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Author Topic: The Battle of Brunanburh October 937  (Read 664 times)


  • Psiloi
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The Battle of Brunanburh October 937
« on: March 12, 2023, 10:56:17 PM »
This weekend we re-fought the Battle of Brunanburh 937 using the Mortem et Gloriam Ancient rules with roughly 1300 28mm figures on a 12’x5’ table.
The battle of Brunanburh is accepted as one of the most important in British history with the Anglo Saxon Chronicle describing it thus “Never greater slaughter was there on this island, never as many folk felled before this by the swords’ edges”.  It is also one of the most contentious amongst historians and archaeologists as no-one knows for certain where it took place.  It has also more recently entered popular culture as the battle that features at the end of the final book in the Bernard Cornwell Last Kingdom series.
Briefly the background to the battle is that the Anglo Saxons were the bullies in the playground that was mainland Britain at this time.  King Æthelstan was throwing his weight around humiliating the rulers of the smaller kingdoms of Wales, Strathclyde and Alba and forcing them to pay tribute.  They had had enough. In 927 Æthelstan had used the death of the Viking Northumbrian ruler Sihtric to take control of that realm.  The dead Northumbrian king’s nephew Anlaf Guthfrithson, who was King of Dublin, now saw his chance to use this discontent to re-gain his uncle’s kingdom.  He convinced Constantine II of the Scots and Owain of Strathclyde to join forces with him and take on the Anglo Saxons together.  They launched a joint invasion in the Autumn of 937 seeking a decisive battle with the Anglo Saxon king.
We wanted to do this one justice, but where to start?  Luckily in recent years there has been a feature issue of Medieval Warfare magazine (10.3) and an Osprey book both covering the battle, not to mention the Bernhard Cornwell novel.  So I chose these as my main sources.  This meant a pre-agreed location for the battle which was level and mostly flat with a brook running along one flank and a wooded hill along the other.  Æthelstan had apparently arrived there first and had purposely set up in one corner of the agreed location that restricted the frontage he was going to have to fight on so he was clearly worried about being outflanked.
In our re-fight we chose to sub divide each side into three commands: Vikings, Strathclyde and Scots for the Alliance. Wessex, Mercian and mercenary Vikings for the Anglo Saxons.  Each had their own order of battle and commanders which in MeG money amounted to about 10,000 points each.  Each side only had the one camp though.
The game kicked off with both sides advancing their lines and throwing out skirmish missile armed troops to counter their opposite numbers and then start to whittle down the main enemy battle line.  The first contact though took place in the woods on the hill running down the one flank where a bunch of hairy arsed Galwegians went screaming through the trees and into the waiting Vikings.  This was a particularly bloody encounter which from our end of the table we simply observed as a series of cries of “Skull!” followed by some expletive or another.  Thorolf’s mercenary Vikings eventually won the day however, killing the Galwegian leader in the process.
The alliance skirmishers were starting to make their numbers tell against the less numerous Anglo Saxons but just as the Anglo Saxon skirmish screen started to dissolve a number of well-timed charges by the Anglo Saxon Fyrd spearmen managed to catch and kill a whole bunch of the Alliance skirmish units wiping out their earlier good work.  The dice gods had turned against the allies.  This did however mean that the two battle lines were now within spitting distance of each other.
It’s worth highlighting a couple of features of the MeG rules at this point.  Firstly most of the spearmen in this game, apart from the Vikings and the small number of household units, are classed as “tribal” which means that they cannot back off facing the enemy.  Secondly the big troop attribute that the Anglo Saxons have in this period is “shieldwall” which gives them bonuses in any combat where they stood to receive a charge.  This means that for most of the units of spearmen facing each other there’s a natural tendency for neither to want to charge in but to stand there facing the enemy.  This is where the elite household units come into play they have better training and in the case of the Vikings they have Dane axes and in some units even berserkers that can be used as shock troops to break the enemy line.  We also included a special rule for swine head which was a special formation when charging and can be used by these better trained units to gain an advantage in the charge phase.
It was therefore these elite units that literally led the charge and dragged in their spearmen as supporting units.  That’s when the push of the opposing lines of spearmen started in earnest.  Thorolf’s mercenary Vikings made the most of their Dane axes and started to take great chunks out of the Scottish line.  On the other flank Æthelstan pushed forward with his household troops facing off against a unit of Norse housecarls which contained berserkers.  The stalemate continued for a few turns when the Norse commander could hold back his shield biters no longer and they charged in.  Æthelstan’s thegns, behind their shieldwall, eventually triumphed but not before Æthelstan himself, fighting in the front rank, was wounded.  This now cleared the way for Anlaf and Æthelstan to directly face each other.
Events elsewhere on the battlefield now intervened however.  The Scot’s shieldwall disintegrated with the breaking of one unit cascading down the line to cause neighbouring battered units to also turn and run through the KAB test mechanism in the rules.  A whole bunch of Thorolf’s rampaging Vikings now fell on the flank of the Strathclyde spearmen.  The alliance flank was being rolled up and they had insufficient reserves to stop it. 
We called the game at that point, Anlaf, Constantine and Owain had failed but managed to escape with their lives.
The only descriptive accounts we have of the battle come from the Viking Sagas but if they are to be believed our re-fight seems to have fairly closely resembled the real events.  Æthelstan won the day long battle despite being injured.  There was huge loss of life on both sides.  Anlaf fled back to Dublin and Constantine to Scotland mourning his son’s death.  Owain was killed on the battlefield.
It was a fun day.  Thanks to Jon, Rob and Adrian for a great game.