My investigations into the Brunanburh battle are coming to a happy close, & I am preparing to leave my house in Healey Wood. In my last post I showed how the Confederate army dissolved into a panicky rabble & fled the battlefield. A number of historians recorded the rout & retreat of the Scots & the Vikings from Brunanburh;
The enemy, suffering the greatest distress, on account of the loss of their army, returned to their own country with a few followers
Symeon of Durham
The West-Saxons pushed onward
All day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
While his men still pursued the fugitives, king Athelstan left the battle-field, and rode back to the town, nor stayed he for the night before he came thither. But Egil pursued the flying foe, and followed them far, slaying every man whom he overtook
There the North-men’s chief was put
To flight, by need constrained
To the prow of a ship with little company:
He pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
On fealene flot, he saved his life
Where the ASC says ‘all the day the West Saxons pressed on the loathed bands,’ we can assume that the battle was fought within a day’s retreat of a seacoast or river estuary. Egil’s Saga provides a little extra gloss, saying the ships were ‘far’ from the field. It would be safe to say that the battlefield would be somewhere between 15 & perhaps as many as 40 miles away from a navigable site in which Viking longships could wait. A location may be divined by analyzing the actual words used in the ASC – ‘feallan’ & ‘flot’ – which according to Boswoth & Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary translate as:
Feallan: Of shingle
Flot: Water deep enough for sustaining a ship
If one was to flee the Burnley battlefield, the first navigable, shingly place for ships to wait would have been at Walton-le-Dale, just south of Preston, at an ancient ford of the River Ribble. I visited the site on my way to Scotland from Burnley the other day, buying a £6 day ticket which allowed me to hop on & off the bus. It was bitterly cold, but dry, & my first stop was for a brief look at Houghton Tower, a little private pilgrimage to one of the chief sites regarding my Shakespearean studies. Next up was the ford at Walton-le-Dale, situated at a lovely bend of the Ribble, just after the confluence of the River Darwen. The ford is long gone, having been superseded by a massive bridge, but I got off the bus anyway, where in the process of taking some photos found myself in the breeding ground of some Ribble Geese. Noticing my presence, like a bunch of angry North End they fans flew at me Luftwaffe-style from the other side of the Ribble: it was only a couple of well-aimed stones & a quick dash up bank that procured me my safety.
Where Frank Coupe writes on the bank of the river, ‘stood a warehouse used expressly for the purpose of strong alum from the mines at Alum Scar near Salmesbury Mill, previous to it being transported down the river in barges during the high tides; this fact would immediately suggest the probability that, during the period when the station at Walton-le-dale was occupied by the Romans, their necessary commodities & military equipment would be conveyed by water along the Ribble, advantageous use being made of the tides,’ we gain confirmation of Walton’s use as a sea entry-point. Close to the old ford, at Cuerdale, a great hoard of Viking silver was found in the 19th century. Dated to roundabout the time of the Battle of Brunanburh, was the Cuerdale hoard deposited by Analf during his flight from Brunanburh? Placing him at the mouth of the River Ribble means his main fleet would have been on the other side of the country, at the Humber estuary. Did Analf, or one his men, in the mad rush for safety, bury treasure while searching for a boat? Let us for a moment imagine Analf burying the hoard in the fading twilight; but returning to the locality at some point in the future, was unable to find the spot where he had deposited his riches. This would lead to an antique local tradition, which long before the Curedale was ever found, that if one were to stand upon the hill at Walton-le-Dale, looking up river the towards Ribchester, one’s gaze would pass over the greatest treasure in the whole of Christendom.
Scholars have dated the deposition of the fabulously wealthy Cuerdale Hoard to 905. The thing is we can never know the true dating of the Curedale hoard, as not long after the discovery about fifteen percent of the coins were syphoned away by anonymous private collectors, or melted down by workmen who found the hoard. One of the latter sort was found with 26 secreted in his boots & was even allowed to keep them! Elsewhere, the 149 coins selected for Queen Victoria largely vanished without a trace. Of the 8,000-10,000 coins reported, only 6700 coins were ever officially recorded. Of the 1000 or so Anglo-Saxon coins in the hoard, the majority were minted during the reign of Alfred the Great, but over a hundred belong to the reigns of his successor, Edward, & to the Archbishopship of Plegmund. Numitist Graham-Campbell states, ‘there is no way of putting a precise date on the latest west saxon coins in Cuerdale.’ With Plegmund dying in 923, & Edward dying in 924, the date of the horde may rise another two decades at least.
On reaching Walton-le-Dale that brisk afternoon in 2015, & after ascertaining that the Ribble was the likely launching point for Analf’s flight from the British mainland, it helped me to understand better a passage in the ASC, whose contents have caused a great deal of academic debate in recent years;
Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
The dejected survivors of the battle,
On Dingesmere, sought Dublin over the deep water,
To return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.
Paul Cavill confirms that the ‘mere’ element in Dingesmere means ‘sea’ when he writes, ‘in verse, both as a simplex and as the first element of many compounds, it means ‘the sea, the ocean.’ As for the ‘Dinges’ part, a 2004 paper entitled ‘Revisiting Dingesmere’ puts the case forward for it stemming from the Viking ‘Ting’ at Thingwall on the Wirral. Tings were meeting places where citizens could come together, air their grievances & network for trade. Cue near-hysterical claims by the Wirral Set that they had found Dingesmere – connecting it to the marshes of south Wirral. Their only real supporting evidence was found on a map of 1611, which called Bromborough, ‘Brunburh.’ It is a valid suggestion, for the name Dingwall in Scotland is also based on a Viking Ting, yet Bromborough could never have been Brunanburh, it is only a stone’s throw from Earl’s Ness for starters, & since its inception in 2005, the Wirral theory has faded from academic inquiry;
The thing about the ‘Thing,’ is that topographically it just does not fit the idea of a battle being fought on the Wirral. There are no rivers, tumuli, eminent hills or anything that even suggest a battle
If the 60,000 invaders had been hemmed into the peninsular of Wirral, with a neck only 7 miles across, they would have had no chance against Athelstan… is only 10 minutes’ walk to the Mersey. That is not a ‘long pursuit
John Henry Cockburn
Apparently a bunch of Bromborough enthusiasts travelled from there to Thingwall and the journey took them from 11 am until 4:30 pm. Therefore proving that a “day long pursuit” was possible. This was utterly unbelievable as the distance is approximately 5-7 miles and there is no way that the journey could have taken so long. They must have been crawling along and obviously forgot that Anlaf’s forces were running for their lives with the west Saxons in pursuit.
The IMP (Inherent Military Probability) of a battle being fought in the Wirral cul-de-sac, coupled with a complete lack of anything in the locality matching evidence as given by the sources, suggests that the Wirral ‘Ting’ was not intended when Egil wrote ‘Dingesmere.’ There was, however, another Ting on the Isle of Man, which still meets today as the Tynvald. Founded in the early 10th century – i.e. the Brunanburh period – its position at the centre of the Irish Sea makes it a far likelier candidate for Dingesmere’s ‘Thing.’ The Isle of Man was an important Viking capital, & sits neatly between the sister kingdoms of Jorvik (York) & Ireland (Dublin). The name ‘Dingesmere’ should then really be attached to the circular portion of the Irish Sea epicentred by the Isle of Man.
The return of Analf to Dublin brings us almost to the end of my survey into the battle of Brunanburh. It really does feel like a case of fitting square pegs into square holes, there seems no flaws in the theory anywhere, which was been built up by combining the large number of place-names as provided by the Brunanburh sources. Itreally was quite startling just how much of the Burnley landscape had been imprinted into the Brunanburh battle. While studying the case, I came across a very relevant passage in SW Partington’s ‘Danes in Lancashire.’
An eloquent modern writer has declared, with a good reason, that even if all other records had perished, “anyone with skill to analyse the language, might re-create for himself the history of the people speaking that language, and might come to appreciate the divers elements out of which that people was composed, in what proportion they were mingled, and in what succession they followed one upon the other.” From a careful analysis of the names of the more prominent features of the land; of its divisions, its towns and villages, and even its streets, as well as the nomenclature of its legal, civil, and political institutions, its implements of agriculture, its weapons of war, and its articles of food and clothing, — all these will yield a vast fund of history.;