Battle of Brunanburh: Wikis


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Battle of Brunanburh
Date 937
Location Whereabouts unknown; estimates suggest it was most presumably somewhere northern England or southern Scotland
Result Anglo-Saxon victory
Kingdom of England Kingdom of Dublin
Kingdom of Scotland
Kingdom of Strathclyde
Athelstan of England
Edmund I of England
Olaf III Guthfrithson
Constantine II of Scotland
Owen I of Strathclyde

The Battle of Brunanburh[1] was an Anglo-Saxon victory in 937 by the army of Æthelstan, King of Angle-Land, and his brother, Edmund, over the combined armies of Olaf III Guthfrithson, Norse-Gael King of Dublin, Constantine II, King of Scots, and Owen I, King of Strathclyde.

Mention is also made in some sources of Irish, Welsh and Cornish mercenaries.[2]



Most of the information regarding the battle itself come from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the writings of Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury, the Annals of Tigernach, the Annals of Ulster, the Brut y Tywysogion. More legendary accounts are found in the sagas from Iceland, including Snorri Sturluson's Egils saga about Egill Skallagrimsson, a Viking who supposedly fought for Athelstan.


After Athelstan's defeat of the Vikings at York in 928, the Scottish King Constantine II recognized Wessex as a considerable threat to Alba and so began forging alliances with neighbouring kingdoms.[3]

Constantine married his daughter to Olaf Guthfrithsson, King of Dublin and York, which created alliances with the Earls of Northumbria. Owen of Strathclyde was related to Constantine and took little persuasion to join the King of Alba in a pre-emptive strike against Athelstan.


There is some difficulty in determining the exact date of the battle; historian Sharon Turner gives it as 934, Worsaae in his "Danes and Norwegians in England," says 937 and Ethelweard's "Chronicle" suggests 939. Sharon Turner refers to the fact that one manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives the date as 937, although he himself preferred 934. Dr. Freeman in his "Old English History" also suggests 937.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the event as follows:

Here, King Athelstan, leader of warriors,
ring-giver of men, and also his brother,
the aetheling Edmund, struck life-long glory
in strife around 'Brunanburh' ...

James Parket summarized various sources including the Chronicle in a narrative:

"Anlaf, the son of Sihtric. who had become the head of the Ostmen in Ireland, leagued himself with Constantine, the king of the Scots, and prepared to recover Northumbria. He collected a large army in Ireland, and being joined by the Scots, landed in the Humber. Athelstan marched against them, accompanied by his brother Edmund, but no battle was fought until they had reached the extremity of Northumbria. There, at a place called the Brunanburg the Norsemen and the Scots had fortified themselves after the Norseman fashion. with a strong stockade of timber within a deep trench, and when attacked by the Saxons a most desperate contest ensued. The trench was passed, the "board wall" was cleft, and after a day's fighting the allies were put to flight. Five kings and seven earls lay dead on the field, beside an innumerable host of their men."[4]

Five "kings" and seven Viking jarls were killed in the bloody battle. Two of Athelstan's cousins Alfric and Athelwin and a prominent Saxon bishop were also killed. Some sources claim that at one point the West Saxons deployed a cavalry charge, contradicting popular belief that the early English fought only in infantry-based armies.[citation needed] Cavalry were a relatively insignificant part of the Saxon force and were likely mercenaries from any number of other kingdoms[citation needed]. However, the Anglo-Saxon text of the chronicle makes no such mention: Burton Raffel's translation of the poem, for instance, is misleading. His rendering "All the battle / Became the Wessex cavalry endlessly / Hunting a broken enemy" mistranslates the Anglo-Saxon eorodcistum, which means 'troop' or 'company'[5]. The later poem The Battle of Maldon says (translated) that before the battle "he ([=Byrhtnoth] commanded his men to dismount thereupon, / send steeds away and stride forwards", showing that his men used horses for travelling but fought on foot.

Battle site

The location of Brunanburh has not been definitively identified. Its name occurs in the poem as "ymbe brunanburh": here "ymbe" means "around" and is a preposition which takes the accusative case. As a result, "ymbe brunanburh" could mean "around Brown's fort" or "around a brown fort" / "around Brown Fort". (Anglo-Saxon original manuscript texts do not capitalize proper nouns.) Suggested possible sites include:

  • Sites in Northumberland
  • Sites in Merseyside:
  • Burnswark in Dumfries and Galloway in southwest Scotland
  • Tinsley Wood in South Yorkshire
  • Near the Humber in Yorkshire/Lincolnshire
  • Axminster in Devon.[7]
  • Sites close to Burnley:
    • Cuerdale in Lancashire where the Cuerdale Hoard was buried sometime after 910 and a number of axe and spear heads have been found, though most scholars agree the hoard was buried long before Athelstan's reign, no coin being later than 905. "This celt is in the museum at Preston, and it seems to correspond with that described * as having been found at Cuerdale in 1838 by men in deepening a ditch, between three and four feet from the surface, about three or four yards from a spear-head described in the next section."[8].
      The remains of defensive ditches on the site of Cuerdale Hall were surveyed in the early 1990s. The hall is contained within a semi-rectangular area about 150 metres in extent formed by a deep ditch about 12 meters in width. There is a V shaped ditch about 7 metres wide and two meters deep on the southern side of the Hall. Parallel and a little further south there is a scarp which suggests that the 7 metre ditch may have been cut from an earlier and wider ditch that silted up. The evidence suggests that a fortified enclosure existed on the site. The fortifications have not been dated. [9]
    • Livesay in Lancashire. The Livesay Historical Society says that the names Livesay and Livesey came from the common Anglo-Saxon personal name Lēofsige (which means "beloved victory" or "he whose victory is beloved"), and that that name refers to the Battle of Brunaburh [10]; but see Livesey#Etymology.
    • Hill of Shelfield (north of Burnley in Lancashire), stated in one traditional story to be the site of a battle in Saxon times. Walton Spire, built in Victorian times, is rumoured to be erected on an ancient battle stone dating back to the Battle of Brunanburh. It is thought that the battle stone is a gravestone marking a mass burial site for those that died in the battle. Some experts believe that this battle took place on the Hurstwood and Worsthorne moorlands above Burnley in Lancashire where the River Brun has its source. After the battle, Burnley belonged to the King of England. On the outskirts of Burnley, possible battle-sites have been suggested. Local folklore tells of a Great Battle which was fought in ancient times in the hills above Burnley with tales of the River Brun flowing red with blood. There has also been tales of farmers ploughing up various pieces of weaponry said to date from this Great Battle. Nearby is a large mound which is either a glacial deposit or according to the story, it is the Knaves Hill or mound beneath which the warriors killed in the Battle were buried. One account states that Shelfield Hill was once the site of an ancient camp. The site is now known as Walton Spire which was erected in Victorian times on top of a stone marker of unknown date.
      The Burnley site is about ten miles east of Cuerdale near the River Ribble. A ancient ford at Cuerdale is the point where the river would have been no longer navigable to Viking ships entering the Ribble estuary from Ireland. The Cuerdale Hoard, the largest Viking silver treasure found in Western Europe, predates the battle by some thirty years but its location suggests a main route from Dublin to York, and thus a possible route for a later invading army, which would take it near Burnley.

These are not the only sites suggested, but they are the most commonly accepted. The BBC documentary series A History of Scotland, in episode one ("The Last of the Free"), suggested that the battle of Brunanburh took place where "the Mersey estuary enters the sea", suggesting that Bromborough in Merseyside was the site of the battle.

There is a theory connecting Dingesmere in the poem with Thingwall on Merseyside.


This poorly recalled battle is one of the most important in British history, because Athelstan defeating the combined Norse-Celtic force facing him confirmed England as a fully unified kingdom. However, he was militarily weakened and the battle effectively forced all the kingdoms of the British Isles to consolidate in the positions they occupy today[citation needed].

The Battle of Brunanburh still has a great deal of influence in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, 200 miles south of any probable site. The townsfolk of Malmesbury fought for King Athelstan, and he granted them 600 hides of land and gave them all freemen status[citation needed]. This status and the organisation formed then exists today, as the Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury, and Athelstan is remembered in their ceremonies. When Athelstan died, his body was transported from Gloucester to Malmesbury for burial.

Modern literature and art

English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson translated the poem from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1880, publishing it as part of his Ballads and Other Poems. Tennyson's son Hallam Tennyson published a prose translation of the poem. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote various poems about or mentioning the English and their victory at Brunanburh.

See also


  1. ^ Alternative spellings are Brunanburg, Brunanburgh.
  2. ^ Lawrence Snell. The Suppression of the Religious Foundations of Devon and Cornwall. 1966
  3. ^ BBC Battle of Brunanburh
  4. ^ The New School history of England James Parket 1870 pp42
  5. ^ Burton Raffel, Poems and Prose from the Old English (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998): 41; J.R. Clark Hall, A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1960): 106
  6. ^ Birthplace of Englishness 'found'. BBC News Online (URL accessed 27 August 2006).
  7. ^ Anglo-Saxon warfare
  8. ^ Wood, Michael "Around half a dozen bronze axe heads and spear heads have been found at Cuerdale." Victoria History of Lancashire Vol 1 pp 233 (2001)
  9. ^ Cuerdale Hall reworked defenses and moats" 1991 LSMR. Dr T Welsh Tinsley Wood. In In Search of England: Journeys into the English past, pp203–221. Penguin Books Ltd (University of California Press in the United States). ISBN 0-520-23218-6
  10. ^ Livesay Historical Society



Primary sources

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. D. Dumville and S. Keynes, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. 8 vols. Cambridge, 1983; tr. Michael J. Swanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. 2nd ed. London, 2000.
  • The Battle of Brunanburh (Old English poem), ed. Alistair Campbell, The Battle of Brunanburh. London: Heinemann, 1938.
  • Æthelweard, Chronicon, ed. and tr. Alistair Campbell, The Chronicle of Æthelweard. London, 1961.
  • William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum, ed. and tr. R.A.B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, William of Malmesbury. Gesta Regum Anglorum. The History of the English Kings. OMT. 2 vols: vol 1. Oxford, 1998.
  • Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and tr. D.E. Greenway, Henry Archdeacon of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum. The History of the English People. OMT. Oxford, 1996.
  • Annals of Ulster, ed. and tr. Seán Mac Airt and Gearóid Mac Niocaill, The Annals of Ulster (to AD 1131). Dublin, 1983.
  • Annals of the Four Masters, ed. and tr. John O’Donovan. Annála Rioghachta Éireann. Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. 7 vols. Royal Irish Academy. Dublin, 1848-51.
  • Egils saga, ed. Finnur Jónsson, Egils saga Skallagrímssonar. Halle, 1894; tr. Herman Pálsson and Paul Edwards, Egil's Saga. Harmondsworth, 1976.

Secondary sources

  • An Oxford History of England. Volume 2: Anglo Saxon England.
  • Hardwick, Charles. Ancient Battle-fields in Lancashire. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., Stationers' Hall Court, 1882.

Further reading

  • Breeze, Andrew (1999). "The Battle of Brunanburh and Welsh tradition". Neophilologicus 83: 479–82. 
  • Campbell, Alistair (1970-03-17). "Skaldic Verse and Anglo-Saxon History". Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture. Viking Society for Northern Research. Retrieved 2009-08-25. 
  • Halloran, Kevin (2005). "The Brunanburh Campaign: A Reappraisal". Scottish Historical Review 84 (2): 133–48. 
  • Wood, Michael (1980). "Brunanburh Revisited". Saga Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research 20 (3): 200–217. 
  • "Tinsley Wood," in Wood, Michael (1999). In Search of England. London. pp. 203–21. 
  • Foot, Sarah, "Where English becomes British: Rethinking Contexts for Brunanburh," in Barrow, Julia; Andrew Wareham (2008). Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Brooks. Aldershot: Ashgate. pp. 127–44. 
  • Higham, Nicholas J., "The Context of Brunanburh" in Rumble, A.R.; A.D. Mills (1997). Names, Places, People. An Onomastic Miscellany in Memory of John McNeal Dodgson. Stamford: Paul Watkins. pp. 144-56. 
  • Cavill, Paul; Stephen Harding and Judith Jesch (2004). "Revisiting Dingesmere". Journal of the English Place Name Society 36: 25-38. 
  • Cavill, Paul, "The Place-Name Debate" in Livingston, Michael (2010). The Battle of Brunanburh. A Casebook. USA: Citadel Press. pp. 311-33. 

External links


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