Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

How King Athelstan Fought at Brunanburgh

E DWARD, surnamed the Elder, came after Alfred his father, and was—so men said—as good a leader in war and ruler in peace; and after Edward came Athelstan his son. To him his grandfather Alfred had showed special favour, giving him a purple cloak, and a belt adorned with jewels, and a sword in a scabbard of gold. And when he grew to be a man, and was crowned king—this was done when he was thirty years old—he showed himself a very wise ruler. None of the kings before him had been so great, for all the land, both English and Welsh, acknowledged him to be their over-lord.

But in the thirteenth year of his reign, the Danes, the Scots, and the Britons made a great league against him. Their leaders were Constantine, King of Scots, Anlaf the Dane, whose father had been King in Northumbria, Olaf, also a Dane, King of Dublin—for the Danes held Dublin in those days, and for many years afterwards—the King of Cumberland, and not a few English who were discontented with their master. All these gathered a vast host in the north, and thither King Athelstan marched to meet them.

While the armies lay encamped over against each other, Anlaf the Northumbrian, seeking to know what Athelstan proposed to do, disguised himself as a minstrel, and so made his way into the tent of the King. There he played and sang, while Athelstan and his nobles sat at their meal, and while he seemed to be resting from his playing and singing, he listened to their talk. The meal ended, the King gave him a silver piece. This he buried in the earth, disdaining to keep that which had been given him as hire for service.

But one who had been a soldier under him in former times, saw the Prince while he was burying the money, and knew him again. The man kept silence till Anlaf had gone back to his own camp, then he told the English King what he had seen. "Why did you delay?" said the King. "Had you been quicker, we had caught him." The man made answer, Sire, the same oath that I have sworn to you, I swore once to Anlaf. If I had betrayed him, you might have looked for me to betray you. But now, if you will listen to my advice, change the place of your tent." The King changed it, and it was well that he did so, for the camp was attacked that night, and a certain bishop, who, being newly come thither, pitched his tent in the place where the King's had been, was slain.

For two days more King Athelstan waited till the help that he looked for had come up. Then he gave battle to the enemy. Never, since the coming of the English into Britain, had there been a fiercer fight than was fought that day. The men of Mercia and the men of the West Saxons stood side by side, and turned the enemy to flight. Five kings of the Northmen and seven earls fell that day, and Constantine fled back to his own country, and the Danes from Dublin, such as the sword had spared, crossed the sea again.

"Full many a stalwart warrior lay

Upon the field of death that day,

By swarthy kite devoured, and torn

By raven with its beak of horn,

And lordly eagle, plumaged white,

And hawk that follows still the fight,

And the grey wolf, whom evening brings

From forest depths to feed on kings."

After this King Athelstan increased still more in honour and power. He ruled his people also with much prudence, making many wise laws. He caused justice to be done without fear between men, and made provision for the poor.

In the year 941 he died, being then forty-six years of age, and was buried in the Abbey of Malmesbury, to which abbey, as to the town of Malmesbury, he had given great gifts. To this day, the "commoners" of this place enjoy certain lands which the King bestowed upon the townsmen for services that they rendered him in his wars.

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