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Old April 14th, 2011, 06:29 AM   #1
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Brunanburh


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.
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Old April 14th, 2011, 06:48 AM   #2

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Thanks for the excellent post. I've never heard of this battle before so I can't answer your question as to it's importance.
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Old April 14th, 2011, 09:02 AM   #3

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I think Oliver is taking this battle from a Scottish perspective, rather than a British perspective and I would agree, in that respect, that it is up there with Nechtansmere and Bannockburn. Possibly Hastings ?

He claims (with good reason) that Aethelstan was a great admirer of the Romans and considered himself to be their natural successor. Nothing less than the conquest of the whole of Britain would satisfy his hunger. Aethelstan wanted to succeed where the Romans had failed.

According to Oliver, a massive army of Saxons from the South was met by a massive army from the North. An army of Picts, Scots, Britons, Irish and Vikings which he calls the rainbow alliance.

It is generally accepted that Aethelstan won this battle, though his army was so badly depleted, that he was unable to continue his ambition to subdue the British Isles under one ruler and thereby, Oliver claims it was more of a victory for the alliance. Who succeeded in their objective, which was to stop Aethelstan in his tracks.

In other words, Oliver claims this battle played a major role in the shaping of Britain today.

I should point out here that Oliver's interpretation of this battle caused a bit of controversy amongst some English historians.

As you say. Very little is known about this battle, except that it happened. There were massive casualties and it was very close...one way or the other.
I would just add here, that when I've came across debates about this battle on other sites. It's usually about who started it ? who was the aggressor and who was the defender, than about how important it was ?...

Last edited by PADDYBOY; April 14th, 2011 at 10:50 AM.
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Old April 14th, 2011, 09:03 AM   #4

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I live near Malmesbury, in which, according to local tradition, the men were granted the status of freemen by Aethelstan for their great service to him.
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Old April 14th, 2011, 12:00 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PADDYBOY View Post
He claims (with good reason) that Aethelstan was a great admirer of the Romans and considered himself to be their natural successor. Nothing less than the conquest of the whole of Britain would satisfy his hunger. Aethelstan wanted to succeed where the Romans had failed.
Thanks for the input. I’ve no doubt that Athelstan had imperial pretensions and saw himself as Emperor of Britain but in the long run would that have been such a bad thing. The Kings of Scotland weren’t slow to swallow all their near neighbours and none too gently.

It must have taken considerable time to put together such an alliance and Athelstan is accused of negligence in allowing the invaders to make such a deep inroad into England. Egil’s saga even has Athelstan far away from the battle scene with the opposing army having to wait for his arrival. This doesn’t sound to me like a man preparing to attack anybody. I suppose it would be ungracious of me to say that when Scotland is looking for an ally it’s a case of “Anyone but England”.
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Old April 14th, 2011, 12:19 PM   #6

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Ha ha, Seriously,Athelstan. I doubt very much if had anything to do with Scots or English fighting each other over National identity and a right to call themselves Scottish or English or British.
More likely it was about a lot of weaker Kings/rulers, allying themselves against a more powereful King/ruler. To hold their own positions of power.
They sort of stop fighting each other for a while, join forces against a common enemy and when the threat is removed, they go back to fighting each other again...

As to whether I think it would be a good thing if Aethelstan had succeeded in ruling all of Britain (no Scotland) to be honest, I probably wouldn't care. I'd have grown up in a country calling myself whatever that country called itself. Whether that be Great England, Great Britain or Scotland....
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Old April 14th, 2011, 12:20 PM   #7
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I suppose more ink has been spilt writing about the location of this battle than the blood which flowed on the actual battlefield. However, I cannot believe it was the Wirral area. Æthelstan`s father, King Edward, and Æthelflaed his aunt, had both built burhs (fortified settlements) in the north-west frontier area of the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. Chester, Eddisbury, Runcorn, Thelwall, and Rhuddlan were the major sites. Any invader would have had to reduce these before moving deep within Mercia. And there is no written or archaeological evidence that this happened.

The earliest charter evidence showing Æthelstan having imperial ambitions is from the year 927, when he signed himself as " Angul saxonum rex monarchus totius Brittanniae".
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Old April 15th, 2011, 02:30 AM   #8

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For the sake of clarity. I would like to point out here, that I am not a Neil Oliver fan. He comes out with some of the wall opinions and I like to read his books in order to get a handle on how he formed these opinions.

I am simply doing my bit to present his opinions.
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Old May 17th, 2013, 01:23 PM   #9
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I find this subject very interesting.
For an alternative view on the battle Kevin Halloran offers some convincing remarks in support of Burnswark in Scotland.
Michael Wood (BBC Historian) also has a new article out in the summer of 2013 in which he talks about a possible battle location in Yorkshire.
Similarly there is a rather intriguing article currently doing the rounds on Academia.edu which discusses the possible location in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Brunanburh or Brunnanburh? A Consideration of Kirkburn and Wawne in the East Riding of Yorkshire | Michael Deakin - Academia.edu

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Old May 17th, 2013, 01:47 PM   #10

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Personally, I love these old stories. Like Robert The Bruce's heart and the quest of Sir James Douglas, we may not know the truth of it but it's a great tale.
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