The Battle of Brunanburh in 937 is largely unknown today, but it is a battle that deserves to be remembered. For it was the largest and bloodiest battle fought in Anglo-Saxon England prior to Hastings (and likely surpassing that later battle in the numbers of combatants involved). It left its victor, King Athelstan of Wessex the first Anglo-Saxon ruler to be called “King of England”.
Athelstan was the son and heir of Edward the Elder, and grandson of Alfred the Great. Upon his father’s death in 924, Athelstan was acclaimed first King of Mercia (central England); and then King of Wessex (the dominant Saxon kingdom, encompassing all the area south of the Thames) the following year. Continuing the ambitious, anti-Danish policies of his father and grandfather, in 927 Athelstan conquered York; which had been in Danish hands for 60 years, since captured by Ivar the Boneless and the “Great Heathen Army” in 867.
After this, Constantine II of Alba (Scotland) and Owen I, ruler of British Strathclyde (Cumberland) submitted to Athelstan’s over-lordship. This effectively placed all of “England” under Saxon rule for the first time in history. (Prior to the Danish invasion of 866, England had been comprised of four rival kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex. The first three of these were Anglish; with Wessex the sole Saxon kingdom.)
After seven years of peace, Athelstan invaded Scottish territory. It has been suggested this was on account of Constantine’s attempt to renounce his submission to Athelstan’s over-lordship. A coalition was formed to oppose Wessex/English domination, which included the Hiberno-Scandinavian  ruler of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithsson (called Anlaf in the Old-English poem “The Battle of Brunanburh“; and possibly a great-grandson of Ivar the Boneless); Owen of Strathclyde, and several “petty kings” and jarls; joining Constantine of Alba in opposition to Athelstan.
Olaf crossed the Irish Sea with a Hiberno-Scandinavian army; and marched through Cumberland, joined along the way by a force of Strathclyde British. In Northumberland they united their forces with that of Constantine’s Scots, along with various Danish jarls of northern England eagerly taking the opportunity to rise against their new Saxon overlord. This allied army met in battle the Northumbrian Fyrd (freeman-levy), commanded by Athelstan’s ealdorman, Gudrek and Alfgeir. The English were routed, with Gudrek slain. Alfgeir fled south to Athelstan, leaving Olaf and the allies in possession of Northumbria.
Athelstan realized the enormity of the danger he faced, which threatened to undo all he had thus far achieved. He acted quickly, raising an equally large army from his lands in the south; and hired Scandinavian mercenaries to strengthen his forces.
Athelstan’s army was comprised of the Fyrd of Wessex, East Anglia, and Mercia. These farmers and townsmen came armed with spear or axe. They had little armor, but two generations of wars against the Danes had created a battle-experienced force of veterans. Strengthening the Fyrdmen were the professional warriors of Athelstan’s hearth-weru(“Hearth-troops”, or household guards) and the armed retainers of the leading Ealdormen of the shires. Since the days of Alfred, such Saxon armies had bested one Viking army-after-another; and would have come to Brunanburh filled with confidence.
The numbers involved at Brunanburh are unknown; only that the armies were approximately the same size. Considering that this battle involved major forces from throughout the British Isles, with levies on either side drawn from as far afield as Ireland to Scotland, and all of England from the Cheviots to the Channel (and even a strong force of Viking mercenaries, primarily from Norway and Iceland): a figure of 15,000 per side seems reasonable.
The only complete account of this campaign and the climatic battle is found in the IcelandicEgils Saga. According to this source, a force of 300 veteran Norse/Icelander Vikings joined Athelstan’s guardsmen. These were led by two recently arrived Icelander brothers, the sons of Skallagrim (also referred to in the Saga as Skalla-Grímr, or “bald Grim”): Thorolf and Egil. It has been suggested that Athelstan hired several thousand such mercenaries, putting them all under the command of the experienced Skallagrimsson brothers.
The opposing forces met at a place called Brunanburh; or, according to Egils Saga, on a moor called Vin-heath. The location of the battle is not known for certain. But there are three leading contenders.
The first, popular today, is Bromborough in western England district known as the Wirral; southwest of modern Liverpool. Apparently the name of Bromborough may be derived from Old English Brunanburh (meaning ‘Brun’s fort’). There are also locations nearby that some have attempted to identify with the Dingesmere, a place mentioned in both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Old English poem, The Battle of Brunanburh; in connection with the battle. But this location in the Wirral seems too far southwest for a Scot and Strathclyde army to be operating, so far from their respective home bases (particularly as there were no good north-south roads connecting this area through Cumberland to Strathclyde and Scotland in the north). It also seems too far in the west to be the location for the decisive battle of a war fought over the control of Northumbria and Yorkshire, on the other (eastern) side of the Pennines.
The second contender is Burnley, a market town in Lancashire; where local folklore tells of a great battle on the moors. Local tradition holds that five kings were buried under tumuli on these same moors. Perhaps after the defeat of the Northumbrian Ealdormen, Olaf and the allies regrouped nearer their power centers in the north. But this makes little strategic sense. Having driven Athelstan’s forces out of Northumbria, why would the coalition army then pull out, marching back north? For the same reason, I dismiss another contender, Burnswark, situated near Lockerbie.
A final, strong, choice for the battle site is in Lincolnshire, east of the Pennines, along the Great North Road between Derby and Rotherham. Historian Michael Wood suggests Tinsley Wood near Brinsworth as a plausible location. Wood notes that there is a hill nearby, White Hill, observing that the surrounding landscape fits the description of the battlefield contained in Egil’s Saga. Geographically, this location makes sense. It is in the southern part of Northumbria, where one would expect the allies (who had recently overrun Northumbria) to contest with the English for control of that region.
Wherever the battle may have been fought, it seems that the opposing armies agreed to meet at Brunanburh; the winner to take all “England”. Egils Saga portrays this arrangement of a fixed battle as the result of a ruse posed by Athelstan’s Norse captain, Egil Skallagrimsson; to stop the allies from looting English territory while the King gathered his forces. A challenge was issued to meet on a field “enhazelled”.
This was a version (writ large) of the Scandinavian dueling custom called a holmgang; in which combatants met to fight on an appointed field, the boundaries of which were marked out with hazel rods or branches. There is no other example I know of where this custom was expanded to encompass battle.
According to Egils Saga, a messenger was sent to Olaf challenging him to bring his army to meet Athelstan in battle:
…(they sent) messengers to King Olaf, giving out this as their errand, that king Athelstan would fain enhazel him a field and offer battle on Vin-heath by Vin-wood; meanwhile he would have them forbear to harry his land; but of the twain he should rule England who should conquer in the battle. He appointed a week hence for the conflict, and whichever first came on the ground should wait a week for the other. Now this was then the custom, that so soon as a king had enhazelled a field, it was a shameful act to harry before the battle was ended. Accordingly king Olaf halted and harried not, but waited till the appointed day, when he moved his army to Vin-heath.
King Olaf, commanding the allies, accepted the challenge. Accordingly, he halted his army at Brunanburh (which Egils Saga say was at Vin-heath by Vin-woods); ceased ravaging the countryside about; and waited for Athelstan to arrive by the appointed day.
To the north of the heath, there was a village where Olaf made his headquarters. He sent a force of Scots and Strathclyde British commanded by two brothers, Jarls Hring and Athils, up to the heath to camp on the battleground, and stake out the allied position. They found the hazel rods already in place along the edges of the field; and an English force camped in place to the south.
As the appointed day for the battle approached, Athelstan was still gathering his forces, and needed more time. He had sent Egil and his brother Thorolf, commanding the English vanguard comprised of their own 300 Norse hirthmen, along with the remnants of the Northumbrian forces defeated earlier, under Ealdorman Alfgeir, to Brunanburh. This was the force Hring and Athils found camped on the south end of the heath.
To make their numbers appear larger, the English vanguard disguised their small numbers by pitching more tents than they had men for; and arranged for a large portion of their men to occupy themselves outside the camp in view of the enemy, as though the camp were over-flowing. When these were approached by Olaf’s men (there being a truce in place till the battle day), Athelstan’s men claimed that these tents were all full, so full that their people had to sleep out on the open heath!
When the appointed day of battle came, Olaf marshaled his army and prepared to march onto the heath. Athelstan had yet to appear. Thorolf and Egil found yet another clever way of delaying the enemy and buy the English more time: They sent an envoy to Olaf, feigning a message from King Athelstan; offering to avoid battle and pay “Danegild” to Olaf and his allies.
Instead of attacking that day, Olaf called a conference of his allies to discuss the offer. Athelstan’s supposed offer was rejected as insufficient, and the allies countered with a demand for more. The English envoys begged for time to bring this offer to King Athelstan, who they claimed was a day’s journey to the south with a “mighty host”; and for their king to consider and respond. Olaf agreed to a three day truce.
At the end of this period, the Skallagrimsson’s sent another envoy across the heath to Olaf’s camp; again claiming to be from King Athelstan. They offered the original amount; plus an additional “shilling to every freeborn man, a silver mark to every officer of a company of twelve men or more, a gold mark to every captain of a king’s guard, and five gold marks to every jarl” . Again Olaf took this offer to a council of his allies, who after deliberation agreed that if Athelstan would also cede to Olaf the overlordship of Northumbria, the allies would withdraw to their homes. Another three days were granted for Olaf’s emissaries to accompany the English envoys back to Athelstan and await his answer.
Thus the clever Skallagrimsson brothers, wily Viking freebooters, stretched out negotiations and gained the English monarch an additional week to marshal his forces. Athelstan arrived with his army south of the heath at the end of the negotiations. They took Olaf’s offer to the King, explaining their ruse and their offers on his behalf as well.
The king took no time in rejecting Olaf’s terms; instead demanding that the coalition withdraw from Northumbria and return to their own lands; after first returning the booty they had thus far taken on the campaign. Adding insult to injury, Athelstan further demanded that the cost of peace would be that Olaf (and perhaps the other coalition rulers) become his vassals, ruling their lands as “under-kings”.
“Go now back”, he told Olaf’s emissaries, “and tell him this.”
According to Egils Saga:
At once that same evening the messengers turned back on their way, and came to king Olaf about midnight; they then waked the king, and told him straightway the words of king Athelstan. The king instantly summoned his earls and other captains; he then caused the messengers to come and declare the issue of their errand and the words of Athelstan. But when this was made known before the soldiers, all with one mouth said that this was now before them, to prepare for battle.
Realizing he had been hoodwinked all along and now enraged, Olaf sent his Jarls, Hring and Athils, back to their troops encamped on the heath, with orders to attack the English advance guard under the wily Skallagrim brothers at first light. He promised to marshal the army and move to support them as soon as his forces were ready.