Her Aethelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,
beorna beag-giefa, and his brothor eac,
Eadmund, aetheling, ealdor-langetir
geslogon aet saecce sweorda ecgum
ymbe Brunanburh. Bord-weal clufon,
heowon heathu-linde hamora lafum
eaforan Eadweardes, swa him ge-aethele waes
fram cneo-magum thaet hie aet campe oft
with lathra gehwone land ealgodon,
hord and hamas. Hettend crungon,
Scotta leode and scip-flotan,
faege feollon. Feld dennode
secga swate siththan sunne upp
on morgen-tidd, maere tungol,
glad ofer grundas, Goddes candel beorht,
eces Dryhtnes, oth seo aethele gesceaft
sag to setle. Thaer laeg secg maig
garum agieted, guma Northerna
ofer scield scoten, swelce Scyttisc eac,
werig, wiges saed.
andlange daeg eorod-cystum
on last legdon lathum theodum,
heowon here-flieman hindan thearle
mecum mylen-scearpum. Mierce ne wierndon
heardes hand-plegan haeletha nanum
thara-the mid Anlafe ofer ear-gebland
on lides bosme land gesohton,
faege to gefeohte . Fife lagon
on tham camp-stede cyningas geonge,
sweordum answefede , swelce seofone eac
eorlas Anlafes, unrim herges,
flotena and Scotta. Thaere gefliemed wearth
Noth-manna brego, niede gebaeded,
to lides stefne lytle weorode;
cread cnear on flot, cyning ut gewat
on fealone flod, feorh generede.
Swelce thaere eac se froda mid fleame com
on his cyththe north, Constantinus,
har hilde-rinc. Hremen ne thorfte
meca gemanem; he waes his maga sceard,
freonda gefielled on folc-stede,
beslaegen aet saecce, and his sunnu forlet
on wael-stowe wundum forgrunden,
geongne aet guthe. Gielpan ne thorfte
beorn blanden-feax bill-gesliehtes,
eald inwitta, ne Anlaf thy ma;
mid hira here-lafum hliehhan ne thorfton
thaet hie beadu-weorca beteran wurdon
on camp-stede cumbol-gehnastes,
gar-mittunge, gumena gemotes,
waepen-gewrixles, thaes hie on wael-felda
with Eadweardes eaforan plegedon.
Gewiton him tha North-menn naegled-cnearrum,
dreorig darotha laf, on Dinges mere
ofer deop waeter Dyflin secan,
eft Ira lang aewisc-mode.
Swelce tha gebrothor begen aetsamne,
cyning and aetheling, cyththe sohton,
West Seaxna lang, wiges hremge.
Leton him behindan hraew bryttian
sealwig-padan, thone hasu-padan,
earn aeftan hwit, aeses brucan,–
graedigne guth-hafoc, and thaet graege deor,
wulf on wealda. Ne wearth wael mare
on thys ig-lande aefre gieta
folces gefielled beforan thissum
sweordes ecgum, thaes-the us secgath bec,
eald uthwitan, siththan eastan hider
Engle and Seaxe upp becomon,
ofer brad brimu Britene sohton,
wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,
eorlas ar-hwaete aerd begaeton.
~~ The Battle of Brunanburh, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ~~
Today, Hastings, Agincourt and Bosworth Field are famous battles in English history, but who has heard of Brunanburh, possibly the greatest, and bloodiest battle on English soil until Towton in 1461? The poem from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is but a fragment of a greater whole lost to us, as it exalts in the blood lust and vast, heroic slaughter of warriors, as shield walls clashed and sharp edged steel bit deep into flesh and bone in a glorious welter of carnage.
Athelstan, great lord of warriors and ring giver to men had made himself the first king of all England by strength of arms and the darkness of his name; but now his power was being tested, as the Celtic Constantine mac Aed, King of Alba (Scotland), Owein, King of Strathclyde (another Celt) and the Norse Earl of Northumbria and Olaf Guthfrithsson, King of the Dublin Norse joined in enmity against Athelstan and set sail in a mighty armada of dragon ships towards his dominions…………..
“We will pay them back for the last four hundred years” wrote a Welsh poet, “the Cymry will rise again……… The English king will be humiliated for his pride; the stewards of the great king will flee through the forest crying woe. They will wallow in their own blood.”
In September,937 the iron fist of vengeance fell, as the greatest Norse fleet ever assembled of 615 longships made land fall to drive the English out of their lands for all time. The Norse fleet would have made beached in either Cumbria or Northumbria, why should this be? The answer is that the North had a strong, vibrant Anglo-Scandinavian culture which prefered a Viking King in York to an alien English king who ruled from the South. This mighty force then moved south to devastate land which held allegiance to Athelstan………So late in the year, what would Athelstan do?
This king who “Struck terror with his name alone………Who was a thunderbolt to his enemies” was now presented with a stark choice: well, he didn`t win a crown and become the first king of all England by sitting on his backside and contemplating how many angels could comfortably sit on a pin head; though outnumbered, he attacked with a combined force of Mercians and West Saxons. The culminating battle when Athelstan locked horns with the Norse was simply looked back on by future generations as The Great War.
“The battle was long and desperate, but like a new Joshua, Athelstan conquered the hostile kings and crushed their proud necks…..The black raven and the brown eagle with the white tail, shared their feast with the wolf, the grey beast of the forest. Never before was there such a slaughter since the time when the English first invaded Britain from across the wide seas. Warriors eager for fame, overcame the Welsh, and won themselves a kingdom.”
Like so many of the warriors left as meat for carrion crows and those grey beasts of the forest, the great Athelstan, master of war, ring giver to men and God`s bright candle, was himself dead within two years of his greatest, and bloodiest triumph, forty years but for a night after his grand father, Alfred the Great.
“Holy Athelstan, famous through the wide world, set up by God, strong in war.”
The exact location of this stupendous clash of warlords has vexed scholars for centuries, and may never be discovered, simply because no physical remains have been found, or any worthwhile geographical or literary description has been given. The battle could have occurred anywhere from the Wirral in the West, to the Humber in the East. Whichever location it took place in, Athelstan would have had to have scurried at great speed to locate and destroy his foe as quickly as possible; he could only have achieved this by using the old Roman road system which was still passably operational at this time.
Literary inscriptions give us a fleeting glimpse into the mindset of this great Dark Age warrior………..
“Who ever reads this in the future, let him offer a prayer to the almighty for my sake. Pray for my sins.”
Athelstan was the greatest warrior of his age, but also a man of high intelligence and literacy, and when circumstances permitted, a just and humane leader of his people. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle shines a beacon of light upon a time and place called by history…..The Dark Ages; but it`s darkness was simply the lack of literary sources to cast away the shadows from an age of wonderful artistic treasures – as great as any before or since; so we should take that unwarranted sobriquet with a large pinch of salt and place it in the dumpster.
So what were the long standing implications of this great battle to England?
It reinforced and cast in granite what it means to be English. Athelstan succeeded in halting the inexorable march of Norse domination across the entire land and removing any lingering dreams of the Celts regaining the land they had lost to the Saxons centuries before. While there would be future struggles against the Norse, the primogeniture of English language and culture was assured; although history consists of countless small steps forward – and sometimes backwards, from Brunanburh flows modern England and the dominance of Englishness.
I feel there is so much that is lost to children in England`s schools: of course it is right and proper that they should be given the chance to study modern 2oth century history, but great national treasures such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle needs to be presented to a wider audience other than an academic one. Very few people in England know of the existence of this wonderful book, or of the story it tells of a small island people fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds, told in such a spellbinding, eloquently beautiful language which takes the breath away. Tucked within it`s many pages of seemingly limitless wonders, can be found the poem of the Battle of Brunanburh, and it`s description of a time and event when a national identity was saved, and given firm foundations to flex it`s muscles and take wing to greater glories which would encompass, influence and dominate the modern world. Hail to thee Athelstan, God`s bright candle and ring giver to men…………