British Battles 493-937

British Battles: Badon to Brunanburh

This new book by renowned philologist Andrew Breeze is a collection of thirteen studies on battles fought in various parts of early medieval Britain. Employing his deep knowledge of place-names and primary sources, Professor Breeze proposes for each battle a geographical context that either supports or challenges previous scholarship. Most of the thirteen chapters are updated or reworked versions of articles previously published in academic journals. Although the author’s conclusions will be familiar to anyone who has followed his research in recent years, it is useful to have them collected in one place, not least because some of the original articles are not easy to find without access to a university library’s journal archives.

A number of famous ‘lost’ battles are discussed in the book, among them Degsastan (AD 603), Maserfelth (642) and Brunanburh (937). These three have yet to be placed on a map with any measure of confidence or consensus, despite much debate and many competing theories. The locations suggested by Breeze are, respectively, Dawyck (Scottish Borders), Forden (Powys) and Lanchester (County Durham). In making a case for Brunanburh (‘Fort of Bruna’?) being the Roman fort of Lanchester (Longovicium) near the River Browney, Breeze offers a challenge to the popular belief that the battle was fought at present-day Bromborough on the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire. In so doing, he shows that the debate is far from settled and that Bromborough is not the only place for which a strong case can be made. Less widely-known than Brunanburh is the battle of Arfderydd (573), an event associated with the earliest strands of the Merlin legend. Breeze supports a long-established consensus that it was fought in the vicinity of Arthuret, an ancient parish eight miles north of Carlisle.

The book’s first two chapters deal with battles traditionally associated with a sixth-century warlord called Arthur, a shadowy figure who appears in early medieval Welsh texts such as the ninth-century Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’). The warlord lies at the root of later legends about a fabled king whose chivalrous knights sat at the Round Table in Camelot. Many people believe – or want to believe – that the legends are rooted in fact, and that the warlord of early Welsh tradition was a real historical figure. This is the position adopted by Breeze, who suggests that the original Arthur was a Briton of the North who undertook a series of military campaigns in the early sixth century. He argues that these campaigns, a dozen of which are listed in Historia Brittonum, were fought in what are now southern Scotland and adjacent parts of northern England. Breeze believes that previous attempts to locate the most obscure battles in the list – such as ‘Bassas’ and ‘Mount Agned’ – have been heading in the wrong direction, hence these places remain unidentified. He believes that their names are corrupt and garbled, requiring correction to forms that make more sense. This leads him to propose entirely new identifications. Bassas, for example, he sees as an error for Tarras, which he associates with Tarras Water in Dumfriesshire or Carstairs in South Lanarkshire (Casteltarras in 1172). He believes ‘Agned’ to be a corruption of Agheu (‘death’ in Old Welsh), a name he associates with the lost place-name Penango (‘Hill of Death’?) in the Scottish Borders. Other names in the Historia Brittonum list are more straightforward and potentially easier to locate, an example being the river ‘Dubglas’ which a number of scholars – including Breeze – identify as the Douglas Water in south-west Scotland. The final battle in the list is a great victory over the Anglo-Saxons at ‘Mount Badon’. Breeze completely uncouples Badon from Arthur’s catalogue of victories, attributing it instead to the fifth-century warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus. He sees the name Badon as an error for Braydon and locates the battlefield at Ringsbury hillfort near Braydon Forest in Wiltshire. Camlan or Camlann, the battle where Arthur is said to have received a mortal wound, is absent from the Historia Brittonum list but appears in the tenth-century Welsh Annals where it is entered at the year 537. Breeze puts Camlan in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall, supporting the long-established candidacy of Camboglanna, a Roman fort at Castlesteads near the western end of the frontier.

While Arthur’s campaigns may be familiar to many readers of this book, other battles have received less widespread attention. Two ninth-century encounters between English and Scandinavian forces at ‘Alluthèlia’ (844) and ‘Buttingtune’ (893) fall into this category, but Breeze’s discussion of their historical and geographical contexts is nonetheless illuminating. He locates the former at Bishop Auckland in County Durham, the latter at Buttington in Powys, and shows why both battles should be regarded as significant events in the story of Viking-Age Britain. From an earlier time comes another obscure battle, fought at a place called ‘Gwen Ystrad’ by the mysterious King Urien of Rheged (c.590). Breeze identifies Gwen Ystrad as the valley of the River Winster in Cumbria, a location suggested by others but here strengthened by the author’s considerable philological expertise. Slightly better known is the seventh-century Northumbrian victory at ‘Uinued’ (or ‘Winwaed’) where King Penda of Mercia met his doom. Breeze puts the battlefield beside the River Went in Yorkshire, adding weight to a long-established case supported by many historians.

One aspect of Breeze’s papers that I have always found particularly useful is his comprehensive summarising of previous scholarship on the subject in question. This gives the reader a good measure of background information, while placing Breeze’s own contribution in a broader context, as well as signposting additional resources and alternative theories. The summaries usually begin with antiquarian musings of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before following a trail of study through to the most recent academic discussions. Breeze often acknowledges the work of independent researchers whose contributions to scholarship might otherwise be overlooked.

On the back cover we are told that the book’s impact on scholarship ‘will mean the rewriting of much early British and Anglo-Saxon history’. It is a bold claim, reflecting the author’s confidence in his conclusions. Not everyone will agree with all of his identifications and reinterpretations, especially if they have strong views of their own on where a particular conflict was fought. But this is a book that anyone with an interest in locating the lost battlefields of early medieval Britain will find enlightening and thought-provoking.

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Andrew Breeze, British Battles 493-937: Mount Badon to Brunanburh (Anthem Press, 2020) [link to publisher’s website]

List of chapters:
1. 493: British Triumph at Mount Badon or Braydon, Wiltshire.
2. 537: Arthur’s Death at Camlan or Castlesteads, Cumbria.
3. 573: Legends of Merlin and Arfderydd or Arthuret, Cumbria.
4. c.590: Picts at Gwen Ystrad or the River Winster, Cumbria.
5. 603: Carnage at Degsastan by Wester Dawyck, Borders.
6. 613: Chester and the Massacre of Welsh Monks.
7. 633: Hatfield Chase and British Victory at Doncaster.
8. 634: Hefenfeld and British Defeat in Northumberland.
9. 642: Maserfelth and King Oswald’s Death at Forden, Powys.
10. 655: Treasure Lost on the Uinued or River Went, Yorkshire.
11. 844: Vikings, ‘Alluthèlia’ and a Bridge at Bishop Auckland.
12. 893: Vikings Liquidated at Buttington, Powys.
13. 937: ‘Brunanburh’ and English Triumph at Lanchester, County Durham.

Professor Breeze’s ideas on some of these battles have been previously discussed here at Senchus. The links below will take you to the relevant blogposts:
Arthur’s victories
Gwen Ystrad
Brunanburh

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5 comments on “British Battles 493-937

  1. Great review Tim; Breeze is convincing on many points, although I find his confidence a little off-putting. But if nothing else it underlines that so many battlefield hypotheses (including his own) remain distinctly unproven. And I tend to agree with him about Gwen Ystrat.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Thomas. Your point about unproven hypotheses chimes with my thoughts on the never-ending search for lost battlefields and on the worrying ease with which some theories turn into factoids. So I see a book like this as a welcome reminder that Brunanburh, Degsastan and Maserfelth are still lost, regardless of how many times historians write optimistic statements like “widely accepted as Bromborough”, “probably Dawston” and “almost certainly Oswestry”. Andrew Breeze is someone who helps to stop these factoids from looking too much like pseudo-facts.
      On the location of Gwen Ystrat I’m not swayed by the Winster theory, nor indeed by any of the well-trodden arguments connecting Urien Rheged with lands south of the Solway Firth.

      (Btw, I’ve been re-reading your ‘Viking Britain’ during lockdown. Excellent book.)

  2. Guto Rhys says:

    Easy to dupe credulous historians with little grasp of linguistics.

  3. Bob Hay says:

    History is like the menus in a restaurant. Rewritten periodically as new chefs and their recipes come on the market. But this is a good thing as it stimulates the brain.

  4. Prof Norman Davies, in Vanished Kingdoms, collected a lot of the sources for the Arthuret/Merlin/Arthur siting for his own argument.

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