Tag Archives: Vikings

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.

Aethelflaedcover_600x400

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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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Brunanburh on the Fylde?

Vikings

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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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 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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Games of thrones

While researching the book, I was frequently reminded of analogies between the political dealings of tenth-century Britain and those depicted in the television series Game of Thrones. Being a fan of the series, it was perhaps inevitable that it would spring to mind whenever I came across historical references to dynastic marriages, temporary treaties and oaths of fealty. At times, the webs of alliance and allegiance in the 900s seem just as fluid as those involving the royal families of fictional Westeros – and with similar levels of intrigue.

A number of tenth-century treaties directly involved the kings of Strathclyde, who were as adept as any Lannister or Tyrell in the cut-and-thrust of political negotiation. Strathclyde’s geographical position gave it a shared border with several other realms and this meant that its kings were seen as useful allies. They could also be dangerous foes, and had few qualms about switching sides if it suited them to do so. Like their contemporaries in other lands, they might swiftly abandon a treaty when it no longer gave them an advantage, even at the risk of breaking a sworn oath.

I’ve highlighted three treaties in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, weighing the significance of each and examining the sources that record them. All three were hosted by Anglo-Saxon (English) rulers of the West Saxon royal house, the family to which Alfred the Great belonged, but the other attendees came from far and wide. From the northern Celtic lands came the kings of Strathclyde and Alba, representing the North Britons and Scots respectively. From the old realm of Northumbria came the Viking rulers of York and the still-English lords of Bamburgh. From the West came various Welsh kings and, from across the Irish Sea, the kings of Viking Dublin. Other key figures also turned up from time to time.

The three treaties are discussed more fully in the book but here I’ll simply list them in chronological order, with venue and participants named (where known). Names in italics mean an identification is uncertain.

Bakewell Anglo-Saxon Cross

Shaft of an Anglo-Saxon cross at Bakewell Parish Church in the Peak District.

Year: 920
Venue: Bakewell
Hosted by: Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great
In attendance: Constantin, king of Alba; Ragnall, king of York; Ealdred and Uhtred, lords of Bamburgh; Owain, king of Strathclyde.
Purpose (probable): recognition of Edward as ruler of all Britain south of the Mersey and Humber estuaries.
Source: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘A’)

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Mayburgh Henge Cumbria

Standing stone in the prehistoric henge of Mayburgh, a possible venue for the royal meeting near the River Eamont in 927.

Year: 927
Venue: River Eamont (near Penrith)
Hosted by: Athelstan, son of Edward the Elder
In attendance: Hywel, king of the West Welsh; Constantin, king of Alba; Owain, king of Strathclyde; Ealdred, lord of Bamburgh.
Purpose (probable): recognition of Athelstan as the most powerful king in Britain; mutual agreement to refuse offers of alliance from Vikings.
Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘D’); William of Malmesbury’s ‘History of the English Kings’

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Chester Anglo-Saxon Cross

St John the Baptist Church, Chester: head and part of the shaft of an Anglo-Saxon Cross.

Year: 973
Venue: Chester
Hosted by: Edgar, nephew of Athelstan
In attendance: Cináed, king of Alba; Máel Coluim, king of Strathclyde; Maccus, son of Harald, Viking warlord; Dyfnwal, former king of Strathclyde; Guthfrith, brother of Maccus; Iago, king of Gwynedd; Hywel, Iago’s nephew; Iudicael, count of Rennes in Brittany.
Purpose (probable): non-aggression pact to prevent future hostilities
Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘D’); John of Worcester’s Chronicle

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