Anglo-Saxons versus Scots and Vikings at Brunanburh: the forgotten fight that changed British history
King Æthelstan’s victory at Brunanburh in AD 937 may just be one of the most important battles ever fought on British soil, yet today it is virtually unknown. Julian Humphrys explores what happened over an entire day of hard and bloody fighting, and why the events on that long-lost battlefield echoed through the centuries
Half a century after Brunanburh – the victory of the men of Wessex and Mercia over an alliance of Scots, Strathclyde Britons and Norsemen from Ireland – it was still being called “the great battle”. Indeed, it has been described as one of the most defining battles in British history. It helped the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan consolidate his hold over his Wessex kingdom and create a more unified England, while it has also been argued that the strong resistance put up by his enemies prevented the whole of Britain from being forcefully united into one imperial power.
Despite its significance, few today have heard of the battle of Brunanburh in AD 937, and even fewer think they know where it was fought.
The battle of Brunanburh: quick facts
When was it fought?
Great Britain (precise location disputed)
Allied invasion of northern England
Who was involved?
Kingdom of England, led by Æthelstan
Kingdom of Scotland, led by Constantine II
Kingdom of Strathclyde, led by Owain I
Viking kingdom of Dublin, led by Olaf Guthfrithson
After a day of fighting, according to some accounts, it was an English victory
What led to the battle of Brunanburh?
Ever since he’d been crowned king of the Anglo-Saxons in AD 925, Æthelstan had been steadily extending his authority. After his grandfather, Alfred the Great, had halted the Danish conquest of England, his father, Edward the Elder, recaptured the East Midlands and East Anglia from the Danes in AD 917. Building on these solid foundations, Athelstan pushed north. Two years after becoming king, he took over the last remaining Viking kingdom at York, extending his rule up to the Scottish border. In AD 934, he invaded Scotland, possibly because its king, Constantine, had broken a peace treaty.
- Read more | Aelfweard and Aethelstan: were they rivals for the throne of Wessex?
After gathering his forces at Winchester, he marched north, picking up reinforcements on the way and paying a visit to the shrine of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, in modern-day County Durham. Supported by a fleet that sailed up the east coast, Athelstan led his Anglo-Saxon warriors deep into Scotland, burning and ravaging as far as the great fortress of Dunnottar, south of Aberdeen.
Nobody dared take on the powerful southern army in battle, and the northern rulers soon gave in. Constantine surrendered to Æthelstan and his neighbour Owain, King of Strathclyde, followed suit. Both were forced to accept the overlordship of Æthelstan, now at the peak of his powers.
Realising that their only hope of countering the powerful English king was by setting aside their differences, Æthelstan’s enemies forged a coalition against him, with Constantine and Owen joining forces with Olaf, the Viking King of Dublin. In AD 937, they moved into Northumbria, where there were large numbers of Danish settlers and few of the aristocracy felt much loyalty to Æthelstan. It’s not clear how or where they combined their armies, but it is said that 615 ships carried the Dublin Vikings to England. The one source that does give any details says that the Vikings sailed their longships up the Humber.
- Read more | The Danelaw: is the ‘realm’ of the Vikings in Anglo-Saxon-era England a place or an idea?
Who was Æthelstan?
During his 14-year reign, Æthelstan pushed England’s boundaries to the furthest extent they had yet reached. He eliminated opposition in Cornwall, extracted a huge tribute from the kings of Wales, conquered Viking York, extended his control over Northumbria and fought off a major invasion in AD 937.
But he was more than just a warrior feared by his neighbours. He issued law codes to strengthen royal control over his expanded kingdom, regulated the currency, and encouraged town life. He was a great collector of works of art and relics and a generous patron of religious houses.
In his final years, Æthelstan was respected and influential throughout Europe, and four of his half-sisters married European rulers. He died in AD 939 and was buried in Malmesbury Abbey.
By autumn, the invaders had established themselves in York and were ravaging Æthelstan’s kingdom to the south. How would Æthelstan respond? According to a contemporary chronicle (which is now lost, but was quoted in the 12th century by the writer William of Malmesbury), he did nothing, spending “idle hours” while the invaders laid waste his lands.
In fact, Æthelstan was busy raising troops. A 10th-century army took time to assemble, and Æthelstan wasn’t going to make the same mistake that Harold Godwinson would in 1066 by hurrying into battle before he had gathered all his forces. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle emphasises the part played by the West Saxons and Mercians in the ensuing clash of arms, but it seems that Æthelstan’s army wasn’t exclusively English. The king had brought in some extra muscle in the form of a force of Viking warriors under the leadership of two hard-bitten Icelandic adventurers: Egill and Thorolf Skallagrímsson.
Egill’s colourful (and violent) life was the subject of a long saga, probably written by Snorri Sturluson, the famous 13th-century Icelandic poet, chieftain and historian. It’s a thoroughly entertaining read, offering a valuable insight into the Viking mindset, but it’s so full of literary invention that its value as a history is thought to be limited.
According to Egill’s saga, Æthelstan bought some of the time he needed to raise his army by challenging his enemies to fight him on a “hazelled field”, a specially chosen battlefield marked out by hazel branches, where the fighting would take place by mutual agreement at a set time. By tradition, once you had been challenged in this way, it was considered dishonourable to refuse or continue to ravage an enemy’s lands.
Finally, towards the end of the year, Æthelstan moved north, and the two armies clashed at a place called Brunanburh. There’s a lot of debate over where this actually was, with Yorkshire, the Wirral, Galloway and Northamptonshire just some of the suggested sites. Egill’s saga describes the battlefield as an open heath bordered by dense woodland on one side and a river on the other, with Æthelstan and his brother Edmund’s forces drawn up where the gap between the two was narrowest.
The main battle began with a dawn attack by the English, but the first casualties had already been suffered when an Anglo-Saxon bishop arrived with his men the night before, pitched his tents too near the enemy, and fell victim to a surprise attack. The initial fighting bore little relation to the confused free-for-all often depicted in today’s films. Both sides would have drawn up in closely packed ranks, presenting a solid wall of shields to their enemies. It’s sometimes suggested that the shields overlapped for extra protection, but this would have been impossible in the hurly-burly of battle as well as making it extremely difficult to use a weapon effectively.
The lines of both armies would have bristled with spears, the commonest weapon of the period, leading at least one poet to describe an army as a “war-hedge”. Swords are frequently mentioned in contemporary poems and accounts, but they were expensive and usually only carried by the richer members of an army. Some warriors carried two-handed axes, which could shatter a wooden shield or cleave a man’s head in two.
Accounts say the fighting at Brunanburh lasted all day... a contemporary poem concluded 'never was there more slaughter on this island, never yet as many people killed before this'
Unless one army attempted a surprise attack, a battle would normally begin with the two armies drawing up opposite each other, shooting bows and hurling insults – and spears – before one side (or both) felt confident enough to move forward. This might be a slow and steady advance, but an army could give up the security of a shield wall in favour of the impetus provided by a mad rush. Sometimes, warriors would deploy in a wedge formation, commonly called a ‘swine array’, and try to punch their way through an enemy shield wall.
Axemen needed room to swing their deadly weapons, so it was almost impossible for them to fight in tightly packed ranks. They may have dashed forward to take on individual opponents, or used their axes to splinter the wooden shields of their enemies. If both lines held firm, the fighting would degenerate into a bitter battle of attrition. This was close-quarter combat at its most terrible, where you looked into the eyes of your enemy and could smell his breath and taste his blood.
Accounts say the fighting at Brunanburh lasted all day. According to the Annals of Ulster, the battle was “immense, lamentable and horrible, desperately fought” while a contemporary poem concluded “never was there more slaughter on this island, never yet as many people killed before this… since from the east Angles and Saxons came up over the broad sea”.
Eventually, the English gained the upper hand and the invaders broke and fled. Athelstan and his army pursued them until nightfall, “hew[ing] the fugitive grievously from behind with swords sharp from the grinding”. Olaf made for the safety of his ships and sailed back to Dublin with what was left of his army, Constantine escaped to Scotland and abdicated a few years later, while Owen was probably killed in the battle. Athelstan and Edmund headed south in triumph.
But the English paid a heavy price for their victory: two of Athelstan’s cousins had been slain, along with two bishops, Thorolf Skallagrímsson, and “a multitude” of lesser men. The invaders’ losses were even higher. Five minor kings, seven Viking earls and one of Constantine’s sons were killed together with thousands of their followers.
Locating the battlefield: where is Brunanburh?
A wide variety of sites have been suggested. One is near Lockerbie in Scotland, not far from the hillfort at Burnswark, but it’s unlikely the battle was fought this far north, especially as Olaf and his allies had overrun Northumbria and occupied York.
Another suggestion places the battle further south, in the hills on the Huntingdonshire-Northamptonshire border. Some accounts refer to Bruneswald rather than Brunanburh, and there was indeed a forest of that name between the rivers Nene and Ouse in that area.
Some historians argue that the battle was actually fought on the Wirral. Dismissing the 12th-century account of the Vikings sailing up the Humber as a mistake, they base their conclusion on two place names that are mentioned in the contemporary account: Brunanburh and Dinges Mere. They believe that Brunanburh was the old name for the Wirral village of Bromborough, and that Dinges Mere meant ‘marshland of the Thing’, the old Norse word for the assembly which met at Thingwall on the Wirral.
Others aren’t convinced. Historian Michael Wood believes that the account of the Viking landing on the Humber is probably correct, and points out that two sources, one Irish and one English, say the invaders were helped by Danes within England, who could only have been from Northumbria or the East Midlands. He argues that the battle was probably fought somewhere south of York, which was, after all, the main war zone between the 920s and 950s AD.
Wood concludes by asking that if the Vikings’ aim was to re-establish their kingdom in York, what were they doing in the Wirral? It seems likely that unless some new written evidence is uncovered or there’s a stunning archaeological find, the debate will rumble on.
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Julian Humphrys is a historian specialising in British military history, writer and battlefields guide
This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed
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