William of Malmesbury wrote ‘Gesta Regum Anglorum’ circa 1125. In his chronicle of Aethelstan he refers to, and quotes, a now unknown source, sometimes now referred to as the ‘Lost Life of Aethelstan’. The poem quoted on the home page, and below, is an extract from this text. If authentic it indicates Anlaf and his army first landed in Scotland before marching south wasting ‘districts with their fire and sword’. The extract also seems to indicate the Norse/Scottish alliance may have retreated in the face of the English army before facing the final battle around Brunanburh, maybe after receiving reinforcements?
His (Aethelstan’s) last contest was with Anlaf, the son of Sihtric, who, with the beforenamedConstantine, again in a state of rebellion, had entered his territories under the hope of gaining the kingdom. Aethelstan purposely retreating, that he might derive great honour from vanquishing his furious assailant, this bold youth, meditating unlawful conquests, had now proceeded far intoEngland, when he was opposed at Brunefeld by the most experienced generals and most valiant forces. Perceiving, at length, what danger overhung him, he assumed the character of a spy, and laying aside the badges of his royalty, and taking a harp in his hand, he proceeded to our king’s tent. Singing before the entrance, and at times touching the trembling strings in harmonious cadence, he was readily admitted; professing himself a minstrel who procured his daily sustenance by such employment. Here he entertained the king and his companions for some time with his musical performance, carefully examining everything while he was occupied in singing. When satiety of eating had put an end to their sensual enjoyments, and the business of war was resumed among the nobles, he was ordered to depart, and received the recompense of his song; but disdaining to take it away, he hid it beneath him in the earth. This circumstance was remarked by a person who had formerly served under him, and immediately related to Aethelstan. The king blaming him extremely for not having detected his enemy as he stood before them, received this answer, “The same oath which I have lately sworn to you, O king, I formerly made to Anlaf: and had you seen me violate it towards him, you might have expected that I would have been guilty of similar perfidy towards yourself. But condescend to listen to the advice of your servant, remaining in another place till the residue of the army come up, you will destroy your ferocious enemy by a moderate delay.” Approving this admonition, he removed to another place. In the night, Anlaf advancing well prepared, put to death, together with the whole of his followers, a certain bishop who had joined the army only the evening before, and, ignorant of what had passed, had pitched his tent there on account of the level turf. Proceeding further, he found the king himself equally unprepared; who, little expecting that his enemy was capable of such an attack, had fallen into profound repose. But, when roused from his couch by the excessive tumult, and urging his people, as much as the night season would permit, to the conflict, his sword fell by chance from the sheath; upon which, while all things were filled with dread and blind confusion, he invoked the protection of God, and of St. Aldelm, who was distinctly related to him; and replacing his hand upon the scabbard he there found the sword, which is kept to this day,’ on account of the miracle, in the treasury of the kings. Moreover it is, as they say, chased in one part, but can never be inlaid either with gold or silver. Confiding in this divine present, and at the same time, as it began to dawn, attacking the Norwegian, he continued the battle unwearied until the evening, and put him to flight with his whole army. There fell Constantine, king of the Scots, a man of treacherous energy and vigorous old age, five other kings, twelve earls,’ and almost the whole assemblage of barbarians.
His subjects governing with justest sway,
Tyrants o’erawed, twelve years had pass’d away,
When Europe’s noxious pestilence stalk’d forth.
And pour’d the barbarous legions from the North.
Then pirate Anlaf the briny surge
Forsakes, while deeds of desperation urge.
Her king consenting, Scotia’s land receives
The frantic madman and his horde of thieves:
Now flush’d with insolence, they shout and boast,
And drive the harmless natives from the coast.
Thus while the king, secure in youthful pride,
Bade the soft hours in gentle pleasure glide,
Though erst he stemm’d the battle’s furious tide,
With ceaseless plunder sped the daring horde,
And wasted districts with their fire and sword.
The verdant crops lay withering on the fields,
The glebe no promise to the rustic yields.
Immense the numbers of barbarian force,
Countless the squadrons both of foot and horse.
At length fame’s rueful moan alarm’d the king,
And bade him shun this ignominious sting,
That arms like his to ruffian bands should bend:
“Tis done—delays and hesitations end.
High in the air the threatening banners fly,
And call his eager troops to victory,
His hardy force, an hundred thousand strong,
Whom standards hasten to the fight along.
The martial clamour scares the plund’ring band,
And drives them bootless tow’rds their native land.
The vulgar mass a dreadful carnage share,
And shed contagion on the ambient air;
While Anlaf alone, of all the crew,
Escapes the meed of death so justly due,
Reserved by fortune’s favour, once again
When Aethelstan was dead, to claim our strain.’