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."
Following an unchallenged invasion of
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 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.
3 Primary accounts
9 Further reading
10 External links
Æthelstan defeated the
York in 927, King Constantine
of Scotland, King
Hywel Dda of Deheubarth,
Ealdred I of Bamburgh and
Owen I of Strathclyde
Owen I of Strathclyde (or Morgan ap Owain of Gwent) accepted
Æthelstan's overlordship at Eamont, near Penrith.[a] Æthelstan
became King of England and there was peace until 934.
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.
Æthelstan evidently travelled through
Ripon and Chester-le-Street. The army harassed the Scots up
Kincardineshire and the navy up to
Caithness but Æthelstan's force
was never engaged.
Following the invasion of Scotland, it became apparent that Æthelstan
could only be defeated by an allied force of his enemies. The
leader of the alliance was Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin, joined
by Constantine II, King of
Scotland and Owen, King of Strathclyde.
(According to John of Worcester, Constantine was Olaf's
father-in-law.) Though they had all been enemies in living memory,
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".
In August 937, Olaf crossed the
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. According to Paul Cavill, the invading armies raided Mercia,
Æthelstan obtained Saxon troops as he travelled north to
meet them. Michael Wood wrote that no source mentions any
intrusion into Mercia.
John of Worcester
John of Worcester wrote that the invaders
entered via the
Humber but no other chronicler mentioned this.
Because of the lack of sources supporting the claim, along with other
issues, philologist Paul Cavill argues John's statement is not
true. According to Symeon of Durham, Olaf had 615 ships but this
number is likely exaggerated.
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
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. 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.
The name of the battle appears in various forms in early sources:
Brunanburh (in the
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.
The main source of information about the battle is the praise-poem
Battle of Brunanburh
Battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. After travelling
north through Mercia, Æthelstan, his brother Edmund, and the combined
Saxon army from
Mercia met the invading armies and attacked
them. In a battle that lasted all day, the Saxons fought
the invaders and finally forced them to break up and flee.
There was probably a prolonged period of hard fighting before the
invaders were finally defeated. 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". Wood states that all large battles were
described in this manner, so the description in the poem is not unique
Æthelstan and his army pursued the invaders until
the end of the day, slaying great numbers of enemy troops. The
poem states that "they pursued the hostile people ... hew[ing]
the fugitive grievously from behind with swords sharp from the
grinding". Olaf fled and sailed back to Dublin with the remnants
of his army and Constantine escaped to Scotland; Owen's fate is not
mentioned. 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". 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
It is universally agreed by scholars that the invaders were routed by
the Saxons. 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". The
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster describe
the battle as "great, lamentable and horrible" and record that
"several thousands of Norsemen ... fell". Among the
casualties were five kings and seven earls from Olaf's army. The
poem records that Constantine lost several friends and family members
in the battle, including his son. The largest list of those killed
in the battle is contained in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which names
several kings and princes. A large number of Saxons also died in
the battle, including two of Æthelstan's cousins, Alfric and
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
The Chronicle (Version A) additionally notes that both sides suffered
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.
Another primary account of the battle can be found in William of
Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum, which supposedly preserves an older
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
Wulfstan of Winchester also references the battle in his Life of Saint
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.
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.
Æthelstan's decisive victory prevented the dissolution of England's
unity. Foot writes that "[e]xaggerating the importance of this
victory is difficult". 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". 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.
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. However,
England was once again unified by the time
Edmund I died in 946. The
Norse lost all remaining territory in
York and Northumbria in 954,
Eric Bloodaxe died. Æthelweard, writing in the late
900s, 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
The Brackenwood golf course at Bebington
The location of the battle is unknown. However, according to
Michael Livingston, the case for a location in the Wirral has wide
support among current historians. Charters from the 1200s suggest
Bromborough (a town on the Wirral Peninsula) was originally
named Brunanburh (which could mean "Bruna's fort"). In his
essay "The Place-Name Debate", Paul Cavill listed the steps by which
this transition may have occurred. 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. 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
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
Thingwall on the Wirral Peninsula. 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). Recent research on the
Wirral has identified a possible landing site for the Norse and
Scots. 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 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. Michael Wood published a 2014 article
suggesting a Yorkshire location; philologist
Andrew Breeze favours
Durham, and Kevin Halloran argues for southern Scotland. 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.
Other possibilities include:
Barnsdale, South Yorkshire: The civil parish of
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.
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
Bromswold: According to Alfred Smyth, the original form of the name
Bromswold, Bruneswald, could fit with Brunanburh and other variants of
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. His work was subsequently referenced and expanded by a
number of local authors.
Burnswark, situated near
Lockerbie in southern Scotland: 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 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
Lanchester, County Durham:
Andrew Breeze has argued for Lanchester,
since the Roman fort of
Longovicium overlooks the point where the road
Dere Street crossed the River Browney.
^ According to
William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury it was Owen of Strathclyde who
was present at Eamont but the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Owain of
Gwent; it may have been both.
^ 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,
^ 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.
^ 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
^ 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,
^ 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.
^ 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
^ Capener, David, Brunanburh and the Routes to Dingesmere, 2014.
^ Capener, David, 2014
^ Hill 2004, pp. 141–42.
^ a b Breeze, Andrew (2014-12-04). "Brunanburh in 937:
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
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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
Burnley location of the battle
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