The Info List - Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh
Battle of Brunanburh
was fought in 937 between Æthelstan, King of England, and an alliance of Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin; Constantine, King of Alba and Owen, King of Strathclyde. One of the historiographical cruxes of this battle is the fact that it is often attributed to as the point of origin for English nationalism. Additionally, historians such as Michael Livingston argue that "the men who fought and died on that field forged a political map of the future that remains [in modernity], arguably making the Battle of Brunanburh one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England, but of the whole of the British Isles."[1] Following an unchallenged invasion of Scotland
by Æthelstan
in 934, possibly launched because of a peace treaty violation by Constantine, it became apparent that Æthelstan
could only be defeated by an allied force of his enemies. Olaf led Constantine and Owen in the alliance. In August 937, Olaf and his army crossed the Irish Sea
Irish Sea
to join forces with Constantine and Owen but the invaders were routed in the battle against Æthelstan. The poem Battle of Brunanburh
Battle of Brunanburh
in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounted that there were "never yet as many people killed before this with sword's edge ... since from the east Angles and Saxons came up over the broad sea". Æthelstan's victory preserved English unity; the historian Æthelweard, perhaps writing sometime around 975, said that "[t]he fields of Britain were consolidated into one, there was peace everywhere, and abundance of all things". The battle has been called "the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before Hastings".[by whom?] The site of the battle is unknown and scholars have proposed many places.


1 Background 2 Battle 3 Primary accounts 4 Aftermath 5 Location 6 Notes 7 References 8 Sources 9 Further reading 10 External links

Background[edit] After Æthelstan
defeated the Vikings
at York
in 927, King Constantine of Scotland, King Hywel Dda
Hywel Dda
of Deheubarth, Ealdred I of Bamburgh and King Owen I of Strathclyde
Owen I of Strathclyde
(or Morgan ap Owain of Gwent) accepted Æthelstan's overlordship at Eamont, near Penrith.[2][a] Æthelstan became King of England and there was peace until 934.[4] Æthelstan
invaded Scotland
with a large military and naval force in 934. Although the reason for this invasion is uncertain, John of Worcester stated that the cause was Constantine's violation of the peace treaty made in 927.[5] Æthelstan
evidently travelled through Beverley, Ripon
and Chester-le-Street. The army harassed the Scots up to Kincardineshire
and the navy up to Caithness
but Æthelstan's force was never engaged.[6] Following the invasion of Scotland, it became apparent that Æthelstan could only be defeated by an allied force of his enemies.[6] The leader of the alliance was Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin, joined by Constantine II, King of Scotland
and Owen, King of Strathclyde.[7] (According to John of Worcester, Constantine was Olaf's father-in-law.)[8] Though they had all been enemies in living memory, historian Michael Livingston points out that "they had agreed to set aside whatever political, cultural, historical, and even religious differences they might have had in order to achieve one common purpose: to destroy Æthelstan".[9] In August 937, Olaf crossed the Irish Sea
Irish Sea
with his army to join forces with Constantine and Owen and in Livingston's opinion this suggests that the battle of Brunanburh occurred in early October of that year.[10] According to Paul Cavill, the invading armies raided Mercia, from which Æthelstan
obtained Saxon troops as he travelled north to meet them.[11] Michael Wood wrote that no source mentions any intrusion into Mercia.[12] John of Worcester
John of Worcester
wrote that the invaders entered via the Humber
but no other chronicler mentioned this.[8] Because of the lack of sources supporting the claim, along with other issues, philologist Paul Cavill argues John's statement is not true.[13] According to Symeon of Durham, Olaf had 615 ships but this number is likely exaggerated.[14] Livingston thought that the invading armies entered England in two waves, Constantine and Owen coming from the north, possibly engaging in some skirmishes with Æthelstan's forces as they followed the Roman road across the Lancashire
plains between Carlisle and Manchester, with Olaf's forces joining them on the way. Livingston speculated that the battle site at Brunanburh was chosen in agreement with Æthelstan, on which "there would be one fight, and to the victor went England".[15] Battle[edit] Documents with accounts of the battle include the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the writings of Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury and the Annals of Clonmacnoise. In Snorri Sturluson's Egils saga, the antihero, mercenary, berserker and skald, Egill Skallagrimsson, served as a trusted warrior for Æthelstan.[16] It has been suggested that the account in Egil's Saga is unreliable. Sagas have more than once placed their hero in a famous battle and then embellished it with a series of literary mechanisms.[17] The name of the battle appears in various forms in early sources: Brunanburh (in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
or the chronicle of John of Worcester or in accounts derived from them), Brunandune (Aethelweard), Brunnanwerc or Bruneford or Weondune ( Symeon of Durham and accounts derived from him), Brunefeld or Bruneford ( William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury
and accounts derived from him), Duinbrunde (Scottish traditions), Brun (Welsh traditions), plaines of othlynn (Annals of Clonmacnoise), and Vinheithr (Egil's Saga), among others.[18] The main source of information about the battle is the praise-poem Battle of Brunanburh
Battle of Brunanburh
in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.[7] After travelling north through Mercia, Æthelstan, his brother Edmund, and the combined Saxon army from Wessex
and Mercia
met the invading armies and attacked them.[11][19][20] In a battle that lasted all day, the Saxons fought the invaders and finally forced them to break up and flee.[20][19] There was probably a prolonged period of hard fighting before the invaders were finally defeated.[12][19] According to the poem, the Saxons "split the shield-wall" and "hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers ... [t]here lay many a warrior by spears destroyed; Northern men shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well, weary, war sated".[21] Wood states that all large battles were described in this manner, so the description in the poem is not unique to Brunanburh.[12] Æthelstan
and his army pursued the invaders until the end of the day, slaying great numbers of enemy troops.[19][20] The poem states that "they pursued the hostile people ... hew[ing] the fugitive grievously from behind with swords sharp from the grinding".[21] Olaf fled and sailed back to Dublin with the remnants of his army and Constantine escaped to Scotland; Owen's fate is not mentioned.[19][20] The poem states that the Northmen "[d]eparted ... in nailed ships" and "sought Dublin over the deep water, leaving Dinges mere to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit".[21] The poem records that Æthelstan
and Edmund victoriously returned to Wessex, stating that "the brothers, both together, King and Prince, sought their home, West-Saxon land, exultant from battle."[22][21] It is universally agreed by scholars that the invaders were routed by the Saxons.[19] According to the Chronicle, "countless of the army" died in the battle and there were "never yet as many people killed before this with sword's edge ... since from the east Angles and Saxons came up over the broad sea".[21] The Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster
describe the battle as "great, lamentable and horrible" and record that "several thousands of Norsemen ... fell".[23] Among the casualties were five kings and seven earls from Olaf's army.[19] The poem records that Constantine lost several friends and family members in the battle, including his son.[24] The largest list of those killed in the battle is contained in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which names several kings and princes.[25] A large number of Saxons also died in the battle,[19] including two of Æthelstan's cousins, Alfric and Athelwin.[26] Primary accounts[edit] Anglo-Saxon sources are replete with references to the battle, comprising not only poetic but also prose references. According to Æthelweard in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

[N]ine hundred years plus twenty-six more had passed from the glorious Incarnation of our Savior when the all-powerful King Athelstan assumed the crown of empire. Thirteen years later there was a massive battle against barbarians at Brunandun which is still called 'the great war' to the present day by the common folk. The barbarian hordes were then overcome on all sides and they held sway no longer. Afterwards he drove them from the shores of the sea and Scots and Picts alike bent their necks. The fields of Britain were joined as one; everywhere there was peace and abundance in all things. No fleet has since moved against these shores and remained without the consent of the English.[27]

The Chronicle (Version A) additionally notes that both sides suffered major casualties:

He could make no boast, that gray-haired warrior of the sword-slaughter, the old deceitful one, no more than could Anlaf. With the remnant of their army they had no reason to laugh that they were better in the work of war on the battlefield, of the clashing of banners, of the meeting of spears, of the meeting of men, of the exchange of weapons, when they on the field of death played with the sons of Edward.[28]

Another primary account of the battle can be found in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum, which supposedly preserves an older Latin poem:

For because our king, bold and spirited in his youth, had retired from war long ago and languished in sluggish leisure, they defiled everything in their relentless plundering, afflicting the wretched fields with spreading fires. Verdant grass had withered on all the plains; diseased grain had mocked the prayers of farmers; so great was the barbaric force of the footmen and riders, the charge of countless galloping steeds.[29]

Wulfstan of Winchester also references the battle in his Life of Saint Ethelwold:

Meanwhile it came to pass that Athelstan, the most victorious king, passed away in the fourth year after he had destroyed a hostile army of pagans in a great slaughter, and his brother Edmund assumed from him the guidance of the kingdom.[30]

Finally, Geoffrey Gaimar, an Anglo-Norman chronicler, recounts Brunanburh in his History of the English:

[A]fter that reigned Edward's son Athelstan. When he had reigned to the fourth year, he waged a battle against the Danes; and he defeated Guthfrith the king. After that he assembled a great army and into the sea issued a great fleet. Directly to Scotland
he went; he harried that country well. One year later, no less no more, at Brunanburh he had the upper hand over the Scots, and over the men of Cumberland, over the Welsh, and over the Picts. There were so many slain I think it will be told forever. Afterwards he lived only three years; he had no son, no other children. His brother was then made king.[31]

Aftermath[edit] Æthelstan's decisive victory prevented the dissolution of England's unity.[22] Foot writes that "[e]xaggerating the importance of this victory is difficult".[22] Livingston wrote that the battle was "the moment when Englishness came of age" and "one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England but of the whole of the British isles".[32] The battle has been called "the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before Hastings" by Alfred Smyth, but he also states that its consequences beyond Æthelstan's reign have been overstated.[33][34] Alex Woolf describes it a "pyrrhic victory" for Æthelstan: the campaign seems to have ended in a stalemate, his power appears to have declined, and after he died Olaf acceded to the Kingdom of Northumbria
Kingdom of Northumbria
without resistance.[35] However, England was once again unified by the time Edmund I
Edmund I
died in 946. The Norse lost all remaining territory in York
and Northumbria in 954, when Eric Bloodaxe
Eric Bloodaxe
died.[20] Æthelweard, writing in the late 900s,[20] said that the battle was "still called the 'great battle' by the common people" and that "[t]he fields of Britain were consolidated into one, there was peace everywhere, and abundance of all things".[36] Location[edit]

The Brackenwood golf course at Bebington

The location of the battle is unknown.[19] However, according to Michael Livingston, the case for a location in the Wirral has wide support among current historians.[37] Charters from the 1200s suggest that Bromborough
(a town on the Wirral Peninsula[38]) was originally named Brunanburh[39] (which could mean "Bruna's fort").[40] In his essay "The Place-Name Debate", Paul Cavill listed the steps by which this transition may have occurred.[41] Evidence suggests that there were Scandinavian settlements in the area starting in the late 800s, and the town is also situated near the River Mersey, which was a commonly used route by Vikings
sailing from Ireland.[39] Additionally, the Chronicle states that the invaders escaped at Dingesmere, and Dingesmere could be interpreted as "mere of the Thing". The word Thing (or þing, in Old Norse) might be a reference to the Viking Thing (or assembly) at Thingwall
on the Wirral. In Old English, mere refers to a body of water, although the specific type of body varies depending on the context. In some cases, it refers to a wetland, and a large wetland is present in the area. Therefore, in their article "Revisiting Dingesmere", Cavill, Harding, and Jesch propose that Dingesmere is a reference to a marshland or wetland near the Viking Thing at Thingwall
on the Wirral Peninsula.[38] Since the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the battle as taking place "ymbe Brunanburh" ("around Brunanburh"), numerous locations near Bromborough
have been proposed, including the Brackenwood Golf Course in Bebington, Wirral (formerly within the Bromborough
parish).[42] Recent research on the Wirral has identified a possible landing site for the Norse and Scots.[43] This is a feature called Wallasey Pool. This is in the north of the Wirral near the River Mersey. The pool is linked to the river by a creek which, before it was developed into modern docks, stretched inland some two miles, was, at high tide over 20 feet (6 m) deep and was surrounded by a moss or mere which is now known as Bidston Moss. In addition to this landing site a Roman Road leads from the area of Bidston to Chester. Following the route of this road would take an invading force through the area the battle is believed to have been fought. Landscape survey[44] has identified a likely position for Bruna's burh. This survey places the burh at Brimstage approximately 11 miles (18 km) from Chester. Many other sites have been suggested; historian Paul Hill identified over thirty possibilities.[45] Michael Wood published a 2014 article suggesting a Yorkshire location;[12] philologist Andrew Breeze
Andrew Breeze
favours Durham,[46] and Kevin Halloran argues for southern Scotland.[47] Tim Clarkson discounts locations other than southern Scotland
or northern England as a battle site, given the logistical capacity of the kingdoms of Alba and Strathclyde.[48] Other possibilities include:

Barnsdale, South Yorkshire: The civil parish of Burghwallis
was recorded as "Burg" in the Domesday book, likely because of a Roman fort situated near the place where the Great North Road (Ermine Street) is met by the road from Templeborough. The site is overlooked by a hill called " Barnsdale
Bar", past which flows the River Went. Michael Wood has suggested this site, noting the similarity between Went and Symeon of Durham's Wendun.[12] Brinsworth, South Yorkshire: Michael Wood suggests Tinsley Wood, near Brinsworth, as a possible site of the battle. He notes that there is a hill nearby, White Hill, and observes that the surrounding landscape is strikingly similar to the description of the battlefield contained in Egil's Saga. There is an ancient Roman temple on White Hill, and Wood states that the name Symeon of Durham used for the place of the battle, Weondun, means "the hill where there had been a pagan Roman sanctuary or temple". According to Wood, Frank Stenton believed that this piece of evidence could help in finding the location of the battle. There is also a Roman fort nearby, and burh means "fortified place" in Old English; Wood suggests that this fort may have been Brunanburh.[49] Bromswold: According to Alfred Smyth, the original form of the name Bromswold, Bruneswald, could fit with Brunanburh and other variants of the name.[50] Burnley: In 1856, Burnley
Grammar School master and antiquary Thomas T. Wilkinson published a paper suggesting that the battle occurred on the moors above Burnley, noting that the town stands on the River Brun.[51] His work was subsequently referenced and expanded by a number of local authors.[52][53] Burnswark, situated near Lockerbie
in southern Scotland:[54] Burnswark is a hill 280 metres (920 ft) tall, and is the site of two Roman military camps and many fortifications from the Iron Age. It was initially suggested as the site of the battle by George Neilson in 1899 and was the leading theory in the early 1900s, having obtained support from historians such as Charles Oman. Kevin Halloran argues that the different forms used by various authors when naming the battle site associate it with a hill and fortifications, since burh (used by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
poem) means "a fortified place", and dune (used by Æthelweard and Symeon of Durham, in names such as Brunandune and We(o)ndune) means "a hill". He also states that the name "Burnswark" could be related to Bruneswerce, another alternative name for the battle site used by Symeon of Durham and Geoffrey Gaimar.[47] Lanchester, County Durham: Andrew Breeze
Andrew Breeze
has argued for Lanchester, since the Roman fort of Longovicium
overlooks the point where the road known as Dere Street
Dere Street
crossed the River Browney.[46]


^ According to William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury
it was Owen of Strathclyde who was present at Eamont but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
says Owain of Gwent; it may have been both.[3]


^ Michael Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, 1. ^ Higham 1993, p. 190; Foot 2011, p. 20 ^ Foot, 2011, p. 162, n. 15; Woolf, 2007, p. 151; Charles-Edwards, p. 511–12 ^ Foot 2011, p. 20 ^ Foot, 2011, pp. 164–65; Woolf, 2007, pp. 158–65 ^ a b Stenton 2001, p. 342 ^ a b Foot 2011, p. 170 ^ a b Cavill 2001, p. 103 ^ Livingston (2011), p. 11. ^ Livingston 2011, p. 14 ^ a b Cavill 2001, p. 101 ^ a b c d e Wood, Michael (August 2013). "Searching for Brunanburh: The Yorkshire Context of the 'Great War' of 937". Yorkshire Archaeological Journal; Maney Online. Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 85 Issue 1. Yorkshire Archaeological Society. 85: 138. doi:10.1179/0084427613Z.00000000021. Retrieved 2015-04-05.  ^ Cavill, Paul. "The Place-Name Debate", in Livingston 2011, p. 322 ^ Cavill 2001, pp. 103–04 ^ Livingston (2011), p. 15–18. ^ Livingston (2011), "Preface", pp. xi–xii. ^ Ian McDougall: Discretion and deceit: a re-examination of a military stratagem in Egils saga ^ Cavill, Paul. "The Place-Name Debate", in Livingston 2011, pp. 313–14 ^ a b c d e f g h i Stenton 2001, p. 343 ^ a b c d e f Cavill 2001, p. 102 ^ a b c d e "The Battle of Brunanburh". loki.stockton.edu. Retrieved 18 November 2015.  ^ a b c Foot 2011, p. 171 ^ The Annals of Ulster. CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts. 2000. p. 386. Retrieved 19 November 2015.  ^ Foot 2011, pp. 170–71 ^ Livingston 2011, pp. 20–23. ^ "The Battle of Brunanburh: 937". englishmonarchs.co.uk. Retrieved 29 October 2015.  ^ A-SC, Battle of Brunanburh, loc. 49. ^ A-SC, Battle of Brunanburh, loc. 43. ^ Livingston, 2011, loc. 13. ^ Wulfstan of Winchester, Life of Saint Ethelwold. ^ Geoffrey of Gaimar, History of the English, l. 3515–31. ^ Livingston, Michael. "The Roads to Brunanburh", in Livingston 2011, p. 1 ^ Smyth 1975, p. 62 ^ Smyth 1984, Warlords and Holy Men, p. 204 ^ Woolf 2013, "Scotland", p. 256 ^ "Aethelweard". brunanburh.org.uk. Retrieved 30 October 2015.  ^ Livingston (2011), p. 19. ^ a b Cavill, Paul; Harding, Stephen; Jesch, Judith (October 2004). "Revisiting Dingesmere". Journal of the English Place Name Society. 36: 25–36.  ^ a b Foot 2011, p. 178 ^ Cavill 2001, p. 105 ^ Cavill, Paul. "The Place-Name Debate", in Livingston 2011, p. 328 ^ Birthplace of Englishness 'found'. BBC News Online
BBC News Online
(URL accessed 27 August 2006). ^ Capener, David, Brunanburh and the Routes to Dingesmere, 2014. Countyvise Ltd ^ Capener, David, 2014 ^ Hill 2004, pp. 141–42. ^ a b Breeze, Andrew (2014-12-04). "Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough
or Lanchester?". Society of Antiquaries of London: Ordinary Meeting of Fellows. Retrieved 2015-04-04.  ^ a b Halloran, Kevin (Oct 2005). "The Brunanburh Campaign: A Reappraisal" (PDF). JSTOR. The Scottish Historical Review Vol. 84 No. 218. Edinburgh University Press. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 2015-04-06.  ^ Clarkson 2012, p. 155 ^ Wood 2001, pp. 206–14. ^ Smyth 1975, pp. 51–52 ^ Wilkinson 1857, pp. 21–41 ^ Partington 1909, pp. 28–43 ^ Newbigging 1893, pp. 9–21 ^ "Battle of Brunanburh". UK Battlefields Trust. Retrieved 7 June 2012. 


Cavill, Paul (2001). Vikings: Fear and Faith in Anglo-Saxon England. HarperCollins Publishers.  Charles-Edwards, T. M. (2013). Wales and the Britons 350–1064. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-821731-2.  Clarkson, Tim (28 September 2012). The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. Birlinn
Limited. ISBN 978-1-907909-01-6.  Foot, Sarah (2011). Æthelstan: The First King of England. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12535-1.  Higham, N. J. (1993). The Kingdom of Northumbria: AD 350–1100. Alan Sutton. ISBN 0-86299-730-5.  Hill, Paul (2004). The Age of Athelstan: Britain's Forgotten History. Tempus Publishing.  Livingston, Michael (2011). The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook. University of Exeter Press. ISBN 978-0-85989-863-8.  Newbigging, Thomas (1893). History of the Forest of Rossendale (2nd ed.). Rossendale Free Press.  Partington, S. W. (1909). The Danes in Lancashire
and Yorkshire. Sherratt & Hughes.  Smyth, Alfred (1975). Scandinavian York
and Dublin. Dublin: Templekieran Press.  Stenton, Frank M. (7 June 2001). Anglo-Saxon England (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280139-5.  Wilkinson, Thomas T. (1857). Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire
and Cheshire, Volume 9. Society.  Wood, Michael (2001). In Search of England: Journeys Into the English Past. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-23218-1.  Woolf, Alex (2007). From Pictland to Alba: 789–1070. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-1233-8. 

Further reading[edit]

Breeze, Andrew (1999). "The Battle of Brunanburh
Battle of Brunanburh
and Welsh tradition". Neophilologicus. 83 (3): 479–82. doi:10.1023/A:1004398614393.  Breeze, Andrew (March 2016). "The Battle of Brunanburh
Battle of Brunanburh
and Cambridge, CCC, MS183". Northern History. LIII (1): 138–45.  Campbell, Alistair (1970-03-17). "Skaldic Verse and Anglo-Saxon History" (PDF). Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture. Viking Society for Northern Research. Retrieved 2009-08-25.  Cavill, Paul; Stephen Harding; Judith Jesch (2004). "Revisiting Dingesmere" (PDF). Journal of the English Place Name Society. 36: 25–38.  Foot, Sarah, "Where English becomes British: Rethinking Contexts for Brunanburh", in Barrow, Julia; Andrew Wareham (2008). Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Brooks. Aldershot: Ashgate. pp. 127–44.  Halloran, Kevin (2005). "The Brunanburh Campaign: A Reappraisal". Scottish Historical Review. 84 (2): 133–48. doi:10.3366/shr.2005.84.2.133.  Higham, Nicholas J., "The Context of Brunanburh" in Rumble, A.R.; A.D. Mills (1997). Names, Places, People. An Onomastic Miscellany in Memory of John McNeal Dodgson. Stamford: Paul Watkins. pp. 144–56.  Niles, J.D. (1987). "Skaldic Technique in Brunanburh". 59. Scandinavian Studies: 356–66.  Orton, Peter (1994). "On the Transmission and Phonology of The Battle of Brunanburh" (PDF). 24. Leeds Studies in English: 1–28.  Wood, Michael (1980). "Brunanburh Revisited". Saga Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research. 20 (3): 200–17.  Wood, Michael (1999). "Tinsley Wood". In Search of England. London. pp. 203–21. 

External links[edit]

Cheshire portal War portal

Text in Bright's Anglo-Saxon Reader/The Battle of Brunanburh Text of the poem "Battle of Brunanburh", including Anglo-Saxon version, modern English translation, and Tennyson's version Short documentary produced by C Bebenezer about aural traditions and the possible Burnley
location of the battle

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