Brunanburh! Brunanburh! Brunanburh! This antique name was once attached to an Anglo-Saxon fortification, in whose locality was fought one of the most important battles in British history (937 AD). A massive showdown, it saw King Athelstan of England face off against a grand alliance of Scots, Vikings & the ‘Northern Welsh’ of Cumbria & Galloway. This confederacy had been galvanized into action by a young Viking prince called Analf Guthfrithson. Normally based in Dublin, Analf had momentarily managed to unite the entire Viking world behind him in an attempt to wrestle back their former control over England which had been lost to Athelstan’s grandfather, Alfred the Great. Despite such powerful forces arrayed against them, the Battle of Brunanburh was a comprehensive victory for the Saxons, since which day the borders of Britain’s three nations have been more or less constant. One could fairly admit that the Battle of Brunanburh was the moment when the British Isles were truly born.
The first mention of Brunanburh in the annals comes within the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that wonderful storehouse of early English history without which the Dark Ages would have been much, much darker. The entry for 937 is actually one of the most famous pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the first & best of a series composed throughout the 10th century. Most entries in the ASC are written in rather mundane prose, but the rendering of certain events in poetry would naturally amplify their cultural importance. It is only through the Pegasus-flight of the poetic voice that humanity may truly record the incredible passions felt in the most turbulent of times. A fine example is the poetry of Wilfred Owen, without whose words our ability to feel the sensations inspired by the trenches of World War One would be much diminished. Similarly, the composer of the Brunanburh poem manages to reflect with consummate skill the spirit of battle, basing his words upon what appears to be genuine eye-witness accuracy.
In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
Ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
In battle with sword edges
Around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
They hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
The sons of Eadweard,
It was only befitting their noble descent
From their ancestors that they should often
Defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
Horde and home. The enemy perished,
Scots men and seamen,
Fated they fell. The field flowed
With blood of warriors, from sun up
In the morning, when the glorious star
Glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
Eternal lord, till that noble creation
Sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
By spears destroyed; Northern men
Shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
Weary, war sated.
The West-Saxons pushed onward
All day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
With swords sharp from the grinding.
The Mercians did not refuse hard hand-play
To any warrior
Who came with Anlaf over the sea-surge
In the bosom of a ship, those who sought land,
Fated to fight. Five lay dead
On the battle-field, young kings,
Put to sleep by swords, likewise also seven
Of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army,
Sailors and Scots. There the North-men’s chief was put
To flight, by need constrained
To the prow of a ship with little company:
He pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
On the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life.
Likewise, there also the old campaigner
Through flight came
To his own region in the north–Constantine–
Hoary warrior. He had no reason to exult
The great meeting; he was of his kinsmen bereft,
Friends fell on the battle-field,
Killed at strife: even his son, young in battle, he left
In the place of slaughter, ground to pieces with wounds.
That grizzle-haired warrior had no
Reason to boast of sword-slaughter,
Old deceitful one, no more did Anlaf;
With their remnant of an army they had no reason to
Laugh that they were better in deed of war
In battle-field–collision of banners,
Encounter of spears, encounter of men,
Trading of blows–when they played against
The sons of Eadweard on the battle field.
Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
The dejected survivors of the battle,
Sought Dublin over the deep water,
Over Dinges mere
To return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.
Likewise the brothers, both together,
King and Prince, sought their home,
West-Saxon land, exultant from battle.
They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
The dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven
And the dusky-coated one,
The eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion,
Greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
The wolf in the forest.
Never was there more slaughter
On this island, never yet as many
People killed before this
With sword’s edge: never according to those who tell us
From books, old wisemen,
Since from the east Angles & Saxons came up
Over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
Glorious warriors they took hold of the land.
The Battle of Brunanburh was evidently cataclysmic, the largest ever fought in Britain; but nobody seems to have a clue as to where it actually happened. The whereabouts of Brunanburh is one of the most contentious debates in the entire contextus of British history, but of all the mysteries I have studied this one holds for me a special quality. On coming to the problem for the first time, I was agate, ‘there’s a River Brun in Burnley.’ So in the year of 2015, I returned home to that special corner of Lancashire in order to commence my inquiries, taking up residence in my own wee ‘weavers cottage’ at 70 Laithe Street. This traditional terraced house lies in the heart of the Healey Wood district, a Neptune’s trident like sequence of streets possessing commanding views over the area, a multi-purpose corner shop, mellow locals & only a stone’s throw from both the town centre & the meditative moors, it was a perfect place for base camp. Back in Burnley once more, I began to see old friends, walk familiar paths & to study hard in the local history sections of the area’s libraries. My field notes I turned into a blog which I shall be interspersing here & there as we take a deep look at the case.