So that’s me back in the mother-ship, Burnley, where I’ll be lighting a few of these Dark Age Candles while I’m down here. I woke up to one of those unbelievably beautiful Lancashire winter’s mornings; scintillating clear skies casting an ethereal quality of light that shimmer’d through the valleys & bounced off the snow-skipped slopes of Pendle & the all-surrounding moors. Burnley is set in one of the most handsome parts of the country, the chief civic section of a long & ribboning Pennine-straddling conurbation. Along with Padiham, Brierfield, Nelson & Colne, Burnley is the ‘capital’ of what I call Pendle City. There are about 130,000 citizens going about their business in my home ‘city;’ connected by their own stretches of motorway, canal & railway. For entertainment they have five theaters, a Premier League football Club, a number of live music venues, several sports centers, loads of golf courses, buzzin’ bars full of bouncin’ partygoers & some fantastic eateries which reflect the influx of Asia into the region. For the historian there are, ‘between the towns of Burnley and Colne,’ as local historian James Stonehouse tells us, ‘more objects of antiquarian interest scattered about than may be found in any other part of England.’ Some of these, I believe, are connected to the Brunanburh case which today I begin to pursue. When I began to dig this morning, I started looking at the following passage in the Anglo-Saxon-Chronicle;
The sons of Eadweard,
It was only befitting their noble descent
From their ancestors that they should often
Defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
Horde and home
That Athelstan & his men were defending ‘their land in battle’ means the battle of Brunanburh must have been fought in English territory. When The Carta Dirige Gressus states…
Whom he now rules with this
England made whole:
King Athelstan lives
Glorious through his deeds!
…more than any other monarch, King Athelstan is the one who the English should remember as the true founder of their nation, for it is he who welded the seven kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy into a single political unit. It is also he who drove the Viking leadership out of Northumbria & brought the region under English domination. As a result of these northern inroads, Athelstan took control of a territory in Lancashire known as Amounderness, stretching from the River Ribble to its northern border at Lancaster. In the following charter (934), Athelstan grants the lands of Amounderness to Wulfstan, the Archbishop of York.
I, Aethalstan, king of the English, elevated by the hand of the almighty, which is Christ, to the throne of the whole kingdom of Britain, assign willingly in fear of god, to almighty god & the blessed apostle Peter, in his church at the city of York, at the time I constituted Wulfstan its archbishop, a certain portion of land of no small size, in the place which the inhabitants call Amounderness.
This proves that by 937 Burnley could be placed in England; only by a few miles, but definitely in England. Eleven centuries ago my home town – which consisied of onlya few scattered rustic dwellings in those days – would have been something of a border zone, & the building of a new burh in the area an important part of the regional defence system. Since 908, the English had been slowly expanding northwards, motivated by the leadership of King Edward & his sister, Æthelflæd. To support their ever-moving frontier they had initiated a series of fortress builds. The strategy was simple; gone was the slaughter & rapine of their ancestors; it was a time for civilized conquest, as burh-by-burh & town-by-town the English peoples encroached upon the territory of the Danes, building new fortresses & repairing old ones as they went. We can see an approximate passage of the ‘conquest’ by following the names & dates of the forts as they were recorded as being establish’d by the English.
908 – Chester
913 – Eddisbury
918 – Derby
920 – Runcorn
922 – Nottingham
923 – Thelwall (Warrington)
923 – Manchester
These fifteen years, from the rebuilding of Chester to the birth of Manchester, is a crucial epoch in the creation of the English nation. The north is slowly being pacified, & I believe that at some point after the building of Manchester’s fortress, that another new ‘burh’ was built by the English a little further north, defending Amounderness, near a place called ‘Brun.’
It is clear that the original ‘Brunan’ element of Brunanburh would devolved into ‘Bruna,’ as in the ‘Bellum Brune’ of the Annals Cambrae & William of Malmesbury’s ‘Bruneford’. Of Malmesbury’s spelling, the noted specialist, Paul Cavill, writes, ‘Brunanburh is most likely to be a personal name Bruna or a river name Brune.’ From here we take the simple step of dropping a single vowel to leave us with the snappier Brun, as verified by John of Fordun’s ‘Brunford.’ Surely, then, we are looking for a site near the ford of a river called Brune or Brun. Narrowing things down an awful lot for us, there is only one waterway by that name in the whole of Britain, rising on moorland a few miles to the west of Burnley – formerly Brunlea – by the hill known as Black Hameldon. The Brun is the shortest river in the country, making a swift passage from its vernal streams, through the pretty villages of Worsthorne & Hurstwood, then entering Burnley it conjoins with the River Calder. A few miles downstream, the Calder enters the Ribble, which then flows into the Irish Sea at Preston, 30 miles from the Brun’s headwaters. It may be significant to know, then, that in the oldest heart of Burnley the River Brun flows under the bridge in Church Street which was formerly crossed by stepping stones & a ford.
Another historian to place the battle by a river-ford was Ranulf Higden (c.1280-1364), who gave the variant spelling of Brumford. Coincidence or not, he was writing at that very period in history when Burnley’s name was given as Brumleye in a 1294 market charter. Similarily, a 1258 version of Burnley – Bronley – is echoed in the work of the English historian Peter Langtoft, who in that same period named Brunanburh as Bronneburgh. It is evident that these differing pronunciations of the name ‘Burnley’ contain a metasonic reflection of the lingual evolutions of the early English language. A similar process to the Brunanburh devolution occurred when the ‘Ottanlege’ of 972 became Otelai in the Doomsday Book of 1086. Likewise, Ottanmere, as found in an unprinted Beckley charter of 1005-11, would later become Otmoor. Combining the dates is interesting.
937 – Brunanburh
972 – Ottanlege
1010 – Ottanmere
1066 – Battle of Hastings
1086 – Otelai
1130 – Bruneford
1154 – Brunley
c.1200 – Otley / Otmoor
Before the Battle of Hastings, we can see that the –an element of words was still prevelant. That the ‘n’n was dropped by 1130 should be no coincidence, for the Norman invasion of England catalyzed the evolution of Anglo-Saxon speech into a French-inspired Middle English. By 1154, names such as Brune were trimmed even more, dropping the superfluous vowel & creating the snappier Brun.
So far so good. We now have good philological grounds for placing Brunanburh near the River Brun, so let us hurtle back in time so we can get stuck into our investigation good & proper. The scene has been set for the greatest battle ever fought on British soil. Over the winter of 936-937, a flurry of messengers were sailing the seas & riding the hills all over the northern Europe. In Scotland King Constantine & his kinsman, King Owen of the Northern Welsh, were preparing for their date with destiny. They would have been confident; energized by the vigour & confidence of a young Viking king from Dublin. Analf’s spirit was spreading all across the Viking Nation, from Denmark to Greenland, awakening the primal warrior in the Viking soul. A battle was coming, & at stake was the beautiful island of Britain.
Athelstan knew what was coming, he was no fool, & was doing all he could to raise a large enough army which could handle the imminent onslaught of the Confederacy. Forget the Spanish Armada. Forget Napoleon at Bolounge in 1805. Forget, even, the Battle of Britain in the dark & lonely days of 1940. This was the big one. Yet, while the Saxon warriors were sharpening their swords, the British Isles – so perfectly in synch with the seasons – had yielded up its snowdrops & daffodils of late winter, its wild flowers of hazy May, & its perfumed roses of summer. Athelstan watched them all bloom & go, & still there was no invasion. Perhaps he thought the rumours he had been hearing of the Confederacy were ill-founded, & so began to relax, determined to enjoy what was left of the summer. Little did he realise that Analf, ‘this bold youth, meditating unlawful conquests (William of Malmesbury),’ was in Ireland launching his campaign. This young Viking was the Bonnie Prince Charlie of the Dark Ages; Athelstan had thrown his father, Guthfrith, off the Northumbrian throne & Analf must have felt that the Viking kingdom of Jorvik was his by birthright. Guthfrith died ‘a filthy & ill-favoured Death’ in 934, & it was perhaps on his death-bed, as he sweated & writhed in agony, that he made Analf swear to honour the family name & take back York from Athelstan. In 937 that promise was set to be fulfilled, when a record of the Irish Vikings fighting in the Brunanburh campaign can be found in the medieval documents known collectively as the ‘Irish Chronicles.’
The Danes of Loghrie, arrived at Dublin. Awley with all the Danes of Dublin and north part of Ireland departed and went over seas
Annals of Clonmacnoise
The foreigners deserted Ath-cliath (Dublin) by the help of God and Mactail
Annals of the Four Masters
The Danes that departed from Dublin arrived in England
Annals of Clonmacnoise
Amhlaeibh Cuaran went to Cair-Abroc; and Blacaire, son of Godfrey, came to Ath-cliath
Annals of the Four Masters
By the help of the Danes of that kingdom, they gave battle to the Saxons on the plaines of othlyn, where there was a great slaughter of Normans and Danes
Annals of Clonmacnoise
These ensueing captaines were slaine; Sithfrey and Oisle, 2 sones of Sithrick, Galey, Awley ffroit, and Moylemorrey the sonn of Cosse “Warce, Moyle Isa, Gebeachan king of the Islands, Ceallagh prince of Scottland with 30000 together with 800 captives about Awley m’Godfrey, and abbot of Arick m’Brith, Iloa Deck, Imar, the king of Denmarks owen son with 4000 souldiers in his guard were all slaine. Conyng m’cNealle Glunduffe Died
Annals of Clonmacnoise
That’s quite a lot of information, really, amidst which the Annals of the Four Masters clearly state that Analf, also known as Awley & Amhlaeibh, ‘went to Cair-Abroc.’ This means that well before he fought at Brunanburh, Analf had recaptured York for the Vikings, a city known as Ebraucum to the Romans & Caer Ebrauc to the Britons. It is likely that Analf would met have the Scandinavian Danes in the choppy waters off Northumberland beforehand. Indeed, other sources do place the main body of the Viking armies entering Britain via the east coast;
Anlaf, the Pagan king of Ireland and many other isles, at the instigation of his father-in-law Constantine, king of the Scots, entered the mouth of the Humber with a powerful fleet
Florence of Worcester
Anlaf, the pagan king of Ireland and of many of the islands, being encouraged by his father-in-law, Constantine, king of the Scots, entered the mouth of the Humber with a vast fleet, amounting to six hundred and fifteen sail
Roger de Hovedon
After Analf took York, the destined battle could have been fought anywhere in Britain – but of course the Brun element in Brunanburh leads us to Burnley. If one were to draw a line between York & Dublin, it passes directly through Burnley; a Saxon fort at this location would have played havoc with the lines of communication between the two Viking powerbases of Dublin & York. The citizens of that proud Lancashire town have thought, for a long time, that the battle of Brunanburh was fought somewhere on the moors above their homesteads. Mr. Thomas Turner Wilkinson, a master of Burnley Grammar School, identified the ‘Saxifields’ up Harle Syke as a possible site back in 1856. His research led to an 1869 ceremonial vase being given to General Scarlett, the glorious leader of the Charge of the Heavy Brigade in the Crimean War, upon which were painted two shields on either side of a figure of the goddess, Fame. One shield depicted his famous charge, while the other sported an image of the Battle of Brunanburh. As years rolled by, other local historians began to look at the case, leading the Edwardian JT Marquis to declare, ‘there is overwhelming testimony in favour of the site on the Lancashire Brun.’ After investigating the matter myself in the early 21st century, I can only agree.
It has taken a few years to collate my researches, with my early forays into the battle being undertaken in 2011.That year, I took a walk with my dad toward the space where I initially thought the battle to have been fought, on account of the tumuli scattered across the hills above Swinden reservoir. It was all rather amusing as we walked through Worsthorne on that glorious afternoon toward the beautiful moors over Burnley. A passing car-bound buddy of my dad’s enquired as to our activity.
“We‘re looking fer an Anglo-Saxon battlefield,” said my dad, smiling.
“Good luck lads!” giggled my dad’s mate, shaking his head faintly with disbelief, before driving on & leaving us to our investigations. Eventually we came to the rugged Swinden reservoir area where my dad looked a bit bemused. I watched him look about a bit with his old soldier’s eye.
“It just dunt feel reyt son,” he said, adding that the fields near Worsthorne were a far better prospect. Trusting his paternal instincts I gave the matter more thought & research, & as we shall see what he mused turned out to be at least half right in the end.
The Burnley district is surrounded by lovely Pennine country, a topographical feature which fits quite snugly with Henry of Huntingdon’s;
The hills resounded
There many men born in Denmark lay
Pierced by spears, stabbed under their shields
From the summit of Pendle Hill, Burnley’s loftiest Pennine, the views awarded to the hiker-upperer are immense; to the west one’s gaze follows the River Ribble out past Fylde to the Irish Sea; on a clear day & to the north can be observed the fells of Westmorland, quite miniscule in the distance; while to the south & east one’s eyes penetrate many miles of moorland. The position is a perfect strategical vantage point, & gazing out from Pendle’s southern slopes we can see how Burnley sits at the confluence of three valleys; the plains of West Lancashire & the seacoast can be accessed to the west; to the east lies the rugged vale of Calderdale – leading to Yorkshire & the Humber – while to the north lies Colne & its old Roman road rolling east & west. To the south a road over the moors takes you to the vales of Bacup & Rawtenstall, then on to Manchester & the south of England. A fortress in the locality would have made perfect sense, placed at a great crossroads of so many Dark Age thoroughfares. If Brunanburh was built here, it was probably erected not long after 927AD, when Athelstan was given the sworn fealty of all British Kings at a place called Eamoton. There are strong reasons to believe this took place near Colne, so during my field researches, I made a wee expedition to check things out..