The battle of Brunanburgh was a decisive battle fought in 937. Brunanburgh is not thought of when important battles spring to mind. Perhaps we think of Hastings or Towton or maybe even Bosworth but Brunanburgh as well as being one of the bloodiest battles fought on British soil is also, some would argue, the most defining for the England we know today as it was the final battle that king Aethelstan fought against the armies of The Welsh, Scots and Irish before finally uniting all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into one.
Aethelstan (895-939) the grandson of Alfred the Great is known historically as England’s founding father although his own father Edward the Elder had tried himself to unite the Kingdoms. For centuries war had ravaged the kingdom with constant Viking invasions but under Aethelstan’s strong leadership they managed to fight back and expel them from the north.
With all this going on in the Saxon regions, Kings and leaders from Scotland and Ireland were starting to feel threatened. Especially Constantine II of Scotland. Constantine’s reign of 43 years was one of the longest of all Scottish kings but was troubled by constant threats by the Vikings and the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia and then the United England.
Constantine had watched as Aethelstan had become a great King and leader and had built connections between the warring factions in the south so he himself decided to make some strong connections of his own, possibly worrying that Aethelstan had his eye on Scotland once he had conquered York. In a direct response Constantine married his daughter to Olaf of Dublin bringing the Irish into an alliance. The invading armies were led by Constantine, Olaf III Guthfrithson, the Norse-Gael king of Dublin (known to the English as Anlaf) and Owen I king of Strathclyde whom Constantine was related to so Owen joined him without question.
With these alliances together Constantine had built himself a rather large army and in 937 he began marching south. Upon hearing of the impending invasion Aethelstan, with ease, called upon his noblemen to join with him and by the summer the two armies met at Brunanburgh. The battle was written about in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle;
“no slaughter yet was greater made e’er in this island , of people slain, before this same with the edge of a sword”
There is still little known about this battle even down to the location but the most likely area seems to be Bromborough on The Wirrel. What is known is that the combined invading armies lost five kings that day and Constantine’s own son lay dead on the battlefield. Aethelstan was merciless and had his men chase down all those who tried to flee and flee they did. Aethelstan was victorious and after the battle unified a single England one that we still know and recognise to this day. This is the poem written about Brunanburgh in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle edited by S.A. Swaffington.
In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
in battle with sword edges
around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
The sons of Eadweard, it was only befitting their noble descent
from their ancestors that they should often
defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
horde and home. The enemy perished,
Scots men and seamen,
fated they fell. The field flowed
with blood of warriors, from sun up
in the morning, when the glorious star
glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
eternal lord, till that noble creation
sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
by spears destroyed; Northern men
shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
weary, war sated.
The West-Saxons pushed onward
all day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
with swords sharp from the grinding.
The Mercians did not refuse hard hand-play to any warrior
who came with Anlaf over the sea-surge
in the bosom of a ship, those who sought land,
fated to fight. Five lay dead
on the battle-field, young kings,
put to sleep by swords, likewise also seven
of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army,
sailors and Scots. There the North-men’s chief was put
to flight, by need constrained
to the prow of a ship with little company:
he pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
on the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life.
Likewise, there also the old campaigner through flight came
to his own region in the north–Constantine–
hoary warrior. He had no reason to exult
the great meeting; he was of his kinsmen bereft,
friends fell on the battle-field,
killed at strife: even his son, young in battle, he left
in the place of slaughter, ground to pieces with wounds.
That grizzle-haired warrior had no
reason to boast of sword-slaughter,
old deceitful one, no more did Anlaf;
with their remnant of an army they had no reason to
laugh that they were better in deed of war
in battle-field–collision of banners,
encounter of spears, encounter of men,
trading of blows–when they played against
the sons of Eadweard on the battle field.
Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
The dejected survivors of the battle,
sought Dublin over the deep water,
leaving Dinges mere
to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.
Likewise the brothers, both together,
King and Prince, sought their home,
West-Saxon land, exultant from battle.
They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
the dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven
and the dusky-coated one,
the eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion,
greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
the wolf in the forest.
Never was there more slaughter
on this island, never yet as many
people killed before this
with sword’s edge: never according to those who tell us
from books, old wisemen,
since from the east angles and Saxons came up
over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
glorious warriors they took hold of the land.
(As a footnote it was during Constantine II reign that the word Scot or Scotland was used as a description for those north of England)