Where was the battle that saved England?

It's one of the biggest mysteries of British history. For centuries, historians have puzzled over the location of the battle of Brunanburh – the clash between a West Saxon army and its Viking-led enemies in AD 937 that helped secure the future of England. Now, having re-examined the sources, Michael Wood offers an intriguing new take

Inside the fort was a famous spring, St Helen’s Well, today Robin Hood’s Well. (© Bill Henderson)

This article was published in the October 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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By early August 937, the news must have made its way across the Irish Sea to the trading shore at Meols, where well-to-do Viking settlers of the Wirral bought their luxuries. It must also have reached the melting pot of Chester, where King Æthelstan’s port officials received Irish merchants and pilgrims. No matter how the West Saxons got wind of what was unfolding around 140 miles to the west, it surely made their blood run cold. For, gathering in the harbours and bays of eastern Ireland was the biggest Viking fleet ever seen in British waters. Its object was the invasion of England.

The Vikings’ leader was Anlaf Guthfrithson, ‘pagan king of Ireland and many islands’. He was head of a grand alliance drawing in the peoples of the Irish Sea and northern Britain – Vikings, Norse-Irish, Scots and Strathclyde Welsh. At Anlaf’s side stood Constantine, the grizzled king of Alba, whose daughter Anlaf had married. Together they would strike against the overweening power of the ‘king of kings’, Æthelstan of Wessex. And now the time had come. As a Welsh poet wrote in faraway Dyfed: “We will pay the Saxons back for the 404 years.”

Ten years earlier, Æthelstan had invaded Northumbria, occupied York and expelled Anlaf’s kinsmen, the rulers of York and Dublin. Æthelstan’s court poets could now boast of “this completed England”. In grand assemblies at Eamont Bridge near Penrith and at Hereford, Æthelstan forced all the kings of Britain to submit to him. On his coins he was now rex totius Britanniae: king of all Britain. To enforce his hegemony, in 934 Æthelstan invaded Scotland by land and sea as far as Moray and Caithness. By now, he was the most powerful British ruler since the Romans.

This was simply too much for the West Saxons’ enemies to stomach, and so, in the summer of 937, Anlaf and Constantine launched their truly massive invasion. But Æthelstan stood firm and won a crushing victory at a place called Brunanburh. One of the decisive events in British medieval history, the battle was “immense, lamentable and horrible”, according to the Annals of Ulster. Fifty years later, people called it simply ‘the Great Battle’, or even ‘the Great War’. The clash was commemorated in Anglo-Saxon and Latin poetry, in Norse saga, and folk tales, in miracle stories about Æthelstan’s hour of “dread and blind confusion”.

But where was Brunanburh? For 300 years, historians have puzzled fruitlessly over the clues. More than 30 sites have been suggested, from the Solway to Northamptonshire. The situation was summed up by the medievalist Alistair Campbell in 1938. Without new evidence, he said, “all hope of localising Brunanburh is lost”.

Over the last few years, however, a consensus has grown that the battle was fought in the Wirral – at a place called Bromborough, which has the same name, ‘Bruna’s fort’.

The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 recently announced, “the birthplace of Britishness has been found”. And a 500-page casebook has been published to lay the controversy to rest.

But the case for Bromborough (first recorded in the 12th century) rests on the place name alone. It has no support in any of the sources. In fact, in c1122 John of Worcester reported that Anlaf’s fleet landed in the Humber. His circumstantial account must derive from pre-Conquest Northumbria – and that is exactly what we would expect, for York was surely the invaders’ first goal.

Submitting to invasion

John of Worcester’s version of events has been accepted by most leading authorities over the last 200 years, so to reject it 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 could only have come from Northumbria or the east Midlands. A lost 10th-century poem quoted by William of Malmesbury says the Northumbrians submitted to the invaders, which must have happened at, or near, York.

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? Fascinating as it is, the Norse colony in the Wirral, to which the supporters of Bromborough have devoted a lot of attention, has no demonstrable relevance to the war of 937. The medieval sources, on the other hand, strongly suggest a location south of York. And if York was the first goal of the invasion, then the search for Brunanburh really needs to focus on the main route from York down into the Danelaw (the part of England where the Danes held sway) – the axis of the wars between the 920s and 950s.

But can we get any closer than that? It might be thought that nothing new can be said on such a well-trodden controversy. But it  is worth going back to basics, even when all possibilities seem to have been exhausted. I am now going to focus on two place names.

A hill looms large

First there is an alternative Northumbrian name for the battle, Wendun. Surprisingly, this has never been closely examined. It appears in a set of short annals written in Chester-le-Street in the second quarter of the 10th century, the Historia Regum, which contains circumstantial place-name evidence about Æthelstan’s northern campaign of 934.

Wendun has never been identified, but the suffix dun means a prominent hill, and the first element, wen, could derive from a proper name, or a landscape feature – for example, a river name. Looking at the map, it doesn’t take a moment to see the river that fits the bill perfectly: the Went, one of the tributaries of the Humber, at one time in the early medieval period the southern boundary of the Northumbrians.

The obvious explanation of Wendun is ‘Went Hill’. If so, every traveller on the

Great North Road will know it: Went

Hill rises precipitously 150 feet above the valley, a crucial strategic site near the Northumbrian frontier.

Now let’s look at the name Brunanburh itself: ‘Bruna’s fort’. This spelling first appears in the famous poem about the battle in the ‘A’ manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (written c 955) in Corpus Christi College Cambridge. In his 1938 edition of the poem, Alistair Campbell thought it was “evidently the original form” and has been followed unquestioningly by everyone ever since.

But the poem in the ‘A’ manuscript has many errors and corruptions. Manuscript ‘B’ has a better text, and ‘B’ spells the name Brunnanburh (with a second ‘n’), as too does the ‘C’ manuscript. Intriguingly, even ‘A’ has a second ‘n’ added above the line: indeed most editors of the poem before Campbell preferred to signal this to readers by reading either Brunnanburh or Bru’n’nanburh, in the ‘A’ manuscript too. So three manuscripts of the Chronicle poem have double ‘n’. And they are not the only ones. Simeon of Durham in c1107 has brunnanbyrig and brunnanwerc.

Great northern mystery

What are we to make of this? Are these all merely scribal errors, as has been claimed, or do they have a significance we have missed? For this is not just a matter of different spelling: it completely changes the meaning. It would mean the site was called not ‘Bruna’s fort’, as we have always believed, but ‘the Fort at the Spring’. Let’s just run with this as a hypothesis for a moment, keeping our two place names in mind. Just south of the Went on the hill now called Barnsdale Bar is a Roman fort which straddles the Great North Road, from where you can see all the way into Nottinghamshire. It is called ‘Burg’ in Domesday Book. Inside the fort was a famous spring, St Helen’s Well, today Robin Hood’s Well. The well head has been moved to its present position on the A1, but the spring still flows copiously into the fields below. So was this place in the Anglo-Saxon era the ‘Fort at the Spring’? If it was, then so many aspects of the mystery that have perplexed us for so long fall into place.

A border war?

One final piece of evidence may also be relevant here. The area of the Went valley and Barnsdale was the traditional assembly place for Northumbrian military musters, submissions and royal ceremonies, from the 10th century through Edward I’s campaigns right down to the Tudors. It was here that the northern army assembled during the popular uprising against Henry VIII, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Had Anlaf, the newly proclaimed king of the Northumbrians, elected to fight on the border of the kingdom he claimed?

If so (and I must stress the ‘if’), then the campaign might have unfolded something like this. Anlaf left Dublin in early August. Joined by the Viking king of the Hebrides, he sailed round Scotland and landed in the Humber in early September. There he met his north British allies under Constantine, king of the Scots, who had come overland with Owain, king of the Strathclyde Welsh. In York, the Northumbrians chose Anlaf as king. Then from a camp on the Northumbrian frontier, they might have launched plundering raids into the east Midlands.

A long delay followed, perhaps with negotiations to broker a peace. William of Malmesbury’s lost poem says that Æthelstan was criticised for his failure to act while his lands were being devastated. But maybe he was biding his time while he gathered his forces, not attacking precipitately, like, say, King Harold at Hastings 130 years later.

Then at some point late in the year – maybe in November – Æthelstan advanced out of Mercia and attacked the main allied army “around Brun(n)anburh”. West Saxons against the Scots and north British; Mercians against the Vikings and Norse-Irish. In a savage battle in which the English suffered heavy losses, the allies were beaten, with five kings and seven earls among the dead, along with the prince of Scotland, and many other leaders from the Irish force. Anlaf was able to escape by sea, but too late in the year to get back to Dublin, where his arrival is recorded the next spring.

The following year, the Scots and north British submitted to the West Saxon king. It had been touch and go but it meant that Æthelstan’s England survived.

My reconstruction is, I hardly need to say, speculation, but the debate has been obscured by poor source criticism – even in major recent works on Æthelstan – and by a failure to interrogate the texts, which may still have things to tell us. We still can’t be sure, of course, as the sources are so fragmentary and elusive. The historian’s job, though, is to try to make sense of the evidence without bias, to keep an open mind. When the facts are uncertain, you proceed by hypothesis, and then put it out to be tested. Bromborough, I think, has not survived testing. But if the battle was really fought not at ‘Bruna’s fort’ but at ‘the Fort at the Spring’, then the whole game changes. And a solution to the centuries-old mystery may finally be at hand.

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Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. He has presented numerous BBC series over several decades. His new study, The Spelling of Brunanburh, is in the journal Notes and Queries (Oxford, September 2017)