Monthly Archives: August 2012

Brunanburh

The site of the Battle of Brunanburh has been debated for centuries. Occuring in 937 it was a seminal conflict that secured England for the English. The king at the time, Athelstan, fended off a great force of Vikings, Welsh & Scots at a hitherto unknown location, Many places have been put forward, with little concensus being reached. In recent years, a site called Bromborough on the Wirral has been on the ascendancy – but having worked out the mysteries of a Viking coin I can now safely say the the town of Burnley once played host to the greatest battle of the Dark Ages.

The above coin contains some crucial information. It is Viking imitation, minted during the reign of King Alfred c.900. The moneyer was a certain Bernvald, whose name appears with the prefix ‘Brun’ on similar coins. It was discovered at a place called Curedale, on the banks of the River Ribble near Preston, as part of a great horde of Viking silver. Scholars have speculated that Orsnaford was Oxford, despite the only coins of its type being discovered in Lancashire & only 3 of 30 coins reading Ohsnaford, on which the Oxford theory is based. Instead, Orsnaford must have been a settlement at todays Heasanford, a part of Burnley through which the River Brun flows. That the Vikings settled in the area is made evident from the vast amount of Old Norse place-names that surround Heasanford, especially two streams that feed the River Brun; Thorsden Water & Hell Clough, named after the Nordic goddess Hela. At some point between 900 & 937, a new fortified burh would have been built by the Anglo-Saxons in the area & named after Brunvald. Thus we have the Burh of Brunvald, or Brunanburh! Another name for the battle -William of Malmesbury’s Brunford – combines the two names, BRUNanburh & OrsnaFORD. Evidence for the name change from the Danish Burnvald to the Saxon Brunvald comes from Layamon’s Brut c.1200;

how athelstan here arrived out of saxland
& how he set all england in his own hand
& how he set mooting & how he set husting
& how he set shires & made chases of deer
& how he set halimot & how he set hundred
& the names of the towns in saxish speech
& how he gan rear guilds, great & very ample
& the churches he gan make, after the Saxish manner
& in saxish he gan speak the names of the men

This explains how Athelstan changed the Viking name Burnvald to Brunvald & also the renaming of Orsnaford as Brunanburh, ‘in the Saxish manner.’ You can see this very process occuring during the writing of the Anglo-Saxon-Chronicle with two different versions of an Archbishop called Burnstan / Brinstan!

A.D. 931. This year died Frithstan, Bishop of Winchester, and
Brynstan was blessed in his place.
A.D. 932. This year Burnstan was invested Bishop of Winchester
on the fourth day before the calends of June; and he held the
bishopric two years and a half.

The building of the fort of Brunanburh probably occurred between 927AD, when Athelstan won the sworn fealty of all British Kings at Eamoton near Colne, & 934 when Athelstan gave Amounderness, in which region Colne & Burnley lie, to the Bishop of York. Indeed, Athelstan’s father, Edward, after he had united Wessex & Mercia, pushed north, engaging in the building & rebuilding of a series of fortified settlements.

913 – Eddisbury
918 – Derby
920 – Runcorn
922 – Nottingham
923 – Thelwall (Warrington)
923 – Manchester
923 – Bakewell

Walton Spire

There is a great deal of evidence that points to Burnley being the site of the Battle of Brunanburh. Just above the town, on a plateaux between Harle Syke & Colne, one finds Walton Spire, built on top of a Dark Age monument which surely now marks the battlefield. All round the field are numerous tumuli, marking the dead, & just above Heasonford there is a field called Saxifield, of which TD Whitaker in his 18th century ‘History of Whalley’ tells us the locals held an antique tradition that a great battle had taken place on that ground. In addition, TT Whitaker reported in the mid 19th century that vast quantities of bones were constantly being dug up on the Saxifields. Elsewhere, an ancient Icelandic poem called Egil’s Saga describes the battlefield as lying on a heath between two towns, to the north & to the south a perfect fit for Colne & Burnley

‘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… Then the messengers ride all together, and find king Athelstan in the town that was close to the heath on the south.’

Egil’s Saga indirectly gives us the the location of the battle – about 80 miles to the North West of the old Viking sea-port of Ness, on the Wirral;

Then he rode to the south country, and of his travel ’tis to be told that he rode night and day till he and his came westwards to Earls-ness. Then the earl got a ship to take him southwards over the sea; and he came to France, where half of his kin were. He never after returned to England.

Here Alfgeir rode for a night & a day in a south-westerly direction before reaching the sea. This immediately dispels the Wirral’s Bromborough from the game, & also raises Burnley’s plausibility, being eighty miles away – a full day’s ride – to the north-east.

The battle is still remembered in the Burnley area by Beadle Hill, from Beado, an Anglo-Saxon word for ‘battle.’ One of the names given for the battle – Wendune – remains in Swinden, just next to the battlefield. There is also Worsthorne, named after a certain Werstan who died at the battle Very close by, at Mereclough is a ‘Battle Field,’ where for many years there was a stone there called the Battle Stone. There was also a ‘battle place’ attached to its pasture in the Civiger valuation of 1822. With Athelstan being at Heasanford, over a mile from Worsthorne, we connect with the Croyland Chronicle’s account;

…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.

After the battle the Vikings fled to their boats at the River Ribble, where the Curedale hoard was found (still a possible relic of the campaign). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that the Danes were pursued ‘all day’ – which fits in with the twenty-odd miles between Burnley & the Ribble estuary. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s…

Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
The dejected survivors of the battle,
On Dingesmere, sought Dublin over the deep water,
to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit….

tells us that the Danes fled ‘on Dingesmere,’ i.e. the Irish Sea. The Otho MS of the ASC gives us Dinnesmere, with Din meaning noise, while the related Dynge means; A noise, dashing, storm. Thus Dingesmere means ‘noisy/stormy sea,’ a perfect description of the Irish Sea. The Wirral scholars thought that ‘Dingesmere’ was a marshland connected to the Viking Thing (meeting place) nearBromborough. However, by analyzing the poetic technique of the Anglo-Saxon bards a little further, we unearth more precedents to this enigmatic phrase. Compare…

On Dingesmere, over deep water

With…

on the sea-flood over the cold water
on the path of the whale, over the expanse of the seas

In this case in the first half of the line the sea is represented in a poetic fashion, followed by a simpler, more direct definition of that same sea. Brunanburh is also named ‘Wendune’ by Symeon of Durham, the Wen- element remaining in the village of Winewall, next to the battlefield (near Colne) & the name ‘Vinheath’ given by Egil’s Saga. Both ‘Wall’ (from Vollr – Old Norse for untilled plain/field) ‘heath’ & ‘dune’ relate to the wide, raised land that the field lies on, as the word dun being, ‘consistenly used for a low hill with a fairly extensive summit which provided a sood settlement-site in open country (Margaret Gelling). In adition, we are also given the name Brunfeld for the battle, which would be another for the ‘heath.’ That Vin/Wine/Wen–heath/vollr/dune changed to Brunfeld remains in the existence of a Brunshaw (wood of the Brun), the anglo-saxon ‘shaw’ element relating to the Icelandic ‘Skogi’ as in the Vinskogi (Vinwood) which was found by the Vinheath of Egil’s Saga.

Athelstan

One final name for the battle, on ‘The Plains of Othlynn’ (Annals of Clonmacnoise) connects to the Domesday Book’s Othlei, for Otley, whose lands stretched at least as far as Ilkley, a few short miles from the field. Thus so much time & effort has been spent on trying to place Brunanburh away from Burnley – but the town was once called Brun-lea & has the River Brun flowing right through it. No other place has such a strong philological connection with Brunanburh, & this, combined with the Viking Coin & all other evidence outweighs all the other sites put together. The town lies slap bang on the Dublin-Ribble-York-Humber line of communication through the Viking world, & is also the geographical epicentre of the country, a perfect place for the Anglo-Saxons to face the Scots who fought alongside the Vikings. The actual fort at Heasanford would have been built on a high spur of ground defended on two sides by the River Brun, & on the other by a wooden pallisade & ditch that gave its name to Harle Syke, named after the word Jarl, a Viking earl.

Thus the mystery of Brunanburh has finally been solved!