The Battle of Brunanburh AD 937 (Bromborough)
based on information provided by Prof Stephen Harding. Author of Viking Mersey (2002)
and a major contributor to a recently published authoratitive casebook on the battle, edited by Michael Livingston (see image)
Brunburg (1100-35) Bruna’s stronghold From Old English personal name burh. Or from the Anglo-Saxon brun meaning brown or dark, with burh meaning fortress, the dark man’s fortress.
Bronbur 1153; Bromborough 1277; Brumburg 1280.
The following is largely taken from Prof Stephen Hardings' own website on the battle of Brunanburh www.nottingham.ac.uk/ncmh/dna/Brunanburh.htm with additions by myself
The Battle of Brunanburh was one of the most defining battles in the history of the British Isles and, as described by BBC Broadcaster Neil Oliver in History of Scotland it determined whether Britain would become one imperial power or stay as separate identities. Although the Northern Alliance of Scots, Strathclyde British and Norsemen from Ireland lost the battle against a combined Anglo-Saxon army from Mercia and Wessex - with heavy losses on both sides - the strong resistance proved decisive in what was to follow. Æthelflæd (d. 918) was the daughter of King Alfred of Wessex, and the wife of Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Having become sole ruler of the Mercians following her husband's death in 911, Æthelflæd is credited with helping to reconquer the Danelaw (the English lands under Viking rule) in tandem with her younger brother Edward the Elder, king of Wessex (reigned 899–924).
The Battle of Brunanburh is recorded as a contemporary (or near
contemporary) poem in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and almost certainly
took place on Wirral. Compelling arguments had earlier been made for
other locations, notably in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire,
Northants and SW Scotland. However the weight of scholarly opinion
is now heavily on Wirral – the debate now seems to be where on Wirral –
and how did they get there.
|The Anglo-Saxon poem, in its translated version from William of Malmesbury reads as follows (see Campbell, A. The Battle of Brunanburh, London 1938 and Hamer, R. A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, Selected, with an Introduction and a Parallel verse translation, Faber and Faber 1970)|
King Athelstan, the lord of warriors,
Patron of heroes, and his brother too,
Prince Edmund, won themselves eternal glory
In battle with the edges of their swords
Round Brunanburh; they broke the wall of shields,
The sons of Edward with their well-forged swords
Slashed at the linden-shields; such was their nature
From boyhood that in battle they had often
Fought for their land, its treasures and its homes,
Against all enemies. Their foes fell dead,
The Scottish soldiers and their pirate host
Were doomed to perish; and with blood of men
The field was darkened from the time the sun
Rose at the break of day, the glorious star,
God the eternal Lord's bright candle passed
Across the land, until this noble creature
Sank to its resting-place. There many men
Lay slain by spears, and northern warriors
Shot down despite their shields, and Scotsmen too,
Weary, with battle sated. The West Saxons
Throughout the whole long passing of the day
Pressed on in troops behind the hostile people,
Hewed fiercely from the rear the fleeing host
With well-ground swords. The Mercians refused
Hard battle-play to none among the fighters
Who came with Anlaf over rolling seas,
Bringing invasion to this land by ship,
Destined to die in battle. Five young kings
Lay dead upon the battlefield, by swords
Sent to their final sleep; and likewise seven
Of Anlaf's earls, and countless of his host,
Both Scots and seamen. There the Norsemen's chief
Was put to flight, and driven by dire need
With a small retinue to seek his ship.
The ship pressed out to sea, the king departed
Onto the yellow flood and saved his life.
Likewise the wise old Constantinus came,
The veteran, to his northern native land
By flight; he had no reason to exult
In that encounter; for he lost there friends
And was deprived of kinsmen in the strife
Upon that battlefield, and left his son
Destroyed by wounds on that grim place of slaughter,
The young man in the fight. The grey-haired man
Had little cause to boast about that battle,
The sly old soldier, any more than Anlaf;
They could not with their remnant laugh and claim
That they were better in warlike deeds
When banners met upon the battlefield,
Spears clashed and heroes greeted one another,
Weapons contended, when they played at war
With Edward’s sons upon the place of carnage.
The Norsemen left them in their well-nailed ships,
The sad survivors of the darts, on Dingesmere
Over the deep sea back they went to Dublin,
To Ireland they returned with shameful hearts.
The brothers also both went home together,
The king and prince returned to their own country,
The land of Wessex, triumphing in war.
They left behind corpses for the dark
Black-coated raven, horny beaked to enjoy,
And for the eagle, white-backed and dun-coated,
The greedy war-hawk, and that grey wild beast
The forest wolf. Nor has there on this island
Been ever yet a greater number slain,
Killed by the edges of the sword before
this time, as books make known to us, and old
And learned scholars, after hither came
The Angles and the Saxons from the east
Over the broad sea sought the land of Britain,
Proud warmakers. Victorious warriors,
Conquered the Welsh, and so obtained this land.
Heswall Point, (left) one of the possible escape routes to Dublin after the Battle. The other being Meols
Brunaburgh (937AD) is marked (red dot) in this 1611 map
I spoke to Prof Harding, via email, about the accuracy of old maps in research and mentioned one, dated 1611, which purports to show a 'Moreton Priory' giving the location as the present ruins of Birkenhead Priory. This was discussed at length via a Facebook local history group and I decided to contact Stephen for his views: his reply:
I am not familiar with the 1611 map: the map I have is the 18th century map of Herman Moll. It shows “Moreton” with “Pri.” underneath with the location point in Birkenhead. It could well have been a mistake that Moll has repeated. Birkenhead certainly existed (1st recorded as Bircheveth 1190-1216) but was probably considered too minor to make the maps, along with many other places (Irby, Raby etc.).
I used the Moll map, not because of the Priory – which isn’t really relevant to the Vikings – but because it illustrated the old name for Wallasey Village (Kirkby) and the old name for Bromborough (Brunburgh). It was whilst looking at this map in 2004 that I made a crucial identification in the location debate over the “Great War of AD937” – the Battle of Brunanburh: namely that the place of escape referred to in the old Anglo Saxon poem as “Dingesmere” was the “Thing’s mere” – the waterway/wetland associated with the Thing at Thingwall, an identification subsequently confirmed by the English Place Name Society:
|Stephen Harding on historical research in reply to a question from me: Historical research is now multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary – particularly in my own particular area of interest - Vikings in the North West – which not only involves trained historians but also scientists like myself, place-name experts, surname experts, linguistic experts and archaeologists – working together, and, most importantly, also with the public. An example is here:|
Probable escape routes after the Battle, based on documentary evidence
|Aethelflaed of Mercia|
Place name evidence may link this settlement battle of Brunanburgh in 937 AD documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, although the exact location of the battle is unknown. Within Wirral, it is thought that it may have taken place near the shoreline, in an area now developed for industrial use. A monastery was established in Bromborough (brunanburh), west of the Saxon Church in 912 AD, it is thought by Aethelfleada, the daughter of Alfred the Great. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/mol/collections/historic-characterisation-project/Wirral-Part-6.pdf
Eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, sister of Edward the Elder, and aunt and fosterer of Aethelstan, Aethelflaed of Mercia (d. 918) led troops against the Vikings, built forts, endowed churches, issued charters, dealt with Irish-Norwegian pressures, and received the submission of the men of York. When her husband Aethelred died (911), she became the sole political and military authority in Mercia, working, as she and her husband had done earlier, in cooperation with Edward the Elder and recognizing his overlordship as King of Wessex. (In fact, given Aethelred’s apparent illness and incapacity, Aethelflaed was de facto in power beginning c. 902.) This cooperation was ultimately successful in eliminating the Danish threat to Anglo-Saxon England and paved the way for the eventual unification of Mercia and Wessex.
The primary evidence for Aethelflaed’s achievements occurs in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in versions B, C, and D. Versions B and C present a “Mercian Register” or an “Annals of Aethelflaed,” perhaps based on a now-lost Latin source. This section violates the chronological order in B and C, and suddenly introduces a focus on Mercia. Aethelflaed is styled “Lady of the Mercians,” which some scholars take as a semantic dodge for “queen,” possibly reflecting uneasiness with queens (Alfred’s wife Ealhswith never had the title) or downplaying royal aspirations in the face of Edward. The clumsy insertion of the Mercian Register in B and C compares with its smoother incorporation in D, where Aethelflaed’s exploits are diminished and folded into the story of the House of Wessex.
THE LADY OF THE MERCIANS
There is a battered silver penny from King Alfred’s reign on which is inscribed the grand Latin title REX ANGLO[RUM] – `King of the English’. But the claim was only half true. Alfred had been King of those Angel-cynn, the kin or family of the English, who lived in Wessex, and his resourcefulness had kept Englishness alive in the dark days when the Viking forces drove him and his people into the Somerset marshes. The work of extending Anglo- Saxon authority across the whole of Engla-lond, as it would come to be known, was done by Alfred’s children and grandchildren – and of these the most remarkable was his firstborn, his daughter Aethelflaed, whose exploits as a warrior and town-builder won her fame as the Lady of the Mercians.
In this year English and Danes fought at Tettenhall [near Wolverhampton], and the English took the victory, reported the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 910. And the same year Aethelflaed built the stronghold at Bremsbyrig [Bromsberrow, near Hereford].
Women exercised more power than we might imagine in the macho society of Anglo-Saxon England. The Old English word hlaford, lord, could apply equally to a man or a woman. The abbess Hilda of Whitby (Caedmon’s mentor), who was related to the royal families of both Northumbria and East Anglia, had been in charge of a so-called ¡¥double house¡¦,where monks and nuns lived and worshipped side by side and where the men answered to the abbess, not the abbot.
The assets and chattels of any marriage were legally considered the property of both husband and wife, and wills of the time routinely describe landed estates owned by wealthy women who had supervised the management of many acres, giving orders to men working under them. King Alfred’s will distinguished rather gracefully between the spear and spindle sides of his family. It was women’s work to spin wool or flax with a carved wooden spindle and distaff, and the old king bequeathed more to his sons on the spear side than to his wife and daughters with their spindles. But he still presented Aethelflaed with one hundred pounds, a small fortune in tenth-century terms, along with a substantial royal estate.
Aethelflaed turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon Boadicea, for like Boadicea she was a warrior widow. Her husband Ethelred had ruled over Mercia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that had spread over most of the Midlands under the great King Offa in the late 700s. Extending from London and Gloucester up to Chester and Lincoln, Mercia formed a sort of buffer state between Wessex in the south and the Danelaw to the north and east, and the couple had made a good partnership, working hard to push back Danish power northwards. But Ethelred was sickly, and after his death in 911 Aethelflaed continued the work.
In this year, by the Grace of God, records the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 913, Aethelflaed Lady of the Mercians went with all the Mercians to Tamworth, and built the fortress there in early summer, and before the beginning of August, the one in Stafford.
It does not seem likely that Aethelflaed fought in hand-to-hand combat. But we can imagine her standing behind the formidable shield wall of Saxon warriors, inspiring the loyalty of her men and winning the awed respect of her enemies. She campaigned in alliance with her brother Edward, their father’s successor as King of Wessex, and together the brother and sister repulsed the Danes northwards to the River Humber, thereby regaining control of East Anglia and central England. To secure the territory they captured, they followed their father’s policy of building fortified burhs.
Aethelflaed built ten of these walled communities at the rate of about two a year, and their sites can be traced today along the rolling green hills of the Welsh borderland and across into the Peak District. They show a shrewd eye for the lie of the land, both as defensive sites and as population centres. Chester, Stafford, Warwick and Runcorn all developed into successful towns – and as Aethelflaed built, she kept her armies advancing northwards. In the summer of 917 she captured the Viking stronghold of Derby, and the following year she took Leicester and the most part of the raiding-armies that belonged to it, according to the Chronicle. This was the prelude to a still more remarkable triumph: The York-folk had promised that they would be hers, with some of them granting by pledge or confirming with oaths.
The Lady of the Mercians was on the point of receiving the homage of the great Viking capital of the north when she died, just twelve days before midsummer 918, a folk hero like her father Alfred. She had played out both of the roles that the Anglo-Saxons accorded to high-born women, those of peace-weaver and shield-maiden, and her influence lived on after her death. Edward had had such respect for his tough and purposeful big sister that he had sent his eldest son Athelstan to be brought up by her – a fruitful apprenticeship in fortress-building, war and busy statecraft that also helped to get the young Wessex prince accepted as a prince of Mercia. After his father’s death in 924, Athelstan was able to take control of both kingdoms.
Athelstan proved a powerful and assertive king, extending his rule to the north, west and south-west and becoming the first monarch who could truly claim to be King of all England. In his canny nation-building could be seen the skills of his grandfather Alfred and his father Edward, along with the fortitude of his remarkable aunt, tutor and foster-mother, the Lady of the Mercians.
References and Further Reading Bailey, Maggie. “Aelfwynn, Second Lady of theMercians.” In Edward the Elder, edited by N. J. Higham and D. H. Hill. London and New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 112-127. Keynes, Simon D. “Edward, King of the Anglo-Saxons.” In Edward the Elder, edited by N. J. Higham and D. H. Hill. London and New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 40-66. Szarmach, Paul E. “Aethelfaed of Mercia: Mise en Page.” In Words and Works: Studies in Medieval English Language and Literature in Honour of Fred C. Robinson, edited by Peter S. Baker and Nicholas Howe, Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 1998, pp. 105-126. Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo- Saxon England. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004. Wainwright, F. T. “Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians.” In New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, edited by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990, pp. 44-55. Originally published in The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of the History and Culture, Presented to Bruce Dickins, edited by Peter Clemoes. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1959.
Recent Academic Papers:
Battle of Brunanburh: extract from book by Paul Cavill (English Place Name Society) – Vikings: Fear and Faith in Anglo-Saxon England, Harper Collins Publishers, London & Glasgow, 2001, pages 97-111.
The Context of Brunanburh. Chapter by Prof. N.J. Higham (University of Manchester) in Names, Places, People. An Onomastic Miscellany in Memory of John McNeal Dodgson (ed. A.R. Rumble and A.D. Mills), Paul Watkins, Stamford, 1997, pages 144-156 – places the “Plains of Othlynn” referred to in Irish annals – in the region south of the Mersey – and gives a critical appraisal of claims for a Yorkshire location for the battle.
Revisiting Dingesmere. Journal of the English Place Name Society, October 2004, volume 36, pages 25-38. Article by Paul Cavill, Stephen Harding and Judith Jesch suggesting a solution to a mystery concerning the Battle of Brunanburh – the identification of Dingesmere as the “Things – mere or – marr”, the wetland or marshland associated with the Thing – the Viking parliament, at Thingwall on Wirral.
The Wirral Carrs and Holms. Journal of the English Place Name Society, December 2007 volume 39, pages 45-57. Article by Steve Harding on the distribution of the carrs (ON kjarr) and holms (ON holmr) in Wirral - old Norse names associated with marshland - and their significance in terms of dialect (and in relation to the total absence of corresponding English names for the same features) - and possible relevance to the Battle of Brunanburh.
The site of the battle of Brunanburh: manuscripts and maps, grammar and geography. Article by Paul Cavill in A Commodity of Good Names. Essays in Honour of Margaret Gelling (edited by O.J. Padek and D.N. Parsons), Shaun Tyas, Donington UK, pages 303-319, 2008.
The Place-Name Debate: Chapter by Paul Cavill, in The Battle of Brunanburh. A Casebook (edited by Michael Livingston), University of Exeter Press (May, 2011). Concludes that Wirral was the site of the battle.
Wirral: folklore and locations: Chapter by Steve Harding, in The Battle of Brunanburh. A Casebook (edited by Michael Livingston), University of Exeter Press (May, 2011). Assuming a Wirral location examines where “ymbe Brunanburh” the battle may have been fought, two possible sites where Bruna’s “burh” may have been and also the possible location for the “Thing’s mere”.
Lecture on Brunanburh (Given by Dr. Paul Cavill at the Chester Viking Conference, 20th November 2010)
New Book: The Battle of Brunanburh. A Casebook (edited by Michael Livingston, May, 2011), Exeter University Press. Amazon link (UK) and Amazon.com. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/ncmh/documents/dna/Brunanburh-LocationsChapter-May09.pdf
Bruna's Fortress – one of two suggested sites on Wirral (2005)
Brunaburh (Battle of) – where on Wirral? (2005)
Dingesmere – escape to the Thing’s mere or marr (2005)
Brunanburh – from Wirral Schools Viking site introduced by Wirral’s cultural Ambassador Mike McCartney (2006)
http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/csva/index.aspx Centre for study of Viking Age
Local Magazine article:
I would like to add a personal accolade to this page. Professor Stephen Harding gave me a large portion of his time, over the Christmas (2013) period in order to help me get this page as accurate as is historically possible and sent me a veritable mountain of material. Please bear in mind much of this is reproduced with permission and I have added some items myself. My immense thank you to Stephen, to all his wonderful associates and I have copied all his page links across to this one - they make for fascinating reading. Thank you one, and all, live long and prosper! I am not a learned scholar; I do this for enjoyment and satisfaction and no personal gain and in the hope that if I can help one person then it is as they say today - job done! Mike Kemble, Sutton Coldfield. Dec 2013.