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".
Sweyn Forkbeard was king of Denmark from 986 to 1014 and in 1013, shortly before his death, he became the first Danish king of England. He was the father of King Harald II of Denmark, King Cnut the Great and Queen Estrid Svendsdatter.
Sweyn gained his Danish crown when he overthrew his father, Harald Bluetooth, sometime in the mid 980s. After establishing himself in Denmark, he led a large Viking fleet to England with the intention of capturing London. He would be unsuccessful and while away Eric Sersel, King of Sweden took advantage of his absence and occupied Denmark. Sweyn recovered Denmark on the death of Eric in in 994.
Sweyn’s relationship with the Swedes would improve following Eric’s death and he would build an alliance with Swedish king Olof Skötkonung and Eirik Hákonarson, Jarl of Lade, against Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason. At the battle of Svolder in 999 or 1000, Sweyn and his allies defeated and killed King Olaf I Trygvessön of Norway and divided his kingdom between them.
Sweyn’s attentions now returned to England, but rather than invading he instead resorted to extracting payment by blackmail. However, in November 1002 King Æthelred the Unready ordered the St. Brice’s Day Massacre resulting in the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of Danes in England. Among the dead was Gunhilde, who may have been the sister of Sweyn. The Massacre would instigate a change in policy from the Danish king, who turned to raiding the English coast in revenge. Sweyn campaigned in Wessex and East Anglia in 1003–1004, but a famine forced him to return to Denmark in 1005. Further raids took place in 1006–1007, and in 1009–1012 Thorkell the Tall led a Viking invasion into England. Sweyn acquired massive sums of Danegeld through the raids and in 1013, he led his forces in a full-scale invasion.
The contemporary Peterborough Chronicle (part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) states:
“...before the month of August came king Sweyn with his fleet to Sandwich. He went very quickly about East Anglia into the Humber's mouth, and so upward along the Trent till he came to Gainsborough. Earl Uchtred and all Northumbria quickly bowed to him, as did all the people of the Kingdom of Lindsey, then the people of the Five Boroughs. He was given hostages from each shire. When he understood that all the people had submitted to him, he bade that his force should be provisioned and horsed; he went south with the main part of the invasion force, while some of the invasion force, as well as the hostages, were with his son Cnut. After he came over Watling Street, they went to Oxford, and the town-dwellers soon bowed to him, and gave hostages. From there they went to Winchester, and the people did the same, then eastward to London.”
By this time however, Thorkell the Tall had defected to the English and lead them in their defence of London. Sweyn therefore turned towards Bath where the western thanes submitted to him and gave hostages. The Londoners then followed suit, fearing Sweyn's revenge if they resisted any longer. King Æthelred sent his sons Edward and Alfred to Normandy, and himself retreated to the Isle of Wight, and then followed them into exile. On Christmas Day 1013 Sweyn was declared King of England.
Based in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, Sweyn began to organise his vast new kingdom, but he died there on 3 February 1014, having ruled England for only five weeks. His embalmed body was returned to Denmark for burial. Sweyn's elder son, Harald II, succeeded him as King of Denmark, while his younger son, Cnut, was proclaimed King of England by the people of the Danelaw. However, the English nobility sent for Æthelred, who upon his return from exile in Normandy in the spring of 1014 managed to drive Cnut out of England. Cnut soon returned and became king of all England in 1016, following the deaths of Æthelred and his son Edmund Ironside; he succeeded his brother as King of Denmark in 1019 and eventually also ruled Norway, parts of Sweden, Pomerania, and Schleswig.
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.
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.
Last week we attended Brick Live at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow. This was a mammoth four day event, the biggest yet to be held in Scotland.
We were represented by our most northerly builder Dan Harris, who traveled south from his home in the Highlands with a car full of LEGO Vikings. The model on display was our Anglo-Saxon monastery which was originally part of last year's England 793, a model that is available for rent on its own or as part of our historical model collection.
Dan, who was joined in the Fan Zone by his friends from Tartan LUG, as well as a few new ones from further afield, said:
"It's been one heck of a show and I feel as though I could sleep for a week... I started to lose my voice sometime during day two and it's still not yet fully recovered! I had a great time with some great people and it was amazing to meet so many new faces. Scotland has a lot of hidden LEGO builders who seem to be only just discovering the wider community and the show seems to have been a great way of bringing them together. I'm really looking forward to seeing how things grow over the next few years!"
Dan's LEGO models can currently be seen at two other Scottish venues this summer, with the Caithness Broch on display at the Caithness Horizons Museum in Thurso and a model of Corgarff Castle at the real Corgarff Castle in Aberdeenshire. There will also be other chances to see the LEGO Vikings with the next two-day show, the appropriately named Awesome Bricks, being held at the National Museum of Flight on the 26th and 27th of August.
We'll next be on display at Peterhead's Brickmania event, held at the town's excellent Prison Museum - the perfect place to lock up your family members for a few hours of LEGO fun.
The event is for one day only and will be held on 15th July 2017 during Peterhead Scottish Week. Doors are open from 10 am and close at 4 pm and tickets are £3 per person and under 5s go free!
We'll be there with our LEGOfarne model so come along and get down with our horde of marauding Vikings! It'll be a day of displays from some of Scotland's most talented builders, play and competitions involving all aspects of the LEGO brick!
Find out more:
Our models are massive and this means they only have a limited lifespan and are taken apart so that the parts may be recycled. They are never completely dismantled though because we like to keep parts of them so that they can be rented out and taken to other shows.
From England 793 we are keeping the island monastery built by Dan Harris and it is available to rent along with a number of other models. We call this part of the model 'Legofarne'.
The island is based on the famous Anglo-Saxon monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumberland, which was founded in the year 635. It was here in 793 that the first Viking raid is said to have taken place; famously the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reads:
You may also be interested to know that we have a range of other historic models available covering many eras of British History. Ask us about the packages we could provide you.
All photographs are © Brick to the Past and Andrew Whyte, 2016.
Sunday was the Aberdeen Children's Hospital Lego Show at the eponymous city's Airyhall Community Centre. This is the first show we've attended in Scotland and sent along Dan Harris to represent us. He took with him part of England 793 as well as a couple of smaller builds, one of which we are yet to reveal to you.
Dan said "the show was really fun and it was a pleasure to meet some of Scotland's best and most enthusiastic builders. The show's visitors were also great and I'm looking forward to future events!".
The show was organised by the local LEGO Club, Granite City Bricks, and raised money to buy LEGO sets for Aberdeen Children's Hospital. We thank the organisers for a great event and wish them luck with future ventures!
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.
Today we bring you another small build from this year’s Great Western Brick Show and yes, it’s another board game. If you think that this particular game looks a bit familiar you would be right, because this game is called hnefatafl, and we bought you a different version of it a few weeks ago (The Beautiful Game of Ard Ri). This version is the game in its classical form and it was made by our board game aficionado, Simon Pickard.
Hnefatafl, which means King’s Table, was a popular game in medieval Scandinavia and is mentioned in several of the Norse Sagas. It is rare in that it is one of the few games that comprises of two unequal sides.
In Hnefatafl the defending side comprises twelve soldiers and a king, who start the game in the centre of the board. Their objective is for the king to escape by reaching any of the four corner squares. The attackers comprise twenty four soldiers positioned in four groups of four around the perimeter of the board. Their objective is to take the King. All pieces move like the Rook in chess and pieces are taken by "sandwiching" i.e. moving your piece so that an opponent's piece is trapped horizontally or vertically between two of yours. The attacking side starts first.
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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