Archaeologists Locate Battlefield Dubbed ‘Where England Began’
The lost battlefield of Brunanburh, the battle that created England, has finally been located by archaeologists. The battle of Brunanburh was fought in 937 AD between King Athelstan of Wessex in what is today England and a mixed-force led by the Viking King of Dublin , Anlaf Guthfrithsson, who was overlord of most of Ireland.
Having examined medieval records and land surveys, researchers are now convinced that this seminal ancient battle unfolded in Merseyside, in north west England. But according to a report in BBC History Extra , for “security” its precise location is being kept under wraps for now.
The Battle of Brunanburh and the Win that Unified England
Late in 937 AD an Anglo Saxon army led by King Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, defeated an invading army commanded by Anlaf Guthfrithsson, the Viking king of Dublin, composed of Vikings and an army of Scots led by Anlaf’s father-in-law, King Constantine II of Alba (Scotland). A report in the Liverpool Echo says medieval manuscripts describe the battle as “huge with great slaughter on both sides,” and for many generations into the Norman period it was referred to as “the Great War”.
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A spokesman for Wirral Archaeology told the BBC that several eminent professional archaeologists, medieval historians, and scientists have examined a range of evidence and that they have also collected “physical artifacts” which lead them to conclude that the site of the lost Battle of Brunanburh has now been identified. And why this battle is being associated with the “creation of England” is because at this battle King Athelstan commanded the first “unified” national English army .
Searching for Mass Graves on the Battlefield
Most investigators and detectives, whether focusing on crimes or pets, have some kind of evidence to go on but this was not so in the case of the missing battlefield of Brunanburh. The battle is only mentioned in a handful of contemporary records, with the most famous being the “Brunanburh Poem.” According to Encyclopedia Britannica it’s an Old English poem of 73 lines included in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 937. It recounts the Saxon king Athelstan's victory over the allied Norse, Scots, and Strathclyde Briton invaders under the leadership of Olaf Guthfrithsson, king of Dublin and claimant to the throne of York.
Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert, the earliest surviving portrait of an English king. (Public Domain )
The poem says that while the defeated kings Anlaf and Constantine “escaped the slaughter,” they left most of their army for dead on the battlefield, including five sub-kings, seven Jarls, and Constantine’s son Ceallach. Historians might see this as post-war propaganda, for there was nothing so dishonorable in ancient warfare than abandoning one’s brothers in arms when the going got tough, and in most cultures dying on the battlefield “with” one’s men-at-arms was among the most honorable ways to go. However, in the case of the Battle of Brunanburh, archaeologists asked where the many thousands killed would have been buried?
Constantine II, King of the Scots. ( Public Domain )
While no records were kept telling us how the fallen had been disposed of after the battle, it is thought that most non-elite casualties would have been deposited in mass graves at the site. And while Wirral Archaeology has not yet announced the discovery of any mass grave, I bet my bottom dollar that will be announced in the next few weeks. Watch this space…
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Battered and broken bodies of Viking warriors unearthed in Derbyshire, England. ( Martin Biddle / University of Bristol )
You Can’t Keep Big News in Forever
What is somewhat funny in all this; predictably Wirral Archaeology are reserving their bets and saying things like ‘further research is required’ and we ‘may’ have found the lost battlefield, but there is no way they would be holding local meetings to “inform Wirral residents and the appropriate authorities” if they had not pin-pointed the location of the battle. They are saying everything but “yup - we’ve nailed it;” but less constrained is author Bernard Cornwell OBE, who produced The Last Kingdom series for the BBC, who said Wirral Archaeology have worked wonders solving one of the great mysteries of British history - “they have found Brunanburh.”
In a Guardian article, Mr. Cornwell said the series is about “the origins of England” and how different kingdoms come together. He said “We teach history as beginning in 1066 AD and glance backwards to Julius Caesar ” but people just don’t seem aware that England had to be made. And a key part of what he calls “the lengthy conflict” was Alfred’s pursuit of the goal of a united country. Bringing us back nicely to the opening line in which I referred to the battle as having “created England.”
Top Image: English Battlefield Found Source: PatSM / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie