Hear Me Out: Never Greater Slaughter
In the Acknowledgements section at the end of Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England (Osprey, 2021), author Michael Livingston notes that he was stunned by the praise the book received in its forward written by Saxon Stories author Bernard Cornwell, who gushes, "No one has done more than Michael Livingston to revive memories of the battle."
"With respect," Livingston continues, "I'd like to suggest that he has it precisely backwards: no one has done more to bring life to Brunanburh than Bernard Cornwell."
Mutual love-fest aside, Livingston's book outlines a solid argument for siting the "lost" battle of Brunanburh on England's Wirral Peninsula. Beginning with some background history on the complicated politics, intertwined familial ties between ruling families, and generation-spanning territorial conflicts that defined the Viking Age in northern Europe, Livingston sets the stage for a careful, step-by-step explanation of how each of these forces, along with geography and the timing of the battle itself, make the Wirral the most logical site for the fateful meeting of the Viking Anlaf and his allies and England's young king Athelstan.
I think most compelling (and intriguing) for me, however, was the chapter on the nascent archeological work which has been performed at the site. Though thousands of items have been found, the arrival of the pandemic along with a dearth of funding have slowed the cleaning and curating of those items to a crawl, meaning it will most likely be years before we know if the archeological evidence points to Wirral as the likely site of Brunanburh. Still, as Livingston himself acknowledges, historical research is an investigative process, and as such relies on a wide variety of evidence: contemporaneous (or as near as one can get) accounts, the close study of landforms and features, an understanding of the geopolitical climate of the time, even a working knowledge of martial strategy. Never Greater Slaughter takes the evidence from all of these into account, creating a narrative compelling enough on its own that the artifacts were icing on top of a nicely constructed cake.
My only complaint comes in the book's Appendix, which Livingston uses as a means to address a list of objections to his Wirral theory. This bit honestly reads like the author complaining about his intellectual rivals, and I didn't feel as if it added much to the book's impact other than making him sound somewhat whiny at the end. Without it the book stands just fine, and had I been his editor I would have gently suggested he leave that entire section out. Scholarship isn't war, Mr. Livingston; you don't have to prove your rivals wrong to prove yourself right.