Category Archives: Research

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 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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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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Essential studies: 1 – Fiona Edmonds on the term ‘Cumbria’

One unavoidable delay for any author of a non-fiction book comes between the end of the writing/editing process and publication. During this period of limbo, there is always a chance that something significant relating to the subject of the book will be published elsewhere – an item of key relevance that appears too late to cite in the bibliography. It can be particularly frustrating when the item in question is nothing less than a major contribution to scholarship. In my own case, this very situation arose last month when an article called ‘The Emergence and Transformation of Medieval Cumbria’ appeared in The Scottish Historical Review.

The article was written by Fiona Edmonds of the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge. I haven’t met Dr Edmonds in person but I’ve been reading her publications for several years and, earlier this year, we both appeared in separate sequences of Rory Stewart’s Border Country series on BBC2. Two of Dr Edmonds’ publications are cited in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age and the one in the latest issue of SHR would certainly have joined them if timescales and publishing schedules had allowed.

On the plus side, after reading the article, I was much encouraged to note that Dr Edmonds’ main point about the meaning of the term ‘Cumbria’ in tenth- and eleventh-century contexts supports the position I adopt in my book. The gist of her argument is summarised in the abstract pasted below. Needless to say, her 22-page discussion goes into far more detail than I was able to do in my introductory chapter (which deals with chronology, terminology and sources). Indeed, I highly recommend her article as essential reading for anyone who has an interest in the origins of Cumbria (the present-day county) or in the creation of the Anglo-Scottish Border. With this contribution she effectively removes any lingering doubt that tenth-century ‘Cumbria’ and the newly expanded realm of the kings of Strathclyde were one and the same. The process by which these kings added large swathes of erstwhile English territory to their Clydesdale heartlands will be examined in another article, also by Dr Edmonds, in a forthcoming issue of Early Medieval Europe.

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Fiona Edmonds, ‘The Emergence and Transformation of Medieval Cumbria’ Scottish Historical Review vol.93 (2), October 2014, 195-216.

[The following abstract can also be found at the journal’s webpage]

Fiona Edmonds Medieval Cumbria

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Published

Strathclyde & the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age was published last week. As the author, I receive six free copies, which made their way down the M74 on Friday. I took this photo a couple of minutes after they arrived.

The book’s contents and a list of chapters can be found at my Senchus blog.

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Essential Sources: 2 – Fragmentary Annals

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, in the 12th-century Cartulary of Abington Abbey

Unlike the better-known Irish chronicles (such as the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach) the text known as the Fragmentary Annals embellishes many of its year-entries with long passages of narrative saga. This is one reason why modern historians approach it warily. Another reason is its compiler’s obvious intent to write political propaganda for a particular dynasty, in this case the royal house of Ossory in south-east Ireland.

The text of the Fragmentary Annals survives in a seventeenth-century manuscript but analysis has shown that it was originally compiled in the mid-eleventh century. The compiler used various older chronicles, supplementing their year-entries with narrative tales of uncertain provenance. Without any means of tracing the origin of most of these stories, we cannot assess their accuracy or reliability, nor can we measure their historical value. Such uncertainty makes the Fragmentary Annals a controversial source indeed – and also a frustrating one. Many of the narrative passages offer unique, tantalising details about important historical characters and real events, but the very uniqueness of the data reduces its credibility.

The Viking-Age kingdom of Strathclyde appears twice. The first occurrence is slightly erroneous, because the context relates not to Strathclyde but to its predecessor Alt Clut. The event in question is the assault on Dumbarton Rock by a large force of Norse Vikings in 870. Although the eleventh-century compiler of the Fragmentary Annals knew of a kingdom called Srath Cluada in his own lifetime he seems to have been unaware that a political entity of this name did not emerge until after 870 when the royal dynasty of the Clyde Britons abandoned Dumbarton. The annal for the Viking raid is shown below. This is a scanned image from the definitive 1978 edition by Joan Radner, where the English translation appears on the facing page. Numbers in bold typeface are from Radner’s own editorial notation.

Dumbarton Viking siege 870

The besieging and plundering of Alt Clut was widely reported in contemporary chronicles, so the unique detail about the water supply is usually regarded as an item of authentic information. By contrast, Strathclyde’s second appearance in the Fragmentary Annals lacks a clear supporting context and thus invites scepticism. It occurs at the end of a narrative describing the military activities of Aethelflaed, ruler of Anglo-Saxon Mercia, against her Viking foes. Aethelflaed’s achievements as a war-leader are not in doubt but the Fragmentary Annals credits her with a deed that no other source mentions: an alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons:

Aethelflaed Strathclyde

Again, the text and translation are from Radner’s edition. I have added square brackets to the date 914 because, as Radner herself points out, the section in which the alliance occurs is more likely to relate to 917 or 918. Did the alliance really happen, or was it a fictional detail added by the compiler? Opinions are divided on the issue, with some historians taking a firmly sceptical stance. Personally, I see no reason to reject the passage outright. An alliance with Alba and Strathclyde would have been consistent with Aethelflaed’s defensive strategy, which was concerned with the defence of her borders. From other sources we know that she was particularly anxious about the threat posed to north-west Mercia by Viking forces operating in the Irish Sea. We also know that her policies were looking northward at the time of her death in June 918, for Anglo-Danish Northumbria was on the point of pledging allegiance to her when she passed away. Perhaps their overtures of peace were prompted by news of her alliance with Alba and Strathclyde – a development that would have seemed profoundly worrying to the Northumbrian elite at York.

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Notes & references

Joan Newlon Radner (ed. & trans.) Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin: Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1978)

The difficulties of using this source were neatly summarised by Radner in her introduction:
‘Much valuable and unique historical information is contained in the Fragmentary Annals. But the uncertain date and provenance of the text, and its eclectic nature – myth and history, fancy and fact, rather erratically organized – have made modern scholars wary of trusting it as a historical source.’ [Radner 1978, xxxiv]

The extracts used in this blogpost were scanned from the following pages in Radner’s edition:
Siege of Alt Clut – p.142 [text], p.143 [translation]
Aethelflaed’s alliance – p.180 + 182 [text], p.181 + 183 [translation]

For more information on Aethelflaed, see my earlier blogpost.

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The kings of Strathclyde (AD 870 to 1070)

Like my previous books, Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age has a chronological structure which guides the reader along a timeline. In this case, the chronology runs from c.750 to c.1150, with special attention being given to a 200-year period between 870 and 1070 – the ‘lifespan’ of the kingdom of Strathclyde.

In the first chapter of The Picts: a history, I stated that the narrative was structured around a medieval list of Pictish kings in which each is named in chronological order, with reign-lengths conveniently added by the compiler. No such list is available for Strathclyde, nor has the kingdom bequeathed a chronicle or set of annals that might otherwise have provided the framework for a linear chronology. The sequence of royal succession in Strathclyde is, in fact, difficult to reconstruct with any measure of completeness. This does not mean that the task of reconstruction should be dismissed as a pointless exercise. It simply means that the resulting sequence is punctuated by gaps where the line of succession is uncertain, or by a question mark where the name of a king is unknown.

Two landmark studies tackled these difficulties head-on. In 1993, Alan Macquarrie listed all the known kings of the Clyde Britons from the fifth century to the eleventh, giving brief biographies in those cases where reliable information can be gleaned from the sources. His task for the early part of this period was made somewhat easier by the survival of a royal genealogy for the kingdom of Alt Clut, the precursor of Strathclyde, which was ruled from an ancient fortress at Dumbarton. Although the Alt Clut genealogy gave no dates, Macquarrie found chronological information in other sources and was able to reconstruct a fairly complete king-list. This ends in the late ninth century with Artgal, the last king, who witnessed Dumbarton’s destruction by a Viking army in 870. The original genealogy ends with Artgal’s son Rhun (pronounced ‘Rhin’) who is usually seen as the first king of Strathclyde, the successor realm established in the strath or lower valley of the river. In the absence of a genealogy for Rhun’s descendants, Macquarrie collated fragments of information from a range of sources, such as the Irish annals, to continue the line of kings through the tenth century and beyond. He noted that the last king of Strathclyde named in any source is Owain the Bald who fought at the Battle of Carham in 1018.

Macquarrie’s study was cited by Dauvit Broun in an equally groundbreaking article published in 2004. Broun showed the sequence of kings from 870 onwards in table form, like a family tree, with question marks indicating gaps and uncertainties. Four years ago, I used Broun’s table as the basis for my own version which appeared in The Men of the North. More recently, I’ve used the same format in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. In both books, the table has been tweaked and polished by a professional designer who makes everything look neat and tidy. The image below is a working copy from my files.

Kings of Strathclyde

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References

Broun, Dauvit: ‘The Welsh Identity of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, c.900–1200’ Innes Review vol.55 (2004), 111–80

Clarkson, Tim: The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010)

Macquarrie, Alan: ‘The Kings of Strathclyde, c.400–1018’, pp.1–19 in A. Grant and K.J. Stringer (eds) Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community (Edinburgh, 1993)

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