The Poem of Brunanburh


For Aethelstan, after the peace treaty of Eamont all was quiet for a time, then trouble arose, and this was a big as it gets. In Dublin Guthfrith had died, and his son Olaf (not to be confused with Guthrith’s uncle) had become King of the Irish-Norse Vikings. He seems to have decided he wanted revenge, and re-capture York as the rightful heir to its Kingdom, so he set sail in 937 with a large fleet, this landed in the Humber estuary. The Army was joined by other Armies, from all the kingdoms in the North, that is Strathclyde, Northumbria and Scotland only with a combined force which also included a substantial force from Wales, did the foes of Aethelstan feel they could defeat the south. It is thought the armies met somewhere near the Don Valley in Yorkshire.

Aethelstan had his brother Edmund alongside, and from the start, the men of Wessex and Mercia, had the upper hand, their opponents, led by the Irish-Norse Vikings were soon being scattered in disarray, and hunted down and killed as they fled the field of slaughter. For many decades after Brunanburh had the appellation ~The Great Battle~ Brunanburh became legend, Five Kings had fallen and eight Eorls, for the last two years of his reign Aethelstan had relative peace.

Reproduction Saxon Helmet.
A reproduction Saxon helmet, this particular one was on sale at the Leeds Armouries.

This is the famous Poem of the battle

(translated by the author)

Brunanburh 937

Here Aethelstan king,
of ceorls the lord,
Ring-giver of heroes,
and his brother too,
Edmund atheling,
elder of this ancient race,
Struck lifelong glory,
with their sword edge,
the foe at Brunanburh.
The sons of Eadward,
clove the shield wall,
and hewed their banners,
with their weapon hammers.
So were they 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 succumbed;
amidst the din of the field
the warrior doomed.

Since the sun was up
in morning tide,
God’s sparkling candle,
the Sun bright shone!
Eternal Lord!
scud over grounds
till the noble creature
sat in the western main:
there lay many of the
Northern warriors
under a shower of arrows,
shot over shields;
and Scotland’s boast
pressed hard
by the mighty seed of
Mars With chosen troops,
throughout the day
the West-Saxons riders fierce
pressed on the loathéd bands;
hewed down the fugitives,
and scattered the rear,
with steel mill-sharpened blades.
The Mercians too
the hard hand-play
spared not those
that with Guthfrith’s son
across the briny deep
in the ship’s hold,
sought his land
for the hardy fight,
Five kings died
on the field of Brunanburh,
still in fair youth,
slain with swords.
Plus seven ceorls of Olaf
and of the ship’s-crew
unnumbered counted.

19th Century drawing Gokstad ship
This is a 19th century drawing of the Gokstad Viking Long boat in Denmark

There was dispersed
also seamen
and hardy Scots,
the dread of northern hordes;
urged to the noisy deep
by unrelenting fate!
The king of the fleet
with his narrow craft
thin escaped with his life
on the shallow flood;
and so too
Constantine the valiant King,
returned to the north
in hasty flight.
The hoary Hero
held not to boast
among his brethren
his remnant of
relations and friends,
slain with sword among
the mangled melee.
His son fell
on the field of battle lost,
mangled with wounds,
young at the fight.

The silver-haired shield holder
would boast not of
some slaughtering strife.
Neither would Olaf
smile with pride,
now only wreckéd remnants
of their army,
could retell the day
they improved their battle craft
in the field of
conflict of coloured crests,
the clash of honéd shaft,
the combat of heroes,
with the whining of weapons
which they in the
slough of slaughter
contested the sons of Eadward.
The Northmen sailed
their nailéd ships,
some dreary remnant,
on the roaring ocean
through deep water
to Dublin’s verdant shores,
they sought in sultry shame.

Saxon sword handle
Saxon sword handle, this is on display at Weston park Museum, Sheffield UK

Such then that they,
brothers both,
Aethelstan King and
Edmund Atheling to
West-Saxon land,
returned in triumph.
The corpses left for carrion,
the Kite and Kestrel,
conspiracy of
night black ravens,
with the postern pale raptor
to ravage his prey;
the greedy goshawk,
and that corpse grey animal
the wolf of the weald.
No slaughter was
more numerous made,
in this isle before
of people slain,
with the edge of the sword;
as the books recount
of the wise historians;
since hither came we
from the eastern shores
the Angles and Saxons,
sailed the outspread sea,
and Britannia sought,
stout metal-smiths,
subdued the Welsh,
most valorous ceorls
that gained this land.
(© John Ashtone)