New biography of Æthelflæd

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On the twelfth day of this month, at Tamworth in Staffordshire, a national service of commemoration was held to mark the 1100th anniversary of Æthelflæd’s death. A few days earlier, in Gloucester, a solemn procession conveyed a re-imagining of her funeral bier to the medieval ruins of St Oswald’s Priory. More events are scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, all of which will help to raise wider public awareness of the Lady of the Mercians.

June has also seen the publication of my latest book – a biography of Æthelflæd that I mentioned here back in April when it was still in the pipeline. Like my other titles its publisher is Birlinn of Edinburgh who have issued it under their ‘John Donald’ imprint.

The narrative incorporates my usual focus on political history with an emphasis on warfare. It considers the military campaigns not only of Æthelflæd but also those of her father Alfred the Great and of her brother Edward the Elder. Hence there are frequent mentions of battles, fortresses, treaties and alliances. But there is much more to Æthelflæd than the Anglo-Saxon warrior queen visualised in modern artworks. She was an educated, literate woman with strong religious beliefs. She had a keen interest in saints – especially Mercian ones – and actively promoted their veneration by establishing new cult-centres in various parts of her domain. She was also adept at what we now call ‘urban planning’ and has left her mark on the modern street-pattern in a number of west midland towns.

A synopsis of my book is provided by the ‘blurb’ on the back cover:

At the end of the ninth century AD, a large part of what is now England had been conquered by the Vikings – heathen warriors from Scandinavia who had been attacking the British Isles for a hundred years. Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, was determined to halt the conquests but his death in 899 meant that the task passed to his heirs. In Wessex, his son and successor Edward continued the English fightback. So, too, did Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd and her husband Lord Æthelred, rulers of the old kingdom of Mercia. After Æthelred’s death in 911, Æthelflæd ruled on her own, leading her army on a series of campaigns to recapture lost territory. Known to history as the Lady of the Mercians, she earned a reputation as a competent general and was feared by her enemies. She helped to save England from the Vikings and is one of the most famous women of the Dark Ages. This book, published 1100 years after her death, tells her remarkable story.

Early chapters include an introduction to the documentary sources as well as a summary account of Anglo-Saxon history up to the ninth century. These are followed by the main narrative which deals with the life of Æthelflæd from her birth and childhood up to her mid-teens, then through roughly 25 years of marriage to the period of her widowhood. The penultimate chapter looks at the immediate aftermath of her death in 918, when her daughter Ælfwynn briefly succeeded as the new ruler of Mercia before being deposed. In the final chapter, Æthelflæd’s historical significance and her modern role as a subject for the creative arts are discussed.

Notes for each chapter point the reader to primary sources and secondary works, all of which are listed in a 10-page bibliography. The middle of the book contains a plate section of 15 black-and-white photographs, while the main narrative is interspersed with maps (mostly relating to military campaigns) and plans of burhs (fortified settlements).

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Æthelflæd: The Lady of The Mercians, by Tim Clarkson
(Edinburgh: John Donald, 2018)
ISBN: 978-1-910900-16-1

Available in paperback from Amazon UK and Amazon USA or direct from the publisher.

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Æthelflæd in 2018

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This year sees the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, who died at Tamworth in Staffordshire on 12 June 918. Æthelflæd is one of the most important figures in early English history, yet her story is rarely told. Although she is remembered and commemorated in the areas she once ruled – the west midland counties of England – wider recognition of her achievements is sadly lacking. Many people hope that this will change in 2018.

Æthelflæd’s father was Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, whose long struggle against the Vikings was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other contemporary texts. While still in her teens, Æthelflæd became the wife of Alfred’s staunch ally Lord Æthelred of Mercia, a man who held the power of a king but not – as far as we can tell – a royal title. After Alfred’s death in 899, Æthelflæd and her husband maintained the Mercia-Wessex alliance. They joined her brother King Edward in recovering territories lost to the Danelaw – the eastern part of England that had been conquered by Viking armies. Lord Æthelred died in 911 but his authority passed to his widow who became known as the Lady of the Mercians (Old English: myrcna hlæfdige). Under her rule, Mercia recovered its former status as one of the major powers of Dark Age Britain. This was an era of kings and warlords, a period when female rulership and generalship were almost unheard-of, yet Æthelflæd proved herself adept in both roles. The final chapter of her story was equally remarkable: she was succeeded not by a man but by a woman – her daughter Ælfwynn who, if only for a brief time, ruled the Mercians as their new hlæfdige.

Commemorations of Æthelflæd are being held this year at Tamworth, Gloucester and other places closely associated with her. My own tribute takes the form of a biography, to be published by Birlinn of Edinburgh in the summer. It will be my seventh book and the first to focus on events outside Scotland. Although this might seem like a departure from my usual track, it actually brings me closer to my roots as a native of Mercia. In any case, Æthelflæd’s story is connected to the northern regions I have previously written about, not least because of a tradition that she forged an alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons

Updates on my book will appear on this blog in the next few months. In the meantime, here’s a preview of the cover. It shows an image of Æthelflæd from a public artwork at Runcorn in Cheshire, one of the places where she established a burh or fortified settlement in the early years of the tenth century.

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The picture at the top of this blogpost shows Æthelflæd wearing a crown and holding a sword. It appears in a stained-glass window at Worcester Cathedral (photo by B. Keeling)

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TCWAAS online

Giant's Grave Penrith

The Giant’s Grave (© B Keeling)


The Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society has recently made the full text of its Transactions available online. All volumes of this highly respected journal from 1874 onwards have been digitised, with all except the past 10 years being freely accessible and downloadable to non-members.

The Transactions (often abbreviated as TCWAAS) is published annually. Each volume contains a number of articles on the history and archaeology of the present-day county of Cumbria. The online archive can be searched by keyword, not only in the title but in the body of the article (a very useful facility). Words can also be excluded from the search, thus eliminating unwanted articles and making the process quicker and more specific.

TCWAAS is a valuable resource for research on the kingdom of Strathclyde because it deals with a region that formed the kingdom’s southern province in the tenth and early eleventh centuries. The county name ‘Cumbria’ preserves a Latinised form of the name of the kingdom itself, i.e. the land of the Cumbri or North Britons.

Strathclyde Cumbria

Cumbria, realm of the Strathclyde Britons, c.900 AD.

A search of the TCWAAS archive turns up a treasure trove of information on the period when substantial territories south of the Solway Firth were ruled by ‘Cumbrian’ kings whose headquarters lay on the Clyde. The following list of articles is just a selection. It includes items that I consulted while writing my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. Topics range from the origin and meaning of the name ‘Cumbria’ to the cultural affinities of sculptured crosses and other monuments. The list gives the title, author, volume, year and pages.

‘Strathclyde and Cumbria: a survey of historical development to 1092’ by D.P. Kirkby TCWAAS 2nd series, vol 62 (1962). pp. 77 – 94

‘On the use of the terms Strathclyde and Cumbria’ by P.A. Wilson
TCWAAS 2nd series, vol 66 (1966). pp. 57 – 92

‘The Lowther Hogbacks’ by W.G. Collingwood
TCWAAS 2nd series, vol 7 (1907). pp. 152 – 164
[discusses the “Viking” hogback gravestones at Lowther Church]

Lowther hogback

Late Victorian image of one of the Lowther hogback fragments.

‘The Giant’s Grave, Penrith’ by W.G. Collingwood
TCWAAS 2nd series, vol 23 (1923). pp. 115 – 128
[a detailed study of this enigmatic group of hogbacks and crosses at St Andrew’s Church]

Giant's Grave Penrith

One of the Giant’s Grave cross-shafts (from Collingwood’s 1923 article)

‘The Giant’s Thumb’ by W.G. Collingwood
TCWAAS 2nd series, vol 20 (1920). pp. 52 – 65
[as well as discussing the Thumb (a tenth-century cross at Penrith) this article reconstructs the genealogy of the kings of Strathclyde and suggests that one of them might be the legendary “Owain Caesar” of Cumbrian folklore]

Giant's Thumb

The Giant’s Thumb (from Collingwood’s 1920 article)

‘A reconsideration of Gosforth Cross’ by C.A. Parker and W.G. Collingwood
TCWAAS 2nd series, vol 17 (1917). pp. 99 – 113
[an art-historical study of this famous Viking Age monument near the shore of the Irish Sea]

Gosforth Cross

The Gosforth Cross (© T Clarkson)

‘Rey-Cross’ by W.G. Collingwood
TCWAAS 2nd series, vol 27 (1927). pp. 1 – 10
[the place where Eric Bloodaxe, king of York, is said to have been slain during a battle on Stainmore]

‘Five Strathclyde and Galloway charters – four concerning Cardew and one the Westmorland Newbigging’ by Frederick W. Ragg
TCWAAS 2nd series, vol 17 (1917). pp. 198 – 234
[one of the charters is the eleventh-century Gospatric’s Writ which deals with an area described as “lands that were Cumbrian” (i.e. former Strathclyde territory) between Carlisle and Wigton]

‘Cumberland’ by T.H.B. Graham
TCWAAS 2nd series, vol 26 (1926). pp. 274 – 284
[a discussion of this Old English county name which simply means “land of the Cumbri”]

Members of CWAAS can also access the online version of an interesting article from 2011: ‘From peoples to regional societies: the problem of early medieval Cumbrian Identities’ by Charles Phythian-Adams (TCWAAS 3rd series, vol 11, pp. 51 – 64)

To access the TCWAAS archive, click on the link below and then select ‘Transactions’ from the homepage.

Cumbria Past: the CWAAS website

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Brunanburh on the Fylde?

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In Chapter Five of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, I suggested that the battle of Brunanburh (AD 937) might have been fought somewhere in North Lancashire. I specifically highlighted Amounderness, the district between the rivers Lune and Ribble, as a possible ‘conflict zone’ containing the battlefield. Amounderness was a possession of the West Saxon king Athelstan, who granted it to the Archbishop of York in 934. Athelstan had previously purchased the territory for a considerable sum from landowners who were most likely of Viking stock.

I take the view that Amounderness was the most northwestern part of Athelstan’s ‘England’ at the time of the battle of Brunanburh. Beyond it lay Lonsdale – the valley of the Lune – and the future county of Westmorland (which I suspect was under the authority of Anglo-Scandinavian lords who answered to York rather than to Athelstan). Beyond Westmorland lay the southernmost territories of the ‘Cumbrians’ or Strathclyde Britons, whose king led one of the allied armies that faced Athelstan in 937.

A couple of sites within Amounderness have names similar to those attached to the battle by tenth-century chroniclers (Brunanburh, Brune, Brunandune, etc). One is Bruna Hill near Garstang, to which I pay special attention in my book, while another is Bourne Hill, near Thornton on the Fylde. The map below shows North Lancashire in the tenth century, with these two sites marked as green squares. Also shown are Roman roads, major rivers, the ecclesiastical centres at Heysham and Heversham, the Roman forts of Lancaster and Ribchester, and the presumed Anglo-Saxon burh at Penwortham.

map_amounderness

The case for Bourne Hill has recently been re-stated by Mick Deakin in a paper that I recommend to anyone who has an interest in the Brunanburh campaign. Mick has been researching the geographical context of the battle for several years and has amassed a large amount of data. Having no axe to grind for a particular location he is able to approach the topic objectively, keeping an open mind and not fixating on one particular site. Like many people (including myself), he sees a number of flaws in the currently popular view that the battle was fought at Bromborough on the Wirral Peninsula. He has also considered the case for an east-of-Pennines location and remains unconvinced, in spite of strong arguments being put forward by Andrew Breeze and Michael Wood.

In past correspondence with Mick I’ve tended to show scepticism towards the Bourne Hill theory. My initial instinct told me that the Fylde seems too far west, too far from the beaten track (i.e. a major road running north-south) to be the conflict zone of 937. Having perused Mick’s paper a few times, I’m now inclined to be less sceptical. In fact, Mick identifies the main weakness in the case for Bruna Hill, a site that I must admit to feeling quite enthusiastic about after visiting it last year.

Update: October 2016 – Mick’s paper “The Quest for Brunanburh: The Fylde and the Hidden Identity of Bourne Hill” was originally linked from this blogpost but the link is no longer active (i.e. the paper is no longer available at Mick’s page on Academia.edu).

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Brunanburh and the Mercian borderlands

Brunanburh Casebook

The battle of Brunanburh in 937 was a victory for the English king Athelstan over an alliance of Vikings, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. Despite being one of the most important battles of the Dark Ages, its location is unknown. Various places have been suggested as candidates, some more forcefully than others, but none have found universal acceptance.

One candidate is Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire. To many people this is the leading contender, but its case is far from watertight. The main weakness can be summed up in a three-part question relating to geography and military logistics: why would the Scots and Strathclyders choose to fight on such a distant battlefield, how would they get to Cheshire and how would they get home after being defeated?

Until a few years ago, I gave my tentative support to a Wirral location, having initially been attracted by the place-name argument: early forms of the name ‘Bromborough’, such as Bruneburgh, do indeed look like plausible antecedents of Brunanburh (the name mentioned in a contemporary Anglo-Saxon poem). Also, as a native of Cheshire, I probably liked the idea of my county being the scene of an iconic Dark Age battle, even if Bromborough seems a very long way from the Clydesdale and Perthshire heartlands of two of the main protagonists. In the tenth century, what would later become Cheshire lay on the north-west frontier of English Mercia, and the Mercian contingent in Athelstan’s army played a major role at Brunanburh. This frontier had received special attention from the Mercian ruler Aethelflaed (died 918) and her brother King Edward of Wessex (Athelstan’s father), both of whom had built fortresses along it as a defence against Viking raids.

It wasn’t until late 2009, when I began writing my book The Men Of The North: the Britons of Southern Scotland, that I really became interested in the debate over the battle’s location. Having explored military logistics and other practical aspects of early medieval warfare in the 1990s (for a PhD thesis) I now wanted to give the same scrutiny to the Brunanburh campaign. I began by looking at the logistical issues from a northern perspective, through the eyes of the Scots and Strathclyde Britons. The latter, in particular, are frequently ignored in modern discussions of the battle – or regarded as an afterthought, a mere appendage to the Scottish army. Yet their participation raises important questions about where the battle was fought. Neither the Britons nor their Scottish neighbours were accustomed to waging war in the English midlands, yet the case for Bromborough asks us to imagine both of these northern powers invading Mercia in 937. My current thoughts on all of this are set down in my new book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age where the Brunanburh campaign takes up a large part of the fifth chapter.

In 2011, the argument in favour of a Wirral location was reiterated in The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook, a scholarly work edited by Michael Livingston. This substantial volume assembled the main medieval references to the battle (from the tenth century onwards), quoting relevant sections alongside modern English translations. Also included were a number of academic articles in which, among other topics, the thorny question of the battle’s geography was addressed. Since the map at the beginning of the book showed ‘Brunanburh’ (without a question mark) in the spot where we might have expected to find the name Bromborough, readers were given a hint of what was to come in the articles. Sure enough, although the wider geographical debate was mentioned, Bromborough’s candidacy was strongly emphasised. For me, this geographical bias was the only downside to what is otherwise a very useful book. Unsurprisingly, the bias has attracted criticism from readers and reviewers alike.

In last October’s issue of the Scottish Historical Review, the Casebook was reviewed by Neil McGuigan of the University of St Andrews. While highlighting the book’s positive contribution as a useful repository of primary source material, McGuigan drew attention to its pro-Wirral bias. He observed that the philological case for Bromborough, based on early forms of the place-name, is not decisive in its favour. Indeed, the whole Brunanburh debate seems to be dominated by the notion that philology should take precedence over other disciplines. A more objective approach should recognise that political geography, military logistics and the war-aims of the main protagonists demand equal consideration. These factors were noted by McGuigan in his review. Thus, while observing that the Wirral would have been easily accessible to the Dublin Vikings, he pointed out that the argument for Bromborough also asks us

“to believe that the Scottish king Causantin mac Aeda boxed himself into a small peninsula hundreds of miles from his heartland and escaped decisive defeat free and alive; and did so having led his followers and family into the heavily fortified region of western Mercia, the geography of which is erratically tangential to the project’s likely aim.” [McGuigan 2014, 287]

So, although Brunanburh may indeed have lain near the western seaboard, within easy reach of Viking Dublin, a location on the Cheshire frontier seems doubtful when other logistical factors are taken into consideration. The Scots and Strathclyders could not have travelled there without many risks and difficulties. This is why I now prefer to look further north, beyond the Mercian frontier, to the river-valleys of Ribble and Lune and to the land that nestles between them.

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References

Neil McGuigan, Review of The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook, Scottish Historical Review 93 (2014), 286-288

Michael Livingston (ed.), The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook (Exeter, 2011)

Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010) [pp.177-9]

Tim Clarkson, Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (Edinburgh, 2014) [Chapter 5]

Kevin Halloran, ‘The Brunanburh campaign: a reappraisal’ Scottish Historical Review 84 (2005), 133-48

Nick Higham, ‘The Cheshire burhs and the Mercian frontier to 924’ Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society 85 (1988), 193-222

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Kindle edition of ‘Strathclyde’

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Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age
My latest volume on early medieval Scottish history is now available as an e-book. The paperback was published a couple of months ago but many people now prefer digital editions so I’m posting the relevant Amazon links here.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (Kindle edition) – via Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

More information about the book, with a list of chapters, can be found in a blogpost on the paperback edition.

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Related blogposts

This is a quick message about two recent posts at my other blogs….

Over at Senchus I’ve written about a lecture presented by Andrew Breeze to the Society of Antiquaries last Thursday (4th December). Professor Breeze discussed the Battle of Brunanburh and suggested that it was fought near Lanchester in County Durham rather than somewhere further west (such as Bromborough in Cheshire). A video of the lecture is available on YouTube and the link can be found at my blogpost.

Meanwhile, at Heart of the Kingdom, I’ve mentioned another Viking-related lecture to be given this Friday (12th December) at the RCAHMS headquarters in Edinburgh. The topic is hogback stones – including those at Govan – and the speaker is Dr Victoria Whitworth of the Centre for Nordic Studies at UHI. Click this link to my blogpost for further details.

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