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Battlefield: Brunanburh

Athelstan’s victory at Brunanburh was one of the most important battles ever fought on British soil. But today it’s virtually unknown. Julian Humphrys tells more

The forgotten fight

After witnessing his unchallenged invasion of Scotland, Athelstan’s enemies realised that the only way they stood a chance at defeating him was to unite
ALAMY X3

Half a century after the victory of the men of Wessex and Mercia over an alliance of Scots, Strathclyde Britons and Norsemen from Ireland at Brunanburh, men were still calling it ‘the Great Battle’. Indeed, Brunanburh has been described as one of the most defining battles in the history of Britain. Its effects were wide-ranging. It certainly helped the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan of Wessex consolidate his hold over his kingdom and create a more unified England. But it’s also been argued that the strong resistance put up by Athelstan’s enemies prevented the whole of Britain from being forcefully united into one imperial power. Yet despite all this, few today have heard of Brunanburh and even fewer think they know where it was fought.

Ever since he’d become King of the Anglo-Saxons in AD 925, Athelstan had been steadily extending his authority. After his grandfather, Alfred the Great, had halted the Danish conquest of England, his father, Edward the Elder, recaptured the East Midlands and East Anglia from the Danes in 917. Building on these solid foundations, Athelstan pushed north. In 927, he took over the last remaining Viking kingdom, York, extending his rule up to the Scottish border. In 934, he invaded Scotland, possibly because its king, Constantine, had broken a peace treaty. After gathering his forces at Winchester, he marched north, picking up reinforcements on the way and paying a visit to the shrine of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, in modern-day County Durham. Supported by a fleet that sailed up the east coast, Athelstan led his Anglo-Saxon warriors deep into Scotland, burning and ravaging as far as the great fortress of Dunnottar, south of Aberdeen.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

Inside, Tudor historian Alison Weir uncovers one of the most "grievous miscarriages of justice" in English history, we find out why the Vietnam War was doomed from the start, and explore the secret life of Albert Einstein, from his rebellious childhood to his scandalous affair.