Constantine II: The Scottish King Who Became a Monk

Constantine II

For the majority of Scottish monarchs, the end of their reign was marked by death. Be it in the comfort of their bed chamber, on the battlefield or at the hands of an executioner, the relinquishment of their royal duties was often accompanied by their earthly demise.

The reign of Constantine II is somewhat of an outlier in this sense, ending when the king abdicated to become a monk.

The grandson of Cinead mac Alpin, Constantine II is one of the longest-reigning kings in Scottish history. He also stands as one of the most formidable figures of his era. During his reign, the fledgling Kingdom of Alba expanded significantly and he is widely regarded as having been a unique, transformative monarch.

So how did one of Scotland’s most successful monarchs end up becoming a monk? It all began with an alliance of Scots, Norse and Britons.

The Road to Brunanburh

Constantine II ruled amidst a backdrop of disruption and upheaval. The expansion of Norse influence across Britain had led to the dissolution of centuries-old kingdoms in Northumbria, East Anglia and the partition of the Kingdom of Mercia; once the titan of the Saxon realms.

Norsemen weren’t the only concern for Constantine though. To his south, Alfred the Great’s successors were also intent on unifying the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. And under King Athelstan they too had a formidable leader with a vision of a united England.

Relations between the Kingdom of Alba and the burgeoning Saxon kingdom to its south were amicable for some time. In fact, there is evidence that southern rulers allied with Constantine II to mitigate Norse expansion.

Constantine II
A portrait of King Athelstan from Bede’s ‘Life of Saint Cuthbert‘.

By 934AD this relationship appears to have soured completely. Athelstan invaded Scotland with a significant force supported by a sizeable fleet, ravaging the southern regions of the kingdom and perhaps reaching as far north as Dunottar before withdrawing.

Historians have speculated that Athelstan launched the invasion in response to Constantine II breaking a peace treaty. In 927, under the reign of Constantine I, the King of Alba acknowledged the overlordship of Athelstan alongside a host of contemporary British and Irish monarchs.

It is believed that Constantine II may have broken the terms of this treaty, prompting Athelstan’s forceful response.

Retaliation

Three years would pass before Constantine retaliated. In 937AD he allied himself with Owain, King of Strathclyde, and Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin and descendant of the infamous Ivar the Boneless.

This alliance represented the last hope for the three monarchs to avoid falling under the yoke of the rising English kingdom. Individually they could not match Athelstan, but united they stood a chance.

Olaf Guthfrithson led the alliance, sailing across the Irish Sea and landing somewhere on the west coast of Northern England. Marching south, the joint force of Scots and Strathclyde Britons would rendezvous with Guthfrithson and confront Athelstan.

The Battle of Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh was an overwhelming victory for Athelstan and the English host, and is regarded as one of the pivotal battles in British history.

The exact location of the battle has never been confirmed. Some historians speculate it may have occurred in Yorkshire while others point to the Wirral in Merseyside as the likely location.

Constantine II

Contemporary accounts claim the battle lasted all day with heavy, visceral fighting causing heavy losses for both sides. The resolve of the alliance eventually broke, prompting the Scots, Danes and Britons to flee from the field.

Victorious and determined to completely crush the alliance, Athelstan is said to have pursued the fleeing troops, slaying many more during the retreat.

The Annals of Ulster described Brunanburh as a “great battle, lamentable and terrible…in which fell uncounted thousands of the Northmen…And on the other side, a multitude of Saxons fell.”

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Olaf Guthfrithson managed to escape and fled back to Dublin with what remained of his troops.

Accounts from the time suggest a handful of kings following Guthfrithson were killed in the battle. Similarly, two of Athelstan’s cousins perished in the fighting while Constantine lost his son, Cellach.

An Early Retirement

After several years of relative peace, Constantine II abdicated his throne in 943AD and was succeeded by Malcolm I. It was here that Constantine would enter the clergy, becoming an abbot.

The monastery where he spent his retirement is believed to be St Andrews, which had been re-founded during his reign.

In 952AD, the Irish annals record Constantine’s death. His son Indulf would eventually succeed Malcolm I, who was killed in battle two years later.


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