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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The site must be associated with navigable waters. While Norse longships had shallow drafts, not just any little creek or stream will do.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!