Brunanburh: A Battle of Five Armies

In AD 937, Wessex and Mercia fought an alliance of Norsemen, Britons and Scots at the Battle of Brunanburh. This battle is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and a translation of it provided by S A J Bradley in Anglo Saxon Poetry (Everyman 1995).

For this post, I thought I would have a look at his translation to see what, if anything, it might tell us about battle tactics in the tenth century.

The first thing to say is that it appears the battle was fought principally with swords. In the first paragraph, the annalist says that Athelstan and Edmund, brothers and kings of Wessex and Mercia respectively, won the fight ‘by the edges of their swords’.

The use of swords is repeated in the second paragraph where we also learn that the warriors fought in close order. This is indicated by the reference to the men of Wessex and Mercia having to cut their way through the enemy ‘shield-wall’.

In doing so, the Englishmen ‘hacked the linden battle-targes with swords’.’Targe’ is the Old English word for ‘shield’ (See Wikipedia here). We may say, therefore, that the quotation gives an insight into what shields of that period were made from – well, those of the ‘triple alliance’, anyway.

There are a further references to the use of swords in (and after) the battle. This does not mean, however, that spears were absent. The annalist says on the ground there ‘lay many a man picked off by spears’.

Were the spears thrown or used as thrusting weapons? The Chronicle reports that ‘many a Norseman [was] shot above his shield’, which suggests that the spears were thrown but I would be very surprised if they were not (re)used as thrusting weapons when the two armies came into close quarters.

Only the first two paragraphs describe the actual battle. The rest of the entry deals with the flight of the Norsemen and their allies. The Chronicle does not give any indication of the numbers involved at Brunanburh but there is no doubting how important a conflict the annalist thought it was. Indeed, he says that ‘[n]ever yet within this island has there been a greater slaughter of folk’, not since the Angles and Saxons came and ‘overcame the Welshmen and, being men keen after glory, conquered the country’.

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