The Battle of Brunanburh - the view from the 18th century

One thing I like to do when reading history is to see how people from centuries past interpreted historical events. A very good source for this is The History of England, by David Hume (1711-1776), and it includes an account of the famous Battle of Brunanburh.

This well-known Scottish philosopher was also the author of a six-volume work on English History, covering "From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688." Hume consulted a wide range of sources, including medieval chronicles, and, being Scottish, is able to view the history of England with an outsider’s viewpoint.

Only a few paragraphs are given over to Athelstan’s reign, but much of it involves the events leading up to the Battle of Brunanburh. He notes that Athelstan invaded Scotland in retaliation for Constantine harbouring one of his enemies, and after “ravaging the country with impunity,” was able to force the submission of the Scottish king.

Hume offers a more pro-Scottish version of what this submission meant:

The English historians assert, that Constantine did homage to Athelstan for his kingdom; and they add, that the latter prince, being urged by his courtiers to push the present favourable opportunity, and entirely subdue Scotland, replied, that it was more glorious to confer than conquer kingdoms. But those annals, so uncertain and imperfect in themselves, lose all credit, when national prepossessions and animosities have place: And on that account, the Scotch historians, who, without having any more knowledge of the matter, strenuously deny the fact, seem more worthy of belief.

Hume goes onto explain that it was Constantine who then masterminded the coalition that attacked the English:

He entered into a confederacy with Anlaf, who had collected a great body of Danish pyrates, whom he found hovering in the Irish seas; and with some Welsh princes, who were terrified at the growing power of Athelstan: and all these allies made by concert an irruption with a great army into England. Athelstan, collecting his forces, met the enemy near Brunsbury in Northumberland, and defeated them in a general engagement. This victory was chiefly ascribed to the valour of Turketul, the English chancellor: For in those turbulent ages, no one was so much occupied in civil employments, as wholly to lay aside the military character.

There are a few points from this paragraph which are wrong. First, it was unlikely that the Welsh took part in the battle. Secondly, the story about the importance of Turketul is based on the Croyland Chronicle, which was composed in the 15th century and is widely considered to be untrustworthy for early medieval events. This chronicle features a Thurcytel, who is the Abbot of Croyland, but at the same time serves several English kings as ‘Lord Chancellor of England.’ No other sources record this. The final bit of misinformation is in placing the battle in Northumberland, which is as you can read in our latest issue, is now more demonstrably incorrect.

Hume concludes his account of the Battle of Brunanburh by noting:

There fell several Danish and Welsh princes in the action of Brunsbury; and Constantine and Anlaf made their escape with difficulty, leaving the greater part of their army on the field of battle. After this success, Athelstan enjoyed his crown in tranquility; and he is regarded as one of the ablest and most active of those ancient princes.

To get the latest account of the Battle of Brunanburh, please check out our latest issue of Medieval Warfare, where Michael Livingston offers new details about the battle and where it was located.

To read more of David Hume’s The History of England, please visit the Online Library of Liberty.

Top Image: Portrait of David Hume in 1754 by Allan Ramsay.

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