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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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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18 comments on “Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

  1. Chris Pickles says:

    Hi Tim

    I think I’m with you on this one. I note from your recent book the reference to the Plains of Othlyn in the Annals of Clonmacnoise account of the battle – a reference which often seems to be overlooked. From what I remember of Lanchester the Roman Fort overlooks a steep sided and narrow valley where the modern village is located, and nothing that you could call a plain in sight.

    I don’t completely rule out a landing in the Humber, but surely Anlaf’s objective would be to re-establish himself in control at York. Why land in the Humber and then go all the way north to Lanchester? It makes no strategic sense to me. If he wanted to be in that area, for whatever reason, surely it would make more sense to land at the mouth of the Tyne or Wear?

    Bromborough still looks like the best bet to me, but I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

    • Tim says:

      Returning to York does seem an obvious objective for Anlaf but then we’d have to wonder what his allies would have gained from that (unless they regarded it as a price worth paying to get rid of Athelstan). I agree with you that an army landing in the Humber to challenge a southern English king would achieve little by marching north to Lanchester.
      Your description of the Roman fort is interesting as I have never visited the area and cannot visualise it easily. It certainly doesn’t sound like a neat fit with the ‘plains’ mentioned in AClon.

  2. Mick Deakin says:

    Thanks for the link to the lecture Tim, AB informed me also, but I did not know the video was on Youtube.

    I’m not a Lanchester fan either, but more in favour of Michael Woods suggestion of West Yorkshire. I have been making regular visits to Wentbridge, Castleford, Pontefract and Burgwallis/ Barnsdale in recent months and have some very interesting material to write up in response to the MW article in the YAJ.

    I reckon AB was probably not far off in his Dingesmere=Dinglesmere theory. My own work on the word ding/dinges shows this element or derivations of it can be traced as far back as Domesday Book. Broadly speaking it means a hollow or depression and this meaning in relation to heavy seas can traced back as far as Captain Cooks Diary where a ‘Hollow Sea’ is a frequently used nautical term.


    • Tim says:

      I’d be interested in seeing your response to Michael Wood’s theory. I wasn’t convinced by his Brinsworth idea and the same goes for his latest suggestion. For me, all of the eastern sites seem to place John of Worcester above the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the reliability stakes and that’s something I find difficult to accept. On the other hand, the Chronicle isn’t exactly the accurate record we’d like it to be, so I’m happy to keep an open mind.
      I tend to agree with you and AB that dingesmere isn’t ‘the mere of the Thing’ or any kind of place-name at all.

  3. dearieme says:

    Did the Norse of Ireland control the Isle of Man at the time?

    • Tim says:

      Probably. Most historians see the Norse settlements in Man and Galloway as being under the sway of Dublin-based kings (the Uí Ímair or ‘Descendants of Ivar’) in the early tenth century.

      • dearieme says:

        Thanks. If you control Man then you have easy access to, say, the Solway in the north, right down to the Dee estuary in the south, plus North Wales. I’d have thought that west of the Pennines was an easier area in which to assemble an army of Norsemen, Scots and Strathclyde Britons than east of the Pennines, but then maybe Athelstan had choice of ground.

        • Tim says:

          Yes, the west certainly looks easier for the Strathclyders and Dublin Norse. As far as the Scots are concerned, supporters of the eastern theory would no doubt point to battles such as Corbridge (Scots + English v Norse, c.918) and Carham (Scots + Strathclyders v English, 1018) as counter-evidence. For me, the clincher is the Brunanburh poem’s reference to Norse survivors fleeing to their ships and sailing back to Dublin, which suggests a battlefield on the western side of the Pennines.

          How much choice Athelstan had in selecting the battlefield is an interesting question. The sources suggest that he was fighting a defensive action, to repel an assault upon his territory, so maybe he didn’t have much choice at all.

  4. Mick Deakin says:

    Michael Wood mentioned the possibility of the coalition army overwintering in West Yorkshire. This is not out of the question and makes sense particularly as a preparation for a spring campaign in the Midlands. This assumes York had given over willingly to the allies as suggested by MW.

    The objectives for Anlaf, may have been the patrimonial seat of York in the first instance and then the territories in and around the East Midlands, which is precisely what he achieved within months of the death of Athelstan. Constantine, one would have thought, may just have been content with the re-establishment of a Northumbrian buffer zone.

    The historical sources indicate that Athelstan delayed before engaging the coalition force and if true, he may have had good reason to.

    Let us suppose that his intelligence told him there were hostile forces amassing in the west – possibly making their way from the estuary of the Ribble. These might have been the army from Strathclyde and/or Vikings from Dublin.His sources also informed him that Constantine was on the move south and even worse still a Viking fleet was moving down the east coast consisting of Northern and/or Dublin Vikings.

    Athelstan would have to be reasonably certain of the intention of these hostile forces, be they a combined coalition, or maybe as separate armies with a purpose of outflanking or indeed some other planned military strategy.

    Let us assume then that at some point this strategy became clear to Athelstan. The western forces had began to move through the Aire Gap and were heading east. Constantines forces were travelling south down Dere Street they had not turned west and were well beyond the Stainmoor Pass so their forward route was now understood. This left the fleet moving down the east coast which could only be heading for the Humber Estuary.

    Athelstan can now begin to make some reasonably safe assumptions as to the intentions of the invading forces and where they were likely to meet up.

    Those moving west-east through the Aire Gap and those moving south down Dere Street could really only meet at one point – the most difficult river crossing of the Old North Road which was at Castleford on the River Aire. The east coast fleet would sail into the Humber and then up the Ouse for a short distance before turning into the mouth of the Aire and sailing up the navigable stretch of the Aire as far as Knottingley ( once a Medieval port). Disembarking here they could make the short march just over three miles west to Castleford and meet or await the other members of the coalition force. Alternatively they could march three miles south and take up a position at Tanshelf (Pontefract) to effect a meeting at this point on the Roman road which connected Doncaster with York. (Edward 1st once described Pontefract as being ‘The Key to the North’).

    If the intention was to overwinter then this coalition force would be in a position of considerable strength. Effectively controlling the Humber – York – Ribble – Dublin communications network and thereby ensuring control of a vital supply route both for food and armament. The east coast Viking fleet if required, could perhaps even have prevented or hindered access from the Humber into the River Trent thus stifling an extremely important commercial route into the midlands and beyond.

    From Egils Saga:

    ” A fortified town stood to the north of the heath. King Anlaf settled himself in that town, and set the greater part of his army there because beyond it there was a large district that seemed to him better for the conveyance of provisions that the army needed.”

    Athelstan would have realised this and could now rally his forces and confront the invasion force before they became established. They would perhaps have moved north taking advantage of two well used routes. The branch of the Ermine Street passing through Lincoln and crossing the Trent at Littleborough and on to Doncaster – a route which later became part of the Great North Road. The other route being the old ‘British’ Track from Derby – Chesterfield – Templeborough and known as the Ryknield Street . This latter track intersected with the Great North Road at present day Skelbrooke- just west of Burghwallis on the A1 and is the site of a Roman fort. This is where Athelstans various forces might have met and is just 12 miles distant from Pontefract.

    The battle might have taken place somewhere between Castleford and Burghwallis.

    When I have all the stuff written up Tim ( and there is a lot of it !) I will send it on to you.


    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this detailed reconstruction, Mick. I’d be interested in seeing the full version when you’ve written it up. My initial thoughts are that the Scots would not have had an easy march southward if they took the eastern route via Dere Street towards Castleford. Such a journey would have required compliance from the English lords of Bamburgh and from the Anglo-Danish elite at York. I don’t think we can assume Constantin could count on avoiding a clash with either one or both Northumbrian powers when leading his army across their lands. If either or both were more inclined to support Athelstan rather than Anlaf Guthfrithsson, the eastern route would have been very dangerous for a Scottish army.

  5. andy937 says:

    Hi all I’m researching local history where I live which is Tinsley Brinsworth area and have found a few things which I am trying to get more info on. Tinsley is known as Tingasleah and could quite easily be mistaken for as Dingesmere when written years later. Also it is a Thing cognate word meaning assembly point and has an ancient meaning of field of council. Could this be as opposed to Dingesmere been known for where Athelstan’s opponents not left in their boats but where they left the battle area itself, the place where spears were left. Also I’m waiting to hear from the historical records on any more info on the church of St Lawrence’s annual royal payment until 1847 to put on a special remembrance to the dead. That would fit with the final part of the battle been at its bloodiest and why the church is at Tinsley as it was also said to take care of the souls. Something else I have found is an old name for Brinsworth Ridge been called Bonewood Moor which could possibly be an ancient burial site. Also Vin as in Vin Heath and river is connected to Brinsworth as Vin is a Norse word for wetland where the willows grow. Brinsworth is known for many years to have had large areas of willow trees by the River Rother reflected by 5 new houses been built on top of Whitehill and the road name been called something unique to Brinsworth, that of Whitehill Willow. Also Bonet Lane is one of the first roads through Brinsworth possibly took its name from a mass grave been found in the early 1900s but I have yet to have this confirmed. There are lots of other things I have found that are interesting but I’m keeping a neutral opinion on the site of this battle. Anyone interested in any of the other things I have found please feel free to email me. Thanks.

    • Mick Deakin says:

      Maybe Constantin did not have such an easy march south Tim.

      Egils Saga (It.25) would seem to preserve a tradition that there was fighting between the advancing forces and several of Athelstans Northumbrian Earls.

      William of Malmesbury also tells us “…the northern land lends clear support,”

      And similarly the Annals of Clonmacnois “..and by the help of the Danes of that kingdom they gave battle to the Saxons…”.

      I’m on with the writing up now.
      Hoping to get well on with it over the Christmas break.

      • Tim says:

        I’m probably in the sceptical camp on the question of whether Egil’s Saga is part of the historical record of the Brunanburh campaign. On the other hand, I’m inclined to think WoM may have been drawing on accurate sources when he mentioned the ‘northern land’ lending support, although this could mean western Northumbria just as easily as the eastern side. Same goes for the ‘Danes’ mentioned in AClon, who could be folk of Scandinavian heritage on either side of the Pennines.

  6. Andrew Breeze says:

    Andrew Breeze here. Once again, thanks to all for interest in the lecture; and please note the discussion in Tim Clarkson’s _Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age_. It is a detailed and reasoned case; although I disagree with it, it must be taken on board, along with much else in the same book.

  7. Simon Artymiuk says:

    A landing on the east coast is no bar to an Irish Sea retreat. A century later Godred Crovan, founder of the Crovan dynasty of kings who ruled the Isle of Man and Hebrides until 1265 (and Anglesey and Dublin for short periods) is said in The Chronicle of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles (compiled by monks at Furness Abbey, who had a daughter houses at Ballasalla on the island) to have fought with Harold Haradrada’s army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 and then to have escaped the slaughter of Norsemen by King Harold Godwinnsson’s English army by by fleeing across the Irish sea to the Isle of Man, where he had a relative reigning. He then returned in the 1070s and made three bids to take control of the island. The third attempt in 1079 was successful because he brought with him a Hebridean force, some of whom concealed themselves in woodland at the foot of the mountain Scacafell (or Sky Hill, near Ramsey). These troops revealed themselves when the first cohort fighting the Manx were nearing exhaustion, and the Manx then found themselves trapped by the River Sulby at high tide and, with ‘pitiful cries’, asked for quarter. Godred is said to have been lenient ‘because he was brought up among them’ – despite being described as a son of Harold the Black of Iceland and to be related to the Dublin dynasty of kings. To answer one of your other correspondents, Norsemen are thought to have had control of the IOM from at least the mid-9th century and the Viking ship burials at Balladoole and Knock y Dooney are thought to date from the early 10th century. The Manx Museum recently had an exhibition entitled The Forgotten Kingdom, which about sums up how the Kingdom of Man and the Isles has been treated by historians. Even after Somerled seized the middle group of Hebridean islands, the Manx Crovan kings continued to hold Skye, Lewis and Harris, etc, as well as the southern islands around Islay. It was the inconclusive Battle of Largs in 1263, and the death of King Hakon of Norway on Orkney, which saw the eventual eclipse of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles with the sale of Man and the Hebrides to King Alexander III of Scotland in 1265. Prof Andrew McDonald, from Canada, has written the excellent book The Crovan Dynasty in Their Irish Sea Context which emphasises the important alliances with Norwegian and English kings, Welsh princes and Irish rulers that this dynasty forged.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this comment, Simon. The movements of Godred Crovan in 1066 do need to be kept in mind by those of us who argue against an east coast landing in 937. I only know a little about Godred and was unaware of his westward retreat from Stamford Bridge. The other Manx information you mention is also interesting – I would like to have seen the Forgotten Kingdom exhibition. I’ve made a note of the McDonald book and will look it up. I didn’t cite it in my recent book on the Viking-Age kingdom of Strathclyde because the Crovan dynasty emerged after the kingdom’s demise, but it no doubt contains info on earlier Norse activity which I could probably have used.

  8. Brian says:

    I am a supporter of the Ribble estuary theory!
    The Flu. RIB.(era) BEL.(lisima) has at the start of its estuary a joining river flowing from south to north called the Douglas. At the source of the douglas is a reservoir called dingles reservoir is it not possible that thit is the origional name for the whole river. dingles- Dugles (who has not mistaken ‘in’ for ‘u’ or the other way around when looking at old maps.) possibly being later corrupted to duglas and finally the spelling corrected to Douglas.

    At the mouth of this river crossing the Ribble to Freckleton was (before dredging for Preston docks took place.) a point that was shown on old maps as fordable at low tide. This could be a fine contender for Dingesmere as a place where the heavy studded viking ships would struggle to cross when the tide was low and yet easily be crossed on the morning tide. You remember that William of Malmesbury calls the site , ” Bruneford”

    There has also been found evidence of a battle of the period in the Walton area of Preston.

    There is a number of examples of the name BRUN in the surrounding area with Burnley at the east of the high moor (brunlea?) Brindle (Brundle) to the south and Blackburn (blacken brun?) on the northen slopes.

    My theory on the battle itself is that it was not just a single battle in a field as is usualy the case but a roman style planned strategic invasion.
    I think the plan was to cut off the King from reinforcements by forming an armed barrier from the Humber to the Ribble while a huge force sweeps down from Scotland to sweep away all opposition recapturing the contested areas and capturing Athelstan in the process. Puncturing such a defensive line at the Ribble would allow the reinforcements to join their king and get behind the enemy defences. The king is said to have “remained in the town” not the sort of behaviour you would expect from a warlord king. But perhaps he was defending the town (wherever that may be) and relying on his Earls to ensure that the reinforcements arrive in time. This may be fanciful but it could explain why the local legends about the battle include ships sailing up the Humber and the Firth of Forth. Individual battles will have been fought all along such defences as the Earls tried to break through. areas around York and Preston and other areas would have battle fields in the same battle.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for your comment, Brian. It’s always good to know I’m not alone in supporting a Lancashire location for Brunanburh. I was unaware of the tradition of a battle at Walton and have made a note to look it up. I agree that we might be looking at a series of clashes in a sustained campaign rather than one decisive battle. Also interesting to hear about the ford which is certainly well worth keeping in mind.

      Regarding Dingesmere, I’m currently leaning towards the idea that this isn’t a place-name but a poetical description (“noisy sea” or whatever). However, my thinking on the whole Brunanburh topic has few fixed points and is constantly changing.

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