Daily Archives: June 29, 2015

Dark Age Candles (v)


Maserfield & Brune

St Oswald being killed at Maserfield
St Oswald being killed at Maserfield

So that’s me back in the mother-ship, Burnley, where I’ll be working from a distance on The Mumble for the coming cultural orgy that are the Edinburgh festivals. I’ll also be lighting a few of these Dark Age Candles while I’m down here, starting with something remarkable that has grown out of my recent investigations into the site of Brunanburh, that great 10th century battle which settled the native nature of the British Isles forever. Since I completed the dig, back in April I received an email from the much-maligned but incredibly keen-minded New Zealand Litologist,  Sean Bambrough, which contained the following sentence;

Could ‘this place called Brune,’ in chapter 10 of Geoffrey of Monmouth be your Burnley?

Could it indeed? I’d never see it before, thinking the Annales Cambrae use of the word Brune – as appertaining to the battle of Brunanburh – was the only use of the name, as in;

938  Bellum Brune

It was time to get my litological hands dirty again, & finding the passage in  Big Geoff’s History, I observed that the name Brune was given to a place where the Northumbrian king, Oswald, was slain in battle.  When I discovered that variant editions of Big Geoff, such as the Harlech,  give us Burne, I’m like, this really does feel like Brunley/Burnley. Looking into Oswald’s death, I discovered that it took place about the year 642, where King Penda of Mercia met & slew Oswald at a place called Maserfelth, as in Bede’s; ‘Oswald was killed in a great battle, by the same Pagan nation and Pagan king of the Mercians who had slain his predecessor, Edwin, at a place called in the English tongue, Maserfelth, in the thirty-eighth year of his age, on the fifth day of the month of August.’

During my dig, I’d shown how the Burnley area was some kind of border zone prone to warfare, such as the battle of Winfeld.  Was it possible that Maserfield was also fought in the area? At first glance,  nothing popped up. But I was aware of the name Marsden from the Nelson area, the town just to the north of Burnley into which its terraces blend seamlessly. I also knew that where ‘den’ means ‘narrow valley,’ felth means ‘open space’ – rendering it possible that there once was a Marsfield connected to Marsden. Andrew Breeze comments on the Northern-ness of this word when he writes;  ‘The element -felth might direct scholarly attention towards the northern part of the conflict zone, the southern portion of Yorkshire being an area where place names containing “-field.’ He also adds that the battle must have taken place on or near the Northumbrian border – which Burnley was by the way – as in;

By telling his readers that Oswald was slain pro patria dimicans, “fighting for his fatherland,” Bede seems to be suggesting that Maserfelth was a battle fought in defence of Oswald’s core territory (HE 3.9)… Taken at face value, this might direct the reader to envisage the site of the king’s death as a place within Northumbrian territory or close to its frontier… In this context, Oswestry seems an unlikely candidate, being situated not only a considerable distance from Northumbria’s nearest border but closer to the core territory of her foes.

Marsden Park, Nelson
Marsden Park, Nelson

Its now time for a spot of chispology, through which we can ascertain that Maserfield was indeed fought in a field next to Marsden. Looking into ‘A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 6 (1911)’ we find the following names for the township of Marsden’

Merkesden, 1195;

Merclesden, Merkelstene, 1242;

Merclisden, 1258.

Which we can compare with Maserfield variant  names, such as John of Brompton’s Maxelfeld (15th C) or better still  the Marcelde’s field found inscribed on an ancient well dedicated to Saint Oswald.  Mr. Baines says

Little more than half a mile to the north, on the road to Golborne and Wigan, is an ancient well, which has been known from time immemorial by the name of ‘St. Oswald’s Well.'” This well is still in existence, and a certain veneration at the present time hovers about it in the minds of others than the superstitious peasantry. On the upper portion of the south wall of the church is an inscription in Latin, purporting to be a “renovation” of a previous one, by a person named Sclater, in the year 1530, in the curacy of Henry Johnson. On a recent visit, this inscription, as well as other portions of the edifice, I found had undergone further renovation. Gough translates the first three lines as follows

This place of old did Oswald greatly love: Who the Northumbers ruled, now reigns above, And from Marcelde did to Heaven remove.

Mr. Beamont gives the translation of the inscription as follows:

This place of yore did Oswald greatly love, Northumbria’s King, but now a saint above, Who in Marcelde’s field did fighting fall, Hear us, oh blest one, when here to thee we call.

(A line over the porch obliterated.) In fifteen hundred and just three times ten, Sclater restored and built this wall again, And Henry Johnson here was curate then.

This, and its repetition by Hollingworth in his “Mancuniensis…,”The inscription does not, as some have assumed, state the church is built in, on, or near Marcelde. It merely asserts that Oswald died at a place so named.

The actual battle site, I believe, is to be found at Whitefield in Nelson, which connects smoothely with the 12th century historian, Henry of Huntingdon’s account of the battle: “It is said the plain of Maserfeld was white with the bones of the Saints.” We can also connect the area with the Welsh name for the battle – as in the Canu Heledd’s; ‘On the ground of Maes Cogwy, I saw armies, battle affliction,‘ & the Historia Brittonum’s, ‘Battle of Cocboy.’ About a mile from Marsen, in the direction of Burnley, one comes to a valley called ‘Cockden,‘ whose first semantic element matches both ‘Cog‘ & Coc.’



More evidence comes from the village of Oswaldtwistle, about 5 miles from the field. According to Halliwell’s dictionary, ‘twistle‘ means – ‘that part of a tree where branches divide.’ This connects to the grisly demise of Oswald, who according to Bede had his limbs & heads torn from him & put on stakes – i.e. the branches were divided from his body.  That this took place at Oswaldtwistle is confirmed by a certain rivulet known as the White Ash Brook, which flows through the village. White in ancient Welsh is the same as ‘holy,’ thus once it would have been the Holy Ash Brook which connects with Reginald of Durham’s account of a miracle concerning Oswald’s right arm.

The arm, with its consecrated right hand, fell on the bare hard rock. All at once, through God’s wonderful power, from the spot where the holy arm touched the ground in its fall, there gushed out a clear unfailing spring… It so happened that Oswin the king, prompted by a message from God, found his way to this spring… He took the arm and hand out of its waters, and as the vision had commanded, he bore away the most holy head with its arms and hands. On this spot, right up until today, miracles are worked through the power of God and the merits of St Oswald. Here sick people receive the gift of health; the mad who come here are freed of their demons; and through drinking the consecrated waters, many kinds of illness are redeemed. The Life of St Oswald by Reginald of Durham (1165) 

White Ash Brook
White Ash Brook

More miracles are recorded about the death of (Saint) Oswald, which we can now give a location as the Whitefield in Nelson, Lancashire. Bede tells us;


OSWALD, the most Christian king of the Northumbrians, reigned nine years, including that year which is to be held accursed for the brutal impiety of the king of the Britons, and the apostasy of the English kings; for, as was said above, it is agreed by the unanimous consent of all, that the names of the apostates should be erased from the catalogue of the Christian kings, and no date ascribed to their reign. After which period, Oswald was killed in a great battle, by the same pagan nation and pagan king of the Mercians, who had slain his predecessor Edwin, at a place called in the English tongue Maserfield, in the thirty-eighth year of his age, on the fifth day of the month of August.

How great his faith was towards God, and how remarkable his devotion, has been made evident by miracles since his death; for, in the place where he was killed by the pagans, fighting for his country, infirm men and cattle are healed to this day. Whereupon many took up the very dust of the place where his body fell, and putting it into water, did much good with it to their friends who were sick. This custom came so much into use, that the earth being carried away by degrees, there remained a hole as deep as the height of a man. Nor is it to be wondered that the sick should be healed in the place where he died; for, whilst he lived, he never ceased to provide for the poor and infirm, and to bestow alms on them, and assist them. Many miracles are said to have been wrought in that place, or with the earth carried from thence; but we have thought it sufficient to mention two, which we heard from our ancestors.

It happened, not long after his death, that a man was traveling near that place, when his horse on a sudden began to tire, to stand stock still, hang down his head, and foam at the mouth, and, at length, as his pain increased, he fell to the ground; the rider dismounted, and throwing some straw under him, waited to see whether the beast would recover or die. At length, after much rolling about in extreme anguish, the horse happened to come to the very place where the aforesaid king died. Immediately the pain ceased, the beast gave over his struggles, and, as is usual with tired cattle, turned gently from side to side, and then starting up, perfectly recovered, began to graze on the green herbage; which the man observing, being an ingenious person, he concluded there must be some wonderful sanctity in the place where the horse had been healed, and left a mark there, that he might know the spot again. After which he again mounted his horse and repaired to the inn where he intended to stop. On his arrival he found a girl, niece to the landlord, who had long languished under the palsy; and when the friends of the family, in his presence, lamented the girl’s calamity, he gave them an account of the place where his horse had been cured. In short, she was put into a cart and carried and laid down at the place. At first she slept awhile, and when she awaked found herself healed of her infirmity. Upon which she called for water, washed her face, put up her hair, and dressed her head, and returned home on foot, in good health, with those who had brought her.


ABOUT the same time, another person of the British nation, as is reported, happened to travel by the same place, where the aforesaid battle was fought, and observing one particular spot of ground greener and more beautiful than any other part of the field, he judiciously concluded with himself that there could be no other cause for that unusual greenness, but that some person of more holiness than any other in the army had been killed there. He therefore took along with him some of that earth, tying it up in a linen cloth, supposing it would some time or other be of use for curing sick people, and proceeding on his journey, came at night to a certain village, and entered a house where the neighbors were feasting at supper; being received by the owners of the house, he sat down with them at the entertainment, hanging the cloth, in which he had brought the earth, on a post against the wall. They sat long at supper and drank hard, with a great fire in the middle of the room; it happened that the sparks flew up and caught the top of the house, which being made of wattles and thatch, was presently in a flame; the guests ran out in a fright, without being able to put a stop to the fire. The house was consequently burnt down, only that post on which the earth hung remained entire and un- touched. On observing this, they were all amazed, and inquiring into it diligently, understood that the earth had been taken from the place where the blood of King Oswald had been shed. These miracles being made known and reported abroad, many began daily to frequent that place, and received health to themselves and theirs.


Saint Oswald Durham Cathedral
Saint Oswald Durham Cathedral



This is a wonderful moment in Anglo-Saxon studies, for now not only can we finally confirm the contentious sites of Brunanburh & Maserfield, but we gain more insights into the lost but very real Anglo-Saxon presence in Lancashire. It is also a great confirmation for the power of words to hold the keys of history in their meagre letters, & I shall leave this post with the words of Professor Dwight Whitney, who in his “Life and Growth of Language,” says, ‘It must be carefully noted, indeed, that the reach of phonetics, its power to penetrate to the heart of its facts and account for them, is only limited. There is always one element in linguistic change which refuses scientific treatment, namely, the action of the human will. The work is all done by human beings, adapting means to ends, under the impulse of motives and the guidance of habits which are the resultant of causes so multifarious and obscure that they elude recognition and defy estimate… Every period of linguistic life, with its constantly progressive changes of form and meaning, wipes out a part of the intermediates which connect a derived element with its original.

As linguistics is a historical science, so its evidences are historical, and its methods of proof of the same character. There is no absolute demonstration about it: there is only probability, in the same varying degree as elsewhere in historical enquiry. There are no rules, the strict application of which will lead to infallible results. Nothing will make dispensable the wide gathering-in of evidence, the careful sifting of it, so as to determine what bears upon the case in hand and how directly, the judicial balancing of apparently conflicting testimony, the refraining from pushing conclusions beyond what the evidences warrant, the willingness to rest, when necessary, in a merely negative conclusion, which should characterize the historical investigator in all departments.