The Battle of Brunanburh was fought in 937 between Æthelstan, King of England, and an alliance of Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin; Constantine, King of Alba and Owen, King of Strathclyde. One of the historiographical cruxes of this battle is the fact that it is often cited as the point of origin for English nationalism. Additionally, historians such as Michael Livingston argue that "the men who fought and died on that field forged a political map of the future that remains [in modernity], arguably making the Battle of Brunanburh one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England, but of the whole of the British Isles."
Following an unchallenged invasion of Scotland by Æthelstan in 934, possibly launched because Constantine had violated a peace treaty, it became apparent that Æthelstan could be defeated only by an alliance of his enemies. Olaf led Constantine and Owen in the alliance. In August 937 Olaf and his army crossed the Irish Sea to join forces with Constantine and Owen, but the invaders were routed in the battle against Æthelstan. The poem Battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts that there were "never yet as many people killed before this with sword's edge ... since the east Angles and Saxons came up over the broad sea".
Æthelstan's victory preserved the unity of England. The historian Æthelweard wrote around 975 that "[t]he fields of Britain were consolidated into one, there was peace everywhere, and abundance of all things". Alfred Smuth has called the battle "the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before Hastings". The site of the battle is unknown and scholars have proposed many places.
Æthelstan invaded Scotland with a large military and naval force in 934. Although the reason for this invasion is uncertain, John of Worcester stated that the cause was Constantine's violation of the peace treaty made in 927. Æthelstan evidently travelled through Beverley, Ripon and Chester-le-Street. The army harassed the Scots up to Kincardineshire and the navy up to Caithness but Æthelstan's force was never engaged.
Following the invasion of Scotland, it became apparent that Æthelstan could only be defeated by an allied force of his enemies. The leader of the alliance was Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin, joined by Constantine II, King of Scotland and Owen, King of Strathclyde. (According to John of Worcester, Constantine was Olaf's father-in-law.) Though they had all been enemies in living memory, historian Michael Livingston points out that "they had agreed to set aside whatever political, cultural, historical, and even religious differences they might have had in order to achieve one common purpose: to destroy Æthelstan".
In August 937, Olaf crossed the Irish Sea with his army to join forces with Constantine and Owen and in Livingston's opinion this suggests that the battle of Brunanburh occurred in early October of that year. According to Paul Cavill, the invading armies raided Mercia, from which Æthelstan obtained Saxon troops as he travelled north to meet them. Michael Wood wrote that no source mentions any intrusion into Mercia. John of Worcester wrote that the invaders entered via the Humber but no other chronicler mentioned this. Because of the lack of sources supporting the claim, along with other issues, philologist Paul Cavill argues John's statement is not true. According to Symeon of Durham, Olaf had 615 ships but this number is likely exaggerated.
Livingston thought that the invading armies entered England in two waves, Constantine and Owen coming from the north, possibly engaging in some skirmishes with Æthelstan's forces as they followed the Roman road across the Lancashire plains between Carlisle and Manchester, with Olaf's forces joining them on the way. Livingston speculated that the battle site at Brunanburh was chosen in agreement with Æthelstan, on which "there would be one fight, and to the victor went England".
The main source of information about the battle is the praise-poem Battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. After travelling north through Mercia, Æthelstan, his brother Edmund, and the combined Saxon army from Wessex and Mercia met the invading armies and attacked them. In a battle that lasted all day, the Saxons fought the invaders and finally forced them to break up and flee. There was probably a prolonged period of hard fighting before the invaders were finally defeated. According to the poem, the Saxons "split the shield-wall" and "hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers ... [t]here lay many a warrior by spears destroyed; Northern men shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well, weary, war sated". Wood states that all large battles were described in this manner, so the description in the poem is not unique to Brunanburh. Æthelstan and his army pursued the invaders until the end of the day, slaying great numbers of enemy troops. The poem states that "they pursued the hostile people ... hew[ing] the fugitive grievously from behind with swords sharp from the grinding". Olaf fled and sailed back to Dublin with the remnants of his army and Constantine escaped to Scotland; Owen's fate is not mentioned. The poem states that the Northmen "[d]eparted ... in nailed ships" and "sought Dublin over the deep water, leaving Dinges mere to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit". The poem records that Æthelstan and Edmund victoriously returned to Wessex, stating that "the brothers, both together, King and Prince, sought their home, West-Saxon land, exultant from battle."
It is universally agreed by scholars that the invaders were routed by the Saxons. According to the Chronicle, "countless of the army" died in the battle and there were "never yet as many people killed before this with sword's edge ... since from the east Angles and Saxons came up over the broad sea". The Annals of Ulster describe the battle as "great, lamentable and horrible" and record that "several thousands of Norsemen ... fell". Among the casualties were five kings and seven earls from Olaf's army. The poem records that Constantine lost several friends and family members in the battle, including his son. The largest list of those killed in the battle is contained in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which names several kings and princes. A large number of Saxons also died in the battle, including two of Æthelstan's cousins, Ælfwine and Æthelwine.
Anglo-Saxon sources are replete with references to the battle, comprising not only poetic but also prose references. According to Æthelweard in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
[N]ine hundred years plus twenty-six more had passed from the glorious Incarnation of our Savior when the all-powerful King Athelstan assumed the crown of empire. Thirteen years later there was a massive battle against barbarians at Brunandun which is still called 'the great war' to the present day by the common folk. The barbarian hordes were then overcome on all sides and they held sway no longer. Afterwards he drove them from the shores of the sea and Scots and Picts alike bent their necks. The fields of Britain were joined as one; everywhere there was peace and abundance in all things. No fleet has since moved against these shores and remained without the consent of the English.
The Chronicle (Version A) additionally notes that both sides suffered major casualties:
He could make no boast, that gray-haired warrior of the sword-slaughter, the old deceitful one, no more than could Anlaf. With the remnant of their army they had no reason to laugh that they were better in the work of war on the battlefield, of the clashing of banners, of the meeting of spears, of the meeting of men, of the exchange of weapons, when they on the field of death played with the sons of Edward.
Another primary account of the battle can be found in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum, which supposedly preserves an older Latin poem:
For because our king, bold and spirited in his youth, had retired from war long ago and languished in sluggish leisure, they defiled everything in their relentless plundering, afflicting the wretched fields with spreading fires. Verdant grass had withered on all the plains; diseased grain had mocked the prayers of farmers; so great was the barbaric force of the footmen and riders, the charge of countless galloping steeds.
Wulfstan of Winchester also references the battle in his Life of Saint Ethelwold:
Meanwhile it came to pass that Athelstan, the most victorious king, passed away in the fourth year after he had destroyed a hostile army of pagans in a great slaughter, and his brother Edmund assumed from him the guidance of the kingdom.
[A]fter that reigned Edward's son Athelstan. When he had reigned to the fourth year, he waged a battle against the Danes; and he defeated Guthfrith the king. After that he assembled a great army and into the sea issued a great fleet. Directly to Scotland he went; he harried that country well. One year later, no less no more, at Brunanburh he had the upper hand over the Scots, and over the men of Cumberland, over the Welsh, and over the Picts. There were so many slain I think it will be told forever. Afterwards he lived only three years; he had no son, no other children. His brother was then made king.
Æthelstan's decisive victory prevented the dissolution of England. Foot writes that "[e]xaggerating the importance of this victory is difficult". Livingston wrote that the battle was "the moment when Englishness came of age" and "one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England but of the whole of the British isles". The battle has been called "the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before Hastings" by Alfred Smyth, but he also states that its consequences beyond Æthelstan's reign have been overstated.Alex Woolf describes it a "pyrrhic victory" for Æthelstan: the campaign seems to have ended in a stalemate, his power appears to have declined, and after he died Olaf acceded to the Kingdom of Northumbria without resistance. However, England was once again unified by the time Edmund I died in 946. The Norse lost all remaining territory in York and Northumbria in 954, when Eric Bloodaxe died.Æthelweard, writing in the late 900s, said that the battle was "still called the 'great battle' by the common people" and that "[t]he fields of Britain were consolidated into one, there was peace everywhere, and abundance of all things".
The Brackenwood golf course at Bebington
The location of the battlefield is unknown and has been the subject of lively debate among historians since at least the 17th century. Over forty locations have been proposed, from the south-west of England to Scotland, although most historians agree that a location in northern England is the most plausible. Currently popular theories include Bromborough on the Wirral and Barnsdale Bar, north of Doncaster, but in the absence of convincing material evidence the location of the battlefield can only remain a matter of conjecture.
The medieval texts employ a plethora of alternative names for the site of the battle, which historians have attempted to link to known places. The earliest relevant document is the “Battle of Brunanburh” poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (version A), written within two decades of the battle, which names the battlefield location as “ymbe Brunanburh” (around Brunanburh) and says that the fleeing Norsemen set out upon “Dingesmere” for Dublin. Many other medieval sources contain variations on the name Brunanburh, such as Brune, Brunandune, Et Brunnanwerc, Bruneford, Cad Dybrunawc, Duinbrunde and Brounnyngfelde. It is thought that the recurring element Brun- could be a personal name, a river name, or the Old English or Old Norse word for a spring or stream. Less mystery surrounds the suffixes –burh/–werc, -dun, -ford and –feld, which are the Old English words for a fortification, low hill, ford, and open land respectively.
Not all the place-names contain the Brun- element, however. Symeon of Durham (early 12th C) gives the alternative name Weondune (or Wendune) for the battle site, while the Annals of Clonmacnoise say the battle took place on the “plaines of othlyn” . Egil´s Saga names the locations Vínheiðr and Vínuskóga.
Few medieval texts refer to a known place, although the Humber estuary is mentioned by several sources. John of Worcester´s Chronicon (early 12th C), Symeon of Durham´s Historia Regum (mid-12th C) , the Chronicle of Melrose (late 12th C)  and Robert Mannyng of Brunne´s Chronicle (1338)  all state that Olaf´s fleet entered the mouth of the Humber, while Robert of Gloucester´s Metrical Chronicle (late 13th C)  says the invading army arrived “south of the Humber”. Peter of Langtoft´s Chronique (ca. 1300)  states the armies met at “Bruneburgh on the Humber”, while Robert Mannyng of Brunne´s Chronicle (1338)  claims the battle was fought at “Brunesburgh on Humber”. Pseudo-Ingulf (ca. 1400)  says that as Æthelstan led his army into Northumbria (i.e. north of the Humber) he met on his way many pilgrims coming home from Beverley. Hector Boece´s Historia (1527)  claims that the battle was fought by the River Ouse, which flows into the Humber estuary.
Few other geographical hints are contained in the medieval sources. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts that the invaders fled from the battlefield over Dingesmere to regain their ships, so a location near a river or the coast is indicated.
Egil's Saga contains more detailed topographical information than any of the other medieval texts, although its usefulness as historical evidence is disputed. According to this account, Olaf´s army occupied an unnamed fortified town north of a heath, with large inhabited areas nearby. Æthelstan´s camp was pitched to the south of Olaf, between a river on one side and a forest on raised ground on the other, to the north of another unnamed town at several hours´ ride from Olaf´s camp.
^According to William of Malmesbury it was Owen of Strathclyde who was present at Eamont but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Owain of Gwent; it may have been both.
^According to Michael Livingston, the case for a location in the Wirral has wide support among current historians. Charters from the 1200s suggest that Bromborough (a town on the Wirral Peninsula) was originally named Brunanburh (which could mean "Bruna's fort"). In his essay "The Place-Name Debate", Paul Cavill listed the steps by which this transition may have occurred. Evidence suggests that there were Scandinavian settlements in the area starting in the late 800s, and the town is also situated near the River Mersey, which was a commonly used route by Vikings sailing from Ireland. Additionally, the Chronicle states that the invaders escaped at Dingesmere, and Dingesmere could be interpreted as "mere of the Thing". The word Thing (or þing, in Old Norse) might be a reference to the Viking Thing (or assembly) at Thingwall on the Wirral. In Old English, mere refers to a body of water, although the specific type of body varies depending on the context. In some cases, it refers to a wetland, and a large wetland is present in the area. Therefore, in their article "Revisiting Dingesmere", Cavill, Harding, and Jesch propose that Dingesmere is a reference to a marshland or wetland near the Viking Thing at Thingwall on the Wirral Peninsula. Since the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the battle as taking place "ymbe Brunanburh" ("around Brunanburh"), numerous locations near Bromborough have been proposed, including the Brackenwood Golf Course in Bebington, Wirral (formerly within the Bromborough parish).Recent research on the Wirral has identified a possible landing site for the Norse and Scots. This is a feature called Wallasey Pool. This is in the north of the Wirral near the River Mersey. The pool is linked to the river by a creek which, before it was developed into modern docks, stretched inland some two miles, was, at high tide over 20 feet (6 m) deep and was surrounded by a moss or mere which is now known as Bidston Moss. In addition to this landing site a Roman Road leads from the area of Bidston to Chester. Following the route of this road would take an invading force through the area the battle is believed to have been fought. Landscape survey has identified a likely position for Bruna's burh. This survey places the burh at Brimstage approximately 11 miles (18 km) from Chester.
^The civil parish of Burghwallis was recorded as "Burg" in the Domesday book, likely because of a Roman fort situated near the place where the Great North Road (Ermine Street) is met by the road from Templeborough. The site is overlooked by a hill called "Barnsdale Bar", past which flows the River Went. Michael Wood has suggested this site, noting the similarity between Went and Symeon of Durham's Wendun.
^Michael Wood suggests Tinsley Wood, near Brinsworth, as a possible site of the battle. He notes that there is a hill nearby, White Hill, and observes that the surrounding landscape is strikingly similar to the description of the battlefield contained in Egil's Saga. There is an ancient Roman temple on White Hill, and Wood states that the name Symeon of Durham used for the place of the battle, Weondun, means "the hill where there had been a pagan Roman sanctuary or temple". According to Wood, Frank Stenton believed that this piece of evidence could help in finding the location of the battle. There is also a Roman fort nearby, and burh means "fortified place" in Old English; Wood suggests that this fort may have been Brunanburh.
^According to Alfred Smyth, the original form of the name Bromswold, Bruneswald, could fit with Brunanburh and other variants of the name.
^ Burnswark is a hill 280 metres (920 ft) tall, and is the site of two Roman military camps and many fortifications from the Iron Age. It was initially suggested as the site of the battle by George Neilson in 1899 and was the leading theory in the early 1900s, having obtained support from historians such as Charles Oman. Kevin Halloran argues that the different forms used by various authors when naming the battle site associate it with a hill and fortifications, since burh (used by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poem) means "a fortified place", and dune (used by Æthelweard and Symeon of Durham, in names such as Brunandune and We(o)ndune) means "a hill". He also states that the name "Burnswark" could be related to Bruneswerce, another alternative name for the battle site used by Symeon of Durham and Geoffrey Gaimar.
Foot, Sarah, "Where English becomes British: Rethinking Contexts for Brunanburh", in Barrow, Julia; Andrew Wareham (2008). Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Brooks. Aldershot: Ashgate. pp. 127–44.
Higham, Nicholas J., "The Context of Brunanburh" in Rumble, A.R.; A.D. Mills (1997). Names, Places, People. An Onomastic Miscellany in Memory of John McNeal Dodgson. Stamford: Paul Watkins. pp. 144–56.
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