Never Greater Slaughter: Did the battle that secured England’s future take place in Wirral?

Never Greater Slaughter’ is a fascinating study of one of the most significant conflicts in the long history of the British Isles, where Athelstan, king of England, defeated an alliance of the Viking and Celtic Kings of Dublin, Scotland and Strathclyde in a battle that secured England’s future as an independent, unified kingdom.

Late in AD 937, four armies met in a place called Brunanburh. On one side stood the shield-wall of the expanding kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. On the other side stood a remarkable alliance of rival kings – at least two from across
the sea – who’d come together to destroy them once and for all. The stakes were no less than the survival of the
dream that would become England.

The armies were massive. The violence, when it began, was enough to shock a violent age. Brunanburh may not today
have the fame of Hastings, Crécy or Agincourt, but those later battles, fought for England, would not exist were it not
for the blood spilled this day.

Generations later it was still called, quite simply, the ‘great battle’. But for centuries, its location has been lost.

Today, an extraordinary effort, uniting enthusiasts, historians, archaeologists, linguists, and other researchers – amateurs and professionals, experienced and inexperienced alike – may well have found the site of the long-lost battle of Brunanburh, over a thousand years after its bloodied fields witnessed history.

The author of the book, Dr. Michael Livingston, holds degrees in History, Medieval Studies, and English, and he teaches the military and cultural history of the Middle Ages at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina.

Michael Livingston visited Wirral to find where the battle took place. “The scale of what was being uncovered became clear to me on a beautiful July day in 2019, when I pulled a rental car into a parking lot beside St Andrew’s Church in Bebington.

“With me were two colleagues: Kelly DeVries, a medieval military historian from Loyola University in Maryland, and Robert Woosnam-Savage, a curator from the Royal Armouries in Leeds and a renowned specialist in the weapons of medieval conflict. Both men are good friends, but more than that they are exceedingly strong scholars.”

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Michael continued, “What had brought us to Bebington was a promise of artifacts that had recently been found on the very fields where, in The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, my fellow researchers and I had suggested that the battle of Brunanburh had been fought. Enthusiastic members of Wirral Archaeology had begun field work investigations. They’d found things.

“Even as we were parking our car in Bebington to see the finds, Kelly, Robert and I thought it unlikely that we’d see anything we could definitively tie to Brunanburh. As confident as I was in my own Brunanburh research, the chance of finding artifacts from any battle of the period is vanishingly small. We’re talking about lost-needle-in-a-lost-haystack odds. Wirral Archaeology had found things, no question, but the likelihood that those things were battle remains… well, as we got out of the rental car we quietly made plans on how to give them encouragement on the search while we let them down easy on the actual finds.

“Greeting us at the door of St. Andrew’s Church was Graham Burgess, the man who’d invited me to look at what Wirral Archaeology had found. We shook hands. We saw a few things on that local site. Then, about an hour later, we headed towards a different location to see the majority of the artifacts they’d gathered.”

None of them were even remotely prepared for what they were about to see.

“In the end, we met numerous members of Wirral Archaeology – all of them good people who wanted to do the work the right way. And we were shown hundreds of the artifacts that they’d already pulled out of the ground. It was astonishing. I doubt I’ll ever experience such a moment in my professional life again.”, Michael said.

As amazing as the artifacts looked, though, it’s important to understand that archaeology – like the earth from which it pulls its secrets – tends to work slowly. “Objects that look like one thing might be something else. In Never Greater Slaughter, I liken such unearthed objects to a Rorschach Test one tends to see in them what one wants to see in them.”, Michael explained.

Getting past all that takes time and money – neither of which has been aided by the pandemic. “Still, bit by bit, Wirral Archaeology has been getting to the truth of these objects. Among them, for instance, are the kinds of arrowheads used by Vikings from Ireland in battles before the year 950, which for Brunanburh – a battle fought in 937 between the English and Vikings from Ireland – is, well, interesting.”, Michael said. “Another artifact is a zoomorphic decorative strap end that dates to between the mid-8th and 11th centuries. There’s an Abbasid dirham from 8th-century Baghdad: a coinage found in other 10th-century Viking hoards. And so much more.”

So, did the Battle of Brunanburh take place in Wirral? “What Wirral Archaeology is finding, … seems right on target. And it’s right where it ought to be.”, Michael said.

Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England by Michael Livingston is available today, Thursday 13 May from Osprey publishing – £20 Hardback

A modern re-enactor depicting an English warrior of some status in the early tenth century. Image credit: (Richard Cutts. Model: Dave Capener of Wirral Skip Felagr )
Detail of John Speed’s 1611 map of the Wirral, showing Brunburgh on the eastern shore. Note also the extension of the sea at Wallasey Pool at upper right, effectively separating Wallasey from the peninsula. Image credit: (Stanford University Libraries, CC0 1.0)

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