Category Archives: brunanburh



Brunanburh! Brunanburh! Brunanburh! This antique name was once attached to an Anglo-Saxon fortification, in whose locality was fought one of the most important battles in British history (937 AD). A massive showdown, it saw King Athelstan of England face off against a grand alliance of Scots, Vikings & the ‘Northern Welsh’ of Cumbria & Galloway. This confederacy had been galvanized into action by a young Viking prince called Analf Guthfrithson. Normally based in Dublin, Analf had momentarily managed to unite the entire Viking world behind him in an attempt to wrestle back their former control over England which had been lost to Athelstan’s grandfather, Alfred the Great. Despite such powerful forces arrayed against them, the Battle of Brunanburh was a comprehensive victory for the Saxons, since which day the borders of Britain’s three nations have been more or less constant. One could fairly admit that the Battle of Brunanburh was the moment when the British Isles were truly born.

The first mention of Brunanburh in the annals comes within the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that wonderful storehouse of early English history without which the Dark Ages would have been much, much darker. The entry for 937 is actually one of the most famous pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the first & best of a series composed throughout the 10th century. Most entries in the ASC are written in rather mundane prose, but the rendering of certain events in poetry would naturally amplify their cultural importance. It is only through the Pegasus-flight of the poetic voice that humanity may truly record the incredible passions felt in the most turbulent of times. A fine example is the poetry of Wilfred Owen, without whose words our ability to feel the sensations inspired by the trenches of World War One would be much diminished. Similarly, the composer of the Brunanburh poem manages to reflect with consummate skill the spirit of battle, basing his words upon what appears to be genuine eye-witness accuracy.

In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
Ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
In battle with sword edges
Around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
They hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
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. The enemy perished,
Scots men and seamen,
Fated they fell. The field flowed
With blood of warriors, from sun up
In the morning, when the glorious star
Glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
Eternal lord, till that noble creation
Sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
By spears destroyed; Northern men
Shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
Weary, war sated.
The West-Saxons pushed onward
All day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
With swords sharp from the grinding.
The Mercians did not refuse hard hand-play
To any warrior
Who came with Anlaf over the sea-surge
In the bosom of a ship, those who sought land,
Fated to fight. Five lay dead
On the battle-field, young kings,
Put to sleep by swords, likewise also seven
Of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army,
Sailors and Scots. There the North-men’s chief was put
To flight, by need constrained
To the prow of a ship with little company:
He pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
On the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life.
Likewise, there also the old campaigner
Through flight came
To his own region in the north–Constantine–
Hoary warrior. He 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.
That grizzle-haired warrior had no
Reason to boast of sword-slaughter,
Old deceitful one, no more did Anlaf;
With their remnant of an army they had no reason to
Laugh that they were better in deed of war
In battle-field–collision of banners,
Encounter of spears, encounter of men,
Trading of blows–when they played against
The sons of Eadweard on the battle field.
Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
The dejected survivors of the battle,
Sought Dublin over the deep water,
Over Dinges mere
To return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.
Likewise the brothers, both together,
King and Prince, sought their home,
West-Saxon land, exultant from battle.
They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
The dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven
And the dusky-coated one,
The eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion,
Greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
The wolf in the forest.
Never was there more slaughter
On this island, never yet as many
People killed before this
With sword’s edge: never according to those who tell us
From books, old wisemen,
Since from the east Angles & Saxons came up
Over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
Glorious warriors they took hold of the land.

The Battle of Brunanburh was evidently cataclysmic, the largest ever fought in Britain; but nobody seems to have a clue as to where it actually happened. The whereabouts of Brunanburh is one of the most contentious debates in the entire contextus of British history, but of all the mysteries I have studied this one holds for me a special quality. On coming to the problem for the first time, I was agate, ‘there’s a River Brun in Burnley.’ So in the year of 2015, I returned home to that special corner of Lancashire in order to commence my inquiries, taking up residence in my own wee ‘weavers cottage’ at 70 Laithe Street. This traditional terraced house lies in the heart of the Healey Wood district, a Neptune’s trident like sequence of streets possessing commanding views over the area, a multi-purpose corner shop, mellow locals & only a stone’s throw from both the town centre & the meditative moors, it was a perfect place for base camp. Back in Burnley once more, I began to see old friends, walk familiar paths & to study hard in the local history sections of the area’s libraries. My field notes I turned into a blog which I shall be interspersing here & there as we take a deep look at the case.

Blog 1

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..

Blog 2

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.
Castle Hill

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.

Blog 3

Today’s blogpost begins with a look at Egil’s Saga by Snorri Sturlsson, of whose authenticity LM Hollander writes, ‘the saga agrees well with other Icelandic sagas, & may be reckoned as one of the most truthful; but when it is considered that it was kept in men’s memory for a very long time… naturally not every syllable will be true. Neither in this, however, nor in any of the best Icelandic sagas do the writers thereof deliberately assert untruth or mean to exaggerate.’ The saga tosses two new battlefield names into the mix; Vinheath & Vinwood, which are remarkably reminiscent of Symeon of Durham’s statement that the Battle of Brunanburh was fought at ‘Wendune’ & ‘Weodune.’ In Old English, the word ‘dune’ can indeed be translated as ‘heath,’ & with two very different sources concurring on a single name, we may pursue its identification with confidence.

The Vin/Wen element can be positively found near Colne in the phonetics of the wee hamlet of Winewall. Just off from Winewall commences a cute rivulet known as the ‘Colne Water, which may have something to do with the Vina as given in Christine Fell’s accurate translation of Egil’s Saga;

Flame-hearted Thorolf, fear’s
Foe, Earl-killer, who so
Dared danger in Odin’s
Dark wars is dead at last.
Here, by Vina’s bank,
My brother lies under earth

Crucially, Winewall’s earliest record (1324) calls it Wynwell – ‘spring of the river Wyn.’ After leaving Winewall, Colne Water soon merges with the larger ‘Pendle Water.’ This confluence then flows into the lovely, large village of Barrowford, one of the prettiest & poshest parts of Pendle City. Local tradition holds that Barrowford is named after some ancient burial site – i.e. a barrow – as in John Widdup’s;

The name “Barrowford” suggests that such a barrow formerly existed near the stream crossing, but the site of the barrow remains in dispute, as all evidence of it has been lost by land cultivation. It has been suggested that the mound on the side of the road at Park Hill marks the spot. On the drive back from Gisburn the other day, I got my mate Nicky to stop the car so I could take a few photos of the barrow, perched as it is by the old bridge where the ford would have been in antiquity. Barrows are in the main associated with the Bronze Age; but there was a period, the 7th-8th centuries, where they were used by the Anglo-Saxon kings, such as the famous ones down at Sutton Hoo. All evidence is pointing to this barrow at the ford of the river ‘Wine’ being the same place where was fought a battle mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Its name was Winwidfelda, or Winwaed, a name which translates as ‘ford of the Win.’

A.D. 655 This year Penda was slain at Winwidfelda, and thirty royal personages with him, some of whom were kings.

This battle was a civil action, fought between two Anglo-Saxon kings; Penda of Mercia (the Midlands) & Oswiu of Northumbria. Like Brunanburh, its location had been forgotten, but Bede does place the battle in a region called Loidis, a name which resonates in ‘Lothersdale,’ which is only a gentle phonetic corruption of ‘Loidisdale.’ This charming village is situated only a handful of miles to the north of Barrowford, a place to which we can attach a significant topographical clue. Bede tells us;

This battle was fought close by the River Winwaed, which at the time was swollen by heavy rains and had flooded the surrounding country: as a result, many more were drowned while attempting to escape than perished by the sword

Where Bede describes a heavy flood, this fits in perfectly well with Barrowford, which is prone to serious flooding. Local historian Jesse Blakey records, ‘perhaps one of the biggest floods within living memory took place on the evening of July 6th, 1881. It is believed that a cloud burst on Pendle, and the rushing torrent tore along carrying everything within reach away with it. The river overflowed its banks at the tannery, and formed another river in Gisburn Road… The mill Holme formed one vast sheet of water with that in the river and Gisburn Road. Huge pieces of timber were deposited in the streets, and the Newbridge district was one vast turbulent sheet of water…. In the diary by William Corbridge there is the following entry: Greatest flood ever known. Fearful night. Six hours of thunder and lightning. The flood was at its height about 11 o’clock on Tuesday. Swept all the bridges down from Barley to Barrowford.’

Where an Anglo-Saxon king called Penda died at Winwaed, Barrowford lies only a couple of miles from the foot of Pendle Hill. Most folk believe that the d in Pendle was a late entry into the name, for its first official record was ‘Pen Hul,’ which actually means ‘Hill.’ Instead, if we see this spelling as a devolution from the original ‘Penda’s Hill,’ then everything fits together sweetly. We must remember that in the dark days before mass communication, names would change willy-nilly, with only a handful of variants surviving to posterity, all of which were laid bare to possible corruption by the scribes of every age.

Returning to Vinheath, I believe its location is crowned by the hill between Briercliffe & Nelson upon which Nelson Golf Course can be found. Its eastern slopes lead down to the Pendle Water, which would be the river as described in Egil’s Saga. The wood – Vinwood – is a more transient feature, especially following the passage of a thousand years. It is between wood & river, perhaps on flat lands of the Prairie playing fields & Belvedere rugby ground, that the action of Egil’s Saga chiefly takes place. During the battle, we are told that Thorulf made his way with some warriors onto the ‘higher gound’ of the heath, which leads us to certain battlefield relics dug up in the 18th century, as recorded by TD Whitaker;

At some distance to the east of the town is a place of the name of Saxifield, to which is attached an evanescent tradition of some great engagement, & the defeat of some great chieftan, in the turbulent & unrecorded era of the heptarchy … scenes of great slaughter, the most dreadful of all spectacles, make too deep an impression upon the minds of beholders not to be frequently & diligently recited to posterity; & , when associated with names & local circumstances in succeeding times, though generally corrupted, are seldom lost.


When one heads east out of Burnley, the road forks at the now-closed, but once famous Duke Bar; the left road going on towards Brierfield, while the right one heads up to Harle Syke. Taking the latter road, a long climb up through Briercliffe to the hamlet of Haggate, we are soon walking over the anciently named Saxifields. Situated on the southern upper slopes of our ‘Vinheath,’ these ‘fields’ are among the oldest parts of Burnley – a deed of 1240 (Victoria County VI) tells us; ‘Robert of Merclesden to Robert of Swillington: The 40 acres which Henry the Clerk formerly held between the rivulet flowing through the midst of Burnley, & a field called saxifield, saving John de Lacy, his lord, his rights of forest & venison.’ Just after Lower Saxifield House, a ‘Saxifield Street’ leads past ‘Higher Saxifield’ to a level stretch of moorland/fields, flanked on one side by Nelson Golf Course. In the 19th century, it remained evident that a battle had been fought on the hill, when TT Wilkinson wrote;

The frequent discovery of bones… still serves to keep alive the popular story, & passes it down to each succeeding generation. Such remains were lately met with in large quantities when digging the cellar at lower saxifield house; & not long ago a large number of small tumuli popularly termed ‘the graves’ were leveled by farmers for purposes of cultivation. Iron arrow-heads are sometimes found in the mosses

It makes sense that these weapons are remnants of the skirmish on the heath as described in Egil’s Saga, in which ‘Thorolf’s division moved on the higher ground beside the wood.’ This, however, was only a relative side-show in the main battle of Brunanburh, but before we continue our investigations, I would just like to make a minor digression into a layer of British history that has been hitherto unnoticed by scholars. It turns out that the original Burnley folk are actually Polish, well, sort of, & there is a long-hidden strata to Burnley’s development as a civic center hitherto unidentified.


It is by digging in the Brunanburh dirt that we have flushed out the names of Vinheath, Wendune & Weodune. When looking through the vasty annals of history, there is actually a place where vin, wen, & weo all appear together. The entity in question is an ancient Teutonic tribal group known as the Wends, who according to Wulfstan heralded from a place called Weonodland’ as in; ‘Weonodland was on his starboard side and to portside, he had Langeland, Lolland, Falster and Scania. These countries all belong to Denmark.’ Other names for the Wends include; Old English: Winedas / Old Norse: Vindr / German: Wenden, Winden / Danish: Vendere. Let us imagine now that at some point in the distant past a group of Wends had settled in the area between Burnley & Colne; but how did they get there, & just who are the Wends? Their traditional homelands were situated in today’s northern Poland, against the shores of the Baltic Sea, in the lands to the west of the River Oder. From here they fanned out all across Europa, settling in places such as the Windic March in Bavaria, to Vindeboder at Roskilde… while some, I believe, came to Burnley. It is quite ironic, really, for my home town is now seeing the return of the Poles in some numbers, its citizenry coming full circle, so to speak.

The arrival of the Wends seems connected to their defeat in Europe by the Romans (277 AD), after which they were given lands in Britain. Zosimus writing of a Roman general called Probus, states, ‘his second battle was with the Franks, whom he completely conquered with the help of his generals. Then he fought the Burgundians & Vends… When the armies engaged each other, some of the barbarians were slain, others were taken prisoner by the Romans, & the rest sued for peace, accepting the condition that they surrender their booty & prisoners, but since, although their request was granted, they did not hand over everything, the emperor angrily punished them by attacking them on their retreat. Many were killed & their leader, Igillus, taken prisoner, & all the captives were sent across to Britain where they proved very useful to the emperor in subsequent revolts.’

The last sentence is key, for it places the Wends in Britain at a place well-sited for handling a rebellion, suggesting a northern location. If this was in Lancashire, we can understand the proper origins of a number of Probus coins found in the county; such as at Worden, on the outskirts of Leyland, whose name also seems a variation of ‘weodune’ Similar coins were also discovered at Burnley itself, where WT Watkin describes 126 copper coins known as ‘radiates’ of the late third century AD. Similar dated coins have also been found at the Roman camp at Castercliffe, a Roman camp on the moors just to the south of Colne. When analyzing its history, we should first notice that in the lists of Northern Roman camps, Calunio was not in existence in the time of Ptolemy (2nd century AD), but exists in the 6th century, when it appears in the Ravenna Cosmography.

This is the perfect moment to digress a moment upon the location of another named antique settlement in the area. East Lancashire was once under the control of the native Brigantes tribe, who were given nine poleis by Ptolemy. Of these, between Rigodunum (Near Oldham) & Ebaracum (York) we learn of a certain Olikana. This then leads us to a district of Colne, the old estate known as Alkincotes. Its antiquity is beyond question – a Roman cross was discovered there (as recorded on Colonel Parker’s map of 1747) with strong connections to the Whalley Crosses. Then a little spot of Chispology reveals the site as an original Brigantes settlement. It must be noted that the name Alcancotes, as given in 1296, differs from the earlier Altencote (1242) – but as we have already seen with the Brunanburh case, all names in that period were malleable.


The name cotes comes from the Old English cote – small house – which led to cottage.It could also mean a small structure built to contain domesticated animals such as sheep, pigs or pigeons. A possible & full translation could then be ‘the cottages of Olikana,’ & given the geography of the locale, we could easily place Olikana now at the impressive Castercliffe above Colne, with a sub-settlement establishing itself in the valley at Alkincotes.

Returning to our study, a combination of archeology & recorded history suggests that when the Wends arrived in the Burnley area, their ‘colony’ eventually became Colne. TD Whitaker, writing in the year 1800, stated;

It seems probable that the exact spot occupied by this station was in some of the low grounds beneath the present town (of Colne) and on the banks of the river where all remains of it have been effaced by cultivation… the environs of Colne appear to have been populous in Roman times, as great numbers of their coins have been discovered in the neighborhood, particularly at Wheatley Lane and near Emmet where a large silver cup filled with them was turned up by the plough in the latter end of the 17th century.

Speculating further, Roman forts were generally attended on by the local population, who lived in a settlement next to or near the fort. Described as a ‘vici,’ the semantics of one such settlement can be observed in the name Wycoller, a village to the east of Colne. There are other faint traces of the Wends in the area; the Pendle village of Sabden (Sapedene 1296) translates as ‘long, narrow valley of the Sabs.’ The ‘Sab’ phonetic is quite rare in Britain, & of unknown origin, but the Wends called themselves ‘Sorbs,’ suggesting Sabden’s original could have been ‘Sorbden.’ The Wends are also distinguishable by the circular encampments they built, whose continental versions are extremely similar to those found to the east & north of Burnley. Of these there is a certain ‘Ring Stones’ camp, near Swinden Resevoir & the house-cluster of Roggerham. The phonetics of the hamlet can be connected to the Rugians, a Teutonic tribe considered, unsurprisingly, as one of the Wendish peoples. In the 8th century, Bede stated that they formed part of the composite Anglo-Saxon layer to the English gene-pool, as in;

The Angles or Saxons, who now inhabit Britain… are still corruptly called ‘Garmans’ by the neighbouring nation of the Britons. Such are the Frisians, the Rugini, the Danes, the Huns, the Old Saxons, and the Boructuari

According to TD Whittaker, the earthworks at Ring Stones are highly similar to ones found near Barnoldswick, Skipton, Middop & Gisburn, with the latter even having an identical gateway to that Ringstones. It seems apparent that the same culture could have built all four of these fortifications in order to defend their territory. Their north-eastern limits would have been at the River Dunsop, in the Forest of Bowland, whose ‘sop’ element again invokes the ‘Sorbs.’ The Dunsop also flows into the river Hodder, which reminds us of the River Oder of the Polish Wends. The whole concept of a Wendish realm based on & around Pendle is beginning to taking shape, especially when we see the Rugian phonetic at Pendleside’s Roughlee – which was originally known as Rugelea.

The Rugii name element also leads us quite neatly to Rheged, a famous Brythonic kingdom with an unclear territorial extent. Roughly stretching between Strathclyde & Manchester, it reached its highest glory in the 6th century, the kingdom was ruled by a certain Urien, a great mover & shaker in the politics of northern Britain in that time. Of his Dark Age demense, the only place for certain we can connect to Rheged is the River Lyvennet, near Penrith, as seen in the stunning poetry of Taliesin.

To me has been extended.
The lofty Llwyvenydd
A Song for Urien Rheged
Urien will not refuse me
The lands of Llwyvenydd
The Satisfaction of Urien

Rheged seems to have been the kingdom carved out by the Wends/Rugi, which renders an excellent explanation for the etymology of Windemere – the lake of the Wends – which sits only a few miles from the River Llwyvenydd in southern Cumbria. Modern academical leanings have suggested that Rheged stretched as far north as Dunragit, in Galloway, & as far south as Rochdale, where the River Roch was recorded in the 13th century as Rached or Rachet. With Rochdale being only a few miles from Roggerham & Roughlee, we gain some sort of sense that the Wends of Burnley were part of a wider tribal area which would evolve into Rheged. But, I am digressing too far; for now, let us be satisfied in finding the root etymology of Vinheath & Wendune, & also be content with the realisation that even that smallest & most innocuous of place-names can become eternal storehouses of so much history.

That skirmish on the Vinheath was a subsidiary operation to the main battle of Brunanburh. The annals also describe another precursory skirmish, which seems to have taken place at Mereclough, near the delightful village of Worsthorne on the hilly outskirts of Burnley. At Mereclough, an old map has recorded a ‘battlefield’ & a ‘battlestone,’ while a ‘battle place’ was attached to its pasture in the Cliviger valuation of 1822. The stone was still there in 1974, but has since been removed to faciltate farming operations. Of a local ‘remarkable tradition,’ TT Wilkinson recorded that it in the 19th century it was, ‘still prevalent in Worsthorne, to the effect – that the Danes constructed these defences – that a great battle was fought on the moor – & that five kings were buried under the mounds.’ I believe the Worsthorne connection comes from an incident at Brunanburh which took place before the main battle. The action revolves around the arrival of an English bishop in the area, whose death announces the start of the battle proper.

When the bishop arrived at the war with his forces, he had no fear of an ambush on the grassy, level plain, & pitched camp on the exact spot from which the king had retreated
William Malmesbury – Deeds of Bishops

This bishop was called Werstan, & it should be that the name of Worsthorne has been derived from him. As the bishop was arriving at the field, Analf was leading his Vikings on a wide, wide march over the moors to the east of Vinheath. The skirmish on the Vinheath was turning out to be an excellent smokescreen for the maneuver which took him to the rear of Warcock hill, to the south of Worsthorne, aiming straight for Castle Hill. The Croyland Chronicle picks up the story; ‘accordingly, during the night, he made an attack upon the English, and slew a certain bishop, who the evening before had joined the army of King Athelstan.’ The sounds of battle woke the King, who was close to Vinheath, & just under two miles from Worsthorne. The Croyland Chronicle tells us; ‘cries of the dying being heard at a considerable distance, that the king, who was encamped more than a mile from the place of attack, was, together with all his army, awoke from slumber while lying in their tents beneath the canopy of heaven; and on learning the particulars, they quickly aroused themselves,’ & it is at this moment that the Battle of Brunanburh truly begins.

Blog 4

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.

Earl’s Ness

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
Croyland Chronicle

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.