Osprey Publishing| May 2021| 241 pages| e-book Review Copy| 3.5*
I had heard of the Battle of Brunanburh before I read Never Greater Slaughter by Michael Livingston, but my knowledge was limited to the fact that this had taken place in 937 between Æthelstan, King of England, King Alfred’s grandson, and an alliance led by Anlaf, a Viking chieftain, other chieftains and Constantine King of the Scots, in which Æthelstan was victorious. So I was very keen to find out more.
Synopsis from Amazon:
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.
The title is taken from the poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the battle thus:
Never greater slaughter Was there on this island, never as many Folk felled before this By the Swords edges.
The location of the battle has been lost. Historians, archaeologists, linguists and other researchers have studied the little evidence that remains about the battle and put forward ideas about that location. In this book Livingston concludes that the only ‘certain pieces of information about the field at Brunanburgh – the place-names by which it was known in the immediate years afterwards – unquestionably point us to blood being shed in the mid-Wirral.’ (location 76%)
It seems to me that this is a very thorough and detailed book describing the battle and the various theories about its location. But not only that Livingston sets out his definition of history and its limitations. For example he says that whilst some facts will be known, a great many through the passage of time are lost, and some are facts that people have chosen to record to suit their own needs – their own bias in other words – or are simply not true.
Then Livingston describes what is known about the period leading up to the battle, describes the battle itself, and, having stated his objections to other possible locations, explains the reasons he concludes the location is in the Wirral, which seems convincing to me.
I found this a well researched and fascinating book that gave me a much better understanding of the period.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.
2 thoughts on “Never Greater Slaughter by Michael Livingston”
This does sound thorough and well-researched, Margaret. And I appreciate it when an author sets out the limits of a piece of work, and establishes what is true and what we’ll never know. It’s not a battle I really know about, and I don’t think I’ve seen a lot about it. That in itself makes this interesting.
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I’m not surprised you don’t really know about it. I first came across it in David Starkey’s book The Monarchy of England: The Beginnings.
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