The culmination of more than a century of Norse invasions and settlement, this battle would signal the death knell of Viking influence on the British Isles and the rise of a united England.
Tumultuous time in English history
By the time Æthelstan, king of all the Anglo-Saxons, led his force onto a battlefield at Brunabruh, the British Isles had experienced more than a century of tumult and turmoil.
Viking raiders devastated coastal communities since the late 8th century CE.
The next half-century saw increasingly sophisticated and more extensive raids culminating in a series of military invasions by what contemporary Anglo-Saxon scholars called the so-called "Great Heathen Army" from 865 CE.
This series of military invasions not only subjugated much of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including somewhat contrary to popular opinion Wessex, but saw the establishment of the Danelaw - a huge swathe of Anglo-Saxon England that was governed, settled, and ruled by these Norse invaders.
Not since the era of Roman Britain had there been the area that is now England united under and unified as a single polity.
Despite the seemingly hopeless onslaught of Norse colonization, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom least touched by the Viking invasions, led a fightback.
Whilst the Vikings had been raiding and establishing a settlement in the north and east of England, the Anglo-Saxons, led by Wessex, had been slowly consolidating their power in the south and soon expanded their influence throughout the British Isles.
By the 10th century CE, the momentum was beginning to swing back to the Anglo-Saxons. Since Alfred, they have had several strong, unifying, and capable leaders, including Æthelstan.
King of the Anglo-Saxons, then the English
Æthelstan ascended to the throne in 924 CE at the age of 30. Whilst he was crowned "King of the Anglo-Saxons," his capture of the Viking capital of Jórvik (York) in 927 CE saw him become the first true Anglo-Saxon king to rule all of England.
He would then undergo a second coronation, in London, in 927 CE, being crowned "King of the English," the first true medieval English king.
Æthelstan was not only a great warrior but also an astute reformer. He carried on the legal and political reforms started by his grandfather, Alfred the Great, and oversaw the centralization of both the government and power.
He was heavily involved in the production of charters and would attend meetings and councils with a wide range of his subjects, some from as far away as Wales.
Following his second coronation, he had been quietly working hard to consolidate his power and the boundaries of his realm.
He had not only made alliances with the kings of both Scotland and Strathclyde (one of the many post-Roman kingdoms to emerge in the British Isles in the early medieval period) but had also arranged a marriage between these two rulers and his sisters!
Æthelstan was also responsible for constructing a series of fortifications and strongholds throughout his kingdom to try and fend off further Viking attacks and invasions.
His reforms also included strengthening the army, which, after more than a century of constant battles, was one of the most formidable in Europe.
An invasion too far
As part of the strengthening of his borders, Æthelstan launched an invasion of the Kingdom of Scotland which was ruled by Constantine II.
Historians are divided over whether it was a mere grab for power or because of a violation of a peace treaty.
Nevertheless, a huge naval and land-based force invaded Scotland, and it became soon apparent to Constantine II that Æthelstan could only be defeated by an alliance. Constantine II had only to look across his border, and across the Irish Sea, to find willing allies.
Amongst the losers from Æthelstan's relentless push to expand his boundaries was a northern Scottish polity, the Kingdom of Strathclyde.
Though this was one of the first successor states of post-Roman Britain, it had seen its influence wane since the sacking of its spiritual heartland, the castle perched on a high of Dumbarton Rock, by Vikings back in 870 CE.
Unlike the Viking coalition, Æthelstan's force was highly disciplined and drilled. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Nevertheless, King Owain was just one ruler willing to gamble on an alliance to defeat Æthelstan and claw back some of the lost territory and pride. The other ruler was just across the Irish Sea.
The Vikings had been raiding coastal communities on the island of Ireland since the latter stages of the 8th century CE. In fact, from this raiding, they established a trading port at a bay on the mouth of the River Liffey, which we now call Dublin.
As with other areas of Europe, the new Viking invaders soon settled and began to dominate the local population. By the time of Æthelstan's coronation, a Hiberno-Norse population had swelled to include many Viking kings of Dublin.
Olaf Guthfrithson was one such ruler, whose father had lost Jorvik to Æthelstan back in 927 CE. Biding his time in Dublin, he jumped at a chance to ally with Constantine and try to reclaim what he saw as his birthright.
In 937 CE, an alliance of Viking, Scottish, and Strathclyde forces marched south, from what is now Scotland, to meet Æthelstan's army on the field of battle.
The Battle of Branubrah
The exact location of the battle of Brunanburh is unknown, but it is believed the two armies met somewhere in what is now the modern-day English counties of Yorkshire or Lancashire.
The alliance of Æthelstan's enemies, led by Kings Constantine II, Owain, and Olaf, fielded a coalition force of Viking warriors from many nations, including what is now Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Scotland, and England.
These warriors – though fierce – had not only different cultures and languages, but their military strategic and tactical thought differed too.
On the other side of the field on this supposedly misty day, stood Æthelstan and his Anglo-Saxon force. A united and battle-hardened force, this coalition stood against them was just another foreign force to crush as they had done to many armies before.
Unlike the Viking coalition, Æthelstan's force was highly disciplined and drilled and quickly formed a shield wall – designed to blunt the force of the Viking charges.
The two armies clashed, but the Anglo-Saxon shield wall held firm against the initial Viking-led charge. Both Scottish and Strathclyde forces joined in, but the heavier-armed Anglo-Saxon warriors soon decimated the coalition forces.
Æthelstan not only won the day and established a northern border for his kingdom – which is not too dissimilar to the current northern border of England – but also crushed the Viking resolve.
No more major Viking raids or invasions would plague the Anglo-Saxon kingdom until that fateful year of 1066 CE.
The stuff of legend, lore, and poems
The battle not only cemented Æthelstan as the premier ruler in the British Isles but would also pave the way for the total unification of England by his successors.
Whilst it was not the final fight between the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings – this would happen at Stamford Bridge more than a century later – it resulted in a sort of medieval détente, with the Vikings forced to flee back to their northern strongholds.
It was heralded in poems and stories throughout the early medieval period, especially in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Modern historians, however, have cast doubt on whether this battle really achieved anything.
While Æthelstan did win the way and repel his enemies, he failed to push north and conquer either the Kingdom of Scotland or Strathclyde.
When he died in 939 CE, Olaf sailed across the Irish Sea to march on Jorvik, his birthright, and ascended to the throne of the Kingdom of Northumbria.
BBC History Extra has released an in-depth look at the battle on its website here.
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