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.