Sunday, 26 September 2010

Brunanburh - where was it fought?

Fought in 937ad between King Athelstan of Wessex's possible army of 16,000 Wessex/Mercian army against an alliance of perhaps 18,000 of Celts and Norsemen (suggests Burne) who were resentful at being subdued and overawed by that English king, comprised of:-
  • Scots (under King Constantine); 
  • Strathclyde 'Britons' (under King Owain); 
  • Norse-Irish (under King Olaf Guthfrithsson)
and possibly men from-
  • The Orkneys?
  • Northumbria/Cumbria?
  • Jorvik (Norsemen)?
  • Wales or Cornwall?
The location of this colossal bloodbath has never been agreed upon by archaeologists, scholars or professional historians (or amateur ones!) and no evidence has been found.

Two main schools of thought (if we accept the battlesite being in the probable region along the Danelaw/Mercian region - today's Liverpool to Hull?) usually divide themselves on the issue of where the Norse and Scottish fleet/army landed - 

The West coast landing (Mersey area);
For-This coast was the nearest to the Irish Sea from Dublin and would make for a mercifully short sea voyage during late campaigning season.
Against-This coast was too near the strategic fortress burhs that Edward and Aethelflaed had had recently built on the northern-most Mercian border in the late 910's and early 920's.

The East coast landing (The Humber);
For-The Humber was a traditional point of entry for ambitious or raiding viking warlords sailing from Scandinavia- or Ireland.
The age-old route for foreign traders with the major economic city of Jorvik (York)
Against-A huge detour around the north of Scotland for seabound vikings invading from Ireland.

From here the Hiberno-Norse armies presumably linked up and proceeded to raid across the Danelaw boundary, then known to be in the region of today's Doncaster and Sheffield.
Various sites for the battle proposed over the years so far have ranged from possibly 'Burnswark' (S.E of Lockerbie), to Bromborough/Bebington on Merseyside. Others have suggested Bridgenorth, the SW of England or the Lancashire coast and even Scotland!

However, according to David Smurthwaite:-

‘it seems inconceivable that the battle was fought north of the border, particularly if we accept that Olaf landed on the Humber.’

This may rule out any proposed sites more northerly than that river, as why would Olaf march NORTH to link up with his allies (Constantine heading south from 'Scotland' and Owain from Strathclyde) and march back in a southerly direction against Athelstan's advancing army- his northern-most boundary being around the Rotherham region- and where his father had recieved the submission of such foes only years before?).

And it was known that the allies did not penetrate deeply into Mercia, if at all.

Michael Wood, in his book 'In Search of England', makes the case for Brinsworth/Catcliffe, between Sheffield & Rotherham, where local legend mentions a 'Scots army' that camped on Templeborough (an old local Roman fort).;-

"...In the third part of In Search of England, Wood writes about places that illuminate interesting aspects of early England: Tinsley Wood, near Sheffield, which has been claimed as the site of Athelstan's great victory against the Celts in 937; ... These are the places and events that offer a complementary version of the history that is discussed earlier in the book..."

AH Burne also suggests the mid-'England' site, near Sheffield, as the most likely Brunanburh battle-site. Assuming the alliance was to capture London, the old Roman 'great north road' of eastern Britain would be a natural path.

When John Porter in his ‘History of the Fylde of Lancashire’ recorded the find of hundreds of human bones on the River Wyre side at Burnaze between Thornton and Fleetwood, he mentioned that Burnaze was once called 'Brune'. With ancient maps also revealing the ‘Bergerode’ was also in this area.

Egil Skallagrimsson- an Icelandic poet/warrior in Athelstan's pay, who fought at the battle- states that the battlefield was described as having been fought on a heath between a large wood and a river, which must have been on the left of the battlefield from the point of view of Athelstan's army, the wood on their right, as they lined up against their foes.
Hence the site of the battle should ideally be sought on the east bank of a river that flows north/south or south/north on land belonging to the English. 

The alliance was faced by Athelstan and, after a titanic day-long (some sources mention 2 days) struggle, severely beaten and routed so severely that there is mention of the enemy being 'cut down' by English horsemen far from the field.