8 – Northumbria
In my last post I showed how the main shaker among the Vikings, Analf Guthfrithsson, was positively placed at York in the year of Brunanburh, but before the battle. I also showed how this connected with the mention, by several early Northumbrian historians, that Analf appeared off the Humber estuary with a massive invasion fleet. So… before we continue our pursuit of the battlefield’s location, let us look at that particular portion of the campaign in more detail.
The first blows of the epic struggle landed in Northumbria. We must remember here that Egil’s saga seems to merge the confederate kings into the single figure of Olaf King of Scots, who…
…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.
This victory is remembered in the Viking sagas. It reminds me a little of Ligny, Napoleon’s last victory fought against the Prussians on the 16th June 1815, two days before Waterloo. According to both Ragnar Lothbrok’s saga & the Jomsvikinga Saga, a battle was fought north of in Cleveland in the year of Brunanburh, which may be a match to the one mentioned in Egil’s Saga. The Jomsvikinga also adds;
At that time King Aethelstan was ruling England. He was a good King and old. Towards the end of his time a Danish army came to England, led by sons of King Gorm, Knut and Harald. They harried all over Northumberland, subjected a large dominion and counted it as there legitimate family inheritance, as it had belonged to the sons of Earl Lothbrok and other ancestors of theirs.
Another source for the same events is a Latin poem discovered by William of Malmesbury & inserted into his ‘Chronicle’
His subjects governing with justest sway,
Tyrants o’erawed, twelve years had pass’d away,
When Europe’s noxious pestilence stalk’d forth.
And pour’d the barbarous legions from the North.
Then pirate Anlaf the briny surge
Forsakes, while deeds of desperation urge.
Her king consenting, Scotia’s land receives
The frantic madman and his horde of thieves:
Now flush’d with insolence, they shout and boast,
And drive the harmless natives from the coast.
Thus while the king, secure in youthful pride,
Bade the soft hours in gentle pleasure glide,
Though erst he stemm’d the battle’s furious tide,
With ceaseless plunder sped the daring horde,
And wasted districts with their fire and sword.
The verdant crops lay withering on the fields,
The glebe no promise to the rustic yields.
The road to York was firmly open, the region abandoned by its Athelstan-appointed Earls. Ragnar Lothbrok had taken the great Roman-hewn city of York for the Vikings in 876, but it had been seized by Athelstan in 927. We do not possess any other detail than Analf being in York, but one presumes that his fleet sailed up the umber’s great estuary, the longboats having entered the navigable waters of the River Ouse, & rowed all the way to the capital of Jorvik itself. In 937 it was a melting-pot of a metropolis, surrounded by Roman walls, housing 30,000 souls in its squallid streets.
The 615-ship-strong Viking fleet would have numbered about 30,000 men, doubling the population of York. A typical viking longboat has room for 30-40 oarsmen, plus a little extra space for cargo & passengers. Some longboats were much bigger, however, with up to 64 oarsmen. An average of 50 men per boats is a fine figure, which multiplied by 615 gives us 30,750. These warriors would have been added to the combined armies of Constantine & Owen of Strathclyde, which according to Malmesbury’s Latin poem would have been 70,000 strong (100,000 minus 30,000), as in;
Immense the numbers of barbarian force,
Countless the squadrons both of foot and horse.
His hardy force, a hundred thousand strong
Whom standards hasten to the fight along.
For the British Isles, that was a massive army; 50,000 met at Towton in the Civil War, at Flodden there were 40,000 Scots & Boudicca assembled an army of 80,000 to face Suetonius. But the Confederation had got six figures on the board, with York being retaken in the process. For Athelstan & his fledgling English empire, the pressure was well & truly on. Analf has assembled a massive army, including warriors drawn from all across the Viking world, from Ireland to Denmark, but as we now know, it was destined for defeat : any general will tell you they would prefer to command a small, unified army with a central command, than a larger army led by several parties.
Anyhows, after the Confederation had combined at York, it was time to take on Athelstan, a long-awaited showdown which – as history tells us – would be fought ipon English soil somewhere near a fortification called Brunanburh.
Jomsvikinga Saga – (Ed – N F Blake 1962)
William of Malmesbury – Chronicle of the kings of Britain
& here’s a few photos Ive been taking recently… pictorial momentos of my litological dig, so to speak