Battle of Brunanburh

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For the Old English poem, see Battle of Brunanburh (poem).
Battle of Brunanburh
Part of the Viking invasions of England
Date 937
Location Great Britain. Precise location uncertain; since 2004 the leading candidate is what is now Brackenwood Golf Course between Bromborough and Bebington in Merseyside;[1] other places suggested include Brunswark, Annandale; or Tinsley, Yorkshire
Coordinates: 53°20′42″N 3°01′26″W / 53.345069°N 3.023987°W / 53.345069; -3.023987
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, including two of the king's cousins Much of the army; Several Jarls; Five Petty kings; Cellach, Son of the king of Scotland

The Battle of Brunanburh, most likely fought in what is now North West England, was an English victory in 937 by the army of Æthelstan, King of England, and his half-brother Edmund over the combined armies of Olaf III Guthfrithson, the Norse–Gael King of Dublin; Constantine II, King of Alba; and Owen I, King of Strathclyde. Though relatively little known today, it has been called "the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before the Battle of Hastings."[2]

Mention of the battle is made in dozens of sources, in Old English, Latin, Irish, Welsh, Icelandic, and Middle English, and there are many later accounts or responses to the battle, including those by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Jorge Luis Borges.[3] A contemporary record of the battle is found in the Old English poem Battle of Brunanburh, preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Michael Livingston, editor of The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook (2011), claims that Brunanburh marks "the moment when Englishness came of age."[4] The site of the battle is not known, though modern scholarship, including Livingston's book, suggests that somewhere in the Wirral Peninsula is likely.


Livingston identified at least 53 medieval sources containing references to the battle, including important accounts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the writings of Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury, the Annals of Clonmacnoise, and Snorri Sturluson's Egils saga, whose antihero, mercenary berserker and skald Egill Skallagrimsson, served as a trusted warrior for Æthelstan.[5]


After Æthelstan defeated the Vikings at York in 927, King Constantine of Scotland, King Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Ealdred of Bamburgh, and King Owain of Strathclyde (or Morgan ap Owain of Gwent)[a] accepted Æthelstan's overlordship at Eamont, near Penrith.[7] He was proclaimed King of the English, and a period of relative peace followed.[8]

Æthelstan's successful invasion of Scotland in 934 was suggested by John of Worcester to be the result of King Constantine's breaking of this treaty.[9][10] Though they had all been enemies in living memory, the threat of Æthelstan was enough to bring together an alliance between the king of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithsson; the Scottish King Constantine II; and Owen of Strathclyde. Livingston points out that to come together "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."[11]

After defeating a rival Norse king whose name is recorded in Old Irish documents as Amlaíb Cenncairech at Limerick in August 937, Olaf Guthfrithsson crossed the Irish Sea with his army to join the forces of Constantine and Owen, suggesting that the Battle of Brunanburh probably occurred in early October of that year.[12]

Livingston theorises that the invading allied armies entered England in two waves: Constantine and Owen came from the north, possibly engaging in some early skirmishes with forces loyal to Æthelstan as they followed the Roman road across the Lancashire plains between Carlisle and Manchester, with Olaf's forces joining him on the way.[13] It is possible, Livingston speculates, that the eventual battle site at Brunanburh[b] was then chosen in an agreement with Æthelstan: "there would be one fight, and to the victor went England."[14]


The medieval records of the battle are too elusive to trace the course of the battle with any certainty, but the sources consistently describe it as a massive engagement, and bloody even within the context of warfare in the Middle Ages.[15][16][17]

The famous poem about the battle in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the deaths of five kings and seven earls among Æthelstan's enemies, along with (or among them) Constantine's son:

Five lay still
on that battlefield – young kings
by swords put to sleep – and seven also
of Anlaf's earls, countless of the army,
of sailors and Scotsmen. There was put to flight
the Northmen's chief, driven by need
to the ship's prow with a little band.
He shoved the ship to sea. The king disappeared
on the dark flood. His own life he saved.
So there also the old one came in flight
to his home in the north; Constantine,
that hoary-haired warrior, had no cause to exult
at the meeting of swords: he was shorn of his kin,
deprived of his friends on the field,
bereft in the fray, and his son behind
on the place of slaughter, with wounds ground to pieces,
too young in battle.[18]

Æthelweard's Chronicle notes that the battle was still called "the great war" by people in his day.[19] Henry of Huntingdon describes the aftermath of carrion:

Then the dark raven with horned beak,
and the livid toad, the eagle and kite,
the hound and wolf in mottled hue,
were long refreshed by these delicacies.
In this land no greater war was ever waged,
nor did such a slaughter ever surpass that one.[20]

The Annals of Ulster describes the battle similarly:

A huge war, lamentable and horrible, was cruelly waged between the Saxons and Norsemen. Many thousands of Norsemen beyond number died although King Anlaf escaped with a few men. While a great number of the Saxons also fell on the other side, Æthelstan, king of the Saxons, was enriched by the great victory.[21]

The largest list of those killed at the battle comes from the Annals of Clonmacnoise and names several kings and princes.[22]

Battle site[edit]

The Brackenwood golf course at Bebington

The location of the battle appears in various forms in the 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 name of Bromborough, a settlement in the Wirral, may be derived from Old English Brunanburh (meaning 'Brun's fort'). While the location will probably never be known with certainty, additional evidence has been claimed associating Brunanburh with Bromborough, taken from evidence of history, folklore studies, and literature.[24] According to Michael Livingston, the case for a location in the Wirral has strong support among current historians.[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, in order to strengthen the Brunanburh-Bromborough link.[26] Because the earliest sources in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle locate the battle as taking place "ymbe Brunanburh" ("around Brunanburh"), numerous locations on the Wirral near Bromborough have been put forward as the site of the battle, including the Brackenwood Golf Course in Bebington, Wirral (formerly within Bromborough parish).[27]

Though many scholars today appear to have accepted a "near Bromborough" location, dozens of sites for the battle have been suggested in the past. Paul Hill has identified over thirty possibilities, some of which are still defended by critics.[28] Michael Wood published an article in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal criticising the case for Bromborough[29] Philologist Andrew Breeze considers that other than the onomastic arguments, the case for Bromborough is flawed.[30] Kevin Halloran, who has had several articles on the period published in leading academic journals, argued for a location in southern Scotland and has made detailed criticisms of the Bromborough case.[31] Tim Clarkson has published a number of books on Strathclyde and has suggested that the logistical capacity of the northern kingdoms of Alba and Strathclyde would not have supported a campaign as far south as the Wirral.

Alternative sites[edit]

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 53°48′48″N 2°08′59″W / 53.8132°N 2.1497°W / 53.8132; -2.1497 (Burwains Camp prehistoric defended settlement west of Broad Bank Hill),[37] and Bonfire hill 53°47′57″N 2°11′56″W / 53.7992°N 2.1988°W / 53.7992; -2.1988 (entrenchment on Bonfire hill),[38] a possible camp on Shelfield hill 53°49′54″N 2°09′45″W / 53.8318°N 2.1625°W / 53.8318; -2.1625 (Shelfield enclosure)[39] around the site of the Victorian Walton Spire, and dykes at Saxifield, Thieveley,[40] Ree Lees,[41] and Broadclough[42] 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.
His work was subsequently referenced and expanded by a number of local authors.[43][44] 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.[45]
In addition, Brunanburh is also named 'Wendune' by Symeon of Durham, the Wen- element remaining in the village of Winwall, next to the battlefield (near Colne) & the name 'Vinheath' given by Egil's Saga. Both 'heath' & 'dune' relate to the wide, raised land that the field lies on, as the word "dun" is 'consistently used for a low hill with a fairly extensive summit which provided a good settlement-site in open country' (Margaret Gelling). One name for the battle, on 'The Plains of Othlynn (Annals of Clonmacnoise) connects to the Domesday Book's Othlei, for Otley, whose lands stretched at least as far as Ilkley, a few short miles from the field.


The tomb of King Æthelstan at Malmesbury Abbey.

Æthelstan's defeat of 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 constituent parts of the British Isles to consolidate in the positions they occupy today.[47]

The Battle of Brunanburh still has a great deal of influence in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, 200 miles (320 km) south of any probable site. The townsfolk of Malmesbury fought for King Æthelstan, and he granted them five hides (600 acres (2.4 km2)) of land[48] and gave them all freeman status. This status and the organisation formed then exist today, as the Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury, and Athelstan is remembered in their ceremonies.[49] When Æthelstan died, his body was transported from Gloucester to Malmesbury for burial.


  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.[6]
  2. ^ The site of the battle is also referred to as Vin Moor or Vin Heath in Egils saga.


  1. ^ Brunanburgh: Birthplace of Englishness 'found', BBC News, 20 December 2004, retrieved 7 December 2007 
  2. ^ Alfred Smyth, Scandinavian York and Dublin (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1987), 2.62.
  3. ^ For discussion of these and many other retellings, see Joanne Parker, 'Brunanburh and the Victorian Imagination', in The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, ed. Livingston (2011), pp. 385–407.
  4. ^ Michael Livingston, 'The Roads to Brunanburh', in The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, ed. Livingston (University of Exeter Press, 2011), p. 1.
  5. ^ Livingston (2011), 'Preface', pp. xi–xii.
  6. ^ Foot, 2011, p. 162, n. 15; Woolf, 2007, p. 151; Charles-Edwards, p. 511–512
  7. ^ Higham, p. 190; Foot, 2011, p. 20
  8. ^ Foot, p. 20
  9. ^ Foot, 2011, pp. 164–165; Woolf, 2007, pp. 158–165
  10. ^ "h2g2 - The Battle of Brunanburh, 937 AD". Retrieved 2012-11-12. 
  11. ^ Livingston (2011), p. 11.
  12. ^ Livingston (2011), p. 14.
  13. ^ Livingston (2011), pp. 15–16
  14. ^ Livingston (2011), p. 18.
  15. ^ Wendover. Flowers of History. p. 249
  16. ^ Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum. Tr. Greenway. pp. 313–315
  17. ^ Mac Airt, Seán and Gearóid Mac Niocaill (eds and trs.). The Annals of Ulster pp. 386–387
  18. ^ 'The Battle of Brunanburh (Version A)', trans. Livingston, in Livingston (2011), pp. 41, 43
  19. ^ Æthelweard, Chronicle, trans. Scott Thompson Smith, quoted in Livingston (2011), p. 49.
  20. ^ Henry of Huntingdon, History of the English, trans. Scott Thompson Smith, quoted in Livingston (2011), p. 63
  21. ^ Annals of Ulster, trans. Scott Thompson Smith, in The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, ed. Livingston (2011), p. 145.
  22. ^ Livingston (2011), pp. 20–23.
  23. ^ A summary of these spellings is provided in Paul Cavill, 'The Place-Name Debate', in Livingston (2011), pp. 329–30
  24. ^ 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
  25. ^ Livingston (2011), p. 19.
  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. 
  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. ^ Lawrence Snell. The Suppression of the Religious Foundations of Devon and Cornwall (1966).
  33. ^ "Battle of Brunanburh". UK Battlefields Trust. Retrieved 7 June 2012. 
  34. ^ "LivesayName". Retrieved 2012-11-12. 
  35. ^ Wilkinson, Thomas T (1857), Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Volume 9, pp. 21–41, retrieved 2012-05-15 
  36. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 45325 (45325)". PastScape. Retrieved 2012-05-15. 
  37. ^ Historic England. "Burwains camp (46151)". PastScape. Retrieved 2012-05-15. 
  38. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 45311 (45311)". PastScape. Retrieved 2012-05-15. 
  39. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 45251 (45251)". PastScape. Retrieved 2012-05-15. 
  40. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 45212 (45212)". PastScape. Retrieved 2012-05-15. 
  41. ^ Historic England. "Red Lees Intrenchments (45332)". PastScape. Retrieved 2012-05-15. 
  42. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 45222 (45222)". PastScape. Retrieved 2012-05-15. 
  43. ^ Partington, S W (1909), The Danes in Lancashire and Yorkshire, pp. 28–43, retrieved 2012-05-15 
  44. ^ Newbigging, Thomas (1893), History of the Forest of Rossendale, pp. 9–21, retrieved 2012-05-15 
  45. ^ "Was epic Anglo-Saxon battle fought in Burnley?". Burnley Express. 9 August 2011. Retrieved 2012-05-15. 
  46. ^ Michael Wood, In Search of England (London: Viking, 1999) pp. 203–21.
  47. ^ Livingston (2011), pp. 24–26
  48. ^ Paul Hill, The Age of Athelstan, p. 33.
  49. ^ Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury. Athelstan Museum. Retrieved 7 December 2012


Primary sources[edit]

  • 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.

Secondary sources[edit]

  • 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. ISBN 0-86299-730-5. 
  • Foot, Sarah (2011). Æthelstan: the first king of England. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12535-1. 
  • Woolf, Alex (2007). From Pictland to Alba: 789–1070. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-1233-8. 
  • Charles-Edwards, T. M. (2013). Wales and the Britons 350–1064. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-821731-2. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Breeze, Andrew (1999). "The Battle of Brunanburh and Welsh tradition". Neophilologicus 83: 479–82. doi:10.1023/A:1004398614393. 
  • 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). Journal of the English Place Name Society 36: 25–38. 
  • 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. 
  • Halloran, Kevin (2005). "The Brunanburh Campaign: A Reappraisal". Scottish Historical Review 84 (2): 133–48. doi:10.3366/shr.2005.84.2.133. 
  • 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. ISBN 978-0-85989-863-8. 
  • 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. 

External links[edit]