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".
The landscape we see today is the product of thousands of years of interaction between humans and their environment. One of the greatest changes has been the transition from a largely wooded landscape to an open one of fields and moors. Currently, only around 13% of the UK is covered by trees, ranging from 19% in Scotland to 8% in Northern Ireland, however thousands of years ago the the level of tree cover would have been much higher.
Following the retreat of the last major ice sheets around 10,000 years ago, the tundra landscape of Great Britain and Ireland started to be colonised by the first trees, including juniper and willow. The height of forestation of Great Britain and Ireland is likely to have occurred by 5,000 to 6,000 years ago where trees would have grown wherever possible, though the exact extent of coverage would have been complicated by the presence of humans.
Woodland clearance likely began in the Mesolithic (circa 9,000 to circa 4,300 BC) when hunter gatherers would have made clearings to attract grazing animals for the hunt and make way for their temporary camps. These small areas of managed wood would have also provided material for the production of wood products.
The first large-scale clearance probably first took place during the Neolithic (circa 4000 to circa 2,500 BCE) as agricultural practices spread and intensified. During this period it was learnt that wood from a regrown stump was of more use than the timber from the original tree and so the practice of management by coppicing began.
The clearing of the forests increased in the Bronze Age (2,500BCE – 800BCE) with clearance taking place in higher elevations. The great majority of the woods still remained up to this time period.
With the arrival Iron Age and the development of more advanced and durable equipment clearances of the “wildwood” increased to allow for the cultivation of additional land and grazing needed for a growing population. During this period there were different methods used to clear the forests; felling, burning and grazing animals. These processes went on for hundreds of years and allowed the population to increase the arable land and the fields which they farmed.
Coppiced woodlands were used as sources of timber for their buildings, fences, roads, carts heating and cooking. They developed their woodworking skills to a fine art, which is in evidence in the remains of the houses, wheels, boats and other artifacts discovered.
And so by the time the Romans arrived the landscape had already been possessed by the local population and the field systems they created in the clearance of the forests have remained can still be seen today in the landscape.
These scenes were built by James Pegrum; find out more by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
On this day in 793, Vikings raided the Anglo-Saxon monastery on Lindisfarne heralding the beginning of the Viking age.
While the date of 8th of June is now generally accepted as the date, two versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:
"In this year  fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne."
However, historian and linguist Michael Swanton writes that this is likely the result of a mistranslation, and that the 8th June, which is the date given by the Annals of Lindisfarne, is closer to the truth. The fact that the summer would offer better sailing weather for coastal raids would support this.
Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar in Charlemagne's court at the time, wrote:
"Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race ... The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets."
This scene was built by Dan Harris as part and is from the model that we have nicknamed LEGOfarne.
Æthelred II, more commonly known as the Unready, was king of England from 978 to 1013 and again from 1014 to 1016. He didn’t gain the ‘Unready’ part of his name until some 150 years after his death, so it is no indication of how he was seen at the time. Furthermore, it does not derive from the modern word ‘unredy’, but in fact comes from the Old English word ‘unræd’, which means poorly advised. This is an attempt at humour, because ‘Æthelred’ means ‘well advised’.
Æthelred came to the throne on the 18th March 978 when his older stepbrother, Edward the Martyr was assassinated. There was speculation that the plot to kill Edward was led my Æthelred mother and though there is no evidence to support this allegation, following Æthelred ascension to the throne, no one was punished for a part in the crime. Thus, Æthelred’s reign began in an atmosphere of suspicion which badly affected the prestige of the crown.
England had experienced a period of peace after the reconquest of the Danelaw in the mid-10th century by Æthelred's father, King Edgar the Peaceful. However, early in Æthelred's reign Danish Vikings began raiding the English coast, with Hampshire, Thanet and Cheshire attacked in 980, Devon and Cornwall in 981, Dorset in 982 and Devon in 988. In August 991 things became more serious when a sizeable Danish fleet began a sustained campaign in the south-east of England. Things truly came to ahead when the Danes and English met at The Battle of Maldon, resulting in a crushing defeat upon the English. Following the battle Æthelred decided that the English should grant the tribute to the Danes that they desired, and so a gafol of £10,000 was paid them for their peace. This does not seem to have worked however and the Danes continued to raid and an inconclusive battle was fought near London. Another treaty was signed with a tribute of that £22,000 of gold and silver paid for peace. These payments would become known as Danegeld.
Yet, this treaty was little more than a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with the leader of the raiders, Olaf Tryggvason, who subsequently entered the employ of the English crown as a mercenary. In 997 the Danes returned under different leadership. The Danes harried England until 1000, then they left for Normandy. In their absence, Æthelred attempted to reinforce his military position. He also invaded the British kingdom of Strathclyde, the motive for which is unknown. The Danes returned in 1001, ravaged west Sussex. And were only subdued with a payment of £24,000 in the Spring of 1002.
On November 13th 1002, St Brice's Day, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danish men in England to take place. Among the dead were Gunhilde, sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark. Probably in response, Sweyn invaded England. The English put up a stiff resistance and although the Danes were able to harry much of England, they returned to Denmark in 1005. An expedition the following year was bought off in early 1007 by tribute money of £36,000, and for the next two years England was free from attack. Conflict returned in 1009 when a Danish army under Thorkell the Tall and his brother Hemming invaded and harried England until 1012, when it was bought off by a sum of by £48,000.
In 1013 Sweyn launched an invasion with the ultimate aim of gaining the English crown. Sweeping aside any opposition he conquered the country within the year and Æthelred and his family, including the future kings Edmund and Edward, were forced into exile in Normandy. Sweyn was however unable to enjoy his victory for long, dying on February 3rd 1014 and while the Danes threw in the support for Sweyn’s son, Cnut, the English sent a deputation to Normandy to negotiate Æthelred’s restoration to the throne.
Æthelred returned to England with an army and found support for him still existed in England. Cnut and his army decided to withdraw from England, in April 1014, but would return in 1016 to find a complex and volatile situation unfolding in England. Æthelred's son, Edmund Ironside, had revolted against his father and established himself in the Danelaw. Over the next few months Cnut conquered most of England, and on 23rd April 1016 Æthelred died, leaving Edmund as the sole opposition to the Danes.
These scenes was built by James Pegrum and Dan Harris as part of a series of models on the Kings and Queens of England and British history in general. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
Alfred the Great was King of Wessex from 874 to 899 and by the time of his death, the dominant ruler of England. He is one of only two English monarchs to be given the epithet "the Great", the other being the Scandinavian Cnut the Great. He was the first to style himself as King of the Anglo-Saxons and so is often identified as the first English King in many regal lists.
During his reign he had to repeatedly deal with Viking invaders, including the struggle with the Great Heathen Army, which he inherited on his succession to the throne of Wessex on 23rd April 871. He would win some significant military victories in doing so, including the Battle of Edington in 878.
Alfred had a reputation as a learned and merciful man of a gracious and level-headed nature who encouraged education, proposing that primary education be taught in English rather than Latin, and improved his kingdom's legal system, military structure and his people's quality of life.
Alfred died on 26 October 899. He was originally buried in the Old Minster in Winchester but was moved to the New Minster four years later. In 1110, the monks were transferred to Hyde Abbey along with Alfred's body, which was presumably interred before the high altar. He was succeeded by his son Edward the Elder, who ruled until 924.
Much of what we know of Alfred comes from his biography by Bishop Asser, which Alfred himself commissioned. It is therefore unsurprising that this work emphasised the king’s positive aspects. Later medieval historians, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, perhaps influenced by this text, also reinforced Alfred's favourable image. Alfred’s promotion of English rather than Latin meant that he continued to be viewed positively during the time of the Reformation. Consequently, it was writers of the sixteenth century who gave Alfred his epithet as 'the Great' rather than any of Alfred's contemporaries. The epithet was retained by succeeding generations of Parliamentarians and empire-builders who saw Alfred's patriotism, success against barbarism, promotion of education and establishment of the rule of law as supporting their own ideals.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
Last week we bought you our official photos of England 793 as seen at the Great Western Brick Show. You can see them again on the build's webpage. There were however lots of photos that didn't quite make the cut, because basically, there are only so many photographs a webpage can handle. So today we bring you our most loved extras.
A special thanks must go to Andrew Whyte of Long Exposures for taking many of the photos and Blocks magazine for arranging it. They were taken for an article in Issue 24 of the magazine, which is still on sale now. It's well worth getting a copy as it has lots more awesome photos as well as some interesting (at least we think they're interesting...) interviews with our builders.
Last weekend was the Great Western Brick Show, held every year at Swindon’s Museum of the Great Western Railway, also known as STEAM. This is one of our favourite shows, being in a great venue, attracting awesome exhibitors and drawing a large and enthusiastic crowd.
This year we were once again in the Caerphilly Hall, sitting under the imposing shadow of the Caerphilly Castle, once upon a time the world’s fastest train. Lego Hastings made a return and was the first model people saw on entering the venue. Our centrepiece however was a much expanded England 793, with new additions from Simon Pickard, Tim Goddard, James Pegrum, Jimmy Clinch and Dan Harris. The model now covers an enormous 16 square metres and was built on 105 48x48 stud Lego baseplates. Every year we get asked how many pieces go into our models and every year we have no idea, but we are talking somewhere in the high 100,000s for this one.
Key features of England 793 include an island monastery inspired by Lindisfarne, a ship burial representing Sutton Hoo and an Anglo-Saxon village based on West Stow. A further neat touch was a vast cavern filled with dinosaur bones, which sat under a soaring hill of over 30 bricks in height. Running amok among this sweeping landscape was an army of Viking raiders who are bent on plundering the treasures of the poor Anglo-Saxons.
A shot of England 793.
This year’s show also coincided with Swindon 175, which celebrates 175 years since the birth of the Swindon Railway Works. We couldn’t let this go without note, so we bought along a mosaic of the founding father himself, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Brunell, in Lego form.
We also had a number of smaller models on display, including a Nine Man’s Morris board, a couple of versions of hnefatafl and, in contrast to England 793, our first ever micro-scale build. The micro-scale build is particularly special as it represents the first stage of our work for Caithness Broch Project – a miniature Lego Broch. Brochs it appears are not well known in southern England so we had a great time spreading the word.
Micro-brochs and ye olde board games.
Spreading the word about brochs.
We were once again delighted by the reaction to our models and cannot wait to return next year.
Official photos of our models will be uploaded to the website as soon as we finish editing them. Watch this space for updates!
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On LEGO, History and other things by Brick to the Past