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How England forgot the battlefield that shaped the nation
If you were to ask people about the battles fought on British soil, I guess they could suggest a few: Hastings, Bannockburn, Bosworth Field, Edgehill and the Battle of Britain. They might even remember Towton, Flodden, or Naseby. But very few people would add Brunanburh to their list – though perhaps none were more important in shaping Britain as we know it. For some time after it took place, in AD 937, Brunanburh was an extraordinarily famous battle, described in chronicles throughout Christendom, celebrated in poems and songs, and remembered as a terrible event marked by loss. massive human lives. It was considered the bloodiest since the Anglo-Saxon invasions – with the English opposing an enemy Viking-led alliance in a conflict in which six kings and seven counts were reportedly killed. Indeed, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, usually a dry annual catalog of events, even burst into verse to describe it: “Never greater massacre / Was there on this island, never so much / Folk slaughtered before that / By the edges of the swords ”. Brunanburh was then recognized as a gruesome massacre, but also as a turning point in British history – it was a conflict of consequences, just as the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest would be 129 years later. Yet surprisingly, the English have forgotten where this defining battle took place. Names change over time. Mameceaster became Manchester, Snotengaham became Nottingham. It is a natural process and Brunanburh, wherever he is, underwent the same changes until people forgot the original name and, in the process, the site of such a massacre and of such national importance. Over the years, many suggestions have been made about the location of the battle, ranging from the Solway Firth to County Durham; Yorkshire to Cheshire. But it wasn’t until recently that archaeologists discovered broken weapons that point to the Wirral. Even these finds are unlikely to end the controversy, but after visiting the site myself and talking to archaeologists there, I am confident that we have finally identified the site of the Battle of Brunanburh. If you’re driving the M53 towards Birkenhead, look to your left between exits four and three, and here it is – the lost battlefield. Thanks to historian Michael Livingston, whose new book Never Greater Slaughter sheds new light on the terrible scenes of the clash – we now know precisely where the conflict took place and who was involved. On one side was the English and on the other was an alliance of their enemies led by Anlaf, a famous Viking chieftain who had carved out a kingdom in Ireland and now claimed the kingship of Northumbria. He was allied with other Vikings and Constantine, King of the Scots. They went to the Wirral with one goal: to end English power forever. The British Isles were a political mess at the start of the 10th century. There were Angles, Saxons and Jutes, all of whom had invaded British soil over the past 500 years and forced the native British north into southern Scotland, west into Wales and into Cornwall, and south across the canal to Brittany. This meant that there were at least a dozen rulers, all hungry for more land and ready to fight for it. Ireland was divided between the Irish and the Scandinavians. There were kings in Wales, always aware that the Angles and the Saxons had conquered their ancestral lands. There were also kings in Scotland. And all of these people – Britons, Scots and Norwegians – were aware that the strongest king was Athelstan of Wessex, who ruled a vast territory in the south and claimed the presumptuous title of monarch of all of Britain. If Athelstan succeeded in capturing part of northern Northumbria – the last remaining Viking stronghold – he would become even more powerful, and so the kings of the north, those of what is now Ireland and Scotland, teamed up to stop it. If Athelstan could be defeated, Saxon power could be shattered forever. And so the allies invaded, and the two armies met at Brunanburh. Athelstan’s forces won the battle and Northumbria became part of his kingdom. A country called England was therefore born on this terrible ground. And it was terrible. The basic concept of battle at this time was the shock of the shield walls, and to win the enemy’s shield wall must be broken. A wall-shield is just that: a long line of tall, iron-bound willow shields carried by armored warriors who have swords, spears, and axes in their hands. An attacking force was throwing spears and firing arrows at the opposing shield wall, but to break it, the men had to come close – very close. Anglo-Saxon poetry describes the horror of such fights. The shields would collide with enemy shields, then the warriors would hack and hit each other with their weapons, desperately trying to breach the wall. If they killed an enemy in the front row, then there were four or five other lines of warriors behind them; all with their shields and weapons up, all of which must have been shattered. It was brutal, close-knit work. If a shield wall broke, it could get even bloodier, as defeated warriors were shot down by their pursuers as they attempted to flee. We know this happened in Brunanburh because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poem tells us so – describing how Athelstan’s victorious army pursued the beaten Scots and Vikings and killed them mercilessly. It was truly a momentous and crucial battle. It is therefore strange that the English, who owe their very nation to Athelstan’s victory at Brunanburh, have forgotten where it took place. There is no doubt that this incredible lost battlefield has many other secrets to let go. But after many years of research, we can begin to be certain that this is where the great medieval massacre took place. Never Greater Slaughter by Dr Michael Livingston (RRP £ 16.99). Buy now for £ 14.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514.