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Candidate sites for the battle of Brunanburh
Battle of Brunanburh
late 937

Ever since he had become king of the Anglo-Saxons in 925, Aethelstan had steadily extended his authority. After his grandfather, Alfred the Great, had halted the Danish conquest of England, in 917 Aethelstan's father, Edward the Elder, had recaptured the East Midlands and East Anglia from the Danes. To consolidate these gains, Edward met Ragnall of York, Constantine King of Alba and the rulers of Bamburgh to establish their spheres of interest.  Building on these foundations, in 926 Aethelstan contracted a marriage alliance between the new Danish King of York, Sitrich, and his sister. When Sitrich died a year later Aethelstan took advantage to annex the whole Kingdom of Northumbria including York.  This extended his rule up to the Scottish border and significantly altered the balance of power in the north. A challenge therefore came from the rulers of Alba, Bamburgh and Owain of Strathclyde, who were all threatened by this growing Anglo-Saxon power.   However, a show of military force by an emboldened Aethelstan was swiftly followed by a treaty agreed at Eamont in Cumbria where the three northern rulers and Hywel, King of the West Welsh pledged oaths to accept Aethelstan’s authority. Despite this agreement, in 934 Aethelstan invaded Scotland – possibly because Constantine had broken the peace treaty.  Aethelstan ravaged up to the great fortress of Dunnottar, south of Aberdeen and sent his fleet as far as the Viking territories of Caithness, forcing Constantine’s surrender and his and Owain’s acceptance of Aethelstan’s overlordship.

Realising that their only hope of countering the powerful English king was to set aside their differences, former enemies in the north forged a new coalition against him with Constantine and Owain joining forces with Anlaf, the Viking king of Dublin.  It is not clear how or where they combined their armies. John of Worcester in the one source that does give any details says that the Vikings sailed their longships up the Humber. But it is unclear how in the short time available to the allies to arrange a rendezvous that a hazardous voyage round the north of the British Isles would have been a practical proposition. Given Aethelstan’s previous foray to Dunnottar and Caithness it would have been a risky venture for the Vikings in case they encountered his fleet on the way. However, there are valid arguments for either an eastern or a western landing – hence the jury is still out on this aspect of the debate on Brunanburh’s location.  Faced with this invasion, Aethelstan raised an army and headed north.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes great play of the involvement of both West Saxons and Mercians in the ensuing clash of arms, but it seems that Aethelstan’s army may not have been exclusively English. According to Egil’s saga (an 11th century Icelandic saga) Aethelstan had also bought in extra support in the form of a force of Viking warriors under the leadership of two hard-bitten Icelandic adventurers - Egil and Thorold Skallagrimsson.

Accounts say the fighting at Brunanburh lasted all day. According to the Annals of Ulster the battle was ‘immense, lamentable and horrible, savagely fought’ while a contemporary poem concluded ‘never was there more slaughter on this island, never yet as many people killed before this… since from the east Angles and Saxons came up over the broad sea.’ Eventually the English gained the upper hand and the invaders broke and fled. Aethelstan and his army pursued them until nightfall... ‘hewing the fugitives grievously from behind with swords sharp from the grinding’. Anlaf made for the safety of his ships and sailed back to Dublin with what was left of his army, Constantine escaped to Scotland and abdicated a few years later, Owain was probably killed in the battle. Aethelstan headed south in triumph. The English though also paid a heavy price for their victory; two of Aethelstan’s cousins had been slain, along with two bishops and possibly Thorold Skallagrimsson, and what the Annals of Ulster described as ‘a multitude’ of lesser men. The invaders’ losses were even higher. Five minor kings, seven Viking earls and one of Constantine’s sons were killed together with many of their followers.

Aethelstan had preserved the unity of his kingdom but the heavy price he paid for his victory may have prevented the whole of Great Britain from being forcefully united under his control. Despite Brunanburh, Wessex’s hold on parts of the kingdom remained fragile. When Aethelstan died in 939, Anlaf once again left for York, quickly established himself as king of Northumbria and then seized the East Midlands. Aethelstan’s successor Edmund took back control of the East Midlands and York after Anlaf died in 941 but after Edmund's own death in 945 York again briefly switched back to Viking control. In 954 its Scandinavian ruler, Eric Bloodaxe, was killed by his rivals, Northumbria submitted to Eadred of Wessex, and all of England was once again under Anglo-Saxon rule.


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