The Battle of Brunanbugh was fought in 937. It pitched the newly united Anglo Saxons under their king, Athelstan, against an alliance of kings; King Constantine II of the Alba, Olaf Guthfrithsson, king of Dublin, Owen, King of Strathclyde.
There was a background to it all; Edward the Elder and his sister Æthelflæd had led the reconquest of the Danelaw in the early 10th century. When Athelstan came to the throne in 924 he was for the first time at the head of a powerful Anglo Saxon kingdom of all of Southumbria, and could seek to establish a supremacy over Northumbria, and indeed all Britain – to substantiate his claim to be Rex totius Britanniae. His father indeed had established the principle with a diplomatic meeting at Bakewell, despite being a little tart.
In 927, Athelstan met with the Kings of the Alba (Constantine) and of Strathclyde, and convinced them to recognise him as their overlord. That same year, Athelstan ejected Guthfrith from Northumbria. In 934 Constantine appears to have rebelled against the agreement, and then suffered the humiliation of being forced, helplessly, to watch Athelstan wandering unopposed with his army over his country. The Battle of Brunanbugh was probably born in that humiliation.
By 937, the 3 kings – Guthfrith replaced by his son, Olaf (Anlaf) – were ready, and invaded England. Where Athelstan met them, nobody knows, though there is more than one theory out there.; the balance of opinion is the Wirral in North West England. But the result was a hard fought victory for Athelstan; Olaf fled to Ireland, Constantine back to Scotland. And folk have gone potty about it’s significance. But actually, its significance, if it genuinely significant is problem that it marks and survival of a combined English kingdom; but ironically, probably confirmed that Scotland and Strathclyde would not become part of England; despite the victory of 934, Athelstan did not have the resource to do more than take the king of Scot’s homage.
There is more than one description of the battle. The closet are those in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and Athelweard’s Chronicle. Here’s Athelweard’s description, which bigs it up:
a fierce battle was fought against the barbarians at Brunandune, wherefore that fight is called great even to the present day: then the barbarian tribes are defeated and domineer no longer; they are driven beyond the ocean; the Scots and Picts bow the neck; the lands of Britain are consolidated together, on all sides is peace and plenty, nor ever did a fleet again come to this land except in friendship with the English
But then there is the heroic poem preserved by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. It is self-consciously heroic and artistic in tone. It is not only a great poem, but a poem trying to establish pride in the Anglo Saxon leader and nation; West Saxon and Mercian both get a mench, therefore. Poor old East Anglians or Kentishmen – not a sign of them. No doubt poems like these were sang or spoken every day in halls up and down the country – but it’s rare to find it written down, and therefore survived to reach us.
It’s a hoot to read, and make no mistake. I have given you two versions below – Alfred Tennyson’s in modern English, and the original Old English. Plus, here’s a reading by a chap called Michael Drout. Have fun!
The Battle of Brunanbugh, Tennyson
Lord among Earls,
Baron of Barons,
He with his brother,
Gaining a lifelong
Glory in battle,
Slew with the sword-edge
There by Brunanburh,
Brake the shield-wall,
Hew’d the lindenwood,
Hack’d the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer’d brands.
Theirs was a greatness
Got from their Grandsires—
Theirs that so often in
Strife with their enemies
Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their homes.
Bow’d the spoiler,
Bent the Scotsman,
Fell the shipcrews
Doom’d to the death.
All the field with blood of the fighters
Flow’d, from when first the great
Sun-star of morningtide,
Lamp of the Lord God
Glode over earth till the glorious creature
Sank to his setting.
There lay many a man
Marr’d by the javelin,
Men of the Northland
Shot over shield.
There was the Scotsman
Weary of war.
We the West-Saxons,
Long as the daylight
Lasted, in companies
Troubled the track of the host that we hated,
Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone,
Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.
Mighty the Mercian,
Hard was his hand-play,
Sparing not any of
Those that with Anlaf,
Warriors over the
Borne in the bark’s-bosom,
Drew to this island:
Doom’d to the death.
Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.
Then the Norse leader.
Dire was his need of it,
Few were his following,
Fled to his warship
Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it.
Saving his life on the fallow flood.
Also the crafty one,
Crept to his North again,
Slender warrant had
He to be proud of
The welcome of war-knives—
He that was reft of his
Folk and his friends that had
Fallen in conflict,
Leaving his son too
Lost in the carnage,
Mangled to morsels,
A youngster in war!
Slender reason had
He to be glad of
The clash of the war-glaive—
Traitor and trickster
And spurner of treaties—
He nor had Anlaf
With armies so broken
A reason for bragging
That they had the better
In perils of battle
On places of slaughter—
The struggle of standards,
The rush of the javelins,
The crash of the charges,3
The wielding of weapons—
The play that they play’d with
The children of Edward.
Then with their nail’d prows
Parted the Norsemen, a
Blood-redden’d relic of
The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
Shaping their way toward Dyflen4 again,
Shamed in their souls.
Also the brethren,
King and Atheling,
Each in his glory,
Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,
Glad of the war.
Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin—
Left for the white-tail’d eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-nibb’d raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.
Never had huger
Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge—
Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories—
Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither
Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow
Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who
Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat
Hold of the land.
The original Old English
Her Æþelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,
beorna beahgifa, and his broþor eac,
Eadmund æþeling, ealdorlangne tir
geslogon æt sæcce sweorda ecgum
ymbe Brunanburh. Bordweal clufan,
heowan heaþolinde hamora lafan,
afaran Eadweardes, swa him geæþele wæs
from cneomægum, þæt hi æt campe oft
wiþ laþra gehwæne land ealgodon,
hord and hamas. Hettend crungun,
Sceotta leoda and scipflotan
fæge feollan, feld dænnede
secga swate, siðþan sunne up
on morgentid, mære tungol,
glad ofer grundas, godes condel beorht,
eces drihtnes, oð sio æþele gesceaft
sah to setle. Þær læg secg mænig
garum ageted, guma norþerna
ofer scild scoten, swilce Scittisc eac,
werig, wiges sæd. Wesseaxe forð
ondlongne dæg eorodcistum
on last legdun laþum þeodum,
heowan herefleman hindan þearle
mecum mylenscearpan. Myrce ne wyrndon
heardes hondplegan hæleþa nanum
þæra þe mid Anlafe ofer æra gebland
on lides bosme land gesohtun,
fæge to gefeohte. Fife lægun
on þam campstede cyningas giunge,
sweordum aswefede, swilce seofene eac
eorlas Anlafes, unrim heriges,
flotan and Sceotta. Þær geflemed wearð
Norðmanna bregu, nede gebeded,
to lides stefne litle weorode;
cread cnear on flot, cyning ut gewat
on fealene flod, feorh generede.
Swilce þær eac se froda mid fleame com
on his cyþþe norð, Costontinus,
har hilderinc, hreman ne þorfte
mæca gemanan; he wæs his mæga sceard,
freonda gefylled on folcstede,
beslagen æt sæcce, and his sunu forlet
on wælstowe wundun forgrunden,
giungne æt guðe. Gelpan ne þorfte
beorn blandenfeax bilgeslehtes,
eald inwidda, ne Anlaf þy ma;
mid heora herelafum hlehhan ne þorftun
þæt heo beaduweorca beteran wurdun
on campstede cumbolgehnastes,
garmittinge, gumena gemotes,
wæpengewrixles, þæs hi on wælfelda
wiþ Eadweardes afaran plegodan.
Gewitan him þa Norþmen nęgledcnearrum,
dreorig daraða laf, on Dinges mere
ofer deop wæter Difelin secan,
eft Iraland, æwiscmode.
Swilce þa gebroþer begen ætsamne,
cyning and æþeling, cyþþe sohton,
Wesseaxena land, wiges hremige.
Letan him behindan hræw bryttian
saluwigpadan, þone sweartan hræfn,
hyrnednebban, and þane hasewanpadan,
earn æftan hwit, æses brucan,
grædigne guðhafocand þæt græge deor,
wulf on wealde. Ne wearð wæl mare
on þis eiglande æfre gieta
folces gefylled beforan þissum
sweordes ecgum, þæs þe us secgað bec,
ealde uðwitan, siþþan eastan hider
Engle and Seaxe up becoman,
ofer brad brimu Brytene sohtan,
wlance wigsmiþas, Wealas ofercoman,
eorlas arhwate eard begeatan.