Yesterday noontime, after leaving Brierfield library, I basked once more in the epic views of the sun-swept hillsides & valleys of East Lancashire, albeit from walking the busy central road that binds Pendle City together like a piece of cotton-woven thread. First up was Nelson, which is rather like the Brick Lane of London, full of spicy streets & colorful shops – with an increasingly incoming Polish element; probably down to the fact you can rent a two-bedroomed terrace for as little as £50 a week (they’re £85 in Burnley). After Nelson comes Colne, named after the Roman ‘Calunio’ in the Ravenna Cosmography, which appears to the advancing walker rather like some Tuscan hill-town. Colne is the ‘West End’ of Pendle City – a little boutique Tunbridge-Wellsian world with its three theaters, cool coffee-shops & the internationally renowned Rhythm & Blues Festival. Colne’s most famous son is Wallace Hartley, the guy who kept playing the violin to the very end as the Titanic sunk around him. Also from Colne was the grandmother of John Keats – Alice Whalley Jennings – who brought our young poet up on a diet of Lancashire hot-pot, a recipe probably quite similar to my own Grandma Joan’s. Well-cooked steak, carrots, onions & good gravy; all covered by thick, tasty pastry & put in the oven for ‘a good twenty minutes’ as she says – absolutely delicious!
Passing through Colne I came to Laneshaw Bridge, an idyllic wee place right on the edge of Bronte Country. As I turned east, a great snowy moor appeared before me, gouged by some Titan’s claws, raking the scarring headwaters of Colne’s river system. My reason for being here was to track down an anciently famous well & cross. In previous posts, I have showed how the Anglo-Saxons had been heading north under Edward, & period of conquest which culminated in a single, seminal occasion: the moment when the kings of Britain met in order to swear fealty to Athelstan. The ASC for 926 reads;
A.D. 926. This year appeared fiery lights in the northern part of the firmament; and Sihtric departed; and King Athelstan took to the kingdom of Northumbria, and governed all the kings that were in this island: — First, Howel, King of West-Wales; and Constantine, King of the Scots; and Owen, King of Monmouth; and Aldred, the son of Eadulf, of Bamburgh. And with covenants and oaths they ratified their agreement in the place called Eamoton, on the fourth day before the ides of July; and renounced all idolatry, and afterwards returned in peace.
The place-name Eamoton has not survived to this day, but there is an ‘Emmot Estate’ near Colne. The older locals in the area actually pronounce it Ee-ah-mut, in line with the Old English pronunciation of Eamoton. This spectacularly pretty place, equidistant from John o’ Groats & Land’s End, is practically the heart of the island, a perfect site for such a grand meeting of Britain’s kings. Also of significance may be the fact that the 10th century borders of Strathclyde, Northumbria & Mercia all meet in this very spot. Near Emmot Estate there also runs a Roman road just a few miles to the north, giving easy access to the twin Viking capitals of York & Dublin. To all these lines of communication we may add an ancient road leading south from Emmot; through Trawden, Colne, Castercliffe, & over Shelfield Hill to Burnley itself.
During my studies I had read that in the grounds of Emmot estate there once stood an ancient cross, one of the two main articles needed when Christianizing a pagan. The other, the holy waters of baptism, can also be found at Emmot, whose famous well, the Hallown, harks back to 835, the year when Pope Gregory IV introduced the festival of All-Hallows to Britain. I had decided to see the well for myself, & from Laneshaw Bridge soon arrived at Emmot estate, whose main house had been long ago knocked down. Coming to ‘Upper Emmot House,’ I caught a rather cute woman leaving the grounds in her range rover, who told me the cross was now in Colne but she could direct me to the lake where I could still find the well. Following a wee lane, I soon came to a beautiful body of water, a haven for anglers, & just beside its shores I came across a rather large well.
The crucial supporting evidence for Emmot being Eamoton comes through this particular well. The kind lady in the range rover had told me that pilgrims had been coming here to be baptized since at least the 1100s, which connects to William Malmesbury’s description of the events at Eamoton, in which Athelstan takes a son of Constantine hostage;
Out of regard to this treaty, the king himself stood for the son of Constantine, who was ordered to be baptized, at the sacred font
Was this ‘sacred font’ the Hallown? The ASC does state that the British kings ‘renounced all idolatry,’ just as the local pagans had done here in 835. The well itself is man-made; with solid walls of stout stone, 18 foot by 16 foot, & nine foot deep. There are steps which lead to the bottom, where JT Maquis describes stone flags, ‘with nine holes in them, from which the water bubbles up with terrific force.’ The waters themselves, fed by powerful streams, are supposed to have restorative properties, including a reputation for ‘healing rheumatism.’ Only a hundred years ago, a certain Henry Taylor wrote, ‘Mrs Pennington (a former resident of Emmot Hall) told me that this well is still frequented for its healing properties.’ It was a cool moment, so early in my dig, to feel I was standing on the very spot where modern Britain was born. It is a magnificent, moody place, the whispers of those great speeches still chittering in the heather when the winds blow over the moors. In context of the Brunanburh campaign, the humiliation felt by Constantine on his first visit to Emmot could well have driven him to choose that very place to camp the Confederate army. He was basically saying to Athelstan, in the metaphorical fashion, ‘last time I was here you took my son hostage, this time I’m gonna kill yours.’
After an hour of ambience, I walked back to Colne utilising an alternative route; up over the hill of Laneshawbridge & down towards the Alma Inn. Turning left, I came to a certain Castle Road, & wondered why it was named so… perhaps there was once some sort of ancient fortification in the area? I finally returned to Colne via its cricket club, & just as the sun was setting obtained a photograph of the Emmot Cross, which had been transplanted into the grounds of Colne’s Parish Church.
In modern criminal investigations, circumstantial evidence is always taken into proper account when ascertaining a person’s criminal guilt. In the Brunanburh case, we have no dead body, so to speak, but we are definitely beginning to find traces of Athelstan & the battle’s other protagonists in the Burnley area. On leaving York, I believe that the Vikings marched west, possibly burying the famous ‘Harrogate Horde’ en route, for the latest coin in that treasure was minted during the reign of Athelstan. It was upon the natural meeting point of Eamoton that the three Confederate armies would coalesce, & in doing so spiritually upturned the oaths of fealty they had given to Athelstan a decade previously. It was a message of defiant solidarity the king could not ignore.
To the south of Eamoton lies a great stretch of beautiful, barren moorland which leads to the forked valley-system of Burnley, where from now on in we are to presume that Brunanburh once stood. The true meaning of the word ‘burh’ is ‘fortified township,’ settlements which were usually found on a low, but defendable hill. Almost all Saxon buildings were made of wood, as was a burh’s palisade – the thelwall. These would have barely left a trace, yet there remains a very real remnant of such a fortification on the outskirts of Burnley. I picked up the first clue to its presence while utilising Burnley Library’s excellent & comprehensive collection of volumes published by the Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society. In their 1952-53 ‘transactions’ there is an excellent account of excavations made at Everage Clough. In a small footnote, I was pointed further back in antiquarian lore to an 18th century writer, Thomas Dunham Whitaker, whose ‘History of the Original Parish of Whalley’ was also to be found in Burnley Library. Getting stuck in Kojak-style, I obtained the following passage;
The original site of Towneley appears to have been a tall & shapely knoll, southward from the present mansion, still denominated castle hill, & immediately adjoining to the farm called Old House, on the eastern & precipitous side of which are the obscure remains of trenches, which on the three more accessible quarters have been demolished by the plough. Here therefore, in every early times, and far beyond any written memorials, was the Villa de Tunlay, the residence, unquestionably, of one of those independent lords before the conquest who presided over every village & held immediately of the crown. When this elevated situation was abandoned it is impossible to ascertain from any written evidence or tradition; but the present house may in part lay claim to high antiquity.
For anyone wanting to check out Castle Hill, head first for Towneley Hall, a former stately home set in the most idyllic of grounds. Today this is Burnley’s art gallery & museum, where in the South Wing, on the ground floor, one can still see a wonderful 18th century painting of Towneley Hall, with Castle Hill just behind it. From this ‘birds-eye’ view one can see perfectly the raised site upon which a typical Saxon burh could well have been built. Once the military threat to the region had been removed, it made sense for the local lord to resituate his abode on the level & pleasant clearings where Towneley Hall stands today. An excellent hour or two can be spent here, especially when gazing upon the wonderful selection of paintings donated to the town by benevolent local brewer, Edward Stocks Massey. Once one feels satiated by the culture provided by Towneley Hall, one should enter the woodland grounds behind that majestic medieval building & climb steadily towards the rear of the grounds. Eventually one will reach a carpark, where in the open fields to the left rises the summit area of Castle Hill. Exploration of the feature will reveal a pyramidical mound whose eastern side slopes off in a sheer drop to a small river. To the north & west one can still see the deep remains of a trench system, while the south side has no trenches but quite a sheer slope. The top of the hill has an area large enough for a Saxon settlement & the views are just amazing; it would have made an excellent border-post against the Viking North.
An Anglo-Saxon burh formed the central administrative point of the administrative ‘Tun,’ from which we get the name Tunlay, & thus, Towneley. In the 12th century, Towneley formed part of an ancient township called ‘Tunlay-with Brunshaw,’ the latter meaning ‘Brun’s Wood.’ The clearing, or ‘lea,’ in this wood would eventually become Brunlea, & subsequently Burnley. That Towneley is associated with a Saxonesque fortification & topographical feature containing the ‘Brun ‘element easily leads us to the rather inviting possibility that Brunanburh once stood at Castle Hill. I talked to my dad about the find, & despite living next to Towneley all his life, he had never heard of Castle Hill. It is this obscurity that may have hid Brunanburh’s true site from even the hardiest of pro-Burnley enthusiasts.
Hazelling the Field
But where was the battlefield? Before the slaughter of Brunanburh, the campaign had taken a more political slant, a show of strength by the Confederation meant to humble Athelstan into submission. A different type of warfare was being played out in which negotiation was paramount; why lose sons & fathers on the bloody plains of battle, when treaties save so many lives. In such an atmosphere, the fight at Brunanburh was at first ruled by Dark Age codes of behaviour, resulting in a civilized stand-off known as ‘Hazelling the Field.’ According to a Scandinavian account of the battle, found in the 13th century Egil’s Saga by Snorri Sturluson, such a quasi-political event happened before the Battle of Brunanburh. While running through the extract, the reader should be aware that the two towns mentioned are the early prototypes of Burnley & Colne, both of which were granted to the monks of Pontefract Abbey in an 1122 charter.
After this they sent messengers to king Olaf, giving out this as their errand, that king Athelstan would fain enhazel him a field and offer battle on Vin-heath by Vin-wood; meanwhile he would have them forbear to harry his land; but of the twain he should rule England who should conquer in the battle. He appointed a week hence for the conflict, and whichever first came on the ground should wait a week for the other. Now this was then the custom, that so soon as a king had enhazelled a field, it was a shameful act to harry before the battle was ended. Accordingly King Olaf halted and harried not, but waited till the appointed day, when he moved his army to Vin-heath.
North of the heath stood a town. There in the town king Olaf quartered him, and there he had the greatest part of his force, because there was a wide district around which seemed to him convenient for the bringing in of such provisions as the army needed. But he sent men of his own up to the heath where the battlefield was appointed; these were to take camping-ground, and make all ready before the army came. But when the men came to the place where the field was enhazelled, there were all the hazel-poles set up to mark the ground where the battle should be.
The place ought to be chosen level, and whereon a large host might be set in array. And such was this; for in the place where the battle was to be the heath was level, with a river flowing on one side, on the other a large wood. But where the distance between the wood and the river was least (though this was a good long stretch), there King Athelstan’s men had pitched, and their tents quite filled the space between wood and river. They had so pitched that in every third tent there were no men at all, and in one of every three but few. Yet when King Olaf’s men came to them, they had then numbers swarming before all the tents, and the others could not get to go inside. Athelstan’s men said that their tents were all full, so full that their people had not nearly enough room. But the front line of tents stood so high that it could not be seen over them whether they stood many or few in depth. Olaf’s men imagined a vast host must be there. King Olaf’s men pitched north of the hazel-poles, toward which side the ground sloped a little. From day to day Athelstan’s men said that the king would come, or was come, to the town that lay south of the heath. Meanwhile forces flocked to them both day and night.