25 December 2010

Brunanburh, where was it fought?

Over 41 sites in mainland Britain have been proposed (listed in Hill's Age of Athelstan), ranging from Cornwall to Scotland, 20 in England alone.

Fought in 937ad between King Athelstan's 16,000 Wessex/Mercian army (numbers suggested by A.H.Burne) against an alliance of 18,000 Scots(under King Constantine); 'Britons' of Strathclyde(under King Owain); Irish and Jorvik Norsemen(under King Olaf Guthfrithsson) and most likely also some men from the isles and Northumbrian/Cumbrians.

The location of this colossal bloodbath has never been agreed upon by historians, various sites so far proposed 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, which was settled by Norsemen after 902.

However, according to 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 known that the allies did not penetrate deeply into Mercia, if at all.

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, the river must have been on the left of the battlefield from the point of view of Athelstan's army, the wood their right, as it lined up against their foes. Hence the site of the battle should be sought on the east bank of a river that flows north/south or south/north on land belonging to the English.

Michael Wood, in his book 'In Search of England', makes the case for Brinsworth near Rotherham;-

...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...


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.

However, this view does not take into account that when the Scots and 'Britons' fled the battlefield they would require a Roman road going north to take them back to Scotland. Only a lesser known Roman road between Manchester (Manacunium) and Carlisle provided that route.
Whilst the old ‘Bergerode’ between Fleetwood and Thornton would only lead them into the sea. Certainly no commander of Scots and Cumbrian Britons would put the sea between themselves and an escape route if they were compelled to initially arrive at the battle site by land.

In a Royal grant to Worcester, late in his reign (924-39) Athelstan himself refers to ‘Anlaf (Olaf) who tried to deprive me of both life and realm’ in 937.
The fact that the enemy “fell back” before Athelstan’s army prior to actual battle, suggests that they may have withdrawn to a site favourable to battle.

The Rotherham-Sheffield site suggested by Michael Wood, A.H.Burne and others is south of the confluence between the rivers Don and Rother (the latter snakes around White Hill), where there was a huge, strategic old Roman fort (during a “dark age Vietnam” as Wood says) on the top of White Hill near the old Roman road, called Brynesford in the DD Book of 1086.

In Anglo-Saxon times the fort at Templeborough (near Rotherham, a Roman fort built by the IV Gaul Cohort) was called Bruneswald or Brunesfort- the personal name of Brunan Burh, as M.Wood says, and –based upon Egil’s writings- he makes the case for Tinsley Forest (Tinsley is a district in the north-eastern part of Sheffield. Its name derives from the Old English Tingas-Leah, which means ‘Field of Council’. It is mentioned as ‘Tirneslawe’ or ‘Tineslawe’ in the Domesday Book of 1086 when it was in the possession of Roger de Busli.) being a landmark, now gone.

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