Brunanburh and Burnswark

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.

References

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)

Advertisements

9 comments on “Brunanburh and Burnswark

  1. Lindsay says:

    Found this piece if history fascinating but knowing the area local to Burnswark i wonder if another hill near to ecclefechan has been ignored. The brown moor to the east of ecclefechan is adjoining pennersaughs. I believe the saxon meaning for pennersaughs is “head of the saxons”and that brunan can mean either burn(s) or brown

  2. Tim says:

    Interesting. The Brun- in Brunanburh could mean brown if it isn’t a personal name like Bruna. I looked up Pennersaughs in The Celtic Place Names Of Scotland: “This appears to be Pen yr Sax, Saxon’s Head” (p.356) alternatively “Head of the Saxons” (p.180).

  3. Chris says:

    This has been a debate that has really fascinated me but after endless hours of researching every available resource and opinion on this I am still left wondering if both places could be incorrect. I have read from others that an area in South Yorkshire is being overlooked. I found an excerpt from a book written in the first part of the last century that seems to give a lot of credence to a place south of York as being the site. In it was claimed that archaeological finds showed numerous charred bones in a field somewhere that indicated a mass pyre and burial. There were other notes as well though I would need to dig up the reference.

    In the end I suppose we shall never know.

  4. Tim says:

    Since publishing the original post my thoughts on the location of Brunanburh have changed, largely as a result of detailed discussions with Kevin Halloran regarding the logistical aspects of the campaign of 937. I now find myself less convinced by the candidacy of Bromborough. It seems too far south to be a viable objective for the northern Celtic powers (Scots and Strathclyde Britons) either via land or sea. The argument that these two armies were transported to the Wirral by hitching a ride on Viking longships does not hold up well, nor does the idea that they were capable of getting there under their own sails. When I looked at the distances involved, together with such details as embarkation ports, I began to wonder if a more northerly location for the battle fitted the logistical/geographical aspects better. Kevin’s suggestion of Burnswark requires no complicated logistical theories and therefore has much to commend it. I still think the place-name argument leans slightly in Bromborough’s favour but it is not decisive and, in any case, the similarity of the names does not clinch the identification of the battlefield.

    One important point raised by Kevin is that our main early source (the Old English poem) seems to suggest that the Scots did not arrive at Brunanburh by sea. The Vikings fled to their ships at the end of the battle but the poet offers no similar seaborne retreat for the Scots. Instead, the veteran Scottish king Constantine (aka Causantin mac Aeda) is said to have simply returned to his own land. The omission of any reference to ships may be significant and, if taken at face value, suggests that the Scots, and presumably the Britons too, left the battlefield via a land-route. If the defeat had occurred at Bromborough these two northern armies faced a very long homeward march, initially through lands that were geographically and politically hostile. By contrast, a shorter overland journey from Burnswark to their homes in Clydesdale or Perthshire would not have posed any severe logistical problems.

    Much more can be added to the debate. I hope to explore some aspects of it, particularly on military logistics, in a separate post on this blog.

  5. Michael Deakin says:

    Excellent debate and I myself am interested in the area around the Solway. I believe I may have an explanation for Dingesmere and The Plains of othlynn – possibly also Brunanburh itself.

    I submitted an essay to Archive.org last week entitled ‘Brunanburh – Further Considerations’.

    Please feel free to comment – I would welcome any further leads to follow up.

    http://www.archive.org/details/Brunanburh_Further_Considerations

  6. Tim says:

    Thanks for posting the link to your essay, Michael. The references to tides are especially interesting. I was unaware that tidal movements in the Solway Firth are so strong.

    • I deal with many of these points in a forthcoming article in the SHR, ‘The Identity of Etbrunnanwerc’. There is also a short article on my site that argues the place-name evidence, far from offering support for Bromborough, is a significant weakness – ‘Bromborough: place-name evidence a weakness not a strength.’
      Tim’s work on logistics will, I hope, prove a corrective to the rather blythe assumptions of historians without a military viewpoint about the capacity of the northern kings to operate so far south, particularly as late in the year as Brunanburh (probably October).
      Having read Michael Deakins article I believe my interpretation of Dingesmere as a descriptive phrase, ‘sea of storms’, may be incorrect and it could be a proper name for the Solway, ‘Sea of Noise’.

  7. A Gardner says:

    Hi i grew up,went to school in Bromborough i have a hunch where the site may be.this is only a hunch i and a couple of pals have allways felt that the area holds a certain significance.Bromborough is on a ley line.Bit hippy but there you are.Are there going to be any digs or searches ? if so i could help.

    • Tim says:

      Detailed info on the Bromborough=Brunanburh theory can be found in a number of books and articles by Paul Cavill and his colleagues. Steve Harding’s webpage will give you a general idea about why they think Bromborough is the battle-site. See the link at the end of this note.

      When I visited Bromborough last year I didn’t come away feeling more convinced that the battle took place there. Since the original post on this topic (in which I leaned towards Bromborough rather than Burnswark) I have actually grown more sceptical. Six months after writing it I looked closely at the logistical aspects, especially with regard to the Scots and Strathclyde Britons, and began to have my first serious doubts about the Wirral. Discussions with Kevin Halloran have tended to reinforce these doubts and I now think it more likely that the battle took place within the bounds of Strathclyde. In 10th century terms this means anywhere from Penrith northwards.

      This doesn’t mean I have thrown the Bromborough theory out of the equation. Many people strongly support it, and their views have to be considered. But, by the same token, the opposing theories have to be given equal space too. At the moment there’s a risk that the Bromborough theory could become a factoid, a ‘fact-shaped object’ which looks like a proven fact but isn’t. This would not be a good thing.

      Anyway, here’s a good starting-point for info on Bromborough: Steve Harding’s page on the Wirral Vikings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s