January 10, 2014, by Emma Rayner

TV historian and University scientist do battle over location of ancient ‘Great War’

TV historian, Michael Wood, has locked horns with University of Nottingham Viking DNA expert, Professor Steve Harding, over the location of a 10th century battle that led to the unification of England.

In 937 the rule of Aethelstan, king of the English, was seriously threatened by an invasion by a Northern Alliance led by Olaf the Viking King of Dublin together with Constantine, King of Alba and Owen, King of Strathclyde. This huge and bloody conflict   became known as the ‘Great War’ of the British Dark Ages. The northern invaders were defeated at the Battle of Brunanburh, probably in the autumn of 937, with heavy losses suffered on both sides But despite its importance in the story of Britain, no one knows for certain where the action took place.

Over the last decade, a team from The University of Nottingham has been working on DNA and place-name evidence, and has established the case for a Norse community living on the Wirral in the years leading up to the war of 937. Gradually, the argument has been widely accepted that a site close to Bromborough near Birkenhead is probably the place where the Northern Alliance were beaten.  In the near contemporary account of the battle – an Anglo Saxon Poem – only 3 places are mentioned – Brunanburh  – where the battle took place, Dublin – where the raiders escaped too – and Dingesmere, the place of escape.  Although Brunanburh is the old name for Bromborough, nobody knew what Dingesmere referred to until Steve made the suggestion that it might have something to do with the nearby village of Thingwall, the old place of Assembly or “Thing” of the Vikings: so “Dingesmere” could be “Thingsmere” – the mere or wetland/waterway overlooked or controlled by the Thing.  With Dr. Paul Cavill and Professor Judith Jesch of the School of English this suggestion was published – the theory is also supported by the fact that Wirral is a short sea journey from Dublin.

 Now, in BBC Radio 4’s Making History programme, 10th Century English history expert, Michael Wood, has questioned the conclusions made by the team from Nottingham and presented his own theory that the battle happened in Yorkshire. You can hear this fascinating but friendly battle of the scientists and historians here.  

Steve has a website about the battle here.

Michael Wood wrote the forward for Steve’s book with Mark Jobling and Turi King, Viking DNA, which has now been reprinted by CRC Press.

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