The Battle of Brunanburgh

Sutton Hoo Shield
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

Athelstan King,

Lord among Earls,

Bracelet-bestower and

Baron of Barons,

He with his brother,

Edmund Atheling,

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

Lord everlasting,

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

Weltering waters

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,

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—

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

Javelins over

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.




Leave a Reply