Never, before this,
were more men in this island slain
by the sword's edge--as books and aged sages
confirm--since Angles and Saxons sailed here
from the east, sought the Britons over the wide seas,
since those warsmiths hammered the Welsh,
and earls, eager for glory, overran the land
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
If asked what the most important battles in British History are, it is likely that most people will mention Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo or the Battle of Britain. There are loads of other candidates too, so there’s no need to write in. The point we are making is that few will mention, or perhaps even have heard of, The Battle of Brunanburh, which was fought sometime in 937 between the Kingdom of England and the combined might of the Kingdoms of Scotland, Strathclyde and Dublin. Yet Brunanburh would set the course for the political and cultural development Britain, and in particular that of England, which would see its unity preserved and its identity realised.
By 927 King Æthelstan had consolidated his position in England, making him the most powerful ruler in the British Isles. His realm may have even extended as far north as the Firth of Forth, but wherever the border lay, he seems to have faced opposition from Constantine II of Scotland and Owain of Strathclyde. John of Worcester's chronicle suggests that Æthelstan fought a short war against Scotland and Strathclyde, perhaps due to the latter kingdoms’ support of Æthelstan’s Viking enemies. In July of 927 however, this appears to have drawn to a conclusion because on the 12th of that month Constantine and Owain agreed with Æthelstan not to make further allegiances with Vikings. Apparently, Æthelstan stood godfather to a son of Constantine, probably Indulf, during the conference.
In 934, for reasons unknown, conflict between Æthelstan and Constantine seems to have broken out once again, with the former marching north with an English and Welsh army. It is said that the army reached as far north as present day Aberdeenshire and was accompanied by a fleet of ships that harried Caithness. No significant battle appears to have been fought and a settlement appears to have been negotiated, with a son of Constantine given as a hostage to Æthelstan and Constantine himself accompanying the English king on his return south. On September 13th 934, Constantine acknowledged Æthelstan's overlordship.
Following this invasion of Scotland, it became apparent to Constantine and his allies that Æthelstan could only be defeated by an allied force of his enemies; so in around 937, one was formed. The leader of the alliance was Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin, joined by Constantine and Owain, King of Strathclyde. 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 sailed from Dublin with his army to join forces with Constantine and Owain and so it is suggested that the Battle of Brunanburh occurred in early October of that year.
The main source of information about the battle itself can be found 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. The location is unknown and a matter of contention, though somewhere on the Wirral is currently the favoured theory. The battle was exceptionally hard fought, with prolonged fighting taking place throughout the day. 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".
Æthelstan and his army pursued the invaders until the end of the day, slaying great numbers of enemy troops. The Chronicle states that "they pursued the hostile people... hew[ing] the fugitive grievously from behind with swords sharp from the grinding". Broken, Olaf and the remnants of his army fled back to Dublin while Constantine retreated to Scotland; Owain's fate is not mentioned. Æthelstan and Edmund returned to Wessex as victors, with the Chronical stating that "the brothers, both together, King and Prince, sought their home, West-Saxon land, exultant from battle."
The battle was a crushing defeat for the allies. 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, while Constantine is said to have lost several friends and family members, including one of his sons. A large number of Saxons also died, including two of Æthelstan's cousins, Ælfwine and Æthelwine.
Æthelstan's victory prevented the dissolution of England, though he failed to completely defeat Scotland and Strathclyde, who remained independent. However, the battle cemented the idea of the English as a unified people, and while Æthelstan's kingdom may have fallen apart following his death, future English kings and the people they ruled had an ideal to strive for. Indeed, if the battle had gone the other way, the England we see today may never have existed at all. According to Livingston, 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".
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