The Search for Brunanburh: A Summary

I’ve been getting a lot of email from folks interested in the search for Brunanburh. Many of them are a bit mad at me and the other contributors to The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, and for that I blame more than anyone else a monk who died around 870 years ago.

Through the centuries the historical sources have handed down to us different, at times wildly conflicting names for the location of the Battle of Brunanburh, along with confusing (if not simply misleading) information about its topography and conduct. One of the most well-known facts about this important battle, then, is that we know disappointingly little about it.

Given Brunanburh’s historical centrality as “the moment when Englishness came of age” (Casebook, p.1), it should hardly be surprising that there has been a veritable cottage industry of attempts to identify the battlesite in one part of the British Isles or another. Many of these efforts, for better or worse, are led by local historical groups, who have a vested interest in placing this significant event in their own “backyard.”

Against many of these efforts, most of the contributors to The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook (including myself) are strongly of a mind that modern Bromborough was the location of the battle in 937.  This fact has led some of those folks writing me to complain that there’s a “Bromborough conspiracy” among the scholars. Before I get into the main point of this post, then, I want to lay down three basic principles about academia that some folks outside the so-called ivory towers might not realize:

  1. Scholars have a vested interest in arguing that other scholars are wrong. For me to engage in a conspiracy with Paul Cavill — one of the foremost names among the pro-Bromborough crowd — might make less professional sense than for me to engage in a debate with him. Ours is a “publish or perish” profession, for better or worse, and publication usually doesn’t follow from saying “Yep, he’s right.”
  2. At the same time, this tendency toward dissension is, among the majority of scholars, secondary to our primary goal of discerning the truth to the best of our abilities. I might want to poke a hole in the Bromborough argument on principle, in other words, but if I can’t do so in light of the facts … well, we might be getting close to fact.
  3. That said, while we may be getting “close to fact,” we aren’t there yet. Indeed, when you’re dealing with an event that happened over 1000 years ago you’re not liable ever to reach 100% certainty about it. Good scholarship thus essentially follows the scientific method: We work through a series of hypotheses, constantly testing our assumptions and our biases, in order to arrive at a working theory that, in turn, only serves as a target of yet more testing. If a number of us are agreeing that Bromborough-as-Brunanburh is the best theory around, therefore, it isn’t because we have a conspiracy; it’s because, try as we might (see item #1 up there), we can’t come up with anything better. We’re still looking, though, and if we do find something more fitting you can be darn sure we’ll be thrilled to jump ship and get to publish more articles by crossing out Bromborough and replacing it with The Better Fit.

And lest anyone get too excited about me calling Bromborough “only a theory,” please do keep in mind that evolution is “only a theory.” So, too, gravity, as Tim Minchin has humorously observed.

In addition, I’d just like to say, for the record, that I personally have no dog in this fight: I really could care less whether Brunanburh happened at Bromborough or somewhere else. I just care that we get as close to the truth as we can (see #2 above).

. . .

The other thing that many of the folks writing me say is that my contributors and I don’t know about this or that particular theory because we didn’t take the time to discuss it in the book. The closer truth is that we simply did not have room: there are dozens, if not hundreds of sites that have been put forward for Brunanburh at one point or another. To give even the barest of details on each theory would have added many more pages than would have been feasible.

I thought about this quite a bit on my recent trip to the United Kingdom, during which I visited Bromborough and the Bebington Heath, which Stephen Harding concludes is one of the best candidates for the battlesite in his essay “Wirral: Folklore and Locations” (Casebook, pp. 351-64). By the time I’d returned to the United States — more convinced than ever that Brunanburh happened near Bromborough — I was determined to build a companion website to the Casebook on which each competing hypothesis could be individually examined against the Bromborough theory. I built the back-end of the website, “Brunanburh Online” — which I was going to house on my own server here, for the sake of simplicity — and I even made a logo for it:

My logo for "Brunanburh Online."

The more I’ve thought about it all, though, I decided that even aside from the fact that I don’t really have time for the entire endeavor, Paul Cavill’s extraordinary essay on “The Place-name Debate” — which is worth the purchase of the Casebook on its own, by the way — essentially does discuss every hypothesis by patiently laying out the basic requirements that any prospective site must have (Casebook, pp. 327-49). Paul’s list of the facts as we have them is rational, measured, and both fantastically informed and informative. Before turning to Bromborough’s particular suitability to these facts he even takes the time to point out the basic deficiencies of some common alternative hypotheses like Burnswark, Brinsworth, Bromswold, Bourne, and Burnley, thus providing the very model for the kind of testing I was thinking about doing on my website.

The essay is brilliant, in other words, and it deserves to stand as the defining word on the evidence by which we must search.

Paul gives all the nitty gritty details in splendid detail — and if you’re interested in this subject at all you need to get the Casebook and read them — but I can quickly sum up the necessaries in order of importance:

  1. You need a site to which place-names can be associated based on Old English BRUNA or BRUNE (but not burn), BURH (not berg), DUN, WE(O)-, WEORC, and FELD. That first one, BRUNA/BRUNE, looks to be essential.  If you don’t have it … well, you ain’t got Brunanburh.
  2. The site should also be near locations identifiable as Old English DINGESMERE and OTHLYN. The latter term, fyi, could also be Old Norse, Old Irish, Welsh, or pretty much anything in between, a wee mystery of its own.
  3. The site must be associated with navigable waters. While Norse longships had shallow drafts, not just any little creek or stream will do.
  4. The site should be located in the west of England rather than the east. In other words, navigable access should be off the Irish Sea (or darn close to it) and not the North Sea (more on this below).
  5. The site almost assuredly should be associated with “native” English lands. Our sources make early and consistent statements that the battle happened on what was essentially “home turf” for the English.
  6. It would be nice if the site was also near locations identifiable as Old Norse VÍNHEIÐR and VÍNUSKÓGI, and perhaps a hard day’s ride away from Old Norse JARLSNES. It would be a bonus if there was an established English fortress not far away to the south, too. These are all pretty optional, though, since they are details that come from Egil’s Saga, which isn’t very trustworthy at all (see Keith Kelly’s essay, “Truth and a Good Story,” Casebook, pp. 305-14).

At the beginning of this post I pointed out my displeasure with a monk who died around 870 years ago. The man was a monk at Worcester, and his name was John.  In the first decades of the twelfth century John of Worcester wrote a chronicle that happens to mention the Battle of Brunanburh. I tried to arrange the sources in the Casebook by date, and in that text it appears as the 16th account related to the battle (pp. 56-57). John’s account essentially repeats older information from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, except that John inexplicably (but undeniably) states that the invading forces drove their ships up the Humber… which goes squarely against Requirement 4 above.

Despite the fact that John, writing some two hundred years after the battle, is alone in this eastern theory — the few other sources we have reporting this are clearly copying John’s account — the majority of the folks who have been writing me with alternative theories are arguing for a location off the Humber.

Don’t get me wrong: I truly love to hear from folks. And I’m thrilled that there’s such interest in this oft-forgotten battle.  At the same time, though, we need to be clear about the reliability of the evidence. Paul Cavill, in his patient appraisal of the facts, summarizes John’s account and its Humber possibility: “John misunderstands the Old English poem, confuses personnel, and regards the Humber as the point of entry typically used by northern forces. All these factors make it reasonable to doubt that John has the only accurate tradition about Brunanburh and that all the others omitted such a useful detail” (Casebook, p. 339). I think quite highly of Paul, whose work is careful and exceedingly well-considered. Still, I don’t think he’s gone quite far enough here. If I can call anything a fact after such a long remove of time, I’m willing to stake a claim for this one: John of Worcester is wrong. Plain and simple. And, by extension, any hypothesis for Brunanburh that relies on his “eastern entry” for the invading force is similarly wrong.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but even aside from John’s credibility problems on his own, there are sound logistical problems with any invasion in the east. I go into most of this in more detail in my essay “The Roads to Brunanburh” (Casebook, pp. 1-26), but here’s the thing in a nutshell:

The summation of our many independent lines of evidence unquestionably places the battle in 937. Indeed, our evidence even gives us enough information to pin down the date of the battle to have been sometime before the end of October of that year.

We also know that in August of 937 one of the primary leaders (if not the mastermind) of the invasion force, Anlaf Guthfrithson, was deep in Ireland, on the waters of Lough Ree, where he defeated the rival king of Limerick, Anlaf Cenncairech. It is without question one of the most amazing yet little-commented upon bits of trivia concerning these events that in less than two months Anlaf was able to take his army from victory on Lough Ree to the field at Brunanburh. It’s staggering, really. Imagine:

First Anlaf had to secure his victory over his enemy at Lough Ree. The fighting and resistance didn’t necessarily cease immediately, after all. The process probably took several days even under the best of circumstances. Next Anlaf had to travel from Lough Ree to Dublin, a short drive today, but not so easy a millennium ago. Once there, even if he had pre-arranged plans with the many other kings who were going to join him in his campaign against Athelstan — which we don’t know, and which in any case would be pretty presumptuous considering he had yet to secure his own kingdom at home — Anlaf still had to contact them to tell them that everything was “go.” They, in turn, would have had to contact him back to confirm that they were still willing to go through with it all, taking more and more days. Then all the parties would have had to gather their forces. One can hardly envision that the Scots simply assumed Anlaf would encounter no troubles at Lough Ree and were thus all packed and ready to go, waiting for the message from across the sea like sprinters squatting at the line. Anlaf himself had an enormous amount of logistical work to do: he had to restock his army after his campaign to Lough Ree, outfit them for a larger, long-term campaign on foreign shores, and then put together enough boats and all the supplies thereof in order to get them there. Only when all this was done, when he was secure in his kingdom at home and secure in his arrangements with his allies in England, could Anlaf at last set sail — more days lost, of course — and then meet up with all the other alliance forces gathering for the fight. It would take still more time for Athelstan, once aware of the invasion, to bring together his own armies and ride out to meet the combined force. In the shortest timing of things, the Battle of Brunanburh could have happened right away at this point, but some of our sources hint at even further delay as the invaders harried English lands and messages went back and forth to Athelstan before all parties agreed to meet at Brunanburh for a fight in which the winner took all.

As I said, it is remarkable that all this could happen in less than two months. If we place the Battle of Brunanburh on western shores, where Anlaf and his army need “only” cross the Irish Sea, it is just believable.

But what if we place Brunanburh on eastern shores? Anlaf and his army would then have to travel at least a thousand miles farther by boat. Their chances of shipwreck, separation, interception, and ruination by disease all go up dramatically. Their chances at surprise plummet. In addition to the added time it would take to sail those many miles even under the assumption of perfect sailing weather — which they could not know they’d have and which is statistically unlikely for the time of year, I imagine — there would be the added time it would take for the greater logistical problems. There is a vast difference, after all, between a straight shot across the Irish Sea — in which the prevailing winds will likely get you there whether you like it or not — and the kind of navigation necessary to go south or north all the way around Britain to reach a place like the Humber (see Armada, Spanish). Add it all together and, well, if it is just believable that Anlaf’s army could make it from Lough Ree to the west of England in less than two months, it is simply not believable to think he went from Lough Ree to Lincolnshire or Yorkshire.

All this to say that Brunanburh didn’t happen in the east, and a pox on that darn John of Worcester for giving anyone reason to think it so!

45 Comments

  1. Anita Livingston

    I’m convinced. Very interesting stuff.

    Dad

  2. “Scholars have a vested interest in arguing that other scholars are wrong.”

    Ah, but isn’t this how scholars and academicians keep each other honest, at least in part? Personally, I love the contentiousness because it helps to move us a bit closer to the truth (insofar as such a thing exists).

  3. @ William Maris Any proper debate ought to move us closer to “truth,” yes. Absolutely. (Alas that this seems oft forgotten in today’s political debates scream-and-ream blatherbastics.)

    My point is that folks who toss around academic conspiracy theories are forgetting the basic fact that academics not only want to argue with each other for the philosophical reason of getting closer to that elusive “truth,” but that they also have a somewhat mercenary reason for doing so.

    All of which makes conspiracies among scholars rare indeed!

  4. Your point is well taken. There is a small fraction of academics who are guilty of fraud or incompetence, of course, but the basic “design” of peer-reviewed research does a decent job of ferreting out the BS and refining our understanding so that it asymptotically approaches “truth”. Have you read Asimov’s “The Relativity of Wrong”?

  5. Hi Michael,

    I’m on my third reading of ‘Casebook’ an excellent compilation and extremely useful.

    I came across this indenture last month and I would think that the majority of your necessaries would be met.
    Its difficult to get hold of any further useful material – but I’m on the trail !

    “1261-1272. “Grant in perpetuity from Master Laurence Travers to his son, Thomas Travers, of all his demesnes of Heysham (Hesaym) which he purchased from Roger, son of Vivian de Hesaym, (except two acres of land whereof he enfeoffed Richard de Heton, one lying on either side of the hill (montis) of Crossecoppe and the other in the field called Bryches), and also of two acres which the grantor bought from Adam, son of Robert de Kellet in the territory of Heysham, viz., one acre in Le Midilrigge, half an acre on le Bruneberh, and the other half acre in Le Cloniggis del Maniclyuys, to hold of the grantor during his life, and after his decease, of Roger de Hesaym and his heirs. Witnesses: Sir Ralph de Dacre (Dakyr), sheriff of Lancashire, Sir Benedict Gernet, Sir William de Heton, Alan de Catherton, John de Oxeclyve, Orm de Kellet, John le Gentyl, Nicholas de Lee, John de Parlis, Richard de Heton, and William Warde. (Seal destroyed.)” – from “Annual Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records.”

    I believe that Le Bruneberh is in reference to a huge ancient red sandstone sea arch that collapsed centuries ago.

  6. Hi there, Mick. Glad you’re enjoying the Casebook. I’m tremendously proud of what our team was able to accomplish. And I’m truly thrilled that there are folks like you out there, pushing the envelope and endeavoring to be sure that no stone goes unturned in pursuit of answers!

    As I’ve told some other folks who’ve suggested it, the “bruneberh” of Heysham is an intriguing candidate given the location: it’s on the right side of the Isle, for one thing! And there are also a few other citations of the word in addition to the one you’ve passed along, which show that this isn’t a misspelling or some such. It’s a valid medieval place-name.

    That said, “bruneberh” would fail the first criteria I set out above. Despite their similarities, the ‘-berg’ ending (which means ‘a hill or rock’) does not equate with the ‘-burh’ ending (meaning ‘a fortification or fortified settlement’) we find in Old English ‘Brunanburh’. So what we have here is ‘brown rock’ (which indeed it is) rather than ‘the settlement of Bruna/Brune’.

    There might be an additional problem of this location being too close to the sea. The “bruneberh” of Heysham appears to refer to the rock formations that are part of the port itself, which would make it difficult to have the “running away all day” conclusion to the battle described in our sources. That’s not the end of the world, but it is something to consider.

    Hope that helps!

  7. I agree with what you are saying Michael, but does this now open up further possibilities of the Brune- interpretation?
    We have the weak masculine personal name OE Bruna and the weak feminine river name OE Brune. Does the fact that we also have a significant landscape feature called the ‘Brown one’ broaden the envelope of meaning?

    Btw, the biography of Athelstan by Sarah Foot makes a worthy companion alongside ‘Casebook’.

    Very best regards,
    Mick

  8. @Mick It’s hard to say anything definitively, Mick, but I can’t see that this location has much effect on the search except to point out (once again) that there are a lot of words that can look like ‘brunanburh’ if you squint at them enough … but that they cannot be shown to have any legitimate etymological connection to the battle site in our sources.

    The ‘Bruna’ or ‘brune’ issue is discussed in the Cavill’s essay in the Casebook (p. 331), and while he admits that both are possible, my personal opinion is that the weight of our evidence points to Bruna as the first element of our sought-after ‘brunanburh’. In other words, Brunanburh is the “fortified settlement of Bruna.”

    Great stuff as usual, though. Keep up the search!

  9. East is East and West is West…..

    I have to remain open minded to all possibilities Michael and to quote your comment above

    That said, “bruneberh” would fail the first criteria I set out above. Despite their similarities, the ‘-berg’ ending (which means ‘a hill or rock’)

    The independant traditions of Symeon of Durham and Athelweard both have OE Dun – ‘hill’ as the second element (Weondune and Brunandune respectively). Further investigation reveals :-

    “1260-1286. Grant in perpetuity from Roger de Hesaim, son of Vivian de Hesaym, to Thomas Travers, of all that land and meadow which adjoin his “culture” or ploughed land (cultura) del Quytecroft on the south, described by bounds, beginning seawards at the extremity of a certain rock which is called le Bronneberh, and so following over the summit of the said rock as far as his culture del Hallesteded, &c., with all liberties and easements in all places to so much land pertaining in the vill of Heysham and without. Witnesses: Sir Ralph (R.) de Dacre (Dakyr), steward of the Lord Edmund’s lands, Sir William de Heton, John de Oxclyve, John de Parlis, and Thomas de Parlis. (Seal.)” – from the “Annual Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records”

    This must have been one very big rock Michael with possibly the sea arch being only a part of it. I’m not sure what the OE word for ‘rock’ would have been, but the feature may have been a hill of rock (as suggested by ‘summit’ above). In which case where is the demarcation between Bruneberh – Brown Hill(of rock?) and Brunandune -Brown Hill?

    Charles Phillip Hampson in his article ‘New Light on the Battle of Brunanburh’ discussing the rock says:-

    ” Before 1895, when it was largely destroyed to yield the stone for the making of Heysham Harbour, this remarkable rock towering above the mainland and forming a great arch through which the sea rolled at high tides was the dominating feature of Morecambe Bay, a landmark of that coast and the last surviving bastion of a rocky shore which the omniverous tides have devoured with their constant ebb and flow”

    Still plenty of meat left to chew on the Brunanburh bone Michael 🙂

  10. You’re absolutely right, Mick. We do have a dun ‘hill’ element in Aethelweard and Symeon of Durham. And, yes, the former is of particular note given its early date and apparent independence from other traditions.

    Alas for this particular case, though, our need for a dun actually works against Heysham, not for it. 🙁

    Gelling’s work has shown that in early English nomenclature the dun element is restricted to places south of the Ribble (see Casebook, p. 333). Heysham, as you know, is well north of that line (though certainly not as far north as other postulated sites!).

    It’s true that later centuries spread the dun element further afield (I’ve even come across it here in the States), I don’t know of anything that could show that these 13th-century references to a “brown hill” can have much to do with the 10th-century “Bruna’s settlement” that we need.

    As I have said, it doesn’t matter to me whether the battle was at Bromborough or somewhere else. This isn’t my backyard, as it were, so I don’t have a personal stake in any of it. At the same time, it should be clear that my opinion that it was at Bromborough was not gained on a whim. It’s the only place we have found that fits every requirement we need.

    In other words, I have an open mind about the issue, but not one so open that just anything can get in.

  11. Gelling’s work has shown that in early English nomenclature the dun element is restricted to places south of the Ribble.

    This is not a clear cut as it seems Michael. The studies of Margaret Gelling and Ann Coles relate to early settlement names. It does not necessarily follow that, a landscape feature that was once possibly known as ‘Weondune’ or ‘Brunandune’ developed into a settlement. To this day, we still puzzle over the meaning behind the first element of Symeons We(o)ndune.

  12. Gelling’s work has shown that in early English nomenclature the dun element is restricted to places south of the Ribble.

    This is not a clear cut as it seems Michael. The studies of Margaret Gelling and Ann Cole relate to early settlement names. It does not necessarily follow that, a landscape feature that was once possibly known as ‘Weondune’ or ‘Brunandune’ developed into a settlement. To this day, we still puzzle over the meaning behind the first element of Symeons We(o)ndune.

  13. I am not too convinced by the “running away all day” conclusion to the battle Michael.

    Campbells note on ‘on last legdun‘ (Battle of Brunanburh. P104) is interpreted as ‘They pressed on from behind’. This implies pursuit from the battlefield rather than a long chase.

    Also, there may yet be some hint of the possible close proximity of the battle to the coastline. My research has revealed two place names that appear to be very close to Symeon’s ‘Weondune’.

    Wenduine on the Flanders coast has a name that is probably derived from the huge sand dune known presently as the Spion Kopp (Spy Hill). This hill directly overlooks the English Channel and was known to have been used by Napoleon as a signal hill.

    Waendune is the highest hill on the West Frisian island of Terschelling. This also commands a prominent position overlooking ancient maritime routes and was used as a beacon hill in the 17thc.

    I would be interested in your views on the above Michael.

    Regards,
    Mick

  14. @Mick So are you postulating a Flemish or West Frisian location, Mick? I hope not. I thought you were trying for a Lancashire location.

    If you’re thinking in terms of analogues, I confess I’d need to do a bit more research on the sites in question. Orthographic similarity often has nothing to do with etymological sensibility!

    As for the “running away all day”, it’s from the previous line of the poem.

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  16. Michael,

    I have noted that Old High German ‘Wajan’ (German Wehen) Old Low German ‘Waen’ are ‘Wind’ words in the context of wind blown. In respect of Waendune and Wenduine ( where the common link between them appears to be large sand dunes)Is it possible that both names mean wind-blown hill? Which is exactly how a sand dune is formed.
    This rather interestingly, then draws me to the placename ‘Meols’ on the Wirral peninsular, and also across the Mersey at Formby, where there was once a Raven Meols. Both names having their root in ON melr – sandbank/sand dune.

    Before the Norse Irish occupation of the region back in the early 10thc, could the area have once been known as Wendune (as recorded by Symeon) – so named because of the extensive dune systems. The original name being replaced over time by the ON equivalent melr (present day Meols) ?

  17. I think a wind+dune explanation for weondune is rather unlikely: You’d have to assume the loss of a plosive (probably voiced alveolar but potentially dental) that has not left any evidence of its departure. If you want to avoid the “holy hill” explanation (see Cavill’s discussion in the Casebook, pp. 333-34, 348), then I think Occam’s Razor would point to the more likely explanation being the obvious wen+dun, which means “cyst hill.”

    That doesn’t rule out sand dunes, of course, since they could be cyst-shaped and could metaphorically be a cyst on the landscape. The Wirral has dunes in spades (and, as you point out, plenty of placenames associated with them). In that regard, see Harding’s brief discussion observing Meols as possible location of Dingesmere (Casebook, p. 362).

    Of course, dunes alone can be found just about anywhere near a coastline, which makes Symeon’s place-name a pretty weak marker in the search (unlike the highly specific and multiply-attested brunanburh). Still, I suppose it’s good to point out that this doesn’t do a thing to hurt the Wirral case that the Casebook pushes — much to the annoyance of a certain journalist at the BBC.

  18. To the East of Formby there is a Deansgate lane which crosses the Liverpool road in a North/South orientation towards the mouth of the Mersey. This lane was also known as Dangus Lane and I wondered over the possibility of this being in some way connected to the Dinges element of Dingesmere? There may yet be some benefit gained in trying to ascertain the pre-English name for the Mersey. J M Dodgson suggests that one of the tributary rivers , the Tame, may have been the originl name although Ekwall disagrees with this.

  19. @Mick Deakin It would indeed be wonderful to know the old name(s) for the Mersey!

    As for dangus / dinges … I don’t think there’s a connection. It would be an odd sound change indeed to go from -i- to -a- at this point in the linguistic record. (For what it’s worth, dinges is also not related to dong or dung!)

    It isn’t something that I could really work into the Casebook, but on the subject of the dinges element … we could of course be looking at something like a kenning rather than a place-name. In that vein, many folks want to see this as an early transference of ON dynja ‘hammer’ into Old English. It’s possible, but it’s substantially more complicated (and thus less likely) than the simple “of the Thing” explanation that connects to the Wirral: the verb ding doesn’t show up in English for another 300 or so years, and the noun form first appears in Shakespeare. Actually, it’s even worse than that, since Shakespeare’s word means the ringing of metal (as from a hammer); a meaning like “noisy” or “din” doesn’t show up until the nineteenth century.

    So while we can’t 100% deny a dynja connection, it would require a rather extraordinary “homerun” of conclusive evidence. Too bad, since “Sea of Hammers” would have some wonderful poetic resonance with the previous line’s reference to the “nailed ships” upon it.

    That said, I’ve no idea what “Sea of Hammers” would actually mean (without going to the general “din” or “noise” business). One is tempted to imagine it as a reference to the warriors’ weapons as the Anglo-Saxons chased down the fleeing Norse, but that’s more speculative than even I would allow myself to go!

  20. It would indeed be wonderful to know the old name(s) for the Mersey!

    In an ideal world Michael it would be ‘Humber’

    🙂

  21. In an ideal world Michael it would be ‘Humber’

    From ‘Etymology of River Humber’

    This river’s name is recorded in Anglo-Saxon times as Humbre (Anglo-Saxon dative) and Humbri/Umbri (Vulgar Latin ).The Latin name Abus (probably from Latin verb Abdo which means to cover with shadows) has the meaning of black/dark river so as into Welsh Afon Ddu means black/dark river. The successive name Humbre/Humbri/Umbri could continue to have the same meaning; in fact, the Latin verb umbro means, once again, to cover with shadows with the sense of black/dark river.[13] Another hypothesis is: since its name recurs in the name of the “Humber Brook” near “Humber Court” in Herefordshire or Worcestershire, the word humbr- may have been a word that meant “river”, or something similar, in an aboriginal language that had been spoken in England before the Celts migrated there (compare Tardebigge). An element *ambri- ‘channel, river’ is reconstructible for proto-Celtic and the Ancient Celtic prefix *su- ‘good’ routinely developed into Welsh *hy-.

    Maybe JoW wasnt too far off the mark 😉

  22. Now this is getting interesting Michael…

    The following is taken from ‘The Annals of Southport – A chronological history of North Meols from Alfred the Great to Edward VII’

    The area the author dicusses once bordered ‘Martinmere’ the largest inland body of water (over 3000 sq acres) in England before it was drained for agriculture in the 19thC. The waters of the mere drained into the River Douglas (Astland) – a tributary of the River Ribble.

    A translation from a 1529 deed written in Latin of the rights of Richard Aghton Esq :-

    KNOW all men present and to come that I, John Wodhall, General and special Commissary of Lord
    Arthur Plantagenet Viscount Lisley, Knight of the Order of the Garter, Lieutenant and Vice-Admiral of the most powerful Prince and Lord, Lord Henry Duke of Richmond andSomerset, and Earl of Nottingham, High Admiral of England, Wales, Ireland, Gascony, Normandy, and Aquitaine, have
    seen, inspected, and thoroughly read all and singular theprivileges, concessions, and donations conceded to RichardAghton, Esquire, and to his heirs for ever by the mostpowerful Prince William the Conqueror, then King of England, and also all the confirmations of all Kings from thetime of King William the Conqueror, together with theconfirmation of the most illustrious and greatly to be dreadedPrince and Defender of the Faith, the last King Henry theEighth of that name, on account of which privileges thepowers possessions of lands and all and singular the harbourswithin the domain of the liberty of Richard Aghton Esquire
    aforesaid as well by land as by water and sea, namely from the Cross in the Hose in the Town of North Mylls as far as Snotterston, and so to a distance at sea as far as one can see towards the Humbar Barell in the County of Lancaster…

    I have hunted high and low for further references to ‘Humbar Barrell’ but without a great deal of success. Have you come across anything of this description in your research Michael?

  23. Hi Michael,

    Further to the above:-

    From History of the County of Lancaster Volume 3:-

    Richard Aughton in 1522 conveyed to fresh trustees all his lands, to the use of himself and then of his son and heir John; three years later the estates were reconveyed to him in fee simple.In 1529 he received a confirmation of exemption from the jurisdiction of the Great Admiral of England for his lands and ports from the cross in the Hawes (now Southport) up to Snoterstone, and as far seaward as one might see towards the ‘Humbar Barrel’; this allowed him wreck, fishes-royal, &c. (fn. 55) He was made a knight before 1536, in which year he appeared at Sawley with thirty-six men, as part of the force called out to resist the northern rising. He died on 1 March, 1542–3, his heir being his son John, twenty-six years of age.

    I’ve researched the Snotterstone and found that it was a huge boulder situated at ‘Hundred End’ the boundary division between the Hundreds of West Derby (which went down to the Mersey) and Leyland. It was said to have been sold by a council workman for five pounds !
    Ive had the OS map out and traced the boundary as described in the deeds. From Southport NE to the Hundred End and then looking ‘seaward’ in a direct line west is the coastline around the mouth of the Ribble Estuary. There is nothing on the map that resembles Humbar Barrel, however there is a location known as the Old Hollow and Old Hollow Farm. This area apparently proved to be very troublesome during the draining of the Martinmere.

    “..The most difficult problem was at Old Hollow – an area near the farm of the same name at the end of the private road which runs to the embankment at the right hand turn where New Lane Pace joins Marsh Lane. There is still water in the hollow to the landward side of the bank, where the final phase of the work was completed with difficulty and, eventually, with much rejoicing…” (North Meols to South Ribble – John Cotterall).

    I wondered if the Barrell could have been a description for the shape of Old Hollow ie. a deep gulley or tidal creek ?

    Regards,
    Mick

  24. Tough to know what the Humbar Barell was, Mick. Those aren’t bad guesses. We mostly think that “humber” relates to Latin “shadow” and thus means “dark river” – but it could also be from a proto-Celtic word that we think meant “river.” Still, I don’t know what “River Barrel” means, especially since “barrel” would almost assuredly have to be a cask. Perhaps a name for a particular pool of water? I’ve no idea.

    You’re right about the Snotterston rock, though.

    I imagine that you’re trying to see how John of W’s “Humber” actually refers to the Wirral area rather than today’s Humber. That would, of course, be pretty darn cool. At the same time, I have to say that it’s unlikely. John of W refers to “Humber” multiple times, and in every other instance we know he’s talking about today’s Humber. The simple Occam’s Law explanation for John of W, as Cavill neatly shows in the Casebook (pp. 337-39), is that he didn’t know where B’burh was and just assumed it was in Northumbria because that’s where so many related engagements occurred.

    An equivalent would be if someone 200 years from now was writing about Civil War battles here in the USA and came across reference to the important Battle of Glorieta Pass. Not knowing where this was located, a person might reasonably assume it happened somewhere in the east part of the country since that’s where most of the Civil War action occurs. This would be a mistake (Glorieta Pass happened in New Mexico of all places!) but an understandable one. John of W wasn’t trying to mislead anyone, I don’t think; he was trying his best and just got it wrong. It happens.

    Again, if you can show that his Humber points to the Wirral, that’d certainly be nifty. I just don’t happen to think it’s likely or even necessary.

    And for what it’s worth I don’t think it will change Wood’s mind, at least. I’m rather confident in suspecting that he didn’t even bother to read our Casebook when he “reviewed” it for BBC History (at least, he shows no shred of evidence for having opened it). He’s just entrenched by ego at this point, with the not-to-be-dismissed fact that he has a side business preaching a B’burh-in-your-backyard notion to folks in Lincolnshire.

  25. We mostly think that “humber” relates to Latin “shadow” and thus means “dark river”

    My appetite remains whetted Michael !

    The River Douglas was once the major inflow/outflow of the lost ‘Martinmere’. It is believed that the name stems form gaelic ‘Dubh Glais’ – Dark River. The name Martinmere itself is a bit of a roundabout name derived from the OE Meretun – ‘settlement by the mere’, which begs the question, what was the original name of the mere ?
    Something you mentioned earlier Michael regarding ON dynja ‘hammer’ got me thinking about a name I had come across whilst researching Martinmere. There is a raised expanse of land near Burscough (a village alongside the lost mere) that is currently known as Batloom. In the early 16thc the name is given as Battleholme or Batelholme. Obviously, the second element would be holm/holmr – island, but what of the first element ? I scoured throgh Bosworth Toller, and the closest possible ‘match’ I could find was OE býtl, býtla – hammer. Would this not have been pronounced something like bittle/bietle ?

    There is still a long way to go along this line of research Michael. I am awaiting receipt of a book on Martinmere – Lancashires lost lake. If I find anything of further interest – I’ll certainly post here.

    Btw, I really like your suggestion of ‘pool’ for Barell. There are several mentions of ‘The Old Pool’ or Otter Pool’ in some of the historical articles pertaining to the mere. I initially thought that maybe the Barell may have been a channel marker (buoy?) or something of that nature.

    Best wishes,
    Mick

  26. History really is fun. Still don’t think this will all add up to anything, but I’d be happy to be wrong!

    Just off the top of my head, I think OE bytla would be more likely to develop to something like “beetle” than “battle,” but one cannot dismiss non-linguistic forces at work.

    Just to give you more fun things to play with, martinmere is obviously martin+mere ‘water’. The simplest etymology of the first element is that it comes from the name “Martin,” which is common enough (see, e.g., Martinmas) and so extremely sensible. Your suggestion of a source merton is just possible linguistically, though that would mean that the water was named for the town that’s named in reference to the waterbody (mere+town+mere), which is strange and without evidence. As another linguistic oddity, though, the –tin– element could be garbled –tun-, which refers to a barrel of all things. Perhaps a connection to the Humbar Barell somehow?

  27. Hi Michael,

    See below from Ekwalls Placenames of Lancashire.

    124 WEST DERBY HUNDRED
    Marton or Martin (old manor) : Merretun DB, Mertona c 1190 Ch, a 1264 LPD
    II. 199, Marton 1235 LF. O.E. meretun
    “the tun by the mere.” Marton was
    situated at the now drained lake of Martin Mere
    ( : Merton Mere 1396 SC, Marton
    Mere 1546 LF, Merton meere 1577 Harr.).

    Your -tun- / barell suggestion needs further exploration Michael 🙂

    Regards,
    Mick

  28. Michael,

    I am beginning to wonder if this is another Othlynn !

    I suspect now that the deed may have been mistranslated back in the 16thc. Maybe for example, Humbar Tun (farm/enclosure) was interpreted as Humbar Tunne (barrel/cask) ?
    If this was the case, then there remains the possibility that the Humbar element was also a misinterpretation as it would seem that the person who carried out the translation did not recognise the place name ?

    Mick

  29. Mick’s great sleuthing has now found a great reference to the “Humber Barrel,” in Lex Mercatoria Rediviva.

    Mystery solved, I think.

    Back to the Wirral. 🙂

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  31. But what if we place Brunanburh on eastern shores? Anlaf and his army would then have to travel at least a thousand miles farther by boat. Their chances of shipwreck, separation, interception, and ruination by disease all go up dramatically. Their chances at surprise plummet. In addition to the added time it would take to sail those many miles even under the assumption of perfect sailing weather — which they could not know they’d have and which is statistically unlikely for the time of year, I imagine — there would be the added time it would take for the greater logistical problems. There is a vast difference, after all, between a straight shot across the Irish Sea — in which the prevailing winds will likely get you there whether you like it or not — and the kind of navigation necessary to go south or north all the way around Britain to reach a place like the Humber (see Armada, Spanish). Add it all together and, well, if it is just believable that Anlaf’s army could make it from Lough Ree to the west of England in less than two months, it is simply not believable to think he went from Lough Ree to Lincolnshire or Yorkshire

    I have recently finished reading a study of King Alfred, written by John Peddie (OBE, MC) The book is called Alfred – Warrior King. Peddie discusses at length the capabilities of the Viking longships – based on the Gokstad discovery in 1880.

    “Under sail the vessels were reputed to be able to achieve maximum speeds of 10-11 knots and to travel some 150 miles per day. They had a high rating for seaworthiness. In 1893, an exact replica of the Gokstad ship was sailed across the North Atlantic by Captain Magnus Andersen and despite encountering very heavy seas, he completed the journey between Norway and Newfoundland in a remarkable twenty-seven days”

    By my calculations Michael, the journey from Dublin to the Humber could have been done in less than a week. Maybe we should not overlook this very important factor when considering the validity of JoW account.

    Mick

    • Still don’t know why you’re so desperate to defend the increasingly indefensible, Mick.

      Brunanburh wasn’t off the Humber.

      That said, I’ll try to write something up about your objection here. I’m working on an article on the subject, so I should be able to cobble it together pretty quickly.

  32. Brunanburh wasn’t off the Humber.

    I believe it was Michael and furthermore, I am also in the process of constructing an article that should be hopefully completed before long.

    Today, I intend to travel to the area I have identified and take some photographs and make additional notes.

    Could be a big one this Michael – Publish and be damned 🙂

    Best regards,
    Mick

  33. Ive just found Brunanburh by the way

    This Viking coin was found at Curedale

    http://www.yorkcoins.com/h1411_%E2%80%93_viking_england,_danelaw,_%E2%80%9Corsnaforda%E2%80%9D_type,_imitating_alfred_the_grea.htm

    The moneyer is Bernvald, also called Burnvald on similar coins.

    Orsnaford is Heasanford in Burnley.

    The Danish name for Brunanburh would have been Bernanburh, with the Angl-Saxons changing it to Brunanburh. Both languages remained in Burnley’s naming by the was – Brunlea & Burnlea

    Curedale turned up masses of coins minted in York, & Burnley lies slap bang on the Dublin-Ribble-Humber line.

    x

    damo

    • Damo,

      The Cuerdale Hoard can have nothing to do with Brunanburh. Those coins had been in the ground for decades when the battle was fought. And Orsnaford is Oxford.

      That said, a Lancashire location is to my mind the most likely candidate for Brunanburh outside of the Wirral. Burnley in particular has a lot going for it, as you know (though see Cavill’s essay in the Casebook, p. 331, on the question of its etymology; also, that of Brunanburh itself). When I initially got into these matters, in fact, Burnley-as-Brunanburh was the leading theory in my mind. Like all theories, though, it was tested against the evidence and found not to fit the facts quite as neatly as Bromborough.

      While I am now of the opinion that Bromborough was Brunanburh, therefore, I do think it is possible that the Great Battle was preceded by a campaign with several smaller engagements. If that is so, then it is rather likely that a battle associated with Brunanburh (possibly even the Godric and Alfgar confrontation from Egilssaga) was fought near Burnley. (See my own introductory essay, where I note this on page 18.)

  34. As usual, the ‘West coast’ theorists simplify the debate and over-rely on etymology.

    It’s well known that Dublin vikings- who always aimed at re-taking York before and since Athelstan took it from them- used the river Ribble from Dublin to reach York, and vice versa.

    The fleets of King Edgar, in the 960’s, sailed regularly around the north Scottish coasts when patrolling.

    The Cuerdale hoard was found near it’s banks.

  35. @Johnny Who are you responding to? It sounds like you yourself are supporting a “West coast” theory — just the Lancashire track instead of the Wirral one. (Damo and Mick and Michael Wood want the battle off the east coast, via the Humber.)

    As for your points: yes, the Dublin Vikings used the Ribble; yes, Edgar patrolled the coasts; yes, the Cuerdale Hoard was near the Ribble. All true.

    These are potential pieces to the puzzle, and they should not be disregarded. At the same time, these general facts cannot be proven to have any bearing on the specific event of Brunanburh. The location argument cannot therefore begin and end with them. There are many more pieces in play, most importantly including the sources themselves.

    For what it’s worth, that’s why the identification question (to me) is a side-issue to the casebook: the real point of the book is to give researchers easy access to all the evidence we have. At least that’s what I set out to do.

    As for the etymology issue: I’m sorry that it doesn’t appear to support the preconception that you (and others) might want for the battle. But to accuse the Wirral camp of over-relying on perhaps the one fact we can be sure relates to the Battle of Brunanburh — that it happened at Brunanburh! — strikes me as a difficult position to defend.

    But maybe that’s just me. 🙂

  36. I was born and bred in the Wigan area.
    All the above is facinating.
    The reference to the River Douglas grabbed my attention.
    I believe that the battle was fought on the Wirral, it makes sense.
    The local traditon in Wigan has it that Wigan means “place of battles” or “fights”.
    I read in a book from the local library that “Wig” meant “fight”and “an” made it plural ?
    It also said that King Arthure fought 4 of his 12 battles on the banks of the “Dubh Glas”(Douglas) or “black water”.
    In 1651, a battle was fought north of Wigan called the Battle of Wigan Lane.
    The battle is commonly known as the “Battle of the Bloody Mountains”.
    The “Bloody Mountains” is a grand description of the high sided banks of the River Douglas north of the town.
    I have read somewhere that in fact the area was known as the “Bloody Mountains” before the battle.
    If so, then it could have been named after a much older battle.
    On the opposite side of the river to the scene of the 1651 battle, there are similar steep banks.
    That area is known as Bottling Wood.
    As far as I am aware there has never been any connection with bottles etc. in that area.
    I did read that it is possibly a corruption of “Battling”.
    If there was any connectio with the area around the River Douglas/Martin Mere etc. and by extension Wigan, then I find it interseting that the “plaines of Othlyn” are refered to in theBattle of Brunanburh.
    I can see in the word Othlyn the word “Lyn” which is possibly a corruption of the Welsh “LLyn” for lake or pool.
    But Otlyn is also similar to Bottling or as it is pronounced locally “Bottlin”.
    Although Bottling Wood is on the crest of the steep side of the Douglas, the land from then on is relatively flat.
    Of course Wigan is on the A49, the old Watling Street.
    The road from the South crossed the Mersey and travelled North via Wigan, Preston and Lancaster to the Scottish border.
    Other armies travelling to and from Scotland have past through Wigan due to it`s location.
    In fact, the Earl of Derby wo fought at the battle in 1651 landed near to the River Ribble himself before marching South.
    Could it be that one of the battles you refered to prior to Brunanburh was fought against the Scots en-route to meet their allies, near Wigan ?
    A secong Roman Road ran from Wigan to Manchester.
    The angle formed between that road and the A49 to the North nof that road would be close to Bottling Wood.
    Could the “plaines of Othlyn” be the area around Bottling Wood ?
    Probably not, more likely then area around Otterspool on the North Bank of thr Mersey not too far from “Dingle”.

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