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.


  1. First off regarding the charters and Athelstan’s supposed cousins. The reference is spurious and probably intended to boost the prestige of Malmesbury. As to basing an account on WoM my advice is don’t. As David Dumville has pointed out he’s a very dangerous source. I have an article in the pipeline that shows WoM to be a fabricator, embellisher, propagandist and liar. In my view he probably personally forged the Brunanburh cousins reference. Other than that he’s a great guy!

  2. With my historian’s hat I agree with your conclusion and the previous comment. With my novelists’s hat one, however, I would also be tempted to use the sensational material. At some point you have to decide if you’re writing history or telling a story. If the latter, the needs of the story are paramount. ‘Dangerous’ sources are rightly anathema to historians, but they can be gold-mines for story-tellers.

  3. Victoria’s comments are spot on. But in my view the best historical novels are soundly based. If, for example, KJ has Anlaf disguised as a minstrel spying out Athelstan’s camp as per WoM I, for one, would be sorely disappointed!

  4. Thanks for confirming my instincts: I do want to stay close to the Anglo-Saxon historical record versus the highly colorful embellishments of William et al.(although I have already made use of Symeon more than once).
    How about my Seaxhelm question? Any thoughts on their identities?
    I am guessing, Kevin, that you would argue that the “bishop of St. Cuthbert’s” line is of William of M’s vintage, not 937, placing it in the realm of fantasy.
    I was toying with a post-Brunanburh copying of the charter at Malmesbury with changes, 21 December 937, and a Seaxhelm, present at the battle, worming his way into it. What time of year was the battle?
    I do need a bad guy here and there!

    • I’m giving some thought to the other points. As to time of year the battle is generally reckoned to take place probably in October. Another small point: by cross-referencing events in various Irish annals we might place an entry in the Annals of Innisfallen around the time of Brunanburh and this, as Michael Wood pointed out, refers to ‘mighty winds’.

    • I’ve looked into the identities of Wigred and Seaxhelme but can’t place the latter before his short (and apparently very unpopular) tenure in 947. Wigred is shown as bishop 928-944. Seaxhelme supposedly had designs on the church treasures and he would make a plausible bad guy in 937. I can only suppose the references to his being bishop during Wigred’s tenure are spurious.

      • Karen, regarding Seaxhelme 1-3, my instincts are that we are dealing with a single individual. It’s quite possible that in 934-7 rival political factions might have supported two candidate bishops. Perhaps Wigred was temporarily ousted?

  5. By the way, Karen, I have some ideas on how the battle may have gone, why Athelstan won and why it was so bloody. If you’d like to discuss any aspect just give me an email. Remember, too, that in the recent past the Vikings had fought against the Scots and Britons. There must have been unease and distrust within the coalition leadership and many of the rank and file had probably had friends and family killed by their new allies.

    • Thanks, Kevin, I may get back to you. But I did have one quick (I think) question related to your comment about the shifting viking coalitions: what would be the relationship between Ragnall king of York and grandson of Ivar the Boneless and Anlaf/Olaf Guthfrithson? I know you have different views on the identity of Olaf at Brunanburh and after.
      The reason why I ask is that I have Aldred’s father dying at the battle of Corbridge against Ragnall, This might play a role in Aldred’s ambivalence toward the Scots and Strathclyde coalition with Anlaf (not to mention the York vikings who join in).

      • Ragnall was Anlaf Guthfrithson’s uncle. For details of various family members Clare Downham, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland (Edinburgh, 2007), p.28 onwards, is invaluable. I have no argument with AG being at Brunanburh but do argue he was not subsequently King of York.

  6. Karen, I’ve just been looking through the various Irish annals and it’s not clear whether Ragnall and Guthfrith were brothers or cousins. I have always assumed the former but this can’t be regarded as a certainty as patronyms are absent. Downham considered the problem at p.34. Perhaps you might contact her at Liverpool University?

    • Thanks, Kevin. I hadn’t checked Downham yet, but decided to go with “kinsmen” as safely neutral.

      • I think “kinsmen” will do very nicely – and as close to the truth as we can get.

  7. Picking up the earlier discussion on twelfth-century sources, I’d be inclined to include them in this novel, notwithstanding Kevin’s point about maintaining historical accuracy. I agree with Victoria that the needs of the historical novelist differ from those of the historian. Also, none of the pre-Norman texts mention Strathclyde’s participation at Brunanburh, which is already an integral part of Karen’s narrative.

    • Ah, you got me there, Tim. I suppose I am picking and choosing which 12th century stories I want to use based on some invisible ethic operating in my mind. I want the Lindisfarne Gospels washing up on the shore from Symeon, but not his gender bias. I want the Strathclydes there, but not Anlaf sneaking into the camp (a common trope, as Kevin notes).

    • Tim, my comments seem to be causing some confusion. I wasn’t suggesting all later sources be ignored but rather warning against relying on the embellishments recorded by William of Malmesbury in particular.

      • I should have been clearer myself, Kevin. I realised you were referring to the ‘add ons’ by WoM & Co (on whom your thoughts are well documented in your SHR articles). What I should have said is that some of the imaginative material might be worth considering in a historical novel.

  8. On Seaxhelm, I am going with #3 (the later 6-months-and-out bad bishop of Symeon’s account) and placing him at Brunanburh in Athelstan’s camp as someone styling himself as a cleric of St. Cuthbert’s. For the moment I am ignoring the bishop label of Seaxhelm 2–that could have been added later to the charter info given his history of self-promotion. That is the “two bishops” of Chester-le-Street is true for circa 947 when he was ousted, but I imagine he may have gone around in Wessex using the label after his ouster, hence its appearance in the Malmesbury cartulary. Back in 937, his deception is in styling himself a cleric of St. Cuthbert’s without any real affiliation (Aldred does not recognize him).

  9. […] 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 […]

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