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The Tennysons, Father and Son,
Team-work on Brunanburh

I vow that this is surely an excellent testimonial to good parenting. Albert, Lord Tennyson, poet laureate of England, successively created a love of literature and learning in his son, Hallam. Not only that, they collaborated when the son was grown. His father, proving his excellent paternal qualities, was not afraid to acknowledge and credit the work that his son did. It is also noteworthy that Hallam did not rest on his dad’s laurels but made his own contributions to literature and history.

The proof is here in The Battle of Brunanburh translated from the Old English by Tennyson, pater, along with the prose translation which he used that was written by Tennyson, fils. I also include the preliminary notes by Cook and Tinker and the footnotes by Alfred, making this the complete section on this Old English poem in the book, Translations From Old English Poetry, edited by Albert S. Cook and Chauncey B. Tinker; Ginn and Company, Boston, 1902, pp. 25-30, 178-179.



This poem is entered in the Saxon Chronicle under the year 937, as a historical document. Æthelstan, son of Edward the Elder, grandson of Alfred, was king of the West Saxons and Mercians from 925 to 940, and became overlord of all England. His alliance with the Frankish kings, which he formed by the marriage of his sisters, made his name famous on the Continent. Gardiner says of him: ‘Æthelstan’s greatness drew upon him the jealously of the king of the Scots and of all the northern kings. In 937 he defeated them all in a great battle at Brunanburh, of which the site is unknown.’ According to another authority, this battle practically established for the time the unity of England and the supremacy of the West-Saxon house.

Edmund succeeded King Æthelstan in 940. Anlaf was Olaf Sitricson, also known as Olaf Cuaran, who, with his father-in-law Constantine, probably led the Scots; for his connection with Havelock the Dane see Billings’ Guide to the Middle English Metrical Romances, New York, 1901, pp. 18 ff. Constantine was Constantine II, who began to reign thirty-seven years earlier. The fleet from Dublin was probably under Olaf Godfreyson. For all these, and Athelstan, see the Dictionary of National Biography.

Compare Tennyson’s note below, and that prefixed to the Battle of Maldon, p. 31; Hallam Tennyson’s translation will be found in the Appendix, p. 178. The account of the battle should be compared with that in the Judith, from which it is evidently imitated.

TENNYSONS NOTE.   Constantinus, King of the Scots, after having sworn allegiance to Athelstan, allied himself with the Danes of Ireland under Anlaf, and invading England, was defeated by Athelstan and his brother Edmund with great slaughter at Brunanburh in the year 937.



1  Athelstan King,
    Lord among Earls,
    Bracelet-bestower and
    Baron of Barons,
    He with his brother,
    Edmund Atheling,
    Gaining a lifelong
    Glory in battle,
    Slew with the sword-edge
    There by Brunanburh,
    Brake the shield-wall,
    Hewed the linden-wood,2
    Hacked the battle-shield,

Sons of Edward with hammered brands.


    Theirs was a greatness
    Got from their grandsires —
    Theirs that so often in
    Strife with their enemies

Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their


    Bowed the spoiler,
    Bent the Scotsman,
    Fell the ship-crews
    Doomed to the death.

All the field with blood of the fighters

    Flowed, from when first the great
    Sun-star of morning-tide,
    Lamp of the Lord God
    Lord everlasting,

Glode over earth till the glorious creature

    Sank to his setting.


    There lay many a man
    Marred by the javelin,
    Men of the Northland
    Shot over shield.
    There was the Scotsman
    Weary of war.


    We the West-Saxons,
    Long as the daylight
    Lasted, in companies

     Troubled the track of the host that we hated.
Grimly with swords that were sharp from their grind-
Fiercely we hacked at the flyers before us.


    Mighty the Mercian,
    Hard was his hand-play,
    Sparing not any of
    Those that with Anlaf,
    Warriors over the
    Weltering waters
28     Borne in the bark’s-bosom,
    Drew to this island —
    Doomed to the death.


Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.


    Then the Norse leader,
    Dire was his need of it,
    Few were his following,
    Fled to his war-ship;

Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it,
Saving his life on the fallow flood.


    Also the crafty one,
    Crept to his North again,
    Hoar-headed hero!


    Slender warrant had
    He to be proud of
    The welcome of war-knives —
    He that was reft of his
    Folk and his friends that had
    Fallen in conflict,
    Leaving his son too
29     Lost in the carnage,
    Mangled to morsels,
    A youngster in war!


    Slender reason had
    He to be glad of
    The clash of the war-glaive —
    Traitor and trickster
    And spurner of treaties —
    He nor had Anlaf
    With armies so broken
    A reason for bragging
    That they had the better
    In perils of battle
    On places of slaughter —
    The struggle of standards,
    The rush of the javelins,
    The crash of the charges,3
    The wielding of weapons —
    The play that they played with
    The children of Edward.


    Then with their nailed prows
    Parted the Norsemen, a
    Blood-reddened relic of
    Javelins over
    The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
    Shaping their way toward Dyflen4 again,
    Shamed in their souls.



    Also the brethren,
    King and Atheling,
    Each in his glory,

Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,

    Glad of the war.


Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin —
Left for the white-tailed eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-tailed raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.


    Never had huger
    Slaughter of heroes
    Slain by the sword-edge —
    Such as old writers
    Have writ of in histories —
    Hapt in this isle, since
    Up from the East hither
    Saxon and Angle from
    Over the broad billow
    Broke into Britain with
    Haughty war-workers who
    Harried the Welshman, when
    Earls that were lured by the
    Hunger of glory gat
    Hold of the land.



1  I have more or less availed myself of my son’s prose translation of this poem in the Contemporary Review (November 1876).

2  Shields of linden-wood.

3   Lit. ‘the gathering of men.’

4  Dublin.





For this translation see Tennyson’s note on p. 25. A comparison of this version with the poetical one will be instructive.

Athelstan King, lord of earls, giver of costly gifts among barons, and his brother Edmund Atheling — lifelong glory they gain’d in the strife by Brunanburh with the edges of their swords. They clove the wall of shields; they hew’d the battle-shields of lindenwood; with hammer’d brands they hew’d them — these sons of Edward.

This was their nobleness from those that went before them, that they, so often, in combat against every foeman, should guard their land, their hoards, and their homes.

The spoilers cringed; the Scottishmen crouch’d; and the ship-crews fell: they were doom’d to the death; the field flow’d with blood of warriors, from when the sun on high, the mighty star in the morning-tide, the bright lamp of God the everlasting Lord, glided over earth, even until this noble creature sank to his setting.

There lay stricken down by the spear many warrior-men of the North, — shot over the shield; many a Scotsman also, full-wearied with war. All day long the West Saxons, — their chosen men in companies, — follow’d on the track the race of their loathing; quickly they hack’d at the fliers from behind — with swords sharpen’d by the grindstone. The Mercians stinted not their hard hand-play among those heroes, that along with Anlaf, over the weltering waves, in the bark’s bosom, had made for the land. In fight they were doom’d to the death. There lay five young kings, sword-silenced on the war-field: there lay seven earls of Anlaf — and ravagers innumerable — sea-men and Scotsmen.


The Norse leader was hunted away; needs must he fly to the stem of his ship — few of his own were with him: the keel drave afloat; the king fled forth; on the fallow flood he saved his life. There came likewise in flight to his kith in the North the wary Constantinus, the hoary warrior.

No need had he to boast of the welcome of swords; he was forlorn of his kin, he was forlorn of his friends, they were fell’d on that throng’d field, slain in the strife; and he left his son upon the place of slaughter, wounds had gash’d him into pieces, he was yet young in war.

No need had he to vaunt of the carnage of axes, that white-hair’d Baron! that aged Traitor! — nor had he, nor any more had Anlaf, with the ruin of their armies, aught of reason for laughter, as though they were better in the works of war, in the struggle of standards on the battle-ground, in the meeting of men at the gathering of spears, in the wrestling of weapons, wherewithal they had play’d on the field of slaughter against the sons of Edward.

Then past forth a red remnant of the javelins, the Northmen in their nailed barks, on the sounding sea, over the deep water, to make for Dyflen, for Ireland again — they were shamed in their souls. But the brothers, the king, and the Atheling, both together, sought their kith in the land of the West Saxon, rejoicing in battle.

Many a cascase they left behind them, many a sallow skin for the swarthy raven with horny beak to tear; the livid corpse they left behind them for the ern with white tail to gorge as carrion, for the greedy war-hawk, and for that gray beast, the wolf of the weald.

Never before in this island was a huger slaughter of men fell’d by the sword-edge (among those of which the books tell us, the ancient chroniclers) — never before — since the Angles and Saxons came up hither from the East, and over the broad brine sought Britain; when haughty war-smiths overcame the Welsh-men, and earls full of the lust of glory gat hold of the land.



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