Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

Eamont 927
Regular visitors to Senchus may have noticed a lack of activity this year, with barely one new blogpost per month. The slowdown has been due to a major distraction – I’ve been writing a new book on early medieval history.

The title of my latest tome is Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. It’s my fifth book on Dark Age Scotland and my second on the North Britons. It can almost be described as a sequel to The Men Of The North – or more accurately as an expanded version of the last couple of chapters – and is similarly pitched as an undergraduate-level textbook. The primary focus is on the relationship between the Strathclyde Britons or ‘Cumbrians’ and their English neighbours in the Viking period (roughly 800 to 1100 AD). Much of this relationship was characterised by mutual hostility, which is why an early working title for the book was The Cumbrian Wars. These wars, although now absent from the title itself, still represent a major theme running through the book. Many of them are obscure and little-known, partly because Strathclyde has all too often been overlooked or ignored by historians, and partly due to misconceptions about what the term ‘Cumbrian’ actually means in an early medieval context.

Most of these conflicts were fought in the tenth and eleventh centuries. They were recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in other contemporary texts alongside periods of uneasy peace or temporary alliance. This was a volatile era in which ambitious kings in Britain and Ireland competed with one another for land, wealth and status. Treaties were forged, pledges were given and oaths of fealty were broken. Each generation brought a new set of alliances and a reshuffle in the balance of power. Add a few Viking warlords to the mix and it starts looking a bit like Game Of Thrones.

The book is scheduled for publication by Birlinn of Edinburgh in September 2014. At the moment, the front cover is being created (by a designer) and a final ‘proof’ of the text is being checked (by me). In the meantime, I’ve set up a WordPress blog where I’ll post updates on the book’s progress, as well as information on the Viking period in general.

I invite all readers of Senchus and Heart of the Kingdom to take a look at the new blog, which went online today. Click on the link below…

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

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Two Crosses

Dupplin Cross and Barochan Cross
End of April already, which means Springtime is underway and Summer is on the horizon. This is a good time to think about visiting museums, historic sites and other heritage attractions.

If you’re planning a trip to Scotland this year, and hoping to see some fine examples of early medieval sculpture, the above illustration offers a couple of ideas. It incorporates two drawings by John Romilly Allen from an old book called The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (published in 1903).

On the left, the Dupplin Cross, a magnificent Pictish stone from the early 9th century AD. It’s on display at St Serf’s Church in the village of Dunning in Perthshire.

On the right, the Barochan Cross, probably carved in the late 9th century. It’s Dark Age and Celtic, but not Pictish. This is a fine example of ‘Govan School’ sculpture and can be seen at Paisley Abbey.

Both crosses formerly stood outside on bare hillsides, exposed to the elements, but now they’re safely indoors. Both are impressive reminders of the artistry and craftsmanship of two of Scotland’s ancient peoples: the Picts and the Strathclyde Britons.

Either of these impressive crosses is well worth seeing, whether you’re heading north through Perthshire en route to the Highlands or traversing the southern edge of Glasgow.

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The last king of Strathclyde

Earl Siward

From the front cover of History Scotland magazine, Nov/Dec 2013. The illustration of Earl Siward and his children is from a painting by James Smetham (1821-89).


‘The last king of Strathclyde’ is the title of my article in the current issue of History Scotland. It’s a discussion of the final phase of the kingdom of the Clyde Britons, from the Battle of Carham (1018) to the eventual takeover by the Scots (sometime before 1070). I consider several possible candidates for the label ‘last king of Strathclyde’ during a time of political upheaval involving famous figures such as Earl Siward of Northumbria, the English king Edward the Confessor and the Scottish king Macbethad (Macbeth). In the end, I acknowledge that we cannot be certain who ruled the last remaining kingdom of the Cumbri on the eve of its demise, for the information presented by the written record is incomplete. We can only note that the last king named in the sources is Eugenius Calvus (‘Owain the Bald’) who, in alliance with the king of Scots, achieved a memorable victory over the English at Carham.

History Scotland
Here’s the full reference for my article:
Tim Clarkson, ‘The last king of Strathclyde’ History Scotland vol.13 no.6, Nov/Dec 2013, pp.24-7

- and here’s a link to the History Scotland website (issues are available in print and digital formats)

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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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The Netherton Cross

Netherton Cross

Few examples of sculpture from the kingdom of Strathclyde have survived, and fewer still survive intact. The main collection is at Govan, a place regarded by archaeologists as the origin-centre of a distinct style or ‘school’ of stonecarving in the ninth to eleventh centuries. One of the outlying monuments of the Govan School can be seen in the town of Hamilton, 12 miles upstream along the river Clyde. It’s an impressive free-standing cross and is well worth a quick detour off the M74 motorway. Over at my other blog Heart Of The Kingdom I’ve written a short post about it.

Heart Of The KingdomThe Netherton Cross

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The Arthurlie Cross

The Arthurlie Cross

(Photo © B Keeling)


Some examples of Pictish sculpture are off the beaten track and not always easy to get to, especially if sited on agricultural land or at a considerable distance from a road. This doesn’t seem to be an issue with the carved stones of Strathclyde which are generally quite accessible, even though none are signposted. They are, of course, far fewer in number than the Pictish stones, and are confined within a much smaller area. I should add that I’m referring here to stones displayed outside rather than those in museums or churches, and I’m excluding items hidden away in storage (such as the Stanely Cross fragment).

Two of the most striking Strathclyde monuments can be found just off major highways running out from the south side of Glasgow. One is the still-complete Netherton Cross, now standing in the grounds of the new parish church in the centre of Hamilton. The other is the headless cross-shaft at Arthurlie, near a road-junction in a residential area of Barrhead.

I’ve recently written a brief post on the Arthurlie Cross at my other blog Heart Of The Kingdom (see link below). The cross-shaft is a fine example of early medieval Celtic sculpture, with well-preserved carvings on three sides. As well as being in an urban setting which makes visiting easy, it is also the only monument of the Strathclyde Britons clearly visible on Google Street View.

Heart Of The Kingdom – The Arthurlie Cross

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Visit the Govan Stones

Govan Jordanhill Cross

Copyright © Tom Manley Photography


Last week saw the official unveiling of the Govan Stones in their new positions, following a major project to improve their display and interpretation. This stunning collection of early medieval sculpture has now re-opened for the summer season and can be visited free of charge. The 31 monuments include the magnificent Govan Sarcophagus, carved from a single block of sandstone and depicting a hunting scene reminiscent of Pictish examples. Similarly impressive are five hogback gravestones – traditionally associated with the Vikings – and the enigmatic Sun Stone.
Govan hogback stones

Copyright © Tom Manley Photography


What makes the Govan collection unique is that it represents the stonecarving tradition of the Strathclyde Britons, a people whose role in Scottish history is frequently overlooked. The Britons are less well-known, for instance, than their Pictish neighbours, despite playing an equally important part in the shaping of medieval Scotland. Govan was a major religious and ceremonial centre for the kings of Strathclyde at the height of their power in the 9th-11th centuries.
Govan Sun Stone

Copyright © Tom Manley Photography


This fine assemblage of ‘Dark Age’ Celtic sculpture is housed in the old parish church (known as Govan Old) on the south bank of the River Clyde. The church, which occupies a site of Christian worship reaching back to the fifth century, sits in a distinctive heart-shaped graveyard. It is easily accessible to visitors arriving by car or public transport, or on foot from the Riverside Museum on the opposite shore (via a free ferry service running until 11 August 2013). A selection of books and leaflets can be purchased inside the church, and guided tours of the sculpture are available. Refreshments can be found nearby in the excellent Cafe 13 which has recently moved to a new location at Govan Cross, just across the road from the subway station.

So, if you’re visiting Glasgow in the next couple of months, or simply passing through the south side of the city with a few hours to spare, make a short detour and visit the old parish church beside the river. If you’re an admirer of Celtic art and ancient carved stones, and you’re planning a trip to Scotland this summer, be sure to add the Govan collection to your ‘must see’ list.

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Opening times for Summer 2013: Saturday to Thursday, 1pm to 4pm.
Entry is Free.
See the Govan Stones website for further information.

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Many thanks to Tom Manley for permission to use his brilliant photographs, which can also be seen in this gallery at his website.

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