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Battle of Brunanburh

Battle of Brunanburh
Part of the Viking invasions of England
Date 937
Location Great 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 a battle fought in 937 between Æthelstan, king of England, and an alliance of Olaf Guthfrithson, king of Dublin; Constantine, king of Scotland; Owen, king of Strathclyde.

Following an unchallenged large-scale invasion of Scotland by Æthelstan in 934, possibly commenced because of a peace treaty violation by Constantine, it was realized that Æthelstan would not be defeated unless he was fought by an allied force of his enemies. The leader of the alliance was Olaf Guthfrithson, king of Dublin. The other two members were Constantine, king of Scotland, and Owen, king of Strathclyde.

In August 937, Olaf crossed the Irish Sea with his army to join forces with Constantine and Owen. The invaders were defeated in the subsequent battle against Æthelstan. The poem Battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that there were "never yet as many people killed before this with sword’s edge." Florence of Worcester wrote that the battle was "more sanguinary than any that was ever fought before in England." According to William of Malmesbury, "almost the whole assemblage of barbarians" was slain. The Annals of Ulster states that "several thousands of Norsemen, who are uncounted, fell." The Saxons also suffered heavy losses.

Æthelstan's victory preserved the unity of England and prevented the invaders from regaining York. 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 the Battle of Hastings." In The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, Michael Livingston wrote that the battle was "the moment when Englishness came of age." The site of the battle is unknown, but modern scholarship suggests it was somewhere on the Wirral Peninsula.


  • Background 1
  • Historical accounts 2
  • Aftermath 3
  • Location 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • Sources 7
    • Primary sources 7.1
    • Secondary sources 7.2
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


After Æthelstan defeated the

  • Text of the poem "Battle of Brunanburh", including Anglo-Saxon version, modern English translation, and Tennyson's version
  • Short documentary produced by C Bebenezer about aural traditions and the possible Burnley location of the battle

External links

  • Breeze, Andrew (1999). "The Battle of Brunanburh and Welsh tradition".  
  • Campbell, Alistair (1970-03-17). "Skaldic Verse and Anglo-Saxon History" (PDF). Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture. Viking Society for Northern Research. Retrieved 2009-08-25. 
  • Cavill, Paul; Stephen Harding; Judith Jesch (2004). "Revisiting Dingesmere" (PDF).  
  • Foot, Sarah, "Where English becomes British: Rethinking Contexts for Brunanburh," in Barrow, Julia;  
  • Halloran, Kevin (2005). "The Brunanburh Campaign: A Reappraisal". Scottish Historical Review 84 (2): 133–48.  
  • 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. 
  • Livingston, Michael (2011). The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.  
  • Niles, J.D. (1987). "Skaldic Technique in Brunanburh" 59. Scandinavian Studies. pp. 356–66. 
  • Orton, P. (1994). "On the Transmission and Phonology of The Battle of Brunanburh" 24. LSE. pp. 1–28. 
  • 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. 

Further reading

  • An Oxford History of England, Volume 2: Anglo Saxon England
  • Charles Hardwick, Ancient Battle-fields in Lancashire (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., Stationers' Hall Court, 1882)
  • Peter Marren, Battles of the Dark Ages (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2006)
  • Michael Livingston, ed., The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook (University of Exeter Press, 2011)
  • Higham, N. J. (1993). The Kingdom of Northumbria: AD 350–1100. Alan Sutton.  
  • Charles-Edwards, T. M. (2013). Wales and the Britons 350–1064. Oxford University Press.  

Secondary 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.
  • Roger of Wendover. Flowers of History. Volume 1 tr. J. A. Giles, Henry G. Bohn 1849.

Primary sources


  1. ^ Foot, 2011, p. 162, n. 15; Woolf, 2007, p. 151; Charles-Edwards, p. 511–512
  2. ^ Higham 1993, p. 190; Foot 2011, p. 20
  3. ^ Foot 2011, p. 20
  4. ^ Foot, 2011, pp. 164–165; Woolf, 2007, pp. 158–165
  5. ^ a b c Frank M. Stenton (7 June 2001). Anglo-Saxon England. OUP Oxford. p. 342–343.  
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "Florence of Worcester". Retrieved 28 October 2015. 
  7. ^ Foot 2011, p. 170
  8. ^ Livingston (2011), p. 11.
  9. ^ Livingston 2011, p. 14
  10. ^ a b c d e f Cavill, Paul (2001). Vikings: Fear and Faith in Anglo-Saxon England. HarperCollins Publishers. pp. 101–104. 
  11. ^ Livingston (2011), p. 15–18.
  12. ^ a b c d e "William of Malmesbury". Retrieved 27 October 2015. 
  13. ^ Livingston (2011), "Preface", pp. xi–xii.
  14. ^ a b c "Ingulf". Retrieved 27 October 2015. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f "ASC Poem (English)". Retrieved 27 October 2015. 
  16. ^ a b c "The Battle of Brunanburh: 937". Retrieved 29 October 2015. 
  17. ^ a b "The Annals of Ulster: Year U937". Retrieved 29 October 2015. 
  18. ^ Livingston 2011, pp. 20–23.
  19. ^ Foot 2011, p. 171
  20. ^ "Aethelweard". Retrieved 30 October 2015. 
  21. ^ Alfred Smyth, Scandinavian York and Dublin (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1987), 2.62.
  22. ^ Michael Livingston, 'The Roads to Brunanburh', in The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, ed. Livingston (University of Exeter Press, 2011), p. 1.
  23. ^ A summary of these spellings is provided in Paul Cavill, 'The Place-Name Debate', in Livingston (2011), pp. 329–30
  24. ^ Livingston (2011), p. 19.
  25. ^ See, for instance, Stephen Harding, 'Wirral: Folklore and Locations', and Richard Coates, 'The Sociolinguistic Context for Brunanburh', in Livingston (2011), pp. 351–64 and 365-84
  26. ^ Cavill, in Livingston (2011), pp. 327–49
  27. ^ Birthplace of Englishness 'found'. BBC News Online (URL accessed 27 August 2006).
  28. ^ Paul Hill, The Age of Athelstan: Britain's Forgotten History (Stroud: Tempus, 2004), pp. 141–42.
  29. ^ a b 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. 
  30. ^ a b Breeze, Andrew (2014-12-04). "Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?". Society of Antiquaries of London: Ordinary Meeting of Fellows. Retrieved 2015-04-04. 
    • Havery, Gavin (2013-10-04). "Lanchester – birthplace of a unified kingdom?". The Northern Echo. Archived from the original on 2015-04-04. Retrieved 2015-04-04. 
  31. ^ a b Halloran, Kevin (Oct 2005). "The Brunanburh Campaign: A Reappraisal" (PDF). JSTOR. The Scottish Historical Review Vol. 84 No. 218. Edinburgh University Press. Retrieved 2015-04-06. 
  32. ^ Tim Clarkson (28 September 2012). The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. Birlinn, Limited. p. 155.  
  33. ^ Lawrence Snell. The Suppression of the Religious Foundations of Devon and Cornwall (1966).
  34. ^ "Battle of Brunanburh". UK Battlefields Trust. Retrieved 7 June 2012. 
  35. ^ "LivesayName". Retrieved 2012-11-12. 
  36. ^ Wilkinson, Thomas T (1857), Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Volume 9, pp. 21–41, retrieved 2012-05-15 
  37. ^  
  38. ^  
  39. ^  
  40. ^  
  41. ^  
  42. ^  
  43. ^  
  44. ^ Partington, S W (1909), The Danes in Lancashire and Yorkshire, pp. 28–43, retrieved 2012-05-15 
  45. ^ Newbigging, Thomas (1893), History of the Forest of Rossendale, pp. 9–21, retrieved 2012-05-15 
  46. ^ "Was epic Anglo-Saxon battle fought in Burnley?".  
  47. ^ Michael Wood, In Search of England (London: Viking, 1999) pp. 203–21.


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


His work was subsequently referenced and expanded by a number of local authors.[44][45] New information was added including that around this time, the land between the rivers Ribble and Mersey had been re-conquered from Danish Northumbria and held by the crown until the Norman conquest. And although most of the sites mentioned have since been classified as much older, the story still interests some today.[46]
Although he couldn't categorically identify a burh by the Brun, he referenced the work of Thomas Dunham Whitaker listing what he felt was a large number of earthworks. Some such as Castercliff, Twist Castle and Ringstones Camp, he thought of Roman origin, but showed the historical significance of the area. Others like an entrenchments on Broad Bank hill at Burwains farm ,[38] and Bonfire hill ,[39] a possible camp on Shelfield hill [40] around the site of the Victorian Walton Spire, and dykes at Saxifield, Thieveley,[41] Ree Lees,[42] and Broadclough[43] near Bacup, he felt indicated military activity during the period. He also showed that the Heasandford area of the town is named for a ford of the River Brun on an ancient trans-pennine route known locally as the long causeway, but in part as the Danes road. He equated the estate of Emmott with Eamot the site of a treaty following the victory at York, the Swinden valley with Weondune, and Worsthorne with bishop Wærstan who supposedly died fighting for Æthelstan. He also suggested that local place names like Winewall, Daneshouse, and Warcock hill could be significant and that the Cuerdale Hoard represented a Danish war chest lost as a result of the battle.

Possibilities include:

Many other sites have been suggested with historian Paul Hill identifying over thirty possibilities.[28] Michael Wood published a 2014 article suggesting a Yorkshire location,[29] while other recent opinions include philologist Andrew Breeze favouring Durham,[30] and Kevin Halloran arguing for southern Scotland,[31] and Tim Clarkson discounting south-west England as a battle site given the logistical capacity of the northern kingdoms of Alba and Strathclyde.[32]

According to Michael Livingston, the case for a location in the Wirral has strong support among current historians.[24] The name of Bromborough, a settlement in the Wirral, could be derived from Old English Brunanburh (meaning 'Brun's fort'). Additional evidence for the association between Bromborough and the battle site has been claimed from folklore and literature.[25] Additional onomastic arguments have been used to connect Dingesmere (a location associated with the battle in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) with Thingwall in Wirral.[26] As 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 Bromborough parish).[27]

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.[23]

The Brackenwood golf course at Bebington


Æthelstan's victory preserved the unity of England and prevented the invaders from regaining York.[19] Although Olaf managed to once again obtain control of Northumbria and Mercia after Æthelstan died in 939, England was once again unified by the time Edmund I died in 946. The Norse lost all remaining control in York and Northumbria in 954 when Eric Bloodaxe died.[10] Æthelweard, perhaps writing sometime around 975, said that the battle was "still called the 'great battle' by the common people." He also wrote that "[t]he fields of Britain were consolidated into one, there was peace everywhere, and abundance of all things."[20] The battle has been called "the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before the Battle of Hastings."[21] Livingston wrote that the battle was "the moment when Englishness came of age."[22]

The poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated that "[f]ive lay dead on the battle-field, young kings, put to sleep by swords, likewise also seven of Anlaf’s earls." Constantine's son and several of his kinsmen and friends died. The poem also records that "countless of the army" were killed, and that "[n]ever was there more slaughter on this island, never yet as many people killed before this with sword’s edge."[15] Florence of Worcester wrote that the battle was "more sanguinary than any that was ever fought before in England."[6] According to William of Malmesbury, "five other kings, twelve earls, and almost the whole assemblage of barbarians" were slain.[12] The Annals of Ulster states that "several thousands of Norsemen, who are uncounted, fell."[17] The largest list of those killed in the battle is contained in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which names several kings and princes.[18] The Saxons also suffered large losses in the battle.[5][17] Two of Æthelstan's cousins, Alfric and Athelwin, were killed.[16]


The battle lasted all day.[10][16] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that "[t]he field flowed with blood of warriors, from sun up in the morning...till that noble creation sank to its seat",[15] and Florence of Worcester wrote that the battle "lasted from daybreak until evening."[6]

Ingulf's record in the Croyland Chronicle states that that the West Saxons were led by Æthelstan, and the Mercians and Londoners by Turketul, Æthelstan's chancellor. Æthelstan attacked Olaf, while Turketul attacked Constantine. Because of "the multitude of the Pagans" neither side was able to gain any significant advantage over the other, despite the large number of troops that were being killed. Finally, Turketul gathered some of his soldiers, including a captain named Singin. He then "flew at their head to the charge against the foe, and, penetrating the hostile ranks, struck them down on the right and on the left." Finally, "amid torrents of blood, he reached [Constantine] himself, and unhorsed him." Turketul attempted to simply capture Constantine, but large numbers of Constantine's troops began attacking Turketul personally and he was almost overwhelmed by them. However, "at that instant, the captain, Singin, pierced [Constantine] with his sword." Constantine's troops then fled, as did Olaf and his troops when they heard of Constantine's death, and "there fell of the Pagans an unheard-of multitude."[14] William of Malmesbury also wrote that Constantine was killed in the battle and that only Olaf escaped.[12] However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Florence of Worcester record that both Olaf and Constantine escaped.[6][15]

According to the poem Battle of Brunanburh, contained in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Saxons "split the shield wall" and "hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers."[15] The invaders attempted to fortify themselves in trenches, but the Saxon army overran them.[16] "[T]he enemy perished" and "the field flowed with the blood of warriors." The poem continues, stating that "[t]he West-Saxons pushed onward all day" and "pursued the hostile people...hew[ing] the fugitive grievously from behind with swords sharp from the grinding." According to the poem, Olaf fled in a ship "with little company", and "[Constantine] through flight came to his own region in the north."[15] Likewise, Florence of Worcester recorded that the Saxons "[drove] the kings Anlaf and Constantine to their ships; who, overwhelmed with sorrow at the destruction of their army, returned to their own countries with very few followers."[6] Following the battle, Æthelstan and Edmund returned to Wessex, leaving behind the carnage for animals to consume.[15]

Florence of Worcester simply says that "King Athelstan, and his brother Edmund the etheling, encountered [Anlaf] at the head of their army at a place called Brunanburh."[6]

That night, according to Ingulf, "[Anlaf] made an attack upon the English, and slew a certain bishop." After this, "[Athelstan], who was encamped more than a mile from the place of attack, was, together with all his army, awoke from slumber...and on learning the particulars, they quickly aroused themselves." The Saxons were "fresh and prepared for the onset against the barbarians, while they, on the other hand, had been toiling throughout the whole night, and were quite weary and worn out with fatigue."[14] William of Malmesbury wrote that "[i]n the night, Anlaf advancing well prepared, put to death, together with the whole of his followers, a certain bishop who had joined the army only the evening before, and, ignorant of what had passed, had pitched his tent there on account of the level turf." Æthelstan was "roused from his couch by the excessive tumult, and urging his people, as much as the night season would permit, to the conflict."[12]

In the Croyland Chronicle, Ingulf wrote that when Anlaf encountered Æthelstan's forces, he refrained from immediate battle and "preferred to resort to stratagem, when protected by the shades of night."[14] William of Malmesbury recorded that upon meeting the Saxon forces, Anlaf realized that he was in considerable danger. To spy upon Æthelstan, he disguised himself as a singing harp-playing minstrel and managed to enter Æthelstan's tent, while all the time "carefully examining everything."[12]

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.[13]

Historical accounts

According to William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum, "[Anlaf]...had now proceeded far into England."[12] The invading armies raided Mercia, from which Æthelstan obtained Saxon troops as he travelled north to meet them.[10]

In August 937, Olaf crossed the Irish Sea with his army to join forces with Constantine and Owen, suggesting that the battle of Brunanburh probably occurred in early October of that year.[9] At the same time in August, Æthelstan and his army were on the southern coast.[10] Florence of Worcester writes that the invaders entered via the Humber, and is the only chronicle writer to mention this.[6][10] According to Symeon of Durham, Olaf had 615 ships, but this number is likely exaggerated.[10] Livingston theorises that the invading armies entered England in two waves: Constantine and Owen came 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."[11]

Following Æthelstan's invasion of Scotland, it was realized that he would not be defeated unless he was fought by an allied force of his enemies.[5] The leader of the alliance was Olaf Guthfrithson, king of Dublin. The other two members were Constantine II, king of Scotland (who, according to Florence of Worcester, was Olaf's father-in-law[6]); and Owain, king of Strathclyde.[7] Though they had all been enemies in living memory, 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."[8]

Æthelstan invaded Scotland with a large force, both ground and naval, in 934. Although the motivation for this invasion is not known with certainty, John of Worcester stated that the cause was King Constantine's violation of the peace treaty made in 927.[4] Æthelstan evidently travelled through Beverley, Ripon, and Chester-le-Street, respectively. The army harassed the Scots up to Kincardineshire, and the navy up to Caithness. Æthelstan was never engaged.[5]

[3], and there was peace until 934.king of England He became [2].Penrith, near Eamont accepted Æthelstan's overlordship at [1]

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