HoS 11 Transcript

It has been a while, Citizens of Shedland, since we have visited the history of Scotland, with all the excitement of Henry and Anne going on. Actually it was 3 months ago.  It is good to be back. Though I have to tell you that in between I did meet a Scot, which was unfortunate, since my pronunciation of Gallic and Islay came in for something of a beating. Apparently I’d gone for Garlic and Islay. Ooops, and all. Thank you Vic.  Still, since it’s been so long, I feel in the need therefore of a gentle summary just to make sure we are all on the same page. Last time, all the way back in August, we arrived at the creation of a kingdom that looks recognisably like the predecessor of Modern Scotland. It was not called Scotland, actually, but the kingdom of Alba; although the English had already fallen into the habit of called the inhabitants Scots, after the old Roman word Scotia, rather than calling them Albanians. This is good news of course, since it confirms the early start of traditional English habit of calling foreigners anything they jolly well chose whether or not it’s accurate. Having said that, the Albanians cheerfully returned the compliment, as did the Irish, by calling the English ‘Saxons’, ignoring the fact that many more of them were Angles, and maybe some of them were Jutes. But then nobody paid the Jutes any attention.

The descendants of Kenneth MacAlpine, Cinaed MacAilpin in Gaelic, had by 900 at the end of last episode created this new entity, Alba, to recognise that their kingdom had amalgamated the Gaels and the Picts into a single kingdom. This kingdom would become progressively more and more dominated by Gaelic language and culture, so much so that by the 12th Century an English Historian would wonder at the complete disappearance of all traces of an entire race and culture. The fact that they spoke a language the English did not, was of course not an issue. The English knew full well that by simply speaking a little louder, they could make themselves understood.

Now, I put Alba up there as a recongisable ancestor of modern Scotland, but it is at the same time just making absolutely sure that you are aware that it’s still territorially very different. Modern day Scotland is pretty much the same size as Ireland, and almost 4 times larger than Wales, the Kingdom of Alba was probably only one third of the size of the modern country, so essentially not that much bigger than Wales. As far as the Irish were concerned, it was like a sort of province. So why was this? Well, by the time Domnall II became the first king of Alba, the Vikings had taken a substantial part of northern Scotland, the area north of the Moray firth, Caithness, along with the Orkney and Shetlands Islands. And then much of the Atlantic coast, Hebrides and Western Islands were also part of the Viking lordships, including the now defunct Dal Riata. So that’s a large chunk. Then there is the kingdom of Strathclyde, and Galloway in the South West which is pretty much a black box, but at very best might have owed allegiance to the kings of Alba at various points. And in 900, the people of Edinburgh, or Etin, would have been speaking with an English accent, and that had nothing to do with the attractions of shopping on George Street. Etin and Lothian to the south were largely Northumbrian and peopled by the Angles.

Alba throughout the period of the Alpinid kings was centred in the East around the River Tay and Fife; a sort of rather squashed triangle composed of Dunkeld, Scone and St Andrews. Alba was a country with natural divisions, as we heard of throughout the Pictish period, North and south of the mountainous mounth. There is a map on the history of England website for all of the next four episodes if you need a hand with all these places.

So you might say, well it’s all a bit irrelevant then, can we get to the bit where Robert the Bruce gives the English a good kicking and Scotland looks like it is today? Well, no, we cannot I would say. The Alpinids rule in total just under two hundred years, and in that period they lay many of the cultural foundations of modern Scotland, or certainly that have a profound impact for many hundreds of years after they had disappeared.

We ended last time with the son of Domnall II in 900, first king to be named king of Alba. I have by the way, also produced a short regnal list of the Alpinid kings so that you can see how they run as it were, which you can see guess where? on the website of course. Donald had returned from exile in Ireland and thrown out the usurper Giric and re-established the line of Cinead MacAilpin which they would hold until the 11th century. But there were to be no cakes or walking in Domnall’s reign or indeed his successors. They were born into a violent age, with the rage of the norsemen burning hot. Domnall ruled for 11 war torn years, where the struggle with the Vikings went back and forth; he won a victory and maybe it seemed that there would be a chance for a breather, but in 900 he again faced the invader, whether drawn from the settlements in Dublin and Ireland, or direct from Norway. He faced them at the citadel of Dunnottar, on the north east Scottish coast. Now I don’t know if you have seen pictures, in which case hurry down to the website again, but it looks pretty impregnable to me. But whether he was starved out, or caught by the famous Viking trickery, or whether he offered battle, Domnall II died outside his impregnable fortress, which for some reason had turned out to be disappointingly pregnable.

Domnall was succeeded by Constantine, the second of that name. Like all the Alpinids, Constantine proudly declared and celebrated his descent from the great man himself. But Constantine was descended from one of Cinead MacAilpin’s sons, Aed, whereas Domnall had been descended from Cinead other son, Constantine. That might seem perfectly normal, we might assume that Domnall’s simply hadn’t produced any offspring, and so they’d gone sideways. But such would be the wrong assumption; he had a son called Mael Colium. For the next 100 years two branches of the royal family run side by side – the line of Aed, son of Kenneth MacAlpin, and the line of Constantine, Son of Kenneth macAlpine. This does not sound like a comfortable arrangement and one suspects that Christmas would have had more that the normal level of tension, you might suspect that the carving knife might end up sticking out between ribs other than those of the Christmas Turkey. But it ain’t necessarily so – maybe it was some sort of accepted arrangement? Patrilinear descent does seem to be firmly established – there’s not even the merest whiff of a suggestion of matrilinear descent as there was with that confusing Bede reference with the Picts. But primogeniture or descent from father to eldest son is nowhere to be seen, sorry not at home.

It could just be that we live in violent times, and therefore kings were chosen because they were like chips, oven ready, ready to get their loins girded and defend Alba from the marauding Vikings. But actually, that’s not plausible, since the next king, Constantine will rule 43 years, so his sons must have been just about to drop off their own perches they’d have been oven ready for years; standing around muttering words like ‘abdication’. The flip flopping between family branches is just too regular – it almost looks like there is a principle here. It could well be that these families had agreed from the beginning that Alba could not afford to be fighting among themselves, that fighting the heathen was more important; and came to an arrangement both sides stuck to. We might guess that there’s also something to do with the traditional division between north and south that had been so strong under the dual kingship of the Picts going on as well – it could be that Aed’s descendants were kings in the north in Moray, while Constantine’s were pre-eminent in the south. On the other hand, the fact that so may will die a violent death could mean that it’s just good old blood lust and power hunger.

Whatever the reason, Constantine II was now the man with his hand on the tiller of state. Constantine’s reign feels like a definitive and lasting break with the past and the rule of the new – I doubt it felt like that at the time but from here on in Pict is a four letter word, in the sense it does not get spoken in the polite society of the surviving annals. Other places we had become used to like Fortriu also become four letter words. And meanwhile, Constantine will establish a new set of cultural traditions that will be part of what makes Alba Alba for centuries to come. Plus, joy of joys, it’s the start of discussions, negotiations, warfare and the like between a country recognisably Scotland and a country recognisably England. And good golly miss Molly, that’s a theme we’ll hear about again – just once or twice possibly perhaps, you know.

But first of all Constantine had to survive. Dublin had long been the centre of Norse power in Ireland, under the descendants of Ivarr the Boneless, the Ui Imarr. In 902, their leader, unsurprisingly called Imarr, faced their greatest challenge as the strength of the Irish kings of Brega and Leinster gathered in revenge for the ui Imair’s raids on their monasteries. And in 902, they gave a great collective heave – and expelled the Norse from Dublin.

Imarr and his people came west – to Wales, to the isle of Man in the Irish sea, to the west coast of Northumbria; and to Scotland.

“when…Imar…came to plunder Alba with three large troops, the men of Alba…fasted and prayed to God and Colum Cille until morning…and their battle standard in the van of every battle would be the crozier of Colum Cille”

Colum Cille, St Columba by the way. By 903, Imarr and his horde of homeless Vikings were camped firmly in the centre of Alba’s kingdom, in the Tay River basin. But in 904 this appeal to the traditional religious icon of the Gallic nations, Columba, appeared to have the desired result; in 904 Constantine sealed his right to rule by slaughtering Imarr and his norse at an unidentified place called Strath Erenn, and seems to have freed Alba from them for over a decade. That’s enough to earn you significant king points where ever you are; Constantine’s bottom would have sat more comfortably on his throne. In fact this was to be the last major invasion of Alba by the norse. It wasn’t the end of the danger, and certainly nobody at the time would have for a moment thought Imarr would be the last – but it forms a high tide mark of sorts.

This brings us to one of the most celebrated of Scottish royal ceremonies, the royal inauguration and the stone of destiny as it becomes known, the stone of scone, so central to the story of Scotland’s monarchs; so central that 400 years later Edward I of England would feel constrained to nick it, and pop it under the throne of the English kings. This is the stone on which many Scottish monarchs were crowned, until John Baliol in 1296; and then again after the act of Union in 1707.

There is an awful lot of legend about the Stone of Scone and royal coronation. Much of it is also tied up with the legend of Cinead MacAilpin. There are traditions for example, that it is Cinead who established Scone a capital; that the Stone of Destiny had come from the centre of the Irish high kings at Tara back in the mists of time, and that it was Cinead that used it to underpin Scottish monarchy. Other legends have biblical origins, there are all manner of legends to be honest; all the way up to Neil Oliver’s confident assertion that the stone was carved out of the rock nearby Scone – which, honestly, seems much more likely, if disappointingly prosaic.

But the first historical mention of Scone itself comes in 906 in the Chronicles of the Kings of Alba, after Constantine had beaten and killed the Viking leader. It goes like this:

And in the VIth year king Constantin and bishop Cellach pledged to keep the laws and disciplines of the faith and the rights of the church and the Gospels pariter cum Scottis on the Hill of Belief next to the royal town of Scone. From that day the hill earned its name, that is the hill of belief

I’ve left pariter cum scottis in Latin because its translation is something of a debate which I’ll come back to; but what are we to make of this much debated gobbet?

It could be that this meeting is a royal inauguration, and that this establishes the ceremony to be used for kings of Alba and Scotland evermore; certainly, it’s been interpreted that way, and it’s possible. It’s not that likely, because it’s 6 years into Constantine’s reign and surely he’d have put a crown on it by then, but it’s not impossible; it could be that after the defeat of Imarr, Constantine now had the time to think about building the traditions the dynasty needed to consolidate its rule and build its legitimacy, and so had another go. It is also possible that the ceremony had been held there before – maybe indeed Cinead MacAilpin had indeed established such a ceremony, and Constantine just carried it on, though there is no mench of it. What is clear from the gobbet is that there was some institution at Scone before 906 – it is described as a civitas, this probably means it was a church settlement along with a royal hall.

There’s obviously something going on between Constantine and the church, a deal of some kind. The phrase pariter cum Scottis has been translated as ‘in conformity with the customs of the Scots’, and therefore used to propose that what’s going on here is a gaelicisation of the old Pictish church. Another interpretation is as ‘along with the Gaels’, suggesting that the oath taking was wider – so, Constantine and his assembled Gaels made the oath with Bishop Cellach, the whole people made a commitment as it were. Or finally it’s be translated as ‘after the fashion of the Gaels’; and therefore it would denote the ceremony as now something distinctively Scottish. So there we go, how historians do talk eh? I have to say throughout the last 10 episodes or so, it’s been fascinating to see how the professionals labour with such detail over the very few tiny scraps of information that survives, and how much depends on how you interpret a single line. It seems to me that the Dark Ages remains a thoroughly sensible name for British history before 1000.

What this meeting looks like for sure is the church and king coming together to heal some sort of past division, agreeing to work together and in harmony. As such it is critical; the partnership between church and king was an essential part of the creation of effective rule, building traditions and culture around the throne in the medieval world. Constantine’s diplomacy if nothing else established a foundation that would support the Scottish monarchy to the modern day. The gobbet also lends weight to the idea that Constantine was establishing a new set of traditions here, and that the ceremony at Scone was one of them.

Cellach is mentioned elsewhere in a 15th century chronicle as the Bishop of St Andrews. But in contemporary chronicles there’s no mention at this point of him having any such job and see. It is by no means certain that the primacy of the see and town of St Andrews in the Scottish church had been established this early. But there was without doubt a religious community at St Andrews – we know that because Constantine will end his life there. However, if you do buy Cellach as a Bishop of St Andrews, or even reflect on Constantine’s eventual retirement there, it is tempting to see Constantine as promoting that other cult so fundamental to Medieval Scotland, the cult of St Andrew; and certainly that cult is now growing.

St Andrew’s legendary story is that his relics were brought from Greece all the way to Scotland by Regulus in the 4th century, where he either arrived or was shipwrecked at a place called Kilyrmont, which became known as St Andrews. Can I just say that I never knew any of this when I was there at St Andrews, allegedly studying history. I knew that there were 80 different types of whisky in the Nibblick bar, and I had yet to drink my way through all of them on a single night, but I knew nothing of St Regulus, even though there was a tower named after him and a hall of residence. You can take whatever conclusions you like from these facts.

The first we know for sure of a religious settlement there was in the 8th century, when St Andrews was known as Cellrígmonaid, from which derives the name Kilrymont, don’t ask me how. In the new Alba, St Andrews as a bishopric and St Andrews as a royal religious cult began to acquire a pre-eminence over the previous Ionan based tradition of Colomba. Columba does not disappear, far from it; Columba’s relics had been transferred to Dunkeld, and will always be important – but more and more St Andrew is the man. The famous saltire and Scottish flag derives of course from the manner of St Andrew’s crucifiction –first on the left one cross each – on an x shaped cross, but its appearance as the national symbol has to wait until the 13th and 14th centuries.

Okally dokally, so we have Constantine nicely established with his feet firmly under the table. He had been remarkably successful in keep the homeless vikings from establishing a base in Alba. Further south and west, though, the story was very different; place names suggest that Scandinavians poured across the western coastline into the Wirral and Cheshire in North west England, and Dumfries and Galloway in what is now South West Scotland. Into the vacuum of Viking leadership left by the defeat and death of Imarr came two brothers, Ragnall and Sihtric, around 914.

A naval battle takes place off the Isle of Man between Barid son of Oitir and Ragnall Grandson of Imarr, in which Barid and nearly all of is army were destroyed, bringing Ragnall and Sihtric to dominance amongst the Vkings. And then turned to the Irish; and by 917, the celebrations of the Irish at their glorious victory over the Vikings in 902 was over – Sihtric had defeated the Irish kings and re-occupied Dublin. Sihtric and Ragnall seem to have been an enterprising pair, possibly with a bit of a brotherly competitive thing going on there, because Ragnall wanted more. It seems like a fair assumption that by 914 Ragnall had assumed a supremacy over the western regions of Northumbria; and by 918 he had assumed control over York, and driven out the ruler, Ealdred son of Eadwulf of Northumbria.

Ragnall now posed what I think they call a clear and present danger to both Mercia to the south and to Strathclyde and Alba to the north. It was reasonably clear that our Ragnall wasn’t the kind of man who liked staying at home with a nice cup of tea and some needlepoint. So when Ealdred son of Eadwulf fled his fury, made the journey north and tipped up at the court of the king of Alba, Constantine was interested in what he had to say. Attack he figured might well be the best form of defense. Maybe it was time for Alba to stop being the place everyone walked over, and start doing a bit of walking of their own.

The result was the battle of Corbridge in 918. There are three reports of the battle, neatly confirming that point everyone makes about the unreliability of seemingly cast iron witness accounts of the same event. But it looks as though Constantine did indeed come down south, and fight a battle deep in Northumbrian territory, namely Corbridge. The battle appears to have been a good example of the Vikings loving a bit of trickery and deception. Ragnall divided his army into 4. Ealdred and Constantine arrived saw three bits of army staring rudely at them, and said, OK, alright then, have at ‘em, what are you waiting for, and this seems to have been a good strategy, since the 3 rude bits of army were duly sent packing BUT bit number 4 meanwhile with Ragnall snuck up behind them and did their own bit of send the opposition packing.

So, for Constantine it ended as a sort of B+; he might not have won outright, but he had inflicted enough pain to make Ragnall, whenever one of his companions suggested going and conquering a bit of Alba, to reach for new and exciting patterns in his needlepoint book instead. For Ragnal, he was probably looking at B++, or maybe B++- as I was once give for an essay, because on the one hand after Corbridge he immediately took over the eastern parts of Northumbria, but not an A since he’d been forced to take up needlepoint. What is needle point anyway? No, I mean not an A because he lost a bunch of men and would have to turn his sights from Alba. For Ealdred…well, probably down in the D’s and E’s but hey, he wasn’t dead, and he would live to fight again and retain some control Bamburgh. Or Bebbanburgh as we have learnt to call it from Bernard Cornwell.

By this stage, Edward, son of Alfred the Great was king in Wessex; and in 920 he called all the leaders of the various kingdoms together, and the ASC grandly records that they all gathered there and in front of Edward:

And then the king of the Scottas and all the people of the Scottas and Ragnall, and the sons of Eadwulf and all who live in Northumbria…and also the king of the Strathclyde Welsh chose him [Edward] as father and lord

Well, this sounds straightforward enough. This is part of the narrative of Edward the Elder carrying on the work of his father Alfred to a logical conclusion – the inexorable march of the most powerful king in the island of Britain toward overlordship of Britain, Wessex victorious, rule Britannia, sic buscuitus disintegrate, quod erat demonstrandum, wham bam thank you Sam.

But hold on there bald eagle. Is this true? Is this story of the inexorable march to glory by the West Saxons really true?  More recently historians have pointed out that based as he was in Winchester, Edward was a long way from Northumbria, and there is precious little evidence that Edward was in any position to exercise real control. They also note that Ragnall is treated differently in the text, the title of king withheld from him unlike the others mentioned. One possible solution here is that Edward effectively cut a deal; Ragnall could do what he liked north of the Humber as long as he didn’t mess with Mercia or East Anglia. In return, Edward would make it clear to Strathclyde and Alba that Ragnall was under his protection – the experience of Corbridge was not to be repeated. Who knows what was in it for Eadwulf and his sons, but probably they managed to maintain some lordship in the north around Bamborough. Sorry, Bebbanburgh.

Ragnall died in 921 to be succeeded by his brother Sihtric. Edward died in 924, to be succeeded after a few shenanigans by Aethelstan who become king of all the English south of the Humber. Not North of the Humber you will notice – essentially this is something of a set back in the glorious history of the West Saxons. In fact it could have been even worse; initially he was elected as king in Mercia, and for a tantalising moment it seemed that Wessex would disagree and try to insist on Edward’s younger son – but said son then went and helpfully died, which was thoughtful of him. The result brought back together greater Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia into a kingdom of the southumbrians.

But never mind, it was to prove a temporary setback. For when in 927, Sihtric died, the Northumbrians looked around for a suitable replacement and their eyes alighted on Aethelstan; which was helpful of them as regards the history of England.  And so it was in 927, Aethelstan once again brought together his brother kings. The ASC records that Constantine king of the Scottas, Owain king of Strathclyde, Hywel, a king in Wales; and Ealdred son of Eadwulf were again summoned. Meetings such as these were often on boundaries, and were concluded between kings. It’s symbolic of course. If you were meeting with a man of clearly lower status, then wandering on to their land and expecting them to put you up and all, or inviting them to come down to your place, was obviously the way to go, it established who was boss. Yes sir no sire three bags full sir. But if you were meeting another king – well then, meeting on a boundary was much more politic. So this meeting in 927 was probably at a place called Eamont. Given these are kings, this is probably on a boundary, which looks to be the boundary with Cumbria or Westmoreland, part of the kingdom of Strathclyde. So although the ASC text says ‘he brought under his rule all the kings who were in this island’, this looks more like the kind of relationship Edward had; his brother kings might agree that Aethelstan is the 10 ton gorilla here, but they are not giving up very much by way of real authority and control. And we need to remember that the ASC is a very West Saxon biased document. So, Eamont again probably represents a deal, as much as the submission of the King of Alba. The question for Aethelstan would be how far he wanted to make this theoretical overlordship a thing of everyday reality.

Well, Constantine was to find out that Aethelstan had ideas significantly above the station of a king of Wessex. He started calling himself king of the English rather than king of the Anglo Saxons for starters, which is probably something to do with the Anglo Danish and Northumbrians. Welsh kings start appearing at Aethelstan’s court, and they get referred to in charters as sub regulus, sub kings. It seems more than likely that Aethelstan pursued the same policy with his northern neighbours in Alba, but it appears his northern neighbours in Alba didn’t see it quite his way, and were less prepared to accept his ultimate authority. But it would take a crisis for things to come to a head.

In 934, a death occurred which provided the required crisis. It’s those sons of Eadwulf again. It appears that one of them may have gone and died. Borders create conflict and here was an important state on the borders of Alba; it was critical to both Aethelstan and Constantine that there was a man in control of their liking and persuasion. The Chronicles are scratchy, but it could be that the two kings backed rival candidates to replace Eadwulf. This is never a recipe for a harmonious relationship.

Maybe Aethelstan would have let it go; Bamborough, Lothian and the rock fortress at Etin were a long way away and there were other worries keeping Aethelstan at home. There was his half brother Eadwine, a worrying competitor to his throne. There was Guthfrith, Viking boss in Dublin and north West England who could always cause trouble if Aethelstan went on a long trip north. But by 934, Aethelstan could gratefully remark that actually the clouds and rain had cleared enough for him to see all the way north to Alba. Because Guthfrith died, and an inexperienced replacement was unlikely to threaten him in the same way; and Eadwine his half brother had been unaccountably and extremely handily brutally drowned at sea. Aethelstan packed his bags. He’d make it clear to Constantine who made the decisions and was boss around here.

We can track Aethelstan’s journey north, from charters, from 28th May 934 in Winchester to Nottingham on 7th June. Constantine was a more than experienced king by this stage, on the throne for 34 years and already by the standards of the day probably an old man.  He seems to have taken the steady and experienced strategy of legging it to a remote corner of Scotland and hoping everyone would go away; we hear of no great and glorious battles, what we do hear of is Aethelstan ravaging his way up north with army and fleet and arriving at the citadel of Dunnottar on the North East coast of Alba. Interestingly, his fleet spent time ravaging Caithness which is odd; as far as we know this very north eastern tip of Scotland was not part of Alba but of the Viking kingdoms. So, why all the raiding? The explanation might be in the terms employment terms and conditions of Aethelstan’s army which was essentially, come and fight for me because I say so, rather than any concept of taking the king’s shilling. In those days of course, there was no shilling on offer. So if you were serving in said army, your only hope of making a profit was plunder. So there you are, sitting around eating bonbons, nothing much happening – and someone suggests a spot of light raiding and pillaging before tea, and off you go to make your fortune. And so the Viking raiders became the raided.

One does not just walk into Dunnottar unfortunately, as we have mentioned. And so Aethelstan just sat. But Constantine was without doubt a wily old bird. So out he came and made his submissions. But in his heart he was not warm. Around him was probably gathered a new generation of his great men whose hearts would also not be kind and warm towards the Sassenach. So Constantine told Aethelstan what he wanted to hear, and away Aethelstan went.

However, Aethelstan was no fool either, and by now also well out of spring chicken territory. So he either brought Constantine south with him, or sent for him soon after; ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ sort of thing. I hate to digress at this point, but I found myself wondering who coined that phrase which led me to Machiavelli, but ultimately to the Godfather part II. Now that is an immortal film is it not? That final scene has surely got to be one of the greatest in Film history, if I remember correctly, Michael Corleone all alone. Anyway, I got there also via Sun Tzu who apparently said ‘listen to your enemies, they’re the first to notice your faults” which is quite a neat expression. And he also said “Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective” and I reflected that when it comes to DIY I may have begun to take the deception a little too far. It occurs to me that you could spend your life trying to live according to quotes from Sun Tzu, and I am not sure it would make for a happy and fulfilled one. But anyway as I say I digress.

So we see our Constantine down south attesting charters to Aethelstan as early as September 934; in one he’s referred to as sub regulus. Which is interesting; one historian takes the view that Constantine would have been happy to have retained his kingly status even as a humble sub regulus; I wonder. I personally doubt the king of Alba would have enjoyed a word and status that effectively means little kinglet. As he toured round with Aethelstan’s court in the heart of Wessex, Constantine would have met many great men, and one of them we know was Owain of Strathclyde, and there were Welsh princes too. With a smiling face, Constantine plotted.

When he went back home, he plotted. When he got back home, it may well be that his young great men were not happy with the sight of the King of Alba trailing around after Aethelstan being called little kinglet, and so Constantine appeared no more at the English court. And in 937 he was ready with the Grand alliance. Over the sea in Dublin the unpronounceable Olaf Guthfrithson had established himself firmly in control and was looking for a fight; Owain of Strathclyde had had as much as he could take of little kinglet status too. Together the three parties set off to take Aethelstan down, and met Aethelstan on the field of battle at Brunanburgh.

Well, I say that, but nobody actually knows who attacked whom and where the whos and whoms met, and indeed who was nominative and who was accusative in this particular conflict. But it does seem sensible to suppose that the one that put an alliance together and army in the field was probably the aggressor. Either way we are at Brunanburgh again, and you can go to the website and see and hear one of the earliest poems in Old English. The outcome for Constantin was not great, honestly; but then you have to remember that the following snippet from the poem was written by an Old English bard singing in some lordly hall, so his aim was not to present a fair and balanced view of the conflict from a range of different angles to arrive at a mature and subtle analysis.

Also the crafty one,


Crept to his North again,

Hoar-headed hero!

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.


Hmm. Less of the hoar headed stuff if you don’t mind he might have cursed as he legged it back north.

Now then, you can view Brunanburgh as a great victory for the English, further evidence of the march of Aethelstan towards an unrivalled status as king of all Britain. Or, you can see it as confirming that Aethelstan had reached the limit of his power. For after Brunanburgh little seems to change; the political map stays as it was; there is no further expedition north that we know of. Was it, maybe, the offensive that made it clear to Aethelstan that he lacked the resources to control Alba directly?

Whether he realised that or not, on his death in 939 The English empire all fell to pieces like one of my bits of DIY. Our Olaf won the hearts of the Northumbrians and they chose him as their king, and he conquered Danish Mercia for himself, the five boroughs, before he in turn croaked in 941.

Constantine was left therefore with a few years of diplomatic peace. Sadly, we know nothing of the character of his reign; we know nothing also of how much influence he had north of the Mounth for example, outside the centre of Alban power in the Tay basin, in eastern central Scotland. We know that his reign had an unusual conclusion. In 943, he decided that enough was enough. He was probably in his 60s or 70s. Hanging around at court was a man called Mael Colium, the son of Constantine’s predecessor, and therefore under our switching principle of kingship we talked about earlier, the heir. Malcolm may well have become whiny about how long he was being forced to wait. He may have sat in darkened rooms making up lyrics for small fury predators along the lines of ‘and I just can’t wait to be king’, though I suspect that’s unlikely. But in 943, Constantine announced that he was giving up the world, handing over to Mal Colium; while he headed off to St Andrews to the religious settlement there, inhabited by the Celi De, otherwise known as the Culdees, an ascetic movement of reforming monks. We do not know if he walked, or if Malcolm’s hand was firmly in the small of his back.

Constantine may have lived as late as 952; there is a suggestion that he made a come back in 950 to carry out a raid on behalf of Mal colm, but it’s probably a later piece of folklore like Arthur returning to save the Britons, or Deano coming back to save the Tigers. What we do know is that Constantine’s remarkably long reign may be a good deal more central than that of his far more famous predecessor Cinead MacAlpin. Under his reign, Alba become a recognisable and permanent part of the wider political and diplomatic landscape of Britain. Within its core territory, the Vikings no longer roamed at will, bullying and destroying. In the relatively peaceful Alba, king reigned with the support of the church, an alliance backed and supported by a jointly shared story of Alba’s roots, and her patrons in St Andrew and the more ancient Columba. It must be during Constantine’s reign that the Gaelic culture definitively replaced the old Pictish. Constantine may not have won the battle of Brunanburgh, but he won the war for Alba.

Leave a Reply