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?




  1. lol. this whole period can be very confusing, but at the same time that is what makes it so interesting as well.
    I can’t wait to see how your story turns out. i am writing a bit before this time but i have encountered some of these people in my own research (not as extensive as yours however), so im interested in how they survive Brunanburh 🙂

  2. A number of points here.
    Firstly, we know AG was in Ireland on 1 August 937 and presumably for some time thereafter. He could have arrived in England realistically as early as mid-late August.
    Secondly, the idea that York was Anlaf’s ‘ultimate goal’ is a supposition based on a simplistic view of both Viking aims and politics in southern Northumbria and the Southern Danelaw. I question some of these in my Anlaf article in Northern History. Why Causantin and Owain would risk their armies so far south to re-establish a Viking dynasty in York is unexplained by Wood and others.
    Thirdly, harvest may be as much as a month later in Scotland than southern England. If the coalition were waiting to gather the harvest before commencing the campaign they would have handed a strategic advantage to Athelstan. I considered this in my Campaign article in light of the evidence of the Latin poem.
    Fourthly, if AG had a representative at Causantin’s court this may well have been Anlaf Sihtricson who is stated to have accompanied Causantin on his march south in Malmesbury’s chronicle.
    Fifthly, Tim Clarkson has interesting things to say on logistics and the practicalities of military campaigns in the period. It is fine for armchair experts like Livingston to blandly talk of pre-arranged meetings but a hell of a lot harder to achieve these in an era without modern communications. One part of the coalition army would have to advance south alone and probably wait several days or longer for the rest to arrive. It opens them up to destruction in detail by Athelstan and, frankly, Causantin was far too experienced a commander to undertake such a risky tactic. Any meeting place must have been quite far north and the consolidation of the army could have taken some considerable time during which they can have had little or no idea of Athelstan’s whereabouts.

  3. Thanks, Kevin. I knew you would have some insights on the messy timeline. I do like the Lancaster region as a crossroads area for Anlaf landing, the Scots and Strathycldes coming down, and an irritated Athelstan coming up. But I can see the possibilities for Anlaf moving north toward Carlisle to meet up with Causantin et al.
    Livingston mentioned Anlaf Sihtricson as a candidate for an early arrival, but I don’t know if I will include encounters with him in the story.
    I did get in both Bloodfeud and Weapons and Warfare in ASE to help with the battle details, in addition to Tim Clarkson’s books and blog.
    I am counting on there being time lags due to communications, with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of scouts and spies. Athelstan is the one who may have been confused about where these northern forces were massing, just as much as they were trying to second guess where Athelstan would be.
    Oh… and what about the “harrying?” Would Anlaf have harried Northumbrian and Cumbrian lands? Or is that just a later accusation from the other side?

    • Both Egils and the Latin poem suggest that the coalition raided extensively although they do imply Causantin was the prime mover and I have suggested much of this destructive raiding might have occurred before Anlaf’s arrival.
      As to Livingston’s suggestion that Athelstan was taken off-guard I think this very unlikely. Anlaf’s force was recruited from throughout the Viking world and we know Athelstan had extensive contacts with European kings and churchmen. He would I’m sure have had intelligence of recruitment, provisioning and shipbuilding as Harold did prior to William’s invasion in 1066. In fact I have considered the possibility that the mysterious movement of the Limerick Vikings to Lough Ree which delayed Anlaf in Ireland might have been inspired by English gold.
      Even if the Vikings could keep things under wraps it is highly improbable that word would not have reached the English about the preparations and mobilisation of Alba and Strathclyde. There were Anglian possessions throughout Lothian and I suspect they would have spotted signs of military mustering and preparation which must have extended over weeks and months.

      • By the way, please forgive me if I come across as cranky on some points but I get exasperated with philologist’s (ie the Bromborough group) blithe ignorance of the realities of warfare. History is littered with examples of military disasters brought about by the separation of elements of an army, sometimes by only a few miles. No competent military commander would have arranged for a fleet sailing from Ireland to meet up with an army marching from Scotland as far south as either the Wirral or the Humber. The first imperative is to consolidate the army and you do that as far as possible from the enemy. Otherwise you run the risk of part of the army being intercepted and destroyed en-route. You might get away with Heysham although I still think Causantin and Anlaf would have opted for the obvious and safest rendezvous point, the Solway. And, as I stated above; the idea that you might base a strategy on an enemy being caught off-guard by a massive and prolonged mobilisation on his doorstep simply beggars belief.

  4. Actually, I was thinking that Athelstan’s problem is trying to figure out where they would muster and where to attack, not that they were. Each side would be trying to develop a plan to meet at a site advantageous to them.
    I agree the northern forces would gather first in a safe place (further north) then move strategically south.
    I do imagine spies, scouts, and messengers operating from both sides, with Aldred picked up as a possible operative or messenger for someone (although he is not).
    The harrying as done by Causantin–where would that be? Northumbria, parts held by Athelstan-loyal earls? I doubt Strathclyde, since that is an ally. Cumbria is the no-man’s land at least in our knowledge: is it held by Northumbrians, Strathyclyde Britons, or Vikings? Or is it just a mess?

  5. I am still convinced by Cumbria Heritage opinion that this battle was near Brougham , Brovacum which is called Bruuum to this day , Whinfell is Vinheath and Owen o strathclyde is buried in Penrith , Eomotum and Dacorum are nearby and the North West was riddled with “vikings” at this time . what we need to find is “arrow clusters” in a field by the Lowther or the Eden or near the fell on this plain. it wasnt the victory its assumed to be cos within this year , Athelstan did not go further north .but i bet it hurt both sides badly .

    • Good point about Athelstan not going further north as a sign that he was not necessarily the triumphant victor.

  6. Cyril Hart (The Danelaw) makes a point that it in the early tenth century it appeared to be a crucial part of English policy to stifle communications between the Eastern Danelaw and the Five Boroughs. Edward the Elder had penetrated only as far north as Northampton and this is where the line was held – effectively holding a wedge of territory probably either side of the Welland, that separated the Five Boroughs from the Eastern Danelaw. We also know from several sources that Anlaf was assisted by the Danes within Athelstans kingdom these could have been Northumbrian and/or Southumbrian Danes, Indeed, Robert of Gloucester tells us that the battle site lay ‘by southe Humber’. Numismatic evidence also hints at the collapse of Athelstans authority in this region during the latter part of his reign – and we know for sure that the Vikings were never slow to take advantage of such situations.

    • Thanks for the numismatic evidence–I hadn’t thought in terms of the vikings exploiting a perceived weakness in Athelstan’s authority.

  7. Karen, I’m thinking you’re in the right place when you locate the battle in Lancashire, at a site north of the Ribble. One point to keep in mind is that Ahelstan’s frontier probably lay north of this river. He had previously purchased Amounderness – the district between the Ribble and Cocker – and had given it to Archbishop Wulfstan in 934. Assuming this territory with its many Norse settlements was still in English hands in the autumn of 937, Athelstan’s northern border may then have lain in the vicinity of Cockerham. On a related note, Garstang which you also mentioned is within Amounderness and on the Roman road running south from Lancaster.

  8. Thanks for the encouraging words on Lancashire and the pointer to a boundary at and north of Amounderness. So Viking forces could very well have raided the area in an attack on Athelstan.

  9. The logistical argument certainly works for Amounderness (more so than for Bromborough) and the political geography fits the context described in the OE poem. It would work even better if Amounderness had a place-name similar to one of the two tenth-century names for the battle; Brunanburh (‘fort of Bruna’) and Brunandune (‘hill of Bruna’). Lo and behold… a mile south of Garstang, on the east side of the Roman road, stands Bruna Hill.

    • I see at that location in Google Earth a Bruna Lane but it is not a very high elevation (under 110 feet). Is the hill of Bruna near there?

      • You may find this site of interest.

        I seem to remember that several years ago a very artistic gentleman produced a tenth century map of the area based on present day place-names. He was selling the maps – with the proceeds going to a local charity.
        I have the information somewhere in my archives ! If I find it I will send you the details.

  10. It would be good to see that tenth-century map….

    The Wyre Archaeology site mentions some small test-pits dug around the slopes of the hill but the summit is part of a private house and garden so any surveying is restricted.

    Karen – you’re right about the site not looking particularly impressive on a satellite image. But it’s a very different landscape when seen on the ground. Bruna Hill is a prominent feature rising above an area of low-lying farmland. Its northern flank looks across to another hill on which stand the ruins of Garstang (or Greenhalgh) Castle. Bruna Lane runs at the foot of Bruna Hill, which seems in times past to have been a one-word name ‘Brunahill’.

    • Bruna Hill is one of a number of possible candidates for Brunanburh. However, the etymology is not helpful as there are several references in the early sources on the battle to a ‘dun’ form (Brunandune, We(o)ndune) but none to a hill. I understand that ‘dun’ – a low flat-topped hill often with a settlement on top – was distinct from the more prominent features called ‘hill’. An early form ‘Brunahill’ may undermine rather than strengthen this site’s claim.

      • Paul Cavill in the Brunanburh Casebook quoted Gelling & Cole’s definition of Old English ‘dun’ as “a low hill with a fairly level and fairly extensive summit which provided a good settlement-site in open country” – this description would fit Bruna Hill quite well. Admittedly the whole idea is just a shot in the dark – like Bromborough and Lanchester and all the rest 😉

      • Tim, I was simply making the point that if early forms of the name had the ‘hill’ suffix then the etymology is less helpful than if we had a ‘dun’ form.

      • By the way, I hear the case for Bromborough grows stronger with a suggested site for Athelstan’s battleline being just west of the third tee at a local golf course. Perhaps you should approach Wyre Borough Council with a proposal to build a ‘burh’ on Bruna Hill, part of which could be burned down each October on Brunanburh Day?

  11. It may be of interest to your story that in his book ‘Lancashires Unknown River’, George Mould describes the river as being being a red-brown colour as it enters the Fylde area, this staining is possibly due to the course of the river as it passes over the peat in the Wyre uplands.

  12. Kevin – on the name, I notice Cavill refers to previous scholarship which shows no instances of OE ‘dun’ north of the Ribble. I’m not sure how far this weighs against a ‘hill’ name. Hardly seems worth bothering about when evidence of a tenth-century golf course clinches the argument for Bromborough!

  13. Thanks for all of the interesting insights on the putative site of Bruna Hill as Brunanburh. I will be there in early July and will march around the site (assuming the landowners don’t mind…).

  14. While we are in Lancashire , may i point out that in 1868 a large war grave was found at Wallgate at Wigan and the date for these bones which included horse was tentativly given as either “civil war” or from the conquerers harrying of the North , however in my quest to find Arthurs Dubglass that is as far as i got , as i live in Switzerland and know that in modern German a Brunen is a spring or a fountain , well until the coal mines upset the natural course of the “water” flow , Wigan was world famous for its natural springs , however im still further North and i think the battle was at Brougham which incidently is also the site i think of as Uriens battle in the Cells of Brewyn , and Arthurs Bregouin , some people may say i want to place everything in my old backyard , you will be pleased to know i dont intend on putting waterloo or hastings here .

  15. Very fun. Many good points made.

    1. I agree that Woods is wrong about the east coast; the leaders are all in the

    west and north and they send an armada to the Humber? Nah.

    2. The Wirral? What, AS hits them when they step out of the boats? The

    Scots travel all that way to meet there while the Norse broil fish? And how

    would they pillage on the beach by waiting? Nota chance.

    3. I strongly agree that having the meeting up north makes the most sense.

    The Norse boating to the north to meet the marching Scots…works. And the

    roman roads are important as site filters.

    4. Have you seen this possibilty?

    It is SW of Lockerbie…Just off the roman road and near the Solway.
    Btw, I enjoy using the old ORD surveys for inspirations.

  16. I can see why your tempted by lancs coast , but its near Brougham and whin fell i reckon.

  17. For another entry for the location of Brunanburh, at Burn (Bourne) Hill, see Tim’s post:

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