10 – Saxifields
In my last post I showed the high likelihood of Vinheath being the great raised heap of moorland that drops from Boulsworth Hill to the valleys of Pendle Hill. According to Egil’s Saga, somewhere on Vinheath was a level bit of ground big enough for a battle, ‘with a river flowing on one side, on the other a large wood.’ The thing is, there is quite a lot of moorland in our prospective Vinheath, & not a few stretches of level ground… but… & this is a big but… we have been given a bit of assistance from TD Whitaker, our erstwhile 18th century historian who wrote over two hundred centuries ago;
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 mids of beholders not to be frequiently & diligently recited to posterity; & , when associated with names & local circumstances in succeeding times, though generally corrupted, are seldom lost
Basically, Mr Whitaker is stating that in the 18th century there was a strong local tradition of an Anglo-Saxon battle occurring at the Saxifields. Heading east out of Burnley, the road forks at the now-closed but once famous Duke Bar – the left road going onto Brierfield, & the right one heading up to Harle Syke.
Taking the latter road, a long terraced climb up to the hamlet of Haggate, we are soon walking over the anciently named Saxifields. These ‘fields’ are among the oldest parts of Burnley – a deed of 1240 (see the Victoria County VI p.443) 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. This area is known as Marsden, formerly Merclesden, & seems an excellent fit for Vinheath. Here’s some maps & photos….
We must acknowledge that Mr Whitaker was not trying to associate the Battle of Brunanburh with Burnley – but it was his making a record of a local tradition that became an early piece of the Burnley-Brunanburh picture. A half century later, TT Wilkinson builds on Whitaker’s work with some findings of his own;
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...
The now-lost tumuli known as ‘the graves,’ mentioned by Wilkinson are a direct match to the burials mentioned by Egil which he conducted after the battle on Vinheath, as in; ‘With warriors slain round standard / The western field I burdened.’
As for me-in-Burnley , it looks like I’ve been blagged by the local Healey Wooders to sort out their community garden….
Whitaker, TD – History of Whalley (v2) 1801
Wilkinson, TT – On the battle of Brunanburh; and the probable locality of the conflict. Historic Society of Lancashire & Cheshire 1856-57