Picts at Brunanburh

Battle of Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh, AD 937 (illustration by Alfred Pearse)

January is almost done, so this is a long-overdue first blogpost of 2014. As usual, the delay has been due to a lack of time for blogging. Among other distractions, I’m writing a new book – my fifth on early medieval history – of which more will be said in the near future. This post is a kind of spin-off from that project and deals with a topic I’ve blogged about before: the battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937, one of the most famous events of the Viking Age.

Our earliest source is an Old English poem, probably composed within ten years of the battle and inserted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In stirring words, the poet celebrates the great victory at Brunanburh in which the English king Athelstan defeated an alliance of Vikings, Scots and (not mentioned in the poem) Strathclyde Britons. Some thirty years later, a briefer account of the battle was written by Aethelweard, a high-ranking English nobleman, in his Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Aethelweard refers not to ‘Brunanburh’ but to ‘Brunandun’, one of several alternative names for the battlefield.

The Old English poem describes Scots fighting at Brunanburh under their grey-haired king Constantin, but Aethelweard mentions Picts as well. This requires a bit of explanation, as the Picts are usually thought to have ‘disappeared’ by about 900. Not that they vanished in a physical sense – they simply merged with the Scots or, to put it another way, they adopted a ‘Scottish’ identity.

Constantin’s kingdom, known by the Gaelic name Alba, was created in the late ninth century. Its royal dynasty – founded by Constantin’s grandfather, Cináed mac Ailpín, who died in 858 – was basically a family of Gaelic-speaking Picts. And, although Constantin’s predecessor was the first of the dynasty to be described in the Irish annals not as rex Pictorum (‘king of the Picts’) but as ri Albain (‘king of Alba’), the name Alba might really mean ‘Pictland’ anyway. So, even though Pictishness was being replaced by Scottishness before 900, the change was still fairly recent when Aethelweard wrote his chronicle in c.980, and even more recent in 937. Aethelweard’s reference to Pictish warriors fighting at Brunanburh might not be as anachronistic as it seems.

More could be said, of course, especially if we bring in the modern scholarship on Aethelweard’s writings to discuss his use of the term Picti. But this is meant to be a quick blogpost, so I’ll simply end it with the relevant passage from Aethelweard’s chronicle:

‘Nine hundred years plus twenty-six more had passed from the glorious Incarnation of our Saviour when the all-powerful king Athelstan assumed the crown of empire. Thirteen years later there was a huge battle against barbarians at Brunandun, which is still called the `great battle’ by common folk to the present day. Then the barbarian forces were overcome on all sides and no longer held superiority. Afterwards, he drove them from the shores of the sea, and the Scots and Picts alike bent their necks. The fields of Britain were joined as one, everywhere was at peace and had an abundance of all things. No fleet has since advanced against these shores and stayed without the consent of the English.’

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Notes & References

The standard edition of the Latin text is by Alistair Campbell, The Chronicle of Aethelweard (London, 1961).

See also: Leslie Whitbread, ‘Aethelweard and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ English Historical Review vol.74 (1959), 577-89.

Aethelweard is one of the few writers from this period who wasn’t a monk. His career as an ealdorman (royal official) involved him in high-level politics, on which see Scott Ashley ‘The lay intellectual in Anglo-Saxon England’, pp.218-45 in Patrick Wormald & Janet Nelson (eds.) Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2007).

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22 comments on “Picts at Brunanburh

  1. Thomas says:

    Hi Tim, Nice to get a new post 🙂 did you not talk about the site of the battle in another post, the word shore is in Aethelweard’s passage, suggesting a Sea visit from an enemy, then a different tone “Scots and Picts bent their necks” suggesting being on foot, turning around?



    • Tim says:

      Hello Thomas. Yes, I’ve mused on the battle’s location before, looking at the various theories.
      The Scots (and Picts) probably did go home on foot, with only the Vikings leaving (and arriving) by sea. Some translations of Aethelweard replace ‘bent their necks’ with ‘submitted’, i.e. their king recognised Athelstan as a superior lord.

  2. esmeraldamac says:

    Good to read that great quote. Now, if you can only find a hidden manuscript finally revealing the location of the events, we’ll all be happy… Looking forward to your new book.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Diane. If aliens landed on the Wirral Peninsula or in certain parts of County Durham, they would no doubt assume the hidden manuscript had already been found 😉

  3. Chris Pickles says:

    But then there were ‘Picts’ at the Battle of the Standard in 1138, acording to the contemporary chronicler Richard of Hexham. These Picts were actually from Galloway, so maybe not really Picts at all.

    Perhaps there was a tendency among English chroniclers, who would not be familiar with the various subdivisions of a rampaging army from Scotland, to call the more savage elements ‘Picts’ – the Galwegians in David I’s army especially distinguished themselves for their brutality.

    Maybe the appearance of Picts at Brunanburh is an early example of this phenomenon.

    • Tim says:

      ‘Maybe the appearance of Picts at Brunanburh is an early example of this phenomenon.’
      This is an interesting observation, Chris. I think it’s worth keeping in mind.

      • Chris Pickles says:

        Well it is interesting from an English point of view, that they had a long history of fighting the Picts, with some significant defeats along the way, whereas there wasn’t the same history of conflict against the Scots.

        So to let the English think they were fighting the Picts might have been a good tactic. After all the English couldn’t expect to be au fait with the latest societal developments in Alba. And of course in this case most of the ‘Scots’ really would have been Picts, or the descendants of Picts.

        • Tim says:

          This raises the question of how the English viewed (or understood, or even noticed) the transitions happening beyond the Firth of Forth. It might be the case, as you suggest, that ‘Picts’ had a particular resonance for the English in a way that ‘Scots’ didn’t have.

  4. Erica says:

    It seems like there are a few scattered signs of Pictish identity scattered through the 10th century, despite the traditional narrative that they “vanished” from history around 900. And really, it makes sense. As you pointed out, this was a cultural adoption of an identity of “Scots” rather than “Picts.” In any cultural changeover, there are going to be holdovers and dual usages for at least a couple of generations. Interestingly, some of the traces are in the eye of the modern scholar such as the musicians on the Lethendy Tower stone which are traditionally dated as both “10th century” and “Pictish”. Has anyone done a thorough study of this transitional period and the lingering references and evidence of material culture that suggests “Pictishness”?

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this, Erica. Looking at the transition from Pictishness to Scottishness through the lens of sculpture seems a valuable exercise. It may have been done already but, if so, I’m not sure by whom. The Lethendy Stone is a useful example to highlight in this context. Alongside it I would place the Dunblane cross-slab which has also been described as 10th century and Pictish.

  5. kevin halloran says:

    This passage has a number of oddities. Strictly speaking it doesn’t necessarily place ‘Picts’ at Brunandun but possibly refers to a subsequent submission. So far as I’m aware it is the only reference to any submission by the northern kings after Brunanburh. Secondly, Aethelweard must have been living under a rock as he seems oblivious to the return of the Vikings in 939-941 and oblivious to the temporary loss of the Five Boroughs and Northumbria in Edmund’s reign. Thirdly, his reference to the ‘barbarians’ no longer holding superiority is interesting: at face value it suggests Brunanburh followed a period of English reverses and conquest of fairly extensive territories by the coalition.

    • kevin halloran says:

      I don’t want to make too much of this as I’m pretty certain the Scots (and ‘Picts’) did fight at Brunanburh. However, I wonder if this passage might in part be why Alex Woolf has tentatively suggested there may have been more than one battle in 937 with a more southerly one involving only the Vikings (I hope I’m not doing his suggestion a disservice here as I’ve only encountered it second hand!) Aethelweard describes the enemy as ‘barbari’ – which would normally be used in respect of Vikings – and says Athelstan drove them over the sea. Quite separately he mentions a submission by the Scots. There are many examples in history of a military victory leading to the submission of groups not present at the battle. Greek chroniclers relate that after the battle of Chaeronea the whole of Greece with the exception of Sparta submitted to Philip of Macedon but we know that the bulk of the Greek army comprised soldiers very largely only from Thebes and Athens.

      • Tim says:

        Yes, I suppose it’s possible to split the passage into two segments, i.e. defeat of Vikings at Brunanburh followed by submission of Scots/Picts. This could provide grist for the idea that more than one battle was fought in the campaign of 937. Personally, though, I’m sticking with the One Big Battle scenario.

        Looking at your previous comment, it does seem as if Aethelweard was happy to ignore the Viking raids on Mercia in the early 940s, but I wonder if he just wanted to point out that there were no major seaborne invasions by the Dublin Norse after 937.

  6. Bruce says:

    Hi Tim, I’ve only just found your blog- very interesting posts and discussions. I’m no scholar- merely an ‘interested layman’. I’m thinking that Kevin’s reading as two parts is highly plausible- implying that it may have been the Vikings were defeated and the Scots and Picts submitted as a result (or through a subsequent defeat). Taking that idea a stage further- the sentence “Then the barbarian forces were overcome on all sides…”, is there any reason this cannot be looked upon as, perhaps, some sort of combined English/ Briton /Scot/ Pict force against the Vikings, with that particular phrase relating to a larger picture rather than the minutiae of the battle (ie, surrounded on all sides by Scots, Picts Britons and English? If the ‘Scots and Picts alike bent their necks’, perhaps they had merely accepted Athelstan as their overlord and been compelled to provide some sort of presence? Is there any written source which attests to the actual allegiance of the Scots and Picts at Brunanburh? All pure (ignorant) conjecture on my part, of course- I haven’t read Alex Woolf’s thoughts on the subject, though I am well aware of some of his work relating to Moray; so forgive me if I’m covering old ground here (though technically, its all old ground…).

    • Tim says:

      Hi Bruce. I guess it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that there was a bit of switching of sides in 937, especially if Brunanburh was just one battle among several in a prolonged campaign, with allegiances shifting to and fro as the campaign progressed. Taking the idea further, it could even explain why the Britons aren’t mentioned in the contemporary Anglo-Saxon poem as allies of the Vikings and Scots – i.e. maybe they had already gone over to Athelstan’s side before the battle of Brunanburh. Against this idea, however, is the testimony of the twelfth-century chroniclers who list the Britons among the defeated forces in the battle. What we’re missing for 937 is an account of the immediate aftermath of Brunanburh, and it’s into this blank space that we could perhaps insert the theory of a new alliance of English, Scots and Britons against the Vikings.

  7. Bruce says:

    Thanks Tim, this is what I love about this period- the unknown and the constant revision of thinking. I’m hoping the ‘high status’ Pictish site newly discovered near Rhynie may provide more food for thought about the Picts of the north-East, an area we don’t know too much about, despite the existence of the Book of Deer. Thanks again, I’ll be dropping in here again to keep up to date.

  8. Such an interesting post, and as always with this period in time it leaves me with more questions than I started with. I love they way you point out that these historic stories are actually pieces of propaganda produced by one side or the other and that’s critical to understanding. The Picts and the Britons didn’t disappear, they were merely ruled over by new lords and kings….after all at the union of the crowns a few hundred years ago the people didn’t suddenly all change, they carried on much as before 🙂
    I love the theory that the only reason that history records the line of Scottish Kings as switching to Irish/Scot bloodlines is that the Picts recorded their lineage through the female ancestors, and that this allowed the Scots/ Irish to emphasise the males lines….squeezing the Picts out of recorded history, but not out of the land itself!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Seonaid. I’m glad you mentioned the Pictish kings and their female ancestors – it reminds me I have a very overdue blogpost in the pipeline, on the controversial subject of matrilinear succession. I’m on record (in my books) as a supporter of the idea that the Picts gave prominence to matrilines when choosing their kings. These days, the entire theory seems to be fighting a rearguard action. Fewer people believe it today than 30+ years ago, when it still had a lot of support among historians.

      Btw, for a good explanation of how the kings of the Picts and Scots got mixed up in the various records, I recommend Dauvit Broun’s ‘Pictish kings, 761-839: integration with Dal Riata or separate development’ in The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections, a collection of papers edited by Sally Foster and published in 1998.

  9. dearieme says:

    “Then the barbarian forces … no longer held superiority.” So they had until then? Is the meaning of that clear?

    • Tim says:

      The ‘superiority’ of the barbarians might refer to their ravaging of English territory before Athelstan confronted them at Brunanburh. But it isn’t clear that this is what Aethelweard had in mind.

  10. dearieme says:

    If Picts = Gallwegians, then a natural place for Norse, Scots and “Picts” to assemble would be the upper Solway.

    • Tim says:

      I guess it depends on whether Aethelweard regarded Galloway as ‘Pictish’ in the way that later English chroniclers did. In his own day, Galloway seems to have been part of a Norse kingdom which included the Isle of Man and other islands/coastlands around the Irish Sea.

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