In 937 AD Scottish, Welsh, Norse and Irish formed an alliance to deal with the Anglo-Saxons of England once and for all. Their army was huge for the time. But they failed to estimate the resilience of the English, or the skill of the English King. King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great had come to the throne in 924 and conquered the remaining Danish strongholds in England. He successfully campaigned in Scotland and Wales and received the homage of the respective Kings. He was an Anglo-Saxon King with a well deserved and fierce reputation, and across Europe too. This battle was the battle that finally crushed the Brythons and led to the forming of England.
The Site of the Battle
Several sites have been suggested for the mysterious battle and its location (Brunanburgh or Brananburgh?) One traditional story states that the Hill of Shelfield (North of Burnley) was supposedly the site of a battle in Saxon times. Nearby is a large mound, which is either a glacial deposit, or according to the story, it is the Knaves Hill or mound beneath which the warriors killed in the battle were buried.
There could have been as many as 18,000 men deployed on each side. These armies were immense and demonstrate that this was a final showdown between the English and the legacy of Brythons. Some have said that the battlefront was as long as 30km. Perhaps not in a linear sense, but it may have turned into that when the bloody pursuit began after the English victory.
Not much is known as to how the English army won, The Shield Wall would most definitely have been deployed and it is known that King Athelstan ordered a counter-attack at the critical moment. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the West Saxon launched mounted attacks against the fleeing enemy and inflicted heavy slaughter upon them. The Scots and Scandinavians fled in the direction of their ships on the Humber and the Norse/Irish headed for the Northwest coast.
The combined invaders lost five Kings, seven Earls and Cellach, Constantine II of Scotlands son. Athelstan was merciless.
That the Anglo-Saxons took hold of the North is fact, but the North was never totally ‘Saxonised’. It retained its own identity, its own church, and its own sound.
Anglo Saxon Chronicals
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles records:
rewarder of heroes, and his brother eke,
Edmund atheling, elder ot the ancient race, slew in the fight,
with the edge of their swords, the foe at Brunanburgh!
The sons of Edward their board-walls clove,
and hewed their banners, with the wrecks of their hammers.
So they were taught by kindred zeal,
that they at camp oft against any robber
their land should defend, their hoards and homes.
Pursuing fell the Scottish clans;
the men of the fleet in numbers fell;
amidst the din of the field the warrior swate.
Since the sun was up in morning-tide, gigantic light!
glad over grounds, Gods candle bright, eternal Lord!-
until the noble creature sat in the western main:
there lay many of the Northern heroes under a shower of arrows, shot over shields;
and Scotlands boast, a Scythian race, the mighty seeds of Mars!
With chosen troops, throughout the day,
the West-Saxons fierce pressed on the loathed bands; hewed down the fugitives,
and scattered the rear, with strong mill-sharpened blades.
The Mercians too the hard hand-play,
spared not to any of those with Anlaf,
over the briney deep in the ships bosum
sought this land for the hardy fight.
Five kings lay on the field of battle,
in the bloom of youth, pierced with swords.
So seven eke of the earls of Anlaf;
and of the ships crew unnumbered crowds.
There was dispersed the little band of hardy Scots, the dread of northern hordes; urged to the noisy deep by unrelenting fate!
The king of the fleet with hie slender craft
escaped with his life on the felon flood;-
and so to Constantine, the valiant chief,
returned to the north in hasty flight.
The hoary Hildrinc cared not to boast among his kindred.
Here was the remnant of relations and friends
slain with the sword in the crowded fight.
His son too he left on the field on battle,
mangled with wounds, young at the fight.
The fair-haired youth had no reason to boast
of the slaughtering strife.
Nor old Inwood and Anlaf the more
with the wrecks of their army could laugh and say,
that they on the field of stern command better workmen were,
in the conflict of banners, the clash of spears,
the meeting of heroes, and the rustling of weapons, which they on the field of slaughter
played with the sons of Edward.
The northmen sailed in their nailed ships,
a dreary remnant, on the roaring sea; over deep water
Dublin they sought, and Irelands shores, in great disgrace.
Such then the brothers, both together king and atheling,
sought their country, West-Saxon land, in fight triumphant.
They left behind them, raw to devour,
teh sallow kite, the swarthy raven with horny nib,
and the hoarse vulture, with the eagle swift to consume his prey;
the greedy gos-hawk, and that grey beast the wolf of the weald.
No slaughter yet was greater made ever on this island, of people slain, before this same,
with the edge of the sword;
as the books inform us of the old historians;
since hither came from the eastern shores
the Angles and the Saxons, over the broad sea, and Britain sought,-
and gained the land.