Posted by: kljolly | April 9, 2014

Brunanburh timeline

Now that I have worked out a rough draft of Aldred’s involvement in the battle of Brunanburh and some of the geography, I am encountering timeline difficulties.

In my draft narrative, I created a close sequence of events for Aldred encountering first one side and then the other within a matter of days, but I now realize that is too compressed.  Anlaf’s forces probably arrived on the coast in mid-September, harried a bit disrupting the harvest, and then met up with the Scots and Strathclyde kings coming south at some coordinated place, followed by the actual battle with Athelstan in early October.  So I need to stretch out Aldred’s encounter with the northern forces before taking him around to the other side with Athelstan and then to the battle.  This actually gives Aldred more time to read Boethius and interact with Northumbrian earl Oswulf, whom I am placing in a very ambivalent position.

Several points made in Michael Livingston’s Casebook introduction seem worth pursuing (pp. 14-19), even though I am going with the minority view that the battle took place north of the Ribble and not in the Wirral.

  • That Anlaf’s representative came over earlier to strategize with Constantine and Owain, and that the main forces landed later at a planned location on the west coast.
  • That the route southward of Constantine and Owain was along the Carlisle to Manchester Roman road through Lancashire (where I am placing the action).
  • That this strategic location in Lancashire offered access to York, Anlaf’s ultimate goal, via the Aire Gap through the Pennines, protected by Skipton.
  • That Athelstan was caught off guard by the invasion and took a while to respond for several reasons:  harvest-time, the location in the west rather than York, and uncertainty of the enemies’ movements.


Taking these as parameters, I have the following notions:

  • Anlaf with his main forces arrives at the Lune (Glasson) as observed by Aldred at Heysham, mid to late September.
  • Aldred is picked up at Heysham by his Strathyclyde cousin who was sent as an advance scout to meet Anlaf’s group and solidify arrangements to meet up with Constantine and Owain’s troops near Galgate.
  • Because the northern forces are delayed in coming south to meet them, Anlaf’s troops begin harrying the Cumbrian and Lancashire countryside for supplies–or, as Livingston argues, are they harrying across the English “border” to the south of the Ribble, prompting Athelstan’s response?
  • Currently, I have Aldred brought to the combined Scots and Strathyclyde camp with Anlaf already there at Galgate, where he encounters Earl Oswulf, but the timing is now off.   I could have Aldred’s cousin take him to Anlaf first for an encounter with the viking forces, then north to somewhere like Carlisle to meet Constantine and Owain as they start moving south, lengthening Aldred’s stay with them into a week rather than a day, during which time Aldred’s reading of Boethius to Oswulf could have some impact on the earl.
  • The northern forces and Anlaf’s band do meet up in Lancashire (Galgate or Garstang) and set out to meet Athelstan’s forces coming north, meeting for the battle somewhere north of the Ribble, early October. Here, as I have it now, Aldred escapes from the northern band as they march south (he goes eastward into fells along Wyre river), but gets picked up by some of Athelstan’s scouts and is questioned, meets my bad guy Seaxhelm, and eventually finds himself on the edge of the battle among the healers and clergy.

Is this making any sense?



Posted by: kljolly | March 25, 2014

Heysham and Brunanburh

At the risk of raising more discussion of the location of Brunanburh, I have another query about the infamous 937 battle:

Was Oswulf I earl of Bamburgh (fl. 934-66) there either on the side of Constantine mac Aeda et. al. or King Athelstan’s?

Bamburgh, seen from Lindisfarne

Bamburgh, seen from Lindisfarne

Oswulf certainly survives to betray Eric Bloodaxe last king of York in 954 (according to Roger of Wendover; cf. Rollason, Northumbria 300-1100, pp. 265-66).  In PASE, he may be Oswald 14 as well as Oswald 17.

Oswald 17 is noted as dux Bamburgh in charters of King Eadred (r. 946-55), so two kings after our battle.

But Oswald 14 dux (of what?) signs Athelstan charters in 930 (S406), 934 (S407, S425, S428), and supposedly 937 (S434, S435), although those two charters discussed earlier are now dated to 935, two years before our battle (see the easy to use Electronic Sawyer for these charters).

Oswulf’s attestations in 934 are significant.  That year King Athelstan returned to the north to settle matters with Scots king Constantine and Owain king of Strathclyde that he thought had been stabilized in 927 at the Eamont Bridge treaty with these two rulers and Oswulf’s predecessor at Bamburgh, Ealdred.  After Athelstan’s 934 victory over these northern kings (and his gifts to the community of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street), Constantine and Owain begin attesting as subkings in submission to Athelstan.  Oswulf’s appearance in 934 and 935 charters suggests he may be part of the group, or merely that he is already a loyal vassal to Athelstan.  Unfortunately, the northern kings’ submission does not last long, given the bloody battle at Brunanburh three years later.

So was Oswulf there and on whose side?

On another note, I have a few days this summer between conferences to visit Heysham and environs.  Any suggestions on B&Bs and places to visit, please send to my email.


Posted by: kljolly | March 20, 2014

Happy St. Cuthbert’s Day


Today is a propitious day to return to blogging, even as I realize my last post was over a month ago.  March 20 is St. Cuthbert’s feastday, and Lent as it is, we can celebrate his ascetic life and legacy.

I have hit a writer’s wall (partly built from semester teaching duties) in my effort to place the 19-year old Aldred at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937.  I am stuck at the place where the battle itself is beginning and how to visualize what Aldred would experience as a non-combatant.

BranaghHenryVWithout experience of such violence myself, and with a strong antipathy to graphic realism in film and print, I am not sure quite how to proceed.  In some ways I am writing against the glorification in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poem about the Battle of Brunanburh, and leaning more to the heroism and sadness found in the tone of Beowulf.

On the other hand, my mind’s eye recalls the realism of the battle of Agincourt in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V:  some scenes are so graphic I turn away, but at the end, the ironic (to me) singing of the Non nobis (not to us, O Lord, but to you be the glory) while walking among the dead, dying, and grieving is what I am picturing for Aldred.  Before that point, I am not sure where to place him in relation to the battle, which goes on all day, sunrise to sunset according the sources, and is the bloodiest on record.  Perhaps assisting clergy with the dead and dying, on one side or the other (or both).

Posted by: kljolly | February 8, 2014

Writing Historical Fiction

I have been writing chapters on Aldred for about two years and am beginning to reflect on the process as well as how to move forward.

My first stage of writing a new chapter starts from some text that Aldred copied, glossed, or might have read.  I imagine a scene or encounter linked to the text and then start exploring it until I reach some kind of conclusion or point where I seem to stop as the historian.

The second stage involves rethinking the whole thing on the rule of “show, don’t tell.”  This means I rewrite explanatory sections into dialogue or interior monologues, or anything but the teacher voice in me.  I may add characters or drama to bring it to life.

Here is where I usually stop, but feel the need to finish out the second stage by adding more sensory life:  sights, smells, sounds, touch, feelings beyond thoughts.

bedeHowever, I have a stage three in mind that I don’t know how to tackle, yet.  It has to do with language and spiritual depth.

On the language side of this equation, I find my prose dull, trite, uninspiring, not thought-provoking.  I enjoy writers with either a natural style of language that is deceptively simple and yet words well chosen and evocative (Tolkien) or those unusual combinations of words that stop you in your tracks (Pratchett, on the humor side at least).  Not that I want to sound like either of those authors, but I want my authorial voice to have some kind of richness, while staying close to the Old English environment of my characters and story.

For me, this language problem is tied to my goal to have some kind of spiritual depth, a book that makes you ponder life issues and truths (again, Tolkien, but not Harry Potter).  I need to dive deep but have not done so, yet.

I am also wondering if I might benefit from going to an intensive writing workshop or retreat, just to plumb those depths.  Two that came to my attention recently are: the Glen Workshop (the western one includes a favorite poet, Scott Cairns); and the Ecumenical Collegeville Institute at St. John’s College in Minnesota, where I took a sabbatical in 1995.

This summer’s plans are already in the works, including a visit to Aldred’s stomping grounds in England, but maybe next summer?

Posted by: kljolly | January 28, 2014

Back at the Chester-le-Street church

While I have been mucking around Brunanburh with a 19-year-old Aldred, Jonathan Jarrett’s blog has brought to our attention a fascinating article by John Blair that may shed some light on the dimensions of the wooden Chester-le-Street church (and redux) that I wrestled with last year.

Escomb Church, County Durham

Escomb Church, County Durham

Essentially, Blair’s work suggests a 15-foot (4.6 meter) perch or grid measure that is especially evident in Northumbrian Renaissance architecture.  Escomb is one example he uses, along with Wearmouth and Jarrow, all models I had considered for the Chester-le-Street church.

Escomb’s nave is a single width of three grids (15×45) interior and the chancel one grid exterior (thus smaller interior than the nave).  So you could build the wall either on the inside or the outside of the grid.  Hexham’s nave appears to be three grids wide and seven long, which gives us some sense of a larger monastic church.

Chester-le-Street might have been somewhere in between–maybe two grids wide (30 feet) by 5 long (75 feet) including the chancel (I had posited a separate chapel later conjoined with a smaller single celled church).   This grid implies a proportionality in the ratio of width to length.  Any thoughts on how that would work?

Posted by: kljolly | January 22, 2014

Aldred at Brunanburh

After a holiday break and getting settled into a new semester of classes, I am back on Aldred’s trail at the battle of Brunanburh, 937.

I have set him down at Heysham, where he is picked up by his Strathclyde cousin and taken to the camp of Constantine and Anlaf.  After refusing to fight (a 19 year old Northumbrian in clerical orders with ambivalent views about the rightness of either side), he skives off from the baggage train eastward into the fells, where he gets picked up by Athelstan scouts and dragged over to the other side’s camp.

So, I am thinking to have some churchman at Athelstan’s camp grab hold of this troublesome young man, but what is a likely name?  Off I went to PASE and the Electronic Sawyer, and found more puzzles in the charters.

First of all, three Malmesbury charters of Athelstan dated to 21 December 937 (S434, S435, S436) mention the land grants as for Athelstan’s cousins, Ælfwine and Æthelwine, who died at Brunanburh (according to 12th century sources).  But Keynes, et. al. say the date is spurious and the charters are from 935 (the texts do say the 11th year of Athelstan’s reign, which would be 935).  So was the dedication added just post-Brunanburh in 937, and if so why?

Second, another charter dated to 937 (S439) but thought spurious actually mentions that it was the year of the battle:  Anno siquidem incarnationis dominice . dcccc . xxxvii . qui precessit annum quo bellum celebre in Bruningafelda factum fuit.  This at least shows a backward looking effort to link the battle to land grants.

Third, an interesting character shows up in some of the Athelstan charter witness lists, “bishop Seaxhelm,” in one instance called “bishop of St. Cuthbert’s” (S436).  This has to be a reference to the bishopric of Lindisfarne located at Chester-le-Street, but I don’t recall seeing this terminology used (plus the bishop at this date is Wigred, 928-944).

PASE identifies three Seaxhelms, but questions if the first two might be the same (e.g., the abbot became a bishop in 934):

  • Seaxhelm 1:   (e/m x) Abbot, 931×934.  S412, S416, S417, S418, S418a.  In several of these, Bishop Wigred (PASE Wigred 4), also signs.
  • Seaxhelm 2:   (m x) Bishop, fl. 934-937.  S425 (also signed by Wigred in 934 but none later), S434, S436 (where Seaxhelm is styled bishop of St. Cuthbert’s)
  • Seaxhelm 3:   (m x) d. 947; Bishop of Lindisfarne for six months in 947.  This Seaxhelm is described by Symeon of Durham (LDE, II:19), as thoroughly disreputable, but the date is not secure.

I find it very tempting to put a Seaxhelm at the battle of Brunanburh in Athelstan’s camp, just because of the Chester-le-Street and Cuthbert connection.  But which Seaxhelm?

Wouldn’t it be fun to associate the bad Seaxhelm 3 with someone claiming to be a “bishop of St. Cuthbert’s” in 935-937, when Wigred is not around?  But one has to assume that the Seaxhelm 2 signing S436 is also the Seaxhelm in S434 (but curiously not in S435) since they are part of a set of 3 charters done together in 935.  Given the addition of the cousins’ deaths, the “of St. Cuthbert’s” could have been added at the same time, either in 937 right after the battle, or arguably much later in the surviving cartulary copies we are relying on here, when we have a number of Anglo-Norman historians adding details to their accounts of the battle.

This brings up the last issue, which is that the 12th century and later historians have so much juicy material about people and the battle that I am tempted to use, William of Malmesbury in particular.  But I am inclined to want to stay with pre-Norman sources wherever possible.  I am an Anglo-Saxonist, after all.

Posted by: kljolly | December 18, 2013

Aldred reading Boethius at Brunanburh

Sounds like the game Clue, but is more of a riddle than a who-done-it.

I have posited that a 19 year old Aldred is reading the Old English Consolation of Philosophy, a translation of Boethius’ treatise attributed to King Alfred, while sitting at or near the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, a battle I am choosing to locate in Lancashire, north of the Ribble Estuary following Tim Clarkson’s suggestive lead.  This places the battle in proximity to Cumbrian sites where Aldred might be.

Earlier I accidentally confused Heversham, the monastery at the eastern end of Morecambe Bay–that Abbot Tilred (Aldred’s uncle in my story) managed until he fled to Northumbria with Aldred’s parents–and Heysham, the monastery on the southern side of Morecambe Bay.

Heysham, which I neglected to visit last summer despite the urgings of Dan Elsworth, has tenth century artifacts and a prominent site on a headland (see also this blogspot on Cumbrian churches).  [I may get there next summer when I am in Leeds, Dan.]

So I have started writing my story with Aldred at Heysham, having traveled there on a book pilgrimage through various and sundry Cumbrian church sites.  He finds it abandoned and picks up the Old English Boethius tucked away in a cupboard, but meanwhile he has encountered a cousin who is with the Strathclyde fyrd preparing to join forces with Constantine and Anlaf for the Battle known as Brunanburh.  Aldred is “held” by his cousin for safekeeping and thus finds himself at the battle site reading Boethius.  I may have him later taken by Athelstan during which his possession of the Boethius translated by the Wessex King’s grandfather Alfred plays a role in his release.

Anyway, I am running into some practical issues and need advice.  Two so far:

Aldred’s cousin’s name.  I am positing that Aldred’s father Alfred, son of Brihtwulf, had a sister named Byrhtgifu who married a Cumbrian warrior from north of Carlisle, and thus associated with the Scots power of Constantine.  Is the name Donnel, son of Owen (and Byrhtgifu), a likely enough name without actually identifying him with a known character?

View from Heysham.  The church was positioned on a headland, so would someone standing on the cliff be able to see ships in Morecambe Bay?  I am having Anlaf land somewhere there.  Google Earth panorama doesn’t give me much in the way of a 360 degree view to know whether they would be able to see ships or the movement of a large warband along roads.   I am guessing 20 miles as the crow flies from Heysham southwest to the putative site of the battle.

Any thoughts from those on the ground?

Posted by: kljolly | November 13, 2013

Boethius and Brunanburh

Other than the alliteration, what can Boethius have to do with Brunanburh?

Answer:  Aldred.

I had a thought this morning that intersected with another line of inquiry.  My thought was to ponder what kinds of things Aldred might have read in his educational journey, and how I can recreate in a fictional scenario his intellectual growth.  Besides the things we know he glossed–the Gospels, the collectar and encyclopedic materials in Durham A.IV.19, and Bede’s commentary on Proverbs–we can posit access to some standard works from Bede’s corpus, other materials from the Lindisfarne libraries, and perhaps Alcuin’s legacy.  The latter might include Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and even its Old English version developed by King Alfred.

Then the intersection:  what if Aldred read Boethius as a young man of 19, amid the upheavals created by the Battle of Brunanburh?  I could place him at Heysham, where he finds a copy of the Old English version and begins to read it.  Then because of the nearby battle, he could flee to Dacre or Carlisle, where he finds a copy of the Latin and begins to work his way through it (I am betting he glossed it in his Northumbrian Old English as he went!).  This would provide an opportunity to have him reflect on the bicultural and bilingual transformation of Boethius’ classic work in Alfred’s reign, while considering the dynamics of Wessex power moving northward.

From Cambridge University Library MS Ii.3.12, ff. 73v-74

From Cambridge University Library MS Ii.3.12, f. 73v (crop)

Why Boethius?

When I was an undergraduate first interested in medieval studies, my English professor and mentor Dr. Frank Gardiner sat me down and said that I must read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy if I was ever to understand medieval thought.  He was right, although at the time I did not fully understand what the book meant.  I was not much older than Aldred is at the point at which I have him encounter Boethius’ work, but he lived under far more perilous circumstances where a young man might question the problem of evil:  why do bad things happen to good people and vice versa?

For those unfamiliar with Boethius, he was a 6th century intellectual and consul imprisoned and eventually executed by the Arian Gothic ruler Theodoric.  While incarcerated, Boethius writes a philosophical tract on the problems of fate and free will.  His interlocutor in the alternating prose and verse dialogue is Lady Philosophy, who guides him through an understanding of Good and Evil without a single reference to the Bible or Christ, although Boethius was an orthodox (non-Arian) Christian.

King Alfred commissioned or oversaw the creation of a West Saxon version in prose (surviving in Oxford Bodleian Library Bodley 180, 11th century), and later developed with verse sections (surviving despite the fire in London BL Cotton Otho, 10th century, and a Junius transcription).  The Old English is significantly different from the Latin original, very much placing the arguments in an English cultural environment, with an Alfredian twist that Aldred may or may not have liked.

So I think I will reread Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy as if I were Aldred sitting near a major battlefield.  I will start with the Latin original, which I have on the shelf, while I wait for the recent Old English editions to arrive on my shores.


The Old English Boethius:  An Edition of the old English Versions of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, ed. Malcolm R. Godden and Susan Irvine, et. al., 2 vols. (Oxford, 2009).

The Old English Boethius with Verse Prologues and Epilogues Associated with King Alfred, ed. and trans. Susan Irvine and Malcolm R. Godden (Dumbarton Oaks, 2012).

International Boethius Society

Posted by: kljolly | October 18, 2013

Aldred under Athelstan

My interest in the Battle of Brunanburh was triggered by a need to locate Aldred during the reign of Athelstan (924-39).  Keep in mind that I am writing historical fiction but not fictional history:  I am imagining Aldred’s circumstances in ways congruent with known evidence and not changing any known historical events to fit my fiction.  The fictional bits below are in green.

First, there are three major Athelstan events in the north:

  • In July of 927, Athelstan invaded Northumbria and got control of York disposing of the viking King Guthfrith. The campaign let to a settlement at Eamont Bridge (Cumbria) with the kings of the Welsh, Gwent/Strathclydes, and Scots as well as the Northumbrian earl of Bamburgh Ealdred (Aldred, lots of people with that name!).  Although these rulers appear to have acknowledged Athelstan’s overlordship, they retained control over their territories (for the Strathclydes, north of the Eamont and Derwent rivers).  Aldred (my Aldred) would have been nine years old, assuming he was born in 918; the next year his uncle Tilred, bishop of Chester-le-Street died.  Would Aldred have then been sent elsewhere for education?
  • In 934, Athelstan made a land and naval expedition against the Scots, in which he further subjected in some way the Cumbrian and Scots’ kings.  He stopped along the way at Chester-le-Street to give quite handsome gifts of land, books, and treasure to the community of St. Cuthbert.  This event is well-recorded in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (25-27) as a means of showing how Athelstan, obeying his father’s dying wishes, called on Cuthbert as his patron saint, even going so far as to instruct his brother to bury him there in the event of his death on this campaign.  Curiously, no mention is made of the bishop of Lindisfarne at Chester-le-Street, Wigred (928-44), although previous bishops are noted in the HSC.  Symeon of Durham (Libellus ii.18) includes him in his later account of the same events, probably because he is more interested in a history of the bishops than the HSC with its preoccupation documenting land gifts.  Aldred would have been 16 in 934 and probably being educated somewhere other than Chester-le-Street since he makes a deal of becoming a member of the community circa 950.  But where?
  • In 937, the Battle of Brunnanburh was fought…somewhere.  The HSC makes no mention of this battle, leading me to suspect that it did not have an impact on Chester-le-Street’s landholdings, either because the battle was not near or because Athelstan’s victory safeguarded their territory (in which case, why not mention it as another credit to Cuthbert’s protective powers?). Symeon (Libellus ii.18) does mention it right in the heels of the 934 expedition to Scotland and does credit Cuthbert, as do later chroniclers relying on his account.  As a young man of 19, Aldred would be in the lower clerical ranks serving in some religious institution while continuing his education.  He would probably have lay friends and relatives who were at the battle, but on which side?

What I am suggesting  is that Aldred in this period and time of his life is not necessarily aligned with the interests of Chester-le-Street and their pro-Athelstan view.  I have identified his family as Northumbrians coming from Cumbria over the Pennines in 913-14 and receiving land from Chester-le-Street in a period when its alliances are shifting between competing forces.  The alliance of Eadred earl of Northumbria with the Scots against Ragnall/Rænald leads to  the messy battle(s) of Corbridge in 918; Ragnall is brought into submission by Wessex King Edmund in 920, who also enters into some kind of “non-aggression pact” with the northern rulers (Clarkson, Men of the North, p. 174).

Depending on where he was educated at this impressionable age, Aldred might have had sympathies for, or family and friends allied with, the Northumbrian earl at Bamburgh and the Strathclydes in Cumbria, along with their various and sundry allies in Scotland as well as in Wales and Ireland.  The battle of Brunanburh, wherever and whatever significance you make of it in the long term, does show the culmination of a set of alliances opposing the expansion of the Wessex king’s hegemony in the north.  We should avoid the anachronistic view that Wessex’s success was inevitable and should have been recognized as such by their opponents (Wessex King Edmund puts them down again in 940 and the story goes on).

So, what are some possible locations for a young man in clerical orders circa 927-40?  We know Aldred was Northumbrian by language, that he was well-educated in Latin and the liturgy, had access to Irish-rooted texts, and wrote in script styles associated with the northern Lindisfarne manuscript traditions rather than newer scripts emerging in Wessex.  So his orientation is very Northumbrian, suggesting a northern religious house–or houses, if he moved around.

Trouble is, we don’t know which religious communities in the north were still in operation in the mid-tenth century.  The usual view is that the community of St. Cuthbert’s flight from Lindisfarne means that the site, and many others for which we have no evidence, were abandoned and had no functioning religious community worth noting.  We can guess from their itinerary before settling at Chester-le-Street and from the landholdings claimed by the HSC that some places were functional, if surviving on reduced means.  FYI:  “religious community” is a handy way of avoiding the minster/monastery monster, or of trying to determine if a group of clerics living in community were monks or secular clergy, whether in their own eyes or someone else’s (a reformer’s, for example).

Here are my guesses for places where Aldred might have been trained, in relation to Chester-le-Street where he ends up circa 950:

  • In the far north, Lindisfarne:  maybe a small group still remained.  This is within sight of Bamburgh, the seat of the Northumbrian earl, as well as close to the Scots as allies.  The Norham and Melrose religious houses are inland from there.
  • Just north, Wearmouth and Jarrow:  again, maybe a small group remained, and a library of materials that Aldred could access.  This would be much closer to Chester-le-Street, as well as the lands I have identified with Aldred’s family at Easington.  Not far to the west is also Hexham.
  • South, into Yorkshire:  Ripon, I don’t know enough about; not sure what would remain at Whitby either.  There is the mysterious Harewood, probably the one in West Yorkshire just north of Leeds, from which Owun and Farman came with the MacRegol Gospels to copy Aldred’s gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels later on (or did Aldred go there?).  I really can’t see him sent into Mercia, but I know Michelle Brown sees lots of ties between Northumbrian and Mercian texts in the 8th and 9th centuries (Books of Cerne and Nunnaminster, which contain texts also copied at Chester-le-Street).  Mercia does help northern alliances against vikings but is also a Wessex ally against northerners (I need a little help here, folks!).
  • West of the Pennines:  Carlisle is in Strathclyde territory, but has a religious community with strong connections to Chester-le-Street.  Then there is Heysham to the south near Morecambe Bay, OR [Correction] Heversham at the east end of the bay where Tilred was abbot before he fled to Chester-le-Street and became bishop.  The area around Heysham is less clearly controlled by Strathclyde Cumbrians or Northumbrians, more likely viking settlers, and near the potential site of the battle of Brunanburh.  This would be a juicy place to put Aldred:  family roots, a big battle in the backyard….

Suggestions, comments, critiques welcome!

Posted by: kljolly | October 9, 2013


So I walked into a scholarly minefield in my latest excursion to locate Aldred in the temporal and geographic landscape of the early tenth century.  I am trying to fill in the gap years from his birth sometime around 918 and his appearance as a priest at Chester-le-Street circa 950.  I have already created a scenario for his family and his parents fleeing from Cumbria to Northumbria.  I have also posited an early stint as priest at Crayke circa 948.  But where was he as a young man?

My timeline for the reign of Wessex King Athelstan (924-39) is full of complicated events in the north, much of it murky (starting with the invasion of Northumbria in 927 and the settlement of some kind with nothern forces at Eamont Bridge).  None, however, is more problematic than the famed Battle of Brunanburh (937) celebrated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poem as well as other records.  The two (inter-related) controversies are 1) Where was the battle?  and 2) Was it a major victory for English hegemony over all of Britain, or a Pyrrhic victory for the English in which the coalition of northern Scots, Strathcyldes, Cumbrians, and Irish-Norse Dublin forces showed the tenuousness of Athelstan’s claims?

Now I thought I could chart a straightforward path to understanding this event by using The Battle of Brunanburh:  A Casebook, edited by Michael Livingston (Exeter:  University of Exeter Press, 2011).  This is an excellent resource containing all of the primary sources in facing page original languages and translations.  It also includes a series of essays on the sources and on the battle, including an introductory survey by the editor.  Unfortunately it seems to have made a premature decision to declare one site as the overwhelming favorite for the battle and includes only proponents of that view, rather than, as a casebook might, including rebuttal arguments.  The editor and authors also favor the victory as supporting Athelstan’s claim as king of all Britain.  Livingston has a blog that  responds to critics of the volume, although I am not convinced that the naysayers are just local historians arguing from a northern bias, nor are their views limited to a Humber alternative.

BrunanburhSo here are the main candidates for the site of the battle:

  • Bromborough on the Wirral, supported by Livingston in the Casebook and most prominently argued by Paul Cavill in his essay “The Place-Name Debate” (a good place to start for a survey of different views on the philological arguments, although I think the linguistic turns may prove circular).
  • Burnswark in Dumfrieshire, supported by Kevin Halloran in dialogue with Cavill’s arguments.  Halloran’s 2010 article modifies his 2005 article in response to Cavill’s arguments about -burh.
  • Brinsworth, supported by Michael Wood (see Cavill’s essay, p. 341).
  • Lanchester in County Durham, a recent proposal by Andrew Breeze with an article forthcoming.  This site, a mere 7 miles from Chester-le-Street, seems less likely to me because the battle receives no mention in the very pro-Athelstan Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, although it is featured in the later works of Symeon of Durham.
  • Site on the west coast, north of the Ribble Estuary, a possibility Tim Clarkson is currently exploring, promising a future post on his other blog, Senchus.  Tim proposes to look at the military logistics, something that Livingston also does and that may be more promising than the philological arguments about the place name.

I don’t have a preference at the moment, other than thinking that the logistical arguments are more fruitful than the philological.

However, it does matter to me in trying to locate not just Aldred in his youth but also the role of the community at Chester-le-Street.  Athelstan on his earlier campaign to the north in 934 diverted to Chester-le-Street and gave lavish gifts to the community, recorded prominently in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (HSC), with Athelstan claiming Cuthbert as his patron saint.  Presumably three years later, the saint and the community would have still been Athelstan supporters.

If it was an overwhelming victory for Athelstan, why is it not recorded in the HSC?  Possibly because the HSC is primarily concerned with land claims (gifts as well as thefts) and if the battle did not affect their lands one way or the other, they did not see a need to recount it.  That means, possibly, that the battle took place not on or near Cuthbertine lands and that the coalition forces opposing Athelstan were not a permanent threat to their lands, coming or going, although they are recorded as harrying.   Athelstan’s victory, however much it may have cost him, did not cost St. Cuthbert’s community, apparently.  The HSC does not have Cuthbert claiming credit (since the battle is left unrecorded), although Symeon’s later account has Athelstan crediting St. Cuthbert (unsurprisingly since it is Symeon’s task to show how Cuthbert is in everything).

Aldred would have been a young man of 19 in 937, probably in clerical orders somewhere in Northumbria.  The upheavals in the north during Athelstan’s reign could not have gone unnoticed by him, but how close might he have been to some of the action?  Would relatives and friends have been in the battle, and on what sides?


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