Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

King Athelstan

Athelstan, king of the English (924-39), in a manuscript of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert.


Last Thursday evening (4th December) the eminent philologist Andrew Breeze gave a lecture to the Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries at their headquarters in London. His main topic was the battle of Brunanburh, fought in 937, one of the most famous events of the Viking Age. The victor was the English king Athelstan who thwarted an alliance of Norsemen, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. Frustratingly, the site of this mighty clash of arms is unknown. Some historians think it took place on the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire, near the present-day village of Bromborough. Others think Cheshire is too far south and instead suggest alternative locations, one of these being the River Browney in County Durham. Professor Breeze believes that the Roman fort of Lanchester, slightly north of the Browney, may be the lost ‘fort of Bruna’ implied by the Old English place-name Brunanburh.

The lecture is now available on YouTube. Although I’m not convinced by the Lanchester theory, I like to keep up with the Brunanburh debate so I enjoyed watching the video. At the heart of Professor Breeze’s argument is his belief that the Norsemen sailed in via the Humber estuary – as indeed the twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester said they did – before mooring their ships and marching to the battlefield. Not everyone is happy to accept the chronicler’s words on this important logistical point. Some sceptical folk (myself included) think it more likely that the Norse commander Anlaf Guthfrithsson brought his army across the Irish Sea to a landfall on the western coast of Britain. The earliest source for the battle of Brunanburh is a tenth-century poem which says that Anlaf fled across the sea to Dublin after his defeat. I support the theory that he probably arrived at the battlefield via the same western route rather than by sailing all the way around Scotland to come down to the Humber.

The link below will take you to the video of the lecture. Look out for a glimpse of my latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. Needless to say, Professor Breeze isn’t convinced by what I’ve written in the book’s fifth chapter, which mostly deals with the Brunanburh debate. There I suggest that the great battle may have been fought in North Lancashire, although I conclude that the true location is likely to remain elusive for the foreseeable future.

Society of Antiquaries [YouTube] – Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

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Notes

I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for telling me about the lecture and video.

A brief summary of the lecture can be seen at the Society of Antiquaries events pages.

I mentioned both Lanchester and Bromborough in a blogpost published here last October.

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The English invasion of Strathclyde

Edmund of Wessex

A thirteenth-century depiction of Edmund, king of Wessex (939-946)


In 945, the English king Edmund – a grandson of Alfred the Great – launched a devastating raid on the territory of the Strathclyde Britons. Contemporary annalists noted the event in their chronicle entries and some of these brief reports have survived (more or less) in later texts. Last month I wrote a short article on Edmund’s campaign for the website of History Scotland magazine. This is now online and can be accessed via the link below:

History ScotlandThe English invasion of Strathclyde

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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Bannockburn (and other battles)

Battle of Bannockburn
I recently visited the heritage centre at Bannockburn which commemorates Robert Bruce’s famous victory over the English. The centre and the nearby monuments have been given a makeover to commemorate the battle’s 700th anniversary.

Because this is a fourteenth-century battle (fought in 1314, just in case anyone needs reminding) it lies beyond the usual horizons of Senchus and is well-documented elsewhere. I don’t tend to blog about the period of Bruce and Wallace unless the topic has direct relevance to something from before c.1150. However, I wanted to show some pictures of the Bannockburn monuments, partly because I think their recent makeover has turned out pretty well. Also, they remind me that commemorations of major Scottish battles from earlier periods are rare, with only a few receiving any kind of acknowledgment in the modern landscape. In many cases, this must be because the site cannot be pinpointed, not even approximately. In others, it may be because the historical significance of the event has yet to be recognised/promoted by the heritage tourism sector. I’m thinking here of important ‘Dark Age’ battles whose outcomes affected the wider balance of power, such as Strathcarron (642/643 – location uncertain), Dun Nechtáin (685 – location disputed) and Carham (1018 – location known but barely publicised). Two others in which Scottish forces were involved – Degsastan (603) and Brunanburh (937) – were undoubtedly very significant but, as well as being impossible to locate, their sites may lie south of the Border.

I remember visiting Mugdock Castle (near Milngavie) some years ago and wondering why local tourism authorities hadn’t tapped into the Pictish heritage market by putting up an information board saying ‘Historians believe that the famous battle of Mocetauc was fought near here in AD 750′, maybe with a bit of text and some coloured drawings of Picts fighting Britons. Mocetauc was a major defeat endured by the powerful Pictish king Onuist (Óengus) at the hands of an army of Britons led by the king of Dumbarton. It was famous enough to be mentioned in contemporary chronicles on both sides of the Irish Sea. Modern historians think it very likely that the battlefield lay in the vicinity of Mugdock in the valley of Strathblane, a few miles north of Glasgow. People in the Mugdock area have long been aware of this battle and have linked it – via their own folklore – to places in the local landscape. It may even be the historical event behind vague traditions of a victory won by ‘King Arthur’ at nearby Loch Ardinning, where there is apparently a sign dating the Arthurian battle to 570. With such stories already circulating in the area, and with plenty of academic support for the identification of Mocetauc as Mugdock, a project to commemorate the historical eighth-century battle with some kind of permanent marker wouldn’t come out of the blue. I imagine this is the type of project that could apply for resources from one of the community-based strands of the Heritage Lottery Fund. As I said, it’s a while since I visited the area, so if anyone knows of something already in place, or in the pipeline, please let me know.

At Dunnichen in Angus the Pictish victory over the English at Dun Nechtáin in May 685 is commemorated by a cairn with a small plaque giving a bit of historical info. Unfortunately, opinion is divided on whether Angus is the correct setting for this battle, so a more substantial memorial is hard to justify. Personally, I’m with the Dunnichen folk as far as the location is concerned, but the counter-argument (for Dunachton in Badenoch) has been well-argued by Alex Woolf and cannot be lightly set aside.

Meanwhile, at Carham on the River Tweed, we hear that the defeat of the English earl of Bamburgh in 1018 (at the hands of the Scots and Strathclyde Britons) is to be commemorated in the millennial year 2018. Perhaps a battlefield memorial is already planned? There are no doubts about the identification of Carham as the place called Carrum in a Northumbrian account written in the following century, so some kind of marker or monument would be justifiable. I discuss this battle at some length in my new book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

After these musings on Dark Age battles we return to Bannockburn and to the monuments behind the new visitor centre. The following images show how Scotland’s iconic national victory continues to be commemorated on a suitably grand scale.

Battle of Bannockburn

Sculptured timeline at the rear of the visitor centre.


Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn

The refurbished Rotunda (built in the 1960s) and its Victorian flagpole.


Battle of Bannockburn

Plaque on the memorial cairn within the Rotunda.


Battle of Bannockburn

The new ring beam encircling the Rotunda carries a poem by Kathleen Jamie.


Battle of Bannockburn

The Bruce Monument.

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Here’s a link to the Battle of Bannockburn visitor centre.

All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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Picts at Moncrieffe Hill

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
A new project to promote the history and archaeology of the Carse of Gowrie is set to run for the next four years, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources. One of the key sites involved in the project is Moncrieffe Hill which has a large Iron Age fort on the summit. The fort has never been excavated before, but the new project will see the first ever ‘dig’. This is likely to shed light on how the hill was used by the ancient inhabitants of Perthshire, not only in the Iron Age but in the Pictish period that followed.

The name Moncrieffe is an Anglicised form of Monadh Craoibh (Gaelic: ‘Hill of Trees’). A glance at the Latin text of the Annals of Ulster turns up an interesting item from the year 728:

Bellum Mónidchroibh inter Pictores inuicem, ubi Oenghus uictor fuit & multi ex parte Eilpini regis perempti sunt. Bellum lacrimabile inter eosdem gestum est iuxta Castellum Credi, ubi Elpinus efugit.

‘The battle of Monadh Craoibh between the Picts themselves, in which Óengus was victor, and many were slain on the side of king Alpín. A woeful battle was fought between the same parties near Castle Credi, where Alpín was put to flight.’

Castle Credi is unidentifed, but Monadh Craoibh is undoubtedly Moncrieffe Hill. The context of the battle was a power-struggle between rival claimants for kingship in southern Pictland. Four ambitious men – Óengus, Alpín, Nechtan and Drust – fought a bitter war that lasted through the 720s. By the summer of 729, a victor finally emerged in the shape of Óengus, who defeated Nechtan, his last remaining rival, on 12 August. In the previous year, Óengus had trounced Alpín’s forces at Moncrieffe Hill and Castle Credi.

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
Óengus (pronounced ‘Oyn-yus’) went on to become one of the greatest of all Pictish kings. In the 730s he conquered Dál Riata, the land of the Scots, which thereafter seems to have lain under permanent Pictish overkingship. One result of the long period of Pictish supremacy was the gradual merging together of the Scots and Picts as a single, Gaelic-speaking people inhabiting a new kingdom called Alba. If we credit Óengus as one of the main architects of this process, his victory at Moncrieffe Hill should perhaps be seen as an important milestone in the birth of the Scottish nation.

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I deal with the Pictish dynastic war of the 720s in my book The Picts: a History (at pp.150-3).

The image below shows the Israelite king David, as depicted on the eighth-century St Andrews Sarcophagus. It is possible that the stone-carver tried to capture the likeness of Óengus, king of the Picts, who may be the person commemorated by this famous monument.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

The new heritage project for the Carse of Gowrie is described in an article in The Courier. The project also has its own website.

Check out these photos of Moncrieffe Hill in a blogpost by Keith Savage.

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Battle of Clontarf anniversary

Battle of Clontarf
This year marks the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf, fought on the outskirts of Dublin on 23 April 1014. The battle is often depicted as a defining moment in Irish history: a great victory by King Brian Boru over the Vikings. In popular mythology, it heralded the end of two hundred years of Viking influence in Ireland. But, as with many of the best myths, the true picture is somewhat different. Like most battles of the Viking period, Clontarf was first and foremost a clash between ambitious rulers rather than a struggle between Celts and Scandinavians. Both sides mobilised Irish and Viking forces, each contingent serving the interests of its own leader, with scant regard for the ethnic origin of friend or foe. It would have been no great surprise to Brian’s Irish warriors to learn that their enemies were led not only by Sihtric Silkbeard, king of the Dublin Norse, but also by the Irish ruler Mael Morda, king of Leinster, or that their own allies included Vikings from Limerick.

By setting aside the myths we can see the battle for what it really was: a mighty contest for superiority in which forces from all over Ireland took part. Its significance will be highlighted in 2014 with a series of commemorative events. Links to some of these can be found at the end of this blogpost, but more are being announced as the anniversary of the battle approaches.

The battle has a Scottish connection, too, which is why it gets a mention here at Senchus. For, although the causes of the conflict lay among a complex web of rivalries and overlordships in Ireland, the pattern of wider allegiances brought warriors from further afield into the fray. On Brian’s side, the list of slain commanders included Domnall, son of Eimin son of Cainnech, the lord of Mar (now part of Aberdeenshire), while on the other side the casualties included Earl Sigurd of Orkney.

Click the links below for more information on the millennial celebrations:

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

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Notes:

Boru is an Anglicised form of Bóruma which might mean something like ‘taker of cattle-tribute’, a suitable epithet for a Dark Age king.

The information about Sigurd of Orkney and Domnall of Mar comes from the Annals of Ulster.

Much of the mythologising which turned Clontarf into a contest between the native Irish and the Vikings is due to the twelfth-century text Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh (‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’), written as propaganda for Brian’s descendants. In its account of the battle of Clontarf it tells of a fight between the Scottish nobleman Domnall of Mar and a Viking called Plait who may have come from Normandy.

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Picts at Brunanburh

Battle of Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh, AD 937 (illustration by Alfred Pearse)


January is almost done, so this is a long-overdue first blogpost of 2014. As usual, the delay has been due to a lack of time for blogging. Among other distractions, I’m writing a new book – my fifth on early medieval history – of which more will be said in the near future. This post is a kind of spin-off from that project and deals with a topic I’ve blogged about before: the battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937, one of the most famous events of the Viking Age.

Our earliest source is an Old English poem, probably composed within ten years of the battle and inserted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In stirring words, the poet celebrates the great victory at Brunanburh in which the English king Athelstan defeated an alliance of Vikings, Scots and (not mentioned in the poem) Strathclyde Britons. Some thirty years later, a briefer account of the battle was written by Aethelweard, a high-ranking English nobleman, in his Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Aethelweard refers not to ‘Brunanburh’ but to ‘Brunandun’, one of several alternative names for the battlefield.

The Old English poem describes Scots fighting at Brunanburh under their grey-haired king Constantin, but Aethelweard mentions Picts as well. This requires a bit of explanation, as the Picts are usually thought to have ‘disappeared’ by about 900. Not that they vanished in a physical sense – they simply merged with the Scots or, to put it another way, they adopted a ‘Scottish’ identity.

Constantin’s kingdom, known by the Gaelic name Alba, was created in the late ninth century. Its royal dynasty – founded by Constantin’s grandfather, Cináed mac Ailpín, who died in 858 – was basically a family of Gaelic-speaking Picts. And, although Constantin’s predecessor was the first of the dynasty to be described in the Irish annals not as rex Pictorum (‘king of the Picts’) but as ri Albain (‘king of Alba’), the name Alba might really mean ‘Pictland’ anyway. So, even though Pictishness was being replaced by Scottishness before 900, the change was still fairly recent when Aethelweard wrote his chronicle in c.980, and even more recent in 937. Aethelweard’s reference to Pictish warriors fighting at Brunanburh might not be as anachronistic as it seems.

More could be said, of course, especially if we bring in the modern scholarship on Aethelweard’s writings to discuss his use of the term Picti. But this is meant to be a quick blogpost, so I’ll simply end it with the relevant passage from Aethelweard’s chronicle:

‘Nine hundred years plus twenty-six more had passed from the glorious Incarnation of our Saviour when the all-powerful king Athelstan assumed the crown of empire. Thirteen years later there was a huge battle against barbarians at Brunandun, which is still called the `great battle’ by common folk to the present day. Then the barbarian forces were overcome on all sides and no longer held superiority. Afterwards, he drove them from the shores of the sea, and the Scots and Picts alike bent their necks. The fields of Britain were joined as one, everywhere was at peace and had an abundance of all things. No fleet has since advanced against these shores and stayed without the consent of the English.’

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Notes & References

The standard edition of the Latin text is by Alistair Campbell, The Chronicle of Aethelweard (London, 1961).

See also: Leslie Whitbread, ‘Aethelweard and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ English Historical Review vol.74 (1959), 577-89.

Aethelweard is one of the few writers from this period who wasn’t a monk. His career as an ealdorman (royal official) involved him in high-level politics, on which see Scott Ashley ‘The lay intellectual in Anglo-Saxon England’, pp.218-45 in Patrick Wormald & Janet Nelson (eds.) Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2007).

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Degsastan discovered?

Degsastan
Hot on the heels of his suggestion that the battle of Brunanburh (AD 937) was fought in County Durham comes another thought-provoking theory from Professor Andrew Breeze. This time, the battle in question was fought not in the tenth century but in the seventh, in the year 603. On one side stood an army of Scots from Dál Riata, led by King Áedán mac Gabráin. Facing them were the English of Bernicia under the command of their king Aethelfrith. The ambitions of these two mighty warlords clashed at a place called Degsa’s Stone, a name rendered in Latin as Lapis Degsa and in Old English as Degsastan.

The Venerable Bede, writing more than a hundred years after the battle, described Degsa’s Stone as a ‘very famous place’. Unfortunately, he didn’t give its precise location, although he did hint that it lay within the extensive territories controlled by Aethelfrith. As an Englishman and a Bernician, Bede resorted to triumphal rhetoric when describing the battle’s political repercussions:

‘From that time, no king of the Scots in Britain has dared to make war against the English nation to this day.’

As with many ‘lost’ battlefields, people have tended to begin a search for Degsastan by looking for similar-sounding names on a modern map. Long ago, this quest turned up the place-name Dawston, borne today by a stream and hillside in Liddesdale, the valley of the Liddel Water on the border between England and Scotland. Dawston has attracted many supporters, partly because it not only has the enticing D-st-n combination but is in an area where Áedán and Aethelfrith might have met in battle.

I’m not a supporter of Dawston. It’s too far south for me, and too far off the beaten track. In fact, I’m wary of using ‘sounds-like etymology’ as a starting-point when searching for lost battlefields. All too often, this technique brings forth a large red herring, which then slithers away in all kinds of strange directions with a posse of enthusiastic hunters in frantic pursuit. Much time is wasted, I believe, on the ‘sounds-like’ game. I don’t think it is necessarily the best way to begin the quest. Would it not make more sense to start from a different point, by using political considerations, landscape reconstructions and logistical factors to establish a likely geographical context, which could then be searched for possible place-name matches?

Andrew Breeze, an expert on place-names, thinks Dawston doesn’t even pass the test on linguistic grounds. He suggests instead a site further north, on the upper reaches of the River Tweed, near the village of Drumelzier between Biggar and Peebles. Here he notes the place name Dawyck, whch he says means ‘David’s settlement’ (where the first element is a North Brittonic personal name equivalent to Welsh Dewi). He proposes that a nearby monolith might once have been known as ‘Dewi’s Stone’, a name subsequently part-translated by speakers of Old English as Degsastan.

It’s an intriguing theory. While not being entirely swayed by the ‘Dewi’ argument, I am inclined to believe that this is the kind of area where we should be looking for the battlefield of 603. Upper Tweeddale lay on a key route linking the Clyde valley – and places further north and west – to the Bernician heartlands on the east coast. This seems to me a plausible setting for the earliest recorded clash between English and Scottish armies.

Andrew Breeze’s theory appears in a recent article in the Peebleshire News:
Ancient mystery battlefield discovered in Tweeddale

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I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for sending me the link.

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