I never realised this battle was so important until Neil Oliver, in his History of Scotland, described it as important as the Battle of Hastings. I wrote this to see if that was true. No one knows for sure where or how this battle was fought, some dispute even the date of 937, but it does come with a nice poem.
Of Brunanburh the Annals of Ulster states “A great, lamentable and horrible battle was cruelly fought…. but Athelstan, king of the Saxons, enjoyed a great victory”. Athelweard’s Chronicle, probably written fifty years after the event, says the battle was “great even to the present day…The lands of Britain are consolidated together, on all sides is peace, and plenty of all things nor ever did a fleet again come to land except in friendship with the English” The Protagonists Olaf Guthfrithson (various spellings)- King of Dublin
In 933 Olaf, a Norse Viking, raids Armagh in Ireland, he then joins with the King of Ulaid to raid further into Ireland. In 934 Olaf becomes King of Dublin after the death of his father Guthfrith. Olaf then spends the time up to 937 attacking Irish settlements around Dublin and the Vikings at Limerick. Any discernable difference between Irish and Vikings settlements after over one hundred years of contact is of course debateable. In 937 Olaf moves his army, possibly with Irish and Limerick contingents to Britain where he further increases his army with Vikings from Man, the Western Isles and the Orkneys. He plans to retrieve his father’s Kingship of York taken from him by King Athelstan. Olaf might have been the son-in-law of King Constantine II of Scotland; anyway Olaf and Constantine become allies and march against King Athelstan. Constantine II- King of Scotland
Scotland, or Alba if you prefer, at Constantine’s reign was probably the area bordered by the River Spey to the north, the Forth to the south, and the central highlands to the west. The Kingdom of Strathclyde, to the south, is thought to be an independent nation at this time as might be Cumbria. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 924 Constantine II and all the northern rulers in Britain acknowledged King Edward of England as overlord and repeated this oath in 926 to Edward’s son and successor Athelstan. To counter the growing power in the south Constantine, despite fighting many battles successfully against Viking incursion allied his kingdom with the Norse King of Dublin. In 937 Constantine and the forces of Strathclyde and Cumbria join with the army of Olaf Guthfrithson and move against Athelstan. Athelstan-King of England
At his coronation, September 925, Athelstan is styled as Angul Saxonum Rex
or King of the Anglo-Saxons and his true kingdom comprised of most of today’s southern England. In 925 Sihtric Caech, King of York, goes to Athelstan’s court where Sihtric accepts Christian baptism and takes Athelstan's sister, Eadgyth, as his wife. In 926 Athelstan accepts the submission of all the northern rulers. Then Sihtric divorces his wife and reverts to paganism. King Guthfrith of Dublin sends an army of support to York, King Athelstan of England then attacks York. Sihtric dies at York and Guthfrith is defeated and eventually returns to Dublin. King Athelstan then invades Cumbria and Strathclyde. He then summons at meeting where he accepted the submission of the leaders of all the northern powers. Further invasions in Wales and Cornwall mean that King Athelstan becomes supreme in the whole island. He styles himself as “King of the English, elevated by the right hand of the Almighty, which is Christ, to the throne of the whole kingdom of Britain”. In 934 Constantine II of Scotland does something to upset Athelstan and as the Chronicle says “this year went King Athelstan into Scotland, both with a land-force and a naval armament, and laid waste a great part of it”. King Constantine was forced to submit again at an assembly held at Cirencester.
So in 937 Athelstan’s army, which includes detachments from Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, London, Viking mercenaries and a force from Bamburgh, gets ready to fight the invaders at the Battle of Brunanburh. The earlier Viking invasions had split the Kingdom of Northumbria in two, reverting it in area to the original kingdoms of Bernica in the north and Deira in the south. Viking York controlled the south but the Northumbrians in the north, centred on the stronghold of Bamburgh, retained a semblance of independence. The Battle
Nothing is really known as to what happened at the battle but all sources agree King Athelstan won. A literary version of the battle can be found in Egil’s Saga if one is needed. CHAPTER LIV. The fall of Thorolf. Bord-weall clufon
– “they split the shield wall” says the battle poem. One of Athelstan’s Law Codes states, “That no shieldwright cover a shield with sheep's skin; and if he so do, let him pay thirty shillings”. It’s thought that Athelstan wanted to make sure his shields were properly made and strong enough for battle, not inferior ones hidden by animal skins. Maybe Athelstan just had better shields than his antagonists. The poem also mentions Athelstan having eorod-cystum
which has been translated, rather generously, as mounted cavalry. The word is supposed to be derived from eoh
, which does mean warhorse. Anyway the poem does have these eorod-cystum
pursuing the beaten enemy and killing them from behind so perhaps Athelstan had cavalry as well. As to where Brunanburh is no one really knows. The popular one, well popular to Neil Oliver, is Bromborough in the Wirral. I could list twenty other possible candidates. The Aftermath Athelstan
Athelstan must have suffered a major depletion of his forces, as even the jingoistic poem has to admit Athelstan retired to Wessex after the battle. Athelstan died two years after the battle of Brunanburh, 27 October 939, but still in a position of strength. He can afford the time to send a fleet to Flanders in 939 to assist Louis IV King of the Franks, who he must have known personally as Louis was brought up in Wessex. Things didn’t go too well for the English for at least twenty years after Athelstan’s death until the reign of King Edgar. Olaf Guthfrithson
After the battle Olaf goes back to Dublin, the poem notes he lost five kings, seven earls and most of his army. Whether due to his losses in the battle or the growing strength of his enemies for Olaf things have changed in Ireland. He is attacked by King Donnchad and seems to be losing because on the news of Athelstan’s death Olaf accepts an invitation from the men of York to return to Britain as their king. As king he virtually regains all land lost to Athelstan but his reign is brief as he dies in 941, after raiding St Baldred's Church at Tyninghame, which is east of modern day Edinburgh. Constantine II
Constantine also makes it back home after the battle but he may have lost a son there. Sometime in the early 940’s Constantine relinquishes his throne to his cousin, Malcolm I, and becomes a monk. It is not known whether his defeat had anything to do with his decision to retire from office. He died at St Andrews in 952 and was buried there. The alliance means nothing as Scotland continues to suffer Viking raids. Another son of Constantine II, Indulf, was possibly killed fighting Vikings at the battle of Invercullen.
Brunanburh was a battle Athelstan had to win for the sake of his prestige but he didn’t need the battle. His status and England’s formation was already a fact, hence the attack. The Scots lost men who could have been more use in repelling Vikings than helping them. Olaf Guthfrithson traded an Irish kingdom for a transient Yorkshire one.
The 934 entry in the Chronicle’s states “Her for Æþelstan cyning on Scotland
” or “This year went King Athelstan into Scotland”. The word Scotti
had been used for centuries but I would say that this entry shows Scotland is recognised as a country by England. The battle of Brunanburh scuppers any early chance of a British identity forming and heralds eight hundred years of misunderstanding but is it as relevant to British history as the Battle of Hastings, I would say not but I might be wrong.