Friday, 1 October 2010

Sources for the battle (or 'Great War')

The fact that people remembered this momentous battle as 'the Great War' long afterwards suggests that, in addition to it being perhaps fought over two dreadful days, there must have been alot of military jockeying for position between Athelstan's army of Wessex/Mercians and the Hiberno-Norse alliance?

Rumours abounded in the spring and summer of 937 from merchants and traders that Scots are mobilising troops and that Norse Irishmen are pressing men and building a huge fleet.
(Late September? Olaf Guthrithsson was known to be suppressing revolting Irish and press-ganging recruits in Dublin in August- “breaking their ships”)

In common with William of Malmesbury, the Egils Saga refers to a land invasion of Northumbria:

‘…the king of the Scots got a great army together and then went south into England, plundering everywhere as soon as he came to Northumberland [sic]’.

The OE poem describes only the battle rather than the whole campaign but while Anlaf G is several times associated with the sea or boats, Causantín is not, and of his retreat from the battlefield the poem records simply that he-

 ‘went in flight north into his own land’.

John of Worcester stated that Anlaf arrived with a fleet at ‘the urging’ of Causantín: …On any reasonable construction of this sentence Causantín had to be elsewhere than with Anlaf.
The Durham Historia Regum made explicit the separation implied by the earlier chronicler, suggesting no link between the northern kings and a fleet; 

‘…King Athelstan…put to flight King Anlaf with 615 ships and also Causantín, king of the Scots, and the king of the Cumbrians, with all their host’


William of Malmesbury gives an account of the later King Edgar’s royal fleets in the 960's-70's;-

“ Every summer, immediately after the Easter festival,  he [Edgar] used to order a gathering of the ships on every coast, his custom being to go with the eastern fleet to the western part of the island [Britain], and when that had been patrolled, to make with the western fleet for the northern, and then with the northern fleet for the eastern, his virtuous purpose to find out whether pirates were giving any trouble.”

Pre-battle parlez?

Egil Skallagrimsson, the Icelandic warrior-poet serving king Athelstan, stated in his Saga (sometimes sounding like folk-tale rather than fact), says that prior to engaging the enemy, king Athelstan and his war council;-

“… sent an envoy to king Olifr to deliver a message that king Abalsteinn wishes to `hazel out' a battlefield for him, and challenge him to battle on Vinheibr by Vinuskogar and that he wishes that they should not raid his land, and that whoever has victory in the battle should rule over England.

He stipulated that a week was to elapse before they should meet in battle, but that whoever should arrive first should wait for his opponent for a week. 

And it was the custom then that once a field was `hazelled' for a king, that he could not raid without dishonour before the battle was ended.
King Olafr complied and halted his army, did not raid, and waited for the appointed day. 

Then he moved his army to Vinheiðr. A fort stood to the north of the heath. King Olafr established himself there in the fort, and had the greatest part of his host there, because around it was a wide expanse of country, and to him it seemed better there for supplying provisions which the army needed to have. 

And he sent men of his up onto the heath where a place had been arranged for the battle. They were to select tent sites, and make ready before the rest of their army came up. 

But when those men came to the place where the field was hazelled, there were hazel stakes set up there over the entire area to mark off where the battle was to be.
It was necessary to take care in picking out the place, so that it should be level where a great army was to assemble. 

Where the battle was to be it was in fact the case that there was a level heath, but on one side of it a river flowed down and on the other side of it was a great wood. But where it was the shortest distance between the wood and the river, and that was a very long space, there king Malsteinn's men had pitched their tents, so that they stretched the whole way between the wood and the river. 

They had set up their tents in such a way that there were no men in every third tent, and few in any of them at that.
And when king Olafr's men came up to them, they had a crowd of men in front of all the tents, and Olafr's men could not go into them.
Aðalsteinn's men said that all their tents were full of men, so that their troop had hardly any space there. But their tents were so high that one could not see up over them to find out whether they were many or a few rows deep. 

They thought that there must be a great host of men there. King Olafr's men pitched their tents north of the hazels; and all the way to that point the land sloped downward somewhat. 

Aðalsteinn's men said day after day that their king was on the point of arriving or had arrived at the fort which lay to the south of the heath. Reinforcements joined them both day and night. 

When the time agreed upon had elapsed, king Aðalsteinn's men send messengers to meet with king Olafr with these words, that king Aðalsteinn is ready for battle and has an immense army, but he sends word to king Olafr that he did not wish that they should engage in such a great slaughter as was impending.  

He proposed that Olafr should rather go home to Scotland, and Aðalsteinn will give him as a pledge of friendship a silver shilling for every plough of land in his kingdom and he wishes that they would establish friendship between them.  But when the messengers reach king Olafr, he had begun to make ready his army, and intended to ride out; but when they delivered his message, the king halted his movement for that day.  

He sat in council, the leaders of the army with him.  Men were of entirely different opinions.  Some were very eager that they should accept his offer.  

They said that it would have turned out a most successful expedition if they returned home after receiving such a great payment from Aðalsteinn.  Some held back and said that Aðalsteinn would offer much more the next time if this was not accepted; and the latter counsel was adopted.  

Then the messengers asked king Olafr to grant them time to meet with king Aðalsteinn again, and find out whether he was willing to pay out more in order that there might be peace.  They asked for a truce of one day for riding back, a second day for discussion, and a third for the return journey.  The king granted them that…”

But king Athelstan was playing for time and deceived Olaf, who realised it too late...

Could such a thing have happened?

Site of the battle (Sheffield)?

Egil Skallagrimsson (910-990), the Icelandic warrior-poet in King Athelstan's service, stated in his saga that the English marched up a long slope and formed on the long ridge of the hill with a river to their right (r.Rother?) and a dense wood to their left (Tinsley forest?), with a fort (old Roman- Templeborough?) on top ('Weondun'[holy hill] as northerners later stated). 

This fort was probably one of the old roman frontier forts along what was the southern edge of Northumbria on the border with Northern Mercia, where King Edward 'the Elder' had built frontier forts decades earlier?
In front the land sloped away towards a distant town. Could this ridge/battle-site have been Brinsworth (Rotherham)? 'worth' and 'burh' are OE so Brinsburh could be Brunan-burh.

Michael Wood, in his book 'In Search of England', (and 1981 TV series In Search of the Dark Ages”) makes the case for Brinsworth/Catcliffe, between Sheffield & Rotherham, south of the confluence between the rivers Don and Rother (the latter snakes around White Hill), where there was a huge, strategic old Roman fort (one of many in this region [built by Ath’s father] during a “dark age Vietnam” as Wood says) on the top of White Hill near the old Roman road, called Brynesford in the DD Book of 1086. 
In Anglo-Saxon times it was called Brunesfort- the personal name of Brunan Burh, as Wood says.
Local Sheffield/Rotherham legend mentions a 'Scots army' that camped on Templeborough (an old local Roman fort);-

"...In the third part of  ‘In Search of England’, Wood writes about places that illuminate interesting aspects of early England: Tinsley Wood, near Sheffield, which has been claimed as the site of Athelstan's great victory against the Celts in 937…”

AH Burne also suggests the mid-'England' site, near Sheffield, as the most likely Brunanburh battle-site. Assuming the alliance was to capture London, the old Roman 'great north road' (today's great A1 road) of eastern Britain from York would be a natural path, then as now.

The lie of the land here also fits perfectly with Sturlasson’s geographical description (fought down a hill, with forest and river on either side). Two transverse roads, the Via Devana and Watling Street, would have allowed Athelstan to block Olaf whichever route he took south. 

This is A.P.Smyth’s suggested site for the battle – the Northamptonshire/Huntingdonshire border.
There is a forest (called Bruneswald)  and between rivers Nene and Ouse.

Two invasions in 937??

A plausible re-assessment of the Brunanburh campaign, based upon what we know from the sources, is that there was possibly two invasions in 937.  

Not later than August, Constantine of Scotland and Owain of British Strathclyde,  possibly accompanied by Anlaf Sihtricson, struck into northern Northumbria, raiding extensively before moving to rendezvous with Anlaf G’s fleet on its arrival in September?

It is reasonable to assume that Athelstan responded by summoning his West Saxon and Mercian contingents, (Athelstan also hired mercenaries, incl. the Icelandic Viking Egil Skallagrimsson and 300 men with him) perhaps to Winchester and Nottingham as in 934, before marching north with this huge army to meet the invaders. 

At news of Athelstan’s approach the coalition might reasonably in military strategy, have retreated further north to 'their lands' (the Danelaw side of the Mercia-Northumbrian border?), the adoption of some such defensive strategy being implicit in the OE poem and in the Latin poem’s account of the reaction to Athelstan’s approach:

 ‘The report of their conspicuous approach terrified the thieves, this clamour so shook the plundering legions, that, abandoning their spoils, they sought their own lands’