In 900, the idea of Scotland as nation state was still very much in the fruition. The last four monarchs had died by violent means, Viking raiders were on the rampage while the rise of an increasingly imperial Anglo-Saxon England under Athelstan threatened to reduce Scotland to a vassal state. The reign of Constantine II, therefore, was a make or break for Scotland and perhaps the most significant in its formation as a country. Listen to the podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
After the departure of the Romans, the whole of Britain had been in a state of flux, with various rival kingdoms seeking to dominate. In northern Britain, the kingdom on the west of modern-day Scotland (Dalriata) came to the fore under Kenneth MacAlpin in the 840s-50s. His marriage alliances with the neighbouring kingdom of Strathclyde (the Britons) and the High King of Ireland demonstrated the kingdom’s growing power but would also prove to be important in the future.
After Kenneth’s reign, the arrival of the Vikings during the reign of his son, Constantine I, in the 860s-70s put the kingdom on the backfoot. Constantine survived largely by keeping his head low and encouraging the Vikings to focus instead of Strathclyde, encouraging them to assassinate the British king (Artgal), with whom Kenneth MacAlpin had made a marriage alliance. Unfortunately, Constantine I was ultimately killed by the Vikings and his brother, Aed, barely had any chance to reign until he was killed and replaced by some kind of alliance between Eochaid of Strathclyde (Artgal’s grandson) and Giric, a man without royal blood.
However, the Alpin dynasty was not completely destroyed. Two royal princes were sent off into safe exile – Donald (the son of Constantine) and Constantine (the son of Aed). Thanks to the marriage alliance with the Irish High King, Donald and Constantine were taken in at the Irish royal court by their aunt, Mael Muire. In 889, they returned to Scotland, defeated Giric and Eochaid and Donald was restored to the throne as Donald II. Unfortunately, Donald was killed by the Vikings in 900 at a crucial time – it seems that the idea of a country called Scotland (or Alba) was emerging in place of the separate identities of the past, but without some stability this was never going to truly take effect.
The exact date of Constantine II’s birth is not recorded, but it was probably during the reign of his uncle Constantine I (hence the name), so potentially around 874. He was the cousin of his predecessor, Donald II, the son of Aed, nephew of Constantine I and grandson of Kenneth MacAlpin. We know very little of his early years, but they were a chaotic time, with his father, Aed, being killed in 878 and his formative years spent with his cousin in exile at the court of the Irish High King. If nothing else, it seems that Constantine was (rather like his grandfather) a canny and strategic individual with a knack for survival.
His cousin, Donald II, seems not to have shared this trait and was nicknamed “Psycho”, which did not serve him well when he did battle with the Vikings in 900 and came off very definitively second-best (and, just to be clear, dead!) These Vikings were Norsemen, led by the grandsons of the legendary Ivar the Boneless, and after killing Donald continued to plunder Scotland until Constantine fought them in 904 at Strathearn. Thankfully, he got on rather better than his cousin and enjoyed a significant victory, forcing the Vikings south. Two years later, Constantine sought to heal previous divisions within Scotland with a public ceremony at Scone, perhaps marking a new beginning for the country.
Despite their defeat to Constantine, the Norse Vikings would rise again. The dominant Vikings were Danish, ruling a territory called the Danelaw which constituted Northumbria (north-east England) and East Anglia following a deal with Alfred the Great. After Alfred’s death, the Anglo-Danish leadership were sucked into the battle for who would succeed him and in 910, at the Battle of Tettenhall, Alfred’s children Edward the Elder and Aethelflaed of Mercia wiped out the old Anglo-Danish leadership. That same year, Ragnall (one of Ivar the Boneless’s grandsons) captured York and filled the void left by Tettenhall.
Poor old Northumbria, once the most powerful kingdom in Britain, was in terminal decline. The northern territory, Bernicia, had retained its independence until Ragnall kicked out their ruler, Ealdred, who in his desperation turned to the next most powerful man in the area – Constantine II of Scotland. Constantine and Ealdred fought Ragnall and the Vikings at Corbridge on the Tyne in 914, but were defeated and pushed back. Ragnall then returned to Ireland and helped his brother Sihtric the Squinty recapture York, after which he returned to Northumbria and fought a second battle with Constantine at Corbridge in 918, in which neither side was obviously victorious.
The Rise of Wessex
Despite a couple of inconclusive battles with Ragnall, Constantine II had reasons to be cheerful after 20 years on the throne. His victory against the Vikings in 904 meant that he was now fighting them in northern England rather than on his own doorstep, effectively using Northumbria as a buffer state. However, in the 920s a new and more dangerous threat was emerging in the form of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, which was acquiring more and more territory Edward the Elder and Aethelflaed of Mercia.
Edward established control in Wessex and East Anglia, while his sister, Aethelflaed, shored up the western frontiers with Wales and in 918 conquered the Five Boroughs in the Midlands (Derby; Leicester; Lincoln; Nottingham and Stamford). Aethelflaed made a defensive treaty with Constantine against the Vikings and was on the verge of capturing York before her death in 918 (at which point Ragnall returned to restore control). Edward then took control of Aethelflaed’s Mercian territories, uniting the Saxons into one large and powerful kingdom. In 920, he established a fortification at the northern town of Bakewell where he struck a treaty with Constantine, Ragnall and the Britons to agree borders.
In 924, Edward the Elder died and was replaced by his son Athelstan, who would prove to be the most powerful leader of this period. Initially, he started off with diplomacy, marrying his sister to Sihtric the Squinty, now the new king in York after Ragnall died in 921. However, when Sihtric died in 927, Athelstan launched something of a blitzkrieg attack, kicking out the new ruler, Gothfrith, and capturing York. Gothfrith and his son (Olaf Gothfrithson) took refuge with Constantine and the Britons, which did not sit too well with Athelstan who called them to a meeting at Eamont Bridge (Penrith) and made them agree to renounce their alliance with the Vikings (though not before the Gothfriths had conveniently escaped!)
Constantine, as we have said, was a canny operator and was not about to abandon his strategy of using York and Northumbria as a buffer between Scotland and his most powerful enemy. The only change now was that Athelstan was more dangerous than the Vikings, so he continued to support the exiled Vikings, even marrying his daughter to Olaf Gothfrithson. In 934, Athelstan seems to have had enough and raised a huge army and stormed in Scotland, forcing Constantine to come to terms and accompany him back to England where he witnessed charters in Buckingham and Cirencester in 935.
Brunanburh and the Aftermath
Athelstan was more than just a powerful enemy – he had an imperial vision of ruling the whole of Britain, inspired by the Romans, and Constantine’s experience in 934-35 would only have made him more aware of the threat this represented to Scotland. So, instead of meekly continuing to witness Athelstan’s charters, Constantine returned to Scotland and organised a more formal alliance with Olaf Gothfrithson and the ruler of Strathclyde, Owen. When Olaf had defeated his rivals in Ireland in 937, he returned to England and in alliance with Constantine and Owen prepared to fight Athelstan in an all-or-nothing battle.
The battle, of 937, was Brunanburh. It was an epic battle and hard-fought, but Athelstan was victorious and the allied leaders were all forced to retreat. However, in a funny way it was not such a bad defeat – not only did all the allied leaders all survive the battle, but they all outlived Athelstan, who died two years later in 939. Olaf took advantage of this to recapture York and the Five Boroughs in 940, while Constantine II still had a buffer state between him and England and his borders were secure.
Constantine was by now an old man but his talent for survival was such that his reign was ended not by death in battle, not even by old age but abdication! In 943, perhaps encouraged by an impatient successor, Constantine II abdicated the Scottish throne and went to St Andrews where he became the Abbot of a Culdees monastery. He finally died almost a decade later in 952, probably by that point into his 80s.
Constantine’s victory against the Vikings in 904 was very significant – beating the Vikings is always impressive, but this was so comprehensive that there were no further Viking incursions for the rest of the reign. Thereafter, he fought the Vikings in the buffer state of Northumbria, specifically two battles at Corbridge. While 914 was a setback, the battle of 918 seems to have been more closely fought, with Constantine routing three of the Viking battalions before being taken surprise by a fourth battalion, with the bloody battle eventually coming to a close when it got too dark to continue. While not a victory, Constantine survived largely unscathed and it is significant that (given the failures of his predecessors) he was now fighting the Vikings in their own territory rather than his own. That Ealdred ran to him suggests his predominance in northern Britain in this period, while after 927 even the Vikings were seeking refuge with the Scottish king!
The elephant in the room is clearly Athelstan. While the Anglo-Saxons probably exaggerated the extent to which the agreements at Bakewell and Eamont Bridge represented submissions by the Scots, Athelstan’s invasion of 934 was comprehensive. According to the Chronicle of Melrose, “Aethelstan wasted Scotland as far as Dunnottar and Werter-moors, with a land army; and with a naval army, as far as Caithness.” After this, Constantine was forced to submit to Athelstan and witness charters in England. Finally, Constantine and his allies were defeated at Brunanburh, the great battle of the age in which one of his sons was among the casualties, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was keen to rub his nose in it:
“So also the old one fled away to his northern country, Constantine, hoary battle-man. He need not boast of the meeting of swords. He was severed from kin, deprived of friends on that field, slain at war and left his son on the death-ground, destroyed by his wounds, young at war. He need have no proud words, the white-haired warrior, the wily one.”
Athelstan was the major power of the age and Constantine did suffer defeat at Brunanburh. However, Constantine truly was “the wily one” – despite the defeat, Athelstan’s imperial ambitions were held in check and Scotland’s borders unthreatened. By his switching alliances and interventions, Constantine was able to use Northumbria as a buffer state and prevent his enemies becoming too powerful. And, lest we forget, he did kick out the Vikings for the whole reign!
Score = 14/20
Unfortunately, after such a rich and successful reign, we have almost nothing to go on regarding scandal! Perhaps Constantine was too busy with his diplomacy and battleyness, but besides breaking his promise to Athelstan not to make alliances with the Vikings we don’t really have any evidence of truly naughty behaviour. He even retires to become a monk!
Score = 0/20
Constantine’s long reign gave Scotland a much-needed period of stability, while his defeat of the Vikings in 904 meant that (with the exception of 934), as one medieval source noted, “It was long after this before either Danes or Norwegians attacked the Scots, but they enjoyed peace and tranquillity.” Scotland had suffered internal divisions in the past, with Giric assassinating Constantine’s father, Aed, before himself being killed by Donald. It is likely that rival figures at court were still in place and further conflict could have destabilised the country but in 906, Constantine sought to heal these divisions with a conference at the Moot Hill on Scone, a future site of coronations for Scottish kings:
“King Constantine, and bishop Cellach, vowed that the laws and teachings of the faith, and the rights of the churches and gospels, to be protected equally with the Scots on the hill of Credulity, near to the royal city of Scone. From that day the hill earned its name, that is, the Hill of Credulity.” (Chronicle of the Kings of Alba)
Cellach was likely the chief bishop appointed by Giric, so this ceremony represents the restoration of unity and effectively a new beginning for Scotland. Indeed, this period saw the first use of the words Scotland and Scots in English sources (as well as the first treaties and wars between England and Scotland) and Constantine’s reign seems to have been key in establishing the church as an establish part of the Scottish state, as well as the development of the role of Mormaers (formally independent sub-kings but now earldoms operating on behalf of the Scottish king). This form of government remained in place until the Davidian Revolution in reforming the state two-hundred years later.
It is difficult to put forward a strong argument for Constantine’s rule being worse than his predecessors. However, there were Viking raids between 900-04 and likely significant violence and plundering by Athelstan in his 934 expedition. Constantine’s various interventions meant that Scotland was often at war, which must have cost many lives at Brunanburh. Furthermore, Constantine ultimately abdicates, perhaps broken by Brunanburh or no longer able to hold onto power after his final defeat.
Despite the defeat of Brunanburh and his abdication, Constantine’s reign was a major step forward for Scotland both in terms of formalising the identity and existence of the country and in providing peace and stability after decades of chaos, Viking raids and internal strife.
Score = 17/20
Constantine II was king from 900 to 943, a reign of 43 yearswhich, when converted into a score out of 20 (where 20 is the longest reign of all the monarchs), gives him a total of 14.91.
Constantine had two surviving children (that we know of), which when converted into a score out of 20 gives him a score of 4.44.
Total Score = 50.36
Constantine II came to the throne after decades of Viking raids, internal strife and a run of four killed monarchs in a row. At the start of the reign, Vikings were rampaging across the country and the country was still divided. Many monarchs would have struggled to survive five years in this kind of position, but Constantine inflicted a defeat on the Vikings that permanently removed them from Scotland, after which he was able to use Northumbria as a buffer state. His canny approach to diplomacy meant that when a more dangerous enemy emerged in the form of Athelstan, he shifted his approach, allied with the Vikings and managed to keep Athelstan at bay.
Our Verdict: Yes! Despite the defeat at Brunanburh, Constantine’s incredibly long reign and his cunning tactics helped to establish Scotland as a powerful and permanent nation. He has the Rex Factor!
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