Seven Kings Must Die and the Ongoing Search for Brunanburh

Michael McComb

Background to Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh remains one of the most important battles of the Anglo-Saxon period. Taking place in 937, as Æthelstan, England's first king (924-939), defeated a great northern alliance, including kings from Dublin, Strathclyde and Scotland, it is seen by many as a critical moment in the process of English unification. Contemporary chroniclers likewise understood the magnitude of this battle, with one scribe commenting, 'No slaughter yet was greater made ever in this island', another simply describing it as 'the great war'. As with many historical figures and events in 9th and 10th century England, the battle has received more public attention in recent years due to Bernard Cornwell's historical novels, The Saxon Stories and the subsequent TV Series, The Last Kingdom (2015-2022). The TV series was followed up with a movie earlier this year titled Seven Kings Must Die, centred on Brunanburh. The title comes from a prophecy earlier told to Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the main protagonist of the movie in The Saxon Stories: ‘Seven kings will die, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, seven kings and the woman you love. That is your fate.’ (Death of Kings (Book Six), by Bernard Cornwell, 2011). In the case of Brunanburh, it may also be a reference to a contemporary poem written about the battle, claiming that five kings and seven earls died at Brunanburh. The movie received mixed reviews and included several historical inaccuracies, as one would expect from a historical action-thriller seeking to cram 13 years of history (924-937) into two hours. The movie decided to locate Brunanburh on the Wirral, which is controversial to some, as we do not actually know where the battle took place. This has been a point of dispute for historians and scholars for several decades. While many would agree that it took place on the Wirral, there have also been at least 30 alternative locations put forward as the battle site, all the way from southern Scotland to Devon. This article will highlight some of the key historical inaccuracies regarding the movie and analyse the ongoing disputes regarding the location of Brunanburh. Historically, Æthelstan's reign began in 924 after a brief succession dispute with his younger brother. The kingdom he inherited was primarily formed by his father, Edward the Elder (899-924) and grandfather, Alfred the Great (871-899). It was significantly larger than any previous sustained Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Within its borders were the formerly independent kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex, covering all of England south of the River Humber. Edward's chief rival toward the end of his reign was King Sihtric I of York (921-927). Edward and Sihtric’s families, the House of Wessex and the Uí Ímair (the Dynasty of Ivar the Boneless) had been rivals since the Viking invasions of the 860s. While the House of Wessex had expanded into East Anglia and Mercia, the Uí Ímair had established smaller kingdoms in Dublin, Mann and York, from where they could dominate Western Ireland, the Irish Sea and Northern England. However, in 926, Sihtric I visited Tamworth, Mercia and married Æthelstan's sister (possibly named Edith), signalling peace between the two rulers. The following year, when Sihtric died, Æthelstan took the opportunity to conquer the kingdom of York, ousting Sihtric brother and heir, King Guthrith of Dublin (921-934). This reinvigorated the rivalry between the two families. Æthelstan then would go further and gain the submission of the rulers of Bamburgh, Alba (Scotland), Strathclyde and the Welsh kingdoms of Deheubarth, Gwent and Gwynedd. Several of these rulers also attended Æthelstan’s court, using the title 'subregulus' (junior king), recognising their inferiority to Æthelstan, who began to use the title 'Rex Totius Britanniæ' (King of All Britain). These rulers came from proud kingdoms with heroic ancestors. To many, Æthelstan imposing his overlordship upon them was nothing short of a humiliation. Thus, in the mid-930s, Guthrith's successor, King Anlaf of Dublin (934-939), began to form an anti-Æthelstan alliance made up of England's Celtic vassals in Scotland and Strathclyde, as well as his loyal Viking followers from Ireland and possibly the Hebrides. In 937, Anlaf's great northern alliance invaded England. Æthelstan raised his armies from Mercia and Wessex and met Anlaf’s alliance near an unspecified location named Brunanburh. At Brunanburh, he, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 'obtained eternal glory' in defeating the northern alliance, overseeing the deaths of five rival kings and seven rival earls.
Seven Kings Must Die and the Ongoing Search for Brunanburh
A contemporary illustration (c. 930) of King Æthelstan presenting the work of the Venerable Bede to St Cuthbert

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Seven Kings Must Die and the Ongoing Search for Brunanburh
Bamburgh Castle today

Uhtred, Hywel and Ingilmundr

The movie loosely sticks to the historical story. However, certain aspects have been altered to add a particular drama to the storyline. The primary inaccuracy, as is usually the case in The Last Kingdom, is Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a mostly fictional character created mainly by the writer of the original novels on which the show is based, Bernard Cornwell. In the movie, Uhtred, as Lord of Bebbanburg, is central to the politics of this period. He begins helping Æthelstan during the success dispute of 924, then finds himself reluctant to accept Æthelstan as the ruler of Northumbria, causing a conflict between the two men, leading to Uhtred's exile and his loss of lands and title. He would eventually reconcile with the king and led the English army at Brunanburh, after which he accepted Æthelstan’s rule over Northumbria, formally unifying the Kingdom of England. Historically, in 924, Bebbanburg, or Bamburgh as it was then called, was the seat of power of the ruler of an independent northern English realm covering parts of modern-day northern England and Southern Scotland. Bamburgh was independent of the Wessex, yet according to an 11th-century source, its rulers enjoyed positive relations with the House of Wessex. Ealdred, ruler of Bamburgh (913-933), was amongst those who submitted to Æthelstan after his conquest of Viking York in 927. The rulers of Bamburgh seemed to have been more welcoming of West Saxon power in the north than their northern neighbours, perhaps because Wessex had been a robust anti-Viking ally. The Ealdorman of Bamburgh at the time of Brunanburh is thought to have been Ealdred’s brother, named Oswulf (934-954/63). While Uhtred, in the movie, as Lord of Bebbanburg, was present at Brunanburh as one of Æthelstan's chief lieutenants, we cannot say the same of Oswulf. Unfortunately, we have no record of Bamburgh's involvement in Brunanburh. Bamburgh's conflicts with the Uí Ímair would make it unlikely they joined the invaders. They had been pro-Wessex and anti-Viking since the early 10th century. Oswulf is also recorded attending Æthelstan's court several times in the 930s and would loyally serve Æthelstan's brother, King Eadred (946-955). When the Viking kings of York remerged in the mid-10th century, Oswulf finally defeated them, opening the north to Wessex again. Thus, while Oswulf may not have been involved in the fighting as Uhtred was, he likely hoped for a West Saxon victory. The same could be said of King Hywel of Deheubarth, who ruled a significant portion of Wales during the 930s-940s. Hywel, in the movie, is present at Brunanburh, serving Æthelstan. From a modern perspective, it may be natural to assume Hywel instead would have wanted an independent Wales, making him sympathetic to the invaders. The Welsh poem Armes Prydein, written near the time of Brunanburh, indeed championed this cause, which suggests many in Wales opposed English power. However, Hywel was a relatively pro-English ruler of Wales. He accepted Æthelstan as his overlord, attended his court, had some of his coins minted in England, and joined him on his invasion of Scotland in 934, but is not recorded at Brunanburh on either side. While the movie is incorrect in portraying him at Brunanburh, he likely would have favoured Æthelstan as English support was vital for securing and expanding his power over the several smaller Welsh kingdoms he ruled. Hywel's view may not have been shared with the other Welsh kings, but his influence was enough to ensure they did not join the invaders. Another historically inaccurate character in the movie is Ingilmundr. This character is of Danish origin but was a Christian convert. He is the commander of a strategically important fortress in North-West Mercia on the Irish Sea and rose to become Æthelstan's chief advisor, closest friend, and lover. He was later revealed to be a spy for Anlaf, working from the inside to destroy Æthelstan's regime, but was captured at Brunanburh and executed by his former lover. Ingilmundr was a real historical figure. Originating from Norse-Ireland, he was an active Viking in North-West Mercia in the early 10th century. However, he had little interaction with Æthelstan. Rather, he was an ally of Æthelstan's aunt, Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia, who allowed Ingilmundr and his Norse-Irish followers to settle near Chester; in exchange, he was charged with defending the coast from Viking raiders. However, as in the movie, he later betrayed his patron, trying and failing to seize the town of Chester.
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The Search for Brunanburh

The final battle in the movie, Brunanburh, was fought on the Wirral. However, the issue with this is that we do not know where the battle occurred. The contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded a battle 'by Brunanburh' without explaining where 'Brunanburh' was located. The first person who provided information on the battle's location was John of Worcester in Chronicon ex chronicis, completed in the 1120s. According to John, the invaders ‘entered the mouth of the [River] Humber with a powerful fleet'. This has led some historians, including Michael Wood (University of Manchester), to suggest that the most likely location for the battle was in Southern Yorkshire. Wood's version of events is that Anlaf sailed up the River Humber, seized the town of York, named himself King and gained the support of the locals, then marched south with his Celtic allies and met Æthelstan in battle between the borders of Mercia and York. Yet, one should be wary of solely relying on John of Worcester for the battle's location, as he was writing almost 200 years after the battle. This time gap between the battle and John's chronicle leads us to ask where he obtained his information regarding the river Humber. Some historians have argued that he made it up, as there are no prior records which make any suggestion of the Humber route. This has been countered by Wood, who believes John had access to a northern chronicle composed at York, now lost to us. Those who doubt John's account claim he assumed an invasion via the River Humber was the most likely route of a Viking invasion, as he was influenced by the accounts of the invasions of Harald Hardrada in 1066 and King Sweyn II of Denmark in 1069, both of whom entered England via the Humber. Thus, John assumed the invasion of 937 followed the same route. The alternative location to South Yorkshire is the Wirral. This was first suggested by Albert Hugh Smith in 1937. The argument for the Wirral location is based on the name of the town of Bromborough, Merseyside, being derived from the Old English name 'Brunanburh'. The Wirral was also an area of Scandinavian settlement and was thought to have a harbour on its northern coast. Thus, it was a friendly and accessible landing site for a Viking invasion and was only a short distance for the Dublin fleet to travel. The main criticism of the Wirral location, however, is that there is no hard evidence for it. It is based on assumptions and what would have been pragmatic for the military leaders involved. The Bromborough-Brunanburh name connection is also not accepted by all scholars. Part of the dispute between the Yorkshire and Wirral locations is regarding the nature of the Brunanburh campaign. For Wood and the Yorkshire advocates, the war was part of the broader conflict between the House of Wessex and the Uí Ímair for control of York and, by extension, northern England, which lasted from 927 (Æthelstan's conquest of York) to 952 (the ousting of the last Uí Ímair king of York). During this war, when the Uí Ímair later reclaimed York, many battles and diplomatic agreements took place in Yorkshire. The Roman Road going from York-Castleford-Derby was also often used by both sides to march north and south into enemy territory, making the York-Mercia border region (South Yorkshire) near the York-Castleford-Derby route a possible zone of conflict. If Anlaf's objective was York, it was indeed easiest for him to sail around Northern Britain to York via the river Humber. At York, he could proclaim himself king, take oaths of loyalty from the local lords, and then, with their support, march south to face the English rather than landing in the Wirral, from where an English army would have stood between him and York. However, for Michael Livingston (Military College of South Carolina), who advocates for the Wirral location, this war was not merely part of the ongoing conflict between the House of Wessex and the Uí Ímair over York. Instead, it was a unique one-off attempt by the northern Celtic kings, in alliance with several Viking warlords, to crush the power of Æthelstan. Taking York was undoubtedly part of this plan but was not the central focus and was of less interest to the Celts. Livingston points out the uniqueness of Brunanburh, which makes it distinct from the broader conflict between the House of Wessex and the Uí Ímair, particularly the size of the invading fleet, claimed to be 615 ships and the involvement of Scotland and Strathclyde. These northern Celtic kingdoms barely played any role in the conflicts between the House of Wessex and the Uí Ímair before and after Brunanburh. As Christian kingdoms, who had both suffered at the hands of Viking attacks, they were not natural Viking allies. King Constantine II of Scotland’s predecessor had died at the hands of Viking raiders. Constantine himself fought the Uí Ímair in 904, killing Anlaf’s cousin and faced Anlaf’s uncle in 918 at the Battle of Corbridge. Yet now, Constantine had been humiliated by Æthelstan, who, in addition to making Constantine a sub-king, had invaded Scotland in 934. Constantine was likely willing to forget the past in order to harm Æthelstan, who was now a greater threat to Scotland than the Uí Ímair. According to Livingston, the goal of Anlaf and his allies was not merely York; it was the whole of the Viking lands (the Danelaw), which had been occupied in the 870s before the West Saxon resurgence in the 910s-920s. The ideal location for this broad coalition to rendezvous would be the Wirral, being close to both Anlaf in Dublin and the King of Strathclyde and as close to the Scots as York was. For Anlaf in particular, the voyage to the Wirral was only about 125 miles, compared to the 930-mile journey to York, which would have allowed more opportunities for his fleet to go hungry, be shipwrecked, be lost or mutiny. There were also several other strategic advantages to landing the invading fleet on the Wirral. It was also near enough for kings in Northern Wales to join with the fleet if they wished to oppose Æthelstan, something that Anlaf and his allies may have hoped for before the battle. This region of Mercia, near Chester, had also previously demonstrated hostility toward the House of Wessex, rebelling against Æthelstan's father in 924 and thus may have been unwilling to oppose the invaders. Livingston further points out that if the River Humber and the town of York were used by the invaders, it would be strange for early scribes not to mention this, as both are well-known landmarks in England. Instead, the lack of mention of any definitive location would suggest that the battle was fought in an obscure and not well-known location. The Wirral fits this, as it was away from the centres of power in Winchester and York and had long been a contested border region between Mercia and Northumbria. Unfortunately, the site of the battle may never be discovered. Yet, there is no sign on either the Wirral or Yorkshire sides of the argument of giving up. Seven Kings Must Die will likely give this mystery more attention and interest from the public. Indeed, both sides are sharpening their blades. Michael Wood is still preparing his much anticipated and long-awaited biography of King Æthelstan, which will undoubtedly reassert the Yorkshire argument. While local archaeologists in the Wirral, having set up 'The search for the Battle of Brunanburh' project, grow more confident in the Wirral location with each Viking artefact they find. The movie provides us with a heart-warming and conclusive ending, where Uhtred makes his peace with Æthelstan, finally forming a united Kingdom of England. We are not told if Uhtred lives after the movie, yet his work was done, and the mission that Alfred the Great dreamt of at the start of the series was fulfilled. However, historically, this was not the end of the story. Æthelstan would only live two more years, dying in 939, opening up the north to Anlaf's return and a continued war over control of York, unleashing chaos in northern England for the next two decades. Seven different kings would rule York in the 15 years that followed Æthelstan’s death. The town was only fully restored to West Saxon control in 954, with the death of the last king of York, Erik Bloodaxe.
Seven Kings Must Die and the Ongoing Search for Brunanburh
Map of England c. 878-900 AD. The area in red represents the region targeted by Anlaf according to Livingston.
Seven Kings Must Die and the Ongoing Search for Brunanburh

Michael McComb

Michael McComb is a recent History MA graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University. He specialises in Anglo-Saxon History and recently wrote his dissertation on the relationship between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex in the 9th and early 10th century. He can be found on Instagram @michaelpatrickmccomb.
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