Battle of Brunanburh, The

Battle of Brunanburh, The
(10th century)
   The Battle of Brunanburh is an OLD ENGLISH poem of 73 lines celebrating the great victory of Athaelstan, king of Wessex (and grandson of ALFRED THE GREAT), with his brother Edmund, over the combined forces of Olaf Guthfitharson, the Norse king of Dublin (called Anlaf in the poem), and Constantine II, king of Scotland. Unlike the rather inconsequential engagement similarly celebrated in The BATTLE OF MALDON, Athelstan’s victory over the Danes and Scots was a turning point in English history—it ensured that Northumbria, which had sworn allegiance to Anlaf,would ultimately remain a part of a unified England.
   The poem is preserved in four manuscripts of the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE, where it is inserted as the entry for the year 937.Whether it was produced specifically for the chronicle, or whether the chronicler found a copy of the poem separately and elected to include it, is unknown. In either case, the poet treats the subject matter with high seriousness, in a strict traditional heroic verse that by the 10th century was somewhat archaic. An independent account of the battle, largely fictionalized, occurs in the Old Norse EGIL’S SAGA, where Egil is described as taking part in the battle on Athelstan’s side. But despite the multiple historical sources, the location of the battle has been the subject of some controversy. The poem merely records that the battle took place “around Brunanburh” (that is, Brown’s fort), near a “Sea of Storm.” The 12th-century chronicler Florence ofWorcester claimed that the battle had occurred near the mouth of the Humber River on England’s east coast. But modern scholars favor a site in the west, probably north of Chester and perhaps as far north as the Scottish lowlands.
   The poem begins with generous praise of the valor and warlike qualities of Athelstan and his brother Edmund and of the whole royal house of Wessex. The battle is then described, with the grim slaughter of Viking and Scottish nobility and the ignominious flight from the battlefield by the Norsemen and the Scots. The poet jeers ironically as the Vikings return in their ships to Dublin, while their fallen sons and kinsmen await the devouring ravens and wolves.
   The ending is perhaps the most unusual part of the poem, for here the poet goes beyond praising the reigning noble house for its victory and conceives of the battle as a triumph for the entire English nation. It reflects a new national consciousness, one that must have been building since the loose confederation of seven Anglo-Saxon monarchies had first united under Alfred the Great. Perhaps it was this nationalistic tone that caught the attention of Tennyson, who published his own modern translation of the poem in 1876. Doubtless the poem’s attraction for him was that here, for the first time, a national poet speaks with authority and confidence about the aspirations of the English nation as one people.
   ■ Campbell,Alistair, ed. The Battle of Brunanburh. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
   ■ Muir, Bernard James, ed. Leo´?: Six Old English Poems: A Handbook. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1989.
   ■ Rodrigues, Louis J., trans. Three Anglo-Saxon Battle Poems. Felinfach, U.K.: Llanerch Publishers, 1996.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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