By Michael Livingston
The year 937 saw one of the most significant battles in English history. Near a place called Brunanburh, King Athelstan of England defeated an alliance of Scots, Hiberno-Norse (Scandinavians in Ireland), and other northern peoples led by the king of Dublin, Anlaf Guthfrithson. The importance of this fight, as I wrote in The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, cannot be overstated:
[I]t would be no small stretch to consider the battle the moment when Englishness came of age. The men who fought and died on that field forged a political map of the future that remains with us today, arguably making the battle at Brunanburh one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England, but of the whole of the British Isles.
Despite its importance, the battlefield has been lost for centuries. Gathering the known evidence in the Casebook, however, a multi-national team of experts came to the conclusion that the most likely location was on the Wirral peninsula, somewhere near the modern town of Bromborough, whose name has been shown to derive from Old English Brunanburh.
I have received more hate-mail for arguing this conclusion than I have for the rest of my academic work put together.
Now, the indefatigable efforts of Wirral Archaeology, a local volunteer group of investigators, has identified several separate fields of artifacts that could shed enormous light on this momentous event — in exactly the mid-Wirral location that scholarship had previously suggested.
The finds uncovered by Wirral Archaeology are both rich in number and significant in impact: among the artifacts are buckles, broken blades, and arrow- and spear-heads. Intriguingly, the remains show evidence of deriving from a mix of cultural sources, including Norse and English. One particular location has such a heavy concentration of artifacts that it seems possible that Wirral Archaeology has located part of a metalworking area associated with a medieval army camp. This possibility alone would be of intense interest to historians: relatively few battles have been systematically surveyed by archaeologists, and on fewer still have we conclusively identified camp metallurgy remains — though we know it was a regular part of medieval campaigns.
Even more exciting, however, is the fact that the finds appear to be from the tenth-century, and the best engagement to fit their range and location is the elusive battle of Brunanburh. A spokesman for the group notes:
Several eminent historians and academics have examined a range of evidence we have collected, including physical artefacts, and they have concluded that the lost site of the Battle of Brunanburh may have been identified by Wirral Archaeology. There is still a great deal of investigative work that needs to be done, and we are grateful to the group of professional archaeologists and medieval historians who are now actively assisting us.
At the same time that Wirral Archaeology is uncovering evidence of conflict in the Wirral, early medieval weaponry has also been discovered by a team from NW Heritage in Lancashire — in a location that could support the theory that engagements were fought by the Scots en route to Brunanburh. Comparison between the Wirral and Lancashire artifacts is already revealing similarities, though Paul Sherman of NW Heritage stresses that “research is still at an early stage and much further investigation is required before any conclusions can be drawn as regards links between these potential battlefield sites across the northwest.”
Plans are being pressed forward to conduct more detailed surveys and analysis of these sites, their artifacts, and their historical surrounds — work that will provide a unique path to understanding the English past and may well locate a lost battle.
Michael Livingston is a Professor at The Citadel in South Carolina. A specialist in medieval military history, he edited the book The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter @medievalguy
An obvious question.
“Has #WirralArchaeology found relevant artefacts”?
Next question. Where?
That has to remain confidential
Next question. Why?
There are still years of work needed. We have to protect sites. Looting destroys evidence
— Wirral Archaeology (@Wirral_Archaeol) October 3, 2019