Historic Hastings Assessed

Roundup: Talking About History

Ben Hoyle, The Times (London), 12/20/04

Long before Hastings, Bannockburn and Waterloo, another battle shaped England's national destiny -but its location has been a mystery for more than 800 years.

The bloodbath at Brunanburh in AD937 is often cited as the moment when Englishness was born, as the main Saxon tribes united for the first time to defeat an invasion force of Scottish, Welsh and Norwegian Vikings from Dublin.

Now research suggests that this epic confrontation took place by what is now a golf course on Merseyside, a millennium before the Beatles and football put the area on the international tourist map.

Beyond the belching towers of Stanlow oil refinery in the narrow Wirral peninsula lies the village of Bebington, a suburb of Birkenhead.

"This is where I believe the fighting took place," Steve Harding said, gazing out across Bebington heath. Professor Harding, 49, is a scientist and a Wirral native, who runs the National Centre for Molecular Hydrodynamics in Nottingham but has been obsessed with the Vikings for nearly 30 years.

The only clues to the battle's location were two place names mentioned in a contemporary account in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Brunanburh itself could have been Bromborough in Wirral but other historians had suggested locations in Scotland, Yorkshire, Northamptonshire and Lancashire. John of Worcester, writing in the 12th century, thought that it was on Humberside.

But nobody had convincingly identified Dingesmere, from which the invaders fled in disarray into the Irish Sea.

Together with Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at Nottingham University, and Paul Cavill, the research fellow for the English Place Names Society, Professor Harding has published a paper arguing that"Ding" refers to the Viking meeting place or"Thing" at modern-day Thingwall off the A551 in Wirral. The word would have been pronounced"Ding" by Viking settlers who had acquired a Celtic accent.

Dingesmere could then mean"marshland of the Thing", a name that warned travellers of the dangerous marshland of the Dee near by. Professor Harding's theory will form the backbone of an account of the battle which he has been commissioned to write by Cambridge University Press.

Today the grassy heath which he believes was once the Chronicle's"place of slaughter" is littered with debris. Crows wheel overhead and the only sound that rises above the hum of traffic is the distant thwack of golf balls.

Professor Harding says that the forces of Olaf Guthfrithsson, the Viking king of Dublin, King Constantine II of the Scots and King Owain the Bold of the Strathclyde Britons were finally cornered by a combined Saxon army under Athelstan, King of Wessex and Alfred the Great's grandson.

The starting positions for the battle are unclear but the"English" forces probably lined up towards the back of the heath. The invaders almost certainly made their stand on a slight ridge just below the woods on Storeton Hill looking down over what is now Brackenwood golf course.

The Chronicle recounts how the two armies advanced, forming a wall with their wooden shields. The wealthy had swords and chain mail; the rank and file had to rely on short stabbing spears, daggers and simple helmets.

The English broke through and began the pursuit, chasing their quarry up what is now the fairway of the par 4 11th hole.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:"Never yet on this island has there been a greater slaughter." When it was over Athelstan and his brother Edmund returned to Wessex, leaving behind" corpses for the dark black-coated raven, horny-beaked, to enjoy".

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