Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Hooptedoodle #398 - Brunanburh - This May Be a New Interest for Me...

 Anyone who has had the courage to dip into this blog over the years may be aware of a pattern which I have commented on in the past. I'm not sure quite how it comes about, though I have a theory or two, but I have observed that it definitely does come about.

Typically, I suddenly realise that I have bumped into the same potentially interesting topic several times, from different directions, in quick succession - and I am intrigued, not only by the subject matter, but also by the way the bumps have occurred. If this makes no sense at all to you, then I understand completely, by the way.

The theory? [Let's get this out of the way...]

I reckon that we are constantly impacted by all sorts of things, and there are plentiful coincidences and apparently unlikely areas of overlap, but we don't necessarily notice unless we have some underlying interest or reason to recognise them when the arise. [As a stupid, though useful, simplification, a friend of mine pointed out, correctly, that if you walk through a crowded city centre on a Saturday, it is very probable that you will pass some total strangers multiple times each, but you don't notice because you don't know them and have no reason to recognise them (unless one of them is wearing a pink jacket, or is a Martian, of course). However, if you pass your best drinking buddy, Dave, twice in quick succession you will notice, and probably exchange grins, and make a mental note of what a small world it is (or something equally profound)].

I'm not sure why I bothered to set that theory out - never mind - bear with me.

I've been aware of Brunanburh for some years - it was a dirty great battle, back in 937AD, whose exact location has been a matter of debate for a long time. Recently I've found I keep bumping into Brunanburh - gosh, there it is again - so I recognise that it may have become significant to me - my new drinking buddy. 

Let us discuss the bumps, not necessarily in strict chronological order. These will overlap a bit, which is the whole point of this story, I think - if you are due to have coffee, this might be the time to get one - have a couple of biscuits, too.

Bump 1

My wife has recently been clearing her late mother's house for sale, and we are left with some miscellaneous items. One of these is a sealed box set of DVDs of the BBC's "History of Scotland" from 2008, which I have now borrowed and started to watch. My wife and I are fans of these non-fiction BBC series - I still re-watch the multiple editions of "Coast", which are a constant source of delight to people trapped by lockdown. 

We didn't have the DVDs of A History of Scotland - we watched some of them when the series was transmitted (12 years ago), and we missed a few. They were notable for the director's fixation with certain motifs, which got in the way of our viewing a little; every time Neil Oliver was required to deliver a narrative, looking over his shoulder at camera while walking briskly across a moor somewhere, and every time we got a close-up of some historical character's eyeball, or of blood spattering on a stone floor, or of speeded-up clouds to denote the passage of time, my wife and I would break out into spontaneous ironic cheering, and this was something of a distraction.

I must say that, as a non-native resident of Scotland, an incomer, I have always struggled with Scottish history. It is messy, it is very confusing, it is frequently contentious and it is dominated by legends and tales of heroes which are often wildly inaccurate and add to the difficulty. If I can live with the director's trademark tricks, I could usefully learn something here, so I have come back to the DVDs with some enthusiasm, and greater resolve.

Anyway, second instalment of the series, guess what? That's right - King Constantine II of Scotland and his ally, Olaf Guthfrithson, king of the Vikings - have a massive battle against Athelstane at Brunanburh. OK - excellent. They lose, of course.

Bump 2

My old school chum, Bain, who now lives in North London, has recently become heavily involved with the University of the Third Age (U3A), and has a number of history projects on the boil. Well, simmering. He is preparing some lectures and papers on the Battle of Brunanburh - do I know anything about it? Well, not very much, as it happens, but Bain and I have now exchanged a series of emails on the topic, and this has fired me up a little.

Bump 3

In 2005, an excavation was carried out on the farm where I live, an archeological dig, in fact, and they unearthed a religious settlement and its graveyard (which was founded in the 8th Century by St Baldred, and buried its monks there for a couple of centuries). They also found the grave (and personal remains) of a non-Christian outsider, who is almost certainly the aforementioned Olaf Guthfrithson, who is known to have been killed during a raid on the East Lothian coast in 941AD. Well well - Brunanburh is obviously inescapable - we are almost related by this stage.

Bump 4

When I was a very young chap, I applied to university and was awarded a place at Edinburgh without having to sit my final exams again, so I promptly left school, and got a job until I started at college in the Autumn (this is a particularly bad idea, by the way, but discussion would be inappropriate here). I got a job in the accounts department at the North West division of Cubitt's, the civil engineering and construction firm, whose head office was next door to the Kelvinator factory, on the New Chester Road at Bromborough, on the Wirral, across the river from Liverpool. I knew Bromborough a little, since my Uncle Harold lived there.

At the Cubitt site, we had an old watchman who looked after the joinery shop, and he was a great character. He used to tell us tales of when he worked as a green keeper at Bromborough Golf Club, before the war, and also at a tennis club at (I think) Brimstage, another local village. He told us there had been a great battle there "in prehistoric times" [sic] - they regularly dug up bits of swords, helmets, ancient sandals and bits of horse harness. Naturally, we dismissed all this as an old man's ramblings, but he did tell a good story.

Bump 5

I read recently that Bernard Cornwell, no less, has been adding his enthusiasm and resources to the opportunities for exploration of the old Brunanburh site, which he is convinced is at Bromborough, in the Wirral. Previously, alternative candidate sites were at Sutton Hoo (don't even know where that is) and in a lay-by near Doncaster (which sounds a bit compact for the biggest ever British battle), but Mr Cornwell tells us that the true site overlaps Bromborough Golf Course and the grounds of the old Clatterbridge Hospital, right next to the M53, which is the motorway which runs up the spine of the Wirral to Birkenhead.

Crikey - now you're talking.

Bump, bump, bump. Bain's U3A course, the old groundsman's finds on the golf course, Uncle Harold's house in Bromborough village, Olaf Guthfrithson, the BBC videos and now Mr Cornwell. I think I was predestined to be interested in this lot - I am involved, after all.

Watch this space.


  1. I'd have to put a shout in for Michael Wood's candidate for the site, around where the River Rother meets the Don near Brinsworth, Rotherham. (A hollow called Blue Man's Bower is nearby, which has to be a corruption of ... well, something.) There's no evidence for where the battle actually took place, of course, but in the sagas it did take the Dublin vikings a long time if they only sailed the fairly short distance to the Mersey - as long as it would have taken to go all the way round Scotland to the Humber and sail up it, in fact. Just saying.

    1. Interesting - Blue Man's Bower - mmmm.

      I actually very strongly fancy the battlefield being in my back garden, which would enable me to do a bit of digging in the old rhododendron bed, looking for artifacts and that. I suspect I am not quoted. You would think someone would find something on one of these sites. As I recall, aren't there some problems about the site of Bannockburn? No debris?

    2. I reckon that's the case with a lot of battlefields, they actually covered quite a small area, armies weren't very big and any useful debris would have been smartly hoovered up by the victors afterwards. Recycling was big back in the Dark and Middle Ages, so there's not much to find. Bosworth, for one, moves regularly as the experts change their minds about where it was; Hastings does too, and these were pretty important punch ups.

      There is a strong local tradition in that part of Rotherham of a 'big battle in ancient times' and there are several villages with 'Morthen' in the names, meaning a place of death. But is that from French - mort? Would a battle from 937 be remembered with French-ish place names? Discuss.

  2. Your going to start a right merry debate on the location of this battle. For what it’s worth (I know, not a lot) I’m with the advocates of the west coast. I’ve studied it a fair bit when I was with Regia Anglorum, back in the day. I suspect your green keeper was on to something.

    1. I've been doing some more reading about this - amazing how upset people get when their beliefs (especially their local beliefs) are wobbled! I was enjoying an especially good article about a husband and wife team who made a decent living guiding parties of tourists around the Bosworth battlefield, and it turns out it was all nonsense (or that is this week's version). They were outraged.

    2. The green keeper told us he had contacted Manchester University and a local history group about some of his findings, and they had basically just taken them away - confiscated them. After that he and his colleagues sometimes used to sell stuff to private collections, but he said there wasn't much money in it. He showed me something he claimed was part of a spear (couldn't see it myself!), and he reckoned he had sold part of a helmet to an American collector. Maybe? He must have sold a lot of used golf balls too.

  3. It all sounds rather eerie and pre-destined, though, as an Anglican vicar, I'm not supposed to hold much truck with pre-destination. It also makes you country sound rather ghastly and blood-soaked - mind you, I live a few miles from where two French Catholic saints, Brebeuf and Lalemont, were tortured and killed by the Iroquois, so I suppose even Canada is a bit haunted.

    1. Agreed. I guess a lot of people have lived here over the years, and a lot of stuff happened before things were properly recorded, so there's a load of distortion in the stories. I was brought up with school history which was intended to pump the kids full of patriotic claptrap about the Empire, but had little to do with facts. We all had to learn the dates of events which might never have happened, or certainly not in the way they were represented. We are probably reaping the benefits of that now. The Brits have traditionally regarded education as primarily a way to make kids sit up and face the front, which is why we are crap linguists, among other things.

  4. I believe the technical term for what you describe in your opening paragraph is Apophenia

    1. Hi there - thank you for this. I believe that what you say is interesting, but probably inappropriate. Perhaps I express myself badly.

      Apophenia, as I understand it, is the imagining of unjustified or spurious connections between unrelated things or events. What I was attempting to describe is the identification of apparently real connections from the stream of incidents and circumstances and people that pass us by.

      I shall watch myself more carefully, however! I have for years been interested in the processes of creativity, and in a former life (!) have successfully used formal approaches to lateral analysis and synectics in the solution of business and software design problems.

  5. apologies, I wasn't meaning any offense. but was told many years ago that it the technical term for explaining why we remember the 1 time when we meet an old friend on the bus more than the 1000s of times when we didn't

    1. No worries - if anything I was faintly alarmed rather than offended! I have always associated Apophenia with nut-jobs who try to find the Old Testament in the Beatles' lyrics and similar. Of course, this might describe me very well!

      One of the limitations of Western reasoning and training, I believe, is the constant striving to solve problems by successively eliminating possible solutions which we identify as "wrong" (for whatever reason, however subjective) - this has the advantage that it can avoid wasting a lot of time, but has the major disadvantage that we often have nothing left - we rejected everything, and it's very hard to reconsider something we've already crossed off the flipchart. Obviously, trying to consider everything at the same time is just chaotic, but a little chaos is frequently essential - something to break up accustomed, linear patterns of thought.

      A mistrust of everything which is "unfocused", "irrelevant", "off-topic" and even "childish" is built into us by our education (well, it was by mine), but we do have a need for some random sparks. I suggest that we cannot get by any logical, transactional train of thought from shopping for cheese to Planck's Constant or the Missa Brevis. We need something else. Where are those nut-jobs when we need them?

      Sorry - brain dump over.

  6. Oh! Yes…
    This sounds good… it also looks like your thought process is much like mine.
    The world and the wargames butterfly are always good guides…

    I have been listening to the British History Podcast recently and I have to admit… my butterfly is fluttering a lot…

    I look forward to seeing what you do with this….

    All the best. Aly

    1. Thanks for the link Aly - interesting. True to form, I have ordered up some books - mostly smallish ones, but they look OK. At least part of my interest in this battle is that I spent my schooldays cycling and playing cricket all over the Wirral, and I had relatives there (at West Kirby, Heswall, Bromborough), so have a sort of proprietary interest in the area. The place was stuffed with Vikings back in the day - a lot of the placenames in those parts (Greasby, Irby, Thurstaton...) are derived from the Norse - if someone wants to trace Dingemere - the route by which the Vikings started their return to Dublin, then it is worth noting that one of the local villages, Thingwall, originally was the Field of the Ding, the meeting place for the people's parliament, and Dingesmere is probably a marsh in the Ding area - it might even be the Dee Estuary, which was a busy port area long before the Mersey/ There were a lot of Viking-Irish farmers. Anyway, we'll see how this goes.

      The possible site for the battle in a telephone box in Dumfries seems to have been discounted now.

  7. But does Les Higgins make Vikings?

    Always enjoyable - and informative. Which sounds too much like hard work for me, and nothing at all like Facebook, which is often neither of the above. I shall follow with interest 😉

    1. Hi Marc - I confess I had not considered building any armies for such a period - I'm struggling with the periods I have already! If I do look at gaming the Adventures of Athelstane, it is more likely to be a board game, I think.

      You will be reassured to know that I have only ordered the books that say what I want to read...

      I'm now most of the way through the BBC/Neil Oliver series, and it's pretty good (though it misses out a lot, naturally), but they are still splashing blood (and ink, and gold coins) on stone floors. I had never realised before what a total knob Walter Scott was.

  8. Tony, you are on to something and perhaps your rate of 'bumps' has increased as it is a bit flavour of the month at the moment? What do I mean? Here is a bump 6, in two parts, c/- my in-box last week.
    - Karwansaray's book of the month is:
    Michael Livingston, Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021).
    - They included a link to a recent-past issue of mediaeval warfare
    I had not heard of the battle before this!
    Regards, James

    1. Hi James - I've ordered the Livingston book, hasn't arrived yet. I understand the foreword is written by the Cornwellmeister - there is a tie-in with his "The Last Kingdom" series of novels, also available on DVD, as audiobooks, and you can get a themed pizza (that last bit is a lie). These books were originally issued in the US under a different title, which is getting a bit confusing, and the thrust is mostly 9th C and King Alfred equivalents. I mention this only to explain why I am looking a bit sideways at Mr Cornwell's enthusiasm...

      I find that one of my surviving relatives at Heswall, who is a keen walker, has a few friends involved with Wirral Archeology, who have put a lot of work into this stuff. They are playing it pretty quiet, since they do not want a horde of guys with metal detectors digging up the entire county - at least apart from themselves. One spoiler might be (I don't know) that the golf course to be checked out is actually Brackenwood, at Bebington, but we're talking of a difference of only a couple of miles. My old greenkeeper may well have worked at Brackenwood - personally, I wouldn't know a golf course from a battlefield. [It is worth noting that Brackenwood is a public course owned by the local authority, while Bromborough is private, so Brackenwood might be a better place to have a battle, especially if there were Scots and Vikings present...]

      My relative will ask if WA have any publications - their website is a bit sparse (I haven't looked at their Facebook page). If a big Viking guy knocks at my door one night I'll know to back off.

    2. PS - James - I checked out your book recommendation for the 1814 campaign, and was suitably impressed - I have bought it - splendid book - thanks for that.

    3. That's great Tony. Pleased that a recommendation was worth it!
      I always look sideways at Mr Cornwell's stuff (did I type that aloud,... to steal one of yours?!).