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!