“The forming of England”
In 937 AD Scottish, Welsh, Norse and Irish formed an alliance to deal with the Anglo-Saxons of England once and for all. Their army was huge for the time. But they failed to estimate the resilience of the English, or the skill of the English King. King Æthelstan (Athelstan), grandson of Ælfred the Great had come to the throne in 924 and conquered the remaining Danish strongholds in England. He successfully campaigned in Scotland and Wales and received the homage of the respective Kings.
He was an Anglo-Saxon King with a well deserved and fierce reputation; and across Europe too. This battle was the battle that finally crushed the Brythons and led to the forming of England. It is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
The Site of the Battle
Several sites have been suggested for the mysterious battle and its location (Brunanburgh or Brananburgh?) One traditional story states that the Hill of Shelfield (North of Burnley) was supposedly the site of a battle in Saxon times. Nearby is a large mound, which is either a glacial deposit, or according to the story, it is the Knaves Hill or mound beneath which the warriors killed in the battle were buried.
A Saxon Earl surveys the enemy army of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Brythons prior to the Battle of Brunanburgh. Artist: Skworus.
There could have been as many as 18,000 men deployed on each side. These armies were immense and demonstrate that this was a final showdown between the English and the legacy of Brythons. Some have said that the battlefront was as long as 30km. Perhaps not in a linear sense, but it may have turned into that when the bloody pursuit began after the English victory.
Not much is known as to how the English army won, The Shield Wall would most definitely have been deployed and it is known that King Athelstan ordered a counter-attack at the critical moment. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the West Saxon launched mounted attacks against the fleeing enemy and inflicted heavy slaughter upon them. The Scots and Scandinavians fled in the direction of their ships on the Humber and the Norse/Irish headed for the Northwest coast.
The combined invaders lost five Kings, seven Earls and Cellach, Constantine II of Scotlands son. Athelstan was merciless.
That the Anglo-Saxons took hold of the north of England is fact.
The Battle of Brunanburgh in Saxon Poetry (translated by author S.A. Swaffington)
King Æþelstan the Glorious, (895 – 27 October 939) was King of England 924 – 939. He was the son of King Ēdward the Elder, nephew of Æþelflæd, Lady of Mercia, (England’s greatest female leader and warrior-Queen), and was the grandson of Ælfred the Great. Æþelstan was the first true King of England, England’s founding father; his name translates as ‘Noble-Stone’.
After centuries of warfare against the invading Vikings, Æþelstan finally achieved his grandfather’s vision by uniting the Angelcynn (Anglo-Saxon kingdoms) as one nation, Ængla lande/England. Æþelstan and his brother, Ēadmund, led the English to victory over the combined armies of the Welsh, Scots, Irish and Vikings, forcing Constantine II, King of Scots, to surrender at the Battle of Brunanburh in the year 937 A.D.
The invaders were led by Olaf III Guthfrithson, the Norse-Gael King of Dublin, known to the English as Anlāf. Also Constantine II, King of Scots, and Owen I, King of Strathclyde.
The following poem, written before the Norman Conquest, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and edited by S. A. Swaffington, author of the Epic Hengist and Horsa Chronicles.
It was the event that would unite the English as one, and destroy the enemies who had come to kill all.
The Battle of Brunanburh
Here Æþelstan, eorla drihten, beorna bēahgifa,
lord of heroes and ring-giver,
and his brother, the Æþeling, Ēadmund,
won lifelong honour and glory
with their sword’s edge
at a place called Brunanburh.
They smashed the shieldwall of their enemies,
split shields with swords, as was natural to them from their ancestry.
In warfare they protected the land against the hated foe,
their hoard and homes.
The attackers were crushed under English might,
the Scots, Welsh, Irish and the seafarers fell to their doom.
The field flowed with the blood of men,
from Sunne’s early rise, the mighty star,
that bright candle of God,
till that noble creation sank to its rest.
There were scores of men, spear-gored and bloody.
A Dane was seen, lying in a pool of his own intestines,
his shield smashed and broken,
as was the Scot beside him,
a foul mess of broken bones and mangled flesh,
wearied of war.
For an entire day, the glorious West-Saxons went forth,
from morning till night, the mounted horse-thanes
pursued their enemy, scenting fear on the cool winds.
The English troops hacked down their enemies
with sharpened swords and seaxes.
The Mercians did not refuse
a good fight with the Norse warriors
who accompanied Anlāf over the sea’s thrashing waves,
seeking land and plunder.
Fate was cruel to them, for they were greeted with English might!
Five lay dead on the killing ground.
Five young kings
put to sleep by English swords.
The unlucky souls were joined by seven of King Anlāf’s jarls.
Scots and Norsemen lay twitching and convulsing beneath the
brave feet of the English army.
The enemy was put to flight,
the Northmen’s lord,
with his band of guards,
rushed to their ships that rested impatiently on the ocean waves,
fleeing the land, saving themselves.
Also, the wise-one, Constantine,
with his band of Scots, all born and bred warriors,
fled the English shieldwall,
to the barbarian kingdom in the northern country.
The Scots need not boast
of that meeting of swords.
Constantine was severed from kin,
leaving his men behind on the field
to face the wild-eyed Englishmen and their singing swords.
Seaxes and spears glutted and gorged on flesh and bone and blood.
Constantine’s son was left
on the death-ground, sick with seax wounds,
the young warrior lay forever silenced.
He had no need to boast,
the white-haired warrior, about sword-wielding,
nor Anlāf either.
With their army smashed, they need not boast
that their battle-work was better
on the field where banners crashed
and spears clashed in that meeting of men,
that sword-play, when on the slaughter-field
they fought with Ēdweard’s mighty offspring.
The Northmen fled in nail-bound ships,
bloody survivors of spears, on Ding’s mere,
over deep waters, seeking Dublin.
To Ireland they sailed, with shame in their hearts.
And so, both King and brother, triumphantly sought their native soil.
To the West Saxons they travelled.
They left behind them the corpses of the Scots, Vikings, Welsh and the Irish.
Left as a feast for the dark raven,
with hard beak of horn,
white-tailed eagle, enjoying the carrion,
greedy war-hawk, and that grey beast,
the wolf of the wood.
A greater slaughter was not ever
yet on this island slain by an army before with sword’s blades.
As books tell us,
the old wise men from ancient times,
from the east came the
Angles and Saxons together
over broad sea, seeking Britain.
The proud warriors overcame the Welsh,
eager for glory, the brave Englishmen won a homeland!
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "The Battle of Brunanburgh" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/the-battle-of-brunanburgh/, February 17, 2022