Hastings, Culloden and Agincourt are battles well known to British schoolchildren as those that shaped the nation of today. There was another great and bloody battle however, in which five kings, seven earls and a large number of warriors were slaughtered in a single day. On a forgotten battlefield called Brunanburh in 937 AD, England was established as an Anglo-Saxon nation.
What was it all about and why do we know so little about it?
In 937 AD the country that is now Britain was divided into several kingdoms and fiefdoms, following centuries of colonisation and invasion from the continent and Scandinavia.
The King of Wessex was Athelstan1. He ruled most of what is now southern and central England, known as Wessex and Mercia, as well as parts of the north. His lineage was West-Saxon.
Constantine mac Aed was a Celt and King of Alba. Broadly speaking, Alba was what is now Scotland.
Owein, King of Strathclyde was another Celt, ruling lands in south-west Scotland, Cumbria and parts of Wales.
The Earls of Northumbria ruled what is now Northumberland and northern Yorkshire. They were Viking in origin.
Setting The Scene
In the late 8th and the 9th Centuries, Vikings from Scandinavia made their presence felt around the coasts of northern Britain. Gradually they extended their sphere of influence southwards, conquering and colonising as they went. They forced many Celts to the western fringes and took over much of northern England, parts of Ireland and Scotland.
At the same time in southern and central England the Anglo-Saxons were consolidating their rule, based on the Kingdom of Wessex and in allegiance with surrounding fiefdoms, including Mercia. King Alfred of Wessex spent much of his reign fighting the Vikings on the northern borders. By the time he died in 899 AD, however, the Vikings controlled most of the north and east of England. The Saxons also relegated the Celts of England and Wales to the western fringes of the country. Alfred's son, Edward the Elder continued to exert control over the border areas and his son, Athelstan, tried to carry on where he had left off. He achieved some success; in 928 AD2 he defeated the Viking Kingdom of York. However, the Vikings had their sights firmly set on central and southern England and the Celts had ambitions to regain lands lost to the Anglo-Saxons.
After the defeat by Athelstan of the Vikings at York in 928 AD, Constantine3 regarded the King of Wessex as a real threat to his monarchy. So he set about forging links with neighbouring rulers with the intention of protecting Alba.
Constantine married his daughter to Olaf Guthfrithsson4, which also brought the Earls of Northumbria5 into line alongside Constantine. Owein of Strathclyde was related to Constantine and took little persuasion to join the King of Alba in a pre-emptive strike against Athelstan.
A combined Celtic-Norse force, under Constantine and Olaf, marched south into England, seeking battle against Athelstan. Athelstan marched north to meet them, collecting warriors along the way through Wessex and Mercia. It is this which makes the Battle of Brunanburh significant; Athelstan rallied all the Saxon noblemen in Wessex and Mercia to his cause for the first time. Thereafter they were bound to Athelstan and he became King of a united Saxon nation.
In the summer of 937 AD the two armies met at Brunanburh and in a single day's bloody battle, the Saxons scored a heavy defeat over the Vikings and Celts. Scores died, including Owein of Strathclyde and Constantine's son and heir.
The field flowed with blood,
I have heard said, from sun-rise
In morning time.6
Olaf fled home over the Irish Sea. Constantine fled back to Alba with a few men to protect him on the journey7 - Athelstan was victorious.
The Northmen went off in nail-bound ships,
Sad survivors of spears... ashamed in their hearts
How Do We Know Anything About The Battle?
We actually know very little about the battle and even less about the detailed events that ran up to it. The primary source of information is a 73-line poem in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, entitled The Battle of Brunanburh which provides gory and glorious details of Athelstan's victory. There are also records of the battle in the 10th Century writings of Ethelwerd and in Egil's Saga. In the 11th Century Simeon of Durham and William of Malmesbury both describe the battle.
The fact of the battle is not in doubt. However, the nature of the victory may be disputed. All of the records celebrate victory of the Christian King Athelstan over the devilish and dastardly Vikings and Celts. Perhaps the poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was a case of government propaganda or spin, designed to subdue any further serious anti-Saxon attacks by Athelstan's neighbours. It is, of course, a prime example of history being written by the victors.
Angle and Saxon arrived together
Over broad briny seeking Britain,
Proud warriors who worsted the Welsh,
Eager for glory, and gained a land.
Where Is Brunanburh?
This question has vexed historians for centuries. No physical remains of the battle have ever been found and the records do not provide a good description of the location and certainly no map. They do provide place names, but none of them can be positively related to modern place names. Numerous theories about the location have relied upon the written record, an analysis of place-names, knowledge of ancient transport routes, roadways and settlements and an understanding of 10th Century landforms and landscapes.
Historians have come up with many suggestions, ranging from Bridgenorth in Shropshire, to Doncaster in South Yorkshire; from close to the Wyre Estuary in Lancashire, to somewhere in Northamptonshire.
The strongest contender for Brunanburh seems to be the village of Bromborough on the Wirral8, although the neighbouring settlement of Bebington has also been suggested. Scholars have studied the literature, researched local place names and investigated landforms and ancient transport links. They all seem to point towards the Wirral, but as to a precise location, that still appears to be a matter of debate.
We will probably never be sure; not unless somebody finds physical evidence of a 10th Century battlefield and artefacts are then discovered that link the site with Athelstan, Constantine, Olaf Guthfrithsson and the others.
What Is Brunanburh's Legacy?
England and the essence of what it means to be English seem to be the legacy of this great battle. Athelstan succeeded in uniting all the tribes of Saxons in Wessex and Mercia, at the same time as ensuring that the seemingly inexorable march of the Vikings into England was halted and the Celts remained firmly in their place in the west of Britain.
Despite subsequent invasions and colonisations of England from the continent, the Anglo-Saxon roots of the nation were consolidated on that day in 927.