In Britain one of the first things we learn in history lessons is the Norman conquest of England in 1066. This was when Saxon rule was overthrown by Duke William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. It is from this point that our lessons on the history of England truly begin. A number of Saxon Kings still remain famous in the national folklore such as Alfred the Great, Edward the Confessor or Harold Godwinsson but generally the Saxon monarchs have largely been forgotten in favour of the post-1066 Norman monarchy. We even measure our monarchs from 1066, King Edward VIII (January-December 1936) should be called Edward X if we were to recognise the Saxon Kings. It is ironic that, in a nation so enamored with monarchy, we have generally ignored the first true King of England: Æthelstan of the House of Wessex. Æthelstan is arguably more important than Alfred the Great (his grandfather) and William the Conqueror in that he united the disparate Saxon kingdoms of England into one nation (Alfred was the King of Wessex, not England). He is the first monarch to not only create the title of King of England but was able to claim to be King of Britain. The 12th century chronicler, William of Malmesbury, wrote that “no one more just or more learned ever governed the kingdom”.
Æthelstan’s greatest victory was at the battle of Brunanburh. Brunanburh was a battle of such scale that it was known, for generations after, simply as the “Great Battle”. The battle, more than twice the size of the Battle of Hastings, was fought between Æthelstan and a coalition of the Kingdoms of Scotland, Dublin and Strathclyde and has been described by historian Michael Livingstone as “the moment when Englishness came of age”. The battle was provoked by the Kings of Scotland and Dublin as a way to curb the rising power of a united England which had already begun subjugating the Welsh and was making moves to force the Scots to recognise Æthelstan as overlord of Britain.
Æthelstan became King of Wessex in 924. He inherited a strong kingdom from his father, Edward the Elder, which ruled more than half of England, from the southern coast to the river Humber. The North was still ruled by the Sithic, the Norse King of York, and northern Northumbria was ruled by King Constantine of Scotland. However, Æthelstan’s succession was not a smooth one. Under Saxon law the King was elected by a council of nobles. Mercia elected Æthelstan but Wessex chose his elder brother Ælfweard nearly causing a civil war. Æthelstan was finally able to wrangle the support of Wessex but tensions continued. Most notably the Bishop of Winchester refused to attend the coronation at Kingston upon Thames.
Within three years of his coronation Æthelstan began his conquest of the rest of England. In 927 he invaded and annexed the Viking Kingdom of York unifying what is now England as a single nation, albeit one that was not united in identity. However, Æthelstan was not yet finished. He immediately turned his attention to Wales and forced the Welsh princes to accept his authority as well as permanently fixing the Welsh border with England at the River Wye. Following this Æthelstan led an expedition into Scotland and forced the Scottish King, Constantine II, to submit and recognize English overlordship.
This last act was the final straw. Constantine forged a coalition with King Olaf Guthfrithsson of Dublin and King Owen of Strathclyde agreeing to put aside all historical, cultural and political differences in order to destroy Æthelstan, who threatened them all. Olaf and Constantine cemented their alliance with a marriage between the former and the latter’s daughter as well as the promise that Olaf could claim the Kingdom of York should they succeed in destroying Æthelstan.
In October 937 Constantine and Owen invaded England from the north, moving down the old Roman road from Carlisle (then part of Scotland) down towards Merseyside. Olaf arrived a few days later rendezvousing with the main army once they had reached their destination. Æthelstan marshaled all the forces he could from his territories in England and Wales to meet this threat. The two sides met at Brunanburh in Merseyside. Both armies were roughly equal in size, commanding roughly 15,000 men each. Armies of such a size had not been seen in the British Isles since the days of the Romans. There are no clear records to illustrate the course of the battle but there are several sources that attest to the great slaughter that took place at Brunanburh. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the deaths of five kings and seven earls among Æthelstan’s enemies, including Constantine’s son:
Five lay still
on that battlefield – young kings
by swords put to sleep – and seven also
of Olaf’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.
The Annals of Ulster similarly describes the outcome of the battle, all the more importantly since it was written by subjects of King Olaf: “A huge war, lamentable and horrible, was cruelly waged between the Saxons and Norsemen. Many thousands of Norsemen beyond number died although King Olaf 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.“
Æthelstan had won an a decisive victory over this coalition of Scots and Irish. The victory allowed him to consolidate his holdings in England, unifying the English kingdoms from a series of disparate states into one nation. However, Æthelstan’s enemies also managed to gain their safety from the battle. Both sides had suffered such heavy losses that Æthelstan’s victory was a Pyrrhic one. The longest lasting result of the battle was that it established the Anglo-Scottish border as it exists today. One additional effect of the battle, albeit much smaller, can still be seen in Malmesbury. For their outstanding service to Æthelstan the people of Malmesbury were all granted the status of freemen. This status still exists today in the form of an organisation of the Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury. Æthelstan was also buried in Malmesbury.
Despite the importance of this battle nobody knows the exact location where it took place. Most historians seem to agree that the battle was located somewhere in the vicinity of Bromborough. This is due to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the location as being “ymbe Brunanburh” or “near Brunanburh” which literally translates as “Brun’s fort”. One of the favourite candidates for the location is the Brackenwood golf course in Bebington.
Æthelstan’s victory at Brunanburh created the geographical boundaries of Britain that still exist today. On top of this it solidified English dominance of the island that continued all the way through to the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707 when England and Scotland engaged in a political union.
Excellent piece. We should all be made aware of the early kings of England as part of our heritage. It’s not right that our history begins at 1066.