IN AD 937 ONE Or THE MOST DECISIVE battles in British history was fought, between the army of the English king, Athelstan, and the combined forces of Causantin mac Aeda, king of Alba, Owain, king of Strathclyde and Anlaf Guthfrithson, Viking king of Dublin. The English victory confirmed Athelstan's supremacy in Britain and his political and military achievement in creating an English monarchy. But where did the battle take place? In the absence of firm evidence, many suggestions have been made. In recent years the claims of the Wirral as the site of the long-lost battlefield of Brunanburh have received much attention but this identification may be misplaced.
The name Brunanburh is one of several given in early sources and until recently there was little agreement as to the modern identity of the site. The battlefield's location appears to have been lost at a relatively early date but from the nineteenth century it became a topic of enthusiastic antiquarian debate. More than thirty possible sites were suggested, mostly on the basis of scant evidence, dubious methodology and local bias--with the result that the search became discredited and all but abandoned.
Interest in the question was reawakened in the early 1980s by Michael Wood's BBC series In Search of the Dark Ages, which suggested Brinsworth in South Yorkshire. Wood and other historians proposed a context for the battle that suggested a location in the Northumbrian-Mercian borderlands as one episode in the struggle between Dublin and Wessex to control the Danish kingdom of York. A natural consequence of this was the assumption that the location of the campaign was determined by the aims, strategy and actions of the Viking leader, Anlaf Guthfrithson.
In 1997 N.J. Higham published a critique of Wood's 'eastern theory' and suggested that the site was in the west, at Bromborough on the Wirral. With some important modifications his hypothesis adopted the basic context outlined above but Bromborough had one important advantage over most other proposed sites: spellings of the name in medieval charters suggested an Old English form Brunanburh. Today, the balance of opinion has swung behind the Cheshire town and a local golf course has been proposed as the actual battlefield.
Yet the case for Bromborough has important weaknesses, a recent study noting, for example, that 'the historical argument sits uncomfortably at Bromborough.' Neither does the district fit the known topography of the battle site nor can any of the other variant names given to the battlefield by medieval chroniclers be identified in the locality.
In fact, I suggest, all modern accounts of Brunanburh are wrong on three important counts. They propose the wrong context, they describe an imaginary campaign and they focus on the wrong form of the name.
The proposed context virtually ignores the political and territorial ambitions of the emerging kingdoms of Strathclyde, in southwest Scotland and Alba, north of the Clyde and Forth. At that period the political geography of Britain was very different and the Northumbrian province of Bernicia extended north of the Tees to encompass Lothian. The decline in the power of the Northumbrians in the early tenth century coinciding with the growing power of its northern neighbours had predictable consequences and from the mid-ninth century a succession of Scottish kings invaded Lothian while the Strathclyde Welsh sought to expand into English possessions along the Solway and the Eden valley. In 927 events took a dramatic turn. On the death of the Sihtric, king of York, Athelstan seized the opportunity to drive out the Dublin Vikings and annex the whole of Northumbria, transforming himself into Basileos Anglorum and his kingdom into a nascent English imperium. …