In 937 the English king Aethelstan of Wessex gained a victory over an allied army of Scots, Norsemen and Britons at a place called Brunanburh. The encounter was remembered in subsequent generations as the “Great Battle” and has thus been regarded – perhaps incorrectly – as one of the defining moments in early English history. Whatever its long-term political significance the battle was certainly famous in its own time and in the centuries that followed. At some point in the Middle Ages its fame began to dwindle and it is now far less well known than, for example, the campaigns of Athelstan’s grandfather Alfred the Great.
Although the battle is mentioned in various contemporary and later sources its location remains a mystery. A number of places with modern names possibly deriving from Brun– have been suggested as likely candidates but many of these can be discarded on linguistic grounds. Currently, the most favoured candidate seems to be Bromborough on the Wirral Peninsula, a site with easy access to the Irish Sea which is where the main Viking force – the Norse of Dublin – would have come from (a twelfth-century reference to the Humber is probably erroneous). A rival to Bromborough is the prominent Dumfriesshire landmark known today as Burnswark, a flat-topped hill whose candidacy as the site of Brunanburh was strongly argued in 2005 by Kevin Halloran. The case for Burnswark had been made long ago by Neilson but it received an update by Halloran in a well-crafted article in the Scottish Historical Review. At the core of the Burnswark theory are the recorded instances of Bruneswerc as an alternative name of the battle, together with the hill’s geographical position at the head of the Solway Firth. Being a supporter of the Bromborough theory I found Halloran’s argument thought-provoking but I lacked the etymological expertise to scrutinise it more deeply. Then, last year, the Burnswark theory was subjected to rigorous examination by Paul Cavill in a book of essays dedicated to the renowned place-name scholar Margaret Gelling. Cavill demonstrated that Bruneswerc, although clearly an old name for the battle, was an alternative name rather than the original one. By looking closely at the old chronicle references he showed that Brunanburh was undoubtedly the original name and that Bruneswerc was a secondary form derived from it. He also showed that the modern name Burnswark has not evolved from Bruneswerc but is more likely to relate to the “burns” (streams) around the hill from which the nearby place-name Burnside also derives. In my (admittedly biased) view, the candidacy of Burnswark as a plausible location for the great battle of 937 has been effectively swept aside by Cavill’s analysis. To me, Bromborough on the Wirral is still the best candidate, even if its case is impossible to prove.
Update 2015 – Since writing this blogpost six years ago, my views on the geography of the Brunanburh campaign have changed considerably. I now regard Bromborough as too far south. My current preference is for a location between the rivers Ribble and Lune, in the Amounderness area of Lancashire. The reasoning behind this northward shift is set out in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, published in 2014.
Kevin Halloran, “The Brunanburh campaign: a reappraisal” Scottish Historical Review 84 (2005), 133-48
Paul Cavill, “The site of the battle of Brunanburh: manuscripts and maps, grammar and geography”, pp.303-19 in Oliver Padel & David Parsons (eds) A commodity of good names: essays in honour of Margaret Gelling (Donnington, 2008
George Neilson, ‘Brunanburh and Burnswark’ Scottish Historical Review 7 (1909), 37-9
George Neilson, Annals of the Solway until A.D. 1307 (Glasgow, 1899)