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?


  1. Morecambe Bay is pretty big! If you envisage the Alban-Strathclyde contingent coming down the Roman roads from Carlisle (Carlisle-Ribchester or Lancaster-Scotforth-Walton-le-Dale) then in my view it’s unlikely that the Vikings would have landed at Heysham as it’s some way from the main north-south routes. They may have entered the river Lune to the south looking to meet up on the Roman road perhaps somewhere near Galgate or entered the estuaries of either the Keer (navigable through Carnforth to Dock Acres) or the Kent (landing at Arnside) to the north (both of which have Viking remains I believe). If the latter they would certainly have been visible at sea from Heysham; if the former I’m not quite sure but it’s certainly quite possible.

  2. I’ve just been down to check. You would have been able to see a fleet entering the Lune estuary from the church at Heysham. A landing on the sheltered extensive mudflats on the east bank of the Lune around the confluence with the river Conder near the early settlements of Glasson, Thurnham and Ashton with Stodday and opposite from Overton and Heysham would leave you literally a stone’s throw from the Roman road south of Lancaster (near to the village of Galgate) leading down to the Ribble at Penwortham. This landing site is very extensive, sheltered and much more convenient than a landing on the coast near Heysham or present-day Morecambe which would add on a land march of several miles through boggy terrain.

  3. Heysham does give a very good view into Morecambe Bay, but as Kevin says there are many other good landing places near by. How navigable all these places were at different times is debatable, however. Also, although walking from Heysham to the nearest Roman road (effectively the line of the modern A6) might be an unwanted trek, it might be preferable to landing on virtually impassible mud flats. Presumably getting right into the port at Lancaster at that time might be problematic for all sorts of reasons, not least the element of surprise, assuming this was a consideration.

    • Dan makes a very fair point about navigability at the time. However, as White and other have pointed out Norse place names in the lower Lune valley suggest ‘…it was a Norse route in the ninth and tenth centuries.’ The mudflats were unlikely to be impassable as Glasson may be even a pre-English settlement and presumably connected to the drovers’ route from Galloway that crossed the Roman road and Burrow Beck at Scotforth which is only a mile from the confluence of the Lune and Conder. Brunanburh took place late in the year and I don’t see how a tidal beach could provide a safe or secure anchorage over days or weeks.

      • I’m not suggesting that mudflats would have made it difficult to get from Glasson to the Roman road, more that disembarking at that point would have been difficult because of the mudflats that I assume are present on the river, unless one assumes there was a jetty. I don’t know much about Viking ships, but I thought they were quite good at pulling up quite high on actual beaches, like that at Heysham. Your point about it being tidal is valid, although I’m not sure how much this affects the shore at Heysham. I also would assume that the Lune was a Norse route intended used to get to certain points such as Lancaster, rather than disembarking any old where.

  4. There was once a huge red sandstone sea arch near Heysham called Bruneberh ‘ The Brown Rock’ the site of which is now partly occupied by Heysham Harbour.

    1261-1272. “Grant in perpetuity from Master Laurence Travers to his son, Thomas Travers, of all his demesnes of Heysham (Hesaym) which he purchased from Roger, son of Vivian de Hesaym, (except two acres of land whereof he enfeoffed Richard de Heton, one lying on either side of the hill (montis) of Crossecoppe and the other in the field called Bryches), and also of two acres which the grantor bought from Adam, son of Robert de Kellet in the territory of Heysham, viz., one acre in Le Midilrigge, half an acre on le Bruneberh, and the other half acre in Le Cloniggis del Maniclyuys, to hold of the grantor during his life, and after his decease, of Roger de Hesaym and his heirs. Witnesses: Sir Ralph de Dacre (Dakyr), sheriff of Lancashire, Sir Benedict Gernet, Sir William de Heton, Alan de Catherton, John de Oxeclyve, Orm de Kellet, John le Gentyl, Nicholas de Lee, John de Parlis, Richard de Heton, and William Warde. (Seal destroyed.)” – from “Annual Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records.”

  5. Wow, thanks for the rapid eyes-on response! I will look into the Lune as a possibility. It is not terribly important that they see the fleet arrive, but that they be close enough to the rendezvous to make it plausible for Aldred to get caught up in things while at Heysham. I haven’t figured out yet exactly where to put the battle (not wanting to reignite that discussion!).

  6. Karen, in answer to your query about a name for Aldred’s cousin, I think ‘Owen’ is a good choice, but ‘Donnel’ sounds too Gaelic for a man who would presumably be a Cumbric speaker. As the milieu and main viewpoint of your narrative is Northumbrian, I’d suggest altering ‘Donnel’ to ‘Dunmail’, an Anglicised form of Cumbric/Welsh Dumnagual–>Dyfnwal.

  7. […] have set him down at Heysham, where he is picked up by his Strathclyde cousin and taken to the camp of Constantine and Anlaf.  […]

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