In autumn 937 a huge coalition of Vikings, Norse-Irish, Scots and Strathclyde Welsh invaded northern England and, for the moment, the newly created kingdom of all the English tottered. However the West Saxon king Æthelstan held his nerve, took the offensive and won a crushing victory at a place called Brunanburh.
One of the decisive events in early British history, the battle was “immense, lamentable and horrible, savagely fought” according to the Annals of Ulster. Fifty years on the man on the street called it simply ‘the Great War’. But where was Brunanburh?
For 300 years, antiquarians and historians have puzzled fruitlessly over the sources. The situation was summed up by Alistair Campbell in 1938: without new evidence, “all hope of localising Brunanburh is lost”.
This new book claims to solve the mystery. It falls into two halves: first an edition of the main sources, second a collection of essays (though surprisingly none by an Anglo-Saxon historian) which argues on the basis of similarity of place names that the battle site was Bromborough in the Wirral.
There is however one major problem for the historian: locating the battle on the shore of the Mersey has no support in any of the sources.
First suggested as the site of the battle in 1692, Bromborough was promoted by patriotic Victorian local historians. It has really taken off since John Dodgson showed that the name (recorded first only in the 12th century) derives from an earlier Brunanburh. Bromborough now even has a Brunanburh heritage trail.
But the two elements in the name are common ones, and the issue cannot be decided by a place name alone – unless it accords with all the other evidence. To take one key example, John of Worcester (c1122) says the Viking fleet landed in the Humber: his very circumstantial account appears verbatim in six northern annals of the 12th century and clearly derives from pre-conquest Northumbria.
That this is good evidence has been accepted by most leading authorities over the last 200 years. To reject it therefore needs good reason, especially as other texts point to the same area.
Two sources, one Irish and one English, say the invaders were helped by Danes within England who can only be from Northumbria or the East Midlands. A lost tenth-century poem quoted by William of Malmesbury says the Northumbrians gave their submission to the invaders. (Indeed a later medieval source not in this collection describes the Scots marching into Yorkshire and devastating the lands towards the Trent).
All this strongly suggests a location south of York – the main war zone between the 920s and 950s.
Bromborough then needs some explaining. If the goal of the Norse-Irish leadership was to re-establish their kingdom in York, what were they doing in the Wirral? And how did a Scottish army end up in Cheshire?
Even Dodgson himself admitted that the Norse colony in the Wirral, to which this book devotes a lot of attention, cannot be shown to have any relevance to the war of 937.
So Campbell’s conclusion still holds. Without new evidence, finding Brunanburh looks impossible. This book will attract those interested in the controversy – but it offers no new evidence. What is needed is a fresh and clear-eyed look at the whole story. In the meantime, tantalisingly, the Brunanburh mystery remains.
Michael Wood’s latest study on Æthelstan is in Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World edited by Janet Nelson (CUP, 2008). His review of the Brunanburh controversy will appear next year
Eugene Byrne gets to grips with an Anglo-Saxon riddle