1 – Introduction
I have just taken my seat in the upper reaches of the National Library of Scotland, five hours before my train leaves Edinburgh for Lancashire & Burnley. before me lie several books (see list at bottom), in which I hope to find some last minute crystal to sprinkle throughout my third, 18-part historical blockbuster of the winter : Brunanburh, 937 AD. The name is that of a long-thought-lost fortification, in whose vicinity was fought one of the most important battles in British history. It was fought somewhere in England, with the Anglo-Saxons, led by King Athelstan, facing off against a northern confederation of Scots, Picts & Cumbrians, who had allied themselves to the tenacious energy & drive off Analf, a Viking king based in Dublin who had also momentarily managed to unite the entire Viking world behind him . The result was a comprehensive victory for the Saxons, confirming the conquests made by Alfred the Great, which had been added to by Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan. Since then, the borders of Britain’s three nations have been more or less constant, & one could admit that the Battle of Brunanburh was the moment that the British Isles were truly born.
At the end of the above programme, Michael Wood flies above South Yorkshire in a helicopter looking a bit like David Hasslehoff in a pair of massive sunnys. Landing in a field near a place called Brinsworth, he proudly postulates that the great battle of Brunanburh was fought in that place. In later life he changed his mind, & the location of the Battlefield remains an antique mystery that, although not quite as famous as the Quest for the Holy Grail, has still tested the best of minds. The most recent effort was made by Andrew Breeze, who pushed a new candidate into the mix, Lanchester. His reasoning comes from the fact that there is a River Browney & a dark-age fortification in the area.
Andrew’s effort is yet another continuation of the tradition among Brunanburh theorists to speculate wildly upon one location, while ignoring the rest of the facts left to us by posterity. After reading this, Andrew even commented (see below) with;
I am Andrew Breeze, and do not think that I speculate, wildly or otherwise. I believe that I reach my conclusions by the use of coherent thought and consequent reasoning. Of those who dispute this, let us see not what they say, but what they can prove.
I, too, am a Brunanburh theorist, & for the past 4 & 1/2 years or so have been investigating the possibility that Brunanburh is somehow collected to Brunley, the oldest recorded name of my hometown, Burnley. Last year I made some crucial new discoveries, which have really fortified all my previous studies, & I now feel more-than-ready to thrash out my theory for an unsuspecting world. I say unsuspecting, because boy, by digging deep into the Brunanburh question I have answered several other mysteries, & I feel these next 18 posts will increase our knowledge of the Dark Ages no end. My investigations will also show how much undiscovered history can be contained in the philology of place-names, & as every new ‘coincidence’ racked up in favour of Burnley, I really felt the validation of my pioneering efforts in the new field of Chispology.
So, let us start at the beginning then, & the first mention of Brunanburh we get. This is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that wonderful storehouse of early English history without which the Dark Ages would have been even darker. The entry for 937 is actually one of the most famous pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the first, & best, of a series composed throughout the 10th century that celebrated the greatest deeds of the Anglo-Saxon Kings. Most entries in the ASC were written in rather mundane prose, but the rendering of certain events in poetry amplified their cultural importance, for it is only the Pegasus-flight of the poetic voice that can truly record the passions felt by nations at such times. It reads;
In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
in battle with sword edges
around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
The sons of Eadweard,
it was only befitting their noble descent
from their ancestors that they should often
defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
horde and home. The enemy perished,
Scots men and seamen,
fated they fell. The field flowed
with blood of warriors, from sun up
in the morning, when the glorious star
glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
eternal lord, till that noble creation
sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
by spears destroyed; Northern men
shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
weary, war sated.
The West-Saxons pushed onward
all day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
with swords sharp from the grinding.
The Mercians did not refuse hard hand-play to any warrior
who came with Anlaf over the sea-surge
in the bosom of a ship, those who sought land,
fated to fight. Five lay dead
on the battle-field, young kings,
put to sleep by swords, likewise also seven
of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army,
sailors and Scots. There the North-men’s chief was put
to flight, by need constrained
to the prow of a ship with little company:
he pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
on the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life.
Likewise, there also the old campaigner through flight came
to his own region in the north–Constantine–
hoary warrior. He had no reason to exult
the great meeting; he was of his kinsmen bereft,
friends fell on the battle-field,
killed at strife: even his son, young in battle, he left
in the place of slaughter, ground to pieces with wounds.
That grizzle-haired warrior had no
reason to boast of sword-slaughter,
old deceitful one, no more did Anlaf;
with their remnant of an army they had no reason to
laugh that they were better in deed of war
in battle-field–collision of banners,
encounter of spears, encounter of men,
trading of blows–when they played against
the sons of Eadweard on the battle field.
Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
The dejected survivors of the battle,
sought Dublin over the deep water,
over Dinges mere
to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.
Likewise the brothers, both together,
King and Prince, sought their home,
West-Saxon land, exultant from battle. – wessex
They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
the dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven
and the dusky-coated one,
the eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion,
greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
the wolf in the forest.
Never was there more slaughter
on this island, never yet as many
people killed before this
with sword’s edge: never according to those who tell us
from books, old wisemen,
since from the east Angles & Saxons came up
over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
glorious warriors they took hold of the land.
Let the games begin…
Last minute study list
The Viking Age in the Isle of Man – David M Wilson 1974
Skaldic Verse & Anglo-Saxon history – Alistair Campbell 1970
Wace’s Roman de Brut – – tr. Judith Weiss 2002
Cartularium Saxonicum (2) Walter De Gray Birch 1893