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.
- 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?