When author Hilary Green heard that the long-forgotten site of the Battle of Brunanburh (937) had been located not far from where she lives, she had to find out more…
Everyone knows about the Battle of Hastings, but how many of us have heard of the Battle of Brunanburh? Yet the outcome of this battle was as decisive in determining the future of England as the defeat of Harold by William of Normandy was.
According to the historian Michael Livingstone, “the men who fought and died on that field forged a political map of the future that remains [in modernity], arguably making the Battle of Brunanburh one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England, but of the whole of the British Isles.”
In 886 CE King Alfred the Great made a treaty with the Danish warlord Guthrum. It gave Guthrum control of the eastern half of the country, in which the laws of the Danes took precedence of the laws of the Anglo Saxons. This area later became known as the Danelaw.
In 899 Alfred died and was succeeded by his son Edward. Together with his sister Æthelflæd, the Lady of the English, he succeeded in recapturing parts of the Danelaw.
The Norwegian Viking Ingimund arrived on the Wirral peninsula in 902 and took control of part of North West England. In response Æthelflæd fortified Chester. In 924 Edward was succeeded as King of the Anglo Saxons by his son Æthelstan.
Æthelstan conquered the last remaining Viking kingdom of Jorvik (York) in 927 after which Constantine, King of Scotland, and several Welsh kings, together with Owain of Strathclyde, agreed to accept his overlordship, making Æthelstan King of England; the first to be able to claim that title. In 934, possibly because Constantine had violated the treaty in some way, he led his army into Scotland and once again Constantine was forced to admit defeat. It was clear that Æthelstan could only be defeated by a much greater force then Constantine commanded.
Then, in 937, England was attacked by a coalition of forces including those of Constantine, Owain, King of Strathclyde, and Olaf, or Anlaf , the Viking prince of Dublin. Æthelstan marched north with his brother Edmund and the combined forces of Wessex and Mercia to confront them.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains a poem celebrating the resulting battle, The Battle of Brunanburh:
“King Æthelstan, 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.”
The poem goes on to relate that “There was never yet as many people killed with the sword’s edge… since the east Angles and Saxons came over the broad sea.” The battle raged all day but in the end Æthelstan was victorious. The Chronicle says the Saxons “split the shield-wall” and “hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers… [t]here lay many a warrior by spears destroyed; Northern men shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well, weary, war sated.”
In the end Olaf was forced to retreat. The slaughter was great. “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.” His men “[d]eparted … in nailed ships” and “sought Dublin over the deep water, leaving Dingesmere to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.”
After the victory Æthelstan and Edmund made their way home. “The brothers, both together, King and Prince, sought their home, West-Saxon land, exultant from battle.”
There is no dispute about the battle having taken place, or its outcome. But scholars and archaeologists have never been able to agree on its location.
Some later sources, such as John of Worcester, writing 200 years after the battle, refer to Olaf’s army entering the Humber, suggesting a location somewhere in Yorkshire, but no evidence has been unearthed to substantiate that claim.
Now it seems that a group of archaeologists in the Wirral have discovered proof that the true site is in the area of Bromborough.
In fields around Brimstage, Clatterbridge and Storeton, which would all have been within the borough of Bromborough, they have unearthed hundreds of artefacts, including items of weaponry which have been certified as being of 10th century origin. They have also discovered burial pits containing bones.
These will have to be suitably tested to determine their age etc and this will require a good deal of money. Wirral Archaeology members are hoping for a grant from the National Lottery to allow this to happen.
There are similar geographical feature in the area to those described in the Chronicle. The battle probably included several skirmishes which create a trail from Clatterbridge through Brimstage with the final, decisive engagement taking place in Little Storeton. (This is very exciting for me as I live just up the road from there.)
The location of Dingesmere, which the fleeing troops had to cross in order to regain their ships, is still uncertain but could possibly refer to what is now Tranmere, on the River Mersey. The remains of the old Roman Road from Chester to Meols, the Romans’ embarkation point for Ireland, runs through Little Storeton, and it is not hard to imagine Olaf’s defeated men struggling back along what was by then probably no more than a mule track. It is certain that much of the area between them and the sea would have been marshy and bisected by small lakes, any of which could be Dingsmere.
On the other hand, Professor Steve Harding of Nottingham University, suggests a site on the shore of the River Dee, close to Heswall. He connects ‘Ding’ to the Norse word thing, a meeting of the people, and not far from Heswall, midway between there and the battle field, is the village of Thingwall. Its name translates as the Norse þing-vóll, the place of the Thing, or the Vikings’ council place. The shore along the Dee at that point is lined with sandbanks with deep inlets between them. Perhaps this is Dingsmere.
Much further work remains to be done, and at the moment the archaeologists are keeping the exact sites of their excavations secret; but it seems clear that the thousand-year-old mystery of where this great battle took place has finally been solved.
She also writes historical fiction as Holly Green.
Hilary has written several features for Historia, including one about the triumph of Greek myths and the destruction of the Mycenaean civilisation, and another on the Trojan Wars: men or myths?
Her Historia feature about international trade in the early Middle Ages led to her being commissioned to write a book on the subject. Which is rather wonderful.
Find out more about Æthelflæd in Annie Whitehead’s article about Mercia.
If you’ve read Sword of Kings, the latest (October 2019) book in Bernard Cornwell‘s Last Kingdom series, some of the names Hilary mentions will be familiar. Bernard has said that Uhtred’s story will end with the Battle of Brunanburh, so this historical background may be a bonus when the last novel comes out.
Image of Æthelflæd from the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey: via Wikimedia
Text from The Battle of Brunanburh describing King Constantine’s actions: via Wikimedia
Frontispiece of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, showing King Æthelstan presenting a copy of the book to the saint: via Wikimedia
Old map of the Wirral showing ‘Brunburgh’ and Thingwall: thanks to Hidden Wirral, which has several historical maps of the area