Where exactly was the battle of Acleah?

Welcome to my first ever paginated post, which, if you keep on reading through it, you will discover is concerned first and foremost with the question of the site of a battle fought in the year 851 at a place named in recensions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as Aclea (or Acleah, to use its nominative form)…

…but first, Brunanburh

Last week, I got involved in a vigorous discussion on Karen Jolly’s Revealing Words blog about the site of the 937 battle of Brunanburh, one of those places of pivotal significance to early medieval English history which fascinates and frustrates in equal measures for the simple reason that its site has not been pinpointed (like a much more famous version of Hebbeshamm, the ninth-century charter promulgation place I’ve written about at length and concerning which I’ve just uploaded a summary of discoveries made this year). The published work that comes closest to being the definitive assessment of the evidence, 2011’s The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, suffers in the eyes of some for its tendency towards appearing to favour the candidacy of Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula over the other places suggested over the years as the battle site (though I have admiration for the way in which the book’s editor, Michael Livingston, has offered a response to many of the initial criticisms of it).

The most forthright criticisms of the Casebook‘s ultimate favouring of Bromborough as the site of the battle of Brunanburh are levelled at Paul Cavill’s discussion of the place-name evidence as derived from the early historical records of the event beginning with the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poem (here’s some basic info on the various Chronicle manuscript traditions and spellings). Cavill’s essay, which is available for one and all to read online for free, has been unfairly characterised in some quarters as one-sided, when in actuality the philological and topographical material for each of the several most fancied candidates is accorded an even-handed appraisal. However, it can be seen to skimp on the backgrounds of the various written sources and the authority of their place-name forms, which could be an issue of considerable importance when it comes to gauging which of the places in the running do have a valid claim to be Brunanburh. (This has got me thinking afresh about the annalistic side of my research on St Martha’s and its eleventh-century origins and the extent to which later accounts may offer superior insights despite their temporal remove from the event in question.)

More generally, there is no escaping the fact that, even if Bromborough is descended from Old English Brunanburh, there’s absolutely no guarantee – and a dearth of other forms of evidence – the battle took place on the Wirral. What’s needed as a next step is a full objective analysis of the trio of most fancied candidates: Bromborough, Burnswark in Scotland and the new kid on the block, Lanchester in County Durham (with the possibility of another, at present unnamed option entering the fray by means of a forthcoming post on the rather good Senchus blog). This would integrate the various forms of evidence and accord the same treatment to each, overcoming the adequate-but-differing approaches that have been pursued to date. Realistically, such a project probably still won’t lead to a conclusive identification of the site of Brunanburh, but it could help put to bed once and for all the claims of some of the above-mentioned places.


About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Annals, Archaeology, Charters, Hampshire, History, London, Place-Names, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Surrey, Topography, Viking, Wessex and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Where exactly was the battle of Acleah?

  1. kljolly says:

    I am glad I read to the end because I was about to note the Oakley Down reference to Aldred, not as a possible location but for a linguistic parallel, aclee.
    It does seem that the battle of Acleah presents similar problems of identification as Brunanburh, between place-name evidence, written records, linguistic change,combined with logistics, geographic orientations, physical features and artifacts. The latter would be nice to find for Brunanburgh.

  2. A. Leavey. says:

    Why has not Oakley west of Basingstoke not been considered as a possible location for the battle
    of Aclea .It is adjacent an ancient track way (pilgrims way), plus it is adjacent to an area called
    ‘Battle’. Please advise me why this site has never been mentioned in any historical literature that
    I have read, and would seem to be closer to the interests of kingdom of Wessex than for example

    • But it has, and is the reason why I wrote this post! (Read all six pages of it if you haven’t already…) Philologist Richard Coates was the progenitor of the suggestion, initially via an essay in an admittedly very obscure publication, but also referenced in his better-known book Hampshire Place-Names. I can’t recall the suggestion being noted by other authors, but I’m no great expert on Hampshire so I may well be unaware of the relevant works. Anyway, I’ve examined the various strands of Coates’ argument in favour of Oakley and overall found them to be unconvincing. Individually, some are no more or less credible for Oakley than for its probable namesake in Surrey, but it’s the contortions he goes through in order to make the brief but fairly unequivocal annalistic evidence that led me to doubt the likelihood of it being the 851 battle site. The historical sources leave no doubt that the Danes crossed the Thames in a southwards direction from London, so a close relationship to the heartlands of the West Saxon kingdom isn’t so important in locating Acleah (plus Surrey had been annexed to Wessex since 825). I also address the matters of the use of key land routes through the region, minor Battle- place-names and more besides. So have a look through and see what you think…

  3. Pingback: Another Surrey candidate site for the battle of Acleah? | Surrey Medieval

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