Thursday, 19 February 2015

King Athelstan and the ‘Great Battle’ of Brunanburgh

Athelstan is the great forgotten hero and founder of the England we know today. Grandson of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, brave warrior and according to William of Malmesbury ’an imposing man of middle height, thin in person, his hair flaxen and beautifully wreathed with golden threads'. His most extraordinary claim to fame is the remarkable manner in which he stands up to defend his people from a simultaneous, overwhelming attack from all his enemies.

By 931AD his enemies are numerous. There is Olaf Guthfrithson, who succeeds his father, Gulfrith, the king of the Irish Norsemen in Dublin in 934AD. Olaf clearly has the ambition to regain the kingdom of Northumbria that his father had lost to Athelstan in 927AD. Then there is Eógan of Strathclyde who has reason to fear that his strong southern neighbour might once again destroy his lands. Finally there is King Constantine II of the Scots. Using their common enemy as a rallying cause this collective unite together to face and defeat their sworn enemy, King Athelstan.

Athelstan is not one to cower away and decides that he will have to face all his enemies all at once. Together with his brother, Edmund they fight side by side as leaders of the West Saxons and Mercians.

The big confrontation begins at Brunanburgh. Thousands gather, ready for  brutal slaughter. The sons of Edward bring their banners to rally spirits for their men. All sides use mercenaries to get any edge they can over their opponents. Wary of defeat, the West Saxons and Mercians offer no mercy and expect none for they know should they lose to the fearsome Vikings they will probably be slaughtered.


The onslaught is relentless and yet under the firm guidance of Athelstan they keep their formation and manage to attack their enemies’ vulnerable rear. Athelstan’s best soldiers press hard against the combined forces of their enemy and throughout the carnage of a long and bloody day’s battle use their strong mill-sharpened blades. The Annals of Ulster record that ‘a great battle, lamentable and terrible was cruelly fought...in which fell uncounted thousands of the Northmen. ... And on the other side, a multitude of Saxons fell’. First to crack after hours of carnage and a relentless hail of arrows are the Scottish clans. They run away all the time whilst being pursued and hacked down. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says many end up lying ‘under a shower of arrows, shot over shields’ making a mockery over ‘Scotland's boast’ to be ‘a Scythian race, the mighty seed of Mars!’.

The Mercians likewise fight hard and attack the Vikings when they retreat back to their ships. By the end of battle five Kings lie down in the field, all pierced with swords along with seven Earls of Olaf and countless Scots. The pitiful Scottish King, Constantine is left to hurry away in hasty flight without his son, Cellach, who dies in battle. Likewise the Norse Vikings are also humiliated and embarrassed at losing they return to their homes in Dublin in great disgrace.

Athelstan’s great victory though comes at a cost. He loses his cousins Alfric and Athelwin. Never the less the battle is celebrated as the greatest of its generation and its successful conclusion allows Athelstan to finally unite the English together. Years later it is still talked about as ‘the Great Battle’. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle describes it triumphantly as ‘no slaughter yet was greater made e'er in this island, of people slain’ of people who had travelled from the ‘eastern shores’.

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