I was up at the crack of dawn this morning, & out of the house about 6.50 AM; plodding on a wee walk back in time, through dreichish weather, to one of the earliest strata of British Christianity. It begins in the oldest part of Burnley, the area about St Peter’s church known as the Top o’ th’ Town. Next to the old grammar school there is a fenced off area in which are housed three & a half ancient monuments. We have the base of the old market cross, with the stocks underneath it; we an old cross said to date from the 7th century; & we have the stonework of the ancient Shorey’s well, which used to supply Burnley with fresh water before the advent of pipes & stuff. There is also the dedicated empty space where once sat two cannons taken from Sevastapol during the Crimean War, which had been brought to Burnley by General Scarlett. The guns had been taken to Portsmouth to be smelted down during the First World War, but the iron was found to be unusable & the cannons were unceremoniously dumped in the Solent!
The holy cross is said to have been erected in Burnley by Paulinus, a seventh century Bishop of York who died in 644. This timeframe also fits in with Saint Etheldreda, from which the devoluted ‘Shorey’ may be extracted. The process runs as follows; from an original of Æthelthryth or Æþelðryþe, by medieval times the name had become ‘Audrey.’ As Saint Audrey, the latter degenerated even further into the ‘Shorey’ of Shorey’s Well. In the search for more evidence, I have discovered that vestiges of both Saint Etheldreda & the Paulinus crosses can be found only a couple of miles from each other, just to the west & north of Pendle’s heathy mass.
The abbey at Whalley, a ten mile walk around the flanks of Pendle from my house, claims to have been founded at the Augustinian advent (596), making it one of the oldest Christian centers in Britain. My journey there took me along Accrington Road (I’m an Accy roader at heart), along to the canal at Gannow (where I learnt how to swim) & on to Rosegrove. From here I pass’d down into sleepy Lowerhouse along the old railway line – now a greenway – into Padiham. You might not realise it – in fact nobody has actually – but that busy little paragraph contains the names of two members of the 7th century Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. Accrington, known as Akarinton in 1194, would be named after Acca – the mother of King Oswald. This fellow’s name can even be found right next door to Accrington, in the village of Oswaldtwistle. We can also place King Penda’s son, Peada, in the area – who must have given his name to Padiham. Indeed, Henry Taylor writes that in Padiham, ‘Baines states that a cross, strongly resembling those found in Whalley churchyard, was discovered here.’ One idea is that after the Battle of Chester in 616, when the Eastern Saxons finally broke through to the west of Britain, the lands in Lancashire were peicemealed out among the royalty of the conquerors.
Leaving Padiham, I dropped down into the village of Altham, where we can definitely place Saint Etheldreda. In her vita we are told how she married a northerner (Ecgfrith), but would not consummate the marriage & fled the lecherous clutches of that randy king. On her journey south to the family home in East Anglia, she founded a monastery on an ‘island’ which Goscelin of Saint-Bertin says was, ‘surrounded by fen called Alftham.’ This gives us a direct match for Alvetham/Elvetham, the earliest recorded name for Altham, whose territory is indeed fenlike – a flat & marshy swathe of the Calder Valley. On my walk to Whalley I made a brave attempt at investigating the river that runs by Altham, but was unceremoniously threatened off the land by a farmer-bully on a quad, who was being followed by about fifty sheep – quite a comical scene & the banter was great;
‘I’m a historian,’
‘I’ll give you history!’
‘I’ve got right of way.’
‘I’ll give you right of way,’
& so it continued, in that deep, rustic accent that has lingered for centuries in the shadowy valleys between Burnley & Blackburn.
All this brings us to another of the other names for the Brunanburh; for the Annals of Clonmacnoise state the battle being fought on the ‘Plains of Othlyn.’ The core phonetic of this name is to be found in the person of Saint Etheldreda, whose vita tells us that after leaving Altham she headed for Bradford in Yorkshire, where en route, ‘there came a time when she was walking in the burning heat of the Sun, and exceedingly weary as the result of her unaccustomed exertion, she could scarcely stand. She therefore sought intently a shady, pleasant place, so that they might cool their bosoms, drenched as they were with sweat, and reinvigorate their weary limbs with a new strength. And her prayer was not unavailing: no, its swift effectiveness yielded the desired result, and, as she continued on her way at a slow pace, it was arranged by God’s grace that she happened upon a place nearby, suitable as a stopping place for travelers, a remarkably flat meadow – you would have thought it had been leveled deliberately – sprinkled all about with flowers of various colours. She made for the longed-for place, saw it be agreeable, was delighted that it was possible to stop there, to breathe in with pleasure wonderful, flower-scented draughts of air. The saintly traveler, delighted by the pleasantness of the place, desired to stop there for a little while, refresh herself for a little while, so that, once the strength of her weary limbs was restored, she might complete the remainder of her journey. Then she settled herself down and fell asleep. And there she slept for a while in the place where tiredness had compelled her to sleep.
When, after a little while, she woke up from her sleep & rose to her feet, she found that her travelling-staff, the end of which she had driven into the ground, dry & long-seasoned, was now clothed with green bark, and had sprouted and put forth leaves. Seeing this, she was stupefied with amazement and, along with her companions, she praised god and blessed him for this most extraordinary happening from her innermost heart.
This miracle provides us with the philological root to Othlyn. Most modern scholars, when analyzing the etymology of Othlyn, plump for something like the pool (Gealic=lynn) of Otha. Nobody, I believe, has looked at another possibility; that Othlyn means the ash tree (Celtic=ynn) of Othl. A Celtic name is totally viable for the miracle of Etheldreda, for in the first half of the 7th century the Burnley area would have remained overwhelmingly Brythonic
The heart of Burnley rests in a valley, parts of which are indeed plain-like, the ‘remarkably flat meadow’ of Etheldreda’s vita which stretch from Towneley to the River Brun. By standing on the canal viaduct above the town centre, one reaches the perfect vistapoint to understand just how flat the Burnley plain really is. The town centre itself would have been the main battlefield fought about an ancient ford of the River Brun as remembered by John of Fordun’s ‘Brunford,’ & William of Malmesbury’s ‘Bruneford.’ This explains why the battle site has not been properly identified by the discovery of artefacts, for they would be hiding under the thousands of tons of concrete which make up Burnley Town Centre.
More evidence for the Burnley Brunanburh can be found in Egil’s Saga, where a cowardly flight from the field of Athelstan’s ally, Earl Alfgeir, gives us a vital geographical clue; ‘then he rode to the south country, and of his travel ’tis to be told that he rode a night and a day till he came westwards to Earls-ness. Then the earl got a ship to take him southwards over the sea.’ In 937, the Burnley area was part of Northumbria, but lay only thirty or so miles north of the Mercian border, which stretched between the Mersey & the Humber estuaries. Just beyond that demarcation line lay an Anglo-Saxon people known as the Southumbrians, a record of whom is found in the Chronicle, when in 702 King Kenred ‘assumed the government of the Southumbrians.’ Thus, when Alfgeir crossed the Mersey he would have entered Southumbria, the ‘South Country’ through which he would travel westwards to a certain ‘Earls Ness.’
A full night & days riding (24 hours) through the thick Lancashire forests of a thousand years ago, would have equated to somewhere between 50 & a 100 miles. This means we are looking for a sea-port called Earls Ness to the south of the Mersey & somewhere to the west of Burnley. The only other record of an Earl’s Ness in these parts of Britain is a ‘Jarlsness’ mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. This epic & romantic tale of Viking adventure describes how a 12th century seafarer called Sveinn sailed from the Isle of Man so he could harry Wales. After this he launched a deadly Viking attack upon the unsuspecting settlement of Jarlsness;
Then Swein and Holdbodi went out on an expedition with five ships. They plundered in Bretland (Wales), landing at a place called Jarlsness and committing great ravages. One morning they went into a certain village, and met with a little resistance. The inhabitants fled from the village, and Swein and his men plundered everything, and burnt six homesteads before dinner
Between the Isle of Man & northern Wales lies the Wirral, a narrow peninsular of land which divides the rivers Dee & Mersey. It should be no surprise to discover that there once was a Viking sea-port called Ness on the south Wirral coast. Today, if we were to drive along the M65, M6 & M56, the journey between Burnley & Ness would be about 80 miles – a healthy fit for the night & day ride of Alfgeir. The coastline has changed over the past thousand years & the sea-ports have been silted into still silence, but the port of Ness once served a small pocket of Viking townships permitted to settle on the Wirral by Queen Aethelflead in the early 900s. Surely this is the Earls’ Ness we are looking for!
Alfgeir’s flight from Brunanburh took place before the main battle began, a condensed account of which I shall now make. In the 1830s & 1840s, a certain William Siborne gathered as many firsthand accounts of the Battle of Waterloo as he could; in order to build, as accurately as possible, a large model of the battlefield. I have seen this diorama myself, in the National Army Museum at Chelsea, & a fine piece it is too. In the same fashion, I shall now attempt to reconstruct the battle of Brunanburh using similar ‘first-hand’ accounts. When it comes to the ‘fighting’ itself, three sources stand head & shoulders above the rest. These are the Croyland Chronicle, William of Malmlesbury’s ‘Deeds of the Kings of the English’ & Snorri Sturlsson’s Egils Saga.
As the first beams of golden amber skipped off whaleback Pendle the gorgeous chorus of the morning songbirds twittered & jingled through the thick forest of the Burnley vales, little did these passerines know that their voices would be soon drowned out by the hellish & clamorous din of arms, & the ghoulish wailings of dying warriors?
The dawn was just breaking, when they arrived at the place of slaughter; the king’s troops coming up fresh and prepared for the onset against the barbarians, while they, on the other hand, had been toiling throughout the whole night, and were quite weary and worn out with fatigue Croyland Chronicle
On the Vinheath; Scots, Picts & the Strathclyde Welsh were assembling, facing off against a determined block of Saxon warriors & Icelandic mercenaries such as Egil. After their night attack, the Vikings were spreading out into the plains of Burnley, while Athelstan was leading a portion of his army to meet them. The battle of Brunanburh is in fact two separate battles, one on the heath & one on the plains, a great contest that would become immortally legendary in its brutality.
An Old English poem known as Exodus has an inspiring description of a king on the march with his army.
There the king, prince of men, rode ahead with the troop, hard by the banner; the captain of men fastened his helmet, the king his chin-guard, to make ready for battle – the standard shone – he shook his corslet; he bade his cohorts carefully hold firm their order of battle… Around him moved fearless fighters; old wolves of the sword welcomed war, thirsting for the press of battle, loyal to their leader.
The author of Egil’s Saga confuses things a little by combining Constantine & Analf into a single leader called Olaf. It continues;
King Olaf drew up his forces when he saw King Athelstan had done so. He also made two divisions; and his own standard, and the division that himself commanded, he opposed to King Athelstan and his division
Meanwhile, Vinheath was filling up with Scottish warriors, including the Confederacy’s ‘second division.’
Thorolf’s division moved on the higher ground beside the wood…. King Olaf’s second division moved near the wood against the force under Thorolf. The commanders thereof were Scotch earls, the men mostly Scots; and it was a great multitude.
The battle-lines were now drawn & the greatest battle ever to grace the British Isles was all set to begin. Two wonderful poems written originally in Old English give us the correct flavor of battle.
Then the band of bold men was quickly made ready, men brave in battle; the valiant men & warriors marched out, bore banners of victory; they set straight forward to the fight, heroes beneath their helmets
Then out-cry was raised, the ravens circled,
Eagle eager for prey
The Battle of Maldon
The Croyland Chronicle picks up proceedings, confirming the dual nature of the battle, when it says; ‘King Althelstan, who was in command of all the men of Wessex, charged the troops of Anluf, while his chancellor, Turketul, who led on the Londoners and all the Mercians, engaged the forces of Constantino.’ With Turketal facing the Scots, he would have found himself fighting alongside Egil on the Vinheath, & thus it would be his troops who the Saxifields are named after. Before the armies engaged in brutal hand to hand combat, there would have been a frantic exchange of missiles. The poems describe such how this section of the battle would have been played out
Keenly they shot forth showers of arrows, adders of war, from their bows of horn, strong shafts; the raging warriors loudly stormed, cast spears into the press of brave men;
Then they let from their fists
The file-hardened spears,
The darts well-ground, fly forth:
The bows were busy, board point received
The Battle of Maldon
After this brief exchange, the battle broke out into a boiling cauldron of flailing limbs & flashing blades. The Croyland Chronicle provides an excellent account of the fighting in which Turketal plays a starring role;
The discharge of light arms being quickly put an end to, the battle was now fought foot to foot, spear to spear, and shield to shield. Numbers of men were slain, and, amid indiscriminate confusion, the bodies of kings and of common men were strewed upon tho ground… the chancellor Turketul, taking with him a few of the Londoners, whom he knew to be most distinguished for valour, and a certain captain of the Wiccii, Singin by name, who was remarkable for his undaunted bravery, (being taller in stature than any of the rest, firm and brawny in bone and muscle, and excelling in strength and robustness any one of the London heroes), flew at their head to the charge against the foe, and, penetrating the hostile ranks, struck them down on the right and on the left… After they had now fought for a long time with the most determined courage, and neither side would give way, (so vast was the multitude of the Pagans)
All through this intense & bloody battle, the outcome was always in the balance, with a particularly desperate struggle being fought to the death up on the Heath. The Saga tells us;
Egil charged against Adils, and they had a hard fight of it. The odds of numbers were great, yet more of Adils’ men fell than of Egil’s. Then Thorolf became so furious that he cast his shield on his back, and, grasping his halberd with both hands, bounded forward dealing cut and thrust on either side. Men sprang away from him both ways, but he slew many. Thus he cleared the way forward to earl Hring’s standard, and then nothing could stop him. He slew the man who bore the earl’s standard, and cut down the standard-pole. After that he lunged with his halberd at the earl’s breast, driving it right through mail-coat and body, so that it came out at the shoulders; and he lifted him up on the halberd over his head, and planted the butt-end in the ground. There on the weapon the earl breathed out his life in sight of all, both friends and foes. Then Thorolf drew his sword and dealt blows on either side, his men also charging. Many Britons and Scots fell, but some turned and fled.
But earl Adils seeing his brother’s fall, and the slaughter of many of his force, and the flight of some, while himself was in hard stress, turned to fly, and ran to the wood. Into the wood fled he and his company; and then all the force that had followed the earl took to flight. Thorolf and Egil pursued the flying foe. Great was then the slaughter; the fugitives were scattered far and wide over the heath.
Thorolf pressed eagerly forward, causing his standard to be borne onwards along the woodside; he thought to go so far forward as to turn upon the Scotch king’s division behind their shields. His own men held their shields before them; they trusted to the wood which was on their right to cover that side. So far in advance went Thorolf that few of his men were before him. But just when he was least on his guard, out leapt from the wood earl Adils and his followers. They thrust at Thorolf at once with many halberds, and there by the wood he fell. But Thorfid, who bore the standard, drew back to where the men stood thicker. Adils now attacked them, and a fierce contest was there. The Scots shouted a shout of victory, as having slain the enemy’s chieftain.
This shout when Egil heard, and saw Thorolf’s standard going back, he felt sure that Thorolf himself would not be with it. So he bounded thither over the space between the two divisions. Full soon learnt he the tidings of what was done, when he came to his men. Then did he keenly spur them on to the charge, himself foremost in the van. He had in his hand his sword Adder. Forward Egil pressed, and hewed on either hand of him, felling many men. Thorfid bore the standard close after him, behind the standard followed the rest. Right sharp was the conflict there. Egil went forward till he met earl Adils. Few blows did they exchange ere earl Adils fell, and many men around him. But after the earl’s death his followers fled. Egil and his force pursued, and slew all whom they overtook; no need there to beg quarter. Nor stood those Scotch earls long, when they saw the others their fellows fly; but at once they took to their heels.
Upon the death of the Scottish Earl, Adils, his ‘many men’ began to flee the field, severely depleting the Confederate forces on the heath. As news of the rout spread across the fields of Burnley, it was becoming a catalyst for a more general rout, succinctly described by the modern historian, John Henry Cockburn.
I feel that with such a rag-tag group of allies that formed the confederation, bonds of loyalty on the battlefield itself would break in an instance. As soon as one group began to retreat, perhaps at the death of the commander or king, the fear would spread throughout the whole army
With the Scots fleeing north, Egil’s contingent was freed up to assist Athelstan against the Vikings. At this point we can presume that Analf’s exhausted forces were beginning to disintegrate. Egil’s Saga continues the telling;
Whereupon Egil and his men made for where King Olaf’s division was, and coming on them behind their shields soon wrought great havoc. The division wavered, and broke up. Many of King Olaf’s men then fled. But when King Athelstan perceived King Olaf’s division beginning to break, he then spurred on his force, and bade his standard advance. A fierce onset was made, so that King Olaf’s force recoiled, and there was a great slaughter.
Athelstan now turned his attention to Constantine & the remaining Scots still present on the field. The ASC records;
They split the shield-wall,
They hewed battle shields
With the remnants of hammers.
The enemy perished,
Scots men and seamen,
Fated they fell
After the flight of Analf & Constantine, the field was abandoned to the victors. It should have felt like a total triumph for Athelstan, but the victory was phyrric. Thousands lay dead & dying all about him; & the killing was still going on as the Saxons mercilessly pursued the routing Confederates. One can imagine the sun setting upon East Lancashire, its reddening rays blending with blood-stained earth & tunic. Between Worsthorne & Nelson, thousands of corpses covered the ground, at some places climbing on top of each other in grotesque piles of stycharine agony. The battle in the valleys, forests & moorland wastes, which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes as being fought ‘ymbe’ (around) Brunanburh, was the bloodiest single battle the island of Britain has ever seen & the casualties were epic. Almost every chronicle reports on the incredible carnage;
In a battle lasting from morning til evening, they slew five kings & seven dukes, whom their adversaries had brought as auxillaries, & shed more blood as had been shed up to that time in any war in England
Symeon of Durham
On this occasion there fell of the Pagans an unheard-of multitude
There was a great slaughter of Normans & Danes, among which these ensueing captaines were slain. Viz. Sithfrey & Oisle the 2 sonnes of Sithfrick, Galey, Awley, ffroit, & Moylemorrey the sonne of Cossey Warce, Moyle Isa, Gebeachan king of the islands (isle of man), Ceallagh prince of Scotland with 30000 together with 800 captives about Awley Mcgodfrey, & abbot of Arrick Mcbrith, Iloa Deck, Imar the King of Denmark’s owen son with 4000 souldiers in his guard were all slain.
Annals of Clonmacnoise
The death of Constantine’s son, Ceallagh, is given in several sources, such as the ‘Cronica de Origine Antiquorum Pictorum,’ – which mentions a certain ‘Filius Constantini’ being slain in battle. Elsewhere, the ASC give us more gloss, telling us that Constantine;
Had no reason to exult
The great meeting; he was of his kinsmen bereft,
Friends fell on the battle-field,
Killed at strife: even his son, young in battle,
He left in the place of slaughter,
Ground to pieces with wounds
On the English side, the casualties were almost as high, with the Scotichronicon stating, ‘there were slain on the side of the victorious Aethalstan most notably the ealdorman Aelwine & Aethelwine, two other ealdormen & also two bishops along with many nobles.’ Aelwine & Aethelwine were the nephews of Athelstan, & were buried in Malmesbury. Their deaths would have been considered a tragic tarnish to the triumph for the great victor of Brunanburh, who would conduct the rest of his reign without a hint of warfare.