any tributary payments, hostages or whatever. By 945 the Alban kingdom has recovered to the point where it secures very favourable terms from Edmund in the political settlement following his invasion of Strathclyde.

    Furthermore, if Anlaf suffered a ‘decisive’ defeat how was he able to raid widely in Ireland immediately on his return there and by late 939 organise, recruit and finance a new expedition against the mainland?

    If Brunanburh was a decisive step in the development of England how come the Northumbrians renounced their allegiance and welcomed back a Viking king in early 941; why did the English lose control not only of Northumbria but much of the southern Danelaw as well, only finally re-establishing control of the former almost twenty years after Brunanburh?

    Why was Brunanburh fought? How did we move from a situation whereby after the battle of Corbridge in 918 the English agree a treaty of mutual protection with Alba and Strathclyde against the Vikings, apparently confirmed at Eamont in 927, to the position in 937?

    What were the war aims of the various belligerents? What did Alba and Strathclyde hope to achieve from the Viking alliance? William of Malmesbury (and some later commentators such as Michael Wood) argue that Causantin and Anlaf hoped to ‘usurp’ Athelstan’s kingdom. This is surely hogwash. I have seen no evidence that Causantin aimed even at significant territorial acquisitions in Lothian and Bernicia. He may well have sought to expand political influence in the region and perhaps even exercise a measure of lordship over the earls of Bamburgh but none of this required an invasion below Hadrian’s Wall.

    We know Brunanburh was fought late in the year, probably no earlier than October. If the coalition was down in South Yorks or the Wirral what would they have done if Athelstan, with Winter fast approaching, had simply reinforced the border forts and sat tight?

    Hopefully you’ll provide some answers.

    • Tim says:

      War aims of the protagonists, and the political effects of the battle, are crucial points to consider. I’m probably giving a subconscious nod to the West Saxon poet when I use phrases like ‘notable victory’, but you’re right – we don’t know the repercussions of Brunanburh. It doesn’t seem to have harmed Anlaf’s fortunes, nor does it seem to have hit the Scots and Britons as hard as the campaign of 934. Having said that, I don’t rule out the possibility that Owain of Strathclyde perished on the battlefield of 937.

  7. Steve says:

    thats why they dealt with Dunmail
    few years later , another three or four years we wouldve held our own.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, the early years of the reign of Dyfnwal (‘Dunmail’) are part of the wider picture here. The Life of Cathroe (written c.980) suggests that, in 940 or 941, Strathclyde was on friendly terms with the kings of Alba and York and was not in thrall to Athelstan’s brother Edmund. True, this changed in 945 after Edmund’s thorough ravaging of Strathclyde, but I can imagine Dyfnwal enjoying five or six years of freedom from English overlordship between Athelstan’s death and Edmund’s invasion.

  8. Steve says:

    Carlisle has always been the linchpin

    • kevin halloran says:

      I find the practicalities of 937 intriguing and baffling. Presumably the war is in some sense a response or reprisal for Athelstan’s invasion of Scotland in 934. After that, from September 934 to Christmas 935 the northern kings join the Welsh kings as occasional visitors to the English court where they are described as ‘subreguli’ and ranked first and second above Hywel Dda, King of Dyfed. It appears that Athelstan had established at least a nominal overlordship in Britain. They then disappear and we next hear of them at Brunanburh.
      Anlaf Guthfrithson begins raiding in Ireland in 936 possibly to finance an expedition. But at Christmas 936 he is threatened by the movement of the Limerick Vikings to Lough Ree; on 1 August 937 he attacks and defeats them and sometime thereafter departs for the mainland.
      Between Christmas 935 and the commencement of the 937 campaign we assume there were negotiations between Anlaf and the northern kings. At the same time Anlaf (presumably) recruits widely across the Viking world to assemble the force to take to the mainland.
      Negotiations presumably involve discussions of strategy, arrangements for coordinating the various coalition elements, transportation, logistics etc. They also presumably involve some discussion of war aims: who gets what. It is not immediately apparent that the northern kings and the Vikings would have an agreed preferred strategy. It is certainly difficult to discern that they shared compatible war aims.
      Both the Wirral supporters and Michael Wood argue that the coalition advanced (or arrived) south into friendly territory. But whether in friendly or hostile territory a large army is very destructive and has to move around consuming large amounts of resources as it goes. It seems clear that such a move by the coalition late in the campaigning season absolutely required that the issue be settled by a decisive battle sooner rather than later. They simply could not sustain themselves long term so far from their bases.
      If we assume that Athelstan obliges them and loses a decisive battle either by the Mersey or the Don what happens then? What do the kings of Alba and Strathclyde do with such a victory? Can they seriously intend to carve up Northumbria increasing their territories by a factor of 2 or 3 at a single go and extending their lines of communication and control hundreds of miles or do they return north and hand southern Northumbria over to the Vikings? A Viking Dublin-York axis reinforced with thousands of adventurers from across the Viking world seems to me to be a neighbour from hell. It doesn’t make sense to me that the northern kings would hazard so much on an expedition so far into England which even if successful would inevitably replace a distant Wessex hegemony with a resurgent Viking kingdom.

      • Tim says:

        Thanks for these points, Kevin. Synchronizing the chronology indicated by Irish annals and Anglo-Saxon charters is crucial to understanding the movements of key players in the run-up to Brunanburh. We do need to be sceptical of any suggestion that Alba and Strathclyde were seeking territorial gains in southern Northumbria. I cannot imagine the northern kings being happy to topple Athelstan just to create a power-vacuum which Anlaf could then exploit far more easily than they ever could.

  9. […] recent posts and comments at Tim Clarkson’s Senchus and Karen Louise Jolly’s Revealing Words have instigated a discussion on the location of […]

  10. Andrew Breeze says:

    I am Andrew Breeze, and thank everyone for their interest….

  11. Steve says:

    Did this entry in the ASC 934 cause bitter enmity leading to 937 ? “This year went King Athelstan into Scotland, both with a land-force and a naval armament, and laid waste a great part of it”.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, the political context of Brunanburh can be traced back to the campaign of 934, when Athelstan subjugated both Strathclyde and Alba to his overlordship. Anglo-Saxon charters indicate that Constantin of Alba attended the English court as a vassal-king for about a year, before rejecting Athelstan’s authority altogether. Owain of Strathclyde, who appears in the charters with his name Latinized as Eugenius, followed suit not long afterwards. By 936, it seems likely that these kings were already plotting their revenge, in alliance with Anlaf of Dublin.

      For more detail, see above for Kevin’s second comment of 18th October. Kevin has researched this topic in depth and is one of the few historians to highlight the crucial role of the northern kings in the events leading up to and during the Brunanburh campaign.

  12. Tim says:

    Karen Jolly’s latest blogpost discusses churches in the Northumbrian/Cumbrian borderlands around the time when Brunanburh was fought. It’s well worth a look and can be found via this link.

  13. diaspora52 says:

    Congratulations on a brilliant blog. Enjoyed the thought-provoking discussion.

  14. Steve says:

    Would it be far fetched to suggest Derwent water or Bassenthwaite as the landing place of Dingsmere ? I reckon the river is navigable all the way to Workington , especially when a lot of these small ships only had a draught of 1 and a half feet.
    Again only 18 Miles to Penrith .
    I suspects the harrying retreat of the “sea men” was because these chaps were on foot after the cavalry had scarpered.

    • Tim says:

      I’m not sure about the navigability from these lakes to the sea, but the Derwent river might be worth considering, especially with one of the Brunanburh candidates not far away at Bromfield (which has Viking Age sculpture). This is all too far north for me, as I’d be inclined to look for Brunanburh in Lancashire. But Bromfield can’t be ruled out of the search, and it’s a far stronger candidate than Brougham.

  15. Jon says:

    Hi. Sorry to go off topic a bit. I’m trying to find the link for recording of the debate that was held a few months ago with Michael Wood. Anyone point me in the right direction?

    Thanks

    Jon

  16. Steve says:

    has anyone thought that Brewyn (Cellawr) (Uriens battle )and Brunnaburgh might be the same place ?

    • Tim says:

      The two names aren’t connected philologically. Some people think Brewyn might be the Roman fort of Bremenium, at High Rochester in Northumberland, which is possible on linguistic grounds.

  17. damo says:

    How about this new piece of evidence

    http://blog.damowords.co.uk/?p=2385

    x

    damo

  18. yodamo says:

    & here’s the plains of othlynn solution –

    http://blog.damowords.co.uk/?p=2414

  19. yodamo says:

    & heres the place where Analf escaped into the Irish Sea

    http://blog.damowords.co.uk/?p=2422

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