Battle of Brunanburh

For the Old English poem, see Battle of Brunanburh (poem).

Battle of Brunanburh
Part of the Viking invasions of England
LocationGreat Britain
Result English victory
Kingdom of England Kingdom of Dublin
Kingdom of Alba
Kingdom of Strathclyde
Commanders and leaders
Æthelstan of England
Edmund I of England
Olaf III Guthfrithson
Constantine II of Scotland
Owen I of Strathclyde
Unknown Unknown
Casualties and losses
Heavy Heavy

The Battle of Brunanburh was fought in 937 between Æthelstan, King of England, and an alliance of Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin; Constantine, King of Scotland; and Owen, King of Strathclyde. One of the historiographical cruxes of this battle is the fact that it is often attributed to as the point of origin for English nationalism, but overall historians, such as Michael Livingston, argue that "the men who fought and died on that field forged a political map of the future that remains [in modernity], arguably making the Battle of Brunanburh one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England, but of the whole of the British Isles."[1]

Following an unchallenged large-scale invasion of Scotland by Æthelstan in 934, possibly launched because of a peace treaty violation by Constantine, it became apparent that Æthelstan could only be defeated by an allied force of his enemies. Olaf led Constantine and Owen in the alliance.

In August 937, Olaf and his army crossed the Irish Sea to join forces with Constantine and Owen, and the invaders were routed in the subsequent battle against Æthelstan. The poem Battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounted that 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".

Æthelstan's victory prevented the dissolution of England's unity. The historian Æthelweard, perhaps writing sometime around 975, said that "[t]he fields of Britain were consolidated into one, there was peace everywhere, and abundance of all things". The battle has been called "the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before Hastings". The site of the battle is unknown, but scholars have proposed many possible locations.


After Æthelstan defeated the Vikings at York in 927, King Constantine of Scotland, King Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Ealdred I of Bamburgh, and King Owen I of Strathclyde (or Morgan ap Owain of Gwent)[lower-alpha 1] accepted Æthelstan's overlordship at Eamont, near Penrith.[3] He became King of England, and there was peace until 934.[4]

Æthelstan invaded Scotland with a large force, both ground and naval, in 934. Although the motivation for this invasion is uncertain, John of Worcester stated that the cause was Constantine's violation of the peace treaty made in 927.[5] Æthelstan evidently travelled through Beverley, Ripon, and Chester-le-Street. The army harassed the Scots up to Kincardineshire, and the navy up to Caithness. Æthelstan's force was never engaged.[6]

Following Æthelstan's invasion of Scotland, it became apparent that he could only be defeated by an allied force of his enemies.[6] The leader of the alliance was Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin. The other two members were Constantine II, King of Scotland; and Owen, King of Strathclyde.[7] (According to John of Worcester, Constantine was Olaf's father-in-law.[8]) 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".[9]

In August 937, Olaf crossed the Irish Sea with his army to join forces with Constantine and Owen, and in Livingston's opinion this suggests that the battle of Brunanburh occurred in early October of that year.[10] According to Paul Cavill, the invading armies raided Mercia, from which Æthelstan obtained Saxon troops as he travelled north to meet them.[11] However, Michael Wood notes that no source mentions any intrusion into Mercia.[12] John of Worcester wrote that the invaders entered via the Humber, and is the only chronicle writer to mention this.[8] Because of the lack of sources supporting the claim, along with other issues, philologist Paul Cavill argues John's statement is not true.[13] According to Symeon of Durham, Olaf had 615 ships, but this number is likely exaggerated.[14]

Livingston theorises that the invading armies entered England in two waves: Constantine and Owen coming from the north, possibly engaging in some skirmishes with Æthelstan's forces as they followed the Roman road across the Lancashire plains between Carlisle and Manchester, with Olaf's forces joining them on the way. It is possible, Livingston speculates, that the battle site at Brunanburh was chosen in agreement with Æthelstan, on which "there would be one fight, and to the victor went England".[15]Another s


Surviving documents that mention the battle include accounts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the writings of Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury, and the Annals of Clonmacnoise. In Snorri Sturluson's Egils saga, the antihero, mercenary, berserker and skald, Egill Skallagrimsson, served as a trusted warrior for Æthelstan.[16]

The name of the battle appears in various forms in early sources: Brunanburh (in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or the chronicle of John of Worcester, or in accounts derived from them), Brunandune (Aethelweard), Brunnanwerc or Bruneford or Weondune (Symeon of Durham and accounts derived from him), Brunefeld or Bruneford (William of Malmesbury and accounts derived from him), Duinbrunde (Scottish traditions), Brun (Welsh traditions), plaines of othlynn (Annals of Clonmacnoise), and Vinheithr (Egil's Saga), among others.[17]

The main source of information about the battle is the praise-poem Battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.[7] After travelling north through Mercia,[11] Æthelstan, his brother Edmund, and the combined Saxon army from Wessex and Mercia met the invading armies[18] and attacked them.[19] In a battle that lasted all day,[19] the Saxons fought the invaders[18] and finally forced them to break up and flee.[19] There was probably a prolonged period of hard fighting before the invaders were finally defeated.[12][18] 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".[20] Wood states that all large battles were described in this manner, so the description in the poem is not unique to Brunanburh.[12] Æthelstan and his army pursued the invaders until the end of the day,[18] slaying great numbers of enemy troops.[19] The poem states that "they pursued the hostile people ... hew[ing] the fugitive grievously from behind with swords sharp from the grinding".[20] Olaf fled and sailed back to Dublin with the remnants of his army, and Constantine escaped to Scotland; Owen's fate is not mentioned.[18][19] The poem states that the Northmen "[d]eparted ... in nailed ships" and "sought Dublin over the deep water, leaving Dinges mere to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit."[20] In contrast, the poem records that Æthelstan and Edmund victoriously returned to Wessex,[21] stating that "the brothers, both together, King and Prince, sought their home, West-Saxon land, exultant from battle."[20]

It is universally agreed by scholars that the invaders were routed by the Saxons.[18] 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".[20] The Annals of Ulster describe the battle as "great, lamentable and horrible" and record that "several thousands of Norsemen ... fell".[22] Among the casualties were five kings and seven earls from Olaf's army.[18] The poem records that Constantine lost several friends and family members in the battle, including his son.[23] The largest list of those killed in the battle is contained in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which names several kings and princes.[24] A large number of Saxons also died in the battle,[18] including two of Æthelstan's cousins, Alfric and Athelwin.[25]

Primary Accounts

One of the crucial points is that there are several different sources for the Battle itself, including poems and songs in Old English, Old Norse, Old Welsh, Middle English, Latin, and Anglo-Norman, highlighting a wide potential of sources in order to glean information about the battle from all sides of the campaign. Furthermore, while these sources might be seen as biased due to national origin and underlying romantic and heroic narrative constructions of the battle for each side, some of the sources, such as the Chronicle work as points of reference to the more lyrical constructions presented in other popular narrative formats. Although there is a relative lack of iron-clad primary sources that are completely unbiased, by taking into account all of these sources, historians and literary scholars can gain a fuller image of the military maneuvers and actions taken by the respective leaders of armies involved in this battle.

Another potential source for the battle is found with William of Malmesbury's Gesta regime Anglorum, which supposedly preserves an older Latin poem about the battle:

For because our king, bold and spirited in his youth,

had retired from war long ago and languished in sluggish leisure, they defiled everything in their relentless plundering, afflicting the wretched fields with spreading fires. Verdant grass had withered on all the plains; diseased grain had mocked the prayers of farmers; so great was the barbaric force of the footmen and riders, the charge of countless galloping steeds.[26]

William of Malmesbury works to defend Athelstan from any charges of negligence by noting the defensive delays as a deliberate martial tactic and "the king 'purposefully held back so that he might defeat an already insolent foe in a more glorious manner."[27] Historians postulate that the campaign of 934 made the Anglo-Saxon monarch confident in his military advances and Athelstan, if he had prior knowledge of the movements of Anlaf, probably thought that he could only mount minor winter raids in the areas surrounding York.

Overall, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Version A), notes that each side was routed in equal measure and:

He could make no boast, that gray-haired warrior of the sword-slaughter, the old deceitful one, no more than could Anlaf. With the remnant of their army they had no reason to laugh that they were better in the work of war on the battlefield, of the clashing of banners, of the meeting of spears, of the meeting of men, of the exchange of weapons, when they on the field of death played with the sons of Edward.[28]

Fortunately Anglo-Saxon sources are replete with references to the Battle and are comprised not only of poetic versions of the battle and prose references to the Battle. According to Æthelweard, in the Chronicle: "nine hundred years plus twenty-six more had passed from the glorious Incarnation of our Savior when the all-powerful King Athelstan assumed the crown of empire. Thirteen years later there was a massive battle against barbarians sat Brunandun which is still called 'the great war' to the present day by the common folk. The barbarian hordes were then overcome on all sides and they held sway no longer. Afterwards he drove them from the shores of the sea and Scots and Picts alike bent their necks. The fields of Britain were joined as one; everywhere there was peace and abundance in all things. No fleet has since moved against these shores and remained without the consent of the English."[29]

Wulfstan of Winchester also references the Battle in his Life of Saint Ethelwold: "Meanwhile it came to pass that Athelstan, the most victorious king, passed away in the fourth year after he had destroyed a hostile army of pagans in a great slaughter, and his brother Edmund assumed from him the guidance of the kingdom."[30]

Geoffrey of Gaimar, an Anglo-Norman chronicler, also recounts the battle: "after that reigned Edward's son Athelstan. When he had reigned to the fourth year, he waged a battle against the Danes; and he defeated Guthfrith the king. After that he assembled a great army and into the sea issued a great fleet. Directly to Scotland he went; he harried that country well. One year later, no less no more, at Brunanburh he had the upper hand over the Scots, and over the men of Cumberland, over the Welsh, and over the Picts. There were so many slain I think it will be told forever. Afterwards he lived only three years; he had no son, no other children. His brother was then made king."[31]

In most of the sources the martial qualities of Athelstan is noted in equal measure to the time it took to rout his enemies and most sources also link the great battle with the short reign of Athelstan after the Battle itself. Geoffrey of Gaimar part of a unique canon of sources that works to highlight both land and naval conflict in the history preceding and during the Battle of Brunanburh.


Æthelstan's decisive victory prevented the dissolution of England's unity.[21] Foot writes that "[e]xaggerating the importance of this victory is difficult".[21] Livingston wrote that 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".[32] The battle has been called "the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before Hastings" by Alfred Smyth, but he also states that its consequences beyond Æthelstan's reign have been overstated.[33][34] Alex Woolf describes it a "pyrrhic victory" for Æthelstan: the campaign seems to have ended in a stalemate, his power appears to have declined, and after he died Olaf acceded to the Kingdom of Northumbria without resistance.[35] However, England was once again unified by the time Edmund I died in 946. The Norse lost all remaining territory in York and Northumbria in 954, when Eric Bloodaxe died.[19] Æthelweard, writing in the late 900s,[19] said that the battle was "still called the 'great battle' by the common people" and that "[t]he fields of Britain were consolidated into one, there was peace everywhere, and abundance of all things".[36]


The Brackenwood golf course at Bebington

The location of the battle is unknown.[18] However, according to Michael Livingston, the case for a location in the Wirral has wide support among current historians.[37] Charters from the 1200s suggest that Bromborough (a town on the Wirral Peninsula[38]) was originally named Brunanburh[39] (which could mean "Bruna's fort").[40] In his essay "The Place-Name Debate", Paul Cavill listed the steps by which this transition may have occurred.[41] Evidence suggests that there were Scandinavian settlements in the area starting in the late 800s, and the town is also situated near the River Mersey, which was a commonly used route by Vikings sailing from Ireland.[39] Additionally, the Chronicle states that the invaders escaped at Dingesmere, and Dingesmere could be interpreted as "mere of the Thing". The word Thing (or þing, in Old Norse) might be a reference to the Viking Thing (or assembly) at Thingwall on the Wirral. In Old English, mere refers to a body of water, although the specific type of body varies depending on the context. In some cases, it refers to a wetland, and a large wetland is present in the area. Therefore, in their article "Revisiting Dingesmere", Cavill, Harding, and Jesch propose that Dingesmere is a reference to a marshland or wetland near the Viking Thing at Thingwall on the Wirral Peninsula.[38] Since the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the battle as taking place "ymbe Brunanburh" ("around Brunanburh"), numerous locations near Bromborough have been proposed, including the Brackenwood Golf Course in Bebington, Wirral (formerly within the Bromborough parish).[42]

Many other sites have been suggested; historian Paul Hill identified over thirty possibilities.[43] Michael Wood published a 2014 article suggesting a Yorkshire location;[12] philologist Andrew Breeze favours Durham,[44] and Kevin Halloran argues for southern Scotland.[45] Tim Clarkson discounts locations other than southern Scotland or northern England as a battle site, given the logistical capacity of the kingdoms of Alba and Strathclyde.[46]

Other possibilities include:


  1. According to William of Malmesbury it was Owen of Strathclyde who was present at Eamont, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Owain of Gwent. It may have been both.[2]


  1. Michael Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, 1.
  2. Foot, 2011, p. 162, n. 15; Woolf, 2007, p. 151; Charles-Edwards, p. 511–512
  3. Higham 1993, p. 190; Foot 2011, p. 20
  4. Foot 2011, p. 20
  5. Foot, 2011, pp. 164–165; Woolf, 2007, pp. 158–165
  6. 1 2 Stenton 2001, p. 342
  7. 1 2 Foot 2011, p. 170
  8. 1 2 Cavill 2001, p. 103
  9. Livingston (2011), p. 11.
  10. Livingston 2011, p. 14
  11. 1 2 Cavill 2001, p. 101
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Wood, Michael (August 2013). "Searching for Brunanburh: The Yorkshire Context of the 'Great War' of 937". Maney Online. Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 85 Issue 1. Yorkshire Archaeological Society. Retrieved 2015-04-05.
  13. Cavill, Paul. "The Place-Name Debate", in Livingston 2011, p. 322
  14. Cavill 2001, pp. 103–104
  15. Livingston (2011), p. 15–18.
  16. Livingston (2011), "Preface", pp. xi–xii.
  17. Cavill, Paul. "The Place-Name Debate", in Livingston 2011, pp. 313–314
  18. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Stenton 2001, p. 343
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Cavill 2001, p. 102
  20. 1 2 3 4 5 "The Battle of Brunanburh". Retrieved 18 November 2015.
  21. 1 2 3 Foot 2011, p. 171
  22. The Annals of Ulster. CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts. 2000. p. 386. Retrieved 19 November 2015.
  23. Foot 2011, pp. 170–171
  24. Livingston 2011, pp. 20–23.
  25. "The Battle of Brunanburh: 937". Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  26. Livingston, Battle of Brunanburh, 13.
  27. Ibid., 14.
  28. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "Battle of Brunanburh," 43.
  29. Ibid., 49.
  30. Wulfstan of Winchester, Life of Saint Ethelwold.
  31. Geoffrey of Gaimar, History of the English, l. 3515-3531.
  32. Livingston, Michael. "The Roads to Brunanburh", in Livingston 2011, p. 1
  33. Smyth 1975, p. 62
  34. Smyth 1984, Warlords and Holy Men, p. 204
  35. Woolf 2013, "Scotland", p. 256
  36. "Aethelweard". Retrieved 30 October 2015.
  37. Livingston (2011), p. 19.
  38. 1 2 Cavill, Paul; Harding, Stephen; Jesch, Judith (October 2004). "Revisiting Dingesmere". Journal of the English Place Name Society. 36: 25–36.
  39. 1 2 Foot 2011, p. 178
  40. Cavill 2001, p. 105
  41. Cavill, Paul. "The Place-Name Debate", in Livingston 2011, p. 328
  42. Birthplace of Englishness 'found'. BBC News Online (URL accessed 27 August 2006).
  43. Hill 2004, pp. 141–42.
  44. 1 2 Breeze, Andrew (2014-12-04). "Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?". Society of Antiquaries of London: Ordinary Meeting of Fellows. Retrieved 2015-04-04.
  45. 1 2 Halloran, Kevin (Oct 2005). "The Brunanburh Campaign: A Reappraisal" (PDF). JSTOR. The Scottish Historical Review Vol. 84 No. 218. Edinburgh University Press. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 2015-04-06.
  46. Clarkson 2012, p. 155
  47. Wood 2001, pp. 206–14.
  48. Smyth 1975, pp. 51–52
  49. Wilkinson 1857, pp. 21–41
  50. Partington 1909, pp. 28–43
  51. Newbigging 1893, pp. 9–21
  52. "Battle of Brunanburh". UK Battlefields Trust. Retrieved 7 June 2012.


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