13 – Etheldreda’s Ash
Last night, just before I went to bed, I had a wee subconscious glimmer-flicker concerning Egil’s Saga. In the middle of a litological dig, when you’re up to your knees in mud & source material, you sometimes miss a nugget or three in the scattering soil. Well, it suddenly dawned on me to read through the Saga again, & lo & behold I had missed something. Basically, early on in the dig, I went about, in a rather long-winded fashion, trying to show how Egil Skallagrimsson was the possible poet of the Brunanburh poem. What I’d missed was that immediately after the battle, Egil is writing militaristic, kenning-heavy praise poetry to Athelstan, as in;
Low now this scion royal
Earls three hath laid. To Ella
Earth must obedient bow.
Lavish of gold, kin-glorious,
Great Athelstan victorious,
Surely, I swear, all humbled
To such high monarch yields.’
But this is the burden in the poem:
‘Reindeer-trod hills obey
Bold Athelstan’s high sway.’
Then gave Athelstan further to Egil as poet’s meed two gold rings, each weighing a mark, and therewith a costly cloak that the king himself had formerly worn.
This giving of rings even fits in with the ASC poem’s, ‘In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors, ring-giver to men…’ Basically, historians miss a lot, or rather misintepret the information, but the truth is always there somewhere. Take Egil’s Saga for example – its an unusual text for an English mind, & instead of trying to understand it, our historians have tried to undermine it, deeming it worthless in any attempt to locate Brunanburh. Instead, I thought Id actually read the thing on two levels – one from the 13th century author, & one from the 10th century in which Egil performed his deeds & poetry. It is this method that gave me the insight into Egil’s hand in the Brunanburh poem.
I was up at the crack of dawn this morning, & out of the house about 6.50 AM, for 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, whose clearing – lea – by the river Brun gives us the name of Brunlea / Burnley. Next to the old grammar school there is a wee fenced off area which houses 3 and a half monuments. We have the base of the old market cross, with the stocks underneath it; we have the 3m shaft of blackened gritsone, an old cross said to date from the time of Paulinus (7th century) & the stonework of the ancient Shorey’s well, which used to supply Burnley with its fresh water before the advent of pipes & stuff. There is also the dedicated empty space where two cannons taken from Sevastapol during the Crimean War, brought to Burnley by General Scarlett – leader of the Heavy Brigade – who had married a Burnley bird. Their fate was ignomninous, taken to Portsmouth to be smelted down during the First World war, the iron was found to be unusable & the cannons were unceremonioulsy dumped in the Solent!
Combining Burnley’s two oldest relics – the Paulinus Cross & Shorey’s Well – we are suddenly presented with a 7th century strata to the town. Paulinus was a missionary who converted much of the Anglo-Saxon north, while ‘Shorey’ is a devoluted form of Etheldreda. There are many versions of her name – Æthelthryth,Æþelðryþe, & the medieval Audrey. As Saint Audrey, the latter degenerated even further Shorey. Other local examples invlude Maudlin Well near Lathom House, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, & Mattus Well at Sawley Abbey dedicated to Matthew’s Well.
Searching for clues, I have discovered that vestiges of both Etheldreda & the Paulinus crosses can be found a couple of miles from each other just to the west & North of Pendle hill. The Roman’s brought Jesus-worship to Britain post Constantine, but they only had a century or so left in the islands, ie not enough time for the Christian cult to embed itself in the pshyche of the long paganized natives. It would be two centuries after the Romans left Britain that they returned, well the Vatican versions did, under the auspices of St Augustine in the 590s AD. Now then, the abbey at Whalley, a ten mile walk around the flanks of Pendle from my house, claims to have been founded at the same time, making it one of the oldest Christian centres in Britain. GA Williams has found a document produced by the Monks of Whalley in the abbacy of John Lindley.
It must be remembered that in the time of Ethelbert, king of the English, who began to reign in 596, at that time that is, Blessed Augustine the Apostle of the English having been sent by Blessed Pope Gregory in the third year of his papacy, at the instance & request of said king, preached in England & taught the Christian faith, – a certain parish church was built at Whalley in Blackburnshire in honour of all saints, in the cemetery of which there are certain stone crosses there set up, & are called by the people the crosses of blessed Augustine.
The claim could spurious, but the antiquity of worship is unquestionable – the physical reliques of which are the above mentioned very old stone crosses in the local churchyard.
My journey there took me along Accrington Road (Im an Accy roader at heart), on to the canal at Gannow (where I learnt how to swim) along the canal to Rosegrove, passing down into Lowerhouse & along the old railway line – now a greenway – into Padiham. Yo might not realise it – in fact no-now has actually – but that busy little paragraph contains the names of two 7th century Anglo-Saxon royals. Accrington (Akarinton in 1194) would be named after Acca – the mother of King Oswald, whose name can be found next door in Oswaldtwistle. We can also place King Penda’s son, Peada, in the area – who may have lent his name to Padiham. Indeed, Henry Taylor writes that in Padiham, ‘Baines states that a cross, a strongly resembling those found in Whalley churchyard, was discovered here.’
Leaving Padiham I dropped down into the village of Altham, where we can place another Anglo-Saxon royal, Saint Etheldreda of East Anglia. In her ‘vita’ we are told how she married a northerner (Ecgfrith), wouldnt give out, & fleeing the randy king, on her journey south founded a monastery in an ‘island’ in the fens at a certain Alftham. Goscelin of Saint-Bertin places it, ‘on an island almost surrounded by fen called Alftham. She stayed there some days and then founded a monastery there.‘
Alftham is a direct match for Alvetham/Elvetham, the earliest recorded name for Altham, & its territory is indeed fenlike – a flat & marshy swathe of the Calder Valley. The monastery she founded, I believe,once lay at a place now called Martholme, a medieval house on the banks of the River Calder. It is the fact that there is an undated moat surrounding the place that connects it to the crucial ‘island’ clue – & also this entry in the ASC.
A.D. 656. This year was Peada slain; and Wulfhere, son of Penda, succeeded to the kingdom of the Mercians. In his time waxed the abbey of Medhamsted very rich, which his brother had begun. The king loved it much, for the love of his brother Peada, and for the love of his wed-brother Oswy, and for the love of Saxulf the abbot. He said, therefore, that he would dignify and honour it by the counsel of his brothers, Ethelred and Merwhal; and by the counsel of his sisters, Kyneburga and Kyneswitha; and by the counsel of the archbishop, who was called Deus-dedit; and by the counsel of all his peers, learned and lewd, that in his kingdom were.
No-one knows where the abbey of Medhamsted was founded, but the phonetically matching Martholme is close to Padiham & Oswaldtwistle, while Medhamsted was beloved of Wulfhere ‘for the love of his brother Peada.’ What is interesting that a major player in the monastery’s early life is Wulfhere’s brother, Merwhal – He said, therefore, that he would dignify and honour it by the counsel of his brothers, Ethelred and Merwalh – whose ‘walh’ element can be found at Whalley. Traces & echoes indeed, but all wonderfully connected – there is even a Walverden water at Nelson that may be named after Wulfhere!
I tried to find Martholme myself, but unfortunately I got threatened off the land by a farmer-bully on a quad (se picture below), 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 on, in that deep half-breed, inbred accent that has lingered for centuries in the shadowy valleys between Burnley & Blackburn.
So I hit the road again, passing through Simonstone & Read, & on to Whalley. Its another piece of Boutique Lancashire – A Surreyesque gaggle of posh shops & stuff & some really historic Christian buildings. After pottering about a bit & taking a few photos of the crosses, I thought I’d head on up towards Clitheroe, soaking in the scenery .
A couple of miles outside Whalley I came to Barrow, a long, house-lined stretch of road in the Scottish style. As I passed through, I asked several locals about the Anglo-Saxon Barrow the village was named after, with none of them – including the three old guys in the pub – having the faintest idea of what I was talking about. Basically, where the ASC states;
A.D. 798. This year a severe battle was fought in the
Northumbrian territory, during Lent, on the fourth day before the
nones of April, at Whalley; wherein Alric, the son of Herbert,
was slain, and many others with him.
We have an 6-8th century Anglo-Saxon battle 1.5 miles from a place called Barrow, just like the battles of Barrowford & Winwaed. I don’t have the reference to hand, but I know Ive read in some obscure antiquarians magazine that a tumulus at Barrow was suspected of being Alric’s barrow. I’ll have to dig it out when I return to Scotland. The barrows location is probably connected to a place called Catlow, which seems a hybrid word of Cat (celtic/gaelic for battle) & hlaw (OE for burial chamber).
Choosing not to enter Clitheroe, I decided to climb Pendle, but as soon as I crossed the bypass it began to hail it down. Swiftly hitching a lift I avoided the worst of the flash storm & had surmounted Pendle in a few minutes, dropping from the savage heath into the hidden idyll that is Sabden. I found myself at the heart of Witch Country – that secluded hidden valley where semi-pagan, semi-catholic rituals were misconstrued by superstitious locals as sorcery, sending many inncocent women – & a couple of clearly insane old ladies – to their noose-neck deaths at Lancaster.
Dropping back into the Burnley vale, I returned to the task at hand – searching for Brunanburh. We must return to the vita of Etheldreda, who tells that after leaving Altham she headed for Bradford in Yoprkshire, where, ‘another miracle shone out under her protection, for which it seems wrong to conceal under the cover of silence. For there is a village called Bradford, in which there was a young man who had seven years long for an unknown reason lacked the use of his tongue.‘ Nahthen – on the journey between Alftham & Bradford she performed another miracle : pausing on a plain, she struck her staff into the ground – which magically turned into an ash tree.
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 travellers, a remarkably flat meadow – you would have thought it had been levelled 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 wiith pleasure wondeful, flower-scented draughts of air. the saintly traveller, 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 setteled 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.
I would now like to propose that this miracle is the philological root to a name found in the Irish chronicle known as the ‘Annals of Clonmacnoise’ which places the Brunanburh battle at the Plains of Othlyn. Most scholars when looking at the etymology of Othlyn, plump for something like the pool (gealic = lynn) of Otha. Nobody, I believe, has looked at another possibility; that of the ash tree (celtic = ynn) of Othl. The burnley area in the mid-7th century was brythonic – the Saxons had only just reached Chester in 616, so the locals should have given the miracles location a celtic name. In addition, none of us were present when the Clonmacnoise scribe was writing down the word, & tho Irish scribes often changed ‘th’ sounds to ‘d,’ in the case of foreign fisrt names the ‘th’ would be kept, as in the Pictish name ‘Cathasaig’.
AD 749 Iugulatio Cathasaig maic Ailello ríg Cruithne, h-i Raith Betheach. (Annals of Tigernach)
The heart of Burnley rests very much in a valley, parts of which are indeed very plain-like; stretching from Towneley to the River Brun. By the way, overlooking that very plain are the long-forgotten, but very real remains of a fortification, that to all extents & purposes feels rather like an Anglo-saxon burh.
Ainsworth-Williams, Geoffrey – Locus Benedictus 1995
Goscelin of Saint-Bertin – Lives of female saints (tr. Rosalind C Love)
Taylor, Henry – Crosses & Holy wells of Lancashire (1906)