The Battle of Brunanburh

These hypertext pages present the text of the Old-English poem The Battle of Brunanburh along with translations and background information.

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The Battle of Brunanburh

The physical details of the battle at Brunanburh are scanty. History reveals the date (937 A.D.) and the names of the important leaders: Aethelstan and Eadmund leading the English; Constantine and Anlaf leading the Picts and Vikings. But the impetus for the battle is conjecture, as is its location.

That the battle was an event of great cultural significance is clear from the tone of the poem. A close reading of The Battle of Brunanburh, combined with historical knowledge of the reigns of Alfred, Eadweard and Aethelestan, suggests that Britain, which had previously been a loose confederation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (known as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy), had finally become a unified kingdom capable of celebrating its national and artistic maturity.

The poem is recorded in four manuscript copies of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is not clear whether the poem was written specifically for the Chronicle or whether it was an independent piece that was incorporated into later manuscript copies of the Chronicle (a distinct possibility). Regardless, it survives as the sole entry for the year 937.

The poem is both self-consciously artistic, with strict meter and high poetic diction, and politically aware. It is self-conscious poetry that seeks to legitimize the focus of its praise, the reigning aristocracy, and to instill national pride in its audience. The poem commemorates the martial prowess of a well-governed people and demonstrates its artistic skill as well.

The Battle of Brunanburh

To see translations, click on difficult lines.

Her Aethelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,
beorna beag-giefa, and his brothor eac,
Eadmund aetheling, ealdor-langetir
geslogon aet saecce sweorda ecgum
ymbe Brunanburh. Bord-weall clufon,
heowon heathu-linde hamora lafum
eaforan Eadweardes, swa him ge-aethele waes
fram cneo-magum thaet hie aet campe oft
with lathra gehwone land ealgodon,
hord and hamas. Hettend crungon,
Scotta leode and scip-flotan,
faege feollon. Feld dennode
secga swate siththan sunne upp
on morgen-tid, maere tungol,
glad ofer grundas, Godes candel beorht,
eces Dryhtnes, oth seo aethele gesceaft
sag to setle. Thaer laeg secg manig
garum agieted, guma Northerna
ofer scield scoten, swelce Scyttisc eac,
werig, wiges saed.

West-Seaxe forth
andlange daeg eorod-cystum
on last legdon lathum theodum,
heowon here-flieman hindan thearle
mecum mylen-scearpum. Mierce ne wierndon
heardes hand-plegan haeletha nanum
thara-the mid Anlafe ofer ear-gebland
on lides bosme land gesohton,
faege to gefeohte. Fife lagon
on tham camp-stede cyningas geonge,
sweordum answefede, swelce seofone eac
eorlas Anlafes, unrim herges,
flotena and Scotta. Thaere gefliemed wearth
North-manna brego, niede gebaeded,
to lides stefne lytle weorode;
cread cnear on flot, cyning ut gewat
on fealone flod, feorh generede.
Swelce thaere eac se froda mid fleame com
on his cyththe north, Constantinus,
har hilde-rinc. Hreman ne thorfte
meca gemanan; he waes his maga sceard,
freonda gefielled on folc-stede,
beslaegen aet saecce, and his sunu forlet
on wael-stowe wundum forgrunden,
geongne aet guthe. Gielpan ne thorfte
beorn blanden-feax bill-gesliehtes,
eald inwitta, ne Anlaf thy ma;
mid hira here-lafum hliehhan ne thorfton
thaet hie beadu-weorca beteran wurdon
on camp-stede cumbol-gehnastes,
gar-mittunge, gumena gemotes,
waepen-gewrixles, thaes hie on wael-felda
with Eadweardes eaforan plegodon.

Gewiton him tha North-menn naegled-cnearrum,
dreorig darotha laf, on Dinges mere
ofer deop waeter Dyflin secan,
eft Ira lang aewisc-mode.
Swelce tha gebrothor begen aetsamne,
cyning and aetheling, cyththe sohton,
West Seaxna lang, wiges hremge.
Leton him behindan hraew bryttian
sealwig-padan, thone sweartan hraefn
hyrned-nebban, and thone hasu-padan,
earn aeftan hwit, aeses brucan,--
graedigne guth-hafoc, and thaet graege deor,
wulf on wealda.

Ne wearth wael mare
on thys ig-lande aefre gieta
folces gefielled beforan thissum
sweordes ecgum, thaes-the us secgath bec,
eald uthwitan, siththan eastan hider
Engle and Seaxe upp becomon,
ofer brad brimu Britene sohton,
wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,
eorlas ar-hwaete eard begeaton.

The Battle of Brunanburh

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,
leaving 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.
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 and 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.