Yesterday noontime, after leaving Brierfield library, I basked once more in the epic views of the scintillatingly-lit sun-swept hills & valleys of east lancashire, allbeit from the busy central road that binds Pendle City together like a piece of cotton-woven thread. First up was Nelson, which is rather like the Brick Lane of London, full of spicy streets & colorful shops – with an increasing Polish element down to the fact you can rent a two-bedroomed terrace for as little as £50 a week (they’re £85 in Burnley).
After Nelson comes Colne, named after the Roman station called Calunio in the Ravenna Cosmography, which appears to the advancing walker rather like some Tuscan hill-town. Colne is the ‘West End’ of Pendle City – a little boutique Tunbridge-Wellsian world with three theaters, cool coffee-shops & the annual, internationally renowned rhythm & blues festival. Its most famous son is Wallace Hartley, the guy who kept playing the violin to the very end as the Titanic sunk around him. Also from Colne was the grandmother of John Keats – Alice Whalley Jennings – who brought our young poet up on a diet of Lancashire hot-pot, a recipe probably quite similar to my own granny’s.
Passing through Colne I came to Laneshaw Bridge, an idyllic wee place right on the edge of Bronte country. As I turned east, the great snowy moor that I conject is Vinheath appeared before me, gouged by giants claws which form the headwaters of Colne’s river system. My reason for being here was to track down an anciently famous well & cross. In the last post I showed how the Anglo-Saxons had been heading North under Edward, & period of conquest crowned on a single occasion when the kings of Britain met at an unknown place & swore fealty to him. The ASC for 924 reads;
And the King of Scotland, with all his people, chose him as father and lord; as did Reynold, and the son of Eadulf, and all that dwell in Northumbria, both English and Danish, both Northmen and others; also the king of the Strathclydwallians, and all his people.
For the next year, the final entry in the Mercian register reads, ‘A.D. 925. This year died King Edward at Farndon in Mercia; and Elward his son died very soon after this, in Oxford. Their bodies lie at Winchester.’ It was the end of an epoch & the start of an empire. When Edward had ascended to the throne, he had held only Wessex. Now his ‘little illegitimate’, Athelstan, would inherit all of England south of the Humber-Ribble line. He immediately set to work on his power-politics. The Mercian Register continues, ‘Athelstan was chosen king in Mercia, and consecrated at Kingston.’
His reign would be relatively short, yet in that brief span of fifteen years his achievements were many. Overshadowed by his famous grandfather, Alfred the Great, he nevertheless deserves respect of at least an equal nature. It was he who really created the England as we know it, stretching her borders & bequeathing the nation an international respect. As the English Rose sprang from the bed soil cultivated by Alfred, it was Athelstan who showered it with regal rain & the sunlight of, ‘his hair yellow, beautifully braided with golden wires.‘
Returning to 925, in those days oaths of fealty were made to a person, not a to a country, & the death of Edward had freed Constantine & the others of their bondship. Athelstan was on this situation in a flash, & launched some punitive attacks against the kings of Britain, in order to show them he meant business. The Chronicle of Melrose tells us, ‘He conquered in battle & put to flight the King of the Britons also, Higuel, & Constantine, king of the Scots, & Owen king of Gwent. And they asked peace from him, & made a treaty with himconfirmed by an oath.’ The ASCsheds more light on that peace treaty & oath;
A.D. 926. This year appeared fiery lights in the northern part of the firmament; and Sihtric departed; and King Athelstan took to the kingdom of Northumbria, and governed all the kings that were in this island: — First, Howel, King of West-Wales; and Constantine, King of the Scots; and Owen, King of Monmouth; and Aldred, the son of Eadulf, of Bamburgh. And with covenants and oaths they ratified their agreement in the place called Eamoton, on the fourth day before the ides of July; and renounced all idolatry, and afterwards returned in peace.
There is no such place as Eamoton today, but there is the Emmot Estate near Colne. The older locals in the area pronounce it Ee-ah-mut, in line with the Old English pronunciation of Eamoton. This pretty place is practically the heart of the island, with John o’ Groats & Land’s End equidistant, a perfect site for such a grand meeting of Britain’s kings. The Emmot family, by the way, is by far the oldest in the district – their origins being lost in the mists of time. The main settlement is the village of Laneshaw Bridge – which was called Eamot for centuries. It is significant that the borders of Strathclyde, Northumbria & Mercia all meet here, while a Roman road passes just a few miles to the North, giving Emmot easy access to the twin Viking capitals of York & Dublin. There is also an ancient road leading south from Emmot – through Trawden, Colne, Castercliffe, & over Shelfield Hill – to Burnley itself.
During my studies I had read that in the grounds of Emmot estate there was an ancient cross, one of the two main articles needed when Christianizing a pagan. The other, the holy waters of baptism, are found at Emmot’s famous well, Hallown. Its name must hark back to 835, when Pope Gregory IV introduced the festival of All-Hallows on the first of November. Being inundated with saints & saints days, he decided to put one day a year aside to worship them all. I soon arrived at Emmot estate from Laneshaw bridge, whose main house was long ago knocked down. Coming to ‘Upper Emmot House,’ I caught a cutish woman leaving in her range rover just in time, who directed me to Hullown lake, where I could find the well, & told me that the cross had been moved to Colne Parish library. Following a wee lane, I soon came to a beautiful, wee body of water, a haven for paying anglers, where just beside its shores I found a rather large well.
The crucial supporting evidence for Emmot being Eamoton comes through this well. The kind lady in the range rover had told me that people used to come here since at least the 1100s to be baptised. This connects with William Malmesbury’s description of the events at Eamoton, in which Athelstan takes a son of Constantine hostage;
Out of regard to this treaty, the king himself stood for the son of Constantine, who was ordered to be baptized, at the sacred font
Is this sacred font the Hallown? The ASC states that the kings ‘renounced all idolatry,’ just as the local pagans had done at the same well in 835. The well itself is man-made, with solid walls of stout stone, 18 foot by 16 foot, & nine foot deep, with steps leading to the bottom where JT Maquis describes stone flags, ‘with nine holes in them, from which the water bubbles up with terrific force.’ The waters themselves, fed by powerful streams, are supposed to have healing properties, including a reputation for healing reumatism,’ & a hundred years ago, Henry Taylor wrote, ‘Mrs Pennington (a former resident of Emmot Hall) told me that this well is still frequented for its healing properties.’
It was a cool moment, so early in my dig, to feel that I was on the very spot where modern Britain was born – it is such a magnificent, moody place, the whispers of those great speeches still chittering in the heather when the winds blow oer the moors. In context of the Brunanburh campaign, the humilation felt by Constantine at Emmot could well have driven him to chose that very place to march & camp the confederate army – basically saying to Athelstan ‘last time I was here you took my son hostage, this time Im gonna kill yours,‘ kinda vibe
I walked back to Colne utiising an alternative route – up over the hill of Laneshawbridge & down towards the vasty Alma Inn. Turning left I came to a certain Castle Road, & wondered why it was named so… perhaps there was some sort of fortification in the area. I finally returned to Colne via its cricket club, & just as the sun was setting obtained a photograph of the Emmot cross. Of this, JT Maquis writes that it consists of, ‘a square socket-stone about one foot nine inches in height & three feet nine inches square. On this is an octaganol shaft about seven feet in height, with a capital of the same shape eight inches in height. This shaft will be ten inches in diameter at the base, tapering to eight inches under the capital… by climbing up the tree that leans over it we ascertained that there is a socket-hole in the capital for image, crucifix, or cross, six inches by five inches & about four inches in depth… it has some half obliterated cyphers on the capital, which Dr Whitaker declares to be the IHS & the Omega.’
Then, a bus-ride & a few beers & a fine Indian takeaway from ‘Padiham gourmet’ later I was back in Burnley, jamming with Black Pontiac, members of whose band are going to help me get the Kae-Lei Krew up & running once more. The drummer, Christian, is playing in this song (I’m on bass).
Taylor, Henry – The ancient crosses & holy wells of lancashire (1906)
Its now time to really get stuck into Brunanburh. So far I’ve introduced the two chief texts which concern the battle, & openly stated that the Burnley area is the chief candidate for the battle’s location. All this actually coincides with moving back to Burnley for a wee while to spend a bit of quality time with my family. This morning was one of those unbelievably beautiful Lancashire winter’s morning; scintillating clear skies with an ethereal quality of light that shimmer’d through the valleys & bounced off the snow-skipped slopes of Pendle & the all-surrounding moors. For some reason, Burnley gets a bit of a bad press, but in reality it’s setting in one of the most gorgeous parts of the country, part of the long, ribbonning Pennine-straddling conurbation that I call Pendle City. Along with Padiham, Brierfield, Nelson & Colne, Burnley is the ‘capital’ of Pendle City. There’s about 120,000 citizens of the place, connected by our own stretches of motorway, canal & railway – sporting five theaters, a premiership football Club, a number of live music venues, several sports centres, loads of golf courses, buzzin bars full of bouncin birds & some fantastic eating down to the influx of Asia into the region, alongside an increasing number of Poles. There are also, ‘Between the towns of Burnley and Colne,’ according to James Stonehouse, ‘more objects of antiquarian interest scattered about than may be found in any other part of England.’ This morning I set off on a journey to find one of these ‘objects,’ & I am currently writing this section of today’s blog in the field at Brierfield library… the photos of which journey I here unveil.
This morning’s dig centers around the following passage in the Anglo-Saxon-Chronicle;
The sons of Eadweard, it was only befitting their noble descent from their ancestors that they should often defend their land in battle against each hostile people, horde and home
That Athelstan was defending his own lands means the battle of Brunanburh must have been fought in English territory. This precludes one of the Brunanburh candidates, Burnswark, for that hillfort is to be found in Galloway, i.e the ancient kingdom of the Northern Welsh. For those confused with this idea, we must remember that back in Roman times, every native Briton south of Edinburgh was essentially ‘Welsh,’ but in the face of the Anglo-Saxon onslaught, they were pushed back into ever-dwindling pockets – the only real survivors being the Welsh of Wales. The Northern Welsh were eventually assimilated into the Scottish polyglot in just the same fashion as the Picts.
When The Carta Dirige Gressus states…
Whom he now rules with this England made whole: King Athelstan lives glorious through his deeds!
…more than any man, Athelstan is the one whom the English should remember as the founder of their nation, for its is he who welded the seven kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy into a single political unit & it is he who drove the Viking leadership out of Northumbria & brought the region under English domination. Athelstanalso finally conquered Cornwall, & took control of a region known as Amounderness. The latter fact is known from a charter, dated about 930 AD, in which Athelstan granst the Archbishop of York Amounderness, a territory whose northern border was Lancaster.
I, Aethalstan, king of the English, eleveated by the hand of the almighty, which is Christ, to the throne of the whole kingdom of Britain, assign willingly in fear of god, to almighty god & the blessed apostle Peter, in his church at the city of York, at the time I constituted Wulfstan its archbishop, a certain portion of land of no small size, in the place which the inhabitants call Amounderness
This proves that by 937 AD, Burnley could be placed in England, only by a few miles, but definitely in England. In fact, it would have been something of a border zone, & the building of a new burh – Brunanburh – an important part of the regional defence system. Since 908, the English had been slowly expanding northwards, where under the leadership of King Edward & his sister, Æthelflæd (who had married into the Mercian royal family) to support their ever-moving northern frontier they had initiated a campaign of fortress building, similar to the one that Edward I undertook three hundred years later when he subdued the Welsh. The strategy was simple. Gone was the slaughter & rapine of their ancestors, as burh-by-burh & town-by-town the English encroached on the territory of the Danes, building new fortresses & repaired old ones as he went. Here are the names & dates of the northern forts that were recorded as being occupied by the English.
Those thirteen years (910-923), from the rebuilding of Chester to the building of a fortress at Manchester, is something of an epoch in English affairs. No more would they have to defend their southern possessions form Viking attacks, for they now had fortified possessions all over the northern borders. This possession of Lancashire is vital to the theory that Brunanburh was fought in the North West, the new border zone, & that at some point after 923 AD, a new burh was built somewhere not so far to the north of Manchester, defending Amounderness, near a place called ‘Brun’…
Stonehouse, James – Roman Remains Near Burnley (a letter to The Preston Guardian -Saturday August 15 1863)
It is now time to take a look at some more of of Egil’s Saga, those famous six chapters which place Egil right in the heart of the fighting at Brunanburh. In the poem, ‘Brunanburh’ is the fortification to the south of a barren piece of moorland the saga calls Vínheiði (Vinheath). In a later post I’ll show you just how much history is contained in this one word, but for now let us be content in recognizing that is near the village of Winewall that the fortification to the north of the heath was locaated.
The icelandic sagas were mostly written down from the oral tradition in the 13th century. In the 300 years between Egil’s saga being committed to paper, & the events in which it describes, a could of factochisps occur, such as Analf & Constantine being genflated into a single king called ‘Olaf the Red.’ Other than that one spot of poetical license, the rest seems quite valid, & the topographic detail especially rather keenly recorded. LM Hollander writes, ‘the saga agrees well with other Icelandic sagas, & may be reckoned as one of the most truthful; but when it is considered that it was kept in men’s memory for a very long time… naturally not every syllable will be true. Neither in this, however, nor in any of the best icelandic sagas do the writers thereof deliberately assert untruth or mean to exaggerate.’
Chapter 50 – Of Athelstan king of the English.
Alfred the Great ruled England, being of his family the first supreme king over England. That was in the days of Harold Fairhair, king of Norway. After Alfred, Edward his son was king in England. He was father of Athelstan the Victorious, who was foster-father of Hacon the Good. It was at this time of our story that Athelstan took the kingdom after his father. There were several brothers sons of Edward.
But when Athelstan had taken the kingdom, then those chieftains who had before lost their power to his forefathers rose in rebellion; now they thought was the easiest time to claim back their own, when a young king ruled the realm. These were Britons, Scots, and Irish. King Athelstan therefore gathered him an army, and gave pay to all such as wished to enrich themselves, both foreigners and natives.
The brothers Thorolf and Egil were standing southwards along Saxony and Flanders, when they heard that the king of England wanted men, and that there was in his service hope of much gain. So they resolved to take their force thither. And they went on that autumn till they came to king Athelstan. He received them well; he saw plainly that such followers would be a great help. Full soon did the English king decide to ask them to join him, to take pay there, and become defenders of his land. They so agreed between them that they became king Athelstan’s men.
England was thoroughly Christian in faith, and had long been so, when these things happened. King Athelstan was a good Christian; he was called Athelstan the Faithful. The king asked Thorolf and his brother to consent to take the first signing with the cross, for this was then a common custom both with merchants and those who took soldiers’ pay in Christian armies, since those who were ‘prime-signed’ (as ’twas termed) could hold all intercourse with Christians and heathens alike, while retaining the faith which was most to their mind. Thorolf and Egil did this at the king’s request, and both let themselves be prime-signed. They had three hundred men with them who took the king’s pay.
Chapter 51 – Of Olaf king of Scots.
Olaf the Red was the name of the king in Scotland. He was Scotch on his father’s side, but Danish on his mother’s side, and came of the family of Ragnar Hairy-breeks. He was a powerful prince. Scotland, as compared with England, was reckoned a third of the realm; Northumberland was reckoned a fifth part of England; it was the northernmost county, marching with Scotland on the eastern side of the island. Formerly the Danish kings had held it. Its chief town is York. It was in Athelstan’s dominions; he had set over it two earls, the one named Alfgeir, the other Gudrek. They were set there as defenders of the land against the inroads of Scots, Danes, and Norsemen, who harried the land much, and though they had a strong claim on the land there, because in Northumberland nearly all the inhabitants were Danish by the father’s or mother’s side, and many by both.
Bretland was governed by two brothers, Hring and Adils; they were tributaries under king Athelstan, and withal had this right, that when they were with the king in the field, they and their force should be in the van of the battle before the royal standard. These brothers were right good warriors, but not young men.
Alfred the Great had deprived all tributary kings of name and power; they were now called earls, who had before been kings or princes. This was maintained throughout his lifetime and his son Edward’s. But Athelstan came young to the kingdom, and of him they stood less in awe. Wherefore many now were disloyal who had before been faithful subjects.
Chapter 52 – Of the gathering of the host.
Olaf king of Scots, drew together a mighty host, and marched upon England. When he came to Northumberland, he advanced with shield of war. On learning this, the earls who ruled there mustered their force and went against the king. And when they met there was a great battle, whereof the issue was that king Olaf won the victory, but earl Gudrek fell, and Alfgeir fled away, as did the greater part of the force that had followed them and escaped from the field. And now king Olaf found no further resistance, but subdued all Northumberland.
Alfgeir went to king Athelstan, and told him of his defeat. But as soon as king Athelstan heard that so mighty a host was come into his land, he despatched men and summoned forces, sending word to his earls and other nobles. And with such force as he had he at once turned him and marched against the Scots. But when it was bruited about that Olaf king of Scots had won a victory and subdued under him a large part of England, he soon had a much larger army than Athelstan, for many nobles joined him. And on learning this, Hring and Adils, who had gathered much people, turned to swell king Olaf’s army. Thus their numbers became exceeding great.
All this when Athelstan learned, he summoned to conference his captains and his counsellors; he inquired of them what were best to do; he told the whole council point by point what he had ascertained about the doings of the Scots’ king and his numbers. All present were agreed on this, that Alfgeir was most to blame, and thought it were but his due to lose his earldom. But the plan resolved on was this, that king Athelstan should go back to the south of England, and then for himself hold a levy of troops, coming northwards through the whole land; for they saw that the only way for the needful numbers to be levied in time was for the king himself to gather the force.
As for the army already assembled, the king set over it as commanders Thorolf and Egil. They were also to lead that force which the freebooters had brought to the king. But Alfgeir still held command over his own troops. Further, the king appointed such captains of companies as he thought fit.
When Egil returned from the council to his fellows, they asked him what tidings he could tell them of the Scots’ king. He sang:
‘Olaf one earl by furious
Onslaught in flight hath driven,
The other slain: a sovereign
Stubborn in fight is he.
Upon the field fared Gudrek
False path to his undoing.
He holds, this foe of England,
Northumbria’s humbled soil.’
After this 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.
North of the heath stood a town. There in the town king Olaf quartered him, and there he had the greatest part of his force, because there was a wide district around which seemed to him convenient for the bringing in of such provisions as the army needed. But he sent men of his own up to the heath where the battlefield was appointed; these were to take camping-ground, and make all ready before the army came. But when the men came to the place where the field was enhazelled, there were all the hazel-poles set up to mark the ground where the battle should be.
The place ought to be chosen level, and whereon a large host might be set in array. And such was this; for in the place where the battle was to be the heath was level, with a river flowing on one side, on the other a large wood. But where the distance between the wood and the river was least (though this was a good long stretch), there king Athelstan’s men had pitched, and their tents quite filled the space between wood and river. They had so pitched that in every third tent there were no men at all, and in one of every three but few. Yet when king Olaf’s men came to them, they had then numbers swarming before all the tents, and the others could not get to go inside. Athelstan’s men said that their tents were all full, so full that their people had not nearly enough room. But the front line of tents stood so high that it could not be seen over them whether they stood many or few in depth. Olaf’s men imagined a vast host must be there. King Olaf’s men pitched north of the hazel-poles, toward which side the ground sloped a little.
From day to day Athelstan’s men said that the king would come, or was come, to the town that lay south of the heath. Meanwhile forces flocked to them both day and night.
But when the appointed time had expired, then Athelstan’s men sent envoys to king Olaf with these words: ‘King Athelstan is ready for battle, and had a mighty host. But he sends to king Olaf these words, that he would fain they should not cause so much bloodshed as now looks likely; he begs Olaf rather to go home to Scotland, and Athelstan will give him as a friendly gift one shilling of silver from every plough through all his realm, and he wishes that they should become friends.’
When the messengers came to Olaf he was just beginning to make ready his army, and purposing to attack. But on the messengers declaring their errand, he forebore to advance for that day. Then he and his captains sate in council. Wherein opinions were much divided. Some strongly desired that these terms should be taken; they said that this journey had already won them great honour, if they should go home after receiving so much money from Athelstan. But some were against it, saying that Athelstan would offer much more the second time, were this refused. And this latter counsel prevailed. Then the messengers begged king Olaf to give them time to go back to king Athelstan, and try if he would pay yet more money to ensure peace. They asked a truce of one day for their journey home, another for deliberation, a third to return to Olaf. The king granted them this.
The messengers went home, and came back on the third day according to promise; they now said to king Olaf that Athelstan would give all that he offered before, and over and above, for distribution among king Olaf’s soldiers, a 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 the king’s guard, and five gold marks to every earl. Then the king laid this offer before his forces. It was again as before; some opposed this, some desired it. In the end the king gave a decision: he said he would accept these terms, if this too were added, that king Athelstan let him have all Northumberland with the tributes and dues thereto belonging. Again the messengers ask armistice of three days, with this further, that king Olaf should send his men to hear Athelstan’s answer, whether he would take these terms or no; they say that to their thinking Athelstan will hardly refuse anything to ensure peace. King Olaf agreed to this and sent his men to king Athelstan.
Then the messengers ride all together, and find king Athelstan in the town that was close to the heath on the south. King Olaf’s messengers declare before Athelstan their errand and the proposals for peace. King Athelstan’s men told also with what offers they had gone to king Olaf, adding that this had been the counsel of wise men, thus to delay the battle so long as the king had not come.
But king Athelstan made a quick decision on this matter, and thus bespake the messengers: ‘Bear ye these my words to king Olaf, that I will give him leave for this, to go home to Scotland with his forces; only let him restore all the property that he has wrongfully taken here in the land. Then make we peace between our lands, neither harrying the other. Further be it provided that king Olaf shall become my vassal, and hold Scotland for me, and be my under-king. Go now back,’ said he, ‘and tell him this.’
At once that same evening the messengers turned back on their way, and came to king Olaf about midnight; they then waked up 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. The messengers said this too, that Athelstan had a numerous force, but he had come into the town on that same day when the messengers came there.
Then spoke earl Adils, ‘Now, methinks, that has come to pass, O king, which I said, that ye would find tricksters in the English. We have sat here long time and waited while they have gathered to them all their forces, whereas their king can have been nowhere near when we came here. They will have been assembling a multitude while we were sitting still. Now this is my counsel, O king, that we two brothers ride at once forward this very night with our troop. It may be they will have no fear for themselves, now they know that their king is near with a large army. So we shall make a dash upon them. But if they turn and fly, they will lose some of their men, and be less bold afterwards for conflict with us.’
The king thought this good counsel. ‘We will here make ready our army,’ said he, ‘as soon as it is light, and move to support you.’
This plan they fixed upon, and so ended the council.
Chapter 53 – Of the fight.
Earl Hring and Adils his brother made ready their army, and at once in the night moved southwards for the heath. But when day dawned, Thorolf’s sentries saw the army approaching. Then was a war-blast blown, and men donned their arms selects spirited and that they began to draw up the force, and they had two divisions. Earl Alfgeir commanded one division, and the standard was borne before him. In that division were his own followers, and also what force had been gathered from the countryside. It was a much larger fours than that which followed Thorolf and Egil.
Thorolf was thus armed. He had a shield ample and stout, a right strong helmet on his head; he was girded with the sword that he called Long, a weapon large and good. If his hand he had a halberd, whereof the feather-formed blade was two ells long, ending in a four-edged spike; the blade was broad above, the socket both long and thick. The shaft stood just high enough for the hand to grasp the socket, and was remarkably thick. The socket fitted with iron prong on the shaft, which was also wound round with iron. Such weapons were called mail-piercers.
Egil was armed in the same way as Thorolf. He was girded with the sword that he called Adder; this he had gotten in Courland; it was a right good weapon. Neither of the two had shirt of mail.
They set up their standard, which was borne by Thofid the Strong. All their men had Norwegian shields and Norwegian armour in every point; and in their division were all the Norsemen who were present. Thorolf’s force was drawn up near the wood, Alfgeir’s moved along the river.
Earl Adils and his brother saw that they would not come upon Thorolf unawares, so they began to draw up their force. They also made two divisions, and had two standards. Adils was opposed to earl Alfgeir, Hring to the freebooters. The battle now began; both charged with spirit. Earl Adils pressed on hard and fast till Alfgeir gave ground; then Adils’ men pressed on twice as boldly. Nor was it long before Alfgeir fled. And this is to be told of him, that he rode away south over the heath, and a company of men with him. He rode till he came near the town, where sate the king.
Then spake the earl: ‘I deem it not safe for us to enter the town. We got sharp words of late when we came to the king after defeat by king Olaf; and he will not think our case bettered by this coming. No need to expect honour where he is.’
Then he rode to the south country, and of his travel ’tis to be told that he rode night and day till he and his came westwards to Earls-ness. Then the earl got a ship to take him southwards over the sea; and he came to France, where half of his kin were. He never after returned to England.
Adils at first pursued the flying foe, but not far; then he turned back to where the battle was, and made an onset there. This when Thorolf saw, he said that Egil should turn and encounter him, and bade the standard be borne that way; his men he bade hold well together and stand close.
‘Move we to the wood,’ said he, ‘and let it cover our back, so that they may not come at us from all sides.’
They did so; they followed along the wood. Fierce was the battle there. Egil charged against Adils, and they had a hard fight of it. The odds of numbers were great, yet more of Adils’ men fell than of Egil’s.
Then Thorolf became so furious that he cast his shield on his back, and, grasping his halberd with both hands, bounded forward dealing cut and thrust on either side. Men sprang away from him both ways, but he slew many. Thus he cleared the way forward to earl Hring’s standard, and then nothing could stop him. He slew the man who bore the earl’s standard, and cut down the standard-pole. After that he lunged with his halberd at the earl’s breast, driving it right through mail-coat and body, so that it came out at the shoulders; and he lifted him up on the halberd over his head, and planted the butt-end in the ground. There on the weapon the earl breathed out his life in sight of all, both friends and foes. Then Thorolf drew his sword and dealt blows on either side, his men also charging. Many Britons and Scots fell, but some turned and fled.
But earl Adils seeing his brother’s fall, and the slaughter of many of his force, and the flight of some, while himself was in hard stress, turned to fly, and ran to the wood. Into the wood fled he and his company; and then all the force that had followed the earl took to flight. Thorolf and Egil pursued the flying foe. Great was then the slaughter; the fugitives were scattered far and wide over the heath. Earl Adils had lowered his standard; so none could know his company from others.
And soon the darkness of night began to close in. Thorolf and Egil returned to their camp; and just then king Athelstan came up with the main army, and they pitched their tents and made their arrangements. A little after came king Olaf with his army; they, too, encamped and made their arrangements where their men had before placed their tents. Then it was told king Olaf that both his earls Hring and Adils were fallen, and a multitude of his men likewise.
Chapter 54 – The fall of Thorolf.
King Athelstan had passed the night before in the town whereof mention was made above, and there he heard rumour that there had been fighting on the heath. At once he and all the host made ready and marched northwards to the heath. There they learnt all the tidings clearly, how that battle had gone. Then the brothers Thorolf and Egil came to meet the king. He thanked them much for their brave advance, and the victory they had won; he promised them his hearty friendship. They all remained together for the night.
No sooner did day dawn than Athelstan waked up his army. He held conference with his captains, and told them how his forces should be arranged. His own division he first arranged, and in the van thereof he set those companies that were the smartest.
Then he said that Egil should command these: ‘But Thorolf,’ said he, ‘shall be with his own men and such others as I add thereto. This force shall be opposed to that part of the enemy which is loose and not in set array, for the Scots are ever loose in array; they run to and fro, and dash forward here and there. Often they prove dangerous if men be not wary, but they are unsteady in the field if boldly faced.’
Egil answered the king: ‘I will not that I and Thorolf be parted in the battle; rather to me it seems well that we two be placed there where is like to be most need and hardest fighting.’
Thorolf said, ‘Leave we the king to rule where he will place us, serve we him as he likes best. I will, if you wish it, change places with you.’
Egil said, ‘Brother, you will have your way; but this separation I shall often rue.’
After this they formed in the divisions as the king had arranged, and the standards were raised. The king’s division stood on the plain towards the river; Thorolf’s division moved on the higher ground beside the wood. King Olaf drew up his forces when he saw king Athelstan had done so. He also made two divisions; and his own standard, and the division that himself commanded, he opposed to king Athelstan and his division. Either had a large army, there was no difference on the score of numbers. But king Olaf’s second division moved near the wood against the force under Thorolf. The commanders thereof were Scotch earls, the men mostly Scots; and it was a great multitude.
And now the armies closed, and soon the battle waxed fierce. Thorolf pressed eagerly forward, causing his standard to be borne onwards along the woodside; he thought to go so far forward as to turn upon the Scotch king’s division behind their shields. His own men held their shields before them; they trusted to the wood which was on their right to cover that side. So far in advance went Thorolf that few of his men were before him. But just when he was least on his guard, out leapt from the wood earl Adils and his followers. They thrust at Thorolf at once with many halberds, and there by the wood he fell. But Thorfid, who bore the standard, drew back to where the men stood thicker. Adils now attacked them, and a fierce contest was there. The Scots shouted a shout of victory, as having slain the enemy’s chieftain.
This shout when Egil heard, and saw Thorolf’s standard going back, he felt sure that Thorolf himself would not be with it. So he bounded thither over the space between the two divisions. Full soon learnt he the tidings of what was done, when he came to his men. Then did he keenly spur them on to the charge, himself foremost in the van. He had in his hand his sword Adder. Forward Egil pressed, and hewed on either hand of him, felling many men. Thorfid bore the standard close after him, behind the standard followed the rest. Right sharp was the conflict there. Egil went forward till he met earl Adils. Few blows did they exchange ere earl Adils fell, and many men around him. But after the earl’s death his followers fled. Egil and his force pursued, and slew all whom they overtook; no need there to beg quarter. Nor stood those Scotch earls long, when they saw the others their fellows fly; but at once they took to their heels.
Whereupon Egil and his men made for where king Olaf’s division was, and coming on them behind their shields soon wrought great havoc. The division wavered, and broke up. Many of king Olaf’s men then fled, and the Norsemen shouted a shout of victory.
But when king Athelstan perceived king Olaf’s division beginning to break, he then spurred on his force, and bade his standard advance. A fierce onset was made, so that king Olaf’s force recoiled, and there was a great slaughter. King Olaf fell there, and the greater part of the force which he had had, for of those who turned to fly all who were overtaken were slain. Thus king Athelstan gained a signal victory.
Chapter 55 – Egil buries Thorolf.
While his men still pursued the fugitives, king Athelstan left the battle-field, and rode back to the town, nor stayed he for the night before he came thither. But Egil pursued the flying foe, and followed them far, slaying every man whom he overtook. At length, sated with pursuit, he with his followers turned back, and came where the battle had been, and found there the dead body of his brother Thorolf. He took it up, washed it, and performed such other offices as were the wont of the time. They dug a grave there, and laid Thorolf therein with all his weapons and raiment. Then Egil clasped a gold bracelet on either wrist before he parted from him; this done they heaped on stones and cast in mould. Then Egil sang a stave:
‘Dauntless the doughty champion
Dashed on, the earl’s bold slayer:
In stormy stress of battle
Stout-hearted Thorolf fell.
Green grows on soil of Vin-heath
Grass o’er my noble brother:
But we our woe – a sorrow
Worse than death-pang must bear.’
And again he further sang:
‘With warriors slain round standard
The western field I burdened;
Adils with my blue Adder
Assailed mid snow of war.
Olaf, young prince, encountered
England in battle thunder:
Hring stood not stour of weapons,
Starved not the ravens’ maw.’
Then went Egil and those about him to seek king Athelstan, and at once went before the king, where he sat at the drinking. There was much noise of merriment. And when the king saw that Egil was come in, he bade the lower bench be cleared for them, and that Egil should sit in the high-seat facing the king. Egil sat down there, and cast his shield before his feet. He had his helm on his head, and laid his sword across his knees; and now and again he half drew it, then clashed it back into the sheath. He sat upright, but with head bent forward.
Egil was large-featured, broad of forehead, with large eyebrows, a nose not long but very thick, lips wide and long, chin exceeding broad, as was all about the jaws; thick-necked was he, and big-shouldered beyond other men, hard-featured, and grim when angry. He was well-made, more than commonly tall, had hair wolf-gray and thick, but became early bald. He was black-eyed and brown-skinned,
But as he sat (as was before written), he drew one eye-brow down towards the cheek, the other up to the roots of the hair. He would not drink now, though the horn was borne to him, but alternately twitched his brows up and down. King Athelstan sat in the upper high-seat. He too laid his sword across his knees. When they had sat there for a time, then the king drew his sword from the sheath, and took from his arm a gold ring large and good, and placing it upon the sword-point he stood up, and went across the floor, and reached it over the fire to Egil. Egil stood up and drew his sword, and went across the floor. He stuck the sword-point within the round of the ring, and drew it to him; then he went back to his place. The king sate him again in his high-seat. But when Egil was set down, he drew the ring on his arm, and then his brows went back to their place. He now laid down sword and helm, took the horn that they bare to him, and drank it off. Then sang he:
‘Mailed monarch, god of battle,
Maketh the tinkling circlet
Hang, his own arm forsaking,
On hawk-trod wrist of mine.
I bear on arm brand-wielding
Bracelet of red gold gladly.
War-falcon’s feeder meetly
Findeth such meed of praise.’
Thereafter Egil drank his share, and talked with others. Presently the king caused to be borne in two chests; two men bare each. Both were full of silver.
The king said: ‘These chests, Egil, thou shalt have, and, if thou comest to Iceland, shalt carry this money to thy father; as payment for a son I send it to him: but some of the money thou shalt divide among such kinsmen of thyself and Thorolf as thou thinkest most honourable. But thou shalt take here payment for a brother with me, land or chattels, which thou wilt. And if thou wilt abide with me long, then will I give thee honour and dignity such as thyself mayst name.’
Egil took the money, and thanked the king for his gifts and friendly words. Thenceforward Egil began to be cheerful; and then he sang:
‘In sorrow sadly drooping
Sank my brows close-knitted;
Then found I one who furrows
Of forehead could smooth.
Fierce-frowning cliffs that shaded
My face a king hath lifted
With gleam of golden armlet:
Gloom leaveth my eyes.’
Then those men were healed whose wounds left hope of life. Egil abode with king Athelstan for the next winter after Thorolf’s death, and had very great honour from the king. With Egil was then all that force which had followed the two brothers, and come alive out of the battle. Egil now made a poem about king Athelstan, and in it is this stave:
Low now this scion royal
Earls three hath laid. To Ella
Earth must obedient bow.
Lavish of gold, kin-glorious,
Great Athelstan victorious,
Surely, I swear, all humbled
To such high monarch yields.’
But this is the burden in the poem:
‘Reindeer-trod hills obey
Bold Athelstan’s high sway.’
Then gave Athelstan further to Egil as poet’s meed two gold rings, each weighing a mark, and therewith a costly cloak that the king himself had formerly worn.
But when spring came Egil signified to the king this, that he purposed to go away in the summer to Norway, and to learn ‘how matters stand with Asgerdr, my late brother Thorolf’s wife. A large property is there in all; but I know not whether there be children of theirs living. I am bound to look after them, if they live; but I am heir to all, if Thorolf died childless.’
The king answered, ‘This will be, Egil, for you to arrange, to go away hence, if you think you have an errand of duty; but I think ’twere the best way that you should settle down here with me on such terms as you like to ask.’
Egil thanked the king for his words.
‘I will,’ he said, ‘now first go, as I am in duty bound to do; but it is likely that I shall return hither to see after this promise so soon as I can.’
The king bade him do so.
Whereupon Egil made him ready to depart with his men; but of these many remained behind with the king. Egil had one large war-ship, and on board thereof a hundred men or thereabouts. And when he was ready for his voyage, and a fair wind blew, he put out to sea. He and king Athelstan parted with great friendship: the king begged Egil to return as soon as possible. This Egil promised to do.
Then Egil stood for Norway, and when he came to land sailed with all speed into the Firths. He heard these tidings, that lord Thorir was dead, and Arinbjorn had taken inheritance after him, and was made a baron. Egil went to Arinbjorn and got there a good welcome. Arinbjorn asked him to stay there. Egil accepted this, had his ship set up, and his crew lodged. But Arinbjorn received Egil and twelve men; they stayed with him through the winter
For those who have never read Egil’s Saga before, that pretty groovy stuff, eh? When it comes to identifying the site of Brunanburh, we are also given a whole heap of fascinating information with which to play with. Adding this to the information found in the Brunanburh poem & we can pretty much nail the battle in the Burnley area – so I reckon thats what we’d better start doing…
Lee M. Hollander. 1933. ‘The Battle on the Vin-Heath and the Battle of the Huns’. Journal of English and Germanic Philology 32
Last night I spent fighting a cold I picked up in Gifford last week, & also pouring through the general correspondence of Rabbie Burns. As I did, I noticed the seeds to the poetic masterpiece, Tam O ‘Shanter, & believe I have the makings of some essay into its creation. But that has absolutely nothing to do with Brunanburh, which I now return to at a most interesting junction.
So far we have established only that the name Brunanburh was given to a great battle, & that the ‘Brunan’element of the name rather fastidiously degrades into ‘Brun.’ Leaving aside for a moment the quest for the battlefield, I would now like to turn our digressional attention to a certain Egil Skallagrimsson. This guy is a true Icelandic legend, a warrior-poet of the 10th century who is the movie-star of the anonymously-penned 13th century Egil’s Saga. For me, he is the leading contender for authorship of the poem that was used by the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers for 937 AD.
Egil was a widely praised poet – he composed his first at the tender age of three – & could well have been commissioned by Athelstan to compose a triumphant piece of propaganda. We know the poem was more or less contemporary to the battle, finding itself inserted into the ASC at least as early as 955, when it was written into the so-called “Parker Chronicle” ( Whitelock 1955). Egil was the best poet of his time & the poem is clearly the best in the Chronicle. Alistair Campbell (1938) notices how the original version of the poem contained many, ‘non-west saxon & archaic forms’ & declares, ‘who the poet was is impossible to say.’ He does, however, go on to describe the spirit of the poet, as in;
Although he owes much to his predecessors, the poet of the Battle of Brunanburh is by no means without merits of his own. He uses the conventional diction neatly & cleverly, & never becomes swamped in phrases… the two feelings which breathe through the poem are scorn & exhultation, & they are perfectly expressed. Lastly, despite the wealth of poetic diction at his command, he can be, at times, astonishingly simple & direct; the chief example of this is the description of battle from 20 to 40, where there is little repetition, & nearly every half-line advances the narrative… the poets subjects are the praise of heroes & the glory of victory… his work is a natural product of his age, an age of national triumph, antiquarian interest, & literary enthusiaism
My gut, litological instinct tells me that Egil was the author of the poem, based undeniable facts such as;
A – Egil fought at Brunanburh
We shall see in the next blog-post how Egil fared at Brunanburh, but his presence at the battle is without question.
B – Egil stayed at Athelstan’s court
A year or two after the battle, Egil returned to Athelstan’s court, & I believe it was at this time in & in the post-Brunanburh climate that the poem was produced. Although giving very little detail of Egil’s visit to Athelstan, the Saga definitely places him there, as in;
During the second winter that he was living at Borg after Skallagrim’s death Egil became melancholy, and this was more marked as the winter wore on. And when summer came, Egil let it be known that he meant to make ready his ship for a voyage out in the summer. He then got a crew. He purposed to sail to England. They were thirty men on the ship. Asgerdr remained behind, and took charge of the house. Egil’s purpose was to seek king Athelstan and look after the promise that he had made to Egil at their last parting.
It was late ere Egil was ready, and when he put to sea, the winds delayed him. Autumn then came on, and rough weather set in. They sailed past the north coast of the Orkneys. Egil would not put in there, for he thought king Eric’s power would be supreme all over the islands. Then they sailed southwards past Scotland, and had great storms and cross winds. Weathering the Scotch coast they held on southwards along England; but on the evening of a day, as darkness came on, it blew a gale. Before they were aware, breakers were both seaward and ahead. There was nothing for it but to make for land, and this they did. Under sail they ran ashore, and came to land at Humber-mouth. All the men were saved, and most of the cargo, but as for the ship, that was broken to pieces.
When they found men to speak with, they learnt these tidings, which Egil thought good, that with king Athelstan all was well and with his kingdom… in that same summer when Egil had come to England these tidings were heard from Norway, that Eric Allwise was dead, but the king’s stewards had taken his inheritance, and claimed it for the king. These tidings when Arinbjorn and Thorstein heard, they resolved that Thorstein should go east and see after the inheritance.
So when spring came on and men made ready their ships who meant to travel from land to land, then Thorstein went south to London, and there found king Athelstan. He produced tokens and a message from Arinbjorn to the king and also to Egil, that he might be his advocate with the king, so that king Athelstan might send a message from himself to king Hacon, his foster-son, advising that Thorstein should get his inheritance and possessions in Norway. King Athelstan was easily persuaded to this, because Arinbjorn was known to him for good.
Then came Egil also to speak with king Athelstan, and told him his intention.
‘I wish this summer,’ said he, ‘to go eastwards to Norway and see after the property of which king Eric and Bergonund robbed me. Atli the Short, Bergonund’s brother, is now in possession. I know that, if a message of yours be added, I shall get law in this matter.’
The king said that Egil should rule his own goings. ‘But best, methinks, were it,’ he said, ‘for thee to be with me and be made defender of my land and command my army. I will promote thee to great honour.’
Egil answered: ‘This offer I deem most desirable to take. I will say yea to it and not nay. Yet have I first to go to Iceland, and see after my wife and the property that I have there.’
King Athelstan gave then to Egil a good merchant-ship and a cargo therewith; there was aboard for lading wheat and honey, and much money’s worth in other wares. And when Egil made ready his ship for sea, then Thorstein Eric’s son settled to go with him, he of whom mention was made before, who was afterwards called Thora’s son. And when they were ready they sailed, king Athelstan and Egil parting with much friendship.
C – The poem is Bookish
Where JD Niles notices that scholars have, ‘drawn attention to the poem’s studied artistry, including its use of syntactic variation, studied antithesis, aural patterning, and an array of rhetorical figures that may be patterned on Latin models,’ Campbell (1938) tells us, ‘the poem is remarkably ‘correct’ in metre : that is to say, its half-verses are constructed with regard to the limitations, & bound together by alliteration with regard to laws, which are found in the earlier Old English poetry… the diction is almost entirely composed of elements to be found in earlier poems…. a large number of word s & expression which forcibly recall the older poetry.’ We must also observe that the poem does not rhyme, with Campbell stating, ‘as a final instance of the conservative nature of the versification of the Battle of Brunanburh, the absence of rhyme must be mentioned.’
I am a poet myself, & I understand the very tidings of poetic construction. Scholars have observed how the Brunanburh poem is packed full of direct lifts, or half-lifts, from the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature. To my mind, although Egil would have been fluent in Old English, he may not have been so observant in its literature. To remedy this, during the composition of the Brunanburh poem I believe he made use of Athelstan’s library, in order to paint his epic, panygerical pastiche. Where Campbell tells us ‘it is evident that the Battle of Brunanburh shows no changes in the structure of the half-line : all its types can be paralleled in the older poetry, & practically all of them in Beowulf,’ in the poem, 21 half-lines occur identically in other OE poems, such as
eorla dryhten (Beowulf)
on lides bosme (Genesis)
wulf on wealde (Judith)
While 23 half-lines are nigh identical, as in;
faege feollan (Beowulf) = faege gefealled
on folcstede (Judith) = on dam folcstede
bone sweartan hraefn (Soul & body) = bonne se swearta hrefen
D – The poem is Skaldic
In the 10th century, the Icelandic poets – the Skalds – were the best in Europe, & their professional services were sought by many a wealthy king. That the Brunanburh poem has Skaldic roots is supported by JD Niles, who tells us;
By Old English standards, there is something unconventional about the poet’s voice as well. Granted that the distribution of praise and blame is central to the purposes of early Germanic poetry, still nowhere else in Old English is there such a quintessential poem of boasting and scorn. Athelstan’s triumph is celebrated not by a sober account of his actions, but by exultant allusion to the enemy blood spilled on the field and the number of enemy kings and noblemen cut down. The poet’s bloody-mindedness is matched by his emphasis on the losers’ shame. The survivors take to their ships xwiscmode ‘humiliated’ (56b), while the victors proceed home wiges hremge ‘gloating in battle’ (59b). The satiric element that runs through the poem is most prominent in the threefold repetition “hreman ne £>orfte. . .Gelpan ne J)orfte. . .hlehhanne Jjorftun,” 39b, 44b, 47b (“he had no need to gloat. . .He had no need to boast. . .they had no need to laugh”). The poet here makes sardonic reference to the grief of the aged Scottish king Constantine, who not only lost his son on the battlefield but was unable to recover the young man’s body.
The poet’s brusque indifference to carnage may remind one of the hard, cold tone that is characteristic of skaldic verse more than it calls to mind the heroic spirit of Beowulf or Maldon, let alone the melancholy and philosophical mood in which both the Beowulf poet and the poet of the Wanderer contemplate the spiraling tragedies of earthly mutability.
If Brunanburh has affinities to other early medieval verse, they are to such a poem as the Battle of Hafsfjord rather than to anything in Old English, as Kershaw has pointed out (vii). Both these poems celebrate a decisive battle by which a king established authority over the whole of his realm. In the Norse poem the king is Harald Fairhair, and his opponents are a coalition of Norwegians who opposed his expanding power in 872. Even more than the author of Brunanburh, the Norse poet takes delight in the image of boats manned by fleeing survivors, who in this poem are pelted with stones from behind while the wounded hunch shame-faced under the rowing-benches:
In Hafsfjord as in Brunanburh, the poet follows the customary mode of panegyric and calls attention to the distinguished ancestry of the victorious party: “konungr enn kynstóri,” 1.2 (“the king of noble lineage”). He also alludes in conventional fashion to the din of battle: “ísorn dúõu,” 2.4 (“swords clashed”), “hlömmum vas á hlífum,” 3.4 (“shields clanged together”). Brunanburh resembles nothing else so much as Hafsfjord drawn out to a more substantial and dignified length by an author who had at his command the full resources of Anglo-Saxon poetic speech and used those resources to honor his English king. In commenting on the “elliptical, allusive , non-narrative style” of the six encomiastic poems that are embedded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Opland suggests that this group of poems emerged due to the influence of the court poetry of the skalds (173). Leaving the other five Chronicle poems aside, since (with the possible exception of the poem on the capture of the Five Boroughs) they do not seem much like Brunanburh except in being occasional pieces, there is reason to think that the Brunanburh poet had at least passing acquaintance with the Norse language and skaldic poetic models. Several of the points of influence have been reviewed by Dietrich Hofmann (165-67); these consist of cnear ‘warship’ (35a) as a loanword, sceard ‘deprived’ (40b) used in a manner suggestive of Old Norse idiom, guöhafoc ‘war-hawk’ (64a) as a kenning for ‘eagle’, and – with less certainty – eorlas (31a) in the Norse sense of ‘jarls’. Other points worth identifying are the following.
the eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion,
greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
the wolf in the forest. ASC
There the North-men’s chief was put
to flight, by need constrained
to the prow of a ship with little company:
he pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
on the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life. ASC
My mother said
I would be bought
a boat with fine oars
set off with Vikings
stand up on the prow,
command the precious craft,
then enter port ES
The field flowed
with blood of warriors, from sun up
in the morning, when the glorious star
glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
eternal lord, till that noble creation
sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
by spears destroyed ASC
there before sunset we will
make noisy clamour of spears ES
They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
The sons of Eadweard, it was only befitting their noble descent
from their ancestors that they should often
defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
horde and home ASC
I have wielded a blood-stained sword
and howling spear; the bird
of carrion followed me
when the Vikings pressed forth;
In fury we fought battles,
fire swept through men’s homes,
we made bloody boodies
slump dead by city gates ES
They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers. ASC
I raise the ring, the clasp that is worn
on the shield-splitting arm ES
In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
in battle with sword edges
around Brunanburh. ASC
The wager of battle who towers
over the land, the royal progeny,
has felled three kings; the realm
passes top the kin of Ella. ES
5 – Egil was writing court poetry at that very time
Between arriving in Scotland & spending time with Athelstan (as given above) Egil found himself in York with Eric Bloodaxe, & ended up writing a substantial poem there. He’d got himself into a bit of bother alongside a certain Arinbjorn & ended up writing the poem to save their skins. The saga tells us;
Then they went in. Arinbjorn went before the king and saluted him. The king received him, and asked what he would have.
Arinbjorn said: ‘I lead hither one who has come a long way to seek thee in thy place, and to be reconciled to thee. Great is this honour to thee, my lord, when thine enemies travel of their own free will from other lands, and deem they cannot endure thy wrath though thou be nowhere near. Now show thyself princely to this man. Let him get of thee good terms, seeing that he hath so magnified thine honour, as thou now mayst see, by braving many seas and dangers to come hither from his own home. No compulsion drove him to this journey, nought but goodwill to thee.’
Then the king looked round, and saw over men’s heads where Egil stood. The king knew him at once, and, darting a keen glance at him, said: ‘How wert thou so bold, Egil, that thou daredst to come before me? Thy last parting from me was such that of life thou couldst have from me no hope.’
Then went Egil up to the table, and clasped the foot of the king. He then sang:
‘With cross-winds far cruising
I came on my wave-horse,
Eric England’s warder
Eager soon to see.
Now wielder of wound-flash,
Wight dauntless in daring,
That strong strand of Harold’s
Stout lineage I meet.’
King Eric said: ‘I need not to count the crimes on thy hands, for they are so many and great that each one might well warrant that thou go not hence alive. Thou hast nothing else to expect but that here thou must die. This thou mightest know before, that thou wouldst get no terms from me.’
Gunnhilda said: ‘Why shall not Egil be slain at once? Rememberest thou no more, O king, what Egil hath done to thee—slain thy friends and kin, ay, even thine own son to boot, and cursed thyself? Where ever was it known that a king was thus dealt with?’
Arinbjorn said: ‘If Egil have spoken evil of the king, for that he can now atone in words of praise that shall live for all time.’
Gunnhilda said: ‘We will hear none of his praise. O king, bid Egil be led out and beheaded. I will neither hear his words nor see him.’
Then said Arinbjorn: ‘The king will not let himself be egged on to all thy dastardly work. He will not have Egil slain by night, for night-slaying is murder.’
The king said: ‘So shall it be, Arinbjorn, as thou demandest. Egil shall live this night. Take thou him home with thee, and bring him to me in the morning.’
Arinbjorn thanked the king for his words: ‘We hope, my lord, that henceforth Egil’s cause will take a better turn. And though Egil has done great wrong against thee, yet look thou on this, that he has suffered much from thee and thy kin. King Harold thy father took the life of Thorolf, a man of renown, Egil’s father’s brother, for the slander of bad men, for no crime at all. And thou, O king, didst break the law in Egil’s case for the sake of Bergonund; nay further thou didst wish to doom his death, and didst slay his men, and plunder all his goods, and withal didst make him an outlaw and drive him from the land. And Egil is one who will stand no teasing. But in every cause under judgment one must look on the act with its reasons. I will now have Egil in keeping for the night.’
Then Arinbjorn and Egil went back to the house, and when they came in they two went into a small upper room and talked over this matter. Arinbjorn said: ‘The king just now was very wroth, yet methought his mood rather softened before the end, and fortune will now decide what may be the upshot. I know that Gunnhilda will set all her mind on marring your cause. Now I would fain that we take this counsel: that you be awake through the night, and compose a song of praise about king Eric. I should think it had best be a poem of twenty stanzas, and you might recite it to-morrow when we come before the king. Thus did Bragi my kinsman, when he was under the wrath of Bjorn king of Sweden; he composed a poem of praise about him in one night, and for it received his head. Now may we also have the same luck with the king, that you may make your peace with him, if you can offer him the poem of praise.’
Egil said: ‘I shall try this counsel that you wish, but ’twas the last thing I ever meant, to sing king Eric’s praises.’
Arinbjorn bade him try.
Then Arinbjorn went away, and had food and drink carried to the upper room. Egil was there alone for the night. Arinbjorn went to his men, and they sate over drink till midnight. Then Arinbjorn and his men went to the sleeping chambers, but before undressing he went up to the room to Egil, and asked how he was getting on with the poem.
Egil said that nothing was done. ‘Here,’ said he, ‘has sate a swallow by the window and twittered all night, so that I have never got rest for that same.’
Whereupon Arinbjorn went away and out by the door leading up to the house-roof, and he sate by the window of the upper room where the bird had before sate. He saw that something of a shape witch-possest moved away from the roof. Arinbjorn sate there by the window all night till dawn. But after Arinbjorn had come there, Egil composed all the poem, and got it so by heart that he could recite it in the morning when he met Arinbjorn. They watched for a fit time to go before the king.
King Eric went to table according to his wont, and much people were with him. And when Arinbjorn knew this, then went he with all his followers fully armed to the king’s palace while the king sate at table…. then Egil advanced before him and began the poem, and recited in a loud voice, and at once won silence.
‘Westward I sailed the wave,
Within me Odin gave
The sea of song I bear
(So ’tis my wont to fare):
I launched my floating oak
When loosening ice-floes broke,
My mind a galleon fraught
With load of minstrel thought.
‘A prince doth hold me guest,
Praise be his due confess’d:
Of Odin’s mead let draught
In England now be quaff’d.
Laud bear I to the king,
Loudly his honour sing;
Silence I crave around,
My song of praise is found.
‘Sire, mark the tale I tell,
Such heed beseems thee well;
Better I chaunt my strain,
If stillness hush’d I gain.
The monarch’s wars in word
Widely have peoples heard,
But Odin saw alone
Bodies before him strown.
‘Swell’d of swords the sound
Smiting bucklers round,
Fiercely waxed the fray,
Forward the king made way.
Struck the ear (while blood
Streamed from glaives in flood)
Iron hailstorm’s song,
Heavy, loud and long.
‘Lances, a woven fence,
Well-ordered bristle dense;
On royal ships in line
Exulting spearmen shine.
Soon dark with bloody stain
Seethed there an angry main,
With war-fleet’s thundering sound,
With wounds and din around.
‘Of men many a rank
Mid showering darts sank:
Glory and fame
Gat Eric’s name.
‘More may yet be told,
An men silence hold:
Further feats and glory,
Fame hath noised in story.
Warriors’ wounds were rife,
Where the chief waged strife;
Shivered swords with stroke
On blue shield-rims broke.
‘Breast-plates ringing crashed,
Burning helm-fire flashed,
Biting point of glaive
Bloody wound did grave.
Odin’s oaks (they say)
In that iron-play
Baldric’s crystal blade
Bowed and prostrate laid.
‘Spears crossing dashed,
Glory and fame
Gat Eric’s name.
‘Red blade the king did wield,
Ravens flocked o’er the field.
Dripping spears flew madly,
Darts with aim full deadly.
Scotland’s scourge let feed
Wolf, the Ogress’ steed:
For erne of downtrod dead
Dainty meal was spread.
O’er corse-strown lanes,
Found flesh-fowl’s bill
Of blood its fill.
While deep the wound
He delves, around
Grim raven’s beak
‘Axe furnished feast
For Ogress’ beast:
Eric on the wave
To wolves flesh-banquet gave.
‘Javelins flying sped,
Peace affrighted fled;
Bows were bent amain,
Wolves were battle-fain:
Spears in shivers split,
Sword-teeth keenly bit;
Archers’ strings loud sang,
Arrows forward sprang.
‘He back his buckler flings
From arm beset with rings,
Spiller of foemen’s blood.
(Witness true I bear),
East o’er billows came
Eric’s sounding name.
‘Bent the king his yew,
Bees wound-bearing flew:
Eric on the wave
To wolves flesh-banquet gave.
‘Yet to make more plain
I to men were fain
High-soul’d mood of king,
But must swiftly sing.
Weapons when he takes,
The battle-goddess wakes,
On ships’ shielded side
Streams the battle-tide.
‘Gems from wrist he gives,
Glittering armlets rives:
Loves not hoarding miser.
Frodi’s flour of gold
Gladdens rovers bold;
Prince bestoweth scorning
‘Foemen might not stand
For his deathful brand;
Yew-bow loudly sang,
Sword-blades meeting rang.
Lances aye were cast,
Still he the land held fast,
Proud Eric prince renowned;
And praise his feats hath crowned.
‘Monarch, at thy will
Judge my minstrel skill:
Silence thus to find
Sweetly cheered my mind.
Moved my mouth with word
From my heart’s ground stirred,
Draught of Odin’s wave
Due to warrior brave.
‘Silence I have broken,
A sovereign’s glory spoken:
Words I knew well-fitting
Praise from heart I bring,
Praise to honoured king:
Plain I sang and clear
Song that all could hear.’
King Eric sate upright while Egil recited the poem, and looked keenly at him. And when the song of praise was ended, then spake the king: ‘Right well was the poem recited; and now, Arinbjorn, I have resolved about the cause between me and Egil, how it shall go. Thou hast pleaded Egil’s cause with great eagerness, since thou offerest to risk a conflict with me. Now shall I for thy sake do what thou hast asked, letting Egil go from my land safe and unhurt. But thou, Egil, so order thy going that, after leaving my presence and this hall, thou never come before my eyes, nor my sons’ eyes, nor be ever in the way of myself or my people. But I give thee now thy head this time for this reason, that thou camest freely into my power. I will do no dastardly deed on thee; yet know thou this for sure, that this is no reconciliation with me or my sons or any of our kin who wish to wreak their vengeance.’
Then sang Egil:
‘Loth am I in nowise,
Though in features loathly,
Helm-capt head in pardon
From high king to take.
Who can boast that ever
Better gift he won him,
From a lordly sovereign’s
Arinbjorn thanked the king with many fair words for the honour and friendship that he had shown him. Then they two, Arinbjorn and Egil, went back to Arinbjorn’s house. After that Arinbjorn bade horses be made ready for his people. He rode away with Egil, and a hundred fully armed men with him. Arinbjorn rode with that force till they came to king Athelstan, where they were well received. The king asked Egil to remain with him, and inquired how it had gone between him and king Eric. Whereupon Egil sang:
‘Egil his eyes black-browed
From Eric, raven’s friend,
Welcomed. Wise help therein
Wife’s loyal kin lent.
My head, throne of helmet,
An heritage noble,
As erst, from rough rainstorm
To rescue I knew.’
I know thats quite a large extract, but its all pretty interesting stuff. I’ve put it in early to show how there is so much to the Brunanburh case as yet to be uncovered. Up until now, the best academics in the field halted before the Brunanburh poem’s author & declared him ‘unknowable.’ However, by simply suggesting that it could be Egil , suddenly all the strands of evidence suddenly coalesce & make him the clear favorite. Saying that, whether he wrote it or not matters little… for it is through his presence at Brunanburh that we shall now gain a whole heap of new clues with which to ascertain where the battle took place.
I hate to be a broken record, but you are continuing to ignore the absolutely central etymological problem of associating anything “brun” to “brunanburh.” Until you can comprehend and solve that problem all of this is just idle speculation without a shred of the linguistic grounding that it needs to merit serious consideration and a reopening of the case Michael Livingston
Last night I caught a train to Preston from Edinburgh, & spent the entire journey immersed in the letters of Rabbie Burns, food for a poetic project I have in mind for this month. My other project, of course, is a complete & thorough ltiological dig thro the mud & guts of Brunanburh, & where better to proceed than in my hometown of Burnley. I mean, when Albert Schliemann started digging for Troy, he chose a site that the Roman’s called ‘New Troy,’ i.e. Hissalrik hill in NW Turkey. Similarily, when John of Fordun called the battle ‘Brunford,’ & William Malmesbury ‘Bruneford’ then we are looking for a site at the ford of a river called Brun.
There is only one waterway by that name in the whole of Britain, rising on a hill known as Black Hameldon, on moorland a few miles to the west of the modern town of Burnley. It is the shortest river in the country, passing though the pretty villages of Worsthorne & Hurstwood, before entering Burnley itself, where it joins with the River Calder. A few miles later, the Calder enters the Ribble, which then reaches the Irish Sea at Preston, 30 miles from the Brun’s moorland headwaters. Another historian to place the battle by a river-ford was Ranulf Higden (c. 1280 – March 12, 1364), an English chronicler and a Benedictine monk of the monastery of St. Werburgh at Chester. He gave the variant spelling of Brumford, & coincidence or not, at the very period in history, in a 1294 market charter, Burnley was known as Brumleye. In a similar fashion, a 1258 version of Burnley – Bronley – is reflected in the work of the English historian Peter Langtoft, who in that very same period named Brunanburh as Bronneburgh.
It is apparent that the ‘Brunan’ element of Brunanburh devolved into ‘Brune,’ as in Malmesbury’s Bruneford & the ‘Bellum Brune’ of the Annals Cambraie. Of this particluar spelling, the noted Brunanburh specialist, Paul Cavill, writes, ‘the charter forms & Scottish traditions with spellings like Bruningafeld reinforce that the first element of Brunanburh is most likely to be a personal name Bruna or a river name Brune.’ From here we take the simple step of dropping an end vowel, leaving us with the snappier Brun. A similar process occurred when the Ottanlege of 972 became Otelai in the Doomsday Book of 1086. Likewise, Ottanmere,as found in unprinted Beckley charter of 1005-11, would later become Otmoor, though I haven’t yet established the earliest record of its modernized name. Now let us look at those dates again
It is clear that between 1010 & 1086, the Old English ‘-n’ element was dropped completely, & of course the Norman invasion of England kicked off between these dates , a moment which propelled off the evolution of Anglo-Saxon speech into a French inspired Middle English. By the later 12th century, the superflous vowel remaining from ‘-an’ was then removed, leaving us with the snappier Brun & Ot. Looking at the evidence, then, the leading contender for the Battle of Brunanburh based purely on verifiable historical & etymological grounds just has to be Burnley & the only River Brun in the country.
So thats far so good…
Bibliography Arkell, WJ – Place-Names and Topography in the Upper Thames Country (1942)
Bennett, W, – History of Burnley (1946)
Cavill, P – The Place-Name Debate – found in ‘The Battle of Brunanburh, a Casebook (ed. M Livingstone, 2011)
I have just taken my seat in the upper reaches of the National Library of Scotland, five hours before my train leaves Edinburgh for Lancashire & Burnley. before me lie several books (see list at bottom), in which I hope to find some last minute crystal to sprinkle throughout my third, 18-part historical blockbuster of the winter : Brunanburh, 937 AD. The name is that of a long-thought-lost fortification, in whose vicinity was fought one of the most important battles in British history. It was fought somewhere in England, with the Anglo-Saxons, led by King Athelstan, facing off against a northern confederation of Scots, Picts & Cumbrians, who had allied themselves to the tenacious energy & drive off Analf, a Viking king based in Dublin who had also momentarily managed to unite the entire Viking world behind him . The result was a comprehensive victory for the Saxons, confirming the conquests made by Alfred the Great, which had been added to by Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan. Since then, the borders of Britain’s three nations have been more or less constant, & one could admit that the Battle of Brunanburh was the moment that the British Isles were truly born.
At the end of the above programme, Michael Wood flies above South Yorkshire in a helicopter looking a bit like David Hasslehoff in a pair of massive sunnys. Landing in a field near a place called Brinsworth, he proudly postulates that the great battle of Brunanburh was fought in that place. In later life he changed his mind, & the location of the Battlefield remains an antique mystery that, although not quite as famous as the Quest for the Holy Grail, has still tested the best of minds. The most recent effort was made by Andrew Breeze, who pushed a new candidate into the mix, Lanchester. His reasoning comes from the fact that there is a River Browney & a dark-age fortification in the area.
Andrew’s effort is yet another continuation of the tradition among Brunanburh theorists to speculate wildly upon one location, while ignoring the rest of the facts left to us by posterity. After reading this, Andrew even commented (see below) with;
I am Andrew Breeze, and do not think that I speculate, wildly or otherwise. I believe that I reach my conclusions by the use of coherent thought and consequent reasoning. Of those who dispute this, let us see not what they say, but what they can prove.
I, too, am a Brunanburh theorist, & for the past 4 & 1/2 years or so have been investigating the possibility that Brunanburh is somehow collected to Brunley, the oldest recorded name of my hometown, Burnley. Last year I made some crucial new discoveries, which have really fortified all my previous studies, & I now feel more-than-ready to thrash out my theory for an unsuspecting world. I say unsuspecting, because boy, by digging deep into the Brunanburh question I have answered several other mysteries, & I feel these next 18 posts will increase our knowledge of the Dark Ages no end. My investigations will also show how much undiscovered history can be contained in the philology of place-names, & as every new ‘coincidence’ racked up in favour of Burnley, I really felt the validation of my pioneering efforts in the new field of Chispology.
So, let us start at the beginning then, & the first mention of Brunanburh we get. This is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that wonderful storehouse of early English history without which the Dark Ages would have been even darker. The entry for 937 is actually one of the most famous pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the first, & best, of a series composed throughout the 10th century that celebrated the greatest deeds of the Anglo-Saxon Kings. Most entries in the ASC were written in rather mundane prose, but the rendering of certain events in poetry amplified their cultural importance, for it is only the Pegasus-flight of the poetic voice that can truly record the passions felt by nations at such times. It reads;
In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors, ring-giver to men, and his brother also, Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory in battle with sword edges around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall, they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers. The sons of Eadweard, it was only befitting their noble descent from their ancestors that they should often defend their land in battle against each hostile people, horde and home. The enemy perished, Scots men and seamen, fated they fell. The field flowed with blood of warriors, from sun up in the morning, when the glorious star glided over the earth, God’s bright candle, eternal lord, till that noble creation sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior by spears destroyed; Northern men shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well, weary, war sated. The West-Saxons pushed onward all day; in troops they pursued the hostile people. They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind with swords sharp from the grinding. The Mercians did not refuse hard hand-play to any warrior who came with Anlaf over the sea-surge in the bosom of a ship, those who sought land, fated to fight. Five lay dead on the battle-field, young kings, put to sleep by swords, likewise also seven of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army, sailors and Scots. There the North-men’s chief was put to flight, by need constrained to the prow of a ship with little company: he pressed the ship afloat, the king went out on the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life. Likewise, there also the old campaigner through flight came to his own region in the north–Constantine– hoary warrior. He had no reason to exult the great meeting; he was of his kinsmen bereft, friends fell on the battle-field, killed at strife: even his son, young in battle, he left in the place of slaughter, ground to pieces with wounds. That grizzle-haired warrior had no reason to boast of sword-slaughter, old deceitful one, no more did Anlaf; with their remnant of an army they had no reason to laugh that they were better in deed of war in battle-field–collision of banners, encounter of spears, encounter of men, trading of blows–when they played against the sons of Eadweard on the battle field. Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships. The dejected survivors of the battle, sought Dublin over the deep water, over Dinges mere to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit. Likewise the brothers, both together, King and Prince, sought their home, West-Saxon land, exultant from battle. – wessex They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses, the dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven and the dusky-coated one, the eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion, greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal the wolf in the forest. Never was there more slaughter on this island, never yet as many people killed before this with sword’s edge: never according to those who tell us from books, old wisemen, since from the east Angles & Saxons came up over the broad sea. Britain they sought, Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh, glorious warriors they took hold of the land.
Let the games begin…
Last minute study list
The Viking Age in the Isle of Man – David M Wilson 1974 Skaldic Verse & Anglo-Saxon history – Alistair Campbell 1970 Wace’s Roman de Brut – – tr. Judith Weiss 2002 Cartularium Saxonicum (2) Walter De Gray Birch 1893