I find it hard to believe that this date, 937CE, isn’t burned on all our memories as a pivotal point in English, and especially Cumbrian, history. It really should be, especially for those of us who live in the north. The battle took place not in Cumbria but at a place called Brunanburh. No one’s sure exactly where this was, but the odds are that it was Bromborough on the Wirral. This was at the old border between the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, so this makes sense.
The battle was between the Saxon King Athelstan, and the combined force of northern Britons, Scots and Vikings. Athelstan, descendant of King Alfred of Wessex (who burned the cakes), rode into battle with his brother Edmund, who also became a king in his time. The northern forces comprised King Owain of Cumbria, Olaf III Guthfrithson, Norse-Gael King Of Dublin and Northumbria and King Constantine II of the Scots. This alliance wasn’t just based on geography – they were all related. It seems that Owain was Constantine’s nephew, and Olaf was Constantine’s son-in-law.
There are several sources for the Battle of Brunanburh – the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Annals of Tigernach, Annals of Ulster, Brut y Ty Wysogion and the Icelandic Egil’s Saga. We 21st-century folk have lost sight of the battle, but this breadth of reports shows that it was a seriously big deal at the time.
So what happened? According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Saxons ‘sliced through the shield wall… the field grew wet with men’s blood from when in the morning-tide that glorious star, the sun, glided aloft… to when that noble creation sank to rest. There lay many a man picked off by spears, many a Norseman shot above his shield and Scotsman too, spent and sated with fighting. Onwards the men of Wessex… all day long pursued the trail of the enemy peoples, and from the rear harshly hacked down fugitives… with stone-sharpened swords’.
And in the end? ‘Five young kings lay on the battle-field, put to rest by swords, and seven of Olaf’s earls too and a countless number of the array of vikings and Scots’. Olaf ‘was sent fleeing to his ship’s prow with a puny retinue’. Constantine ‘went in flight north… pruned of kinsmen and of friends felled on the field of battle… he left behind his sons on the site of slaughter’. Owain of Cumbria was also killed; his son Dunmail became king in his place. It’s possible that Owain is the man buried at the so-called ‘Giant’s Grave’ in the churchyard* at Penrith’s St. Andrew’s Church.
‘Never yet within this island has there been a greater slaughter of folk felled by sword’s edges’.
The significance of the Battle of Brunanburh is that this is where England as we know it begins. Athelstan is considered the first king of England; he had to ‘tidy up’ with further skirmishes at York and Cumbria (when Dunmail was defeated at Dunmail Raise in 945CE), but this was the beginning of the end of independent rule in the North. The old Celtic peoples – which includes the Cumbrians – and the newer, Viking chiefdoms, were subsumed into Anglo-Saxon England. Perhaps if the northerners had won at Brunanburh, we’d have been talking in a Celtic-Viking dialect instead of Anglo-Saxon English!
Perhaps when we consider the men lost in the first and second world wars and in subsequent conflicts, we should also spare a thought for those lost fighting for their freedom in ages past.
Source for Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: Anglo-Saxon Poetry translated and edited by SAJ Bradley, ISBN 0-460-11794-7
*The Giant’s Grave is traditionally the last resting-place of an Owain, King of Cumbria, but tradition thoughtlessly does not specify which one, and there are three candidates. Given that the stones around the grave – which have long been associated with it, even though they have been propped up and moved about over the years – are 10th century, it seems to me that the best candidate is this, 10th-century Owain, NOT Owain son of Urien who died four centuries before.