Long was prophesied the time when they will come,
rulers by right of descent taking their possession,
men of the North in a place of honour around them;
in the centre of their van they will advance. […]
There will be spear-thrusts, a fierce flood.
No friend will spare the body of his enemy.
There will be heads split open, without brains.
There will be women widowed and horses riderless.
There will be terrible wailing before the rush of warriors,
and a multitude wounded by hand before the hosts part.
Armes Prydein Vawr (tenth century)1
When, in 920, Edward the Elder finally received the submission of the north, Northumbria had been subject to Viking conquest, settlement and rule for half a century. In the years that followed the capture of York by the micel here in 866, power in Northumbria appears to have been shared in an untidy fashion among a number of groups, competing or cooperating as circumstances dictated. There were native Northumbrian rulers (Ecgbert I, Ricsige, Ecgbert II), as well as a separate dynasty that retained a power-base at Bamburgh in the north of the kingdom. Then there were the bishops of Northumbria – at Lindisfarne and York – and also, probably, those leaders of the micel here who had not gone south with the army to Mercia, East Anglia or Wessex. In 874, however, a new ‘big beast’ reappeared on the scene: Halfdan, supposed son of Ragnar Loðbrók, and one of the leaders of the army that had captured York in 866, came north from the capture of Repton with an army.2 He camped on the Tyne, overrunning northern Northumbria before raiding and briefly occupying Pictavia (during the reign of Cinaed’s son, Constantín I) and attacking the new kingdom of Strathclyde.3
From this point onwards, and particularly from 876 when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Halfdan began to ‘share out the land’ of Northumbria, men with Scandinavian names began to be recognized as the prime movers in the kingdom, particularly in those territories centred on York.4The years that followed saw Halfdan succeeded by a line of Viking kings – Guthfrith, Siefred and Cnut – about whom very little is known. What can be seen, however, is that, like Guthrum–Æthelstan in East Anglia, these were men who outwardly embraced the Christian Church and what is more, the Church – so it would seem – had begun to embrace them back.
A sense of ecclesiastical investment in the way this new royal power was framed can be seen in a remarkable description in the Historia Sancti Cuthberti (a history of the see of St Cuthbert, dating from the mid-tenth to mid-eleventh century) describing the circumstances of Guthfrith’s elevation to the throne in 877. It is not a very reliable source – neither in general nor within the bounds of the specific anecdote that follows – but it does tell us something about how power was being brokered in the north in those days, about the unlikely accommodations that were being reached. Once again, the discorporate form of our old friend St Cuthbert is on hand, still apparently taking an active interest in British politics, this time appearing:
by night to the holy abbot of Carlisle, whose name was Eadred, [and] firmly enjoining him as follows: ‘Go,’ he said, ‘across the Tyne to the army of the Danes, and say to them that, if they will obey me, they are to point out to you a certain boy, Guthfrith, Hardacnut’s son […] and at the sixth hour lead him before the whole multitude, that they may elect him king. And at the ninth hour lead him with the whole army on to the hill which is called “Oswiu’s down” [Oswigesdune], and there place on his right arm a gold armlet, and thus they all may appoint him as king.’5
This, the Historia relates, is exactly what Eadred did and, naturally, the Viking army was perfectly happy with this arrangement. Guthfrith was duly made king with ‘the great goodwill of the whole multitude’.6 There are glimpses here, perhaps, of rituals of power being enacted – a glimpse of the royal theatre through which rulership was expressed and validated in the febrile climate of Viking-dominated late ninth-century Northumbria.
Guthfrith ascends the mound, the skies grey and pregnant with rain. A bracing wind is blowing from the west. As the abbot speaks, the syllables of Latin tumble away on the breeze, away from the ears of the uncomprehending multitude who shuffle, cold and confused, their spear-points glinting dully in the leaden light. Dew seeps into woollen cloaks and leather shoes, perfumed with the loamy scent of earth. Some of them know why this place is powerful, but all of them feel it; they know that the dead who sleep under soil have a presence that can touch the living, and this mound is named for a king.7
Guthfrith takes the golden ring from the priest. He holds it aloft and a brief shaft of sunlight catches it, burning it for a moment with amber fire. Suddenly a rumble begins, swords on steel rims, ash on linden, a forest thunder. It builds until the hills echo with it, rolling from the fells and dales, crows startled, wheeling from the woods. Guðfrið smiles; he places the ring upon his arm and draws his sword, a silver fish in rapids, dancing in the daylight. A cry of exultation breaks forth, a roar like the falling of trees, rising skyward from a thousand wolfish throats, announcing the birth of a king.
There are fewer reasons to doubt the circumstantial details of the Historia than there are reasons to scorn the political and supernatural stories it weaves, and there is the glimmer of truth about the image that the Historia obliquely conjures. Taken alongside what we have encountered already of the militarized nature of the body politic – the weapon-waving, the threat and application of violence – we can perhaps see hints of a Viking ceremony of king-making that was a far cry from the democratic fantasies of the Victorian era, where rough but hearty farmers gathered to settle their affairs in straight talk and rough and tumble. Instead, the creation of a new king was probably more like the elevation of a modern tribal warlord, political ascendancy celebrated with the crackle of automatic gunfire, AK-47s discharged recklessly into the sky.
However, the truly revealing part of the Historia’s account can be found in Cuthbert’s afterthought to Eadred, his injunction that Eadred should also ‘say to him [Guthfrith], when he has been made king, that he is to give me the whole territory between the Tyne and Wear’. So, there’s the rub: with this line the author of the Historia reveals his agenda in telling this (tall) tale – the concern that, right from the outset, the interests of the see of St Cuthbert (that is, the bishopric of Lindisfarne) should be respected and strengthened by future kings of Northumbria. The self-interest, however, was doubtless mutual. Like the unwitting St Edmund, invoked to support the claims of the new East Anglian dynasty, here St Cuthbert – evidently forgetful of the despoliation of his monastery by Guthfrith’s putative forebears – was being dragged from his cloud to leave the imprimatur of the Northumbrian Church on a new Northumbrian regime. Church and state had little to lose, and much to gain, by working together to uphold structures of power and privilege.
Guthfrith was buried at York Minster, a very public way to demonstrate the alliance of the new Northumbrian royalty with the Church. Indeed, the kings who followed him – Siefred and Cnut – were, like their East Anglian counterparts, keen to publicize their faith, over-egging the religious iconography of their coinage in a way that has led some to suspect that it was bishops rather than kings who were behind it all.8 Certain coins of the Northumbrian Cnut, for example, not content with using the patriarchal cross (two crosses for the price of one), also arranged the letters of the king’s name at the cardinal points; were they transposed to a human torso, they would be inscribed in the order in which the hand would reach them when marking out the sign of the cross:
Coin of Cnut of Northumbria (c. 900–5). The other letters, read clockwise, spell out the word REX (‘king’) (© Gilli Allan, 2017)
In addition, the reverse of these coins bears the legend ‘MIRABILIA FECIT’ (‘he has done/made wondrous things’), a quotation from Psalm 98 with an obvious double meaning: as much as it celebrated the inscrutable doings of the Almighty, it also implied the power of the king over the means of production. Such innovations in coin design betray an active intelligence and a sophisticated grasp of Christian symbology and scripture, hinting – perhaps – at the hand of the Northumbrian Church in shaping the messages coming from the new Northumbrian court.9
A Northumbrian coin of the 920s. The inscription reads SCI (Sancti: ‘Saint’) PETRI (‘Peter’) MO (Moneta: ‘minted [this coin]’). The ‘I’ of Petri has been replaced with an upside down hammer (© Gilli Allan, 2017)
These mutual accommodations were driven by primarily political motives. Future Viking kings of Northumbria were manifestly more ambivalent about Christian piety, and markedly more concerned with their own personal power and prestige. In the decades after 900 a new Viking influence came to dominate in Northumbria, one that originated not with the micel here but in the colonies of Ireland and the west. The coins they issued deployed an entirely new set of imagery, a deliberate assertion of their distinctive cultural baggage. Hammers, swords, bows and ravens began to mark out a distinctive identity for the Viking kings of Northumbria – a defiant dissemination of martial and mythological symbolism that vied for space with the cross and the name of St Peter. The most striking of these coins, issued in the reign of Sihtric (r. 921–7), feature the hammer of Thor intruding into the inscription itself, the sign of a pagan deity inserted into the very name of St Peter – a pagan graft on to a Christian root-stock. It may be that, like the hybrid iconography of the Gosforth and Thorwald crosses, this was a way to bridge a chasm of belief – to encourage a multi-faith population to find common ground (St Peter and Thor were both, after all, famous fishermen) and smooth the path of conversion. But to me it feels like politics: the Viking kings in York needed the support of both the Church and the pagan militarized elite. Coins that combined, however crudely, the symbols of both these camps would have served as a convenient way for kings to demonstrate to the twin pillars of early medieval power that they were both being kept in mind.10
In the period immediately after 900, the political situation in Northumbria is plunged into penumbra, a shadow almost as deep as that which cloaks the rest of northern Britain. After Æthelwold’s short-lived tenure on the throne (and it is uncertain to what degree he was recognized as ‘king of the Danes’ in any meaningful sense in Northumbria between 902 and his death in 904), the names of other rulers – Halfdan, Eowils and Ingwær – are known only from the list of ‘kings’ who died fighting Edward the Elder at Tettenhall in 911. The gloom clears a little, however, with a battle fought at Corbridge (Northumberland) in 918 between an army led by Constantín II of Scotland and a warlord known – in Irish sources – as Ragnall (ON Rögnvaldr; OE Rægnald), the grandson of Ivar.11
Ragnall’s career, like those of so many other Viking warlords of the tenth century, began in Ireland. In 902, the Viking elite in control of Dublin were driven out by a native Irish coalition led by ‘Máel Finnia son of Flannácan, with the men of Brega and by Cerball son of Muiricá, with the Leinstermen; and they abandoned a good number of their ships (and escaped half dead after they had been wounded and broken)’.12 In the fifteen years that followed, several Viking war-bands seem to have drifted east, looking for new lands and business opportunities. The first to be documented was led by a character called Ingimundr, who was beaten back from Anglesey by a son of Cadell ap Rhodri, king of Gwynedd (Welsh rulers, unlike almost everyone else in Britain, seem to have been pretty successful at denying the Vikings a significant toehold).13 After this setback he appeared near Chester where, having first done a deal with King Edward’s sister, the redoubtable Æthelflæd of Mercia, he double-crossed the English and attacked the settlement. According to the version written up in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, Ingimundr’s Vikings, thwarted by the town’s defences, constructed a roof of hurdles to protect themselves while making a hole in the wall:
What the Saxons and the Irish who were among them did was to hurl down huge boulders, so that they crushed the hurdles on their heads. What they [the Vikings] did to prevent that was to put great columns under the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the town’s cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians’ response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them.14
Perhaps unsurprisingly, having been crushed, scalded and molested by bees, Ingimundr ‘gave up the city, and left it’. A good story, certainly. Whether it is true or not is impossible to say, but the town was ‘renewed’ by Æthelflæd in 907 – probably a reference to the refortification and replanning of the town as a burh.15
Ragnall first appears in the written record in 914, where we find him defeating another Viking fleet off the Isle of Man.16 A few years later he appears again, fighting alongside his kinsman Sihtric (another grandson of Ivar) in Ireland. A year after that, he took men from Waterford and went east, to Britain; there he found himself embroiled in conflict with Constantín II at Corbridge. The battle seems to have been indecisive, but Ragnall had evidently done enough to win trust in Northumbria. He was soon having coins minted in his own name at York, and remained in power in Northumbria until his death in 920, the same year in which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records him acknowledging the overlordship of Edward the Elder.17 He was succeeded by Sihtric Cáech, his Irish brother-in-arms, who by this point was recognized as king in Dublin. Sihtric vacated that throne in order to take power in Northumbria, leaving Dublin to a further grandson of Ivar, a kinsman named Guthfrith (not to be muddled up with the Guthfrith we have met before). When Sihtric died in 927, this new Guthfrith also briefly acceded to the Northumbrian throne. It seems confusing, and it is. What emerges from all this intra-familial throne-swapping, however, is evidence of the ties – dynastic, political and economic – that were beginning to bind Viking Britain together, an east–west axis linking Northumbria to the Irish Sea.
That Viking war-bands with connections on both sides of the Pennines were operating in northern Britain in the early tenth century is implied by hoards of silver, of which several have been found across the north.18 The most famous and substantial of these, the Cuerdale Hoard, is perhaps best explained as the war-chest of a large Viking army, the sort of force that might have been traversing the overland routes between York and the Irish Sea. It was discovered in 1840 by workmen repairing the banks of the River Ribble near Preston, Lancashire. One of the men, Thomas Horrocks, recalled his colleague, James Walne, pushing his spade into ‘something like lime’ and announcing ‘at first it was like Cockle shells but immediately swore it was money’. So it was. Once the authorities had involved themselves and divested the workmen of the coins with which they had stuffed their pockets (they were each allowed to keep a single coin), the rest of the hoard was excavated – revealing, in the words of the Duchy of Lancaster’s report to the coroner, ‘a very large quantity of silver coins […] besides some bars or Ingots of Silver, Chains, Armlets and Rings or Ring Money and more of the same sort of corroded metal [lead] which was ultimately supposed to have originally formed a box that had contained them’. The hoard was conveyed by wheelbarrow to Cuerdale Hall where it was taken indoors and laid out on the ground – there was so much of it that it ‘covered the floor of one of the sitting rooms’.19
The hoard is vast, easily the largest Viking Age treasure ever found in Britain. It weighs some 90 pounds, containing around 7,000 coins plus over a thousand silver ingots and fragments of hack-silver. The coins are varied – Anglo-Saxon, Carolingian, Islamic, coins issued by Viking rulers at York and even a number in the name of ‘Alwaldus’, probably the doomed West Saxon ætheling Æthelwold – and allow the hoard to be dated to c. 905–10. Most of them were probably funnelled through York. The hack-silver, however, is dominated by jewellery from the Irish Sea region, and the hoard stands as testament to the connections – and the extraordinary wealth – that was being accumulated by Viking groups exploiting the opportunities that lay between Dublin and York.
In 924 Edward the Elder died. It seems likely that his final years were rather less successful than those leading up to 920 – the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, at least, has not much to say about them, and it is possible that the servile postures supposedly adopted by the other kings and potentates of Britain in 920 were swiftly abandoned as the king began sliding towards the grave. We cannot say for certain. What is clear, however, is that the next king of Wessex – Edward’s son Athelstan – would present a highly energetic challenge to all of the powers of the north. In 926 Athelstan married his sister to Sihtric Cáech, king of Northumbria, presumably with the hope of establishing a lasting political alliance and a formal bond of kinship with the Viking ruler and any potential offspring. Any such plans were thwarted however by Sihtric’s death the following year. The new Viking claimant to the throne, Guthfrith, didn’t last long. Presumably infuriated that his plans had come to naught, Athelstan took the direct approach, throwing Guthfrith out on his ear and burning down a stronghold inside York.20 It was a defining moment in British history. For the first time, a single king had imposed his rule on the vast bulk of the territory that falls within the boundaries of the modern English nation. If Alfred had invented the idea of England, and Edward had begun to hammer it into shape, it was Athelstan who had drawn it whole from the fire – the first true king of England.21
His ambitions were not limited to England, however. In 927, Athelstan called an assembly at Eamont Bridge in Cumbria. In attendance were ‘Hywel, king of the West Welsh, and Constantine, king of Scots, and Owain, king of Gwent, and Ealdred, Ealdwulf’s offspring, from Bamburgh’. (The rulers of Bamburgh and the territory north of the Tyne seem to have retained a lasting autonomy from the 860s onwards.) Its ostensible purpose was to guarantee peace and forbid ‘devil-worship’, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes it very clear how Athelstan’s power was seen from an English perspective: ‘he governed all the kings who were in this island’.22 This was the least of Athelstan’s grandiosity: from 928, the kings of Wales began appearing as witnesses to Athelstan’s charters, humiliatingly demoted to sub-reguli (‘under-kinglets’), and Athelstan himself begins to be styled, not only as ‘king of the English’, but also, on his coinage, as rex totius Britanniae:‘king of all Britain’.23
It was doubtless this swollen sense of imperium that compelled Athelstan to war with Scotland in 934. We don’t know exactly what prompted it,24 but we can speculate that the Scottish king wasn’t living up to the subservient standards Athelstan had set. It was an elaborate business: Athelstan gathered what seems to have been an enormous force, comprising warriors from England as well as allied contingents from Wales under the kings Hywel, Idwal and Morgan. Then ‘going towards Scotia with a great army’, Athelstan ‘subdued his enemies, laid waste Scotia as far as Dunnottar and the mountains of Fortriu with a land force, and ravaged with a naval force as far as Caithness’.25 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has a shorter version (‘King Athelstan went to Scotland with both a here [‘raiding army’] and a sciphere [‘raiding fleet’] and harried across much of it’), the first time ‘Scotland’ appears in the historical record as a term to describe northern Britain.26
Constantín was beaten and humiliated, his son taken as a hostage, treasure extorted.27 Later in the year, on 12 September 934, he could be found far from home at Buckingham (Buckinghamshire, England), witnessing a charter on behalf of his new master. He appears as a sub-regulus – just another little king.
All of this humiliating was bound to have consequences – Athelstan had all of the rulers of Britain troop out again the following year to undergo the same sort of abasement they had endured at Eamont Bridge, this time at Cirencester (Gloucestershire), where they were joined by Owain, king of Strathclyde (who may also have been at Eamont Bridge).28 It was probably getting rather too much to bear for many of them. A Welsh poem composed around this time – Armes Prydein Vawr (‘The Great Prophecy of Britain’), fantasized about a great pan-British alliance – ‘the Cymry and the men of Dublin […] The Irish of Ireland, Anglesey, and Scotland, the Cornish and the men of Strathclyde’ – that would rise up to topple the hated English. Even the ‘foreigners of Dublin will stand with us’ runs the poem, to force the Saxons to ‘pay seven times the value for what they have done, with certain death as payment for their wrong […] Let blood, let death be their companions.’29
But it wasn’t a fantasy: war was indeed coming. Olaf Guthfrithsson, the son of the man whom Athelstan had turfed out of York in 927, had been busy securing his own empire, fighting and plundering around Ireland throughout the 920s. By 937 – if not long before – he seems to have secured his power in Dublin, and in that year is referred to in Irish chronicles as ‘Lord of the Foreigners’, having broken the power of his rival – Amlaíb (Olaf) Cenncairech – at Limerick.30 The victory seems to have given Olaf the freedom to pursue his father’s claim to the Northumbrian kingship, and in that year he left Ireland to enter into an alliance with Constantín, king of Scots (who also seems to have roped in Owain of Strathclyde). They must have imagined that together they would be unstoppable, that they would invade England, take back the lands stolen from them, redeem their honour, trample ‘the shitheads of Thanet’ (as Armes Prydein Vawr calls the English) and leave them as ‘as food for wild beasts’.31
And as the armed men moved through the landscape, the wild beasts – ‘corpse sharers, shadow coated’ – stalked and followed them, circling overhead, running through woodland, flitting through the dark, expectant of slaughter and the feast to follow: ‘the swart raven, horny of beak; the brown eagle of white tail-feather […] and the silver one, the wolf of the weald’.32 But it would not be English flesh they feasted on.
No one knows where the battle of Brunanburh was fought, and those who claim to – with any degree of certainty – are overplaying their hand. The problem is that only one place in England – Bromborough in the Wirral – has a place-name that can be definitively shown to derive from the Old English Brunanburh (‘Bruna’s stronghold’). The Wirral is directly across the water from Dublin, offering secure harbour in the Mersey for a substantial fleet (one source mentions 615 ships). Overland routes from Lancashire across the Pennines (through the Aire Gap) would have led an army assembled there directly to York; alternatively, a camp here – on the borders of Mercia – offered opportunities for raids into Mercia. However, all of this is complicated by the chronicle of John of Worcester. In his account, Olaf’s fleet is described as sailing up the Humber, on the east coast of Britain.
Arguments against John’s version hinge on the assumption that it would have been ridiculous for Olaf to have taken his fleet all the way around the north of Britain to reach the other side, before landing his army. To attack John’s account on this basis, however, is absurd. We have no idea what Olaf did or why he might have done it (perhaps there were reinforcements and mercenaries he hoped to pick up along the way), and, since his objective seems to have been to reassert his claims over the kingship of Northumbria which hinged on control of York, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that he took a route that brought him as close as possible to his goal. It certainly wasn’t beyond the wit of early medieval mariners – only a year earlier, we might recall, Athelstan had dispatched a fleet to harry Caithness, the most north-westerly part of the British mainland. Equally weak is the argument that the reason for John’s ‘error’ in placing Olaf on the Humber is that, because other Viking raids and invasions did indeed come up the Humber, John must have inserted this detail on his own initiative – either because he was confused, or just because it seemed plausible to him (that is, he made it up). It should be obvious that there are methodological problems in disregarding historical records simply because they don’t fit a preconceived idea of what ‘should’ have happened. We just don’t know.
What we do know is that the battle, wherever it was fought, shook the nations of Britain. Æthelweard, writing in the late 900s, wrote that ‘a huge battle [pugna immanis] was fought against the barbarians at Brunandun, wherefore it is still called the “great war” [bellum magnum] by the common people’.33 The Chronicles of the Kings of Alba told of the battle of Duin Brunde, ‘where the son of Constantine was slain’. The Welsh Annals blankly referred to ‘Bellum Brune’ (‘the war of Bruin’), almost as if they couldn’t bear to repeat the horrid details. The Annals of Ulster, however, recalled that ‘a great, lamentable and horrible battle was cruelly fought between the Saxons and the Norsemen, in which several thousands of Norsemen, who are uncounted, fell, but their king, Amlaíb [Olaf], escaped with a few followers. A large number of Saxons fell on the other side, but Athelstan, king of the Saxons, enjoyed a great victory.’
It is in the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, however, that the battle was truly immortalized. In the E manuscript, the scribe simply recorded that ‘King Athelstan led an army to Brunanburh.’34 But it was in the A text that an unknown West Saxon poet went to town. In seventy-four lines of Old English verse, a monument was crafted that celebrated the martial prowess of Athelstan and his brother, the future King Edmund. It invoked the ghosts of the Anglo-Saxon conquerors of old and rubbed defeat in the faces of the other peoples of Britain – a bitter draught they would force down the throats of every idealist who dreamt that, one day, ‘the Saxons will sing, “Woe!”’
One day soon the Saxons would indeed sing ‘Woe!’; but it would not be this day. Now was the time to sing the triumphal song of a new, self-confident nation. England had been fathered, born and christened – now it had found a voice, and its voice was harsh and crowing. It was, in many ways, a suitable subject for translation by the poet laureate of Victoria’s Empire, even if it stands a little at odds with the melancholia that characterizes much else of Alfred Tennyson’s poetry:
Lord among Earls,
Baron of Barons,
He with his brother,
Gaining a lifelong
Glory in battle,
Slew with the sword-edge
There by Brunanburh,
Brake the shield-wall,
Hew’d the lindenwood,
Hack’d the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer’d brands.35
Athelstan’s victory at Brunanburh ensured that his status was upheld for the rest of his life, and kept a lid on the simmering cauldron of grievance and aspiration that had given rise to the conflict in the first place. In the longer term, its memory inspired a burgeoning sense of English nationalism. When Athelstan died in Gloucester on 27 October 939, his death was not marked with any great fanfare in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Annals of Ulster, however, reported that ‘Athelstan, king of the Saxons, pillar of the dignity of the western world, died an untroubled death.’36 His reign, coinciding with that of Constantín II in Scotland, was pivotal for British history, with new identities crystallizing that would shape the history of the island for centuries.
In the short term, however, the immediate political significance of the battle was limited. The hegemony that Athelstan had established over Northumbria died with him, and the following decade and a half bore witness to one of the periods of intense political insecurity to which the Northumbrian kingdom had long been prone. Olaf Guthfrithsson, the Viking king of Dublin who had been defeated and humiliated at Brunanburh, was quick to take advantage.