Discretion and deceit: a re-examination of a military stratagem in Egils saga

Discretion and deceit: a re-examination of a military stratagem in Egils saga

By Ian McDougall

The Middle Ages in the Northwest: papers presented at an international conference sponsored by the Centres of Medieval Studies at the Universities of Liverpool and Toronto, edited by Tom Scott and Pat Starkey (Oxford: Leopard’s Head Press, 1995)

The last three decades have witnessed the publication of a great many valuable studies of the nature and extent of Scandinavian settlement in the north-west of England during the Viking Age. Particularly in the area of onomastics, evidence for Scandinavian settlement both north and south of the Solway Firth has been thoroughly investigated. W.F.H. Nicolaisen, for example, has demonstrated the close relationship between the distribution of Scandinavian place-name elements in south-west Scotland and corresponding onomastic patterns south of the border in Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire.l W.H. Pearsall has studied the distribution of place-names in Cumberland in relation to local geology, flora and fauna to show that Scandinavians in these regions tended to settle areas better suited for herding than for agriculture.2 Detailed evidence of Scandinavian settlement patterns and the survival of Norse as a dominant language has been presented in, for example, studies of place-names in the Isle of Man by Margaret Gelling and Basil Megaw,3 in John Dodgson’s examinations of Cheshire place-names,4 and Melville Richards’ investigation of Scandinavian place-names in north-east Wales.5  A complete record of the large body of onomastic research in the field to that date was made available in 1985 with the appearance of Gillian Fellows Jensen’s survey, Scandinavian settlement names in the North-West.6 Our knowledge of the Scandinavian presence in north-western England has been similarly advanced in recent years by R. I. Page’s several studies of the runic inscriptions on the Isle of Man,7 by the publication of new archaeological research on Man by, for instance, Marshall Cubbon,8 James Graham-Campbell,9 and Sir David Wilson,l0 by Steve Dickinson’s report on the archaeology of Scandinavian Cumbria,11 by Nick Higham’s surveys of evidence of viking settlement in the North-West,12 and by Richard Bailey’s work on Viking Age sculpture in the North and North-West:13  a large body of evidence distributed throughout the region, and for that reason of comparable importance to the place-name material.

When we turn to the area of written accounts of viking invasion of and settlement in the north-west of England, however, the pickings are rather slim. There is only one clear, though rather indirect, reference made to viking raids in the North-West in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, in the entries for 875 in all versions of the Chronicle except `F’. There it is noted that, while wintering in Northumbria by the River Tyne, the Danish leader Healfdan and his men `made frequent raids among the Picts and the Strathclyde Britons’,14 forays which must have taken them through parts of Cumbria and Dumfriesshire, although the chroniclers make no mention of Danes settling in that area either then or at a later date. Similarly, there is an interesting note in the eleventh-century Historia de Sancto Cuthberto to the effect that, some time in the early years of the tenth century, a certain Ælfred son of Brihtwulf fled east over the Pennines (presumably from Cumbria) to escape from `pirates’.15 Apart from scant and oblique references such as these to viking penetration of the North-West in English, Irish and Welsh annals, there are no reliable historical records of viking activity in the region. Perhaps because no wealthy monasteries with scriptoria had been established in north-west England by the tenth century, the history of the region during this period has for the most part been left unwritten. Whatever the reason, for reliable information about the Scandinavian presence in this part of Britain we must depend entirely upon non-literary sources such as the archaeological and onomastic evidence I have already mentioned.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and it is perhaps only to be expected that the less there is to say about a subject, the greater the likelihood that someone will feel compelled to say something (which goes some way toward explaining why I am writing this paper). Thus, for instance, some historians, frustrated by the lack of a detailed written account of the vikings in Lakeland, have consoled themselves by lavishing attention upon the story of the viking Hingamund recounted in the collection of Irish annals known as The three fragments, which mentions the expulsion of Hingamund and his troops from Ireland (apparently around the year 902), and describes their eventual settlement near Chester, where `the Queen of the Saxons’, named Edelfrida, and presumably to be identified with Æþelflaed of Mercia, is said to have granted these viking emigres land.16  In their zeal to illuminate a dark corner of English history, some devotees of this account are undaunted by the minor inconveniences that this event is not mentioned anywhere else17 and that, although there may be a grain of historical truth in all this, The three fragments is a far from ideal historical record – a clearly modernized collection of largely legendary material based on John O’Donovan’s nineteenth-century copy of a transcript made in 1643 by one Duald MacFirbis from a now lost, fragmentary manuscript, the date and provenance of which are unknown.18

Considerably more historians’ ink has been spilt over the years in debating the historical reliability of chapters 51-54 of another late composition, the thirteenth-century Icelandic text, Egils saga Skallagrimssonar. This part of the saga is an account of the victory of the English king Athelstan over a combined force of Norsemen and Scots on an unidentified battlefield referred to in the saga as `Vinheiðr’. The battle described in Egils saga has generally (if by sceptical historians only reluctantly) been accepted to be the same as the historical battle of Brunanburh, fought in 937 between Athelstan (accompanied by his brother Edmund), and a confederacy of Dublin Norse under Olafr Guðfriðsson, Scots led by king Constantine II and probably Strathclyde Welsh under Eugenius (or ‘Owen’) . Although the account in Egils saga differs from what can be gleaned from English,. Irish and Welsh annals, by and large it agrees with what is known of the historical battle of Brunanburh, and is striking in its narrative detail. The site of the battlefield has never been identified, although over thirty locations have been proposed.19 I shall not rehearse the last century of speculation regarding the location of Brunanburh, and certainly have no intention of compounding the problem by proposing a favourite site of my own. However, I should like to take advantage of the fact that a good case has been made, by A. H. Smith and John Dodgson, for the identification of Brunanburh with Bromborough on the Mersey shore of the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire,20 and use this identification as an excuse for discussing the Icelandic account of the battle in connection with the fragmentary historical record of vikings in the North-West. I wish to consider in particular various interpretations of topographic details mentioned in the description of events leading up to the battle itself, and so it will be necessary to rehearse the main points of this episode in the saga.

In the Icelandic account we are told that a Scottish king by the name of Olafr rauði (`the red’) invades England and defeats two earls whom Athelstan has set over Northumbria, Alfgeirr and Goðrekr by name. On hearing of Olifr’s success, two of Athelstan’s Welsh earls, with the suspiciously Norse-looking names Hringr and Aðils,21 desert the English king’s ranks and defect to Olafr’s side with a large body of men. Faced with an overwhelming enemy force and desertion from his ranks, Athelstan asks advice of his counsellors in the field, who decide that the king himself should return south to muster reinforcements. In the meantime (however unlikely this may seem), the eponymous hero of the saga, the Icelander Egill Skallagrimsson and his brother Þorolfr are left in charge of the viking troops they have led into service under the English king, and earl Alfgeirr is left in command of his own troops. The English side now devises a stratagem for stalling the enemy until the arrival of fresh troops, although it is not clear whether this tactic has been hit upon by the remaining English commanders or, as the Icelandic author no doubt means to suggest, by the cunning and resourceful Icelanders Athelstan is lucky enough to have in his employ. At any rate, it is worth examining at least the first part of the description of this ruse, which reads as follows:

And when Malsteinn heard all this, then he held a meeting with his leaders and advisers, and asked what would be the most expedient course to take. He told the whole gathering in detail what he had learned of the movements of the Scots king and his great host . . . And that plan was adopted, that king Abalsteinn should return and travel through the south of England and bring his own levies north up the length of the country, because they realized that otherwise they would be slow in mustering as big an army as was needed if the king himself did not call out reinforcements. And the king put the chieftains porolfr and Egill in charge of the army which was already assembled. They were to control the company which the vikings had brought to the king, but Alfgeirr himself still had charge of his own troops . . .

Then they sent an envoy to king Olifr to deliver a message that king Abalsteinn wishes to `hazel out’ a battlefield for him, and challenge him to battle on Vinheibr by Vinuskogar and that he wishes that they should not raid his land, and that whoever has victory in the battle should rule over England. He stipulated that a week was to elapse before they should meet in battle, but that whoever should arrive first should wait for his opponent for a week. And it was the custom then that once a field was `hazelled’ for a king, that he could not raid without dishonour before the battle was ended. King Olafr complied and halted his army, did not raid, and waited for the appointed day. Then he moved his army to Vinheiðr. A fort stood to the north of the heath. King Olafr established himself there in the fort, and had the greatest part of his host there, because around it was a wide expanse of country, and to him it seemed better there for supplying provisions which the army needed to have. And he sent men of his up onto the heath where a place had been arranged for the battle. They were to select tent sites, and make ready before the rest of their army came up. But when those men came to the place where the field was hazelled, there were hazel stakes set up there over the entire area to mark off where the battle was to be. It was necessary to take care in picking out the place, so that it should be level where a great army was to assemble. Where the battle was to be it was in fact the case that there was a level heath, but on one side of it a river flowed down and on the other side of it was a great wood. But where it was the shortest distance between the wood and the river, and that was a very long space, there king Malsteinn’s men had pitched their tents, so that they stretched the whole way between the wood and the river. They had set up their tents in such a way that there were no men in every third tent, and few in any of them at that. And when king Olafr’s men came up to them, they had a crowd of men in front of all the tents, and Olafr’s men could not go into them. Aðalsteinn’s men said that all their tents were full of men, so that their troop had hardly any space there. But their tents were so high that one could not see up over them to find out whether they were many or a few rows deep. They thought that there must be a great host of men there. King Olafr’s men pitched their tents north of the hazels; and all the way to that point the land sloped downward somewhat. Aðalsteinn’s men said day after day that their king was on the point of arriving or had arrived at the fort which lay to the south of the heath. Reinforcements joined them both day and night.

When the time agreed upon had elapsed, king Aðalsteinn’s men send messengers to meet with king Olafr with these words, that king Aðalsteinn is ready for battle and has an immense army, but he sends word to king Olafr that he did not wish that they should engage in such a great slaughter as was impending.  He proposed that Olafr should rather go home to Scotland, and Aðalsteinn will give him as a pledge of friendship a silver shilling for every plough of land in his kingdom and he wishes that they would establish friendship between them.  But when the messengers reach king Olafr, he had begun to make ready his army, and intended to ride out; but when they delivered his message, the king halted his movement for that day.  He sat in council, the leaders of the army with him.  Men were of entirely different opinions.  Some were very eager that they should accept his offer.  They said that it would have turned out a most successful expedition if they returned home after receiving such a great payment from Aðalsteinn. Some held back and said that Aðalsteinn would offer much more the next time if this was not accepted; and the latter counsel was adopted.  Then the messengers asked king Olafr to grant them time to meet with king Aðalsteinn again, and find out whether he was willing to pay out more in order that there might be peace.  They asked for a truce of one day for riding back, a second day for discussion, and a third for the return journey.  The king granted them that.22

The messengers return and make Olafr an even better offer.  He demands further tribute from the English.  The English envoys agree to convey this demand to Athelstan, on condition that yet another three-day truce be granted to allow time for negotiation.  Olafr agrees and sends his own messengers off to the English camp to witness a final settlement accepted by the English king, who has by now arrived with reinforcements.  The story continues”

Then all the messengers ride together and meet king Aðalsteinn in the fort which was nearest the heath on the south side.  King Olafr’s envoys present their message and terms for peace before king Aðalsteinn.  King Aðalsteinn’s men also told what offers they had made to king Olafr and added that that had been the plan of wise men to delay the battle in this way, so long as the king had not come. And Aðalsteinn gave a quick decision in the matter, and spoke thus to the messengers: `Take these words of mine to king Olafr, that I will grant him permission to go home to Scotland with his army, and he may return all that property which he has seized unlawfully here in this country. Then we will establish peace between our countries, and neither shall make raids on the other. In addition, king Olafr shall become my vassal, and hold Scotland from me and be king under me. Go back now’, he says, `and tell him that this is the way things are.’23

Olafr’s messengers then return to their king, who realizes too late that he has been tricked.

I am certainly not the first to note that much of this sounds more like folk-tale than fact. Sixty years ago, Lee Hollander sketched out the folk-tale structure of this episode in his article, `The battle on the Vin-Heath and the battle of the Huns’24 and five years later Alistair Campbell repeated Hollander’s observations in the introduction to his edition of the Old English poem The Battle of Brunanburh.25  They drew attention to various fictional elements in this episode of the saga, the style of which contrasts markedly with the realistic tone of much of the rest of the work. Among the stylized details in this part of the story they point to the archaic and altogether romantic motif of `hazelling a battlefield’ for an enormous army which is obliging enough to refrain from plundering and devastation for a week until terms and conditions for fighting the battle or negotiating peace have been properly settled. Equally conventional is the use made of the well-known epic device of threefold repetition – in the three requests for peace made to Olafr and the three days’ ride made by the English messengers. After the initial suggestion that Egill Skallagrimsson may be behind the stratagem employed to deceive the invaders, the Icelandic hero is nowhere mentioned in this account – as if the author has simply slotted a stock description of a battle into his narrative in order to associate the eponymous hero of the saga with a great military campaign. As Campbell points out, even when considerable chronological difficulties stand in the way, saga authors are fond of allowing celebrated Icelanders to participate in the great battles of the age – in Njals saga Þorsteinn Hallsson fights at Clontarf; in Fostbræðra saga Þormobr Bersason Kolbrunarskald fights at Stiklastabir; in Snorri Sturluson’s version of Olafs saga Tryggvasonar, Vigfuss Vigaglumsson fights against the Jomsvikingar at Hjqrungavagr.26 It is thoroughly conventional that the sequence of events in the Vinheiðr episode is represented as a contest between a single hero, Athelstan, and a single villain, Olafr. A similar artificial symmetry is evident in the contrast between the two faithful earls, Alfgeirr and Goðrekr, and the two treacherous Welsh defectors Hringr and Ails. The same sort of symmetrical schematization is reflected in the conveniently placedborg, both north and south of the battlefield, in which the leaders of the opposing armies have their headquarters.27 Since Hollander and Campbell drew attention to such `unhistoric’ elements in this episode, however, some historians have either ignored or dismissed their remarks in order to propose new sites for the battle; and so I should like to set some of their comments on this section of Egils saga against a brief re-examination of the stalling tactic described there to see whether any details in this episode can, in fact, be regarded as reliable evidence on which to base any sort of historical argument.

Typical of the most tendentious manipulation of the Icelandic account before the appearance of Hollander’s article is John Henry Cockburn’s commentary on the Vinheibr episode in his book, The battle of Brunanburh and its period elucidated by placenames, published in 1931. It is characteristic of Cockburn’s unquestioning faith in the historical reliability of the saga that he manages to deduce evidence for locating the battle-site from even the most conventional elements in the Icelandic story. He points out, for example, that since the English messengers in this episode are twice granted a three-day truce to move back and forth between the English lines and Olafr’s camp – one day to go, one to be there, and one to return – then the English camp must have been situated one day’s march from Olafr’s headquarters. From little more than this simple observation Cockburn very soon locates the battlefield in West Yorkshire and reaches the abrupt conclusion that ‘Olafr’s headquarters were at Castleford on the Aire. Athelstan’s headquarters were at or near Aston on Riknild Street’.28 This startling deduction is supported by a rather ingenious juggling of local names along the Roman road between Castleford and Doncaster to point up what Cockburn regards as evidence of local commemoration of the peace negotiations described in Egils saga, reflected, for example, in what he thinks are reminiscences of various Old English terms for the messengers mentioned in the story, preserved in surrounding place-names – terms like the rare Old English word fricc(e)a, `herald, crier’, which he imagines to be preserved in the name `Frickley’ (between Castleford and Doncaster), the first element of which is probably the personal name `Frica’;29 or boda, `messenger’, which Cockburn sees commemorated in the West Yorkshire name `Bodels/Bodies’, a name which, according to A. H. Smith, may derive from early modern English buddle, bothul, buddle, `the corn marigold’.30 Needless to say, Cockburn’s exercises in imaginative free association do little to inspire confidence. It is hardly remarkable that at one point he justifies some of his more fanciful derivations by quoting an observation made by the notorious pseudo-etymologist, Horne Tooke, to the effect that, as far as the recalcitrant spellings of certain local placename elements are concerned, one should simply bear in mind that over time, `letters, like soldiers in a long march’, are `very apt to desert and drop off.31 So much, at any rate, for the scientific value of Cockburn’s methodology.

Some other commentators intent on identifying the site of Brunanburh have on the whole been undeterred by Hollander’s remarks on folk-tale elements in the Vinheibr episode of Egils saga. An article by O.G.S. Crawford on the site of the battlefield published in the journal Antiquity one year after the appearance of Hollander’s article took no account whatsoever of Hollander’s arguments.32  Three years later, in the same journal, W. S. Angus likewise ignored Hollander’s observations in a lengthy examination of the Vinheibr episode entitled `The battlefield of Brunanburh’.33 Angus was not, at least, blithely indifferent to all previous research on this topic, however, for in his article he does pay careful attention to A. H. Smith’s investigation of the onomastic evidence for modern equivalents of the Old English name Brunanburh.34 As I have already mentioned, Smith demonstrated that spellings of the name of Bromborough in Wirral in charters from the early thirteenth century onwards point to an original Old English form Brunanburh, meaning `Bruna’s stronghold’ – a connection with the form of the name in versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which has been established for no other place-name. Yet, although Smith set out convincing philological evidence that present-day Bromborough derives from Old English Brunanburh, the fact that the two place-names are identical does not necessarily prove that the places are the same. As John Dodgson has pointed out, although the formal identity of Bromborough and Brunanburh is fairly certain, `there is a failure of place-names and field-names’ at the Cheshire site `to indicate the precise location of the battle’.35 As far as I know, no new evidence has come forward which would support a certain identification. W. S. Angus acknowledges that the onomastic evidence in favour of Bromborough is striking; nevertheless, he ultimately rejects Bromborough as an acceptable location, preferring a Dumfriesshire site, Burnswark in Annandale near Ecclefechan 36 – a location earlier advocated by George Neilson, who based his argument on the fourteenth-century writer Fordun’s description of an invading fleet landing in the Solway Firth.37  Remarkably enough, although Angus admits that `the philological evidence’ for Burnswark, which finds a parallel only in Gaimar’s name for the battlefield, Bruneswerce, `is slender in comparison with that for Bromborough’,38 he rejects the Cheshire site specifically because the topography there does not agree with description of the landscape around Vinheiðr in Egils saga as closely as Burnswark does. In fact, Angus goes one step further and favours a location two miles south-east of Burnswark, called Middlebie Hill (in spite of the fact that this site then loses whatever weight is to be attached to the place-name `Burnswark’), and he does this precisely because the landscape at this location is in his opinion even closer to the topography of the battlefield in Egils saga. Angus argues:

Neilson thought that Olaf and the Scots camped in the Roman earthwork immediately to the north of Burnswark hill, and Athelstan’s advanced force and perhaps his whole army in that on its southern slope. If forces were so disposed, an observer on the top of the hill could count the troops camping on the lower slopes on the south side, and Egil’s ruse of using more tents than his men needed would be of no avail.39

He continues with his description of the local topography:

If the English wished to conceal the weakness of their advanced guard, they would seek a position visible by their enemies but not under close observation. The knoll of Middlebie hill would meet this and other tactical needs, and squares well with the story in the saga. The tents, we are told, were pitched where the heath was narrowest between wood and water, but yet a long way off from Olaf s camp. A force on Middlebie hill facing Burnswark would have on its right the gorge of the Middlebie burn, wooded perhaps then as now, and on its left the burn from Burnswark farm . . . The tents of a force in this position would be on the upland, in a place which even today is not far from moorland; behind them the ground would fall away southwards to the ramparts of Birrens, a burg to which Athelstan would come if he approached by the Roman road from Carlisle. Finally, there is the ruse of the tents. The saga says that there were no men in every third tent and few in any one, and the tents stood so high, so that there was no seeing over them; and the Scots were thus misled about the strength of the English advanced force. From Burnswark hill, Birrens camp is invisible and Middlebie hill can clearly be seen. A calculation from the contours on the map indicates that the line of vision from Burnswark hill should skim the top of Middlebie hill and the slopes between it and Birrens . . . Burnswark hill is conspicuous as one approaches Birrens from the southeast, but as one drops down to the Mein mater it sinks from view behind the trees on the rising ground to the north of the camp, and disappears just before one reaches the stream. Olaf s observers, therefore, if stationed on Burnswark hill, could see teats pitched on high ground at Middlebie hill, and could well be misled by camouflage and propaganda about the strength of the forces there and in Birrens camp.40

It is remarkable that Angus regards the Vinheibr episode in Egils saga as the most reliable historical source for mapping out the battlefield at Brunanburh. Such absolute faith in the saga narrative as a reliable guide to the battle-site became increasingly rare after 1938 when Alistair Campbell reiterated Hollander’s arguments against the historical reliability of the Vinheiðr episode in the introduction to his edition of the Old English heroic poem The Battle of Brunanburh. But Campbell’s denunciation of Egils saga as an historical source did not deter everyone. In 1952, in the chapter on Brunanburh in his collection, More Battlefields of England, the military historian Lt.-Colonel Alfred Higgins Burne took issue with Campbell’s dismissal of Egils saga as a source of topographical evidence in order to use the Vinheiðr description to support his own theory that Brunanburh was fought on a field near the village of Brinsworth near Rotherham in the West Riding of Yorkshire.41 Like others who have proposed an eastern site for the battlefield, Burne follows Florence of Worcester’s statement that the invading fleet first sailed into the Humber. But although he rejects the historical authorities which Neilson and Angus cite to support their identification of a west-coast battlefield, like both of those authors Burne is quick to dismiss the philological evidence supporting the Bromborough site as simply irrelevant, once the local topography is tested against details in Egils saga. He maintains that, `apart from the similarity of name, Bromborough has nothing in common either with Egil’s saga‘ or with what Burne, drawing upon his experience as a military man, refers to as I.M.P.’, or `Inherent Military Probability’.42

Further criticisms of the views of Campbell and Hollander were presented by Alfred P. Smyth in his book Scandinavian York and Dublin. Smyth draws upon details in the Vinheiðr episode to support his own thesis that Brunanburh was fought by the forest of Bromswald on the borders of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire.43 Intent on tying together discrepancies in various medieval accounts of the battle, Smyth suggests that the second elements in `Vinheiðr’ and `Vinuskogar’ in the Icelandic source find identical counterparts in references to field and forest in the local names which William of Malmesbury mentions, `Brunefeld’ and `Bruneswald’. Smyth claims to see the element Vin– preserved in one of the names Simeon of Durham uses for the battlefield, Weondun 44 (an idea proposed as long ago as 1786),45 although, in fact, the etymology of neither name is at all certain.46 Smyth sees a striking correspondence between William of Malmesbury’s reference to `the evenness of the green plain’ which induced Athelstan to camp near Brunefeld and the emphasis in Egils saga on the choice of battleground at Vinheibr, a ‘level heath . . . deliberately chosen for the site of battle to accommodate large numbers of warriors’ 47 In short, Smyth rejects Campbell’s representation of Egils saga as a completely unreliable source, and argues that the Icelandic account of Vinheiðr derives ultimately from a medieval Danelaw tradition which preserves certain accurate details.

In 1980, Campbell and Hollander were criticized once again, this time by Michael Wood in his article `Brunanburh revisited’, published in the Saga-Book of the Viking Society. Wood argues in favour of the Brinsworth, Yorkshire site, as Lt.-Colonel Burne had done three decades earlier, although he makes no mention of Burne’s speculations. Also like Burne, Wood dismisses the onomastic evidence in favour of Bromborough in Wirral because, as he puts it, `the geographical and political facts given by our sources do not support the identification with Bromborough’.48 It soon becomes apparent that `the geographical facts’ to which he refers include the topographical description of Vinheiðr in Egils saga. Although the main focus of mood’s argument is a presentation of his own ideas of what constituted the political background of the battle, and although he acknowledges that Hollander and Campbell have made `forcible objections to the acceptance of traditions such as that in Egils saga‘,49 Wood refuses to leave topographical details in the saga out of the account. Wood’s comparison of landmarks at his favoured location with the description of local geography in the saga reflects much of the same faith in the reliability of topographical detail in the Icelandic source expressed by the earliest commentators on the Vinheiðr episode. He draws attention to what he describes as `the striking correspondence between the Brinsworth site and the famous description of Vinheiðr . . . with its forts north and south of the field, its gentle slopes north and south, the steep slope to the river, and the narrow gap to the south where the river and the forest come close together’.50

Behind all of these studies mentioned so far, from Neilsen’s at the turn of the century until mood’s in 1980 (and this is only a small sample of available commentary), lies an assumption that literary accounts such as the Vinheiðr episode can be used as reliable touchstones for the location of a place referred to in more reliable historical sources. W. S. Angus clearly regarded his use of Egils saga as scientific. Although he takes no account of Hollander’s arguments, he does at least consider onomastic evidence, and even devotes some attention to chronological defects in the narrative of Egils saga, as well as other obvious difficulties such as the conflation of Constantine, king of the Scots and Olafr Guffriðsson into one character, Olafr the red of Scotland.51  However, corruptions such as this do little to shake Angus’s faith in the reliability of the topographical description, which he counts as ultimately the most important evidence to consider. He argues that at any proposed site for Brunanburh, `the battlefield should supply the features which the account in Egils saga requires’.52  And it is on this basis alone that the Cheshire site is rejected. Angus notes: `There is an earthwork at Bromborough, but the game of fitting Egil’s account to the locality does not promise success.’53 Burne is of much the same opinion, and in fact meets Campbell and Hollander’s objections head-on. He allows that Egils saga in general and this episode in particular may be full of errors and confusions, but seizes upon the fact that Campbell admits that `the main outline . . . of the tradition of the battle on Vinheithr . . . may be safely assumed to refer to the battle of Brunanburh’.54 Burne responds: `This as a matter of fact provides us with all that we require, namely that, mingled with the myths and fantasies of the Saga, are some historical facts. The problem then is to sift the good grain from the chaff.’55 Part of the `good grain’, he continues, are details gleaned from description of the landscape. Burne outlines his method of dealing with this material: `Where the saga makes statements of a topographical nature for which there can be no motives for falsification I accept their essential accuracy, though allowing that slight exaggeration and errors of detail may well be present.’56 Smyth and Wood operate under the same assumption, that since the author of Egils saga would have no motive for falsifying topographical details in his narrative, such details can therefore be regarded as by and large factual.

It is worth considering just what motives the saga author might have for describing the landscape as he does in this episode, and to do this it is instructive to turn once again to the passage which contains this topographical description, the story of the stratagem itself. The first thing to be noted about this ruse de guerre is that it involves two forms of deception – first, the presentation of a sham army and second, the use of protracted peace negotiations as a stalling tactic. The second of these stratagems is commonly referred to in military histories and military manuals. For example, the tenth-century tactical manual of Leo VI of Byzantium recommends lulling the enemy into a false sense of security through insincere peace negotiations which should give way to a sudden attack upon the other side once one is certain to catch one’s opponents off guard.57 Similarly, the Roman tactician Sextus Julius Frontinus recalls how Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal made successful use of quibbling negotiations with the Roman general Claudius Nero to distract the enemy’s attention from surreptitious troop movements; and Livy recounts the same story at greater length in Book 26 of Ab urbe condita.58  In her popular synthesis of ancient military manuals, Le livre des faites d’armes et de chevalerie, Christine de Pisan recommends that drawn-out peace talks be used precisely as they are described in Egils saga to deceive the enemy into allowing sufficient time for reinforcements to be mustered. William Caxton renders the relevant passage as follows:

For yf thou canst parceyue that men holde and kepe the in talkyng as by a long trayne fyndyng alwayes som controuersies that nede not / But onely for to passe tyme / Knowe thou for verray certayn that al is but for a deceyte and for a delaye of the bataylle waytyng for som socours and helpe / or ellys by cause that in the meane whyle thy prouysions and stores be wasted awaye / And that thy folke be noyouse and wery of the long soiourne.59

Without question, for as long as battles have been fought, military commanders have commonly resorted to stalling tactics of various kinds to regroup or to avoid immediate defeat.60  But it is not surprising to see the same sort of imaginative ruses deployed by authors of purely fictional narratives. Consider, for example, the same stratagem described in one purely literary text, the late fifteenth-century Icelandic romance Villifers saga frœkna. In chapter nine of the saga, Angantyr of Saxony, who has already murdered the son of king Halfdan of Holmgarðr (Novgorod), now impudently arrives with a large army to make off with Halfdan’s daughter. Halfdan engages in sham peace negotiations in order to buy sufficient time to muster secretly a force of 20,000 men and launch a pre-emptive attack on his enemy:

All of the king’s sons rose from their seats and told Angantyr that that message should be sent back to Holmgarðr, that Angantyr and his men should all be killed. Geir said that they should immediately go to war against the king. However, the king was short of troops. And when Vebjorn heard this, he submitted to the king and said that it was altogether ill-advised to fight against Angantyr with such a small force, and advised that it was better for him not to refuse their petition immediately, but rather to request a week’s respite in order to take counsel with his trusted advisers, `and in that time it will be easy to assemble sufficient troops’. The king accepted this advice, and requested a delay of one week to respond to the marriage proposal. The brothers returned to their tents and told Angantyr the king’s answer, and added that the king must be utterly terrified, and that he did not dare to fight. Angantyr sent a message back to the city to inform the king that he should have his delay, and he received that news well. Now, as for the earl’s plans, it can be reported that he had a war-arrow sent secretly throughout the entire country (with a summons that) the troops should be mustered into the city at nights, so that Angantyr’s camp would remain unaware that the king was mustering troops. And the king sent Angantyr gifts of friendship, and said that they might very well be able to reach a settlement over the killing of Haraldr. And Angantyr believed these friendly messages from the king. Many men now flocked to the king, and in all 20,000 men assembled to support him. And when the respite which Angantyr had granted the king had expired, the king sent him a message and said that there were not going to be any settlements, but challenged him to battle the next morning. Angantyr now saw that he had been duped, and that the king’s gifts of friendship had been sent to make him drop his guard.61

The ploy described in this passage is by no means unique as a literary device. It is, in fact, identified as a folk-tale type, number K 2369.7 (`shammed discussing of peace while getting reinforcements’) in Inger Boberg’s Motif-index of early Icelandic literature.62 Hollander points out an intriguing parallel in the Eddaic fragment `The battle of the Goths and Huns’ in the thirteenth-century heroic tale, Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, where the Goths use both protracted negotiations and the same device described in Egilr .gaga of calling a truce to mark off a battlefield with hazel branches in order to stall for time against an invading army of Huns.63 We are told that:

This was the law of king Heibrekr, that if an (enemy) army was in the country, and the king of the country `hazelled’ a battlefield and designated a place for battle, then the vikings were obliged not to make raids before the battle was decided.64

As we have already seen, the stalling device described in Egils saga is dependent upon another deception which has a more direct bearing on the topographical description of Vinheiðr, the presentation of a sham army. Once again, various similar stratagems are described in both `historical’ texts and those commonly regarded as more `purely literary’. Frontinus, for example, mentions that the Persian commander Cyrus tied wooden mannequins dressed like soldiers to masts in order to dupe his enemies into believing that a hill was occupied by his troops.65 The same device is described in literary works, for example, in the twelfth-century chanson de geste, Ogier le Danoir.66 Frontinus likewise notes that Spartacus cunningly set up corpses armed with weapons to look like sentries,67 and this latter ruse crops up again in literary contexts such as Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum,68 in the Anglo-Norman Lai de Havelock,69 once again, in the thirteenth-century Provencal chronicle Philomena,70 and it is not surprising to see it resurface in modern works of fiction such as Alexandre Dumas’ The three musketeers.7l Various similar deceptions are listed as folk-tale types in Stith Thompson’s Motif-index. Folk-tale type K 548 records escape by making attackers believe there are many defenders of a fortified place.72 Type K 2368 covers accounts of an enemy deceived into overestimating an opponent’s strength.73 And type K 1837.6 offers the instance of women garbed as soldiers, marching repeatedly round a place in order to deceive the enemy into thinking they are watching a large army on parade 74 – a ruse described as a genuine military tactic at least as far back as the fourth century B.C., when the Greek historian Aeneas Tacticus reported it as a stratagem used successfully by the people of Sinope in their war against the Persian satrap Datames.75

Ancient military historians, Aeneas Tacticus, Vegetius, Frontinus, Polyaenus, Livy, Procopius, and Leo the tactician, to name but a few, describe a great variety of methods for making a small army appear numerous to the enemy – by parading patrolmen at a distance with two spears on their shoulder instead of one, so that their numbers might appear to double;76 by ordering cavalry, pack horses and infantrymen to march in the distance in such a way as to raise as much dust as a much larger army might be expected to do;77 or even by simply sounding as many horns as one would expect a large army to have.78 Commentators are usually prepared to regard ancient descriptions of deceptions of this sort as historically accurate, although it is generally agreed that all the authors mentioned copy from earlier compilations and are not unwilling to include in their collections folktales about the exploits of their favourite generals, Alexander, Hannibal, or Julius Caesar. Certainly, similar ruses are found in the pages of popular military fiction, from C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series to Vladimir Peniakoff s tales of Popski’s Private Army. In spite of so many general analogues to choose from, however, I have to admit that I have not been able to discover a precise parallel for the tent trick described in Egils saga in any source ancient or modern.79 It is, however, not terribly difficult to adduce literary analogues which parallel roughly the deception said to have been used at Vinheiðr.

One such account is available in Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards in which, more or less as in Egils saga, the only available troops of the outnumbered Lombard army are each day paraded before Avar ambassadors in different dress and armed differently to convince the enemy envoys that new troops are constantly arriving, and that the inadequate Lombard host is immense.80  Another, perhaps more interesting, example is available in an account by the Jewish general and historian, Josephus, of his own clever device for suppressing a revolt in the city of Tiberias during the Jewish war against Rome in 66 AD. Josephus finds himself with virtually no troops to put down this rising, for he has sent most of his soldiers out to forage for supplies. Nevertheless, he proceeds to Tiberias with all the boats he can muster, 230 in all, but each manned with a skeleton crew of no more than four sailors aboard each vessel. Having dismayed the rebel port with the sudden appearance of his sham fleet, Josephus comes forward with a fully manned launch and convinces the disheartened rebels to send out delegations to negotiate a peace. By inventing one pretext after another, Josephus conveys group after unsuspecting group out to the awaiting boats where they are promptly whisked back to Tarichaeae to be clapped in irons. In this way, 600 rebel senators and 2,000 private citizens are arrested and the entire insurgent population subdued by no more than a tiny force.8l In his translation of this passage, William Whiston felt compelled to note: `I cannot but think this stratagem of Josephus . . . to be one of the finest that ever was invented and executed by any warrior whatsoever.’82 Not all historians, however, have accepted Josephus’ descriptions of his own military genius as unadulterated fact. Raymond R. Newell, for example, has cautioned that `recent studies have shown that Josephus often draws on stock historiographic phrases, motifs, and forms appropriate to the type of history he is writing at the time’.83 Adolf Stender-Petersen has demonstrated that, particularly when describing military manoeuvres, Josephus is happy to include in his narrative anecdotes drawn from earlier sources, which he recounts as if he is describing actual historical events.84 Like any good story-teller, however, Josephus is careful to include a detail which makes his rather fantastic stratagem of the sham fleet sound at least a little more plausible, for he points out that he kept all but one of his 230 ships `far enough from the town to prevent the inhabitants from detecting that his ships were unmanned’.85

The author of Egils saga unfolds his account of the Vinheiðr stratagem in a manner reminiscent of this ruse-story in Josephus, but the Icelandic author is more subtle in his manipulation of incidental details. It is often noted that the cultivation of a characteristic tone of objectivity in Old Icelandic saga-narrative `demands a highly developed sense of proportion controlling the selection of material’.86 It is typical of the spare economy of this literary form that even apparently inconsequential details in saga-narrative tend to reveal themselves ultimately as crucial story-elements. Interestingly, the details in the Vinheiðr episode which modern historians have scrutinized for information about the battle site, while incidental to an account of the battle itself, are an integral part of the story of the ruse to buy time. If we look again at the account of the preparation for battle in Egils saga, we read that Athelstan’s men take care to pick out a place `where a great army’ can `be drawn up’ and make sure that they have pitched their tents before Olafr’s troops arrive. Then we are told:

Where the battle was to be it was in fact the case that there was a level heath, but on one side of it a river flowed down and on the other side of it was a great wood. But where it was the shortest distance between the wood and the river, and that was a very long space, there king Malsteinn’s men had pitched their tents, so that they stretched the whole way between the wood and the river.87

In addition to the information that the English tents `were so high that no one could see over them to find out whether they were many or a few rows deep’ we are told that king (Olafr’s men were forced to pitch their tents `north of the hazels; and all the way to that point the land sloped downward somewhat’. Clearly the English tents are pitched where they are, on higher ground and between two natural boundaries, to keep the enemy from seeing round diem or getting close enough to see through the deception.88 In his deployment of these details it is the narrator who emerges as the clever strategist, for each scrap of topographical description is included not to identify the site, but in order to make the tent-ruse story work. Indeed, while it is hard to imagine how incidental topographical details of the battle-site could have survived through centuries of oral transmission when so many other details concerning the battle of Brunanburh have been completely garbled in Egils saga, it is quite easy to see how, as a very necessary part of the account of a stock stratagem, such details would be handed down as an integral part of the story.

It is not at all unusual for ruse-stories of this kind to attach themselves to accounts of distinguished generals in medieval historiography, whether from Iceland or elsewhere.89One might compare Snorri Sturluson’s description of a trick supposedly used by Haraldr Harðraði Sigurðsson, of firing an impregnable fortress in Sicily by tying flaming brands to the backs of birds from the besieged citadel and sending them flying home to their nests, thereby setting fire to the rooftops of the enemy enclosure.90 In fact, use of precisely the same fantastic stratagem is described in a wide variety of historical and not-so-historical sources and attributed to a long parade of different tacticians.91 Saxo Grammaticus describes the same ruse used once by the Danish king Hadding Gramsson and again by Fridleif the Swift.92 The Russian Primary Chronicle recounts how queen Olga captured the fortified city of Izkorosten in the same way.93 Various British chronicles, the Welsh Brut Tysilio, Wace’s Roman de Brut, Layamon’s Brut and Giraldus Cambrensis’ Topographia Hibernica, for example, describe how the same trick enabled the Dane Gormund to take the English city of Cirencester.94 And if one is not too fussy about the sort of animals employed, the story can be shown to be, in fact, extremely old. Judges xv 4-5 describes Samson using flaming foxes in much the same way against the Philistines.

The main point to be borne in mind here is that before using any work, or passage in a work, for historical study it is important to ascertain the nature of the text in question and to remain alert to the different motives and focus of literary and historical sources. Some years ago, J. B. Bessinger drew attention to the difficulties inherent in using the Old English poem, The battle of Maldon, as a handy topographical guide for locating the site of that battlefield. He cautions:

No map is needed to follow Byrhtnoth’s last fight, or his contemporary Olaf’s, or before them, Beowulf’s, or after them Roland’s. Indeed the attempted use of a map might trick the modern imagination into the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, since heroic poets composed without benefit of a cartographical sense that is second nature for a reader today. The bare literary topography along the Pant, at Swold, on a headland near Hronesness, or at Roncesvalles is enough to serve as a setting for a traditional story . . . treating a stock theme . . . about characters shaped through tradition by bearing sometimes historical names and using traditional verse forms.95

In his contribution to the Maldon conference, John Dodgson quoted Bessinger’s comments and responded: `True, very nearly quite true, if one ignores the lively cartographical sense and topographical sensitivity that Anglo-Saxons often demonstrate, as in their land charters.’96 But here it is important to bear in mind that `charter evidence’ is a very far cry from the stock formulas of Old English heroic poetry or from the narrative conventions of a literary work like Egils saga which, to use another phrase from Bessinger, `deals with history without caring about history’.97 Macaulay describes history as `a compound of poetry and philosophy’, `a province of literature’ partitioned by two hostile powers, `imagination and reason’.98 Furnished with a set of charter bounds, one may very well approach the business of locating an ancient site in the field with at least a reasonable hope of success; setting off to find Brunanburh equipped only with a copy of Egils saga offers prospects of little more than a pleasant walk and a good read. If six decades ago Alistair Campbell was too pessimistic in maintaining that, since the saga is unreliable, `all hope of localising Brunanburh is lost’,99 he was at least correct in emphasizing that, if the battlefield is ever to be found, clues to its location will have to be provided by onomastic or; if it were possible, archaeological evidence,100 rather than by details in a purely literary source like Egils saga.


I am grateful to Roberta Frank, Richard Perkins and George Story for advice about various points in this paper.

End Notes

1. See W. F. H. Nicolaisen, `Norse place-names in south-west Scotland’, Scottish Studies, 4 (1960), pp.49-70.

2. See W. H. Pearsall, ‘Place-names as clues in the pursuit of ecological history’, Namn och Bygd, 49 (1961), pp.72-89.

3. See M. Gelling, `The place-names of the Isle of Man’, Journal of the Manx Museum, 7 (1970-71), pp.130-9, 168-75; idem, `Norse and Gaelic in medieval Man: the place-name evidence’, in P. Davey, ed., Man and environment in the Isle of Man (British Archaeological Reports, British series, LIV,2), Oxford, 1978, pp.251-64; also printed in Th. Andersson and K. I. Sandred, eds, The Vikings, Uppsala, 1978, pp.107-18; B. Megaw, ‘Norsemen and native in the kingdom of the Isles: a reassessment of the Manx evidence’, Scottish Studies, 20 (1976), pp.l-44; reprinted in P. Davey, Man and environment, pp.265-314.

4. See J. McN. Dodgson, The place-names of Cheshire, parts 1-5 (EPNS,  XLIV-XLVIII), Cambridge, 1970-81; idem, ‘The English arrival in Cheshire’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 119 (1967), pp-1-37; idem, `Place-names and street-names at Chester’, Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society, 55 (1968), pp.29-61.

5. M. Richards, `Norse place-names in Wales’, Proceedings of the First International Congress of Celtic Studies, held in Dublin, 6-10 July, 1959, Dublin, 1962, pp.51-60.

6. See G. Fellows Jensen, Scandinavian settlement names in the North-West, Copenhagen, 1985. See also idem, `The vikings in England: a review’, Anglo-Saxon England, 4 (1975), pp.181-206; idem, ‘The Manx placename debate: a view from Copenhagen’, in P. Davey, Man and environment, pp.315-8; and G. Fellows Jensen, ‘The Scandinavian settlement in Cumbria and Dumfriesshire: the place-name evidence’, in J. R. Baldwin and I. D. Whyte, eds, The Scandinavians in Cumbria, Edinburgh, 1985, pp.65-82.

7. See R. I. Page, ‘Some thoughts on Manx runes’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society, 20 (1978-81), pp.179-99; idem, ‘More thoughts on Manx runes’, Michigan Germanic Studies, 7 (1981), pp. 129-36; idem, ‘The Manx runestones’, in C. Fell, P. G. Foote, J. Graham-Campbell and R. Thomson, eds, The Viking Age in the Isle of Man, London, 1983, pp. 133-46.

8. See M. Cubbon, ‘The archaeology of the vikings in the Isle of Man’, ibid., pp. 13-26.

9. See J. Graham-Campbell, ‘The Viking-Age silver hoards of the Isle of Man’, ibid., pp.53-80.

10. See, e.g., D. Wilson, The Viking Age in the Isle of Man: the archaeological evidence, Odense, 1974; G. Bersu and D. Wilson, Three viking graves in the Isle of Man (The Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series, I), London, 1966; D. Wilson, `Manx memorial stones of the viking period’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society, 18 (1970-73), pp.1-18.

11. See S. Dickinson, ‘Bryant’s Gill, Kentmere: another “viking-period” Ribblehead?’, in J. R. Baldwin and I. D. Whyte, Scandinavians in Cumbria, pp.83-8.

12. See, for example, N. J. Higham, ‘The Scandinavians in north Cumbria’, ibid., pp.37-52; idem, The northern counties to AD 1000, New York/ London, 1986, esp. pp.316-35.

13. See, for example, R. N. Bailey, Viking Age sculpture in northern England, London, 1980; idem, ‘Aspects of Viking-Age sculpture in Cumbria’, in J. R. Baldwin and I. D. Whyte,Scandinavians in Cumbria, pp.53-G3. Cf. D. Wilson, ‘The art of the Manx crosses of the Viking age’, in C. Fell et al., Viking Age in the Isle of Man, pp.175-87.

14. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A [cf. B,C,D,EJ s.a. 875, in C. Plummer and J. Earle, eds, Two of the Saxon Chronicles parallel, vol. I, Oxford, 1892; repr. 1965, pp.73-4: Healfdene for mid sumum Þam here on Nordan hymbre . . . & se here . . . oft hergade on Peohtas is on Strœcled Walas.

15. See Historia de Sancto Cuthberto in T. Arnold, ed., Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, vol. I, London, 1882, p.208, § 22: His diebus Elfred filius Birihtulfinci, fugiens piratas, venit ultra montes versus occidentem; transl. in D. Whitelock, ed., English historical documents c.500-1042, vol. I, 2nd edn, London, 1979, p.287. The passage has been much discussed; see, for example, F. M. Stenton, ‘Pre-Conquest Westmorland’, Westmorland (Royal Commission on Historical Monuments), London, 1936, p.xlix, repr. in idem,Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford, 1970, pp.215-G; R. N. Bailey, Viking age sculpture, pp-3 5, 80; C. D. Morris, ‘Viking and native in northern England: a case-study’,Proceedings of the Eighth Viking Congress, Odense, 1981, pp.223-4; G. Fellows Jensen, Scandinavian settlement names, pp-2-3

16. See J. O’Donovan, ed., Annals of Ireland: three fragments copied from ancient sources by Dubhaltach Mac Firbisigh, Dublin, 1800, pp.224-37. Compare the translation by I. L. Foster in F. T. Wainwright, Scandinavian England, ed. H. P. R. Finberg, Chichester, 1975, pp.79-83, and discussion by F. T. Wainwright, ‘Ingimund’s invasion’, English Historical Review, 63 (1948), pp.145-69, in idem, Scandinavian England, pp.131-61, cf. pp.78-87. This episode in The Three Fragments is dated to the year 902 by comparison with the Annals of Ulster, which mention under this date, ‘Expulsion of Gentiles from Ireland, i.e. [from the fortress of Ath-Cliath’. See W. M. Hennessy, ed., Annals of Ulster, vol. I, Dublin, 1887, pp.416-7. The story has been frequently rehearsed. See, for example, J. McN. Dodgson, `The background of Brunanburh’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society,14 (1953-57), pp.304-6; A. P. Smyth, Scandinavian York and Dublin, vol. I, Dublin, 1975, pp.61-2, 76; J. N. Radner, Fragmentary annals of Ireland, Dublin, 1978, pp.166-73, 206-7; R. N. Bailey, Viking age sculpture, pp-3 5-6, 216; G. Fellows Jensen, Scandinavian settlement names, pp.l-2.

17. The Annales Cambriae record under the year 902: Igmunt in insula mon uenit. et tenuit maes osmeliavn. See E. Phillimore, ed., `The Annales Cambriae and Old-Welsh genealogies from Harleian MS. 3859′, Y Cymmrodor, 9 (1888), p.167; cf. J. Williams ab Ithel, ed., Annaler Cambriae, London, 1860, p.16. The Welsh chronicle Brut y Tywyrogyon likewise mentions the arrival of a certain Igmund (Jgmwnd) in Anglesey and his role in a battle fought at `Maes Rhosmeilon’ (apparently an error for Osmeilon = Ostfeil[i)on, near Llanfaes in Anglesey). See T. Jones, ed., Brut y Tywy.rogyon or the Chronicle of Princes.- Red Book of Hergerst version, Cardiff, 1955, pp.10-1, s.a. 900-3, and n. ad loc., 277. It is usually assumed that this figure is the same Hingamund whose adventures in Cheshire are described in such detail in The Three fragments. See, for example, F. T. Wainwright,Scandinavian England, p.140, nn.2-3.

18. To be fair, Wainwright, at least, does discuss at great length the myriad reasons for doubting the historical reliability of The Three fragments: see Scandinavian England, pp.78-9, 137-9,146-8. He is, however, convinced that the basic facts of the story are corroborated by the appearance of the similar name Igmunt / Jgmwnd in Welsh sources.

19. See, for example, the sample list of proposed battle sites compiled by J. H. Cockburn, The battle of Brunanburh and its period elucidated by place-names, Sheffield/London, 1931, pp.40-8, A. Campbell, Battle of Brunanburh, London, 1938, pp.58-9, n.4; cf. K. Weimann, `Battle of Brunanburh’, in Reallexicon der germanischen Altertumskunde, vol. II, 2nd edn, Berlin, 1976, pp.92-3.

20. See A. H. Smith, ‘The site of the battle of Brunanburh’, in R. W. Chambers, F. Norman and A. H. Smith, eds, London Mediaeval Studies, vol. I, London, 1937, pp-56-9; J. McN. Dodgson, ‘Background of Brunanburh’, pp.303-16; and idem, Place-names of Cheshire, pt 4, pp.237-40. A. Campbell (Battle of Brunanburh, p.58, n.4), points out that the Bromborough site had been identified with Brunanburh as long ago as 1692, when Edmund Gibson drew attention to the similar place-name Brunburh in Cheshire in the index of places in his conflated edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Chronicon Saxonicum. Bromborough in Cheshire was again proposed as the likely location of Brunanburh in a note published by R. F. Weymouth, The Athenaeum (15 August, 1885), p.207.

21. It should be noted, however, that at least the second of these names, in the form Api.rl, appears in a Manx runic inscription, Kirk Michael III. See remarks by R. I. Page, `A tale of two cities’, Peritia, 1, 1982, pp.3467; cf. idem, ‘Manx rune stones’, pp.137-8.

22. Nordal Sigurður, ed., Egils saga Skallagrimssonar (Islenzk Fornrit, II), Reykjavik, 1933, ch.52, pp.130-4.

23. ibid, pp.134-5.

24. See L. Hollander, `The battle on the Vin-heath and the battle of the Huns’,_Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 32 (1933), pp.33-43.

25. See A. Campbell, Battle of Brunanburh, pp.68-80.

26. Ibid., p.73, n. 1. See Einar Ol. Sveinsson, Brennu-Njals saga, (Islenzk Fornrit, XII), Reykjavik, 1954, ch.157, pp.448, 451; Fostbroedra saga, ch. 24, in Bjorn K. 1:)orolfson and Gudni Jonsson, eds, Vestfirdinga sogur (Islenzk Fornrit, VI), Reykjavik, 1943, pp.261-76; Bjarni Abalbjarnarson, ed., Snorri Sturluson, Olafs saga Tryggvasonar, ch. 41, inHeimskringla, vol. I (Islenzk Fornrit, XXVI), Reykjavik, 1941, p.283. Campbell’s note that the Icelandic hero at Clontarf is Flosi Thordarson is incorrect.

27. In connection with the artificial symmetry evident in various details in this episode of Egils saga it is worth noting Northrop Frye’s observation that ‘symmetry, in any narrative, always means that historical content is being subordinated to mythical demands of design and form, as in the Book of Judges’: Frye, The great code, New York, 1986, p.43. Cf. discussion of Frye’s remarks by Robert Cook, `Russian history, Icelandic story, and Byzantine strategy in Eymundar Þattr Hringssonar’, Viator, 17 (1986), p.71.

28. J. H. Cockburn, Battle of Brunanburh, p.178.

29. See ibid., p.251. A. H. Smith remarks on the name ‘Frickley’: ‘The first el. is probably an OE pers. n. Frica . . .; this can hardly be from rare OE Fricca, friccea “herald”, but it may well be formed, as Ekwall. . . has suggested, from OE frec “greedy, eager” which has a by-form Fric (cf. also related OE words Frician [sic, for friclan] “to desire”, friclo “appetite”).’ See A. H. Smith, The Place-names of the West Riding of Yorkshire, vol. I (EPNS, XXX), Cambridge, 1961, pp.89-90; cf E. Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names, 4th edn, Oxford, 1960, p.187, s.v. ‘Frickley’.

30. See J. H. Cockburn, Battle of Brunanburh, p.251, and A. H. Smith, Place-names of the West Riding of Yorkshire, vol. I, p.66. The etymology is uncertain.  Smith’s explanation of the name, based only upon late forms, is conjectural.

31. Horne Tooke, quoted in J. H. Cockburn, Battle of Brunanburh, p.175.

32. See O. G. S. Crawford, `The battle of Brunanburh’, Antiquity, 8 (1934), pp.338-9.

33. See W. S. Angus, `The Battlefield of Brunanburh’, Antiquity, 11 (1937), pp.283-93.

34. See A. H. Smith, `Site of the battle of Brunanburh’, pp.56-9.

35. J.McN. Dodgson, ‘The site of the battle of Maldon’, in D. Scragg, ed., The battle of Maldon, AD 991, Oxford, 1991, p.179. Cf. J. McN. Dodgson ‘Background of Brunanburh’, p.303; idem, Place-names of Cheshire, pt 4, pp.238-40; A. Campbell, Battle of Brunanburh, p.59n.

36. See Angus, ‘Battlefield of Brunanburh’, pp.284-85, 293.

37. See G. Neilson, ‘Brunanburh and Burnswork’, Scottish Historical Review, 7 (1909), pp.37-9. Burnswark was first proposed as a likely site for the battle in an article by T. Hodgkin in Athenaeum (22 August, 1885), p.239; noted in A. Campbell, Battle of Brunanburh, p.59n.

38. W. S. Angus, ‘Battlefield of Brunanburh’, p.289.

39. Ibid., p.291.

40. Ibid., pp.292-3.

41. See A. H. Burne, More battlefields of England, London, 1952, pp.44-60.

42. Ibid., p.55.

43. See A. P. Smyth, Scandinavian York and Dublin, vol. II, Dublin, 1979, pp-51, 72-7.

44. Ibid., pp.74, 86-7 n.49. See Simeon of Durham, Historia Dunelmensis Ecdesiae, II, xviii: apud Weondune; and Historic Regum, § 83: apud Wendune, in T. Arnold, Symeonis Monachi, vol. I, p.76 and vol. II, p.93.

45. See J. Johnstone, Antiquitates Celto-Scandicae, Copenhagen, 1786, p.56; noted in A. Campbell, Battle of Brunanburh, p.68, n.2.

46. On the uncertain etymology of Weondun/Wendun, see, for example, A. Campbell, Battle of Brunanburh, p.62, n.2, and p.73; E. Ekwall, Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names, p.507, s.v. weoh; F. M. Stenton, ‘Anglo-Saxon heathenism’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series, 23 (1941), pp. l ff., reprinted in idem, Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, p.291; M. Gelling, `Further thoughts on pagan place-names’, in F. Sandgren, ed., Otium et negotium: studies in onomatology and library .science presented to Olof von Feilitzen, Stockholm, 1973, p.114; and M. Wood, `Brunanburh revisited’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society, 20 (1978-81), pp.212-3.

47. A. P. Smyth, Scandinavian York and Dublin, vol.II, p.73; cf. pp-75-6.

48. M. Wood, `Brunanburh revisited’, p.213, n.4.

49. Ibid., p.216, n.68.

50. Ibid.

51. See W. S. Angus, `Battlefield of Brunanburh’, pp.287-8.

52. Ibid., p.289.

53. Ibid.

54. A. Campbell, Battle of Brunanburh, p.70; cited in A. H. Burne, More battlefields, p.52.

55. Ibid., p.52.

56. Ibid.

57. See Leo VI, Tactica, Constitutio XVIL7, in MPG, CVII, saris, 1863, 915A. Cf. discussion in C. Oman, A history of the art of war, London, 1898, pp. 200-1.

58. See Frontinus, Strategemata I.v.19, in M. B. McElwain, ed. and C. E. Bennett, transl., Frontinus: the stratagems and the aqueducts of Rome, London, 1925, pp.46-7. Cf Livy, Ab urbe condita, xxvi, 17, in F. G. Moose, ed., Livy (Loeb Classical Library edn), vol. VII, London, 1943, pp.64-9.

59. A. T. P. Byles, ed., The book of fayttes of armes and chyualrye from the French original by Christine de Pisan (SETS, original series, CLXXXIX), London,1932, I, xx, p.71. The same delaying tactic is described by Anna Comnena, Alexiad X .4, in E.A.S. Dawes, ed., The Alexiad of the Princess Anna Comnena, London, 1928, p.246. The eleventh-century Byzantine strategist Kekaumenos warns that generals must be on guard against just this sort of ruse. See Kekaumenos, Strategikon, ch.31 in Hans-Georg Beck, ed., Vademecum des byzantinischen Aristokraten. Das sogenannte Strategikon des Kekaumenos, Graz, 1956, p.37.

60. On the ancient attitude toward trickery in warfare, see E. L. Wheeler, Stratagem and the vocabulary of military trickery (Mnemosyne: bibliotheca dassica batava, supplementa CVIII), Leiden, 1988.

61. Einar Thordarson, ed., Sagan of Villifer froekna, Reykjavik, 1885, chs.9-10, pp. 17-8.

62. See I. M. Boberg, Motif-index of early Icelandic literature (Bibliotheca Arnamagnaeana, XXVII), Copenhagen, 1966, p.187.

63. See L. Hollander, ‘Vin-heath and Huns’, pp-38-9.

64. Gudni Jonsson and G. Turville-Petre, eds, Hervarar saga ok Heidrekr, London, 1956, ch. 13, p.63: `pat varu log Heidreks konungs, cf herr var i landi, en landskonungr hasladi voll ok lagdi orrostustad, Di skyldu vikingar ekki herja, adr orrosta vaeri reynd.’

65. See Frontinus, Strategemata III, viii, 3, in M. B. McElwain and C. E. Bennett, Frontinus: the stratagems, pp.230-1.

66. See Ogier le Danoir, lines 8330-442, in Mario Eusebi, ed., La chevalerie d’Ogier de Danemarche, Milan/Varese, 1963, pp.341-5.

67. See Frontinus, Strategemata Lv.22, in M. B. McElwain and C. E. Bennett, Frontinus: the stratagems, pp.48-9.

68. Cf. J. Olrik and H. Raeder, eds, Saxo Grammaticus, Ge.rta Danorum, IV.i.20, Copenhagen, 1931-57, I, p.91; cf. P. Fisher and H. Ellis Davidson, eds, Saxo Grammaticus: history of the Danes, Cambridge, 1979-80, vol. I, p.100. Cf. J. Olrik and H. Raeder, Gesta, Liv.ll, I, p.17; P. Fisher and H. Ellis Davidson, History, I, p.19; and J. Olrik and H. Raeder, Gesta, IV.x.4, I, p.103; P. Fisher and H. Ellis Davidson, History, I, p.lll.

69. See Le lai d’Haveloc, lines 105 5-82 in A. Bell, Le lai d’Haveloc and Gaimar’s Haveloc episode, Manchester, 1925, pp.218-9.

70. See H. Heyman, Studies on the Havelock-tale, Uppsala, 1903, p.96; L. A. Hibbard, Mediaeval romance in England, New York, 1924, p.113.

71. See C. Samaran, ed., Alexandre Dumas, Les troi mou.rquetaires, Paris, 1968, ch. 47, pp.563, 574-8.

72. See S. Thompson, ed., Motif-index of folk-literature, revised edn, 6 vols,  Copenhagen, 1955-58, vol. IV, p.313.

73. Ibid., IV, p.496.

74. Ibid., IV, p.440.

75. See Aeneas Tacticus, Fragmenta, x1.4, in Aeneas Tacticus, Asclepiodotus, Onasander, Illinois Greek Club Translation, London, 1923, pp.196-7: `Again, the people of Sinope in their war against Datamas, when they were in danger and in need of men, disguised the most able-bodied of their women and armed them as much like men as they could, giving them in place of shields and helmets their jars and similar bronze utensils, and marched them around the wall where the enemy were most likely to see them.’ The author is careful to note that in this case the disguised women were not permitted to throw anything, since women cannot throw, and `even a long way off a woman betrays her sex when she tries to throw’. Aeneas seems especially concerned about this point, for he repeats it at the end of his treatise as general advice to anyone intending to try out this particular stratagem for the first time. (See Fragmenta, lvii, pp.222-23.) Comments from various (male) readers who over the years have `nodded sage assent’ to Aeneas’ `dubman’s remark’ are quoted in David Whitehead, Aineias the tactitian: how to survive under siege, Oxford, 1990, p.206. Whitehead compares Aeneas’ tactic to the description of transvestite disguise in chapter 11 of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

76. See Aeneas Tacticus, Fragmenta, lviii, pp.224-25.

77. See, for example, Polyaenus, Strategica, VIILxxiii.12, in R. Shepherd, transl., Polyaenus’s stratagems of war, Chicago, 1974, p.328.

78. See, e.g., Leo VI, Tactica, Constitutio XIX.28, MPG, CVII, 919C; Anna Comnena, Alexiad XI.2, p.272. One might compare Bede’s description of the trick employed by Germanus of Auxerre of stationing his greatly outnumbered army of Britons in a valley and having them repeat his call of ‘Alleluia’ in one great shout before an oncoming horde of Saxons and Picts. This battle-cry, amplified and multiplied by echoes from the hills round about, convinces the invading army that they are surrounded. See B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, eds, Bede’s ecclesiastical history of the English people, Oxford, 1969, I.xx, pp.62-3.

79. Surprisingly, Bjarni Einarsson has nothing to say about the ruse in his otherwise very thorough commentary on the saga, Litterare Forudscetningerfor Egils saga (Stofnun Arna Magnussonar a Islandi, VIII), Reykjavik, 1975. On Vinheiðr see esp. pp.229-53.

80. See L. Bethmann and G. Waltz, eds, Paulus Diaconus, Historia Langobardorum, in MGH, Scriptores Rerum Langobardicarum et Italicarum saec. vi-ix, ed. G. Waltz, Hanover, 1878, V.21, p.15 2. I am grateful to Walter Goffart for this reference.

81. Josephus, The Jewish war, IL635-45, in H. St J. Thackeray, ed. and transl.,.Josephus, vol. II, London, 1956, pp.566-9. The same event is described in sections 163-9 of Josephus’ autobiography; see H. St. J. Thackeray, Josephus, vol. I, London, 1926, pp.62-5.

82. W. Whiston, The whole genuine works of Flavius Josephus, vol. III, London, 1817, p.439n.

83. Raymond R. Newell, ‘The forms and historical value of Josephus’ suicide accounts’, in Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata, eds, Josephus, the Bible and history, Leiden, 1989, p.282. On fictional elements in Josephus’ writings in general, see Horst Moehring, Novelistic elements in the writings of Flavius Josephus, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1957.

84. See A. Stender-Peterson, Varangica, Aarhus, 1953, pp.190-1.

85. Josephus, The Jewish war, 11.636, in H. St J. Thackeray, Josephus, vol. II, pp.566-7.

86. Peter Foote, ‘An essay on the saga of Gisli and its Icelandic background’, in G. Johnston, transl., The Saga of Gisli, London, 1963; repr. 1973, p.l05.

87. Egils saga, ch.52, p.132: ‘En far er skemmst var milli skbgarins ok arinnar, ok var fat mjqk 1qng leid. Par hqf’bu tjaldat menu Adalsteins konungs; stow tjqld Deira alit mini skogarins ok arinnar.’

88. The placement of tents in this passage is strikingly similar to advice given by the Byzantine stategist Kekaumenos, who recommends that a large army pitch its tents so as to make its full force dearly visible to the enemy. A small troop, on the other hand, should take care that its camp is bounded by woods or some other natural obstacle which will deprive the enemy of a clear view of the size of their army. See Kekaumenos, Strategikon, chs. 31, 35, pp. 36, 39.

89. A convenient survey of Byzantine military stratagems which have been incorporated into Old Icelandic narratives is available in R. Cook, `Russian history, Icelandic story, and Byzantine strategy’, pp.75-89. See also A. Stender-Petersen, Die Yaragerrage alr Quelle der altrusrirchen Chronik (Acta Jutlandica, VI), Copenhagen, 1934, pp.77-90.

90. L. Hollander, ‘Vin-heath and Huns’, p.38n., draws attention to this particular stratagem. See Bjarni Adalbjarnarson, ed., Snorri Sturluson, Haraldf saga Sigurdarronar, ch. 6 inHeimskringla, vol. III (Islenzk Fornrit, XXVIII), Reykjavik, 1951, pp.76-7.

91. See accounts of the dissemination of this particular story by Alexander H. Krappe, ‘The sparrows of Cirencester’, Modern Philology, 23 (1925-26), pp.7-16; and A. Stender-Petersen, ‘Et nordisk Krigslistmotivs historie’, Edda, 29 (1929), pp.145-64.

92. J. Olrik and H. Raeder, Gesta, I, p.24; cf. P. Fisher and H. Ellis Davidson, History, I, p.25; and J. Olrik and H. Raeder, Gesta, I, pp.102-3; cf. P. Fisher and H. Ellis Davidson,History, I, p.lll.

93. See S. H. Cross, transl., The Russian primary chronicle (Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, XII), Cambridge, MA, 1930, p.167: entry for year 6454 (AD 946).

94. See Brut Tysilio, in San-Marte (a.k.a. Albert Schulz), Gottfriedr von Monmouth Historia Regum . . . and Brut Tysylio, Halle, 1854, p.568. Cf. the Red Book of Hergest version, cited from Jesus College Oxford MS. 61 in English translation by R. E. Jones, in A. Griscom, ed., The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, London, 1929, p.505; Robert ‘mace, Roman de Brut, lines 13949-14036, in Le Roux de Lincy, ed., Le Roman de Brut par Wace, Rouen, 1836-38, vol. II, pp.242-6. G. L. Brook and R. F. Leslie, eds,Layamon: Brut, lines 14581-622 (SETS, original series, CCLXXVII), London, 1978, pp.765-6, text from BL MS. Cotton Caligula A.IX ff. 175vb-176ra; Giraldus Cambrensis,Topographica Hibernica, dist.IIL, c.39, in J. F. Dimock, ed., Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, V, (Rolls Series, XXI), London, 1867, p.184.

95. J. B. Bessinger, `Maldon and the Olafsdrapa: an historical caveat’, in S. B. Greenfield, ed., Studies in Old English literature in honour of Arthur G. Brodeur, Eugene, OR, 1963, p.27.

96. J. McN. Dodgson, `Site of the battle of Maldon’, p.171.

97. J. B. Bessinger, `Maldon and the Olafsdrapa’, p.35.

98. Thomas Babington Macaulay, ‘Hallam’s Constitutional History’, Edinburgh Review, September, 1828, reps. in idem, Literary and historical essays contributed to the Edinburgh Review, Oxford, 1923, vol. II, p.l.

99. A. Campbell, Battle of Brunanburh, p.80.

100. It is, of course, difficult to say what form such archaeological evidence could be expected to take. In the discussion period which followed this session in the conference, David Klausner facetiously suggested `hazel sticks’.

This article was first published in The Middle Ages in the Northwest: papers presented at an international conference sponsored by the Centres of Medieval Studies at the Universities of Liverpool and Toronto, edited by Tom Scott and Pat Starkey (Oxford : Leopard’s Head Press, 1995).  We thank Ian McDougall, Tom Scott and Leopard’s Head Press for their permission to republish this article.

This entry was posted in Articles and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.