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Helen Castor and a cast of leading historians join with listeners to discuss the latest historical research, including the search for the true home of the Great War of 937.

Helen Castor is joined by Carenza Lewis from the University of Cambridge and Professor Emma Griffin from the University of East Anglia in the first of a new series of the programme in which listeners join with some of the world's leading researchers to discuss the latest work that is Making History.

Over the next five weeks, historians and archaeologists will be helping us to understand more about the origins of the Welsh language, find out how French royalty escaped revolutionary persecution in Aylesbury, discover why the gloves are off in the nation's archives, and hear how some of our leading early socialists thought that the unemployed could do with a spell in a labour camp.

Today, it's science versus history. Tom Holland is on the Wirral to hear a debate that's been rekindled by historian Michael Wood - where is Brunanburh, the site of the Great War of 937? Is it Bromborough near Birkenhead as place-name and DNA evidence might suggest or should we, as Wood argues, trust the historical sources and look across to the Humber and South Yorkshire?

Maritime historian Sam Willis is in Devon to find out how an eighteenth century inventor from Ipswich turned to gambling to finance one of the world's first submarine journeys - to the bottom of Plymouth Sound.

And we look ahead to a remarkable parliamentary anniversary, the Addled Parliament of 1614 - the only English parliament in which nothing got done.

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Producer: Nick Patrick
A Pier production for BBC Radio 4.

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28 minutes

Last on

Tue 31 Dec 2013 15:00

Programme Guests

Helen Castor is joined by the archaeologist and broadcaster Dr Carenza Lewis from the University of Cambridge and the historian of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Professor Emma Griffin from the University of East Anglia.

The Search for the Battle of Brunanburh, 937

The Search for the Battle of Brunanburh, 937

Tom Holland hears the competing claims for the site of this epic battle from Professor Steve Harding at the University of Nottingham and our leading 10th Century historian, Michael Wood.

 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 conflict was so bloody that it became known as the Great War. It ended in defeat of the northerners at the Battle of Brunanburh, probably in the autumn of 937. It is seen as a key moment in the unification of England. Indeed, some have argued that this is the birthplace of Englishness. But, despite its importance in the story of Britain, no one knows for certain where the action took place.

There is no first-hand documentary evidence about Brunanburh, but over the last decade, researchers from the University of Nottingham working on DNA and place-name evidence, have established the case for a Norse community living on the Wirral in the years leading up to the war of 937. Gradually, an argument has been put together (and widely accepted) that a site close to Bromborough near Birkenhead could be the place where Olaf’s forces were beaten by Aethelstan. The argument put forward is that the Wirral is a short sea journey from Dublin and that a ‘place’ called Dingesmere mentioned in a poem about Brunanburh which appears in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle translates as ‘the place of assembly or Thing‘ (as in the Manx Tynwald) which might well refer to Thingwall - a village on the Wirral.

Now, Michael Wood has questioned the conclusions made by the team from Nottingham and argues that it: ignores our understanding of how the Vikings travelled, where the axis of war was in the 930’s and what secondary historical sources tell us about these epic events. In an article published in the for the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Wood urges the reader to consider all of the evidence and that, when this is done, the location of this battle is more likely to be closer to the Humber than the Mersey. He points to the twelfth century writing of John of Worcester which tell us that the Viking fleet landed in the Humber; he refers to a lost tenth century poem quoted by William of Malmesbury which says that the Northumbrians submitted to the Viking/Scots invaders and asks how Olaf’s northern allies would have got to the Wirral to fight this battle? Furthermore, after taking advice from Anglo-Saxon language experts, Wood questions the Nottingham team’s translation of Dingesmere which he claims is not a place at all but refers to the state or sound of the sea. 

 Catch up with the debate using these links:

What do you think? Share your ideas with Helen and Tom at

John Day’s Submarine

John Day’s Submarine

In June 1774 a millwright from Ipswich lost his life, and a sizeable bet, trying to submerge a wooden box fixed to a boat in Plymouth Sound. Making History enlisted the help of maritime historian Dr Sam Willis and recently retired submariner Chris Nail to work out just what went wrong with John Day’s submarine.

Day’s idea was to construct a water-tight wooden box and fix it to an existing boat. This would be weighed down with baskets of rocks attached to a metal bar which could be released when the vessel was on the sea bed. But, according to Chris Nail, ‘sinking’ the vessel and then controlling its descent was the real problem.

Day tried out his theory on the Norfolk Broads (possibly on Breydon Water, the estuary of the River Yare near Great Yarmouth). He didn’t sink the boat but merely anchored on the muddy estuary and waited for the tide to come in and swamp her. However, to win a bet which was to pay for the experiment, Day had to dive to a hundred feet of water in Plymouth Sound and stay underwater for 12 hours. The seabed of the Sound, as Chris Nail pointed out, is very rocky. To make matters worse, Day had no way of controlling the craft’s dive. Indeed, it was so difficult to sink that he had loaded her with 30 tons of limestone. The result was that when she went under she went at such a speed that by the time she hit the seabed she was probably travelling at 5 or 6 knots. Chris Nail doubts whether John Day was alive by the time his sub had hit the bottom as the wooden box probably didn’t withstand the pressure of the water or the speed of the dive.

A full account of this experiment can be found in the pages of the Ipswich Journal which is held at the Suffolk Record Office in Ipswich.

The Addled Parliament

Helen spoke to Professor Pauline Croft from the University of London about a parliamentary anniversary coming up in 2014 which has, so far, been overlooked. The Addled Parliament of 1614 is infamous for being the only parliament in which no business took place!

Further Reading

  •  King JamesVI and I and his English Parliaments. Russell, Cust and Thrush. Oxford University Press 2011 

Making History is produced by Nick Patrick and is a Pier Production for BBC Radio 4. Contact the programme by email, or write to:

Making History, 

PO Box 3096, 

Brighton. BN1 1PL