Daily Archives: February 10, 2015

Brunanburh, 937 AD (pt 7)


Part 7 – Geopolitics

If however that famous city has ever existed, and I might swear to it that it has existed, then the mount in which I am digging must necessarily have been its acropolis. Albert Schliemann

(On mount Hissarlik in the Plain of Troy – 26th April 1872)


sunset 2


Its been a pleasant enough weekend in Burnley,  a last minute, reflex goal-line save from Tom Heaton helped the Clarets to stem their recent frustrating capitulations. Against Spurs in the cup & Palace at home, they’d raced into an early 2-0 lead, only to lose 2-5 & -23 respectively, the latter to a  bitter rival in the relegation dog-fight. Going into Sundays lunch time kick off we were level on points with West Brom, & we still are now, & one point clear of the drop-zone… its gonna be an exciting end to the season, that’s for sure.


Ive also been moving into my own wee ‘weavers cottage’ in Burnley. Ive been floating about since December, & came to the conclusion that with me being able to run the Mumble from anywhere in the world really, I can spend a bit of time with my family & my football team. Its also a great chance to unscatter my library & get it all in the same place.  I’ve chosen the district of Healey Wood, a Neptune’s trident like sequence of terraced streets with wonderful moorland behind & the town sprawled like a painting below.  here’s some photos, with mi best pal Nicky helping me clean up the kitchen!

healey wood


view from h wood


The famous 'Mist Over Pendle' - trust me, the hills under that cloud
The famous ‘Mist Over Pendle’ – trust me, the hills under that cloud




The moors behind my house - great musing territory
The moors behind my house – great musing territory

So where were we? Well, Brunanburh-wise we were last at Emmot estate in 927, witnessing the kings of Britain swear fealty to Athelstan as the supreme capo di capo, the top maharajaja of the island. A decade later, Constantine et al returned to Emmot with a massive army hoping to turn the tables on Athelstan, but what happened inbetween? Firstly, Athelstan grew stronger, conquering Cornwall & clearing up the British ghetto at Exeter, replacing their hovels with a great cathedral. Next came the Welsh, who despite being relatively independent, were still held at Athelstan’s beck & call. William of Malmesbury tells us;

He compelled the rulers of the northern Welsh, that is, of the North Britons, to meet him at the city of Hereford, and after some opposition to surrender to his power. So that he actually brought to pass what no king before him had even presumed to think of : which was, that they should pay annually by way of tribute, twenty pounds of gold, three hundred of silver, twenty-five thousand oxen, besides as many dogs as he might choose



In 934, the seeds of the Brunanburh battle really began to push their vernal shoots into the soil of reality, for Athelstan invaded Scotland. His reasons for doing so are obscure, but according to the Chronicle of Melrose, ‘Constantine broke the bond of the treaty,’ they made at Eamotun. What triggered off the events of this cataclysmic year was the death of the Viking King of Dublin, which was clearly not very nice at all.

Gothfrith, king of the foreigners, died of a most painful disease (Chronica Scotorum)

Godfrey, king of Danes, died a filthy & ill-favoured Death (Annals of Ulster)

On Guthfrith’s death, Analf crowned king of the Dublin Vikings. His new-found status was sealed by a rapid marriage to Constantine’s daughter – the beginnings of an alliance between the Vikings & the Scots that would manifest itself later at Brunanburh. This act of defiance would have infuriated a probably arrogant Aethalstan. Giving an overlord your fealty contains a sub-clause which promises not to marry off your children to your master’s enemies. It was time Athelstan taught his erring subject a lesson.

Aethelstan, the brave king of the English, went to Scotland with a powerful fleet and a large army of cavalry (Florence of Worcester)

Athelstan’s force was something of a Cromwellian New Model Army, an unstoppable military machine, that marched into Scotland & swept all before it. We have an idea of the make-up this force, for on 28th May 934, at Winchester, & the 7th June at Nottingham, there was a great gathering of bishops, earls & ealdormen, signatory witnesses to land-grant charters granted by Aethalstan. These were;

The Archbishop of Canterbury,
The Archbishop of York,
Hywel, Idwal, Morgan
The latter three were all sub-kings of Wales, with Hywel Dda being the most important. This shows that the Welsh were probably marching north with Aethalstan. That Aethalstan could command such a grand coalition was made clear by the Nottingham Charter mentioned above, where he was styled as the, ‘King of the English, elevated by the right hand of the Almighty, which is Christ, to the throne of the whole kingdom of Britain.’

On his journey north, Symeon of Durham tells us Athelstan, ‘came to the tomb of St.Cuthbert [Chester-le-Street], commended himself and his expedition to the protection of the saint, bestowed on him many and divers gifts becoming a king, and lands; delivering to the torments of eternal fire whoever should take away any of these from him.’ He had the tomb opened & took a bone relic from it to hang around his neck. Here we must enter the mind-set of Kings. Aethalstan would have known that Ecgrith of Nortumbria had gone against Cuthbert’s advice in the Nechtansmere campaign, with murderous consequences. The saint had even had a holy vision of that king’s death. In order to appease the saint it appears that Aethalstan was willing to lavish all the resources & power he had on the tangible reliquary of that divine soul. After spending a night by the saints tomb, he had it opened, where he took a bone relic & put it in a – around his neck. In fact, he loved the memory of Cuthbert so much that he told his younger brother that if he died on the expedition, he was to be buried at Chester-le-Street.


St Cuthbert's Tomb
St Cuthbert’s Tomb

The next port of call was Dunbar, East Lothian, where Walter Bower’s records, ‘in fighting against the Scots he asked god through the prayer of saint John that he would show some clear sign by which present & future generations could realise that the Scots were justly subject to the English. So the king struck as certain craggy rock near Dunbar castle with his sword by whose stroke the cliff was hallowed out to the depth of an ell & this can be seen to the present day.’

Dunbar is perched by the Firth of Forth, & after sending his navy further north to harry Caithness, Athelstan went on the rampage through Scotland. The annals give us details of his campaign;

 Aethelstan, the brave king of the English, went to Scotland with a powerful fleet and a large army of cavalry, and laid waste the greater part thereof (Florence of Worcester)

Adalstan preyed & spoiled the kingdom of Scotland to Edenburrogh (Annals of Clonmacnoise)

He then subdued his enemies, laid waste to Scotland as far as Dunfoeder & wertermorum with a land force, & ravaged with a naval force as far as Caithness & in a great measure depopulated it (Symeon of Durham)

Despite the Annals of Clonmacnoise implying, ‘the Scottishmen compelled him to return without any great victory,‘ the result of the expedition was still a great humbling for Constantine, who was forced to make terms, & according to Roger de Hoveden, ‘being compelled so to do, gave up his son to him as a hostage, together with suitable presents; and the peace being thus renewed, the king returned to Wessex.’ The next year (935) saw a deepening of Constantine’s shame. The Scottish King was a witness to a diploma made at Cirencester, where another signatory was Owen of Strathclyde. This was the last time these three men would be in the same ‘room’ until Brunanburh, now only two years away.

 The tension would have been palable, to which was now added the volatile ambitions of Analf. By the winter of 936-937, a flurry of messengers were sailing the seas & riding the hills all over the northern Europe.  A great confederation of nations was being formed in order to strike a fat blow against the English. the Where the Croyland Chronicle tells us, ‘Constantine, king of the Scots, and Eugenius, king of the Cumbrians, and an infinite multitude of other barbarian kings and earls entered into a strict confederacy with the said Anlaf.’ Egil’s Saga states, ‘now they thought was the easiest time to claim back their own, when a young king ruled the realm. These were Britons, Scots, and Irish.

Their opponent, Athelstan, was no fool, & began to react to these martial stirrings in the north. It seems he was on the look out for mercenaries, one of which was Egil Skallagrimsson, star of the great saga by Snorri Sturlsson, which states;

 King Athelstan therefore gathered him an army, and gave pay to all such as wished to enrich themselves, both foreigners and natives. The brothers Thorolf and Egil were standing southwards along Saxony and Flanders, when they heard that the king of England wanted men, and that there was in his service hope of much gain. So they resolved to take their force thither. And they went on that autumn till they came to king Athelstan. He received them well; he saw plainly that such followers would be a great help. Full soon did the English king decide to ask them to join him, to take pay there, and become defenders of his land. They so agreed between them that they became king Athelstan’s men. They had three hundred men with them who took the king’s pay.




The King also began to prepare his northern border, dismantling the defences of York in order to prevent the recently conquered Viking community there from breaking out into open rebellion. To defend the city, Athelstan placed in command two loyal Viking earls, of whom the saga states;

…the one named Alfgeir, the other Gudrek. They were set there as defenders of the land against the inroads of Scots, Danes, and Norsemen, who harried the land much, and though they had a strong claim on the land there, because in Northumberland nearly all the inhabitants were Danish by the father’s or mother’s side, and many by both. 


The scene is set for the greatest battle ever to have been fought on British soil. In Scotland the knives were sharpening, warriors are in training, horses are being reared. Constantine & & his kinsman, king Owen of the Northern Welsh, were preparing for their date with destiny. They would have been confident, energized by the vigour & confidence of this young Viking king from Dublin. His spirit was spreading all across the Viking Nation, from Denmark to Greenland, awakening the primal warrior in the Viking soul. A battle was coming & at stake was the island of Britain. Athelstan knew this, & was doing all he could to raise a big enough army to handle the imminent onslaught of the Confederacy. Forget the Spanish Amarda. Forget Napoleon at Bolounge in 1805. Forget, even, the Battle of Britain. This was the big one.

Thus, inevitably arrived that fateful year of 937. The British Isles, so perfectly in synch with the seasons, had yielded its snowdrops & daffodils of late winter, the wild flowers of May, & the Roses of Summer. Athelstan watched them bloom & go, & still there had been no invasion. Perhaps all the rumours he had been hearing of the Confederacy were ill-founded, & so he began to relax, determined to enjoy what was left of the summer. Little did he realise that over in Ireland Analf, ‘this bold youth, meditating unlawful conquests (William of Malmesbury), was beginning his campaign. Analf was the Bonnie Prince Charlie of the dark ages. He was young & with that comes the reckless impetuoisty of youth. He felt that the Viking kingdom of Jorvik was his by birthright. We can imagine him growing up in Dublin, his father growing increasingly bitter at the loss of Northumbria. & it is likely that as his father lay dying he would have sworn to restore the kingdom. Now, three years later, he was ready on his date with destiny.

So, with the Irish Vikings instigating Brunanburh, it would be best to look at their ‘native’ records first. The wonderful inter-related family of historical documents known as the Irish Chronicles give a few more details as to the events of 937. In chronological order, those seminal events proceeded as;

The Danes of Loghrie, arrived at Dublin. Awley with all the Danes of Dublin and north part of Ireland departed and went over seas. (Annals of Clonmacnoise)

The foreigners deserted Ath-cliath (Dublin)by the help of God and Mactail (Annals of the Four Masters)

The Danes that departed from Dublin arrived in England (Annals of Clonmacnoise)

Amhlaeibh Cuaran went to Cair-Abroc; and Blacaire, son of Godfrey, came to Ath-cliath (Annals of the Four Masters)

By the help of the Danes of that kingdom, they gave battle to the Saxons on the plaines of othlyn, where there was a great slaughter of Normans and Danes (Annals of Clonmacnoise)

A great, lamentable and horrible battle was cruelly fought between the Saxons and the Norsemen, in which several thousands of Norsemen, who are uncounted, fell, but their king, Amlaíb, escaped with a few followers. A large number of Saxons fell on the other side, but Athelstan, king of the Saxons, enjoyed a great victory. (Annals of Ulster)

A victory was gained by the King of the Saxons over Constantine, son of Aedh; Anlaf, or Amhlaeibh, son of Sitric; and the Britons (Annals of the Four Masters)

These ensueing captaines were slaine, viz. Sithfrey and Oisle, 2 sones of Sithrick, Galey, Awley ffroit, and Moylemorrey the sonn of Cosse “Warce, Moyle Isa, Gebeachan king of the Islands, Ceallagh prince of Scottland with 30000 together with 800 captives about Awley m’Godfrey, and abbot of Arick m’Brith, Iloa Deck, Imar, the king of Denmarks owen son with 4000 souldiers in his guard were all slaine. Conyng m’cNealle Glunduffe Died (Annals of Clonmacnoise)




That’s quite a lot of info, really, amidst which is a real game-changer. Where the Annals of the Four Masters state that, ‘Amhlaeibh Cuaran went to Cair-Abroc,’ we gain clear evidence that Analf was in York, for that city was known as Ebraucum to the Romans & Caer Ebrauc to the Britons. Now then, this little nugget has been missed by everyone – a vital piece of evidence that places the Viking leadership at Brunanburh in York. With them being the attacking force, Burnswark & Lanchester should be immediately precluded, for they both lie many mles to the North. It also sounds the death-knell for the Bromborough theory, which is really based on the Irish landing on the Wirral. That they were in York is anathaemic to the theory, but I’m afraid Wirral-folks, this & other sources have the main body of the Vikings enter in the east, such as Florence (John) of Worcester, who penned;

 Anlaf, the Pagan king of Ireland and many other isles, at the instigation of his father-in-law Constantine, king of the Scots, entered the mouth of the Humber with a powerful fleet.

 Anlaf, the pagan king of Ireland and of many of the islands, being encouraged by his father-in-law, Constantine, king of the Scots, entered the mouth of the Humber with a vast fleet, amounting to six hundred and fifteen sail (Roger de Hovedon)


This is what Michael Livingston, editor of the Brunanburh Casebook, had to say  about the Humber entry;

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.  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!


Of the Wirral Set’s stance, the very erudite Michael Wood writes, “…to take one key example, John of Worcester (c1122) says the Viking fleet landed in the Humber: his very circumstantial account appears verbatim in six northern annals of the 12th century and clearly derives from pre-conquest Northumbria. That this is good evidence has been accepted by most leading authorities over the last 200 years. To reject it therefore needs good reason.’ It was watching Michael Wood’s early eighties ‘In Search of Troy’ DVD box-set I got from East Linton library back in 2007 that got me into literary archeology in the first place, by the way.


Eight years later, I’ve validated my interest in the field by uncovering the hitherto un-noticed fact that Analf was at York. This completely devalues the  Casebook, which should now be considered as a book in two halves – an excellent collection of Brunanurh records (albeit without the Annals of the Four Masters) & a completely misguided set of essays placing the battle on the Wirral. They should have really looked at all the evidence, & futurity should see the Casebook as a case of the most sloppiest erudition.




Walter Bower - Scotichronicon


Symeon of durham – Historia regum Anglorum et Dacorum

Florence of Worcester – chronicon ex chronicis

Roger de Hovedon – Chronica