Æthelstan the Glorious: part 2 – Brunanburh

Picture Antonio Borrillo

The battle that would define Æthelstan’s reign took place at Brunanburh. For a century and more, people talking of it simply had to say ‘the great battle’ and everyone would have known of what they spoke. After it was over, five kings and seven earls lay dead on the field of blood. Æthelstan and his weary men held the field, as Olaf Guthfrithson, the Viking King of Dublin, fled in a boat with his few remaining men back to Ireland, and King Constantine of Scotland spurred his horse north, leaving his dead son behind.

Brunanburgh was perhaps the most significant battle along the long road to making of England a country. Now, in the 21st millennium, after centuries united, we find it difficult to imagine just how remarkable this was. But England is the oldest unified country in Europe, its roots so deep we barely see them. It was Alfred, Edward, Æthelflæd and Æthelstan who planted the tree and rooted it, and Æthelstan who, at Brunanburgh, defended it when the axe was poised to bring it down before it had chance to make those roots firm. Those roots have become so strong that few even remember who planted them and even the location of the ‘great battle’ has been forgotten.

As Æthelstan leaned on his sword, looking over the carnage, he must have felt his age. He was 43, a young man no longer, and his life had been one of toil. Giving thanks to God for victory, his memory turned also to his grandfather, and he remembered…


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