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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4 responses to “Brunanburh and the Mercian borderlands

  1. One of those puzzles which I love pondering, although I am no expert by any means. I feel as if the answer should be staring at us from a map somewhere! I have often thought Bromborough sounded very likely, but having read Neil McGuigan’s statement I can’t help but see the logic.

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    • Yes, it’s frustrating that such a famous battle can’t be fixed on a modern map. Despite all the efforts to find it, I really do think the site is lost for ever.

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  2. Just completed an analysis of a possible land advance to the Wirral by the Scots. In short possible but a massive logistical undertaking. I don’t believe the came overland. Is there any reason you would rule out movement by ship? Anlaf certainly had enough ships to move the scots and rather than a two week overland slog they could be on the Wirral in two days.

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  3. I agree that an overland march to Wirral by the Scots would have been possible, in theory at least. For me, however, the logistical difficulties (time, distance, provisioning, etc) render it unlikely. Transfer by ship offers an alternative possibility for modern historians to consider, but I don’t think it would have been practical under the circumstances of the time. I’m sure Anlaf could summon plenty of subordinate ship-captains for the campaign, but persuading them to give up valuable deck-space for groups of Scots seems to me a long shot. Even if the captains agreed to such a plan, how would it play out in practice? King Constantin’s core territory lay in the east of Northern Britain, in the former Pictish heartlands. Getting his army to a suitable western harbour for a rendezvous with Norse ships would have required a huge amount of planning and coordination. The erstwhile Argyll coastlands of the Scots were in 937 almost certainly under the control of the Hebridean Norse, whose allegiance to Anlaf cannot be assumed. Perhaps Constantin’s best option would have been a harbour controlled by his Strathclyde ally, but where would this be? Maybe Ayrshire, or the Firth of Clyde, or the headwaters of the Solway Firth? The Viking sea-captains who turned up for the rendezvous wouldn’t have much space for Constantin’s soldiers, having already used up much of what was available for their own crews (plus food & war-gear). If each vessel had spare capacity for, say, 10 passengers plus gear, how many ships would have been required? If Constantin had an army of just 500 men, that’s 50 ships straight away. Why not fill those 50 ships at Dublin with 500 extra Vikings or Irish mercenaries and save the cost of a detour to a harbour in north-west Britain, far from the intended target of the campaign? And who would ferry the Strathclyde contingent? There is no indication that Strathclyde was a sea-power in this period, so presumably Anlaf would have had to find ferry boats for the Britons as well. My guess is that he would have told both sets of allies to make their own way to the war-zone, on foot, via their customary overland routes, while he assembled for himself as large a fleet as possible – comprising ships crewed by Vikings and Irishmen – for a short voyage to whatever landfall he had selected as the starting-point of his campaign.

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